Cort CJ Retro
By Phil O'Keefe |
Cort CJ Retro
Does this acoustic-electric's value match its jumbo size and cool vintage vibe?
by Phil O'Keefe
Once upon a time an inexpensive acoustic guitar was really not something you'd wish upon anyone - especially not someone that you cared about who was just starting out on their guitar playing journey. Many a neophyte guitarist has been turned off by instruments that simply were too difficult for them to play because of high action or large, clubby necks. Fortunately, those days are behind us, and today, even relatively inexpensive models can provide you with not only a highly playable instrument to learn on, but also half-way decent sound quality and even built-in electronics so you can use the instrument for live performance once your skills have sufficiently improved. Case in point - the new Cort CJ Retro. Cort has expanded their CJ series of jumbo-sized acoustic guitars with this new and more affordable offering. The CJ Retro also sports some interesting cosmetic twists that make it stand out from other models in that series, and the end result will appeal not only to beginners and intermediate-level players, but possibly to some more advanced musicians too. Let's have a look at some of the reasons for that.
What You Need To Know
- The latest addition to Cort's CJ series of jumbo-sized acoustic guitars, the CJ Retro has a large body (16.25" wide at its widest point, and 4.92" deep at its thickest point) that is obviously inspired by other big-bodied acoustic guitars such as the classic Super Jumbos.
- Only one finish color is offered - a dark sunburst that Cort calls Vintage Sunburst Matt. The finish is matte all the way around, from the top to the back, and including the neck.
- The top is laminated spruce. The top layer of the spruce laminate is smooth, and there is some slight grain and silking visible, but no open pores. The black part of the dark sunburst covers the majority of the top, with a nicely done "fade" to the lighter areas toward the bridge and soundhole, which are more of a lighter brown on the review model than the more yellowish shade shown in some of the Cort website photos.
- The body's back and sides are made of laminated mahogany. The top layer of the laminate is finished without the use of grain filler, so there's considerable grain and open pores visible in the wood's satin mahogany finish, as well as some attractive figuring that adds to the guitar's visual appeal.
- Both the top and back of the CJ Retro are bound with white and black plastic binding. The CJ Retro's soundhole rosette decal has a similar appearance, with alternating rings of white and black.
- The bridge is made out of merbau wood, a species that, like rosewood, is considered threatened, but it was no doubt selected due to the lack of any current restrictions on its importation. The bridge has been stained in a way that makes it look very similar to rosewood.
- The CJ Retro has a compensated saddle. The bridge pins are white plastic with black dots.
- The white truss rod cover and pickguard really jump out at you - I suspect people will either love or hate that aspect of the design, but I think it adds to the vintage look of the guitar; it kind of reminds me of some old Harmony and Stella guitars in that respect, although the Cort CJ Retro is a much more modern and better-built instrument than any Harmony I've played.
- The neck is mahogany. It is attached with a dovetail joint, and it meets the body at the 14th fret. There are a total of 20 frets, which are vintage sized.
- The CJ Retro's scale length is 25.5". The neck measures 43mm (1 11/16") wide at the nut, and is 0.825" (20.95mm) thick at the first fret. It has a very comfortable c-shaped profile, with a slim and fast feel that many beginners and folks with smaller hands will appreciate.
- The headstock is adorned with a simple diamond emblem and the Cort logo - both appear to be decals, as opposed to inlays.
- The neck is bound, with black side dot position markers on one side. The frets are installed over the binding.
- The fretboard is also made out of merbau. It's an attractive wood that has a look that is slightly reminiscent of rosewood, but it's lighter, with even more prominent (and darker colored) grain and pores, giving the fretboard of the CJ Retro a very cool and distinctive look.
- The CJ Retro comes equipped with light gauge (.012-.053) D'Addario EXP16 phosphor-bronze strings. Since these are coated strings they will tend to last longer than traditional strings, which means the guitar keeps sounding good for longer, and won't require a string change as quickly as a guitar with uncoated strings would - all of which is beneficial for a beginning guitarist.
- Another nice vintage-inspired touch are the double rectangle fret position inlays. Cort says that they were specifically designed for the CJ Retro, and they really do look like something you'd see on a fifty year old guitar, even though it is a brand new design created specifically for this guitar. The material looks like mother of pearl, but it is most likely acrylic.
- The tuners are open-backed and have off-white colored buttons - both of which add to the retro vibe. the gear ratio isn't mentioned on the Cort website, but from my testing it appears to be roughly 18:1. I've always been a bit wary of open-backed tuners, but these seem to operate smoothly, and the CJ Retro's tuning stability is good.
- The Cort CJ Retro is a acoustic-electric guitar, and comes equipped with a Fishman Neo D magnetic acoustic pickup mounted across the soundhole, and Fishman VTB active preamp.
- The three controls for the Fishman VTB preamp are top-mounted. The three controls allow you to adjust the volume as well as treble and bass, and they come equipped with amber "top hat" style knobs.
- The electronics are powered by a 9V battery. The battery compartment is located on the side of the guitar towards the rear; not too far from the strap button. This is also where you'll find the CJ Retro's output jack. Not having to reach inside the guitar to change the battery is always a plus in this reviewer's opinion.
- The Fishman pickup and electronics sound good and work well together. They give the CJ Retro live performance and direct recording capabilities that many entry and intermediate level acoustic guitars lack.
- Two of the open-backed tuners (the one for the low E string, and especially the one for the G string) were mounted crookedly compared to the others. They still work fine, and you probably won't notice when looking at the guitar from the front, but when viewed from the rear, it's fairly obvious.
- The tone of guitars that are made with laminated wood (like the CJ Retro) usually does not improve as much with age as the sound of guitars made from solid woods do.
- Laminated wood tops don't resonate as freely as solid wood tops do. While it is a surprisingly good sounding guitar with an attractive and loud voice, the CJ Retro still retains some of the tonal characteristics of a laminated wood guitar, which will make it less desirable to more advanced players who are looking for a higher-end instrument.
- Unlike some acoustic-electric instruments, there is no tuner built into the electronics - beginners should budget for a stand-alone or clip-on electronic guitar tuner to go along with their new CJ Retro. And don't forget to pick up a bag or case for it too - neither is included with the CJ Retro.
The visual appeal of this guitar is very strong. Not only the overall retro vibe, but also the appearance of the wood and the overall approach to the finish that Cort decided on - it's a satin finish and it's still laminated wood, but the top layers actually look quite nice, and the sunburst finish is very attractive. However, the laminated construction is probably the guitar's biggest limitation - unlike guitars with a solid wood top, the tone of the CJ Retro is probably not going to change for the better in any significant way as time passes. There is a touch of the restrained and constricted sound to the tone that one often associates with guitars that use laminates, especially laminated tops like the CJ Retro has, with more of the note fundamental present and fewer complex overtones. Still, don't discount laminates entirely - they can be made to sound nice (as is the case here) and they have significant durability advantages. Because of that, the Cort CJ Retro is a good choice not only for a beginner who may not know (or may not be consistent about) the details and importance of taking care of a solid-wood guitar, but also for intermediate players looking for their first acoustic-electric, and even for more experienced players who want a nice playing, loud, and decent sounding knockabout guitar for campfire sing-alongs and trips to the park, beach, desert, or other environmentally challenging locations. If you want a similar guitar with a solid wood top, check out the other guitars in Cort's CJ Series - the CJ1F NS and the CJ3V. Both feature solid spruce tops.
The sample CJ Retro that I was sent to check out plays surprisingly well, and required zero adjustment. It was ready to be played, straight out of the shipping box - and that's important for beginning players who really don't know what to seek in terms of playability. The action is neither too high or too low, and the intonation was good too - no doubt helped by Cort's decision to use a compensated bridge. While the tuners look like they were installed in a hurry and without much consideration for their alignment, they work smoothly and the guitar stays in tune reasonably well, which will also be beneficial for beginners. And the tuning key misalignment was really the only thing about the construction that bothered me - outside of that, the guitar seems to be well built.
I let a few of my guitar-playing friends try the Cort CJ Retro and asked them what they thought. Everyone said it was a nice playing and attractive looking instrument with an appealing sound and loud voice. One guessed it was priced in the $500 range, while another thought it was probably closer to $600 - which is twice as much as the CJ Retro's actual MSRP. Translation: The Cort CJ Retro represents a very good value. While it is definitely priced towards the affordable end of the price range, it isn't cheap - it's not going to handicap beginners with extra challenges as they're trying to learn how to play. If you are looking for a first guitar (either for yourself or as a gift for someone else), your first acoustic-electric guitar, or just a guitar that you can take practically anywhere and not have to worry too much about it, it's definitely worthy of your consideration. I'm more than a little tempted to purchase the review unit for myself - yes, I've become rather attached to this guitar, and that's always a good sign. If you get one, I suspect you'll quickly be won over by its charms too. -HC-
Want to discuss the Cort CJ Retro acoustic electric guitar or have questions or comments about this review? Then head over to this thread in the Acoustic Guitar forum right here on Harmony Central and join the discussion!
Cort CJ Retro jumbo acoustic-electric guitar ($299.99 MSRP, $289.89 "street")
Cort's product web page
You can purchase the Cort CJ Retro from:
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.