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Stromberg Newport Guitar

Time has proven that, in the realm of guitar history, the name Stromberg is worth something. Larry Davis thought so at any rate. He basically bought the right to use the name and has begun selling a line of guitars in the $1,200 range. From here I can hear the boiling blood of everyone familiar with old Strombergs. That’s fair. The vintage Strombergs-most notably the Master 400-are legendary, highly collectible, and, in most cases, one-of-a-kind instruments. When Davis acquired the Stromberg name, he bought himself the opportunity to pull a George Lucas-bring something old and sacred back from the past and drag its good name through the dirt. No jazz player wants to see that happen to Stromberg. And what about the part where I tell you that Davis’ new Strombergs are made in Korea?

Larry Davis works for WD Music Products, which sells guitar parts. He tricked- out these new Strombergs with hardware he knows to be good. He even gets the offshore factory to build them with spruce tops. And when they come to America from Korea, the new guitars are, according to Davis, more or less taken apart and put together again. And he outfits each with La Bella flatwound strings and has each one set up properly. The question is: Does all that work make for a guitar that lives up to the Stromberg name?

Davis has been very wise. The three jazz-themed guitars in his line don’t cop any of the vintage Stromberg styles, save for a reverent bit of homage in the headstock shape and inlay. Davis is more honoring the old guard by making quality instruments at a price point that’s long been neglected in jazz-ax land. After a few months with the new Stromberg Newport, a single-pickup archtop that calls to mind images of Charlie Christian, I can tell you that it won’t deliver the big tone of a vintage Stromberg Master 400. But I’ll also state that it will take more than one phone call from Davis to get this guitar out of my house and back to him. It’s one of the best-playing, most-consistent- sounding guitars I’ve performed with. So, yes, Davis has met his responsibility to uphold Stromberg’s reputation as a builder of desirable instruments.

I’ve always found it best to first test a hollowbody guitar’s sound acoustically. The Newport’s maple back and sides and laminated spruce top make a box nearly 3 inches deep, and the sound that resonates off the top and out the pair of bound f-holes is actually a good bit louder than I had suspected it to be. I still wouldn’t recommend co-opting the Newport as an acoustic guitar the way some other archtops can be used. Its lower bout measures 16 and a half inches, soit won’t slice through the din of a big band like Freddie Green’s 19-inch wide Master 400 could (check out the Count Basie Orchestra’s The Complete Decca Recordings). But when you plug the Newport in and set the volume low, the way the amplified and acoustic outputs mix is lovely: porch-sitting mellow and Puritan-clean tone.

Up the gain and the Newport’s sound blooms into the classic archtop tone we all love-solos sound sprightly and chords aren’t muddy. It doesn’t emit a mysterious mix of complicated harmonics the way more expensive or vintage hollowbody guitars can, but the Newport’s tone is resolutely clear and classic, with a bit of sweetness in the high frequencies. It has a floating Kent Armstrong pickup to thank in part for its sound, as well as the solid setup job done by Davis’ staff-every chord sounded balanced. While I’m sure the specific Newport I received for the purpose of review was given careful attention, Davis assured me over the phone that every Stromberg guitar leaves his shop like mine did. I trust him. After all, why go all the way with the cherry-picked hardware only to ship them from Stromberg HQ with uneven action and a misplaced bridge?

More important to me than the sound of the Newport (which I love, especially with a slight tube-preamp treatment) is the way it plays. The neck has a comfortable 12-inch radius and 24 and 3/4-inch scale that reminds me of the Epiphone Les Paul I learned to play on. Bending strings, running up the neck in fifths, wrapping my thumb around the neck to cover bass notes on the low-E-it was all fun. There were no obstacles to negotiate with the Newport. It’s happy to let you play what comes to you.

Before I ever held this guitar, I had it pegged for a student instrument. But it’s much more than that. I’m confident in recommending it to anyone who plays guitar, professional or rank amateur. Larry Davis has begun a new chapter in Stromberg guitar history that preserves the storied name well.

Originally Published