You know what they say about small packages… Words by Steve Henderson.
Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #131. Subscribe to our print edition here!
Travel guitars have become a pretty big thing of late (no pun intended). In their basic form, they’re a smaller version of more familiar guitars and, ironically, take us full circle back to an earlier form of the instrument (before dreadnoughts and 000s) when “small” was the norm.
Compared to those of the 19th century, however, the modern small guitar (which includes those designed with portability in mind) has benefitted from an extra 150 years of development. Travel guitars were a curiosity in the ‘80s, and were usually little more than an oversized uke with a couple of extra strings.
Even the venerable Martin Guitar company makes a few, including the weird-looking Backpacker – still in production since the early ‘90s. And, of course, there’s Australia’s own Mini Maton – a pro-quality guitar, stage-ready and practically bullet proof, designed for both the casual and serious player.
HAVE A LITTLE FAITH
Faith have taken another look at the travel guitar and come up with the Nomad series, which involves two models: the Mini-Neptune (a shrunk down jumbo), and the Mini-Saturn (a similarly sized dreadnought). They look great, but the best part is inside.
Someone in Faith’s R&D department has decided that this type of guitar doesn’t have to be laminated, because these two guitars are all solid. Not only that, but other construction values are pretty serious: mahogany necks, ebony fretboards and bridges, real abalone in the rosette, quarter-sawn spruce for the bracing, proper kerfing, and a genuine set neck design to enhance resonance. This is pretty serious stuff.
And, on top of all that, there’s a built-in Fishman pickup/preamp system to make them even more useful. So where did they economise? Because there’s still the price point to consider.
One aspect is the finish. It’s a thin satin lacquer that doesn’t require the time that a gloss finish might. Another is the binding – there isn’t any. The top and back reach all the way to the outer plane of the sides. This is cost-effective and it makes for a very strong structure – critical, especially, for the soundboard. There are no dots on the face of the fretboard (the side dots are there), but they still took the time to inlay an abalone “F” at the 12th fret. Very cool.
The Fishman Isys T system is a very simple and accurate preamp, and includes a tuner and a phase switch. The machine heads are “no-names” with Grover-style buttons, but they are fully-enclosed, feel positive, and work fine.
SMALL IN SIZE, NOT IN SOUND
The Mini-Neptune has a jumbo shape, but is much smaller, with a figured mahogany top and mahogany back and sides. Its 17 frets are perfectly dressed and really easy to handle. The tone has a balance rarely found in smaller guitars.
When fingerpicking the Neptune, the delivery is warm and even, right along the length of the neck. Complex chords hang together well and there’s plenty of string definition. Strummed, the Neptune opens up with that same warm, even sound but delivered with a surprising amount of volume. This little guitar has some grunt, and it has a slight, very musical compression as the strumming gets more vigorous – similar, in fact, to a J-200 when you dig in.
With heavy rhythm work, there’s no frequency spikes or dominant strings; just a big, smooth sound. Granted, the bass strings are not deep and broad but there’s plenty of low end definition to clearly identify the chords. This is a great rhythm instrument.
The Mini-Saturn is whole ‘nother guitar altogether. In some ways, its dreadnought contour and spruce top define (and then exceed) the player’s expectations. The Saturn has a very tight low-end and a bright, yet never brittle treble.
But it’s the midrange that speaks strongest in this guitar. The centre of the Saturn’s voice has a broad Q and no honkiness at all, unlike most other small‑bodied guitars. It pokes sweetly through a mix, but doesn’t try to dominate the overall sound. For rhythm work, this guitar plays nicely with other guitars – it finds its own place in the sound without any effort. Sound guys will love it.
For fingerstyle players, that tight bass and wide mid is a pleasure to hear, adding definition to chord voicings that incorporate open and fretted notes. The Saturn’s mids and volume also make it a great soloing instrument.
MORE THAN THE EYE BEHOLDS
So, travel guitars are not your thing? That’s fine – these two instruments are way more than that. Think of them as alternative voices in your particular mix. If you’re a session guy, you’ll want one (or both). If you’re a live player, having what is essentially a tenor guitar with six strings will be a boon to your combo’s instrumentation.
Because these guitars, while tuned to standard, have a tone centre that is considerably higher than a full-sized guitar, so they are complementary voices instead of just more of the same. If you’re into open tunings, the Mini-Neptune is a great choice. I tuned the review instrument to Open G and then DADGAD; its smooth, warm voice opened up some chords and licks in a new way, and its shorter scale made negotiating some trickier ideas that much easier.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Faith’s Mini-Neptune and Mini-Saturn are superbly presented instruments and welcomed additions to our little subculture. The thin lacquer allows everything to resonate freely and their nicely shaped neck profiles make them a pleasure to play for extended periods.
Overall, the good folks at Faith Guitars have produced a couple of excellent, pro-quality instruments that fill an important niche and, thankfully, do so with style.
TOP 5 FEATURES
• All solid timbers
• Short scale length
• Fishman electronics
• Gig bag included
• Great choice for tone
• Exceptional build quality
• Stage-ready electronics
• Best of all, great sound
Ph: (02) 9905 2511