Alvarez FYM95C AURA Yairi Masterworks Steel String Guitar

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Alvarez FYM95C AURA Yairi Masterworks Steel String Guitar
East of Osaka and west of Tokyo, Gifu rests on the northern edge of the Nobi plain in Japan. In a small city in Gifu, named Kani, two Japanese luthiers began to create finely made, handcrafted guitars in Post WWII Japan. The father’s name is Sada Yairi and his son’s name is Kazuo Yairi. Together, they develop some key innovations to acoustic guitar design, such as the Yairi Direct Coupled Bridge and the Alvarez Yairi Neck Extension.

Although perhaps not quite as well known to the masses as their marketing savvy siblings from Taylor and Martin, most acoustic guitar players treat the Alvarez Yairi name with a sort of reverence. Let me put it this way, telling another acoustic player that you own an Alvarez, any Alvarez, will garner you a certain nod of respect. Telling the same person that you own an Alvarez Yairi usually induces a telling, wide-eyed “Whoaaa!” – followed quickly by requests to play the fabled instrument. I say fabled because these Yairi’s are tough to find. Each one is hand made by this little shop in Japan and once you own one you’ll certainly want to keep it in the family!

The instrument I received to review is even rarer still. The FYM95C is an OM shaped guitar with unbelievable acoustic tone. Not only is it part of the “Masterworks” collection of top-of-the-line Yairi’s, but it is a brand new model. In fact the one I received is not even displayed on the website since it features a non-standard cutaway and the amazing new Aura pre-amp from Fishman. If you can find one, buy it – otherwise read on for more details!

Alvarez Yairi Masterworks FYM95C with Fishman Aura

My wife bought me my first guitar – a beat up Yamaha dreadnought with high action that still buzzes at the twelfth fret. As I progressed, I wanted a mid-level intermediate guitar that had great playability and plugged-in tone with sharp looks. My search finally led me to Alvarez, and I wound up purchasing an instrument from their Artist line, the AF60CK Koa Model. That’s how I came to know the respect that Alvarez has among acoustic guitar players – when I told them I played an Alvarez, I always got a nod of approval.

So you can imagine how excited I was to learn that I was going to review an Alvarez Yairi Masterworks model. However, I was totally blown away by the actual instrument I received. The FYM95C is a small-bodied OM folk-style instrument with solid rosewood back and sides and a solid spruce top. You should know that all solid wood guitars are not alike – most of the wood used in today’s manufacturing processes is kiln dried. The wood used in Alvarez Yairi models is aged and air-seasoned, which takes a lot longer – but allows the tone wood to fully develop it’s natural character and resonance.

The fretboard, bridge and endpins are all made of beautifully dark and glassy looking ebony. As an aside, I love how ebony feels as a fingerboard wood – there is some texture so it’s not as slippery as you might get from a maple yet not as rough as rosewood. Thus, bends are delightfully smooth and silky without all the overly bright overtones. The binding on the FYM95C is a multi-layered ivory with tasteful abalone accents around the soundhole. Typical of Alvarez is the understated twelfth fret diagonal inlay.

I’m not sure any guitar maker has headstock logos that are nicer looking that Alvarez. The Alvarez Yairi logo is emblazoned on the headstock as well as on the face of the gold Gotoh tuners. As a nice finishing element, the FYM95C is strung with Elixer® strings.

I’d like to point out two aspects of this guitar that really differentiate it from others in the marketplace. The first aspect is the patented direct-coupled bridge. Regardless of how expensive the guitar, traditional bridges tend to separate from the guitar over time due to constant string tension. Additionally, traditional bridges actually reduce string energy by a small amount as the string leans against the bridge when exiting the end pin hole. Kazuo Yairi solved this by essentially removing the portion of the bridge that accepts the endpins and coupling the strings directly to a reinforced section on the top of the guitar. This has two advantages. First, the new look is aesthetically pleasing with a slightly different shape but staying along traditional lines – and the fact that the strings no longer score the wood around end pin holes at the bridge. Second, this design allows for lighter bracing – improving the ability of the top to vibrate in response to the string energy.

The second aspect that has the potential to revolutionize your amplified sound is the Fishman Aura pre-amp. Competition is a great thing. I don’t know this for a fact, but when Taylor invented its Expression System, the folks at Fishman refused to be outdone and got back to the drawing board. The result was the Fishman Aura which is an on-board pre-amp specifically designed to capture the guitar’s natural tone as if you were using an expensive microphone at varying distances from the guitar’s soundhole. Fishman calls this an “Acoustic Sound Image”. Amazingly, the models for these images were painstakingly documented at a state-of-the-art sound recording facility using four Alvarez guitars and a select range of vintage and modern microphones. Of these sound images, the best six were selected and integrated into the Alvarez Aura. Thus, it would actually be impossible to buy an off-the-shelf pre-amp that demonstrates better unplugged tone for your Alvarez. Beyond this, each of these images can be mixed with the bridge piezo pickup to create the optimum acoustic sound for your playing style. Overall, the pre-amp was easy to use and also features a 3-band EQ and a handy digital chromatic tuner that supports standard as well as altered tunings.

As a final feature, the Alvarez FYM95C comes in a custom tweed style case with the Alvarez logo. The case is very tasteful and features a black plush interior. I'm not sure it would stand up to serious road abuse, so I would suggest a heavier duty case if you plan to risk this baby outside of your home or studio.

Here are the six sound images available:

· Neuman KM-84 (recorded at 16 inches) · Neuman U87 (recorded at 16 inches) · Soundelux E47 (recorded at 4 feet) · Shure SM57 (recorded at 16 inches) · Earthworks QTC30 (recorded at 6 inches) · Shure SM81 (recorded at 16 inches)

Features at a Glance:

Body Style: OM Folk with Cutaway Back/Sides: Solid Rosewood Top: Solid Spruce Neck: Mahogany Fingerboard: Ebony Scale: 25 3/8" (645mm) Width at Nut: 1-3/4" (44.45mm) Fingerboard Inlay: 12 F Diagonal Bridge: Ebony Body Binding: Ivory Multi Soundhole Rosette: Abalone Head Overlay: Rosewood Fingerboard/Headstock Binding: Ivory/Ivory Multi Layer Pickguard: Tortoise Tuning Machines: Gold Die Cast Finish: Natural Tinted Electronics: Fishman Aura Case: Custom Tweed with Alvarez Logo

Playability and Sound Test:

As you would expect for a guitar in this price range, the fit and finish on this guitar was impeccable. The finish on the guitar was flawless, with no checking or bubbling. One of my personal quality checks for any guitar is to look at the joint created by the neck and the neck pocket since sometimes you’ll see finish flaws or escaping glue. Another check is to look at the binding since you’ll often find gaps, bleeds, wavy lines, or imperfect end-matches where two pieces of binding meet. One of the final checks is to take a small mirror and a flashlight and examine the inside of the guitar for stray glue marks or for improperly sanded bracing. I’m happy to report that the FYM95C passed all of my “white glove” quality tests with flying colors. This hand built Yairi certainly lives up to its prestigious name relative to construction quality.

In terms of the sound test, all I can say is that the sound of the FYM95C borders on a religious experience! I love the sound of all wood guitars – but the Yairi is in a class all by itself. I compared the unplugged sound quality of the FYM95C to my Taylor 714CE. The Taylor has a cedar top and the FYM95C has a spruce top so the timbres were somewhat different, but the resonance, projection, and loudness were very similar. This is huge testament to the Yairi since it has a smaller body than the Taylor and is also not quite as deep. In terms of comfort, the Yairi is certainly easier to play than the Taylor. There’s no doubt that my Taylor is a great guitar, but overall, I’ll give the sound quality edge to the Yairi.

In terms of plugged in performance, I loved the output from the Aura system. I ran the FYM95C to my Mackie Onyx board. From this point I tested the recording signal to my laptop and a signal through my PA speakers to simulate both recording and live performance. My biggest problem was that it was very difficult to choose my favorite from among the six acoustic images! Even though I tested the piezo feature – I actually liked the purity of the Aura without additional piezo signal mixed into the signal. If you are going to force me to pick – I’ll go ahead and choose the Neuman KM-84 setting for recording and the Shure SM57 setting for live sound. Maybe that is because that is what I’m used to hearing – however, I’ll leave it up to you to choose your own preferences since there is so much room to create your own tone. I don’t think anything will ever replace a true microphone, but I felt that the models were actually fairly accurate. At the current time, my opinion is that a customized Fishman Aura is as close as you are going to get without an expert sound engineer, a case full of expensive microphones, and a professional sound stage.

Closing Thoughts

There is no doubt that the Alvarez Yairi Masterworks FYM95C is an amazing guitar. I’ve had the opportunity to play many fine guitars – and this one ranks as good or better in unplugged sound than any I’ve tried. Furthermore, the customized Fishman Aura pre-amp adds remarkable plugged-in tone to the mix. The fit and finish was characteristically flawless and, best of all, the playability of this guitar is unbeatable. There are absolutely no negatives to this guitar…unless you consider a street price of about $2,400 a negative. While this is a certainly a chunk of change, you have to remember that you are paying for a genuinely rare, hand-built guitar from a recognized master luthier.

The really great thing about Alvarez is that if the Yairi models are out of your range (or unavailable), you can grab an Alvarez Masterworks model (such as the recently reviewed MD350C) for about half that amount – and guitars from their Professional and Artist lines and about half that again. I think you’d be pleased with any Alvarez option that fits your price range.

As a last thought, imagine yourself out and someone asks you what kind of acoustic guitar you play. Think how much fun would it be to tell them nonchalantly, “Oh – nothing special. Just a hand built Alvarez constructed by Kazuo Yairi in Kani, Japan. It has a direct-coupled bridge and custom pre-amp that allows me to select from six high-end microphones when I’m playing live or recording.” Then just smile and walk away.

I am happy to award the Alvarez Yairi Masterworks FYM95C the "Rig Ready" as well as the GearHead "Approved" Awards for 2006. In fact, if we had a higher award to give - this guitar would earn it.

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