Mike Oria Palen

Recently, I took delivery of a very special custom archtop built by Nelson Palen. His instruments are sold exclusively through Lou Del Rosso at Guitars N Jazz (Summit, NJ)http://guitarsnjazz.com/ – more about Lou later. I have read reviews from those who buy a new guitar and are so excited about their purchase, the newness, the anticipation, etc, their critique becomes wrought with exaggeration and hype. On the day I received my new Palen guitar, I knew I wanted to do just that, however, I’ve restrained myself for 5 months in order to properly get acquainted with this instrument and allow it some time to open up and tell me its story.

Almost two years ago, I switched from playing 6-string to 7-string, which sadly rendered all my treasured archtop guitars obsolete. I owned a Gibson ES-175, a vintage Guild X-500, an ’80’s Benedetto Manhattan, and an Eastman; I knew they all had to go the first time I plucked a low A string with my thumb…heaven! We 7-stringers are painfully aware that the market for our instrument is so small that shopping for a guitar is often limited to a tiny population of stringed candidates, usually via the internet. It is thus unreasonable to expect to walk into a music store and find even a single 7-string archtop to play, certainly not here in northern CA.

My friend and fine NJ-area jazz guitarist, John Zweig, suggested I check out Palen; John owns several Palens himself, and has owned scores of fine guitars through the years, including the aforementioned Benedetto. I knew his recommendation was solid, so I contacted Lou to place an order. A modest deposit ($500) got me in line for a custom Palen guitar – no more money would be due until the guitar was ready to ship, AND it carried a full money back guarantee. Wow, that definitely removed the risk of buying sight unseen! I sent him my preferences, including neck dimensions, wood choices, color swatches, etc, and then prepared to curb my excitement for the next several months. Periodically, I would receive email updates and a photo from Nelson Palen showing his progress. As it started to take shape, I began to understand his commitment to quality; Nelson is a very meticulous person and not only wants to do a job well, he is intent on establishing reproducible protocols along the way, as if to tighten up his process for subsequent instruments. I suspect that each batch of Palen guitars gets better and better.

Nelson designed a unique new 7-string headstock, which I immediately loved, as it reminded me of the graceful style of Jimmy D’Aquisto. I asked for curly Hawaiian Koa appointments (headstock and binding), my favorite wood from my favorite place. He was most accommodating. Nelson even had Kent Armstrong build the exact pickup I wanted and waited for it to arrive before constructing the guitar’s X-bracing to optimally surround the pickup routing.

Now let me say a few words about Lou Del Rosso. My business brought me to New Jersey at one point last year, and though my free time would be limited to a single evening, I phoned Lou, hoping to have a chance to meet him in person. It was late, but he offered to wait for me at his shop. I braved a severe rainstorm on the NJ turnpike and finally arrived in Summit, NJ, where Lou patiently invited me to try every guitar and amp he had. Lou keeps an amazing array of high end jazz guitars on hand. I got to play several Palens, including those personally owned by our mutual friend John (he had dropped his off earlier that day). I only needed to play one note to know that I had made the right decision about ordering a Palen…but I played a few more anyway. Meeting Lou was like visiting a dear friend. He even treated me to dinner afterward!

Fast forward to June of this year. My own Palen was completed, and Lou sent it out for a professional set-up before shipping it to me. I removed the case from the box and eagerly unlatched it. I was not nervous; I already knew this would be something very special. Viola! It looked spectacular in every way. He nailed the honey amber finish I had requested. The flamed woods were breathtaking. The finely shaped ebony fittings exuded a supreme level of quality. The frets were precisely crowned and polished. I tuned it up and played the first chord. This guitar was alive. The acoustic sound was big and pleasing. I immediately perceived the qualities that set this one apart from other guitars I have known: a long and pleasing sustain, and an incredible sensitivity to even the most lightly plucked note. Amplified, it likewise did not fail to impress, as I heard the very sound I had been hearing in my head; it was pleasantly warm and mellow with a clear attack.

I have been selectively gigging with my Palen 7, dubbed by Nelson, “The Koa Konstrictor”, and am very happy to own it. Here she is!

-Mike Oria