LIKE MANY LUTHIERS, PAUL LAIRAT STARTED out on guitar, worked in carpentry, and then brought his two passions together, when he made his first guitar back in the mid 1990s. In 2000 he opened a shop in Orange, a little town in southeastern France. Lairat’s models include traditional-looking basses like his Maloeva and the Misiya lines, as well as instruments with more daring body styles and headstocks, like the Stega and Sirya. The Gabriella sits right in the middle: Its Art Deco curves and clean, elegant design exude exclusivity, but its sophistication, distinctly European, is never over the top. When it came time to send us an instrument for review, Lairat borrowed a fretless Gabriella 5 from its owner and sent it over.
The first thing most players notice about the Gabriella is the variety of woods. The instrument has a maple back, with strips of mahogany and basswood down the middle. Its figured-maple top, shiny with a translucent varnish, is adorned with two sound holes but uninterrupted by pickups or by knobs (there’s an adjustment wheel for volume in the upper sound hole, and another, for treble and bass, in the sound hole closer to the G string). Th e woodworking is top notch, as is the ebony binding on the body, but Lairat emphasizes that he chose each component for its tonal and build qualities, too: The dark, beautiful wenge stripe on the back of the neck helps sustain, for example, and the body’s blend of mahogany, maple, and basswood aims to balance deep bass and richer harmonics.
The black Gotoh tuners and polished brass nut add to the Gabriella’s classy vibe, and the headstock, adorned with Lairat’s logo, is distinctive without being distracting. The back of the neck is most impressive: six strips of maple, one strip of wenge, two strips of mahogany, and two strips of walnut are expertly combined to eye-catching effect. The unlined wenge fingerboard has markers on the B-string side of up to the 20th fret position and dots between the D and G strings from the 12th to the 23rd fret position. The curved end of the fingerboard means that some of the strings provide access to more notes than others. While it’s possible to play the B, E, and A strings all the way up to the 21st fret position, with a little stretching, you can access the 22nd fret position on the D string and get all the way up to the 23rd on the G string. Each string gets its own saddle in the custom Lairat bridge.
At just around nine pounds, the Gabriella might be a tad heavy for an acoustic bass guitar, but I found that it was well balanced when I stood or sat. The conveniently placed strap pins, as well as the moderate thickness of the body, made it easy to play.
MOI & MWAH
Although they’re neither upright basses nor electric fretless basses, fretless acoustic bass guitars are usually expected to stand in for both. The truth is that fretless ABGs have their own distinctive tone (Lairat says the upright bass was his initial inspiration for the Gabriella). As someone who doesn’t play upright, I judge instruments like this on their ability to get a respectable faux-upright vibe and a decent Jaco tone, and I’m happy to say that unplugged, the Gabriella delivers on both counts.
Perhaps because Lairat foregoes the soundhole and larger body favored by some ABG luthiers, the Gabriella didn’t project as well as others I’ve played. It was loud enough, however, to produce a sweet tone that had warmth, presence, and plenty of sustain. It would be a stretch to say it sounded like an upright, but the Gabriella did have a certain earthiness.
Plugging it in, however, revealed a different tone. The Schertler Bluestick pickup isn’t piezoelectric—it’s an under-the-saddle electrostatic transducer, designed specifically for acoustic guitar and acoustic bass guitar and favored by acoustic guitar manufacturers, including Martin—but it sure sounded like a piezo. Lairat says he chose the Bluestick specifically to avoid the “steel” piezo sound, but I found the Bluestick edgy, somewhat compressed, and not very conducive to sustain, even when I turned down the highs, plugged it into my Alembic F2-B tube preamp, and turned up the low mids. The Gabriella arrived with a set of the owner’s GHS strings, but Lairat recommends DR Strings. With diff erent strings—perhaps nylon-core Thomastik-Infeld Acousticores, which many players consider the best match for piezos—the Bluestick might sound warmer and more detailed.
Whatever my complaints about the Schertler pickup, the Gabriella certainly cut through the mix when I played it on a session, and it was impossible to make it feed back. For players who might want more options, Lairat also offers the Gabriella with a Delano Xtender magnetic pickup. The Delano’s oval shape is a good match for the Gabriella’s curves, and being able to blend the sharp Schertler and a warm Delano sounds like the best of both worlds.
In short, the Gabriella looks good, sounds good, and sounds just a little different once it’s amplified. It may not be best suited to solo amplified playing— and maybe that’s a good thing.
BOTTOM LINE The Gabriella’s earthy acoustic tones and edgy electric voice put it in a category of its own.
BODY Maple back, mahogany and basswood core, figured-maple top
NECK Maple, mahogany, walnut, and wenge
SCALE LENGTH 34”
BRIDGE Lairat custom
PICKUP Schertler Bluestick
NECK WIDTH AT NUT 1.96”
WEIGHT 9 lbs
TUNERS Gotoh GB7
STRING SPACING 0.708”
FINISH Translucent varnish
OPTIONS Delano Xtender magnetic pickup, $490; Hipshot Ultralite tuners, $225; other finishes, upon request