07/26/13

Eastman Guitars’ AR371CE

An affordable jazz box that’s hard to beat

It’s been a pleasure over the past decade or so to watch Eastman grab a share of the guitar market. The company, which also manufactures orchestral string instruments and horns, first came to the table with a classic jazz ax, the AR810CE archtop, in the early 2000s, later expanded with the successfully experimental El Rey by Otto D’Ambrosio, and even introduced a line of fine flat-top acoustics. More to the point, the pleasure has been playing these instruments, all made in China with much attention paid to detail and “getting it right.”

Until the AR371CE archtop’s introduction in 2012, Eastman’s guitar line lacked an option for jazz players with less than a grand to spend. Like the company’s more premium-priced options, the instrument that fills that hole, listing at $975, doesn’t disappoint.

Aficionados will recognize how the AR371CE takes design cues from Gibson’s model ES-175, featuring a 16-inch body with a Florentine cutaway and a 24 3/4-inch scale length. The all-maple body is laminate (top, back and sides) and fitted with a set, three-piece maple neck (the fretboard is rosewood, with 175-style parallelogram inlays). This model carries a single humbucking pickup at the neck, and Eastman makes a similar model (AR372CE) with a second humbucker at the bridge.

Whereas more expensive Eastmans feature wood pickguards, carved tailpieces and fancier tuning machines, the AR371CE offers more economic hardware and adornment, but not at the cost of functionality. The tuning machines are quality, providing easy and accurate adjustment. String intonation was spot-on and I had no issues getting this guitar in tune and keeping it there. The plastic pickguard is well positioned and stays firm. And the guitar’s burst finish showcases the wood grain, handsomely framed by pinstriped white binding. It’s a solid, great-looking guitar.

That’s all prelude to the real reason this guitar deserves attention: Playing it is like hanging out with an old, dear friend. It’s easy to do and you’re sad when you’re made to stop. When I receive guitars for review, it’s my custom to immediately open the package and inspect the instrument for any potential shipping damage. Then I tune it, strum a few chords and set it down to return to it later. But this one quickly took me prisoner. No sooner had I gotten it in tune than I found myself happily serving a two-hour sentence just having a heck of a great time playing guitar. It wasn’t even plugged in.

The AR371CE’s body (a bit more than 3 inches deep) fits my lanky, 6-foot frame quite well. But what makes this guitar a player is the neck and the fret job. The neck has a slim-’n’-sturdy C-shape that’s comfortable for long stretches. And who knows why—it must be just the right combination of neck profile, width, string spacing, scale length and fret wire gauge—but it’s never a fight to play this thing. It’s not that it’s buttery-smooth like a Paul Reed Smith solidbody. This guitar has the kind of tension you want in a jazz box—tension that lets you dig in and make a chunky chord really pop or artfully articulate lead lines. The fret wire used is Dunlop 6130, which is sometimes referred to as “medium jumbo.” Whatever you call it, it’s a major contributor to the AR371CE’s killer playability.

This guitar rings loud and sounds good acoustically, and that tone translates nicely through an amplifier. Through a variety of amps the AR371CE delivered a controlled low-end and a cutting midrange that’s paradoxically still mellow—call it a soft punch. The tone knob offers a sensitive sweep that helped shore off a touch of high-end when needed. Eastman likely chose the stock humbucker because of its relative neutrality—it’s a fine, balanced pickup that easily delivers that jazz tone we all love. Over time some players might opt for a pickup upgrade to add more personalized character to the sound of this great player’s guitar.

Really, tone-wise and build-wise, you’ll find little here to criticize, especially given the AR371CE’s steal of a price. Don’t pass up trying one of these out, no matter how much you can afford.

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