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Hirade TH-90

Acoustic-Electric Classical Guitar from Takamine

Peter Kun Frary

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Takamine Gakki Seisakusho was founded in Japan in 1962, specializing in the manufacture of acoustic guitars. Hirade is Takamine's premium line of export classical guitars, originally designed by Mass Hirade in the 1960s and 70s. His early classical guitars were copies of the Jose Ramirez right down to the head stock design, purfling and chunky neck. By the early 1980s refinements were made, the neck slimmed down and the head stock morphed into the moustache profile used today.

Hirade TH-90 with Grace | The Frary Guitar Duo often uses matching TH-90 guitars for wedding gigs.

The Hirade 90 series appeared in the 1970s and was Takamine's first truly original classical guitar design, departing far from its Ramirez forefathers. As innovative as the body design was, what really set it apart from other guitars was the integrated pickup system. During the 1970s, most acoustic guitar companies didn't put electronics in their instruments. Takamine's gamble paid off and their acoustic-electric guitars soared in popularity during the 1980s and 90s. It took decades for companies like Martin and Gibson to catch up to Takamine's head start in acoustic-electric instruments.

Hirade TH-90 | Takamine's top of the line acoustic-electric classical guitar.

The Hirade 90 series has been my favorite guitar for gigs and amplified playing since the early 1990s, accompanying me to untold weddings, concerts in the park and corporate dinners. Here are my thoughts and music on this instrument after a couple decades of heavy use and shop sales.

Starlight Gaze (Frary) | Hirade TH-90 | Cool Tube preamp jacked into a Trace Acoustic Cube and recorded with a Shure condenser mic and Tascam audio recorder. Some acoustic sound mixed with the amp since amp gain was low.

What's different about the 90 series?

First, the TH-90 is based on a traditional classical guitar design: solid spruce top, solid Indian rosewood back and sides, solid mahogany neck, fan bracing, flat 51mm width ebony fingerboard, 65cm scale, neck joint at the 12th fret and, of course, no position markers. So most classical guitarists should feel at home on one. What sets it apart from a traditional classical guitar is a more slender neck than average, a 20th fret, French style cutaway, oval soundhole, tough polyester finish and, of course, the pickup system.

Hirade TH-90 | I've replaced preamps, pickups and wiring in the TH-90 and the combination of oval soundhole and a 20th fret requires a skinny arm for access. That extra fret leaves a nasty ding in your forearm...

The oval rosette with inlaid marquetry is the most obvious cosmetic difference from a traditional classical and a design hallmark of the 90 series. This marquetry motif is further developed in the body binding, making for a bold and consistent statement of color and design. An over hanging 20th fret adds a high C to the first string, allows a three-octave C scale and helps one aim off-the-board artificial harmonics.

Hirade TH-90 | The bridge is a traditional Ramirez style design save for the closed saddle slot. I use beads and knots instead of traditional string ties.

Design and material changes

The 90 series basic design changed very little since its debut in the 1970s. One biggie, in the early 2000s, is EH-90 (HE-90 in KMC price lists) and later models switched production to all solid woods. So if you have a 1970s to 1990s model it has a solid spruce top but ply rosewood back and sides. Nevertheless, played side by side, the tonal character of the ply and all solid models are extremely close.

In the first decade of 2000, Takamine added adjustable truss rods to its classical guitar range, including the 90 series. Truss rods are rare on classical guitars but makes setting neck relief so much easier! The down side is newer 90 series are heavier than older models due to the metal rod, tube preamp, all solid woods and use of four AA batteries rather than a single 9 volt battery.

Finally, the heal cap, originally rosewood, was switched to plastic on Takamine and Hirade classicals, including the 90 series, in the first decade of the 2000s. Of course this change makes no difference in sound or playability but I immediately noticed the wee downgrade.

Concert classical string feel

The sound and feel of the TH-90 is designed to appeal to advanced classical and finger-style players: the soundboard is braced stiffer than lower models, providing enhanced dynamics and increased string tension for a concert classical feel while plugged in. Although it has a traditional flat 65cm scale ebony fingerboard, string height is set a little lower than the average Takamine classical and optimized for sensitive fingerstyle amplified playing. In other words, it's easy to play but too low for heavy handed strummers and thunder pluckers.

The three models I've owned since 1990 took 4 or 5 years of regular playing to break in fully (spruce tops take a couple years longer than cedar). However, they developed a resonate, even and delicate tone, ideal for recording acoustically. Plugged in—how I normally play for gig—-the TH-90 has an unusually long treble sustain for a nylon string instrument.

Once played in, TH-90 sound is characterized by a mellow and sweet tone, clarity in polyphonic voicings, low string noise, good vibrato response and long sustain. Like the LTD2012C, it sounds best with slightly brighter strings, e.g., D'Addario Dynacore. Acoustically, the TH-90 is not as loud as a H8SS or H5. It is at its best amplified with a high end acoustic guitar amp, e.g., Trace Acoustic TA100R or Genz Benz Compak 300 Combo.

Minuet (Krieger) | Pure acoustic recording (no pickup) made with a Tascam DR-100 MKII recorder (build-in mics).

Hirade 90 series and preamps

The only constant variable across decades of production is the preamp. Generally, the first two letters of the model destination vary according to the preamp installed: TH-90 (2004 onwards) sport a Cool Tube preamp, EH-90 ( first decade of the 2000s) used the CT-4B II, HD-90 (late 1990s) featured the ill-fated DSP/AD-1, EP-90 (mid-1990s) rocked the Accuracoustic and the HP-90 (early-1990s) made do with a Parametric preamp. There are several more preamp models I don't recall. The above preamps have different features but sound very similar (they all use the Palathetic undersaddle pickup).

Now for a little murky history. The EH-90 model was called the HE-90 in KMC's Takamine price lists and website although actual guitar labels indicated EH-90. In 2005 we ordered several TH-90 models for store stock. The label in the guitar was marked EH-90 but CTP-1 Cool Tube preamps were installed. Maybe KMC updated preamps in the prior year's model or the factory didn't print new TH-90 labels? In any event there was a couple years of transition and ambiguous model numbers and varying preamps. The main point is the guitar is usually the same from year to year and most changes consisted of preamp and label updates.

Allemande (Anon.) | Cool Tube preamp jacked into a Trace TAP direct box with outs fed to a Mackie mixing board. The Mackie mains were input to a Tascam audio recorder, so this is a pure pickup sound (no mics or amp used).

The most reliable preamps are the solid-state CT-4B and CT-4B II: easy to use on stage, long battery life, lightweight and blessed with a low failure rate. The CT-4B II is still available as an accessory. It's my favorite among all the preamps. Here's the sound of a CT-4B II preamp installed in my old EH-90, basically my gig sound:

Improvisation (intro) and Sounds of Bells (Guimaraes) | Peter Kun Frary, guitar | EH-90 and CT-4B II preamp jacked into a Trace Acoustic Cube and recorded with a Shure condenser mic, Mackie mixer and Tascam DAT.

Takamine CT-4B II Preamp | Photo courtesy Takamine

In our shop, we saw the most failures with the original Cool Tube preamp model (CTP-1) and were kept busy replacing them with the more reliable Cool Tube II and CT-4B II. All the above mentioned preamps are interchangeable so 90 series guitars made since the early 1990s may be upgraded to newer preamps if desired. The Palathetic undersaddle pickup and wiring harness is plug and play compatible with all the preamps.

Current TH-90 preamp

The TH-90 model debuted in 2004 and featured Cool Tube Preamp (CTP-1) and the long standing Palathetic undersaddle pickup. Pickup output tended to be hotter than earlier preamps like the Accuracoustic and CT-4B. This original Cool Tube design was a real battery eater: four alkaline AA batteries lasted only 20 hours! A few years hence the Cool Tube II (CTP-2) was introduced with little fanfare and no guitar model number changes. It was mainly a bug fix—no new features—but sported a different battery cage, satin face (rather than glossy) and greatly improved power efficiency. My Cool Tube II glides through two-hours of daily amplified playing for three months from a single Eneloop charge. Default (flat) EQ is a little mellower and less bright in the lower highs than the CTP-1.

In 2015, pro Takamine and Hirade began shipping with the CTP-3, tweaked with notch filters and topside standby button (rather than inside the guitar). It may be distinguished from the CTP-2 by the lack of a visible battery cage and two pinch tabs.

Takamine CTP-3 Cool Tube Preamp | Photo courtesy Takamine

Preamp care

The most common cause of preamp failure is leaking batteries. We saw dozens of our customers ruin preamps due to leaving batteries in for a year or more (they only used the tuner). A monthly battery inspection could save you from a lost gig and a $200 to $300 preamp replacement. Also, remove batteries when storing guitars for an extended length of time. Finally, consider using rechargeable Panasonic Eneloop AA batteries: a single charge lets you gig for two or three months, they're less prone to leaking than alkaline batteries and you can recharge them a couple thousand times.

Sarabande (Poulenc) | Cool Tube preamp jacked into a Trace Acoustic Cube and recorded with a Shure condenser mic and Tascam audio recorder.

Takamine LTD2012C | The LTD2012C is the evil twin of the TH90.

Deluxe Gotoh tuning heads

For decades the 90 series wore a set of deluxe Gotoh tuners with glossy gold finish, while rollers and knobs and 14:1 gear ratio. Plates are engraved with leaves and have the obligatory decorative Greek lyre. The look is heavy and traditional but doesn't match the delicate and modernistic style of the TH-90. Nevertheless, these tuners turn smoothly, hold pitch and allow for precise tuning. I recently saw a "just off the boat" TH-90 with tuner plates sans decorative Greek lyre (similar to LTD2012C tuners), a pleasing change.

Deluxe hard shell case

An arch top hard shell case with plush lining, strap hooks, strap and locking latch is included. It's a nice looking case and fits the guitar like a glove, but is too heavy to carry to gigs. Invest in a good gig bag or fiberglass case if you take it out of the house regularly.

Last blurb

After 25 years of teaching, recording and gigging on three Hirade 90 series—HP-90, EH-90 and TH-90—I have nothing but praise for this guitar. Mine survived humid Honolulu and gigs in rain, sun and smoke filled rooms and still sound and look great! Realize, the TH-90 is what it is: an acoustic-electric classical guitar and will never be as loud or dynamic as a traditional classical. If you mainly play acoustically, don't buy one. If you're a classical or nylon string player that amps up for gigs, you'll love the TH-90.

Please help support this site by purchasing the TH-90 at Amazon.

Eleventh Hour (Frary) | Cool Tube preamp jacked into a Trace Acoustic Cube and recorded with a Shure condenser mic and Tascam audio recorder.

TH-90 Major Features

51mm fingerboard width at nut

65cm scale

All solid woods: spruce top, Indian rosewood back and sides, ebony fingerboard and mahogany neck

Bone nut and saddle

Oval rosette with inlaid marquetry

Cool Tube preamp and Palathetic undersaddle pickup

Adjustable truss rod

Cutaway

Gold plated deluxe Gotoh tuning heads with white pearloid buttons

Takamine logo hard-shell case

Lifetime warranty

Handmade in Sakashita, Japan

List: $2899.99 | MAP: $1999.99

July 31, 2017

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