Acoustic-electric guitars might offer modern conveniences such as built-in preamps and tuners, sleek necks, and smooth cutaways, but played unplugged they tend to sound less robust than their fully acoustic, non-cutaway counterparts. That’s why it’s so satisfying to play Ortega Guitar’s RCE159MN, which, although incorporating all of these features, has a surprisingly full unamplified sound—at a wallet-friendly price.
Since 1994, Germany-based Ortega has offered a range of nylon-strings, among other fretted instruments, many of them reevaluating traditional aspects of the classical guitar. The RCE159MN is made from the time-honored tonewood combination of a solid cedar soundboard and rosewood back and sides, mated to a mahogany neck with a 650-millimeter scale-length rosewood fretboard.
Departing from tradition, the guitar has a Venetian cutaway, with a nut width of 48 millimeters; the neck is slightly narrower than on a standard classical guitar; and it has a two-way adjustable truss rod instead of none at all. The instrument’s electronics package, the MagusPro-NL pickup and preamp system, is another obvious departure from tradition. Subtler deviations include a 12-hole bridge, said to enhance the guitar’s sound and tuning stability while making it easier to change the strings, and positional side dots on the neck, like on a standard steel-string or electric guitar.
The RCE159MN is a handsome guitar. Its distinctive rosette, concentric rings of rosewood and mother-of-pearl studded with a wing-like maple motif, offers a nice counterpoint to the cedar soundboard, with its warm reddish hue. The rosewood
Overall, the craftsmanship on our review model is good. The guitar’s finish is cleanly executed, save for a hint of sloppiness at the neck-to-the body junction; the binding is tight and flush with the body. Inside the box, everything is tidy, without any unwanted artifacts from the manufacturing process. The frets could’ve been more smoothly crowned and polished at the factory, but a good luthier or repair tech could address this. And the tuning machines don’t have the smoothest action, but they could be swapped out easily enough.
Warmly Voiced and Highly Versatile
It’s a breeze to play the RCE159MN. The MN in the name stands for medium neck, and, relative to a typical classical neck, it does indeed feel streamlined in its width and profile, but not overly so. The guitar is intonated perfectly, and the notes on all 19 frets ring clear and true, with impressive sustain and without unwanted buzzing.
The guitar has a lovely voice. Overall it sounds warm, slightly dark, and full; it has a very good balance between registers as well. Though not necessarily a concert instrument, it lends itself to a range of repertoire. Whether I play Lily Afshar’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 or Frederic Hand’s “Late One Night,” the guitar feels both responsive and forgiving of momentary lapses of technique. Likewise, the RCE159MN works well for an arrangement of jazz pianist Bill Evans’ “Turn Out the Stars,” as cluster-voiced chords have good definition and note separation. It sounds terrific for comping on a bossa number like Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Este Seu Olhar.” In a different direction, the guitar has a vigorous sound when subjected to single-note improvisations played with a plectrum.
Like many acoustic-electrics, the MagusPro-NL preamp, which Ortega designed in-house, is installed on the side of the guitar: not the most aesthetically pleasing solution. But the system is optimized for the nylon strings, and plugged into a Fender Acoustasonic amplifier it sounds clean and natural. As a bonus, the built-in tuner is illuminated only when it’s switched on, and it’s easy to read. On the screen, Ortega’s O logo turns green when the string is in tune: a cool detail in a smart modern nylon-string that’s filled with neat flourishes.
Classical cutaway; solid Canadian cedar top; rosewood back and sides; gloss finish