This is the sort of guitar that builds legends. Not the myths of adoration and greatness as in 'the finest acoustic ever made', but that brand of fishermen's fibs you cop down the pub after a night of Theakleys Distinctly Peculiar. "Course, you know how it all started, don't ya? This bloke walked into a workshop one day and said 'er, bash an 'ole in this, will ya? And that were that. Amazing, innit? Gettus a Castella, John".
The cause of this deeply mystical discussion would be the side-soundhole — an extra hole cut in the side of the guitar, usually near the waist and facing upwards, directly towards you.
You won't be seeing this David Bourne acoustic at the Frankfurt trade fair. David, after all, is a one man business, specialising in sweet and craftsmanly made acoustics for the private market. But in months to come you WILL be spotting plenty of imitations. When large manufacturers are turning out so many guitars — all, essentially, strings on a box — they're speedy to pick up on new, distinctive and individual ideas.
David is not claiming to have originated the idea of the side-soundhole, that probably IS lost in the mists of legend. Doubtless when it becomes popular there'll be plenty of old farts grubbing through the patent records to prove that the first one appeared in 1872 on a Peruvian banjo. But he is at least trying to adapt and perfect it, according to his own style of guitar construction.
There are three arguments in favour of this major surgery... (a), it boosts the volume coming straight at your ear, acting as a personal monitor and a Godsend in crowded, noisy venues; (b), you can build an electro-acoustic without a normal soundhole, so reducing feedback but still supplying a good, acoustic sound, and (c), you can delicately alter the tone of the instrument, hearing a new range of harmonics and resonances for the first time.
The Manson brothers of Crowborough have carried out a few experiments concentrating on the first two propositions, and had a good deal of success. But without denigrating their fine instruments, David Bourne's solution and his focus on improving the tone of the guitar, is perhaps more elegant.
The Mansons exhibited a six string at last year's South Bank Guitar Exhibition that literally had an oval hole cut in the side, exposing the interior strutting and bug electrics. This Bourne has its side-soundhole filled with a decorative brass lattice. It gives the illusion of an inlay. It's not until you put your fingers on the spaces between the brass that you realise there's nothing but air in those dark spaces.
For the guitar itself, David has gone for a light, medium-sized body with a two piece spruce top and mahogany back and sides — something of a break from the familiar spruce and rosewood configuration. Likewise the inlay on the ebony fingerboard is untraditional; none of your dots, mate, but an abalone, pearl and brass dragon sitting between the 5th and 10th frets. Not too sure about this. It looks a bit lonely on otherwise uninterrupted expanse of ebony, and I, for one, still need dots to know where I'm going.
The guitar is finished in a dark, rosey-brown, not unlike the sherry that aunties get legless on at Christmas. The 'real' soundhole is treated to a simple thin and unobtrusive black/white/black edging and surround, there's the normal imitation tortoiseshell scratch plate nearby and another teardrop shaped one on the bottom left hand corner of the spruce top where your right forearm would rest in the playing position. That's a Bourne characteristic and is a smart trick when you think how often your arm rubs away at that part of the surface.
The plain headstock with its gold plated Schaller machines and simple brass B script is decoratively over-awed by the dragon and makes the guitar fractionally neck heavy. But generally, the Bourne plays gently and easily. I would have preferred a little more camber to the virtually flat fingerboard, but that's my taste.
Right, this extra soundhole lark. What do you think the difference would be? More volume, certainly, and an extra lift for the top strings, perhaps. Well it doesn't exactly work that way. Firstly, it would be wrong to say the Bourne would be dull or lacking in life without that additional cut. Covering the brass 'well' proves the guitar to be already bright and lively, probably due to the light mahogany body.
Uncovering it leads to some surprising changes. The bass end becomes richer and tangier, the middle somehow more substantial and commanding, and the top collects an additional crackle in the upper registers. Soundhole mk 2 doesn't contribute that sort of plumby richness that smacks of a classical six string. It's a spicier taste... more pepper in it.
Your own guitar always sounds different when someone else plays it, mainly because you're now out front collecting all the frequencies instead of being perched over the top. The side-soundhole restores some of those lost resonances, but doesn't stop there. The Bourne just sounds bigger with the 'well' uncovered.
It also responds more immediately, and to a lighter touch. You no longer need to drive the strings so hard in order for the spruce top to generate all the top and bottom harmonics. The drawbacks are that it does require extra care to create a softer tone. Merely playing the strings more gently no longer does the trick. And you might be prompted to go for slightly heavier top strings. I thought those on the Bourne a shade too light, especially with the extra soundhole contributing that additional high end crackle.
In short, not a gimmick but a genuine and imaginative method of bringing a guitar one step nearer to the perfect tone you have in your head.