Pros: easy playability; good intonation; nice, clean look; smoother, dark non-jingly sound; cost-effective
Cons: only moderate projection, delicacy and sustain
The Yamaha FS-720 is a small steel string acoustic guitar that I hadn't heard of until a friend recently brought it to my attention. He said it reminded him of my beloved Larrivee LS-05 in its small size, simple ornamentation, and overall feel. When he told me it retailed for something like $350 and was available at Guitar Center and other retail outlets for about $250, I waxed skeptical. My experiences with recent inexpensive Yamahas and Takamines hadn't been so great, and my mind was (well, my temporal lobes were) flooded with acoustic images of jingly jangly thin sounds and mediocre intonation.
When he invited me to Guitar Center a few days later, I had to take him up on the offer.
When he showed me the guitar, the first things I noticed were its small but square shoulders and its rounded lower bout. It wasn't shaped like an OM or like a Larrivee L- or LS-; it had the square shoulders of the former and the rounded bottom of the latter. The wood looked like mahogany (the top, spruce), and the overall appearance was quite attractive for an inexpensive guitar. The body is finished in a gloss that's not overdone or tacky.
When he dropped the guitar into my lap, my first impression was of a slightly Martin-like sound, with emphasis on the lower-mids, not on the jingly trebles as I had expected. As I played on I took note of good intonation up the neck, a good neck shape (it was easy to play), and an overall enjoyable feel.
The next thing I recall thinking was that the guitar didn't have the sustain or projection of my favorite small guitars like the Larrivee LS-05 or Martin 000-18V Custom Adirondack. I was reminded more of a standard Martin 000-18 (no, it did not sound as good as a $2000 Martin 000-18), which doesn't have the scalloped bracing of the other guitars. The FS-720 felt solid and not particularly light, and I ventured a guess that it does not have scalloped bracing. But the more I played, the more I enjoyed it. It had a slightly dark sound, decent volume, and I couldn't get it to sound jingly or cheap. The fact that I was even remotely comparing it to guitars that cost betweenr $1300 and $2500 is a compliment to the FS-720.
Martin's D-X1 and Little Martin are two of my favorite really inexpensive guitars, so I decided to play one of each to see how they sounded after a few minutes with the FS-720. The larger D-X1 (a $500 or so guitar) sounded louder and bassier, but the Yamaha FS-720 sounded just as natural, if not more so. The Little Martin (a $275 or so guitar) sounded much smaller, and though its sound was good for a tiny guitar, it wasn't really in the same league as the Yamaha, which I would guess is roughly equal to an OM-style guitar in overall size.
I then tried a Taylor 110, a ($600 or so) dreadnought guitar that had sounded too bright to me in the past. The Taylor was much louder, and the intonation was better than on the earliest samples I had played, but the trebles were still too grating for my ears, and I actually preferred playing the little Yamaha.
Just for chuckles, I grabbed a Martin 000-28EC (Eric Clapton), a $2500 rosewood OM-style guitar. No comparison! The Clapton was louder, fuller, had better sustain, and sounded more like a solid wood guitar (which it is, of course). Unfair comparison.
But upon returning to the Yamaha FS-720, I was still pleasantly surprised. I didn't want to cast it aside in favor of one of the more expensive guitars. I was happy to just keep playing. It continued to play easily and I enjoyed its mellow, dark tone.
It was only after playing the guitar that evening that I returned home to do the usual basic research. The Yamaha FS-720's back and sides are made of laminated nato wood, which is similar to mahogany. Here's the scoop on nato wood from Axechops.com:
Nato is a South American hard wood, similar to mahogany. It's the current "budget" wood. That doesn't mean that it is a bad or cheap wood. At one time, mahogany was considered the cheap alternative, and nobody knew how well it would do in the long run. Now mahogony is considered a 'fine' wood. Could Nato be the next mahogany? Only time will tell.
Its top is made of solid Sitka spruce, a nice touch. The neck is nato, and the fingerboard is rosewood. I was right: the bracing is non-scalloped, which should make the guitar sturdier and more likely to last a few generations, even if it undermines delicacy and projection a bit. The neck to body joint is said to be an "inverted L-block" (I have no clue), which is supposed to increase tightness of the neck to body joint (relative to a bolted on neck, I assume), and lead to better bass response. Scale length is a slightly foreshortened 25" (most guitars measure 25.4" or 25.5"). I would estimate the neck width at the nut to be 1 11/16" (I couldn't find that specification). It didn't feel subjectively wide, like the 1 3/4" necks of most OM guitars.
To conclude, I found the Yamaha FS-720 to be a pleasant surprise. It's not a world beater, but it is a very good guitar for $250. If you need a travel guitar or a guitar for a young child who is learning to play, I might still opt for the smaller Little Martin or Taylor Big Baby. But if you are looking for a small (but "full sized"--just not dreadnought sized), playable guitar to learn on, a second guitar to play around the campfire or at the office, or a starter guitar for an older child or young teenager, the FS-720 would be a good choice.
Taking price into consideration, I think it is worthy of five stars.