An Evaluation of a Denny Zager Acoustic Guitar

 by Craig 'Lumpy' Lemke MA, BSEd

I had the occasion to evaluate a Denny Zager steel string
acoustic on November 8, 2005. This guitar was brought to
my studio for an evaluation of buzzing and to assess the
need for humidification. It was Denny and Dennis Zager
that recommended the owner have it evaluated for humidification.
They didn't recommend me or any particular person. I am simply
a guitar teacher and humidifier vendor that lives near the
owner of the guitar. I spent about 1.5 hours with the guitar.

I've seen questions and comments on Zager guitars
in various newsgroups. Here's some of my observations
about the Zager guitar brought to my studio.

The Zager guitar is a steel string acoustic. About
2 months old. Purchase cost, $800 not including case.

This is an Asian built Sigma guitar. Identical to the
Sigma's that CF Martin sells. It is rebranded with the
Denny Zager logo on the headstock and decal.

It's essentially a pretty well built laminated guitar
with a solid top. This one was a cutaway and had some
well done purfling around the edge of the top.

Generally speaking, a well built guitar. Insert a disclaimer
here. I'm a CF Martin dealer. I don't sell their guitars,
Sigma or otherwise. I sell Martin strings. My loyalty to
Martin extends simply to the fact that I like and USE
their strings. If I liked some other strings better,
I would be a dealer for the other guys. So my comments
about the Sigma really have nothing to do with my
association with Martin as a company.

Denny Zager does a setup on the guitars before he
ships them. He gives that a name he calls "EZ-Play".
In theory, this is the same setup that we all should
be getting ONCE WE OWN THE GUITAR. I emphasize the
"once we own" part because...Zager does the setup in
Nebraska. Then the guitar ships to you, wherever you
live. The shipping, and then the acclimation to YOUR
climate, playing style etc all affect that setup and
might render it essentially useless. You should have
the setup done locally, by someone that knows your
playing style, string gauge etc.

OK, now my observations on Denny's "setup".

Frets (See the image below) -
Denny has filed the frets with a flat file. That's the first step in a fret leveling job. BUT -
he hasn't completed the job. The treble and bass ends of the frets are all FLAT.
He hasn't recrowned the frets to their half round shape.
So the 1st, 2nd, 5th and 6th strings all fret to a FLAT topped fret,
not a properly rounded fret. That caused the guitar
to buzz and it would NOT intonate properly.

Poorly filed frets, NOT CROWNED, on the Zager guitar.

Closeup of the treble side of the Denny Zager filed frets

Non-Crowned frets, filed square (incorrectly) by Denny Zager

Bridge/Saddle - The bridge had a plastic, drop in,
intonated saddle. Standard Martin/Sigma part. But
the saddle was canted FORWARD toward the headstock
by perhaps 10 degrees. Ideally it should be straight
up and down (zero cant) or even better, canted BACK
by perhaps 5 degrees, toward the bridge pins.

We loosened the strings and pulled the saddle.
There is a Fishman undersaddle pickup AND there
is a 1/32" plastic shim UNDER the pickup element.
The plastic shim appears to be a piece of plastic
wire tie. The thickness of the shim PLUS the thickness
of the transducer caused the saddle to ride so high
in the slot that there was only 1/8" of saddle in
the slot. That was contributing greatly to the
exaggerated forward cant of the saddle.

The CORRECT way to install an undersaddle pickup,
is to REMOVE the shim and install the transducer
in it's place. That's generally the purpose of
the shim in the first place. To make it simple
to install a pickup without filing the saddle
or re-routing the bridge slot.

Measured action -

12th fret open -
7/64 bass, 4/64 treble

12th fret with capo on 1st fret -
6/64 bass, 3/64 treble

(this indicates to me that the nut slots
are cut correctly. There is not a large
change in action when the nut is taken
out of the picture)

Neck relief (truss rod setting) -

7th fret open -
.004 inch bass, .004 inch treble
(This is EXTREMELY shallow for a steel string acoustic)

7th fret with capo on 1st fret -
zero or not measurable, bass and treble

Nut relief. Capo between 2nd/3rd frets. Measuring
distance from top of 1st fret to bottom of string.
All strings within acceptable limits of .005 inch or less.

Electronics - Typical barn door Fishman preamp with 3
band EQ, volume. Owner was not able to change the battery
due to a wire blocking the opening of the battery door.
To Zager's credit, he authorized the owner to take the
guitar to a local luthier for troubleshooting the
battery door problem, at Zager's expense. Ended up
costing the owner nothing, luthier was able to move
the wire aside with very little work.

Endpin jack is a NON shielded jack. All the pickup
wiring is shielded until it reaches the jack, where
it is simply soldered to the two open contacts. Guitar
hums horribly when amplified. I was able to correct
the humming by simply touching the metal jack. That
typically indicates poor shielding. Using a $6 jack
instead of a $3 jack would have solved this problem
in the first place. I don't know if Zager or Sigma
installed the electronics. I would suspect it was
Sigma. However this should certainly be something
that Zager should catch. In order to properly do
a setup, it's necessary to measure the note frequencies
with a strobe tuner. The guitar pickup output is typically
used to drive the strobe. I was NOT able to get my Peterson
virtual strobe to read the notes from the pickup output,
it was reading the frequency of the 60 Hz hum.

Overall impression of the Zager...An acceptable $300
Asian made Martin copy (way overpriced by Zager at $800),
ruined by Zager's "EZ-Play" setup. The frets are now
filed beyond repair. It would take a $200-$300 fret
replacement to remedy his poor workmanship.

The overlooking of the saddle/shim problem is
unacceptable, particularly for someone that
calls himself a "Master Luthier".

I expected more. What COULD have been
an acceptable guitar, was rendered useless by
the EZ-Play setup.

I would not allow any student to use this guitar
for learning if I was their instructor.

Craig 'Lumpy' Lemke MA, BSEd
5526 E Pershing Ave
Scottsdale AZ 85254
(480) 363-6095