Ovation Breadwinner & Preacher
An overview of two of the somewhat neglected Ovation electrics from Dave Blake.
Musical instruments are peculiar devices. What other form of machinery reflects such a combination of art and science? Nowadays, the whole intricate process of musical instrument design, manufacture and marketing is based upon an ambiguity: Craftsmanship. When we hear the word, it conjures up pictures of the kindly lone artisan bent over his workbench, using the inherited knowledge of centuries and materials sanctioned by the ages to produce a single product, then another, and another... What we do not think of is huge glittering factories, ant-like workers, noisy machines working faster than the eye can follow, and products pouring off the end of the conveyor belt into cardboard boxes. But it is the latter vision that is closer to the truth. Modern craftsmanship might be defined as the ability to use new materials as well as old in an efficient way — efficiency being defined in turn as that which produces the right product at the right price for the job. If this all sounds a bit cynical, let me reassure you: it is merely Realism.
Nowhere are all these ambiguities, cynicisms and realities more ably demonstrated than in the guitar marketplace. Here we have an instrument whose total history goes back centuries, while the major part of its evolution spans only the last fifty years. In the middle of the last century, men like Antonio Torres of Seville changed the guitar from a weak, ornamental lute-like toy into a full-toned instrument; the lower bout was expanded, the bracing carefully examined, and the scale-length standardised. Christian Frederick Martin started a guitar factory in America. Orville Gibson did likewise. Already familiar to Americans from the Spanish influence south of the border, the guitar became the folk instrument of the nation. From then on, the evolution rate speeded up. In the Twenties, with the pressure of dance-bands on guitar making, Loar and Hart created the Gibson L5, and the metal Nationals and Dobros were developed for their loudness and treble. The Rickenbacker 'frying pans' of 1931 were built of aluminium and carried a magnetic pickup. In 1947, Paul Bigsby and Merle Travis reasoned that the sound-box was unnecessary for an electric, and built a solid-body guitar looking like a Les Paul with a Strat head. Leo Fender brought out a slab called the Broadcaster in 1948 (but Gretsch was producing drums with that name, so he changed it to Telecaster), and in 1952, Gibson announced the birth of the Les Paul series.
Meanwhile, on the acoustic front, evolution had produced the jumbo and little else. During the Fifties and early Sixties, only Martin was able to produce reasonable quantities of highest-quality steel-string guitars; other companies fell victims to wood scarcity and the general decline in craftsmanship that industrialisation had brought.
But in 1966, the Ovation company, founded by Charles Kaman, brought out the Balladeer — the first acoustic guitar to take practical advantage of modern production and materials techniques. The Balladeer featured a moulded fibreglass 'Lyrachord' bowl instead of the traditional wooden back, sides, and bracing. Apart from the obvious manufacturing advantages of using fibreglass, Ovation guitars were light and strong, and certain subtle acoustic advantages accrued from the lack of internal back-bracing. Ovation then capitalised on its success when they developed the piezo-electric pickup mounted in the bridge of their acoustics; this fresh use of an old principle freed the acoustic from the tyranny of contact mics and close miking, until then the only satisfactory methods of amplifying and recording acoustic guitars. Today Ovation guitars (distributed in the UK by Rose-Morris) are among the best selling high-quality guitars, and the piezo-acoustics are pretty well accepted as the standard onstage amplified acoustic.
Not so well known are the Ovation electric solids, the Deacon, Breadwinner, Preacher, Viper, and the Magnum bass guitars. So the rest of this article is devoted to a brief look at two solid six-strings — the Preacher and the Breadwinner.
The Preacher is a pricey guitar of relatively ordinary appearance. In the cherry finish (it also comes in a darker finish), it looks like a combination of Gibson Melody Maker, SG Standard, and Les Paul Special (you know, the one with double cutaways and radiused edges). There are, of course, major differences. The most major is that the Preacher has a bolt-on neck, which joins the body at the 18th fret. The joint is similar to the standard Fender joint, the neck being squared-off to meet the body to form a box which is secured by glue and four crosshead bolts through a backplate. The glue and bolts approach means plenty of strength and no movement in the neck joint, but a repairman will still be able to replace a damaged neck. Fender players will be used to the feel of a box heel, but it might take some getting used to for Gibson players. One bad point: the strap button is located on the forward face of the box just under the butt of the neck; because the button is so close to the underside of the neck, it is difficult to get a leather strap over it, and when you do, you end up with a palmful of leather as you try to play the upper frets. The button would be better located on the upper bout or on the neck-plate. The next major difference from the Gibsons (and from most guitars) is the use of a 24-fret fingerboard. Those extra two frets to make two octaves are very useful — anyone who thinks I am making a fuss about two lousy frets and who hasn't tried a two-octave board, go immediately to your local shop and try one!
Apart from a glued bolt-on neck and 24 frets, the Preacher has an ebony fretboard with very neat pearloid dot inlays, metal-cased machines made for Ovation by Schaller, truss-rod, and solid Honduras mahogany neck and body. The body, by the way, is faired similar to the Strat: on the front side of the lower bout for the right forearm and between the bouts on the back side for body contour. The bridge is an unusual design — the base and individual string saddles are brass for increased sustain, and while the tuning of each string can be amply adjusted with a slothead screwdriver, the individual actions cannot be adjusted at all. The overall action is adjusted (either treble or bass side) by slothead bolts. Since this is the case with nearly all bridges, I have no complaints. But one subjective criticism: the cover over the bridge is a lump of rather tacky black 'leather-grain' plastic which cannot be removed easily, and its appearance cheapens the whole guitar.
The Preacher's electronics are passive, but still a bit special. The two pickups are double-poled — that is, each string has two pole-pieces along its length (not side by side, as in some double-pole designs). Each pickup has two rows of six alnico magnets, and the opposing coils are wound in opposite directions to cut down on noise (which certainly seems to make a difference). Each pickup is encased in chromed German silver (not in the usual solid silver, but an alloy used extensively in flute-making). The pickups are mounted on rubber to damp shocks and can be adjusted for tilt and treble/bass height. Each pickup has its own volume and tone control knob, and a selector switch determines treble, bass, or both pickups. However, the Preacher is wired for mono or stereo, with a separate jack outlet for each. Using a split lead, you can run the bass pickup through one channel or amp, and the treble pickup through another, and play either or both. As my old mentor might have said, 'An amusing conceit, but let's learn to play the instrument first, shall we?'
But enough of this specifications drivel — what's the bloody axe like to play? In a word, magic! In spite of the two-octave neck, the scale length is a standard 24¾in, and the fretboard is 111/16in wide at the nut, which is wide enough to spread the strings comfortably and still have enough board left over at each side. The neck is quite thin — say 13/16in average including the very slight curvature of the fretboard. Because the board is fairly flat, string-bending is easy, and the wide, flat nickel-silver frets are very like those on a Les Paul (the Preacher is available, to order, with standard frets also). But there is sufficient curvature on the board to make chording no chore — in fact, the whole neck feels rather like a D'Angelico jazz acoustic (circa 1935) I played once in New York — easy on the hand. The whole guitar is light (about 11lbs) and easy to play for long periods without getting strap-shoulder fatigue. Certainly one of the most pleasant guitars I've ever tiddled upon.
The sound? Nay problem. While the Preacher won't give the Telecaster player enough treble, that is about its only shortcoming. The pickups are indeed quiet, although finger-noise became a problem at high levels. The volume controls were particularly smooth — they came on from zero without that annoying jump-in at about three. All manner of noises can be gained from this guitar, from smooth and full to rasp'n'nasty, but the sound I most liked was with both pickups on, the treble pickup set to full treble tone, and the bass pickup set to full bass — this setting gave a kind of hollow tone, almost antiphase, similar to a Strat switched between pickups.
I admit that my first glance at the Preacher was a disappointment; for my money I expected something more spectacular. However, it is often the case with fine machines that their virtues only become apparent after a reasonable passage of time, and the Preacher is a case in point. Altogether an excellent guitar at an almost reasonable price. But read on.
The Ovation Breadwinner is another kettle of crustaceans entirely. Where the Preacher is obviously after a share of the Gibson and Fender market, the Breadwinner is obviously after a share of the oddball market. Check the photo. If you like it, you like it. If you don't, welcome aboard. I suppose I'm a touch old-fashioned, but I never liked Vox guitars and I do not find a great deal of spiritual exultancy in the Breadwinner's design. However, this is all subjective and that is the last you'll hear of it. Almost.
The Breadwinner shares many excellences with the Preacher — the same fretboard and neck construction, for instance, except that the machines are plastic-cased Schallers rather than metal-cased, and the Breadwinner comes only with standard frets. The bridge is the same, and so are the woods — mahogany and ebony. But there the similarities end.
Apart from the body shape (which I must admit is very easy to play sitting down with the neck either parallel to the floor or raised up), the electronics are completely different, as is the finish.
Taking the finish first, where the Preacher is the standard lacquer-overwood, the Breadwinner has a sprackled-resin finish; that is, it is slightly bumpy or pebble-grained. This finish is much loved by PA manufacturers because it can take a lot of punishment without showing it, and it does seem a sensible departure for guitars. The colour lacquer is sprayed on first (white, black, or tan) and then the resin is spattered on — in this case after the neck has been glued and bolted, because there is slight spattering on the heel of the neck, and of course on the head. The back of the neck is smooth. Again subjectively, I do not feel entirely comfortable about this, I've been brainwashed into believing musical instruments must be smooth to the hand and eye. Nevertheless, it is a tough finish and the only objective argument against it is that it picks up and carries more grime because of the texture.
The electronics are active, rather than passive. The Breadwinner has doublepole humbuckers similar to the Preacher's but low impedance instead of high, so that they need to be transformed and boosted before going into the normal group amp. So the Breadwinner incorporates a FET (field-effect transistor for low noise) preamp which is powered by a pair of 9v batteries housed under a spring-screwed plate on the back. Also in the battery compartment are a pair of trim-pots: one is white and labelled 'N' and controls the volume of the bass pickup so that the two pickups can be adjusted for equal level (the bass pickup is usually louder because the string vibrations are greater over it); the other pot is blue, labelled 'P' and controls the phase relationship between the pickups; both pots are factory adjusted, but a change of strings might necessitate further twiddling of the 'N' pot and a search for a slightly different sound might tempt you to tweak the 'P' pot. Such adjustments are almost certainly quite safe.
The control setup consists of two knobs and two switches. One knob is the volume control, the other for tone (and here the pre-amp evidently adds slight eq, though not as much as that on the Gibson RD, for instance), which is a sophisticated circuit using capacitors and chokes, rather than the more usual and much simpler capacitor-only tone circuits. The switch nearest the bridge is the 'notch' switch, which determines whether the pickups will be in- or anti-phase. The other switch selects which (or both) pickups are live. Thus, discounting the volume control, the tonal possibilities become almost endless, and Ovation publish a handy card listing various sounds and how to get them, ie Allman Brothers, Doobies, Telecaster, Funky... and so on. Also useful is the way the tone control is compensated so that a change of tone does not change the volume, and vice versa. The Breadwinner is wired for mono only, and the batteries are switched out of circuit when the lead is out of the jack socket (which means you have to remember to pull the plug or you'll go through a few batteries). Ovation reckon you get a year of normal playing from a pair of batteries.
The Breadwinner is a sessioneer's dream. As the little card says, almost any guitar sound can be produced given the proper combination of tones and phasing, and the Breadwinner has them all. So a session guitarist could go to the studio armed with a Les Paul, SG, Strat, Tele, and even a rough old Futurama, all in one case. It is a pity Ovation didn't include a low impedance output for recording; then the Breadwinner would be the Compleat Guitar! Leaving aside the body-shape, finish, the nasty bit of plastic on the bridge, and the badly-positioned strap button, I can find nothing to criticise. Sorry.
A few last comments: both guitars come with tough carrying bags, extremely well-produced and informative owner's manuals, and (in the USA) an Ovation Limited Lifetime Guarantee. But: a hard case is extra (the Archcraft for about £40 and the moulded Hardshell for about £80), and the guarantee in the UK is for the legal minimum of one year. First of all, these are both relatively expensive instruments, and they deserve a decent case at minimal extra cost. The Hardshell case is superb, but far too expensive. I know a chap who would make me a flight case for less. Secondly, if Ovation offer the original owner a lifetime guarantee, why don't Rose-Morris? Are Ovation guitars made less reliable by transatlantic shipment? Are they seriously suggesting that £400 guitars should have the same guarantees as £75 Japanese copies — that which is required by law for any merchandise? A Rose-Morris representative told me that they would almost certainly be prepared to take a view well beyond their stated guarantees, but while I recognize their fine reputation and good intentions, only a published guarantee would give a sensible customer the peace of mind he/she deserves.
Ovation guitars obviously belong up there with the very best modern instruments, both from a constructional and innovative point of view. I would recommend both Preacher and Breadwinner to any guitarist. But I think Rose-Morris should reconsider the matters of cases and guarantees. If they can arrive at a sensible compromise between good will and profit, they'll be unbeatable.
Keith Drewett, Marketing Director at Rose-Morris, replies: 'First we have to understand what is meant by the USA "limited lifetime guarantee". This is a guarantee for the original purchaser only against faulty manufacture and materials for an unlimited period. So the "limited life-time" refers to the purchaser. There are some restrictions, for example in the first two years the guarantee covers materials and labour — after that time it only covers materials.
'In the UK, we don't have a written guarantee at Rose-Morris, although we do work broadly on a one year guarantee for our less expensive lines. For professional equipment like the Ovation guitars the practical effect is that we at least match, and sometimes exceed, the terms of the USA guarantee. What's important is how the guarantee works in practice, and we haven't experienced any problems with this arrangement.'
BREADWINNER rrp £377.78/$415.00
PREACHER rrp £400.00/$460.00
Dave Blake is an ex-session musician who has been writing on sound for several years.
Gear in this article:
Review by Dave Blake
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