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Attack of the Acoustic-Electric Hybrids:
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This past year (2007) has seen a huge surge in the popularity of acoustic-electric or electric-acoustic hybrid guitars: instruments that attempt to straddle that magical line where the guitar can perform double duties as both an acoustic guitar and an electric guitar. No, we’re not talking about simply amplifying your acoustic guitar — that’s so ‘90s. We’re talking about putting magnetic pickups on acoustic instruments to rock out the jam through your guitar amp with the overdrive cranked and adding piezo pickups (or other alternate technologies) to electric guitars masquerading as acoustic instruments.
The most widely recognized hybrid on the market was (until recently) the Taylor T5, a beautiful semi-hollowbody electric guitar that looks like an acoustic but doesn’t always sound that way. Ovation recently introduced their VXT, a chambered solidbody electric that promises to deliver tones on both sides of the fence, and the innovators at Babicz already have an impressive roster of artists playing their Octane, a thin-line acoustic guitar that features all of their patented acoustic design innovations coupled with a pair of humbuckers!
On the surface, it seems that each of these guitars would provide the same feature set in their attempt to solve the same musical problem, but what we found in our testing was that each guitar has a distinctly different personality that made each one special in different ways. There is a different guitar in this review for different types of players — as you’ll discover in the very fine details, one size definitely does not fit all.
Most Versatile Overall,
Mostly Electric Guitar Playing,
Mostly Acoustic Playing,
The flamed top, back and sides sported a gloss finish, while the neck had a satin finish.
On top, the guitar features the more obvious Babicz hallmark — strings fanned out across the soundboard. Not merely cosmetic, this arrangement enables the guitar to make use of the entire surface as a sounding board, and eliminates the bridge as a focused pressure point that would otherwise decrease the natural vibration of the guitar top.
Speaking of bridges, the Octane also features Babicz’s adjustable rosewood Torque-Reducing Split Bridge. Unlike other acoustics with a fixed, glued-in bridge, the Babicz adjustable bridge is anchored via a pair of hex bolts that let the entire bridge float, enabling simple intonation adjustments.
Our Octane was also appointed with a pair of Seymour Duncan humbuckers: a SH-12 George Lynch Screamin’ Demon in the bridge position and a SH-PG1 Pearly Gates at the neck. An L.R. Baggs piezo system is installed under the bridge saddle, and fine tuning of Gain, Bass, and Mids can be performed via adjustments to a few trim controls inside the electronics cavity on the back of the instrument.
The guitar featurs a master volume, master tone, and pickup blend control knobs, along with a three-way switch for the magnetic pickups. The tone control affects both the magnetic and piezo output.
Fit and finish were excellent, and we loved the wooden electronics cover installed on the rear of the instrument that preserved the appearance of the wooden instrument. However, we were disappointed in the aesthetics of the pickup selector switch and black rubber Volume/Tone knobs, which looked more like inexpensive afterthoughts — chrome knobs would have made the overall appearance seem a bit more polished.
Upon opening the guitar case, not only did we admire the strikingly classic looks, but also the fine smell! The high gloss finish seemed made from furniture shellac — either that or a good port wine! Either way, the smell of alcohol was so strong that we laughingly asked ourselves, “Lacquer, or liquor?” and the aromatic fragrance lasted throughout weeks of testing. Maybe that’s why the guitar brought a smile to our faces when we played it!
The mahogany neck has similar specs to the Babicz — a rosewood fingerboard, 1-11/16” nut width, and a 25-1/4” scale length, but has a high-gloss finish like the rest of the instrument.
Tone is derived from both a pair of Seymour Duncan ’59 humbuckers as well as a Fishman Power Bridge delivering piezo acoustic tone. Unlike the other two guitars in this review, the VXT was the only guitar in the collection wired for either mono or stereo operation. When running in stereo, the piezo output can be routed to one amp while the magnetic output can be run to another — an essential feature that all guitars of this type should provide.
Ovation thoughtfully provides a small stereo Y cable that breaks out the stereo jack to two quarter-inch mono sends to get you up and running, but if you plan to use the guitar with dual outputs, you’ll want to invest in a higher-grade splitter or breakout box.
The VXT does more to create acoustic tone than simply rely upon the Fishman Power Bridge. An onboard Virtual Microphone Imaging Preamp is designed to process the acoustic tone through a modeled studio microphone for a richer tone, but unlike some other Ovation VIP-equipped guitars, the VXT lacks any customizable settings (like user-selectable mics) for the system.
Besides a switch for selecting the magnetic pickups, the VXT has three control knobs: volume, piezo/magnetic blend, and a tone control. Unfortunately, the tone control only affects the magnetic output — there is no onboard tone control for the piezo output. This could be an issue for players running their acoustic tone straight to a PA system — the house engineer will really be dictating the tone of your guitar!
Taylor T5 Custom (T5-C2)
In our minds (and hands), we consider this an acoustic guitar, but perhaps the lack of piezo acoustic pickups is what lead Taylor to call it an electric guitar. Custom Taylor magnetic humbucking pickups — one visible at the bridge and one hidden at the neck, are combined with a body sensor inside the guitar’s top surface to generate both its electric and acoustic tones.
Controls on the face of the guitar include both Bass and Treble EQ controls and a master volume, while a five-way pickup selector switch is located on the top of the instrument. Functionally, the guitar is the same as the standard T5s, which lack exotic wood tops and fancy abalone inlays.Unlike the other two guitars in this roundup, the T5 lacks a blend control. Using the five-way selector, you choose specific combinations of the pickups to generate specific types of tones.
Each of the guitars reviewed played great. They all had relatively low action and reasonably fast-playing necks on which we could reach upper frets not typically accessed on acoustic guitars.
There were significant differences in operating the controls on each guitar, though. It took some time to really learn how to manipulate the various sounds as each guitar had substantial differences in how its controls were implemented. No two guitars were truly alike!
One other consideration to make with these guitars: Do you want to use it as an unplugged acoustic guitar? While the Babicz Octane and Taylor T5 can be played around the campfire (with the Babicz getting the nod for being the most naturally acoustic instrument), playing the Ovation would be similar to playing your standard electric guitar unplugged — not really suited to this particular task.
We were able to lower the string height to new depths of “lowness” for any guitar, and had fine playability without fretting out. Despite the crazy string action, though, it wasn’t the fastest playing neck of the bunch. It had slightly less attack to the notes, and responded more like an acoustic guitar, albeit one of the easiest playing acoustics we’ve ever encountered.
The blend knob rotated from full piezo to full magnetic with various levels of mix in between. At first we thought that a center detent would have been useful, but who’s to say that a 50/50 blend would make an ideal tone for anyone? The Tone control, however, was a different story. In the middle, EQ settings were flat, with boosting or cutting as we adjusted from there. This control should have had a center detent.
Despite our complaint about the visual aesthetics of the rubber knobs, they did feel great to the touch. In fact, builder Jeff Babicz informed us that the knobs were chosen deliberately (and strategically placed) in order to facilitate easy pinky manipulation for volume swells. Clearly, this is one acoustic guitar that wants to rock!
The VXT was the only guitar of the bunch featuring stereo operation. A switch on the rear of the guitar selected between mono and stereo, and with the Y output cable, we were able to run the magnetic pickups to our guitar amps and the piezo acoustic output to our PA system.
In mono operation, the blend knob rotated from fully acoustic to fully magnetic, but when running the guitar in stereo, the knob functioned more like a secondary volume control. In the middle position, full output was sent to both the magnetic and piezo outputs. Increasing the piezo output (counter-clockwise from the middle) resulted in a decrease in magnetic output, and increasing the magnetic output resulted in a decrease in the piezo output. At either extreme position, we heard either acoustic sounds in the PA or electric sounds through our guitar amp.
The Taylor T5 really nailed the playability card, striking a balance that fell squarely between the other two guitars in this review. The instrument felt like an acoustic in our hands, but had a fast-playing neck that was comfortable and smooth, with the sharpest attack when playing solo runs.
The Taylor featured independent Bass and Treble controls, and happily, the flat, rubber-coated knobs on the face of the guitar featured center detents with boost and cut capabilities surrounding the center position. A fat-fingered player might have a hard time grasping these tiny buttons, but they seemed intended for set-and-forget operation, and we never accidentally moved their settings while playing.
Unfortunately, the pickup selection left something to be desired, as there was nothing intuitive to indicate what kinds of tones could be achieved from different positions along the five-way switch. It was not analogous to a five-way pickup selection switch on a typical Strat-type guitar.
For example, the first position is the most acoustic-like, while position #2 turns Off the body sensor and uses the hidden neck pickup. The middle position #3 featured the bridge humbucker (typically the down-most position on a five-way electric guitar switch), position #4 had both pickups in parallel wiring, while position #5 had the pickups in series.
Effective use of the various settings required committing to memory what each setting offered, or a constant review of the selection list printed on the back of a demo CD included with the guitar. Given that there was no blend knob, it would have been nice to be able to instinctively flip the five-way pickup selector from pure acoustic at one end to rockin’ bridge pickup electric at the other without having to pay careful attention to finding position #3 in the middle.
We played the guitars through two amps: a Fender Super-Sonic combo for clean tones and blues/rock tones, and also a Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier Road King II to see if these guitars could hold their own playing high-gain rock/metal music (the short answer is “Yes” for all of them). We also tested the guitars straight into a PA system (in case you have to on a gig), through an L.R. Baggs Para Acoustic DI into a PA (ideal) to optimize the acoustic tone as best possible, and into a mixing desk and studio monitors to spot-check the accuracy of the tones we were hearing.
What we found was a fascinating sonic adventure as each guitar demonstrated different strengths! What should be noted is that overall, there was not a huge difference between the instruments. Yes, we heard some real differences, but most of these were pretty minor. Each of these instruments is capable of producing some great sounds in different acoustical environments.
We had great fun using all three of these guitars on songs that ranged from acoustic numbers to blues to jazz to full-on rock and metal. For general rock purposes, all of the guitars sounded very good with their magnetic pickups delivering tone you’d never expect to come from seemingly acoustic-ish instruments.
While the guitars proved worthy in almost every situation we threw at them, the humbuckers weren’t capable of providing the same kind of clarity and note separation that we obtain from high-end solidbody electric guitars when playing with high-gain tones. Of course, that’s hardly the point with these guitars, where general versatility is the name of the game, but under extreme scrutiny, you can sometimes detect these guitars being pushed to their limits.
When played through the Super-Sonic, however, we just couldn’t get it to deliver a purely acoustic tone. It always sounded a little bit like a layering of magnetic and piezo pickups despite the fact that we were set for piezo-only tone at the time. If only we didn’t have to choose one amp over the other to make use of its diverse range of sounds!
Using the magnetic pickups, the Octane was capable of generating a good hollowbody or fat-body jazz guitar sound, and for classic rock, the humbuckers were more than up to the task of delivering a hot signal.
Through our high-gain amp, we noticed that the tone control was particularly noisy. When boosted, the guitar seemed to emit what sounded most like the type of noise we associate with traditional single-coil pickups.
We also found that the output from the low E was slightly softer than from the other strings. This may have been an issue localized to our demo guitar, but we didn’t have a chance to open up the back of the guitar and fiddle with the piezo’s gain (accomplished with a small Phillips-head screwdriver).
The VXT’s acoustic tone reminded us of a Standard Balladeer, with just a hint of the classic plastic sound, but with better definition in the overall tone. Through our PA, we coaxed a hint of a bright sparkle in the tone, and there was noticeably good bass presence.
The overall tone was very acoustic in nature, and the onboard preamp was especially clean sounding (presumably due to a lack of onboard EQ), but no matter what environment we played it in, the signature Ovation overtones were always present. If you’re not a fan of the traditional Ovation “signature sound” then you may find yourself disappointed in this guitar’s acoustic voice, but if you are a fan, then this guitar will provide you with capabilities your other Ovations never dreamed of.
Through our Fender amp, though, acoustic performance was underwhelming. We just couldn’t coax a great acoustic tone from this guitar. Playing staccato lines and solo notes resulted in a very acoustic sound, but playing acoustic rhythm guitar resulted in a tone that sounded more like an electric guitar through a clean amplifier.
For clean sounds, the Ovation VXT sounded best to us when played as a jazz guitar through the Fender amp, with just the right amount of hollowness to the sound while remaining decidedly electric. It had a very clean sound overall with a nice airiness to the tone. The onboard tone control, however, only affected the magnetic pickups.
As the only guitar in this roundup to have no control over the acoustic tone, if you plan to run the piezo acoustic tone separate from the magnetic output, you should pair it with a nice preamp (or good acoustic amp) to have some control over your acoustic sound.
Featuring the hottest output of the group, if your style of rock leans in a heavier direction, this could be the best choice for your playing. Though only marginally hotter than the Taylor, if high-gain assault is your cup of tea, the VXT delivered the heaviest tones of all through our Road King amp, and thanks to its solidbody construction, the only feedback we heard was the feedback we specifically sought in our performance.
When played using the stereo output and splitting the signal to multiple amps, the VXT opened up a world of exciting sonic options than neither of the other guitars provided. For best results overall, we sent the piezo output to our Para Acoustic DI into the PA and the magnetic output to either of our guitar amps. This gave us a pleasing acoustic tone through the PA, a very good rock guitar sound through our amp, and with the ability to layer both sounds together, we were able to execute musical ideas that weren’t physically possible using the other instruments.
The T5 was very articulate, and all notes had a sharp attack to them that you’d expect to hear from a quality electric guitar. The guitar was particularly sensitive to how heavy or light we picked while playing, capturing the most subtle nuances in a performance of all three instruments. Of all three guitars, the Taylor sounded the most acoustic of all the instruments in every situation we threw at it.
Whether playing through our guitar amps or through the L.R. Baggs DI and PA, the Taylor delivered genuine acoustic tone and a wide range of useful electric guitar tones. When using the neck pickup, we heard especially strong lead tones for jazz and blues playing.
Through our Fender amp’s overdriven channel, the T5 managed to sound especially Strat-like, and it was easy to get a very bluesy Strat sound out of it. Depending on our style of play, we even achieved sounds that were more like a Telecaster than a Strat.
We appreciated that the tone controls (Bass and Treble) changed the color of our sound without affecting the gain. Unfortunately, what we didn’t love was the noise on the Treble control. When boosting the high end on our T5, the EQ added a significant amount of noise that we found particularly disconcerting. With high-gain sounds the noise was enough to suggest masking with a noise gate.
When played through our Road King, the Taylor T5 didn’t disappoint, and although the Ovation VXT had slightly hotter output, the Taylor had the most detail in its sound than any of the other guitars (when played on overdriven amp settings). Though still not as clean as what we’d hear from a premium solidbody electric, the custom Taylor pickups provided the most detailed heavy tone of all three instruments.
One other thing we loved about the guitar was how well the signal cleaned up when rolling Off the volume. Using the bridge pickup and reducing the volume, we turned our rock tone into a very usable acoustic tone. If you like to play single channel guitar amps and rely on your volume knob and pickup selector to go from heavy to clean then this is a fantastic guitar for the job.
If Taylor could tame the noisy EQ and add stereo operation to the output, this could become the ultimate acoustic-electric hybrid overall. It was a pleasure to play in all styles, and its tone was consistently good regardless of what amp/PA we played it through.
Most Acoustic Sounding Sitting Around the Campfire (unplugged)
Most Acoustic Sounding Through a Guitar Amp
Most Acoustic Sounding Through a PA System or Acoustic Amp
Hottest Output for Driving High-Gain Amps in a Rock Setting
Documentation and Product Support
Getting to know these guitars was quite an exercise as they all had completely different controls from one another.
The Babicz Octane included information regarding adjusting the neck and the intonation, but for information on the control layout, we had to consult with specs posted on the Babicz website. Given that its controls were the most straightforward, this didn’t hinder our exploration of the instrument.
The Ovation VXT came with straightforward documentation that illustrated and explained each of the controls, and its mono/stereo operation.
The Taylor T5 came with a tutorial CD, on the back of which was printed a summary of the pickup selection settings (that we had to refer to regularly). The unintuitive nature of their five-way pickup selector (as it relates to acoustic vs. electric tones) required a trip to the website and viewing at least a portion of the DVD to get a handle on the guitar’s operation. The DVD did a great job, however, illustrating use of the instrument and its numerous tonal options.
The Babicz Octane flamed top (MSRP $2,495) can be purchased direct from Babicz for $1,688. Despite an average-quality hard case, we consider this a very good price for an American-made acoustic-electric hybrid guitar with the special features that make Babicz guitars so enjoyable to play. As we were going to press (so to speak), we found out that for an additional $100, Babicz will install a stereo output for splitting the magnetic and piezo outputs. We’re sure by now you know what we’re thinking — order it with that option!
The Ovation VXT (MSRP $2,499) sells for approximately $1,600 at retail. We thought it was a fair value given the quality of construction and playability. It came with a nicely padded hard case.
The Taylor T5-C2 Custom Koa (MSRP $4,198) that we reviewed sells for approximately $3,300. The guitar is pricier than the others in this roundup, but you’re getting beautiful custom inlays and exotic Koa wood on an instrument whose fit and finish are superb, not to mention a cool guitar case covered in faux alligator skin! If you don’t need to spend for Koa wood and fancy inlays, the T5 Standard with the same capabilities (sans the high end accoutrements) starts at approximately $2,000 street.
We have to ask, “Why is the Ovation VXT the only guitar of the bunch to offer stereo operation?” These guitars all did an admirable job of living in both realms, but forcing a pro player to try and get all of these sounds from a guitar amp is too limiting.
There are numerous solidbody electric guitars with piezo outputs that provide stereo operation. Running your piezos to one amp (or PA) and your magnetic pickups to another provides for so many opportunities to mix and match guitar sounds, whether it’s layering an acoustic guitar on top of a distorted classic rock electric tone, or just having the ability to instantly switch from one sound to a completely different one. Back in the ‘80s, it was quite common for guitarists to have an acoustic guitar mounted on a stand while their electric guitar was strapped around their neck for mid-song instrument switching.
The ‘90s brought us guitars with piezo output that rendered the two-guitar approach unnecessary, so finding two of these beautiful instruments lacking this critical feature was really surprising, and for many players, this will be the one reason why some of these guitars are not ideally suited to their intended task.
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