Modern guitar makers, with their fanned frets, all aluminium everything and built-in lights and whistles, have come a long way from their noble origins. The centuries old tradition of guitar building survives, certainly within Spain as much as without, but it has for the most part shied away from the rampant advancement rife among its descendants. California’s Cordoba Guitars, named for a particular southern region in the mother country of the humble axe, has the full breadth of traditional guitar making in its sails, but there is uncharted territory on the map.
Cordoba’s master builders have been plying their trade under that moniker for a relatively short 20 years, several decades shy of many of the company’s peers. However, in that time they have made a strong case for themselves not only among classical and flamenco aficionados but, thanks to mutually beneficial associations with the likes of freak-folk troubadour Jose Gonzales, have turned new sets of eyes onto one of the world’s oldest traditional instruments. With a whole new audience in tow, the company has taken the liberty of expanding their horizon ever so slightly. Open the case of your brand new Leona L9-E model and there’s nothing to indicate to you that you’re looking at anything other than an impeccably crafted, yet innately traditional guitar. Closer inspection reveals that this is the answer to one of the more off kilter questions asked by almost every intrepid young player; what would happen if I put steel strings on my favourite nylon string?
The result is easily one of the most unique and nuanced sounding instruments I’ve ever picked up. For all intents and purposes this is a classical guitar; the fanned bracing inside the mahogany resonating chamber produces a warm, elegant and romantic sonic texture. The body itself is feather light with pinpoint balance across the length evidencing none of the ropey tension normally associated with steel string designs. The velvety darkness of the ebony fretboard accentuates the body’s poetic mood and the simplicity of the rosette and inlays in the fretboard and headstock finish off Leona’s visage with timelessness and grace.
While it may have the majority of its stylistic features plucked from the heart of tradition, its playability is where you start to notice the flickering modernity of the design. The neck shape is like a slimmed down version of the traditional plank many of us learned to play on, meaning that it feels exactly half way between the old and the new. It’s faster than its older cousins in much the same way as a Hummingbird or Jumbo is but it retains that stern, unforgiving, old-world grip that makes you climb across the fretboard the way the masters did and do. The added convenience of ever-trustworthy Grover Sta-Tite tuners coupled with a Fishman-designed Sonitone pre-amp make it as ready for a Barcelona street corner as any stage or studio.
The combination of rounded, cello-like tonality and crisp, steely brightness makes the Leona L9-E as astoundingly unique to listen to, as it is to play. I must admit I was blindsided by the assumption that it was ‘just another classical guitar’ when I pulled it out of the case. Cordoba, a young company handcrafting instruments with antique flair, have blown that lazy misconception out of the water with one of the most unique, interesting and satisfying guitars I’ve played in a while.
Hits and Misses
Unique, romantic voicing and impeccable and reliable craftsmanship.
Pick-up could have more control over the phase.