The Martin DCPA4 acoustic-electric guitar caught me by surprise on a recent trip to Guitar Center. It is a relatively straightforward dreadnought guitar with a soft cutaway and built-in electronics, but it sounds a lot better than I expected when I saw that it retails for $1599 and sells for only $1199.
This is a solid sapele guitar with a solid spruce top. As with many less expensive guitars, the top is finished gloss, but the back and sides are matte. The fingerboard is dark in color, but I doubt it's ebony at this price point. My hunch is it's one of those synthetic materials that Martin has been using on some of its less expensive guitars (a quick search of Martin's website confirmed this: thie fingerboard is made of something they call "Black Richlite"). The DCPA4's fingerboard width is 1 3/4" at the nut, though it felt subectively like 1 11/16" when I played it (1 11/16" is typical of Martin's dreadnought guitars). Scale length is 25.4", and there are 14 frets clear of the body. The tuners are larger silver one that resemble those on Martin's D-28 and HD-28.
Something distinctive about the DCPA4 is that the fingerboard position markers are very small dots, and they are not located in the center between the frets. Rather, they are located toward the player's head, just a cm or so from the position markers on the side of the neck. It made me think that this thing is made for gigging in uncertain light conditions. Overall, the appearance is understated and attractive.
I played this guitar in standard and drop-D tunings and was really impressed with it. The neck feels low-profile and very comfortable. I think the low profile neck may have been what made me initially think this guitar had a 1 11/16" wide fingerboard at the nut. The fingerboard was not a parking lot, and chording was easy. The action was set medium-low, and playability was very good. I didn't have my capo with me, but chords up the neck sounded in tune.
The overall sound of the guitar was well balanced and reminded me of the sound of my (long since sold) Martin D-16. It did not have the big bass of a Martin HD-28, but its bass was tight, solid and well-defined, as it should be with a mahogany or (in this case) sapele guitar. Trebles were just right--not overly bright or zingy, but not subdued, as they can be with some big, bold sounding (rosewood) Martin D-28s or D-35s. Sustain was excellent, and the overall feeling that the guitar was in tune was also excellent. Individual notes sounded great, but chords sounded like big juicy chords, not notes doing battle, and that's important to me.
My main criterion for judging a guitar at a guitar store is whether I keep wanting to return to it when I'm in a room full of guitars. Of the guitars I played on this day (a nice Gibson Hummingbird, a Rainsong I'd never met before, and several Martins), this was the one I kept returning to. Its easy playability and overall balance and sustain were what I noticed the most as I played.
I never did plug this guitar in, but it comes outfitted with "Fishman F1 Analog" electronics, and the controls for these electronics are simple dark circles on the "top side," kind of like what Taylor has been using on it's fancier acoustic-electric guitars for years. This preserves the simple look of the guitar.
To conclude, if I were looking for a single relatively inexpensive guitar for acoustic playing and occasional acoustic-electric gigging, this guitar would be on my short list. I actually enjoyed playing this guitar more than the recently reviewed (and significantly more expensive) Martin JC-16RE Aura acoustic-electric. Of course, the JC-16RE has more bass (it's a rosewood guitar), but its overall balance was not nearly as satisfying.
The DCPA4 did not strike me as a particularly loud guitar, though its sound was not wimpy or reserved by any means. I did notice that Martin's website recommends light strings for the guitar, though it can handle lights or mediums. It might be a tad quiet if you're in a jam room full of bluegrass wahoos holding Santa Cruz dreadnoughts, banjos, mandolins, and so on. But I'd expect it to hold up well in smaller jams or bluegrass jams where all of the players have good "jam etiquette."
Along with the Larrivee D-03E and Taylor DN-3E, the Martin DCPA4 is among the most impressive (relatively) inexpensive dreadnought acoustic-electrics I've played recently.
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