Pros: amazing liquidity and sustain; tight but powerful bass; good playability and intonation
Cons: slightly less than perfect attention to detail (see review)
Santa Cruz guitar company is a manufacturer of very high quality acoustic guitars that bases its models on classic Martin designs. The Santa Cruz OM is based on the Martin OM, or orchestra model, guitar. The OM model is slightly smaller than a dreadnought guitar, and is known as a finger-picking guitar that can also be used for flat-picking.
According to the Santa Cruz website, the OM is their most popular guitar, though I have seen more Santa Cruz Ds and Tony Rice dreadnoughts out there among bluegrass pickers. I believe James Nash, lead guitarist of the Waybacks, uses a Santa Cruz OM for live performances. The Santa Cruz OM is an expensive guitar, retailing for about $3400, and generally available for about $2999.
Well, let me start with the bottom line: I bought this guitar a few weeks ago. It's the same old story: I was only half-looking for a guitar, as my Martin D-16 and Larrivee LS05 were serving me well, but when I played the used Santa Cruz OM Steve Swan had at his guitar store in Burlingame, I knew I had to give it some serious consideration. A few days later, I brought it home for a four-day trial and was hooked. I think it was the liquidity that got me, but more on that later.
The Santa Cruz OM is a solid rosewood guitar with a spruce top. Its ebony fingerboard is wide (1 3/4" at the nut) and especially well-suited for fingerpicking. The OM size is smaller than a dreadnought, but large enough to generate a rich tone. The bracing of the Santa Cruz OM is scalloped, or shaven, for better projection and sustain. Tuners are high quality Waverly 4060s, with open backs.
In appearance, the Santa Cruz OM resembles an older Martin, with its square peg head and Martin-like appointments. The OM is nicely ornamented but not over-done. The peghead is covered in what I believe to be polished ebony, and the Santa Cruz insignia is presented in abalone inlay. That's probably the most luxurious touch. The binding that separates the sides from the top and back is ivoroid (almost white), as is the binding along the fingerboard. The purfling is a Martin-like herringbone pattern, as is the rosette. The Sitka spruce top is very light in color, with obvious and attractive cross-grain. The guitar is finished gloss, and the pickguard is a small tortoise similar to that of the Martin OM.
What struck me about this guitar was the sound, so that's where I'll begin my description of my experiences with this instrument. Readers of my reviews know that I'm addicted to liquidity. It is that quality that makes me like Larrivee's mahogany guitars so much, as well as Taylor's mahogany 510 and 514 guitars. There's a roundness and lack of edge to to the treble tones that's seductive. The Santa Cruz OM has this characteristic in spades. Treble notes ring but don't bite, and the midrange notes ebb and flow gracefully. Sustain is also fantastic with the Santa Cruz OM; notes seem to carry on endlessly.
The bass of the Santa Cruz OM is also really good. It can be felt through your body, as I would expect from a rosewood guitar, but it is also tight enough that it does not overwhelm the treble tones. It is this quality that makes the OM suitable for both finger-picking and flat-picking. Bass notes are round and full when you want them to be, but they are not thick.
Another characteristic of the Santa Cruz OM that struck me was how responsive it is. As with many of Taylor's and Larrivee's guitars, only a very light touch is necessary to generate good volume and tone. The OM is a fairly loud guitar, but it never sounds aggressive. Like a conrad johnson tube amplifier (for those of you who are into audio gear), it plays loud with a sense of effortlessness and grace.
Playability of the Santa Cruz OM is very good, but I can NOT say that I'd recommend this guitar to someone who requires extremely low action, or is used to playing only electric guitars. To them, I'd suggest they check out the Collings OM-2H or OM-2HE, which I find to be a bit easier to play than the Santa Cruz. Taylor 514CE, another favorite of mine, is also a very easy-playing guitar that can be flatpicked or fingerpicked, but it's not an OM-style guitar. If you're on a budget, I also find Martin's OOO-X1 (same body size but slimmer neck) to be remarkably playable.
Action on my Santa Cruz OM is set medium-low, and playability is quite good, but the guitar does not play quite as fast as a Taylor. On the other hand, there is considerably less fret buzz when I de-tune than with a Taylor, so perhaps the primary difference is in how high the action is set.
The ebony fingerboard of the Santa Cruz is of extremely high quality. Moving about the fingerboard is quite easy, and hammers and pulls are easy to execute and generate really good tone. The frets on my OM feel subjectively slightly higher than those on my Martin D-16 and Larrivee LS05, though I don't know if they really are. But they do not intrude. The wide fingerboard felt a bit like a parking lot when I first started playing the OM, but I quickly grew used to it.
Compared to my little mahogany Larrivee LS05 (still my favorite guitar for the dollar), the sound of the Santa Cruz OM is much louder, somewhat fuller and bassier, and a bit more pronounced in the treble. The OM seems to have a "U" shaped frequency response, with more pronounced bass and treble tones (though the Santa Cruz website says it favors the bass tones). This is a common characteristic of rosewood guitars. The mahogany LSO5 is more even across the scale. The Santa Cruz OM is also slightly more responsive than the Larrivee LS05, though the LS05 also excels in this area. Liquidity, sustain and overall seductiveness are comparable between the two.
Compared with the mahogany Taylor 514CE, which is one of my favorite Taylors, the Santa Cruz is a bit ballsier and a tad more liquid-sounding through the treble. We actually took the Santa Cruz to a local Guitar Center to compare it with a 514CE I'd been playing. There was a general consensus among those in the back room that the Santa Cruz sounded better, though the Taylor acquitted itself quite well. The Taylor was a tad easier to play, possibly due to the low action, but it also buzzed a bit more when detuned.
Compared to my mahogany Martin D-16, the Santa Cruz OM is louder, more responsive, and more liquid. The D-16 much more aggressive through the midrange, and the notes die out more quickly.
Compared with the rosewood Martin OM-28V, the Santa Cruz OM is livelier, more responsive, has louder and smoother treble, and tighter bass. The Martin is a bit "woodier" and thicker sounding. Both are excellent guitars, but I prefer the Santa Cruz.
Compared to the Collings OM-2H and OM-2HE, the Santa Cruz OM is a bit ballsier while the two Collings guitars are a bit more delicate sounding in the treble.
Compared with the Santa Cruz D and D Tony Rice (two high quality dreadnoughts), the OM is a bit tighter and less loud. Its liquidity and sustain are comparable to these excellent guitars.
Is my Santa Cruz OM the perfect guitar? No. To my surprise, the transition between the side and the binding on my guitar is imperfect near where the neck joins the body of the guitar. There's a tiny ridge there. On my Larrivee LS05, all transitions are perfect. I would have thought a guitar in this price range would have perfect fit, finish, and attention to subtle detail. The guitar is beautiful to look at, however.
In addition, this is not a guitar to brutalize. It responds well to a gentle touch, but can get a bit buzzy if you played it really hard.
The tuners on the Santa Cruz OM work well, but the smoothest I have used are those on my $1000 Larrivee LS05. Go figure.
So far, I have used only D'Addario Phosphor Bronze light strings and Elixir light strings on my OM. The D'Addarios yield a ballsier more bluegrassy tone, while the Elixers yield a smoother, mellower tone, though the treble remains fairly pronounced. The bass loses a bit of its woody resonance with the Elixers. I would recommend the D'Addarios (or Martin Marquis lights, my usual non-coated strings) for flat-picking, and the Elixers for finger-picking, IF you want a slightly smoother, less zingy sound.
In summary, the Santa Cruz OM is an excellent guitar, suitable for finger-picking or flat-picking. It is at the same time mellow and loud, with wonderful liquidity and sustain. Because it is quite expensive, it will appeal to those who have been playing for awhile and want a no-compromise guitar.
As always, I recommend you play the particular instrument you're interested in buying several times before making a decision. Santa Cruz guitars are harder to find than Martins, Taylors, Larrivees and Tacomas. To find a retailer in your area, check Santa Cruz's website: