Review: Jim Olson SJ "James Taylor"

The very model played by James Taylor finds its way into the grasp of our own Sweet Baby.
By Neville Marten

From Guitarist Magazine (UK)
August 1998, pages 112-113

Introduction

We've been incredibly lucky of late, to have some marvelous acoustic guitars pass through our hands. Names such as Collings and Santa Cruz may be newer to some players than Taylor and Martin, but I think we've shown that these makers have some amazing talent. If you're a James Taylor fan, you'll probably recognise this guitar as the model James is seen with these days. It's a smallbodied jumbo made by another James: one Jim Olson, from Circle Pines, Minnesota. I asked Jim how the JT connection came about...

"Around ten years ago, James was in my area for a concert I left a guitar in his room and didn't even meet him that day. This was the Friday, but he called me on the Monday morning and told me he was taken. That was a cutaway version, but he said he wasn't interested in a cutaway and asked if I couid make him a non-cutaway model. I said, 'Pay the full price for that one, I'll make you a non-cutaway guitar and we'll exchange them when the new one's ready.' When it came to it, James wouldn't let me have the other one back, so he bought the second one, too."

Build Quality

At this price you expect perfection, and the Olson is certainly made with incredible attention to detail.

The body uses some very walnut-coloured pieces of rosewood for the back and sides, capped with a top of cedar, while the neck is a five-piece laminate of maple and mahogany with a centre strip of what looks like rosewood. Bridge and fingerboard are both ebony and inlays come courtesy of abalone body edging and soundhole purfling, and mother of pearl 'flying doves' along the fingerboard. The neck and headstock are bound in black plastic, while the body is trimmed in attractive mock tortoiseshell. You might imagine that this cacophany of colour would make for a rather gaudy overall package, but the Olson looks surprisingly cohesive in appearance.

Jim Olson has no pretences or secrets regarding construction, or the use of particular timbers. "The bracing pattern is a bit unique," he modestly states "I've experimented over the years with placement and found a position that suits my tastes. But I think the five-piece neck adds a lot to the tone: it's stronger and it sends better vibrations to the top."

The SJ body shape received a unanimous thumbs-up from everyone who's seen it; it stands for 'small jumbo' and it resembles Martin's OM style, if a little deeper and curvier.

Internally, the work is exceptional, with hand-cut kerfing looking clean as a whistle, with no globs of glue, untidy saw-lines and other evidence of clumsy work. Incidentally, Olson is just a two-man operation producing just 60 or so instruments per year. [Webmaster's note: Olson Guitars is now a one-man operation, producing somewhat more than this amount.]


The five-piece neck sends better vibrations to the guitar's top, says Jim Olson.

Playability

If it's good enough for James Taylor it's good enough for me. Neck dimensions are very standard feeling, with a gentle C-section which is most comfortable. Nut width is 44mm and the strings sit 58mm wide at the bridge, making the perfect finger-picker's guitar. Action, as set, is perfect and the instrument somehow feels very low in string tension; barre chords are easy and single string licks easy to play. Bluesy acoustic bends are a doddle, too.

Sound

Sweet, singing and sustainy are words that instantly come to mind. There's a real warmth to the tone, without mushiness at the bottom but with enough twang in the treble to cut through. It's a fruity sound and one which responds to picking or strumming dynamics exceptionally well.

Compared to the most recent top-end guitars I've played—Collings and Santa Cruz—the Olson has more of a recognisable tone. If I can bring it down the level of electric guitars, the former two are great sounding Teles, whereas the Olson is a beautiful Strat set at position four.

No, i couldn't resist playing my JT repertoire, and it must be said that his style—fingers and the occasional "thumb and back of the nails" strum—offers the perfect combination for the Olson to shine. Of course you could belt out street songs if you so desired, but this guitar cries out for the more sophisticated, subtle player.

JT model SJs come fitted with LR Baggs transducers; very open-sounding and natural, with perhaps the least 'electro-acoustic' sound of any. With no controls on the guitar, you'll have to rely on a good monitor engineer, or invest in one of the many acoustic guitar preamps available. That would help push its rather polite output up a little, too.

Value for Money

Over £4,000 is the asking price of this guitar. Yes, it's an incredible sum, but this is a totally hand-built musical instrument with professionals in mind. Taylor has owned his two for a decade, played them all around the world and Jim Olson tells me they've never needed work. That's some testament.

I've said it before, but I'm going to say it again: find the acoustic guitar of your dreams and it will mature until it's ready to be passed down the family tree. It will earn its keep just by sitting there accruing value but if you want quicker rewards, take it out and make it work for its supper—it'll pay you back with better tone, volume and response. The best flat-tops love to graft and really open up as a result.

Verdict

Jim Olson is proud to say that there's no difference in quality from his most fancy instruments to the most simple. "No, eveny one is built to the same standard, whether it's plain or ornate."

And you don't have to be a James Taylor fan to buy an Olson. Jim has a small range of instruments that can be created to your exact requirements, with stunning inlays and intricate carving and chasing.

But if you do play that general style and can afford the cash, you'll be rewarded with one of the most musical acoustics around. Of course, if you do hanker for the guitar of your hero, you'll be assured of becoming a member of a very small and exceptionally exclusive club.

Olson's 'small jumbo' is a very attractive beast indeed, we say.


The SJ has a cedar top and rosewood back and sides.

Rating

Build Quality: 5 (of 5)
Features: 5
Sound: 5
Value For Money: 4+
Guitarist Says: Exclusive and superb sounding, the Olson does more than just play James Taylor tunes.

Spec Check

Price: £4,177
Origin: USA
Back and sides: Rosewood
Top: Cedar
Neck: Five-piece maple and mahogany
Fingerboard and bridge: Ebony
Nut width: 44mm
Spacing at bridge: 58mm
Body width: 385mm [lower bout]
Body depth: 11Omm [typical; 96mm at neck, 117mm at endpin]
Inlays: Pearl and abalone
Left handers: Yes
Case: Tweed-covered hard case supplied

UK CONTACT:
Soho Soundhouse Ltd
114-116 Charing Cross Road
London WC2H 0DT
Tel: 0171 379 5148