Freshwater Bouzouki- a review…

I ordered a Bouzouki from Dave Freshwater- one of the accord range, with pick-up. You can read Dave’s info on this instrument here. I have now had the instrument a few months, and thought it was time to commit myself to a review.

I have a Freshwater mandolin- a beautiful thing, and loved the idea that I would be ordering something handmade in Scotland.

I had also considered Moon, Buchanan and Fylde. However, all of these wonderful luthiers turn out instruments that command prices of double the cost that Dave charges for his accord range.

What you are buying is a handmade instrument at roughly the same cost of many factory produced Korean bouzoukis. This is remarkable.

So- how was it?

Quality and workmanship… 7/10

Well, both are good. The instrument looks great, is well finished, and made from fine tone woods. The pick up is of low quality, but works well- there is some ‘live’ noise from the body of the instrument as you play, but I quite like the percussive effect that this gives to what is after all a rhythm instrument.

The floating bridge is set up at an acute angle (when aligned with the marks placed by Dave on the soundboard) and I questioned this at first, but Dave assures me that this is correct.

The sound board marks very easily. Already it has scratches from my plectrum.

The stick-on freshwater logo’s are a bit low rent, but look better on this than on my mandolin. Machine heads smooth and decent, tailpiece will work with ball and loop strings. Frets dressed OK.

Playability… 5/10

Dave telephoned to ask what kind of set up I required- based on whether it would be played hard or more sensitively. I can be hard on my guitar at times so opted for the same. He gave instructions as to how to change the set up if required.

However, when the instrument arrived, it was unplayable for any length of time because the action was very high. The intonation was also affected, and I spent some time trying to compensate for this with different bridge settings.

A phone call to Dave was not very helpful- he told me that the instrument had been checked by a musician prior to being sent, and was fine. I am not sure what kind of musician. I also wonder whether Dave has a good understanding of how best to set up his instruments.

I have now lowered the bridge significantly. THERE IS NO TRUSS ROD, so this is the only way you can change the action of the instrument. (I knew this before ordering- so no complaints there…) The instrument now plays much better- although I will still lower it further I think.

The other thing that takes some getting used to is the neck- it is very thick and round. Perhaps it needs this bulk to remain stable without a truss rod? I am used to playing a Taylor profiled guitar, and this is very different. However- it is something I find myself warming to, as it shapes the hands for slide chords nicely.

I use doubled strings, tuned to DADG. I have not tried octaves yet.

Sound 7/10

This is a small bodied instrument, and so played acoustically, it projects thinly- but it has warmth and sustain.

Plugged in it has some power. If you are used to guitar playing, this will make a sound that you will easily appreciate as providing something different and useable.

Experience of buying from Freshwater 3/10

I am afraid things did not go very well here. I ordered the instrument online around my birthday in February. The estimate of delivery time was 6 weeks. It took much longer- about 6 months. I made several calls to chase it up, and even considered canceling my order. Dave described waiting for machine heads- this for a number of weeks.

The original payment (made by card) did not go through. I checked if all was in order, but although Dave had the order, it later transpired he had no money- all a bit confusing, and I wonder if he thought I was trying to rip him off.

When the instrument was delivered, it was entrusted to a courier who could not find our address. Dave made several calls about this, appearing to be very irritated with us for living in such a difficult place to find.

I ordered a case for the instrument- paying quite a lot extra. When it came it was a cheap guitar case that did not fit at all. I sent it back- again this involved some terse e-mails. There then followed a few phone calls to make sure that the money was returned- including some rather bad tempered answering machine messages.

To do Dave credit- he did try to ring me persistently to resolve any issues. However, this amounted to several calls a day at one point- and it felt quite intimidating.

I have no clear idea of the size of Dave’s operation, but suspect that it could do with some fine tuning- both in terms of logistics and customer relations!

Overall conclusion

This instrument is a significant improvement on the mass produced Korean imports. It has character and if you get the set up right, is fun to play.

If you are a guitar player looking to diversify, or want to move up from some of those awful Ozarks, it is well worth a try. You may need some patience, but hopefully it will be rewarded!

28 thoughts on “Freshwater Bouzouki- a review…

  1. Woah nice review!

    I’ve been window shopping for a mandolin on a budget for some time and the name Freshwater always comes up. I bought a Fylde octave mandola at a great price and it’s the best thing I’ve ever purchased. After extensive reserach nearly everyone I talked to said “If you’re on a budget, buy a Fylde”. It may cost just a wee bit more but it’s so worth it.

    I heard that Freshwater instruments can be REALLY inconsistent in quality but sometimes you can get lucky. I’m not that much of a gamblin man so I won’t take the risk, I can’t afford to.

    I think I’m going to bide my time and wait for a Fylde to come up, second hand if need be.

    Again well done on writing a fairly comprehensive review. You just helped make my mind up!

    All the best

  2. I bought a Freshwater Bouzouki about 8 years ago and the action was high although it has a good tone – lowering the bridge to get an action I like result in some fret buzzing when you capo so its not easy to get the right balance. I’ve recently bought a Buchanan cittern through the Music Room in Cleackheaton (Tuned GDAEB) and this is a superb instrument in terms of the sustain, action and finish. When you use a capo, the action is still excellent and with no fret buzzing . Buchanans do cost slightly more but you get an excellent instrument for the price which compares well with those costing much more – they are definitely worth considering.

  3. I also had a six month wait for an Octave Mandola the delay was the machine heads also. Dave insisted that I purchse a hard case to protect the instrument while in transit due to his insurance company refusing to cover the instrument should it be damaged – the instrument arrived in a carboard board box covered in newspapers, that was 12 months ago and the case has not arrived yet.

  4. Hi, I recently bought a freshwater bouzouki (I had similar issues with long delivery). Now that I have it I find the action pretty high on the lower strings (thinner strings), I seem to have to press pretty hard to get them down and they cut into my fingers quite a bit – could you explain how you lowered your bridge? Did you just move it around or did you have to file it lower?

    • Hi there

      What I did was to take the bridge plastic bridge insert out and sand it down- care fully and over a long period of time! Make a pencil line about a mm from the base, and sand to that, then try the action again. Mine is better now, but I thought I would still take it down a little more, I just never got round to it! If you take it down too much, you will have buzzing strings, which sound dreadful. You can always get a new bridge piece and cut it to size.

      In fact, it might be better to get a bridge insert, and cut this one to a smaller size for comparison? Ebay do such things…

      It might be worth trying some lighter gauge strings too- but then you might have intonation issues?

      Alternatively, and if in any doubt- take it to a music shop and ask them to recommend a technician! Not sure where you are, but if you are in the UK, try one of the Hobgoblin shops?

      Good luck- I’d love to hear how you get on?

      Cheers

      Chris

      • Hi there,

        Thanks for the reply and advice 🙂

        I’m not 100% sure what you mean when you say plastic bridge insert though, as far as I can see my bridge seems to be made out of wood and maybe stained in something black. Did you basically sand the bottom of the bridge and leave the top (where the strings contact) alone?

        I have a stand-up belt sander so I could probably sand the bottom of the bridge and keep it nice and flat without too much trouble…

        cheers

        A

  5. Hmmm- does your bridge not have a plastic insert that the strings are seated on then? Mind does because it has a piezo pick up. COuld be that yours does not, and if it is a solid one (usually a hard dark wood like ebony) then your only choice is to shave the bottom of the bridge as you say. But a belt sander might be a bit too efficient! might be better to so it by hand with a couple of different grades of paper.

    Check if the sound board of the instrument has a curve to it though- if it has, the only way I know of doing it is to lay a cloth over the sound board, then lay the sandpaper on top of this, and sand carefully.

    Cheers

    Chris

  6. Chris,
    Coincidentally(or not!) I had much the same problems as you. I ordered and paid upfront by credit card at the start of July 2009 for an Octave Mandola which Dave told me would take approximately nine weeks to complete. It was delivered to my door yesterday,24th November which was about a week short of five months! When I enquired on a number of occasions as to the delay I was told about waiting for machine heads,the recession,the postal strike….. I had similar problems with the courier in that the item was held up in Stansted Airport by customs(the couriers explanation let it be said),then they told me that it was in Ireland,later they told me that it would be shipped tomorrow and on and on ad nauseam frustrationem!
    However I dont have any complaints as regards the instrument,it is beautifully made and the sound is excellent. As it was built to my own spec it would have been difficult to get a perfect case for it short of having one specially (and expensively!) made,but Dave supplied a nice case I have to say,into which the instrument fits snugly,and offers good protection. I think your complaint about the Freshwater logo is nonsensical as this is purely cosmetic and in actual fact Dave was good enough to carve quite tastefully my own personalised number at the back of the headstock.
    Tony.

    • Glad you got sorted in the end Tony.

      The freshwater logo, for anyone who is not sure, is a sticker- applied over the lacquer. I do not know any other manufacturers/luthiers who use this method.

  7. Good, fair review. Not having a truss rod has made my mind up about these instruments; I think I’ll steer clear of Freshwater.

    Re lowering a solid bridge. I know this is a bit late in the day but I had to do this when I fitted a Fishman bridge/pickup to my mandolin. It’s quite simple really. Take your sand paper and hold or tape it to the soundboard at the area the bridge will be and then gradually sand the bottom of the bridge by moving it back and forth. It will take on the contour of the soundboard. Work slowly and methodically checking the fit occassionaly. This method works particularly well on carved tops but will also suit a flat top instrument.

  8. Experience of buying from Freshwater refers: I would agree with most of Chris Goan’s experience in his dealings with Dave but I did get a nice Octave Mandola sound wise but not having any experience of the mandolin family I did not notice little flaws and different fretboard material until 6 months later. Dave did offer to take the instrument back but having waited 12 months to receive it and a further 6 to 8 months learning to play the latter would have been a waist of my time and effort. I did not find him intimidating, perhaps a little grumpy on one occasion.

  9. 6 week item that was delivered in 7.5 months, without the case. For legal reasons I will not comment on the product. However I will say that I wish I had ordered elsewhere and that I will never do business with this person again.

  10. Caveat emptor! I wouldn’t ever go back to Freshwater.
    In this world you get what you pay for. If it seems to good to be true, it probably is. Had I known at the time, I would have saved my money and invested in e.g. a Moon or Fylde.

  11. I find it kind of depressing that I every review I’ve read so far has been from customers with exactly the same experience as mine. I spent over £700 on a top end bouzouki from Dave Freshwater and, surprise, surprise, it didn’t arrive for another 9 months. As the months went by I began to think the same thing that a lot of you also might have felt – that I’d been suckered. He should just say up front “this will take at least 6 months”

    After the months passed I too got various excuses (including the machine heads one – coming from Japan supposedly). When It finally did arrive I was disappointed by the build quality and the playability but I’d waited so long for it I couldn’t stand the thought of sending it back. The cheap pickup system packed in 3 months later and I had to get a friend to drop it in to Daves workshop in Inverness to have it replaced and then collect it for me. To be fair Dave did pick up that I was unhappy – especially with the intonation higher up the neck which was always off despite trying different strings. He offered to swop my bouzouki for a cittern but , again, I was determined to make it work. Unfortunately, the clothes pole neck made playing for any length of time painful. (I’d been playing guitar for years so its wasn’t just lack of callouses or strength in my fingers. ) I played it less and less and eventually looked at it with a mixture of irritation and regret. I sold it for less than half the money I paid which was all it was really worth.

    • Hi there

      Sorry that you have had so many problems… I was going to suggest lowering the action in the way that I did, but you perhaps did the right thing and called it a day…

      Cheers

      Chris

  12. For anyone now looking at this thread, you should know that Dave Freshwater has gone out of business. I was waiting 7 months for a 10 string Bouzouki had a miriad of excuses and ended up with no instrument and out of pocket.
    I don’t know if i will ever trust anyone to make an instrument for me in the future, but if I do it will be in a long time.
    I am severly hacked off!!

    yours,

    James Stiles

    • Sorry to hear that James- a cruel blow indeed. I wonder whether Dave will be back in business under some other umbrella? It seems my comments on his business acumen are proved rather too accurate. hope you manage to get hold of another bouzouki…

  13. Thanks Chris, there is still a possibility that I may get some/all of the money back if I do I will probably buy an instrument from a shop. I wish that I had read these discussions before paying.
    All the best

    James

    • Folks – it is official. David Freshwater has been declared bankrupt as of 11 August 2011. Anyone owed money should get in touch with the undernoted: –

      Case Ref: 2011/12677

      Trustee details
      Date appointed: 11/08/2011
      Name: Rosemary Winter-Scott
      Company Name: Accountant In Bankruptcy
      Address: 1, Pennyburn Road, KILWINNING, Ayrshire, KA13 6SA
      Phone number: 0300 200 2600
      Email: AiBenquiries@aib.gsi.gov.uk

      Trustees Agent: Lynne Flower
      Company Name: KPMG
      Address: Department 811, 191 PO Box 26967, West George Street, GLASGOW, G2 9DX
      Phone number: 0141 300 5888
      Email: aib@kpmg.co.uk

  14. I own a Freshwater cittern, which to be honest I bought the easy way – off eBay. It’s good but the price I paid for it – under £300 – seems about right to me, as it was intended as an experiment. I restrung it as a ten string guitar to give the guitar fingering with a lighter more bouzouki sound. The neck is heavier than my bouzouki, but after a lifetime of playing guitar, especially folk tunes at high speed it makes absolutely no difference to me. Compared to my 12 string it’s thin! There’s a good low action but a slight buzz on higher frets which is down to the cheap bridge; a bone bridge is being made as we speak by a local Luthier. It’s a nice instrument which polishes up well, and in my current group it makes a nice difference from the other stringed instruments. Maybe I’m remiss but I didn’t lose any sleep over the logo, especially as there’s a nice leather and gold one at the other end… Incidentally the machine heads are a nice quality too. Just in case you were wondering….

  15. Colin

    I got a decent cittern a number of years ago as well, – Its been a great servant. Incidentally would you happen to know what the make of machine head is that Dave Freshwater used as i’m keen to get the same ones to replace a couple of faulty ones if possible.

  16. I do have good closeup photos if they’re any use, you could try posting them? I suppose if you already have some then you could post those and see who recognises them?

  17. I only wish that I had read all of these comments before I bought my Freshwater mandolin. My experience reflects everything that has been said here. Ordered in September 2010 on a 11 week maximum build. Arrived in February (machine heads, weather and so on). Nut set too high and reset by violin repairer enough to make it playable. I originally decided upon this maker because I had played a much older model which I thought was very good. This isn’t as good but maybe needs time to mature. Yet it seems that I may have been the lucky one with the whole business going down not long after I received mine. The lesson is never, ever buy something that you can’t see or play and never, ever pay the whole amount up front. I have since bought a Mawby at a folk festival having chatted with the luthier and spent some considerable time playing the instrument. This instrument was approximately the same price but the whole thing is a better class in regards to sound, build, finish, playability etc.

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