When Santa Cruz Guitar Company cofounder Richard Hoover began building guitars in the mid-1970s, one of his early designs was an instrument that combined comfortable, compact curves akin to Gibson’s J-185 mini-jumbo with the complex voice and craftsmanship that were already Santa Cruz signatures.
The fruit of that fusion, the Model F, has been a staple in Santa Cruz’s lineup ever since. And the classic body shape has inspired many contemporary boutique luthiers, making it a blueprint for one of today’s most popular custom guitar designs. We recently received a customized (with maple back and sides instead of Indian rosewood; a cutaway; and L.R. Baggs iMix electronics) version of this guitar and were eager to see how this Santa Cruz classic sounds in its mostly maple guise.
The Santa Cruz F we checked out is a striking instrument. The beautifully balanced curves of the mini-jumbo form are accented and updated with the addition of a Venetian cutaway, and the pale Sitka spruce top is set off by a tortoise pickguard and an ebony bridge, headstock, and fretboard. The gorgeous flamed-maple back and sides have incredible depth and texture but give the guitar a light and airy appearance. The F body’s construction, as you’d expect from a Santa Cruz, is clean and flawless inside and out.
COMFY, CLEAR AS A BELL
With a 16-inch lower bout, the F isn’t a small-bodied guitar, but it’s very comfortable, due in part to the guitar’s light weight. The one-piece maple neck has a rounded profile that feels substantial without being too thick. The 3/32-inch action on the low E at the 12th fret facilitates fast fingering, and to say my fingers glided across the fretboard would be no exaggeration.
Maple has a reputation for a bright sound. It’s commonly used for jazz guitars, and the F’s tonal signature often tends in that direction—the tone is round and slightly mellow, with warm basses and smooth, fat trebles. Rather than adding high-end sizzle, the maple adds an element of clarity, and it is easy to hear each note’s contribution to a chord. The sound has a certain dryness compared to a typical rosewood guitar, without the woody quality associated with mahogany. The result is a versatile and balanced instrument that could work well in many different musical styles.
Struck by the Santa Cruz’s balance of warmth and clarity, I was compelled to play jazzy chord melody pieces that took advantage of that combination. But it was also a pleasure to strum first-position chords, and the guitar shone when fingerpicked in alternate tunings, even when tuned down to a low C.
With their bright, focused tones, maple guitars have a reputation for recording well. The F was no exception, and microphones captured its clear voice very well. The resulting recordings featured basses that were rich without being boomy and trebles that were crisp without being thin.
iMIX IN THE MIX
In addition to having a compelling acoustic sound, our review model was equipped with an L.R. Baggs stereo iMix system, which combines an Element undersaddle pickup with an iBeam soundboard pickup and active electronics. Two small, unobtrusive controls inside the soundhole enable easy volume and balance adjustments. Additional controls—for switching between stereo and mono and for fine-tuning the pickups’ gain, tone, and phase—are arrayed on the preamp itself and accessible through the soundhole. The entire assembly is mounted within the guitar’s body, which requires no irreversible modifications and appears almost invisible.
Listening with my studio monitors, I immediately recognized the sound of the Element, with its beefy bass response, and was impressed by how the iBeam captured the F’s tonal details. Recording in stereo with the individual transducer signals slightly panned produced a robust and natural sound. Switching to mono and an AER AcoustiCube amp, I quickly found a very satisfying tone by starting with the Element and raising the level of the iBeam to add some “air” as well as some of the Model F’s maple character and body.
Luxurious, a joy to play, and an absolute knockout looker, the Santa Cruz F is the rare guitar that can leave fingerstylists and strummers beaming. And by equipping this versatile and timeless design with the state-of-the-art iMix system, Santa Cruz has crafted a formidable tool for a performing guitarist. Although there are more choices than ever in the mini-jumbo category—from mainstream manufacturers to boutique builders—the Santa Cruz F is truly distinctive for its uncompromising quality, beauty, and genuine versatility.