It’s no secret that Blueridge owes a lot of their design to Martin & Co. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Blueridge instruments are copies of Martin’s guitars, I think it’s pretty obvious that Blueridge is going for that classic prewar vibe that Martin embodies in so many people’s minds. They also have a warmer, more “classic” sound similar to Martin’s and end up being the brand that a lot of people look to when they want a Martin experience at a lower price point.
Depending on who you talk to about Blueridge’s vs. Martins, you’ll get a lot of different opinions, but a lot of people seem to fall into two distinct camps. There are the players who will tell you that BR sounds and plays just as good as a Martin and can’t understand why anyone would pay 3 to 4 times more for the the same experience. Then you have the Martin purists, people who stand by flat out refuse to believe that any guitar, let alone a “budget” brand could ever compare to an instrument made in Nazareth.
So who's right? In order to find out, we take a look at what is probably the most popular Blueridge today, the BR-160 and we’re going to pit it against what is probably the most comparable high end Martin. We won’t have time to get into every detail of these two instruments so instead I’m going to focus on what I feel are the 3 most important differences between them: Their necks, their sound and their looks. We’ll consider the good and the bad of each, and really try to decide how good of a job the BR-160 does capturing that classic Martin vibe.
Necks and playability
If you’re unfamiliar with both of these instruments what you’re going to notice first upon picking them both up are the differences in the neck. The HD-28V features Martin’s Modified V neck profile. The Mod V is a vintage inspired shape with steeper shoulders and a more pronounced “V” shape than most currently produced acoustic necks. While it’s not going to seem quite as foreign to the modern player as Martin’s actual vintage neck shapes it’s certainly a dramatic change from most other acoustic offerings on the market today. As I’ve mentioned before in previous articles, the Mod V neck is a love it or hate it kind of profile and I’ve seen a lot of our customers stop considering guitars they otherwise loved simply because they couldn’t adjust to this neck.
The Blueridge BR-160
The BR-160 on the other hand uses Blueridge’s standard U shaped neck, a shape that I’ve always found reminiscent of Martin’s own Modified Low Oval profile. This shape is generally more friendly to the average player than the Modified V, especially if you’re an electric guitar player looking to move into the world of acoustics. I’ve also found that for people who experience any trouble with their hands, whether that’s arthritis, carpal tunnel or anything else, the BR-160’s neck shape tends to aggravate these problems less than the Modified V.
What’s also worth mentioning about these guitars necks are the finishes. The HD-28V, like most Martin’s, has a satin finish on the back of their necks. The Blueridge on the other hand has a thick gloss finish (as do all of their other models). Personally, if there was one feature of the BR-160 that I would change it would be this. Gloss finished necks have always bugged me. When you first pick up the guitar it’s not really such a big deal, but after playing for a bit and your hand gets some sweat on it the gloss finish tends to start feeling “sticky”, making it harder to navigate along the fretboard. While your own experiences may differ, this difference is worth considering when choosing between the two models, or between any other Blueridge and Martin guitar.
I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s played a Blueridge and didn’t have positive things to say about how well it compares to the sound of American made Martin’s. A lot of Blueridge’s fanbase is due to how close to a Martin sound people feel you can get from these Chinese made instruments for a fraction of the price. As I’m sure I’ve said countless times before, either in other articles or in personal conversations with customers, I have to agree. A Blueridge does sound a lot like a Martin, but it’s not quite there.
While Martin’s in general are known for their warmth and low end response, the HD-28V is pretty much king of the bass frequencies. Combine the harmonically rich East Indian Rosewood back/sides with it’s scalloped forward-shifted braces and you’re left with a phenomenally powerful low end that I think you’d be hard pressed to find in any other acoustic*. Even though the BR-160 does, on paper at least, feature these exact same specs, it misses on the fine details. To the best of my ability when examining, it looks like the BR-160’s braces are not scalloped in quite the same way as the Martin and they are don’t seem to be “tuned” as well to allow the top to move as freely as it does on the HD-28V. On top of this, it’s simply a matter of economics that Blueridge could not possibly afford to have as tight of tolerances as an HD-28V while still keeping at their lower price point.
The Martin HD-28V
Together, these detriments leave the BR-160’s tone in the realm of very good but not quite great. On a quick listen, especially if it’s from a video on the internet, the BR-160 sounds almost identical to the HD-28V. It’s only after you spend some time with both that the true differences in tone become apparent. The BR-160 simply lacks the nuance that makes the HD-28V so loved. It’s bracing won’t allow for quite the same volume and projection that the HD-28V delivers while it’s looser tolerances rob it of some of the harmonic response. While it’s impossible to truly quantify, for the sake of argument I’d say that the BR-160 will get you maybe 80% of the way towards the sound of an HD-28V, which for a lot people will be more than enough. But if you really want that last 20%, and have actually hit the point where you can hear the difference that 20% makes, you need to go with the Martin.
*With the exception of other Martin’s sharing the HD-28V’s construction methods. The D-42 for example is really nothing more than a fancier HD-28V and in a blind test I wouldn’t be able to tell you which was which.
Let’s get superficial.
Being a 28 series guitar, the HD-28V has an understated charm in terms of adornments. It’s body features a simple Multi-Stripe rosette, a Bold Herringbone top inlay and small Diamond and Square patterned fretboard inlays. While certainly a little fancier than something like a D-18, the HD-28V avoids ostentation and maintains a simple, no frills kind of look. From a distance it looks almost common and it’s not until you get up close that you can see some of it’s fancier adornments.
With the BR-160 it does seem like Blueridge was influenced by the HD-28V’s style of no-frills stylings but they’ve missed the mark a bit. Like the HD-28V the BR-160 features a simple Herringbone trip around the top, a Multi-Stripe black and white rosette and Zig-Zag purfling between it’s 2 piece back. If Blueridge would have stopped here and maybe put a simple script logo on the headstock they could have nailed that simplistic workingman’s class that the HD-28V does so well. Unfortunately they seem to have taken a sharp left, finishing the guitar with an overly complicated M-O-P/Abalone headplate inlay and the same attractive “dalmation” patterned pickguard that they use on most of their guitars. These decisions leave the BR-160 in an odd place as it’s not quite simple enough to cater to the minimalists and yet not quite flashy enough to “bling” crowd. It’s an unfortunate lack of focus in their design choices that leave the BR-160’s looks not quite pleasing anyone.
The infamous Blueridge "Dalmation" pickguard.
So which should you buy?
If you’ve read any of my other posts you already know that I have a strong preference towards Martin guitars. They were the first brand of instrument I looked to when I decided to play acoustic music and have been the only brand I’ve purchased since. In my mind they are synonymous with a sound and a philosophy that I really admire and the HD-28V in particular represents one of their archetypal designs. If a builder is looking to make a big, booming dreadnought for traditional American music, the HD-28V is the bar by which they’ll all be judged. I'm not going to pretend like they're not pricey but, like with most Martin's, if it's the sound you're after then nothing else is quite going to fill that hole.
But even with that said, the BR-160 is a very good guitar. It captures a lot of what makes the HD-28V so great and does so at a price point that’s affordable to almost anyone. Sure, it’s not going to play or sound exactly like an HD-28V, but what guitar is for less than $700? So although it’s not perfect and actually even has a few features I really dislike, I can’t discount the value that this guitar is and, honestly, I’d recommend it way before I’d recommend a lot of similarly priced guitars put out by Martin themselves. For some players it will be a stopgap solution, a guitar to hold you over until you're ready to spring for the Martin. For others it will be a guitar they can be happy with for the rest of their lives.
So what do you think? Does your Blueridge blow Martins out of the water or is it crazy to even consider the idea? Be sure to let us know in the comments.