LA Patrie Arena Mahogany CW Q1T
TRADITION TAKES A BACK SEAT TO PLAYABILITY.
Here’s a real surprise: a nylon-stringed guitar with a contemporary feel that’s easy to handle onstage. La Patrie Guitars, one of the brands in the Godin family, has a specific focus on nylon-stringed instruments. Built in the province of Quebec, Canada, in the small town of – you guessed it – La Patrie, a large part of the population is involved in the production of these guitars. Visiting the factory a few years back, it’s easy to see why these instruments are so good: they’re equipped with the latest in technology, an appropriate level of ‘handmade-ness’ and a really cheerful vibe throughout the whole facility.
RESHAPING THE CONCEPT OF NYLON
I first tried the Arena Mahogany at the distributor’s warehouse, and I immediately commented on the playability, the balanced tone and the volume. Guitars with shallower bodies – especially nylon-stringed models – aren’t supposed to be loud or have a rich low-end. The Arena has both of these attributes a very friendly feel. In terms of playability, what stands out most immediately is the curved fretboard. Other nylon-stringed guitars have flat fretboards – a ‘classical’ tradition that seems to be about tradition and not any ergonomic functionality.
I’ve asked various manufacturers about this and have received an almost universal response: that’s the way it’s always been done. The market’s expectation of this is remarkably entrenched – like friction tuners on violins – and even Robert Godin told me that he couldn’t sell them as ‘classical’ guitars because of player resistance to this one feature. But, as ‘nylon-stringed’ guitars, he’s moved a heap of them and is slowly changing the perception of how this type of guitar should be built – and more importantly, how it should play.
And boy, does it play. The neck is delightfully comfortable and the curved fretboard gives it an easy, contemporary feel. In fact, one tends to forget about the extra width (to accommodate the nylon strings) and just get on with playing music. The small-ish frets never cause any resistance and, even with a 12th fret body joint, there’s easy access to all 19 of them via the deep Venetian cutaway.
The face of the rosewood board follows the classical template to be free of dot markers (another so-called “tradition”) but thankfully, you’ll find them on the top edge. The re-designed bridge, which is also made of rosewood, offers maximum down pressure while maintaining an easy tension, and the reduced mass doesn’t rob the guitar of any volume.
A SACRED CHAMBER
The other remarkable feature is the shallow body, just 70 millimetres at the waist (classical guitars are usually 100-103 millimetres deep). It’s super lively and surprisingly “big” in its tonal balance. The spruce top has a wonderfully even grain and the solid mahogany back and sides are quietly figured.
Amazingly, the sound leaps out with a fast delivery due to the shallower air chamber reducing the sonic latency. The bottom end is tight and round while the treble is bright and chirpy, with plenty of sustain. The midrange cuts through effortlessly, but it’s not honky or dominating. It’s a broad midrange – a wide Q that transitions smoothly from lows through to highs. Simple triads have a clear overtone structure, giving them a richness that belies the body size.
Extended chords have good string definition, and the sound doesn’t collapse under the weight of the more complex harmonic interaction. Somehow, even Drop D sounds and feels positive on this guitar. In fact, I’d never used a Drop tuning on a nylon-stringed guitar before, but the tightness of the Arena’s lowend really makes it a pleasure (although Drops C and B can get a bit flubby).
The Q1T preamp and pickup system is simplicity itself, in a contemporary sense: volume, treble, bass, and a built-in tuner – all acoustic/electric preamps should have this – that is accurate and doesn’t dance around. Using a Fishman Loudbox Mini, a Fishman SA-220 and an installed QSC/Soundcraft system in a 150-seater, Godin’s pickup system gave an accurate and strikingly pristine image of the Arena.
I also used a Boss RV-3 reverb pedal to add some distance, as well as a Suhr Shiba Drive overdrive pedal just for fun. As well as being a complete tonal alternative, the overdrive pedal also highlights any deficiencies in an acoustic or electric’s harmonic information and output level.
The Arena passed with flying colours and never glitched out or decayed too quickly. Played clean and dry, the Arena produces a defined bass that transitions smoothly into the mids and then to the round top-end. There’s no squeaky bite and there’s no honk in the midrange – just a really smooth sound and an accurate representation of the unplugged tone. This is a fun instrument to play and, for steel-string players, the curved fretboard gives it a familiar feel.