A SURPRISING INSIGHT ABOUT DRUMS AND GUITAR TOPS
I received the following letter from one of my friends. It's good enough to share with others. He wrote:
I had a wonderful ah-hah! Moment that startled me greatly. I was so enthralled at the time that I didn't think to take pictures, so I hope my words will be enough to give you an idea.
We went with some friends to the new strip-mall built outside of town. I went scavenging around the back, being that kind of dude that is always looking for treasures left behind, like some cargo-cult islander or a stranger in a strange land.
Near the little tin hut that houses cardboard, later to be crushed and bundled, was a strange box. I opened it to get a look at what was inside. Well, it was something I had never seen before: a brown plastic disposable keg, made like a big coke bottle, but much larger, about a 4 to 5 gallon capacity, and with a heavy-duty cap & a siphon to the bottom. In volume, it was about the same as a dreadnaught acoustic. It had a very thin skin, but the cap was industrially tough.
Of course I didn't know anything about it, and was frustrated like a chimp because I could not unscrew the cap. I knew that if I took it back to my wife and friends, who were eating & schmoozing, they would not want me to keep it.
I started to finger-drum it like a drum. It had the most amazing acoustic response. I just could not believe my ears & hands because it literally bounced with my fingers and made the loudest sound I ever got from any plastic bottle of any size. It was a wonderful drum. And because this strong drum was so wonderful I was determined to keep it.
So I got out my pocket knife and began to disassemble the cap guards so that it would be able to be all mine, minus the siphon. As I began to cut the locks on the cap, a tremendous amount of CO2 gas began leaking out . . . not for just a few seconds, but for a long long time. I was surprised at what great pressure this plastic bottle was under. I had to cut about 9 plastic safety locks, and even though I had done two-thirds of them, and the cap got loose, more gas kept on coming out. It was under a lot of pressure, and that kept the skin of the plastic alive and responsive.
As soon as all the gas came out and I removed the siphon, the keg was all as loose as an old man's scrotum after 3 hours in a steam room. In more polite terms, as loose as a big balloon that had once been tight but had all the helium (or air) taken out. At that moment I was sad that I had lost my drum, but happy to just discard the now flaccid jug in the garbage where it now belonged.
All of this led me to fantasize that perhaps, in an analogous way, the braced system of a guitar gives the skin a similar "personality" — as if it were (in its own way) "pressurized". Perhaps there is a better word, but for an example of the difference between responsive & non-responsive, I could not imagine anything better.
I'm thinking of you, and enjoying your books, of course. Someday I will do things. Progress is my most important product, elusive as it may be.
Your garbage-bandit friend, Alan
SOME REFLECTIONS ON MY GUITAR WORK
By Ervin Somogyi
Steven Jay Gould is probably the most famous scientist, paleontologist, geologist, evolutionist, and scientific historian of our time. Well, even if he shares that distinction with scientific superstars Neil deGrasse Tyson (the most popular astrophysicist on television) and Steven Hawking (of Singularities and Black Holes fame), Gould is, in my opinion, the most broadly accessible. He has written many books that describe -- in language that is easy to understand and that makes those subjects interesting -- the natural world that preceded us. He even uses (brilliantly!) the game of baseball as a lens or prism through which to view, explain, and help us comprehend what might otherwise be considered obscure and arcane natural phenomena. All in all, Gould's a cool dude -- even though he died in 2002.
As far as evolutionary processes in general are concerned, authorities have generally taken the attitude that evolution has always been gradual and steady. You know: one step at a time. Gould, on the other hand, held that evolution was irregular and lumpy; millions-of-years-long stretches would occur in which nothing happened, and then, all of a sudden and for no apparent reason, a major leap or advance could be seen. This is certainly what the geological evidence has revealed to us. Gould called this process punctuated equilibrium, a concept he developed with colleague Niles Eldridge in 1972.
My guitars have, in their own modest way, followed this same path. That is to say, my guitars have evolved over the years; but they have not evolved at a steady pace. At times I'd have a new idea and I'd "put it into" a guitar. I do have an impulse to continually push the envelope (which is a phrase that has baffled me ever since I first heard it) and try something new. I tend to always wonder what is around the next corner; what would happen if I made something a bit thinner . . . or re-shaped a brace . . . Also, I'd be making guitars in my usual way . . . and keep on working like that . . . until I'd eventually discover or notice something, by accident, or have an insight into something that hadn't jelled for me previously. And then, I am always looking for new ideas concerning artistry and decoration. Anyway, altogether, these kinds of alterations would result in a guitar that had a somewhat better look and free-er (freeer?) sound.
And, on the whole: how could any of this have been any different? The guitar itself has always been my best teacher. She has always revealed herself to me bit by bit, taking her own sweet time. I've been the student.
SOME OLDER GUITARS
Lately, some guitars of mine from the eighties and nineties have come on the market, and some of them have come to my shop for visits, checkups, or for a tweak or repair . . . or because the original owner was no longer playing guitar and wanted to see if I knew anyone who would want to buy their baby. And so on.
I have been pleasantly surprised in every instance by how well they've held up. Yes, they've had signs of wear and tear – if not in small scratches and such, then most notably in the look of the lacquered finish. (I used to lacquer my guitars rather than to French polish them. Mentioning this often opens the door to the lacquer-vs.-French-polish debate, but I'm not going into that now.) Lacquer has the capacity to separate from its underlayment, over time; and these guitars show small spots of lacquer separation/bubbling from the wood underneath. This is not in the least bit serious; it's cosmetic and easily fixable; a guitar simply looks not-brand-new in this regard.
Happily, not one of the guitars that I've seen or heard about, from this period, has been mistreated: they seem to be structurally sound. And I've been pleasantly reminded of how far back I was using certain elements of decoration, or arrangements of bracing, that now seem to me like the most intelligent way to carry out this work.
One thing that I have noticed in these instruments is how my voicing work has evolved in the last twenty-five years: I've gotten bolder in wood removal. Everyone has always liked the sound of my guitars, and this was true even years ago. But my newer guitars give off more open tap tones. This is a result of the fact that I currently voice my guitars to a different point of physical/mechanical responsiveness than I used to. This is itself explained by the fact that I've allowed myself to push the envelope just a bit further, and a bit further, and a bit further, as far as my stopping-point in removing wood and manipulating physical structure are concerned. (Those of you who make guitars and voice them must also wonder, as I have done each time: what would happen if I shaved off another 1/32 of an inch off these braces, or sanded another ten thousandths of an inch off the top??? Well, I've traveled that road some.)
What this is all about is that I have long been aware of the adage (in Spanish guitar making, at least) that the best guitars are built on the cusp of disaster. That is, the best ones are built so that they are just able to hold together under the pull of the strings and the stresses of use. Anything less, and the guitar would be on the slippery slope toward falling apart; anything more, and the guitar would have less than its full voice. This is an intuitive concept that is central to my approach to making guitars. It also represents a metaphysical balancing act that, in its execution, is never the same for any two guitars. In any event, mostly, I've tried to sneak up on that balance point. I have overdone it and overstepped the mark a few times. And I can tell you with authority that these are useful experiences, because one has to have some idea of where to stop.
(Parenthetically, making a mistake isn't the end of the world. I've learned a few things. One is that we're talking about balancing acts, and not good guitar/bad guitar. If the braces are too small, then one can use lighter strings, or thin the top so that it is no longer underbraced for its stiffness. Or one can add bracing mass (or even entire braces!) through the soundhole to re-establish a previous balance point; it's tricky, but not impossible. Finally, and not least importantly: even if I don't like the sound of a particular guitar . . . someone else will eventually come along who does like it. Basically, if you can learn something from a given project it will not have been a complete failure.)
Anyway, I've been impressed by my older work. It's held up well. When I act as an agent in re-selling an older guitar for a client, I show the guitar to prospective clients, talk with them about it, and along with that offer to do some retro-voicing. This is always an option with any guitar, by the way. And I do feel, when it comes to my guitars, that there is always a little bit of a responsibility for me to lead a client to an instrument that has the best possible sound . . . even though that is invariably a subjective quality. So I don't push. I merely offer to do that. I do charge for this work, of course. But considering the selling price of these instruments it's a modest one. I need to underline that I am in no way saying that there's anything wrong with any of my older instruments; they merely have the response of older guitars of mine. And this procedure simply introduces the option of helping the sound, if not the look and feel, of these older Somogyi guitars to be more in line with my current work.
GUITAR VOICING: DIFFERENT STROKES FOR DIFFERENT FOLKS? (1)
I was recently in a conversation with a client during which he asked whether I voice my guitars differently depending on whether they are OM models, or Modified Dreadnoughts, or Jumbos, or 00s, or whether I make accommodations within a given model depending on whether it will be played in standard or open tuning. It's not a bad question, and it's a topic that's come up more than once. The assumption seems to be that something has to be done differently because these guitars are different sizes and shapes and uses, and will of course have different sounds. How could one recipe voicing approach possibly work for all of them?
My short answer is no, I don't have different voicing tricks or techniques for my various guitar models. Not really. There may be nuances and difference of emphasis here and there, of course, but the procedures are basically the same in all cases: to progressively and systematically lighten the structure so that the voice of the guitar stops being choked by too much wood, mass, and stiffness and begins to open up. This is, in fact, no more nor less than every serious guitar maker's challenge.
Chances are high that every luthier you will ever have a conversation with will give you his own perfectly-good-sounding reasons for whatever he does to his guitars' woods in order to tease the best sounds out of them. These accounts will undoubtedly surprise you with their variety. And some of them are certain to be on the right track. Nevertheless, I do NOT believe that the chief task of these luthiers is to apply this or that particular recipe procedure to get "this kind" of sound out of one model guitar and "that kind" of sound out of another. The various guitar models and types, together with their individual factors of size, depth, wood selection, stringing, etc. set most of the tonal possibilities for what such a soundbox will be capable of. The luthier's task is, simply, to get any soundbox to fully release its tonal potential. Period. Just as a cook cannot make any food taste better than what it can be, a soundbox of a given size and volume cannot do better than its best. Short of that end result one simply achieves . . . well . . . something less than that.
GUITAR VOICING: DIFFERENT STROKES FOR DIFFERENT FOLKS? (2)August, 2014
One reason that the bringing out of a guitar's best voice is the main challenge for steel string guitar makers today is that there is no agreed-on standard to aim for. This is so for two reasons. First of all, most of the makers of this instrument have never heard a steel string guitar with a really great voice of its own. Therefore their idea of great sound is frequently based in hearsay instead of direct experience, combined with a lifelong experience of having conventionally overbuilt guitars as their models. It is understandable that they'd knowingly or unknowingly copy these models - which, despite the fact that their own guitars might look distinctive, they are really copies of copies of copies of copies of copies of copies of the same essential concept/blueprint - in the belief that their job is done when such an instrument is faithfully replicated and strung up. I say these things without intending to offend anyone, but because this is the territory as I see it.
The second reason is that whereas classic guitars are all pretty much the same size and shape, steel string guitars come in a wide variety of shape, size, and depth. This complicates the acoustic part of the work. It does so in the same way that a marksman is always called on to do the same work in shooting, but his emphasis will vary slightly as his various targets are placed at different distances away. Same skills, somewhat different factors.
Classical guitar makers, in my opinion, have more of a clue as to the sounds that better guitars are capable of: they have more of an agreed-on standard for what the Holy Grail of sound is (it is largely thought of as having the power, clarity, projection, and otherwise operatic voice that one would expect from a concert guitar). They also have had access to musicians with better-trained ears and better guitars, as well as other examples of more optimally-realized modern and historical models to study, listen to, and emulate. In comparison, the most familiar and widely accepted steel string guitar is the one that you can always plug into an amp or play into a microphone.
What I said above about "getting the most out of a steel string guitar's potential" probably sounds too simplified and vague to be very useful. But consider the matter in this way: an OM model guitar and a Dreadnought differ in a number of specific ways: woods, scale lengths, body depth, possibly stringing, etc. How is one to factor these differences in? The best thing that a luthier can do is to make a really good OM and/or a really good Dreadnought; each will have its own voice because it will have brought different things to the table, blueprint-wise and tone-wise, from the very beginning. To repeat what I said above, the guitar maker's task is to bring those qualities fully out without overbuilding, underbuilding, or misbuilding. And in the case of guitar makers just as much as with marksmen and cooks, it takes time and experience to learn to do the work professionally and well.
Glue. All woodworkers use it. And what can one say about it that hasn't been said already? -- that is, aside from jokes like "My wife gave me a book titled The Complete History of Glue for my birthday. What was it like? Heck, once I picked it up I couldn't put it down . . ."
Well, the principal function of any glue -- outside of considerations of working time, adhesive strength, and materials compatibility -- is simply to enable one surface to stick to another. Period. Therefore if the glue has been appropriately selected for the task at hand and applied correctly, all glues work satisfactorily: the glued parts all adhere together for a long time without bleeding, creeping, breaking down, discoloring the woods, or otherwise failing.
For woodworkers in general, hide glue and fish glue were the only glues available for a long time. More recently, synthetic and chemical glues have been developed which are more convenient to use, give extended working time, are waterproof, etc. For the general woodworker who is not committed to using epoxies and such for specialized purposes, Titebond (and the other aliphatic resin glues which are sold under a variety of names) pretty much heads the list of modern favorites. It works every time. The somewhat less convenient hide glue (made from animal hides and hooves) is still used by purists, craftsmen, and traditionalists. It works every time as well. Elmer's White glue, that staple of school projects, is a polyvinyl glue which never gets really hard; hence most woodworkers don't use it on serious projects.
The Titebonds and hide glues are certainly the favorite adhesives when it comes to making guitars despite the latter's minor inconveniences of preparation and quick setting time. On the whole they give equivalent results, but with one significant difference. This is most noticeable to repairmen and restorers -- those whose work requires them to take glue joints apart, or to deal with failed joints. The difference is that of destructive vs. non-destructive reversibility. What that means is that one can take a hide glue joint apart (if one knows how, and if one is willing to be patient) without removing of any actual wood. One cannot take a Titebonded joint apart without losing at least a little bit of the original wood: one undoes the joint and then needs to do some sanding or scraping to expose fresh wood. This might not seem like an important consideration in most woodworking, and it is pretty much irrelevant in factory-made guitars: there's enough wood in these so that you can lose 1/64" of thickness and still be all right. But in craftsman-level guitar work, which can allow for more carefully titrated and thicknessed parts, the loss of a few thousandths of an inch of wood may make a difference in sound.
There's also a second consideration when it comes to doing repair and restoration work on a valuable collector's instrument. In this realm, having the instrument be as fully original as possible is desirable: alterations and modifications of any kind can devalue the instrument. So, in these cases, it is preferable to find that the guitar has been held together with hide glue: the parts can be taken apart and reglued while maintaining fidelity to the original sizes, thicknesses, and specifications of the woods, not to mention the original intent and methodology of the maker. One can understand that a damaged Louis XIV chair that's been epoxied together wouldn't be considered authentic -- and it would be priced accordingly.
I'd always assumed that Titebond was water soluble (after all, it dilutes easily with water when it's still liquid) and that it could be removed completely, after it had hardened, if one wanted to spend enough time sponging and wiping it carefully away with warm water. It's exactly what one can do with hide glue. But Titebond is a synthetic glue, not an organic one, and it has unexpected staying power. I should add that with both of these glues one heats a joint that is to be undone, so as to soften the glue and help it release its hold.
Titebond is only partially un-doable. This property of it impressed itself on me in an interesting and accidental way. I'd made a pencil holder a long time ago by pouring some Titebond into the bottom of a recycled plastic jar that had a rounded bottom edge and then dropping a bunch of ball bearings in for ballast -- to ensure that it was heavy and stable enough to not tip over once I filled it with pencils and pens. The Titebond soon hardened and rendered the ball-bearing ballast permanent, and the jar held my pencils and pens nicely. Some years later I was able to afford a real pencil holder, so I transferred the pens and pencils and filled the old jar with hot water so as to melt the Titebond and reclaim the ball bearings. I thought it would take a few days of soaking for the Titebond to give way; the ball bearings were stainless steel and wouldn't rust.
Well, to my surprise, the Titebond did soften but it didn't dissolve at all; it was still there after three weeks of continual immersion in warmed water. It softened enough that I could squeeze the ball bearings back out, but what remained was a honeycombed, spongelike mass of rubbery aliphatic resin that looked like a coral reef -- and that hardened up rock solid again as soon as it dried out. (See the accompanying photos.)
As it turns out, it's not only the composition of the glue that makes the problem for repairmen and restorers. It also has to do with how the adhesive achieves its results. In the case of the newer glues such as Titebond, these grab onto the materials they come into contact with by means of penetrative adhesion: they sink into wood fibers and grab hold. And once there, they want to stay. The upshot is that undoing such a joint usually results in some splintering, tearing, or pulling up of wood fibers, and thus leaving a rough surface that will itself need to be smoothed before any regluing can occur.
In addition, whether or not there's been pulling away of wood fibers, some of the Titebond will remain on the wood surface and, as I pointed out with my ball-bearings experience, Titebond will not simply wash away. Thus the usual way of post-Titebond surface preparation is to sand or scrape at the roughened sections (imagine trying to sand or scrape cold honey off a piece of plywood; it's the same thing) until smooth wood is reached; then, one reglues.
Hide glue, on the other hand, achieves its results by molecular bonding. Titebond won't hold very well onto something it cannot penetrate, such as glass. But hide glue will. In fact, it'll hold on like a barnacle on a ship's hull. In the old days before sand blasting, glass was decorated by covering the to-be-textured-or-highlighted area with hide glue; once this dried the hide glue was chipped off with a chisel and a hammer -- and it would take some of the glass with it. The contrast between this newly chipped surface and the smooth original surface of the glass is how lettering and decoration in that medium used to be achieved! The really interesting part of this is that, molecular bonding aside, one can wash hide glue completely away without affecting the surface it has been applied to. Like campers, hikers, or guests with an ecological consciousness, hide glue can disappear without leaving any trace or litter behind it.<
I cut my finger on my table saw, in a moment of carelessness. (Duh!) It of course happened at the end of the day, at the end of a run of cutting and slicing, and I'd allowed my mind to wander just a little bit. . .
I must say that I'm glad that I have a SawStop, which is the table saw that has an shutoff relay that kicks into action the instant a finger (or anything with a finger's electroconductivity) comes into contact with the blade. Had I not had this tool the cut would undoubtedly have been much worse . . . and a life-changer for someone like me who uses his hands and fingers with precision.
The story behind the SawStop is that, a few years ago, the inventor tried to interest the commercial table saw manufacturers in making this tool; but every single one of them turned him down, citing concerns of too-great cost. So he went into business for himself. Statistically, I'm told that 30,000 fingers are lost annually to power tools. One of them might have been mine; I'm lucky to have only needed stitches. For those of you who don't have such a table saw . . . do think about getting one.
There are currently reports of woodworkers suing the makers of their table saws because they did not install such a useful safety device on their machines when there is/was such technology easily available. Somehow, I'm on the side of the woodworkers on this one, caveat emptor be damned.
I'M SOLICITING OPINIONSMarch, 2013
I have recently added a feature to the contact page of my website that will allow readers to send me emails with feedback, responses, comments, etc. I'm soliciting feedback concerning the following:
First: Because I like to write, I continue to write articles and essays. Since I have already published two books about the practical and technical ins and outs of building guitars, though, I have of late been writing on more philosophical and contemplative topics -- all of which are nonetheless related to guitar making in some way.
Second: I'm in the process of writing some articles about the nature and uses of hand skills. I've just put the first of these, titled "The Wisdom of the Hands", on my website. Please take a look at it.
Third: I have enough of these less technical yet thought-provoking articles by now to consider putting them out in book form. But I am hesitating to do so. While I find these things interesting I'm not sure whether anyone else would.
So my question is, do you think there's any need for a book like this? Do you think anyone would buy a book that had this kind of stuff in it? Or should I simply keep putting these musings on my website? If you have an opinion, please let me know.
THE TAKU SAKASHTA GUITAR PROJECTFebruary, 2013
The guitar making community lost a valued member on February 11, 2010, when Japanese-American luthier Taku Sakashta was killed outside of his workshop in Rohnert Park, California. I knew Taku for 15 years and was his colleague and friend. He was a uniquely hard-working individual as well as a luthier of rare talent. Those familiar with his work know that Taku brought a very Japanese aesthetic to it, such that his guitars were imbued with a cleanness of line that echoed the sensibility of the traditional Japanese rock garden. Taku's workmanship was imaginative, original, and faultlessly CLEAN.
Taku's murderer was caught, tried, and sent to prison for life. In the aftermath of these events Taku's widow Kazuko sought to put proper closure to her husband's affairs; so she asked a number of Taku's closest luthier friends to take on and complete a number of guitar commissions that Taku had begun. I accepted one of these, and am close to being finished with it. It's a guitar made mostly by me, with Taku's woods, using Taku's molds and templates. The result is the world's only Somogyi-Sakashta guitar. It is presently in the hands of Larry Robinson, who is doing the final inlay work; he and Taku had already discussed an inlay motif before Taku died.
I don't want to make this narrative very long; the whole point of it is to just announce the (almost) completion of this special project. But if anyone wants to know more of the facts and details please get in touch with me and I'll give them the longer story.
Also, if anyone wishes to send a donation to Kazuko at this date, the gesture will be appreciated as much as if it had been offered nearer Taku's death; the help is still needed. For those wishing to send a check or money-order, it should be made out to either Kazuko Sakashita or to Taku Sakashta Guitars (NOTE: 'Sakashita' is pronounced 'Sakashta'): the account is in both these names. Donations should be sent to: Wells Fargo Bank c/o account No. 7478-148203, Elmwood branch, 2959 College Avenue, Berkeley, California, 94705. For those wishing to send a wire transfer of funds, it should be sent to the same account at the same bank, under the same name, and to the wire transfer-routing ABA number 121-000-248.
For those wishing to send woods, tools, materials, or anything else that cannot be sent into a bank account, luthier Tom Ribbecke has volunteered to be a repository of such more concrete donations, until they can be sold at auction together with Taku's tools and woods. Todd Taggart of Allied Lutherie has generously volunteered to deal with that. Shipping of these donations should be made to Sakashta Memorial Fund, c/o Ribbecke Guitars, 498-D Moore Lane, Healdsburg, California, 75448. Tom gave me permission to also pass on his work phone number for anyone who feels the need to call him in regard to these matters: it is (707) 431-0125.
Sincerely, Ervin Somogyi
I've been making guitars for a long time. My approach to the selection of the topwood (which is commonly agreed on as being the soul of the guitar) relies on a favorable stiffness-to-weight ratio -- more so than on the grain's evenness, count, or color. The wood's weight is critical to me: it's half the formula. I've sorted through uncounted topwood sets in the last forty-plus years and the range of their densities has never failed to impress itself on me. The same has also been true of the many piles of spruce and cedar planks I've sorted through and made selections from. I'd handle planks that were so heavy that they seemed fresh-felled and still full of water; they'd be next to planks that were so light that you could sneeze and they'd practically blow off the pile. These woods were of comparable size and had been kiln-dried together, so the moisture content would have been the same. I assumed that this disparity was all normal and natural -- but it was only recently that I've learned of one of the mechanisms by which Nature produces such variety. I came upon an article written by Ernst Zurcher (with an umlaut over the "u"), a Swiss forestry expert, that explained how wood retains different weight, durability, and working properties when it is felled in synchrony with various phases of the moon.
That article is titled "Lunar rhythms in forestry traditions: lunar-correlated phenomena in tree biology and wood properties". Zurcher wrote it for Wood Sciences magazine, HG F.21, c/o the Department of Forest Sciences, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, ETH-Zentrum, Zurich CH-8092, Switzerland (email: email@example.com). Zurcher, it turns out, has written extensively on this fascinating topic.
Zurcher's article, focusing as it does on the matter of timing in tree-felling practices, gave me an insight into the variation in woods' mass that I'd long noticed. Traditional European forestry practices depend on a mindset of selectivity that is not possible for modern commercial lumbering businesses to even consider: these clear by the acre or square mile, and certainly not only during certain phases of the moon. European woods that are purposefully felled in relation to the moon's cycles are in fact called "full moon wood", among other things. Somehow, I seem to want to call this material "werewood". I've also discovered, since reading Zurcher's article, that there are lots of people who know about such wood and have known about it long before I did.
Regardless of what such wood is called, Zurcher's thesis is this: Since before the time of Christ, foresters have noticed that the woods they cut yielded different working and stabilizing properties, in direct correlation with where in the lunar cycle those woods are felled. Woods cut during the full moon, the new moon, or the waning moon, have consistently different characteristics. Therefore, a number of especially advantageous uses for timber could be correlated with specific felling dates. [NOTE: Technically, proper assessment of felling dates also includes the moon's cycles of height-trajectory with respect to the earth's horizon, which shift from high to low and back again during the lunar cycle. Also, besides the phases of the moon and its height-of-travel over the earth's horizon, the practice of paying attention to the felling date of a wood has also included which sign of the Zodiac was dominant at the time. Wood-cutting practices in places as diverse as Bhutan and Mali follow these "rules". No, I'm not making this up; read the article.]
Zurcher points out that this body of empirically collected wisdom applies to a range of practical wood uses as diverse as house construction, roof shingles, wooden chimneys (well, they had them in the old days), barrels for storing liquids, boxes for storing foodstuffs, fuel (firewood), plows, transportation of felled woods via river floatation, and even musical instrument soundboards. Furthermore, the general rules for felling woods seem to be very similar across the continents. Whether in the Alpine regions, the Near East, in Africa, India, Ceylon, Brazil, and Guyana, these traditions all seem to be based in matching and independent observations. Zurcher quite reasonably points out that in the past, people had more time and more peace and quiet in which to observe how things work; indeed, such knowledge would have been vital to them.
Interestingly, while the empirical knowledge gotten through centuries of hands-on forestry practices has necessarily resulted in a body of oral tradition, peasant wisdom, and folklore, there's also a significant body of historical writing in which lunar rhythms (over and above the cycles of the seasons) are mentioned as having an influence on the growth, structures, characteristics, and properties of plants. For instance, the Roman statesman and writer Pliny had advice to give on tree cutting, as well advising farmers to pick fruit for the market vs. fruit for their own stores at different phases of the moon: for the former, fruit picked just before or at the full moon would weigh more; for the latter, fruit picked during the new moon would last better.
The variations in wood density that I've mentioned noticing make sense within the context of modern vs. traditional wood felling practices. Today, loggers will work a forest, stand, or acreage indiscriminately, until their quota is met. The job might take weeks or months. But then, leaving a denuded hillside, they'll move on to another patch of land and do the same. Selectivity is per acreage and tonnage, set by commercial considerations and not per specific intended use of the wood harvest. This contrasts sharply with the traditional selectivity that would have been the rule in any aware, non-industrial community of foresters: you go in and select a limited amount of wood to be used for specific purposes; you don't cut indiscriminately and ship out by the lumber-truckfull. You take what you need, until the next trip into the forest. It's easy to understand that these different mindsets would include or exclude ancillary, contextual, environmental, meteorological, commercial, and/or scheduling concerns.
CONCERNING SOMOGYI KNOCKOFFSDecember, 2012
It has come to my attention that there have been some guitars recently introduced into the Japanese market that are using my "carved Carp top" design. They are doing so without my permission.
I am very much concerned about these knock-offs. I want to make it clear that Somogyi Guitars is not affiliated with those instruments and, I repeat, I have not given my permission to use my particular rendition of the carp design.
I understand that the carp is a traditional Japanese icon and that I am not the originator of that specific carp image. But I am the originator of that particular and specific artistic use of it on a guitar. I believe that my adaptation of that specific carp image to a guitar, in the way that I have done, is widely known and associated with me in Japan.
I am at present asking the company involved to immediately stop manufacturing and selling their guitars using my design in such a way as to create a similarity with any of my instruments.
I hope they will understand and honor my request and take the necessary steps to correct the problems.
GUITAR VOICING: DIFFERENT STROKES FOR DIFFERENT FOLKS?December, 2012
I was recently in a conversation with a client during which he asked whether I voice my guitars differently depending on whether they are OM models, or Modified Dreadnoughts, or Jumbos, or 00s, or whether I make accommodations within a given model depending on whether it will be played in standard or open tuning. It's not a bad question, and it's something I've discussed with others. The assumption seems to be that something has to be done differently because these guitars are different sizes and shapes and uses, and will of course have different sounds. How could one recipe voicing approach possibly work for all of them?
My short answer to the question is that the principal task of any serious luthier is to allow the soundbox to produce its largest, greatest, and most free and melodious voice. Every luthier you will ever have a conversation with will give you perfectly-good-sounding reasons for whatever he does to his guitars' woods in order to tease the best sounds out of them. Nonetheless, the chief task of every one of these luthiers is NOT actually to apply this or that technique or procedure in order to get "this kind" of sound out of one model guitar and "that kind" of sound out of another: the various guitar models and types (that is, together with their various factors of size, depth, wood selection, stringing, etc.) set the tonal parameters for what such a soundbox will be capable of. The luthier's task is, simply, to get any particular size/shape/composition soundbox to fully release its tonal potential. Period. The soundbox cannot do better than its best. Short of that end result one simply achieves -- knowingly or not -- the suppression, inhibition, or incomplete freeing-up of some part of the guitar's capacity to respond.
The longer answer is that this goal is, in fact, the principal challenge of steel string guitar making today, because most of the makers of this instrument have never heard a steel string guitar with a really great voice of its own; they take overbuilt guitars as their models, and copy them -- in the belief that their job is done when such an instrument is strung up. Classical guitar makers, in my opinion, have more of a clue as to the sounds that better guitars are capable of: they have had access to musicians with better-trained ears (and better guitars), as well as other examples of more optimally-realized modern and historical models to study, listen to, and emulate.
What I just said about "getting the most out of a steel string guitar's potential" probably sounds too simplified and clichéd to be very useful. But consider the matter in this way: an OM model guitar is smaller, shallower, and differently shaped than a Dreadnought. These two may also have different scale lengths and woods, and have different strings or be played in different tunings. Such facts set most of the tonal possibilities for both of these guitars from the outset. You can easily make a bad OM or a bad Dreadnought, but you won't be able to make an OM that sounds like a Dreadnought no matter what you do. One could make the occasional larger guitar that is so misbuilt that it sounds like a smaller model, but not the other way around. The best thing that a luthier can do is to make a really good OM or a really good Dreadnought . . . and they will have different sound because they brought different things to the table, blueprint-wise and tone-wise, from the very beginning. In principle as well as in fact, the guitar maker's task is to bring those qualities fully out. It seems useful to look at the matter of the guitar's voice from this perspective, rather than to try for some specific yet mysterious and elusive tonal goals that attach to its various models.
Unfortunately, luthier can fail to do the best work in any guitar rather easily: making a guitar is a bit like being in a maze that has all sorts of dead ends, false turns, and detours, and all one has to do to run into some of these is to overbuild, underbuild, or build inconsistently. And if one does any of these things the soundbox is thereby - somehow and to some degree - hampered or inhibited from realizing its fullest potential. Like a two-by-four that can always be cut shorter than its present length but never be made longer, a guitar can always be gotten to sound more constrained or limited than its potential best. But it can't be made to sound better than its potential best. And, as I said, one kind of guitar's BEST will be different than another model of guitar's BEST.
Admittedly, everything that I just said is a matter of degree, and the fact is that most guitars "do the job": they play all the notes, they tune up, they sound pretty good, and so on. I mean, we're talking guitars here, not kidneys, right? But I am PRECISELY talking about matters of degree, not absolutes [NOTE: this is a gem of a sentence, is it not?]. In the world of athletics, for instance, the man who comes in second place is not necessarily worse than the winner; he's slower or weaker by a matter of degree. Second best is MUCH better than being 369th; but fame and stardom aside, being in first place is often only a tiny bit better than being in second place. With guitars, however -- or in any comparison of something in which there are only two or three being compared -- second best may sometimes represent a gap of many degrees of difference. This is especially true if one of the parties being compared is not all that experienced.
USING WENGE AS A GUITAR WOODNovember 30, 2012
Brazilian rosewood, that traditional "Holy Grail" of fine guitar making woods is getting scarce, expensive, and -- with legislation such as the Lacey Act coming to the fore in recent years -- illegal to have unless one has the legal paperwork to show its age, provenance, and legality to be allowed to cross borders. Therefore, in view of severe restrictions in supply and use of traditional guitar making woods, suppliers to the guitar making industry are offering new, supposedly more sustainable guitar making woods that no one had heard of ten years ago, that come from countries that half of us cannot find on the map. All of these woods, of course, are marketed as being desirable and adequate substitutes (availability, good grain, figure, color, dimensional stability, price, etc.) for the traditional materials.
In my view, some are and some aren't. As a guitar maker, my own preferences are for woods that are "live" rather than not, regardless of their grain, figure or color. What that means is that one can elicit a live and musical tone from a particular slice or chunk when one taps on it. Some woods can make sound on the order of thummmmmmmm or thimmmmmmmm (ginnnnnnnng, gonnnnnng, pinnnnnnng or ponnnnnnnng also work; I think you get the idea), with bell-like sustain; others go "thwick" or "thud"***. I mean, the reason some woods are called tonewoods is because they literally produce a musical note. And this quality, when used to make a guitar soundbox, will make a better and more acoustically active guitar than would be the case if the woods used made some kind of thud or thunk when sounded. Such woods are fine for making furniture. If they're to be used in guitar making, though, then a perfectly reasonable course of action is to focus on the visuals instead of the acoustics. There are "live" woods that look rather plain, and there are "dead" woods that look like Raquel Welch in 3-D. The flash and beauty of the latter have an obvious appeal and many guitars get made because their looking gorgeous will be a strong selling point. As much to the point, when considerations of tone and appearance vie for customers, heated discussions about the good points of this or that combination of materials will occur and a variety of woods will be brought out as being "as good as", "acoustically responsive", "high quality", "surprisingly good", "improved by patented methods of treatment", "a comparable alternative", "now used by the so-and-so factory in their higher end guitars", and so on.
My own searches have brought me to wenge (pronounced WHEN-gay). It's a dark, purplish-brown colored African hardwood that has long been used by bowl turners and cabinet/furniture makers. For some reason, no one seems to have thought about using it for guitars yet -- so it's relatively cheap. (Once something catches the attention of the buying public its price goes up; with guitar making woods this rise can be quite dramatic.) The thing that appeals to me about wenge is that it is very live. That is, when you hold a piece of it up and tap on it -- i.e., if you're holding it in such a way that you're not damping any of its vibrational modes -- it'll ring like a piece of glass, plate of steel, or a crystal brandy snifter. This quality is known as "vitreousness", which literally means "glasslike-ness". And wenge will make such a sound.
Wenge's vitreousness is a function of the wood's being brittle on the level of its cellular structure. In fact, it's that very brittleness that makes the vibrational action, and the sound that this produces, possible. The brittleness that is a plus for sound has a mechanical downside, of sorts, in that the wood cracks easily if it's mishandled (just as glass does), and it gives one splinters if one is careless with it. It can also take more patience to bend, because brittle woods resist bending easily. I repeat, however, that it is this very potential for cracking that puts wenge in the same category as that most prized of traditional guitar making woods, Brazilian rosewood. Lovely, alluring, and live though this "holy grail" wood is, it has also earned a reputation for being subject to cracking. Sound vs. fragility: it's a tradeoff for which there are few solutions so long as one wishes to use that material -- and the solutions involve (1) overbuilding so as to minimize fragility (which comes at the expense of tonal response), or (2) mindful treatment and care in the making, in the handling, and in the using. The former gives you structural stability and less sound; the latter gives you structural fragility and much more sound.
While the acoustic properties of a given wood might make it a joy for a guitar maker to work with, marketing a new wood can be tricky. No one will have heard of it, much less had experience with it; the buying public will be suspicious of, and resistant to, accepting it. It's a bit of an uphill slog until it "catches on". This has certainly been my experience. I've made five of these guitars by now and am working on my sixth. As I said: it's wonderfully live; but most of my customers still want Brazilian rosewood. That's fine; but wenge is a really good alternative for anyone who is willing to be open minded. And it makes the guitars less expensive.
Finally, I have to add that making guitars that sound good, using wenge for the back and sides, should not be much of an impediment to younger guitar makers who are still establishing their reputations and their styles. As I said, it's a good wood, needing only a good advertising campaign behind it. It is the more established guitar makers such as myself who, already having reputations for using this wood or that wood, or having a certain by-now-familiar style or feature associated with their work, who meet the greatest resistance to anything new. In my case, everybody wants me to make the same things for them that I've been making for my other clients; the traditional woods and designs, after all, have their good track records. An example of this factor would be that I'd expect to have a hard time selling a guitar (that I made) that looked like Grit Laskin's work, well executed though it might be; why would anyone buy a Laskin knock-off from me when they can get an original from him? And I'd expect Mr. Laskin to have an equally hard time selling a guitar that looked like my work; why would anyone buy a Somogyi knock-off when they can get an original from me? Just so with woods and other departures from our norms.
*** These sounds are onomatopoeic. Onomatopoeia is when a word replicates something of the very sound that it's identifying. Onomatopoeia is useful, in spite of the fact that if one overuses it one sounds like a six-year old. But in fact, many "sound" words such as boom, crack, boing, thud, tap, ding-dong, smack, roar, clink, thump, clang, whap, bam, zip, hum, buzz, gong, snap, gurgle, ka-chunk, ka-ching, scratch, whoosh, zing, pow, ting, bark, meow, hiss, pop, twang, shriek, puff, clank, beep, snip, clip, chop, thunk, boinnnng, flap, squawk, screech, puff, tick-tock, bop, creak, glug-glug, ring, whack, moo, ruffle, oink, spank, swish, growl, tinkle, rip, rumble, squash, cock-a-doodle-doo, crash, squish, ack-ack, clunk, zap, whizz, whirr, bang, murmur, cough, drip, splash, shpritz, zoom, flush, clap, slap, slam, ah-choo, snort, chortle, giggle, gulp, gasp, shuffle, bip, ring, and thud are onomatopoeic. Try reading this list out loud: it'll remind you of someone falling down a long flight of stairs and hitting some pets along the way. As far as having a discussion about something like music goes, the nouns and onomatopoeics are fairly straightforward; it's the adjectives for sound (smooth, liquid, smoky, complex, transparent, rough, golden, dark, even, cloying, colorful, dull, transient, fruity, present, sweet, sharp, mellow, full-bodied, dry, light, airy, impressive, etc.), that get us into the most trouble.
AN AMUSING EXPERIENCESeptember 22, 2012
I want to tell you about an interesting experience I had a few years ago. A good many of you out there may well be able to relate to it.
Some of you readers may know that I play flamenco guitar. Well, in the best Shoemaker's-Children-Have-No-Shoes tradition, I didn't have a good flamenco guitar of my own for a long time; I was playing a borrowed cheapo. So, with friends' benevolent prodding to motivate me (but that's the subject of another article), I decided to make myself my own guitar. And I did. With great eagerness and anticipation.
When the moment finally came to string it up and play it, I was struck by what a magnificent bass response it had. My shop was then in a high-ceiling warehouse space, and this guitar's bass absolutely filled that cavernous room. It made the air space resonate. It was like a Taiko-drum guitar. The bass was, in a word, simply awesome. It entirely overshadowed the treble end.
Unfortunately, a really good bass is not the sound that a good flamenco guitar needs to have. One wants something bright, zingy, penetrating, with the traditional flamenco rough edge. Where had I gone wrong? (Does this scenario sound familiar to any of you?) Technically, I'd built a guitar with a kick-ass good monopole, but not much cross- or long dipoles -- although this was language I was to learn later; I was not familiar with such concepts at the time.
I spent some time pondering what to do. Shave the braces? If so, which ones, where, and by how much? Should I sand the top thinner? Again: where and how much? Should I put on higher tension strings? Or install a new fretboard with a longer scale? Or perhaps become withdrawn, eat compulsively, drop out of lutherie and realize my life's secret ambition of becoming the first Hungarian-American sumo wrestler? Heck, I had lots of options. It also occurred to me that I could call some of my expert fellow luthiers and get some informed advice. It seemed, at least, a good way to get some consensus as to where to start. They'd know exactly what to do, surely.
I called noted authority Richard Brune; he not only makes classic and flamenco guitars, but is also a skilled flamenco guitar player. He'd certainly know how to fix this. So I described the guitar to him over the telephone, taking care to be as specific as I could be about sizes, measurements, thicknesses, etc. He took in my information and immediately told me that my braces were inadequate to the job; I needed much bigger braces. He advised me to rebrace the guitar in that way, or at least retrofit meatier braces in through the soundhole. I thanked Richard for his advice and hung up.
I'd hoped for an easier fix than to either futz blindly for hours through the soundhole; or retop the guitar; or remove the back, rebrace the innards, and then replace the back and then do refinishing. That's a lot of work. Besides, it wasn't as though the guitar were for an important client or anything. So I thought that I could perhaps get a second opinion -- to at least force me to do this work by the sheer preponderance of advice. I called Robert Ruck, an internationally and deservedly noted Spanish guitar maker who also plays flamenco guitar. I'd known him, as I'd known Brune, from any number of G.A.L. conventions, private correspondence, phone conversations, etc. Many of you reading this will have attended their lectures, read their articles, and also met them.
Once again, I went through the process of describing my guitar to a knowledgeable expert; same guitar, same measurements, same parameters, same conversation. Robert took my information in, and just as quickly as Brune had given me his opinion, rendered his own: my braces were too big. According to him, I needed to shave the braces down drastically in order to gain a satisfactory sound. He offered to fax me a drawing -- which he in fact did the next day -- of a special brace-shaving tool that he'd invented for shaving hard-to-get-at braces through the soundhole; it was especially useful for shaving down the Spanish guitar's diagonal braces -- the chevrons that are farthest from the soundhole and the most impossible to get to. I thanked Robert for his input and hung up.
I'd hardly expected to get identical input from two independent luthiers; but this was ridiculous. My next idea was the obvious one: to call someone else and at least try for a consensus of two out of three. I needed more input. Whether I wanted it or not.
I happened to have a conversation with luthier Steve Klein the following week. Steve doesn't make flamenco guitars -- or conventional guitars of any kind, for that matter. Still, he's a very smart, articulate luthier and a brilliant designer with years of guitar making experience behind him, so I mentioned the two conversations I'd already had about my guitar's spectacular lack of tonal balance. I thought that Steve might have a useful perspective on my problem; after all, bass is bass and treble is treble and a guitar is a guitar, right?
Steve's opinion, diplomatically rendered after I described my situation to him, was that my bridge design was faulty. In Steve's opinion, I could improve the sound of my guitar in the desired direction by replacing the bridge with -- I forget which now, since so much time has passed since this conversation happened, and I was a little shell-shocked anyway -- either a lighter one or a heavier one. I thanked Steve for his input and said goodbye.
Armed with all this advice and support from some of the more prominent of my professional colleagues, I was, how shall I say it, not yet quite fully enlightened. The thought of hacking wood away from my guitar -- or gluing wood on -- here and there, hoping to strike gold through luck as much as skill, didn't have much appeal for me. And, suppose I managed to destroy the bass response without improving the treble? Or even (God forbid) even improve it?! I agonized. But, I thought: I am a professional, am I not? Bottom line: I still needed to get at least some clarity on this matter. Understandably, however, I found myself a bit reluctant to ask for input from anyone else.
Right about that time I visited nearby-based luthier Randy Angella's new workshop; Angella had been making lovely and really good sounding classic guitars for years, had then dropped out and gone into different work, and had more recently come back into lutherie. I thought I might get some ideas from him. But I wasn't going to ask directly: I'd tried that tactic and it had been leading nowhere. I was going to sneak around and try to get a hint from whatever methods he was using.
Randy is a very nice man and is able to share freely of his knowledge and techniques. He was at the time making his guitar tops' perimeters very thin -- including the edge along the lower transverse brace, sometimes known as the harmonic bar; he was tapering the top on the bridge-side of the lower transverse brace, and leaving it full thickness past that brace. I took note of this. Unfortunately, as the wisdom I'd received to that point in time indicated that thinning the perimeter of a guitar face would loosen its "hinge" movement and help the bass, I couldn't see that going in this direction was going to be of any help to me. I already had too much bass, and maybe I should have asked about Randy's thinking. Bugfat.
I reviewed my options again. I could jump in and shave some braces. I could sand the top thinner. In both cases I'd simply need to figure out where and how much. I might have luck with higher tension strings; but they might make the guitar sound even more robust. Or lower tension strings: they'd give me a more delicate sound, surely. I could install a longer fretboard and scale; or a shorter one; this would be more or less the equivalent of experimenting with string gauges. I might dump the project and retop the guitar. Then, I could also leave town quietly. Yep, I still had lots of options.
I'd begun to get to know luthier Eugene Clark at about that time; he was living about fifteen minutes away from me. He and I got together at a local restaurant, after having had made on-again/off-again plans for some time. Eugene is almost legendary as a Spanish guitar maker, and, not surprisingly, the subject of my problematic guitar came up. Over coffee and dessert I described my problematic situation, and Eugene in turn explained his concept of the Spanish guitar to me: it is -- in a nutshell -- a thin film of lightly braced wood stretched over a spare framework of massive main braces that (1) strictly delineate its vibrating areas and simultaneously (2) sets the resonances of these areas by virtue of the level of introduced rigidity. As far as the face is concerned, Eugene's idea of the most effective design is to have a thin, domed plate of topwood held up by a rigid perimeter and by rather substantial upper and lower transverse braces (i.e., the ones that straddle the soundhole) which are moreover fully anchored into the sides. That is, these braces aren't scalloped at the ends -- which weakens their attachment to the main structure, and hence their stiffening/load bearing capacity -- but rather butted at full height against the sides, and then held in place on each end with a bracket. I showed him my guitar; Eugene immediately showed me something interesting: that by simply pressing on the guitar's face with his thumb over the lower transverse brace, he could stiffen that brace -- and the quadrant it served -- sufficiently so that the tap tone became significantly altered. When he let go with his thumb, the original (and, frankly, thuddy and dull) sound came back; when he pressed down again, the top responded with a dramatically more live ping. No rebracing; no rethicknessing; but tightening the top up -- even in this ad hoc and artificial way -- made a difference that I could instantly hear. In dynamic terms, such a mechanical change toward brighter response would come at the expense of the monopole (which my guitar had in abundance); and it brought out more of the long and cross dipoles -- which is exactly how a flamenco guitar ought to be functioning in the first place. I was very glad for this input.
In due time I went back to my workbench and reworked my guitar. I spent a day carefully removing the lower transverse brace through the soundhole. I did it carefully and cleanly. And I installed a meatier replacement. The toughest part was cutting the linings away; I had to do that to make room for a replacement brace that extended fully from side wood to side wood and whose ends I could glue brackets over. I had to cut two of my Japanese woodcarving knives' handles way down to make the tools small enough to fit into the guitar's body. I did a little brace shaving, but not much. Simultaneously, I did remove wood from the top selectively with sandpaper and a sanding block, so as to facilitate the dipole motions of the bridge. I reasoned that this additional operation would help further the phenomenon Eugene had showed me. Then I re-French polished the face.
It worked. I took this guitar with me to the next Healdsburg Guitar Festival -- not to display, but to have and play after hours, to amuse myself musically. By then the guitar had settled in (as all guitars eventually do) and light reflecting off the face was revealing that the face was thinned to the point that one could see the "imprinting" of the braces underneath; I don't think this had happened before; but the guitar hadn't existed in its originally thicknessed state long enough for it to settle in, so I'll never know.
Anyway, I signed up to do an open mike performance at one of the local coffee houses one of the evenings of the festival, and I played that guitar. To my surprise, a man came up to me after my performance and offered to buy that guitar from me on the spot. I'd never had such an experience before, and I'd certainly not expected to make a sale that weekend in such a way. But I did!
All in all, this had been a terrifically broadening experience, filled with surprises of all kinds at every turn. Lamentably, the world lost its first Hungarian-American sumo wrestler, but that couldn't be helped. My thanks to all the people who helped me to learn something.
This article has been previously published in American Lutherie magazine.
FAQ #7: FLAT VS. DOMED TOPSSeptember 22, 2012
Q: In your book you recomend 30' for a top radius, if one decides to buy a commercialy made disc. On the other hand I saw that James Goodall and Robert Taylor use 50' and 65' radiused dishes and Jim Olson & Kevin Ryan make FLAT non-radius tops. Olson said that he feels that these produce more responsive tops. So why, exactly, do you recomend a 30' one? Wouldn't a 65' one be better since it is closer to being FLAT?
A: It's a question of balancing various factors -- very similar to a cook's gauging how much of this and/or that spice or flavoring to use in making a dinner.
In the guitar (instead of carrots, lamb, and oregano) the ingredients are the string tension, the torque from the bridge, the mass of the braced top (which is arrived at by any combination of top thickness and bracing mass), top bracing and reinforcement (that is, the pattern and layout of the braces, as well as their profiling and height), and desired target sound (the resultant mix of monopole and dipoles, as well as sustain and dynamics).
There is no "correct" way to make a guitar. If there were, they'd all sound the same -- just as if there were only one recipe for making French onion soup: then all French onion soup would taste exactly the same. In the biological realm, it would be equivalent to having every wife, husband, boyfriend, girlfrend, son, daughter, etc. be clones. So let's forget "the one best way" of doing something complex.
Jim Olsen holds that a flat top is the most responsive. Very well. But what, exactly, does that mean? Does this not have something to do with how thick and/or stiff the top is, or how it is braced? And how it responds to the mechanical pull of the strings? I suspect that it does.
So if we were to imagine a VERY thin top that is made flat, it would be easy to imagine it buckling or caving in under the pull of the strings . . . unless the bracing were beefy enough to make up for the weakness of such a flat plate. In other words, you could make that flimsy face hold up by adding more reinforcing.
You could also/instead make that flimsy face hold up better by putting an arch or dome into it. Arched structures are stiffer and more stable than flat ones -- just as a pointed or arched roof on a house will hold up to rain and snow better than a flat one. Western architecture took a mighty step forward when structural doming became possible: the materials themselves -- rather than supports, trusses, beams, and buttresses -- achieve the required structural integrity, Analogously, if you put a dome or arch into the guitar face, you could use less bracing and achieve the same stiffness with fewer materials (i.e. less mass).
Less mass is good; it means that the strings have to strain less to coax sound out of the top. The strings need to work harder to get sound out of a heavy top -- exactly as a horse has to pull harder to make a heavily loaded wagon move. You can appreciate that different archings/domings induce different amounts of stiffness into a plate. As can different thicknesses of that plate. And so can different sizes and layouts of braces. These are, in fact, the three main ingredients of top-making, exactly as flour, water, and eggs are three main ingredients in bread making. And in both guitars and bread the ingredients can be mixed or combined in different ways to produce a successful product. In the guitar this goal is: a top that is intelligently constructed and reasonably lightweight (which goes to sound), and also able to hold up to the pull of the strings (which goes to long-term stability of the guitar).
In the guitar, ridiculously small (or small-seeming) amounts of these various ingredients can make a difference you can clearly hear. For instance, a bit more or less top thickness can offset a bit more or less doming. A bit more or less bracing can offset a bit more or less top thickness. And so on. Identifying and using only one of these factors as being "most important", appealing though that idea is, turns out not to be realistic. If the guitar were a political construct rather than a mechanical one, then it would work best as a democracy in which every component is (not to make a pun) given its proper voice. To make one into a "leader" (in our sociopolitical sense of the word) is not what a guitar is all about.
FAQ #7: FLAT BACKS AND ARCH TOPSSeptember 22, 2012
Q: Recently I bought your books & DVD and I found one sentence particularly interesting: you mentioned that if a guitar with a normal flat back had an arched top, its dynamics would be unique. Can you please reveal from your experiences in which direction the sound will change, compared to that of a normal flat/domed top?
A: It's an interesting question, and to my knowledge no one has yet made a guitar like this. Mario Beauregard of Quebec, on the other hand, has been making something truly new: nylon string guitars with arched backs and flat tops.
The arching of a plate stiffens it: it improves its stiffness-to-weight ratio. And, acoustically, it raises the plate's pitch: its vibrational behaviors are shifted toward high-frequency signal -- such as the violin has. A small highly domed plate is not likely to have a good monopole -- that is, a good low end. Also, the greater the arch, the shorter the sustain is likely to be.
Cellos have a low end, and they have violin-like arched plates -- but they are huge compared to a guitar. So part of what we are discussing is the SIZE of the plate, in addition to its doming vs. flatness. But it would be difficult to play a cello-sized guitar.
There's another factor too: what wood the arched plate is made of. Traditionally, all arched-plated instruments (violins, violas, cellos, standing basses, and jazz guitars) have used spruces and maples -- spruces for the tops, maples for the backs. Maple does not have much sustain compared with some of the woods used in guitars, especially Brazilian rosewood (although, in my experience of the maples, Eastern rock maple has the most, Western broadleaf maple has the least, and European maple -- which is a sycamore -- has some). Therefore, if we're talking about a guitar with an arched spruce top and a flat maple back, it would likely have a sound characterized by a quick attack and a quick decay: bright, brisk, zingy, sharp, and not much sustain.
Sustain is not a factor in arched-plate and bowed instruments. They don't need natural sustain: they will make sound as long as the player continues to scrape his bow over the strings. In the guitar on the other hand, because it is a plucked rather than a bowed instrument, the sound stops as soon as the strings do -- just as happens with the banjo, lute, koto, ukulele, mandolin, dulcimer, harp, or harpsichord. [NOTE: the harp and the harpsichord are both excited by plucking action; the piano is excited by hammering action.]
It's not likely that these traditions had such acoustic considerations behind them. The science of acoustics didn't yet exist, and early European makers would of course have used the woods available to them -- in this case the European alpine spruces and maples. They were a long way from having access to imported exotics from the New World. Also, in those days, the cost of labor was cheap and the cost of materials was high, so a thick plate of an imported exotic wood (that you'd carve down into an arched surface, and in the process wasting much of the wood) would have been quite expensive, compared to a thin plate of the same wood such as would eventually be used on guitars.
FAQ #6: BRACING, THICKNESS OR BOTHDecember 18, 2011
Q: In my limited experience with classical guitars there seems to be a need to have a more flexible top on the bass side and a more stiff top on the treble side, giving the warm and low sound on the bass and more sustain on the treble, as well as preventing the percussive anvil sort of trebles . The flamencos seem to have a somewhat less flexible bass and a flexible treble side, which gives them a somewhat percussive sound with rapid decay in sound. This is at least consistent in the examples I have and have had the opportunity to play.
If one were to attempt to make a classical guitar as stated above would a change in top thickness to accommodate the additional stiffness required on the treble side be in order, or would changing or stiffening the bracing on that side be a better option than making a guitar with a top that is not of uniform thickness?
So . . .essentially, bracing or thickness or both?
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A: Your question addresses the primary issue of whether it is desirable to design a plate that relies on symmetrical design, or an asymmetrical one, for optimal functioning. The matter is clouded by the fact that some remarkably good guitars of both types have been made. Also, some pretty unimpressive guitars of both designs have been made. So there's no clear winner, and I'm not convinced that the mere fact of symmetrical or asymmetrical construction is the most important consideration. I mean, if it were, one of these designs would produce consistently better results than the other.
As I read your question, I am translating it (to myself) into language that I am most comfortable with. So my answer might put a different spin on things than you're used to. Let's see if this makes sense to you.
To my knowledge, flamenco guitars achieve their characteristic sound by having looser, more flexible tops in general than classic guitars. Specifically, they are so loose that the monopole (the base) is discharged quickly -- thus giving those instruments the characteristic traditional "dry" sound without a lot of sustained presence; their sound is more percussive. Usually, if one believes in asymmetrical construction, the treble side is made a bit stiffer than the bass side. In any event, compared to classic guitars, flamenco guitars have a more prominent cross-dipole. They are "looser" in that mode, in which the top moves side-to-side across the centerline and the bridge teeter-totters with one wing going up as the other goes down, and back. You can get a sense of this looseness by simply pressing down on one of those tops with your thumb: you will probably feel them "give' fairly easily. You can also test for cross-dipole compliance by lightly putting one or two fingers of one hand on one wing of the bridge and lightly tap on the other wing with your other hand. You should feel a definite and instantaneous displacement as the bridge see-saws relatively freely. Classic guitars will be built less loosely, and will accordingly have less mechanical "give". Neither one of these designs is "good" or "bad", by the way; they are simply different -- and different for a reason.
To my knowledge, these characteristics of flexibility and movement in a guitar top are best achieved by careful BUT SYMMETRICAL calibration of the plate -- and I do not try to build any mechanical or dimensional asymmetry into my own guitar tops. But I acknowledge that other makers of successful guitars use dimensionally asymmetrical faces, so I'm inclined to believe that the motions of the cross-dipole (or any other mode) apply to a variety of architectures. At that point, the issue becomes that of basic calibrating so that one is "in the ballpark" and doesn't overbuild or underbuild. I go into several detailed discussions of this concern in various chapters of my book The Responsive Guitar. You'll undoubtedly find some of my ideas from there worth at least thinking about.
Your question addresses the question of whether it's appropriate to add or subtract bracing in order to accommodate to changees in top thickness -- as a matter of making material stiffnesses -- and hence vibrational action -- be consistent. The matter of achieving a balance between stiffness and/or looseness through top thickness vs. bracing mass is central to lutherie. And in this balancing act, there are two factors that inform my thinking.
First, in the traditional approach, if one were to make part of the top thinner, one would indeed want to "compensate" for it by making the bracing a little stiffer. This is assuming that the maker's goal is to have AN EVEN GRADIENT OF MECHANICAL AND VIBRATIONAL STIFFNESS FROM THE BRIDGE TO THE PERIMETER, IN ALL DIRECTIONS. This is certainly my goal. In purely practical terms, this is surprisingly tricky to do until you begin to understand what you're doing and have some practice at it; after that, it's surprisingly easy. So an experienced hand and eye are really useful to have. I should add that, incidentally and technically, the gradient that I visualize in my work is only even in the sense that there are no lumps or irregularities of localized stiffness between the center and the perimeter; but it is not the same slope on all axies, in the sense of being identical. The longitudinal gradient is stiffer than the lateral gradient.
Be all that as it may, the second factor is, I think, just as important. It's also interesting, subtle, and elegant -- and obvious. So much so that it took me years to see it. It's the "water running downhill" principle; you know: that water will find a way to run downhill regardless of trees, rocks, or irregularities of slope or terrain -- because that's the nature of water. In fact, such downhill movement of water cannot be prevented short of putting up a barrier or obstacle that exceeds the power of gravity over water.
Interestingly, sound energy is the same, except that instead of running downhill it wants to radiate off a guitar top -- with all the freedom of water running downhill. It's the nature of sound energy to dissipate into its surrounding medium, be it air or water. If we think of sound energy as seeking its easiest path "out", as water wants to find the easiest path "down", then it's a short step to seeing physical unevenness in a guitar top as being analogous to unevenness in downhill terrain. And unless any of this unevenness is significantly huge, both water and sound will continue to flow and radiate. Tweaking any of the minor irregularities of slope, terrain, or structure will by no means stop any of the flow or radiation; they'll find a way to get from here to there.
Let's take a look at how this might work in a guitar. Let's assume that you have a dimensionally asymmetrical plate, as you described above. And let's further assume that the structure -- irregularities and all -- is "in the ballpark" as far as not undermining the monopole, cross-dipole, and long dipole. Or, saying the same thing with different words, that the irregularities are such that they allow the capacity of the plate to engage in these modes without messing any of them up). The top will flex and bend and seesaw and vibrate just as all the theories, diagrams and Chladni patterns suggest. The question then becomes: what makes you assume that such a top and its vibrational modes have to function symmetrically around the guitar's centerline? Or that the various vibrating quadrants and subsection of the face will map out as being active with elegant evenness, symmetry, and consistency? I mean, no one expects water to flow downhill over a natural terrain in a straight, even, consistent, and predictably regular line, do they?
Your question cites differential side-to-side construction. This is the axis of the cross-dipole, which is (in theory) a see-sawing action around the centerline. If we were to imagine two kids on a playground see-sawing up and down on a teeter-totter, that device will be pivoting on its center point as a matter of the manufacturer's design. But, suppose one of the kids is heavier than the other one? That would introduce an irregularity into the flow of their play. The manufacturer of the teeter-totter wouldn't care about that, of ocurse; only the kids would. And to anyone to whom the kids' fun was important, they could compensate for this disparity in mass (in the "playing field" or "gradient") of that teeter-totter by simply adjusting the fulcrum point to a somewhat off-center position. Then, being better balanced, the kids could see-saw happily and without strain: same mass, same energy, same frequency, easier and more harmonious oscill.ation.
This is close to my sense of how the guitar works. To repeat, using other words: if there is sufficient unevenness in the top because of any design idea of the maker, and the design variable isn't so huge as to throw a monkey wrench into the natural functioning of the guitar, then that "uneven" top will accommodate to the needs of the energy flow of that irregular structure all by itself. It'll adjust, within some limits (of the natural capacity for flexibility of its woods), and perhaps wind up fulcruming, say, 1/16" off the centerline. It can do that because the guitar lacks a fixed fulcrum in the way that a teeter-totter has one. Therefore, the vibrating quadrants of the top may be a little bit lopsided or asymmetrical in actual movement, etc.. But, as far as dissipation of strings' energy is concerned, nothing has been prevented; it's simply found its way out via an alternate path from what "the manufacturer's blueprint" might have suggested.
This doesn't fully answer your question yet, but my answer required me to have sketched in this background before addressing it specifically. This background, to repeat once more, is that tonewood that has been worked to more or less optimal dimensions has a certain innate flexibility of vibratory potential. There are no fixed fulcrums or vibrational nodes. And it may not matter that you've made an irregular plate -- as long as you have not made it so uneven that you've pushed the plate past some limit of being able to perform its principal vibrational tasks.
So, to sum up: my answer to you is in four parts:
First, that yes, if you make a top thinner on one wing, which necessarily weakens it, then there's a logic to adding bracing stiffness to it to make up for that weakening. I believe that one should aim toward at least some standard of evenness of physical/mechanical/tonal gradient if one's goal is to make better and more reliable guitars.
Second: I believe that these maneuvers work most effectively if the top and braces are "in the ballpark" as far as optimal mass and stiffness are concerned -- rather than the system being overbuilt as is often the case. Or underbuilt, if you've gone too far in thinning. If you're overbuilding, then the thinning and bracing work that you are considering might be nullified or overshadowed by the fact that the structure is still too stiff. Or maybe the part that you've thinned will work fine, but the part that y ou haven't thinned will be inhibited. But you won't get 100% cooperation from such a top.
Third, you will probably produce minimally uneven tops no matter what you do; guitars in the real world always have something or other that's not optimal.
Fourth, as with the example of water cited above, and if your gradient is not too unevenly made to begin with, then what you've constructed or misconstructed probably won't matter. Or at least it won't matter very much within the context of the flexibility of vibrational potential that the top has. The top will bend itself (sorry about the pun) to work in any way it can, to release its load of sound energy. It'll modulate itself physically and vibrationally. As I said above, the vibrationally active areas of the top may functionally be a little bit asymmetrical, things may be a bit off-center, vibrational patterns might not be quite mirror-image, etc. But this is no big deal: the top plate has the capacity to function at least a little bit like that in order for the system -- as it is physically constructed, with its unevenness and irregularities -- to engage in an adequate monopole, cross-dipole, and long dipole. Finally, the sound will get out, sometimes because of, and sometimes in spite of, and sometimes without being much bothered one way or the other by, the work you've done. And I think this is where a bit of the magic comes in.
I hope this makes some sense.
F.A.Q.#5: SOUNDHOLES AND BRACING PATTERNSDecember 18, 2011
Q: If the soundhole is not in the traditional location at the end of the fretboard, is there a better bracing pattern than the X-brace, in your experience?
A: The soundhole is where it is, as a matter of tradition rather than critical thought: it's always been put there. One might put this in terms of history trumping dynamics. History and tradition notwithstanding, the guitar soundhole has a tonal role to play, and I devote an entire chapter of The Responsive Guitar to the mechanical and dynamic functions of the soundhole with respect to brace location.
As far as the mechanical dynamics go, the soundhole in the Spanish guitar is outside of the main vibrating area of the face; it's isolated from it by a massive brace that acts like a dam, and the comparatively delicate fan bracing on the other side of it does its work without being affected by exactly where, above that dam, the soundhole is. In the steel string guitar, instead, the soundhole is inside the main vibrating area of the face. It represents a mechanical perforation of that plate -- and it necessarily weakens it. Imagine a drum head (a vibrating diaphragm) with a great big hole in it, and you'll be able to grasp one of the principal bad dynamic ideas in the steel string guitar.
As far as bracing placement is concerned, my opinion is that the acoustical work of the bracing is more important than the specific location of the soundhole, and that these shouldn't be in conflict with one another; therefore, I think there's more to be said for moving the soundhole "out of the way" than moving the bracing around. Those kinds of judgments depend, of course, on understanding the functions and possibilities of various bracing systems. You don't just want to move stuff around randomly.
Speaking of tradition vs. critical thought, the Kasha guitars (with the innovative Kasha bracing) were the first ones to focus on the bracing layout first and the soundhole placement second -- in spite of how oddball those guitars looked. I give the Kasha people credit for understanding about putting the soundhole in a place where it helps rather than hinders. The soundhole's dynamic function is to act as a port (as per the discoveries of 18th century Dutch scientist Christian Huygens, which I go into in my book), and as such doesn't HAVE to be in any particular location. I recommend reading my book if you haven't already.
Whether or not one moves the soundhole, it's useful to have an idea of what each bracing layout can do, in terms of its mechanical and vibrational possibilities. Or impossibilities. There's a logic to each bracing pattern and each one can be tweaked and altered in many ways -- some subtly, some radically. And, as I said, part of the challenge is to not put the soundhole where it'll create a problem. Either way, we'd have to understand how these factors interact before going on to talk about "better" or "worse" . . . because there are many ways to spoil the efficacy of any blueprint pattern and there are many ways to "get it right".
But, let's get back to your question about "X" bracing and soundhole location. The virtue of "X" bracing is that it ties the face together so as to create the possibility of a dominant monopole motion. Now, it won't work nearly optimally well if the bracing/top are overbuilt and too stiff, or if the plate isn't properly or consistently tapered, etc., and your job is to learn to do an INFORMED balancing act. Plus, the soundhole is right in the middle of this, sort of like interrupted ceiling beams that are holding up a roof that itself has a great big hole in it.
If you can get comfortable with the idea of relocating the soundhole to somewhere else then you do have to think about what to do with its area of topwood that is newly available as vibrating diaphragm. I mean, you're creating an empty space bigger than any other empty space on that braced top. You could close the "X" brace up a bit . . . but that would necessarily open up the bass and treble quadrants, and you'd have to figure out if you were comfortable with that. As I said, it's all a balancing act. If you didn't want to mess with the balancing act then you might think about installing one or more finger braces into that space, to tie it into the rest of the bracing. I don't have a better specific answer for you than this.
My unspecific answer is to think of what your changes might signify in terms of the main modal movements of the top: the monopole, the cross-dipole, and the long-dipole. Mainly, "X" bracing is a recipe for bringing out the monopole; it ties everything together. Fan bracing is a recipe for facilitating cross-dipole; there's nothing there to prevent or inhibit that mode. Ladder bracing is a recipe for emphasizing long-dipole; it destroys the monopole and the cross-dipole.
So, if you were thinking of closing in the angle of the "X", you would be justified in suspecting that this will facilitate more cross-dipole: the legs of the "X" would be stiffening the plate in a different way, as a function of their new orientation. So, the equation might look like: (Take away soundhole) + (closing in the "X") = (more cross dipole). A second equation might be: (remove soundhole and add a bit more topwood) + (leave "X" the same) = (maybe a bit more monopole). Another equation might be: (remove soundhole) + (enlarge the space by spreading the "X" legs out) + (make new bracing accommodations to reinforce this larger space) = (?).
My point is that if you can accept that there's some actually useful information contained in technical jargon such as "monopole", "cross-dipole", and "long-dipole" (which are simply formal words for some basic concepts of top vibration, and hence sound) then I think you can begin to have really interesting ideas about how to problem-solve your next guitar project, and make it better.
SOME THOUGHTS ON GUITAR SOUNDNovember 3, 2011
The guitar is about many things: craftsmanship, commerce, history, tradition, entertainment, science, wood and gut and a few other things, physics, acoustics, skill, artistry in design and ornamentation, music, marketing and merchandising, magic, etc. Mostly, the guitar is supposed to be about sound. But that thing is the hardest of all the things on this list to pin down and get a measure of.
Sound is air molecules hitting and exciting our ear drums, pure and simple. But there's no magic at all in this objective description. The magic in musical sound all happens subjectively, in the brain and in how it's able (through innate ability, training, and acculturation) to processes the neural impulses being sent in from the ear. In this regard sound is very much like food and wine, where the magic happens in one's own mouth, tongue, palate, nose, eyes, as well as in one's brain. While many of us report that we "like" this or that sound or wine or food -- the fact is that many of us hold these preferences because we've learned that we should have them, without ever knowing whether we have any authentic preferences that are different. So when it comes to guitar sound, I'm big on listening and really paying attention. And I recommend it to everyone.
Guitar sound is complex. Good sound is, by definition, sound that pleases the listener -- whether he understands anything about the sound or not. A guitar can have any combination or quality of: bass, treble, midrange, resonance, timbre, definition, sustain, projection, dynamic range, warmth, volume, percussiveness, tonal bloom, note shape, harmonics, sweetness, clarity (or lack of it), tonal rise and decay time, cutting power, spareness, evenness of response, brittleness, directionality, separation, brilliance, dryness of tone, tinnyness, tonal darkness or lightness, and/or cleanness of tone. So, unless you have a really sophisticated and practiced ear, it won't work to evaluate a guitar's sound by listening to someone play a whole piece of music on it. That amount of information overwhelms the average ear within the first eight or ten bars of the song.
However, there is a way of coming to grips with sound that I stumbled on a few years ago. It is so simple that no one ever thinks of it: that is, really listening to the simplest sounds the guitar can make -- and doing it in a quiet place. It's very much like tasting food or sipping a wine; one does it slowly and without distractions, in order to get a reliable sense of their flavors, textures, sweetness, spicyness, and overall pleasingness. Let me explain what I mean, and my own method; it'll help you next time you are shopping for a guitar to buy.
What I do (among other things) is to sit down, tune the guitar, and just play a chord. I play it slowly so that I can hear each note separately. And I listen until the sound dies away. I do this more than once. A simple chord can give one a lot of information, especially if one takes one's time at this. It can also be useful to listen to a second guitar, to compare against. The thing is: the voice of the guitar is the voice of the guitar regardless of what's being played. But playing a chord, or a few notes, will give you all the information that playing an entire song can give you -- without your senses being clogged by any player's flashy technique. Not that one shouldn't play whole pieces; but I suggest playing sound-bytes first.
Here's a checklist for what you can usefully listen for in a six-note chord. If you cannot hear each note [at least somewhat] distinctly, the solution is to keep on listening and learn how to focus your ear. In saying "focus" I mean just that: train your ear to focus on one quality of sound at a time -- exactly as you focus on one person's voice at at time at a well-attended cocktail party. Unless you're playing a really bad guitar, I guarantee you: the information is all right there. The things to notice are whether or not, or how much, there is of any or all of the following.
(1) A chord will emerge from the guitar either quickly or slowly;
(2) notice whether any part of the sound dies off sooner, or lingers longer, than another. This is basic information that you won't get if someone is playing whole songs;
(3) listen for basic volume and presence;
(4) a chord will emerge from the guitar either quickly or slowly;
(5) listen for some degree of separation: that is, you may be able to hear each note. Or not: the sound may be fuzzy or cloudy and lack focus;
(6) most chords will last six to twelve seconds; that gives you a sense of systemic sustain:
(7) pay attention to the quality of sound -- that is, whether it's warm, sweet, tinny, rich, live, fundamental, shallow, breathy, open, held back, and/or has lots of overtones;
(8) is there compliance of response? That is, do you have to push the guitar or does it respond easily to your touch;
(9) listen to whether the sound is bass-heavy or treble heavy, or well balanced;
(10) and whether the strength/presence of each string is even;
(11) and whether there are any wolf tones (i.e., problematically louder or quieter notes)
(12) and whether the guitar really plays in tune or not;
(13) and whether the sound is good close-up, and/or from across the room (you'll need a playing/listening partner for this);
(14) and whether the guitar sounds different depending on whether you're listening from in front of it or from off to the side. Some guitars will astonish you with how narrow their area of projection is;
(15) and whether or not the guitar has good dynamic range; that is, whether can you get different quality of sound from playing very softly, softly, medium, harder, and/or really hard;
(16) if you repeat these exercises with different chords up and down the neck you'll get a sense of how evenly (or not) the guitar plays on the whole fingerboard;
(17) be on the lookout for tonal bloom; that is, whether the sound comes out immediately at full volume or whether it integrates and gets louder before it begins to wane;
(18) finally, you get to notice and decide whether and how much you like or dislike any of these qualities of tonal response in the guitar you're playing.
All the information is in the soundbox. You just need to know how to listen without having your ear get overwhelmed. And in addition to all these things, you can get a sense whether the guitar is easy or difficult to play; this has nothing to do with sound; it's about how well the string action, scale length, string spacing, and shape of neck are adapted to your hand.
COMMENTARIES ABOUT MY DVDDecember 14, 2011
Some of you may know that I put a DVD out two years ago, on the topic of Voicing the Guitar. It is of a lecture I at the Healdsburg Guitar Festival in 2009. This DVD has engendered both positive and negative comments. The positive ones comment on how useful and understandable my presentation is. The negative ones generally have to do with the fact that I don't reveal my specific methods for voicing the guitar -- or at least not enough of them for anyone to usefully copy.
From the outset, this DVD was intended to have a dual purpose. First, I seek to give an overview of the principles of voicing the guitar -- for which work I'm fairly well known -- to people who are interested in the guitar but don't yet know much about its actual ins and outs. Second, as the Healdsburg Guitar Festival happened shortly after the publication of my two-volume work The Responsive Guitar and Making The Responsive Guitar, the DVD was put out as a way of letting people know what these books are all about and how enormously informative they are. I mean, these books took me eight years to write: the one-hour lecture cannot possibly cover that material and my understanding of it gotten through more than forty years spent making guitars.
My experience of lectures has been, on the whole, uninspiring. I've sat through a zillion boring ones in my life and I wanted to at least enliven mine with helpful signage, props, teaching devices, and visual aids. Otherwise I threw in every important thing about the workings of the guitar that I could think of short of the kitchen sink, and organized it into this hour-long presentation. These relevant concepts are:
(1) the guitar as an air pump,
(2) monocoque engineering vs. structural engineering (i.e., the guitar as a monocoque),
(3) the monopole and the cross- and long dipoles as the principal vibrating modes of the guitar,
(4) the Cube Rule of materials stiffness,
(6) the different tonal functions of steel string vs. classic guitars,
(7) the usefulness of tap tones as a guide to structure,
(8) the Mechanical and Acoustic Gradients of the top,
(9) the different strategies for organizing modal movement represented by "X", ladder, lattice, and fan bracing,
(10) mechanical impedance,
(11) the acoustic functions of the guitar back,
(12) the guitar top and back as harmonic oscillators,
(13) structural coupling / connectedness / disconnectedness in bracing and structure,
(14) differential rates of energy use or discharge as a function of structure, and
(15) a realistic representation, via a constructed-to-scale bracing-stiffness diorama, of ACTUAL stiffnesses of various structural members and braces.
These are all explained fully and clearly, using plain English.
My lecture is not intended to be an exposition of specific techniques of carving braces -- which is what most people think "voicing" is. The whole point of my presentation is to let people know that the shaping of braces is part of a package that involves a whole lot more than that.
Such considerations have not stopped others from putting out instructional DVDs that focus on the kinds of mechanical shaping and assembly operations which can be carried out serially and without reference to how the various parts combine and interact. However, Voicing work is precisely about how the different components interact dynamically. Therefore, it requires actual Thinking, Consideration, Judgment, Experience, Tracking, and Presence of Mind. It's a bit like playing chess. Yet many people think of Voicing more as working a slot machine -- and hoping that there's a secret technique for how to pull the handle correctly to win. I don't think there is a secret technique; rather, a specific skill set is needed. I voice each one of my guitars personally, slowly and attentively in a process that stretches out over a day and a half or two every time, and involves all the factors I listed above. It's not any kind of quick formulaic slam-dunk.
I stop short of showing the audience my own specific methods of profiling braces, and I err when, in responding to an audience member's question, I say that people would have to take my class to find out what I actually do in shaping my guitar tops' braces. I think I blow it on that one. If I had it to do over again I would not have said that glib and flip sounding sentence -- and I unfortunately didn't think to point out that my bracing is described and illustrated at length in my books.
I would have explained instead that I did not wish to do so for two reasons. First, what I do is the end result of decades of learning, experimenting, and making some really bad sounding guitars. So it's understandable that I'd feel proprietary about the specific ways in which I've achieved my results: I feel they are mine to share, but I don't do that indiscriminately in public forums. Second, to simply show what my guitars' innards look like, mechanically, and without explaining what thinking and design variables this work entails, is bad teaching.
So, instead, I spend the hour describing the factors and variables that inform my own voicing work. While I use these principles, I don't feel that I own them. I've more or less slowly and painstakingly discovered them where Nature had left them lying around in plain sight for anyone to find. If anything, I am indebted to them for helping me to do my work successfully: they have allowed me to arrive at better methods, thinking about, and approaches to lutherie. Mainly, they are more useful than any description of any specific mechanical technique can be -- in spite of the fact that today's emphasis in teaching is to focus on specific techniques rather than on understanding how something works. My attitude is based in the fact that the principles cost me years of work and time to learn. The specific techniques, on the other hand, are easy to learn and do: glue this, cut here, profile in this way, shave that down, taper it, tuck this into that, etc. And I think that there's a difference between a luthier and a guitar-assembly technician.
The factors of Voicing that I outline in my lecture lend themselves to many ways of being used and implemented to achieve a wide variety of better results in guitar making -- just as different specific ingredients can be combined in many ways to make a meal. I describe these factors in non-scientific everyday language because I want to make them accessible and easily comprehensible. I try to give the audience a good foundation, or starter kit, toward their being able to achieve better results -- instead of spoon-feeding them rote methods. All in all, I've done my best to give the audience the kind of starter kit that was nowhere available when I was starting out, and as far as I know it is still not available to luthiers from any source other than my writings. There are engineering and physics texts that cover this same material, but these are generally scientific exposition written by engineers and physicists for other engineers and physicists. Get a hold of Richard Mark French's book "Engineering the Guitar: theory and practice", and you'll see what I mean. It's a fine book, but not all that easy for the layman to read.
My presentation isn't intended to be a strip show where I reveal everything, nor a tease in which I hold information back. I am attempting to deliver pertinent information. It's ironic that some people feel shortchanged by my not having given them specific information about WHAT MY CURRENT BRACING LOOKS LIKE -- even though my lecture includes an explanation of what every known bracing pattern does or doesn't do. I am of the opinion that if I'd shown the audience "my secret bracing patterns", everybody would have immediately forgotten everything I'd said and gone home and started to copy what they'd seen me do as faithfully as they could -- without putting any effort at all into understanding how the things I'd discussed participate in the making of sound. I think that's really lousy teaching; it reduces complex relationships to lowest-common-denominator factoids.
The principal subtext of my lecture is that (1) most guitars made today are waaaaaay overbuilt, and (2) comparatively small amounts of wood added to or taken away from certain key points of the top-as-vibrating-diaphragm make huge differences. My "secret bracing patterns" don't look all that much different from most other guitar bracing -- and various ones I've used are shown in my books.
I say "various ones" because my building style has always evolved and continues to evolve. What I'd be showing this year is merely what I'm doing this year. It's different than what I was doing five years ago and different from what I'll be doing five years from now. Same principles, different applications. I am aware that the world has changed a lot during my professional lifetime and that people want information simplified and they want it quickly. But I really can't provide genuinely useful information in recipe form and still feel I've done a good job. Trust me: I'm not getting rich off DVD sales.
I've heard complaints that my DVD was made mostly as an adjunct toward promoting my books. Well no, not mostly -- although there is some truth in it. The fact is that the books are unquestionably more informative than any one-hour presentation can ever be. Nonetheless, in both efforts I'm concerned with getting people to think and make discoveries for themselves based on a reliable map that I'd provided.
On a different track, I might say the following to someone who had approached me with these concerns: I don't know you personally but, if I may ask: did you really not find anything useful in this DVD? Did it seem to you that I talked for an hour and held back on my magic formula for making great guitars? There is no magic blueprint; instead, I give a cogent explanation of the pertinent factors and "ingredients" that participate in the making of a successful guitar. The DVD is an introduction to information and concepts that are essentiall. I'd think that the stiffness-diorama concept alone is worth the price: itmakes intelligible an eye-opening FUNDAMENTAL principle that applies to any guitar making effort and that no other book or DVD even mentions.
The reality is that EVERY guitar will have it's own slightly different and specific diorama-configuration of wood, graining, thickness, bracing, areas of greater or lesser stiffness and looseness that are necessarily part of a mechanical and tonal gradient. This is another essential concept that's mighty useful to have regardless of how big, small, thin, thick, floppy, stiff, tapered, braced, etc., a guitar top might be; in fact, without it, any effort at shaping braces is as hit-or-miss as pulling the lever of a slot machine and hoping for a good result .
F.A.Q. #4: THINNING OUT THE BACK?November 3, 2011
Q: Assuming you're looking for a back to work in tandem with the top, as opposed to a reflective back, should the back also be thinned till it "relaxes", as you do on your guitars?
A: Ummmmm . . . this is a really interesting topic that very few people have done any thinking about -- and most of the ones that have are classic guitar makers, not steel string guitar makers.
The matter is too complicated for me to write fully about in this format, especially as I have written about exactly this kind of thing in my book. Have you read my book's chapter on the functions of the guitar back? If you haven't, it'll be useful for you to do so. Mainly, my answer is based in the proposition that the job of the guitar top is to generate an optimal mix of monopole, cross dipole, and long dipole signal . . . which gets converted into sound a bit further on down the line. The back has a different function -- although, frankly, almost no one that I know of has ever considered making a back that might have a purposely dominant monopole, cross dipole, long dipole, or whatever.
The back has not been studied like that. And one indicator of this circumstance is that while guitar tops have been made with all kinds of variants of "X" bracing, double-X bracing, fan bracing, lattice bracing, ladder bracing, Kasha bracing, radial bracing, and even the most oddball experimental bracing, over the years . . . 99.99% of all guitar backs have been made with three of four parallel braces since the back was invented. Period. So our information about the possibilities of the back is limited to one model of bracing that has been done over and over and over and over again. I show some experimental back-bracing ideas on page 91 of my book The Responsive Guitar; take a look at them.
Also, consider that it doesn't matter how the back is constructed if it is not allowed to be active. For instance, Bluegrass guitars are played with the guitar's back resting against the player's body. These backs are significantly damped out. That is, they are prevented from participating in the dances of the frequencies. Would it matter to that kind of guitar that the back has been thinned to the relaxation point? Not at all. That back isn't expected to do anything. The technique of playing the typical bluegrass guitar (standing up, strap around shoulder, guitar resting against player's body) does not concern itself with the back's doing anything in particular except maybe acting as a reflecting surface and otherwise keeping the dust out. And, as I say in my book, (at the risk of becoming unpopular): the use of a highly resonant and expensive wood on the back of a guitar that has no use for a functioning back is to waste the wood.
But aside from all this, to get back to your question, the short answer is "yes". My prejudice is to make the back more flexible than other makers typically do. The reason for making both the top and the back flexible to begin with is that everything else you do to them does nothing but stiffen them up. You brace them, dome and stress them, and attach the perimeters to the guitar rims. Pretty soon, you've got something that you've (perhaps inadvertently) made really too stiff.
But too stiff for whom? For you? Maybe; or maybe not. For me? No, I don't really care. For the strings and their work? Yes: they care.
I first got onto this idea, years ago, from an interview with David Rubio in [long-since disappeared] Guitar And Lute Magazine. Rubio recommended thinning the free (unclamped and unbraced) top until it had no tap tone of its own. If it still had an identifiable tap tone, it would be introduced into the guitar's structure and responsiveness. But if one introduces a "tone-neutral" top (or back) into the system one could then build an appropriate tap tone back into it by bracing it, attaching it to the guitar, and bridging and stringing it. The basic equation is: if you start out with this, and then add that and something else, you wind up with this + that + something else = something greater than what you might think you have..
F.A.Q. #3: MORE ON FLEXIBILITYNovember 3, 2011
Q: Do you use the same X amount of flexibility for all your guitar tops? Is there any reason to have a different, Z, level of flexibility when you use woods of different species?
A: I certainly try to for the same level of stiffness in every guitar top I make, regardless of species of wood used, for reasons of consistency of sound and musical responsiveness.
However, it's not quite a simple yes-no. The thing is, if you're going to build a guitar that's slightly bigger or smaller than the last one you made, then you'll need to factor some accommodations into your measurements.
A bigger guitar top is weaker than a small one of the same absolute mechanical stiffness (i.e., the same mechanical stiffness is asked to cover a larger span or area), and will have to be left thicker to compensate for that weakening. And vice-versa. For example, imagine standing on a plank that serves as a bridge to cross a 5-foot wide creek, and a longer but otherwise identical plank spanning a 10-foot wide creek. The latter will sag more when you stand on it. Your weight is the same, just as the guitar's string tensions are the same. The resistance over the span needs to be adjusted, however, if you want the sag to be the same amount.
That "sag", in the guitar, goes to vibrating-plate motion, which has everything to do with sound. You probably don't care how much sag there is in a simple footbridge, but in the guitar the 'sag amount' corresponds to how much or how little the guitar face can move and flex in order to produce sound. There's a direct correlation, as sound is nothing but excited air molecules. Finally, we're (you're?) trying to build guitars that are optimally permeable and receptive to the strings' energy level and budget. Assuming the use of standard strings of a standard scale -- which goes to the energy budget -- this implies the same (or at least comparable) optimal amount of structure.
F.A.Q. #2: WORKING WOODS TO A STIFFNESSOctober 16, 2011
Q: Obviously, your method [of working tops to stiffness than to target dimension] is going to lead to different thicknesses for every piece of wood of a certain species to get the same flexibility. I am curious, though, if you find that different species have to be worked to a different degree of flexibility? For example, say you thin your steel string Sitka tops to have X amount of flexibility with a Y weight on them. Do you use the same X amount of flexibility when you are using Engelmann or Cedar, as well, or do you find that you need to develop a Z amount of flexibility for a different species? Thanks.
A: You're correct that in theory no two pieces of topwood will wind up being exactly the same thickness if one follows my method. That is, we're looking to achieve a consistent level of RESISTANCE, and different woods will have different proportions and densities of xylene, cellulose, and fiber with which to achieve that level of resistance.
This level of resistance isn't some theoretical number that's gotten by formula -- although it can be gotten that way. The level of resistance is organic to the guitar: it is set by the top's need to work with the strings' pull, modulated by the kind of sound (character, sustain, overtones, etc.) that you might be after. And that's all. Various gauges of strings, of various scale lengths, exert a certain amount of pull which, when excited, provide the motive force and energy budget. This is, of course, affected by things like how hard the player plays, bridge height and torque, etc. I don't think any of this is exactly new information to anyone who's been paying attention.
If the top is too resistant to the strings' pull, then the mechanical response of the guitar is hampered. It is compressed into (i.e., limited to) regions of high-frequency/low amplitude activity/signal. You might or might not like that sound, but it will be a limited sound. If the top is too wimpy and flexible then it MIGHT have to rely on the bracing to restore its dynamic balance to a higher level of stiffness and hence response. The bracing will reinforce, or undermine, or overpower, what the top itself is able to do. It's a partnership.
Steel strings on a guitar exert a pull of around 180 pounds. Nylon strings exert a pull of nearly 100 pounds. Let's say that the strings on your guitar exert 125 pounds of pull and torque when tuned to pitch. I'm just grabbing a number here. Now consider: it really doesn't matter whether your guitar has a Sitka spruce top, an Engelmann top, a redwood top, a European or Lutz spruce top, a cedar top, a koa top, a mahogany top, or a plywood top. That top is, in every case, going to be driven by 125 pounds of string pull/drive/torque. We're assuming everything else being equal here: guitar size, soundhole size, bridge height, etc.
The question is: why would you put a top with any different stiffness (than that needed to deal with a 125 pound pull and torque) on your guitar? Put it another way: if string gauge were like octane in gasoline (i.e., a measure of its 'oomph') and top stiffness were like tire pressure (a certain ease or hardness in car maneuverability), then regardless of what octane gasoline you fill your car's tank with, why would you change the tire pressure every time you gassed up?
Now, there are different things than mere stiffness going on. There's also internal damping and mass. Different woods WILL behave a bit differently, at identical stiffnesses, when excited by strings, because of these other factors. Some woods will suck the strings' energies up pretty quickly and damp their motions. Some will be vitreous and live and allow the strings to remain excited for longer. Some will be internally brittle. Some will be internally tough and ropey. Some will be very dense; others will be like Styrofoam, etc. You get the idea. So there's a lot to be said for familiarizing one's self with the average tonal potential of different woods, as well as which woods tend to be more consistent in qualities and which species have a wider, less consistent, range of qualities depending on which plank or log you're working with. The main thing is to work with woods that have the least energy loss possible. You want the energy to go into the air (sound) and not into the woods and materials of the guitar.
If you've ever been to a lumber yard you'll have noticed that some planks of a given wood are dense and heavy while other planks right next to them are not. Such things affect a guitar's behaviors, and need to be factored into your calculations -- if only to the extent of your using the same selections of woods on the guitars that you make. You may or may not have a clue as to what difference any characteristic that you're aware of might make, but it's smart to not throw uncontrolled variables into your work if you can help it.
Having said that, EVERY guitar will produce a monopole, a cross-dipole, a long-dipole, and whatever other mode of motion you think is important enough to consider. If you don't know about these, please stop reading this right now and read up on these fundamental vibrational modes of a guitar top: they're critical. Every guitar has SOME mix of these modes, and every guitar has a fixed energy budget with which to excite these -- depending on how the maker has knowingly or ignorantly designed his system to ALLOW, FACILITATE, INHIBIT, SUPPORT or PREVENT certain movements of the top.
CARP CLASSIC GUITAROctober 3, 2011
I've completed a new and unusual classic guitar: it's got a koi fish carved into the top. You can see what this looks like in the accompanying photographs.
I like to make an extraordinarily decorated guitar from time to time, but when I do so I limit the ornamentation to the upper bout, which is acoustically not very important, or other non-acoustically critical parts of the instrument. The lower bout of the face (the area around the bridge) is acoustically critical and I won't mess with that. I want those instruments to have as full a sound as anything else that I make.
This is a beautiful guitar. One of my witty friends took one look at it and commented that it ought to be great for playing scales. Ho ho ho. >> READ MORE
COMMENTARIES ABOUT MY DVDOctober 1, 2011
I have a DVD out; it's a lecture I gave on the topic of Voicing the Guitar which I delivered at the Healdsburg Guitar Festival in 2009. It's engendered both positive and negative comments. The negative ones generally have to do with the fact that I don't reveal my specific methods for voicing the guitar -- or at least not enough of them for anyone to usefully copy.
From the outset, that DVD was intended to have a dual purpose. First, I sought to give an overview of the principles of voicing the guitar -- for which work I'm fairly well known -- to people who are interested in the guitar but don't yet know much about its actual ins and outs. Second, as the Healdsburg Guitar Festival happened shortly after the publication of my two-volume work The Responsive Guitar and Making The Responsive Guitar, the DVD was put out as a way of letting people know what these books are all about and how enormously informative they are. I mean, these books took me eight years to write: the one-hour lecture took a few days to plan out and prepare for.
My experience of lectures has been, on the whole, uninspiring. I've sat through a zillion boring ones in my life and I wanted to at least enliven mine with helpful signage, props, and visual aids. Otherwise I threw in every important thing about the workings of the guitar that I could think of short of the kitchen sink, and organized it into an hour-long presentation. These relevant concepts are:
(1) the guitar as an air pump,
(2) monocoque engineering vs. structural engineering (i.e., the guitar as a monocoque),
(3) the monopole and the cross- and long dipoles as the principal vibrating modes of the guitar,
(4) the Cube Rule of materials stiffness,
(6) the different tonal functions of steel string vs. classic guitars,
(7) the usefulness of tap tones as a guide to structure,
(8) the Acoustic Gradient of the top,
(9) the different strategies for organizing modal movement represented by "X", ladder, lattice, and fan bracing,
(10) mechanical impedance,
(11) the acoustic functions of the guitar back,
(12) the guitar top and back as harmonic oscillators,
(13) structural coupling / connectedness / disconnectedness in bracing and structure,
(14) differential rates of energy use or discharge as a function of structure, and
(15) a realistic representation, via a constructed-to-scale bracing-stiffness diorama, of ACTUAL stiffnesses of various structural members and braces.
My lecture was not intended to be an exposition of specific techniques of carving braces -- which is what most people think "voicing" is. The whole point of it was to let people know that the shaping of braces is part of a package that involves a whole lot more than that.
Such considerations have not stopped others from putting out instructional DVDs that focus on the kinds of mechanical shaping and assembly operations which can be carried out serially and without reference to how the various parts combine and interact. However, Voicing work is precisely about how the different components interact dynamically. Therefore, it requires actual Thinking, Consideration, Judgment, Experience, Tracking, and Presence of Mind. It's a bit like playing chess. Yet many people think of Voicing more as working a slot machine -- and hoping that there's a secret technique for how to pull the handle correctly to win. I don't think there is a secret technique; instead, a specific skill set is needed. I voice each one of my guitars personally, slowly and attentively in a process that stretches out over a day and a half or two every time, and involves all the factors I listed above. It's not any kind of quick formulaic slam-dunk.
I stopped short of showing the audience my own specific methods of profiling braces, and I erred when, in responding to an audience member's question, I said that people would have to take my class to find out what I actually do in shaping my guitar tops' braces. I think I blew it on that one. If I had it to do over again I would not have said that glib and flip sounding sentence -- and I unfortunately didn't think to point out that my bracing is described and illustrated at length in my books (although, if I'd had, I might have come across as being even more of a shill for them). I would have explained instead that I did not wish to do so for two reasons. First, what I do is the end result of decades of learning, experimenting, and making some really bad sounding guitars. So it's understandable that I'd feel proprietary about the specific ways in which I've achieved my results: I feel they are mine to share, but I don't do that indiscriminately in public forums. Second, to simply show what my guitars' innards look like, mechanically, and without explaining what thinking and design variables this work entails, is bad teaching.
So, instead, I spent the hour describing the factors and variables that inform my own voicing work. While I use these principles, I don't feel that I own them. I more or less slowly and painstakingly discovered them where Nature had left them lying around in plain sight for anyone to find. If anything, I am indebted to them for helping me to do my work successfully: they have allowed me to arrive at better methods, thinking about, and approaches to lutherie. Mainly, they are more useful than any description of any specific mechanical technique can be -- in spite of the fact that today's emphasis in teaching is to focus on specific techniques rather than on understanding how something works. My attitude is based in the fact that the principles cost me years of work and time to learn. The specific techniques, on the other hand, are easy to learn and do: glue this, cut here, profile in this way, shave that down, taper it, tuck this into that, etc.
The factors of Voicing that I outlined in my lecture lend themselves to many ways of being used and implemented to achieve a wide variety of better results in guitar making -- just as different specific ingredients can be combined in many ways to make a meal. I described these factors in non-scientific everyday language because I wanted to make them accessible and easily comprehensible. I tried to give the audience a good foundation, or starter kit, toward their being able to achieve better results -- instead of spoon-feeding them rote methods. All in all, I did my best to give the audience the kind of starter kit that was nowhere available when I was starting out, and as far as I know it is still not available to luthiers from any source other than my writings. There are engineering and physics texts that cover this same material, but these are generally scientific exposition written by engineers and physicists for other engineers and physicists. Get a hold of Richard Mark French's book "Engineering the Guitar: theory and practice", and you'll see what I mean. It's a fine book, but not all that easy for the layman to read.
My presentation wasn't intended to be a strip show where I reveal everything, nor a tease in which I hold information back. I was attempting to deliver pertinent information. It's ironic that some people feel shortchanged by my not having given them specific information about WHAT MY CURRENT BRACING LOOKS LIKE -- even though my lecture includes an explanation of what every known bracing pattern does or doesn't do. I am of the opinion that if I'd shown the audience "my secret bracing patterns", everybody would have immediately forgotten everything I'd said and gone home and started to copy what they'd seen me do as faithfully as they could -- without putting any effort at all into understanding how the things I'd discussed participate in the making of sound. I think that's really lousy teaching; it reduces complex relationships to lowest-common-denominator factoids.
The principal subtext of my lecture is that (1) most guitars made today are waaaay overbuilt, and (2) comparatively small amounts of wood added to or taken away from certain key points of the top-as-vibrating-diaphragm make huge differences. My "secret bracing patterns" don't look all that much different from most other guitar bracing -- and various ones I've used are shown in my books.
I say "various ones" because my building style has always evolved and continues to evolve. What I'd be showing this year is merely what I'm doing this year. It's different than what I was doing five years ago and different from what I'll be doing five years from now. Same principles, different applications. I am aware that the world has changed a lot during my professional lifetime and that people want information simplified and they want it quickly. But I really can't provide genuinely useful information in recipe form and still feel I've done a good job. Trust me: I'm not getting rich off DVD sales.
I've heard complaints that my DVD was made mostly as an adjunct toward promoting my books. Well no, not mostly -- although there is some truth in it. The fact is that the books are unquestionably more informative than any one-hour presentation can ever be. Nonetheless, in both efforts I'm concerned with getting people to think and make discoveries for themselves based on a reliable map that I'd provided.
On a different track, I might say the following to someone who had approached me with these concerns: I don't know you personally but, if I may ask: did you really not find anything useful in the DVD? Did it seem to you that I talked for an hour and said nothing important? And, for that matter, do you expect to learn anything more pertinent about any skilled hands-on and ears-on activity from watching any DVD? I'd think that the stiffness-diorama example alone is an eye-opening GENERAL concept that applies to any guitar making effort. Such dioramas are structural features in every guitar that's ever been made and which is the strings' job to drive and make work (or work against, in many instances); and shaving and profiling braces is meaningless outside of this context.
Finally, EVERY guitar will have it's own slightly different and specific diorama-configuration of wood, graining, thickness, bracing, areas of greater or lesser stiffness and looseness that are necessarily part of a mechanical and tonal gradient. This is another essential concept that's mighty useful to have regardless of how big, small, thin, thick, floppy, stiff, tapered, braced, etc., a guitar top might be; in fact, without it, any effort at shaping braces is as hit-or-miss as plulling the lever of a slot machine and hoping for a good result .
FAQ #1: The Stiffness FactorAugust 8, 2011
I do as much writing for website guitar discussion forums as I can, in addition to answering questions that people email me personally. I can't really keep up with this demand very well, especially as so many of the questions are duplicates and I wind up giving the same answers over and over again. So I thought that I could eliminate a lot of this repetition by posting some of the questions I've gotten, along with my answers. Here's one such:
Q: In The Responsive Guitar book you go to great lengths to discuss importance of and your method for top "stiffness testing". I realize you would not want to divulge the optimum number you look to achieve for your guitars. Could you give us a range of numbers that you see from you experience that a new builder could use as a starting point?
A: Yours is a good question. To my mind it's not so much a question of there being a "right number" or "right quantity", as finding a method that delivers that information in a way that the brain can take meaningfully. In our culture, weights and measurements and statistics are how such information is most easily taken in and digested.
In other times and other places, however, the same information was transmitted differently, using different language and different tools. But it was the same information. One alternative method that I learned (from master luthier Jose Romanillos, who is certainly a traditionalist in the school of Spanish guitar making) is the following:
Take your joined top plate and start to thin it. It doesn't matter if you do this with a plane or with a power sander. It is only necessary that you thin evenly, and not leave the plate full of lumps and low spots. Flex it from time to time to get a sense of its stiffness along the grain. Stiffness along the grain is considered the most critical indicator of where you want to wind up, as opposed to strength across the grain or diagonally to it.
You'll notice that the plate is stiff, of course. How stiff? Well, stiff enough so that when you are pressing your thumbs against one side while holding onto other side with your fingers, and are bending the plate by pushing it with your thumbs, you will find that the spot that your thumbs rest against will be resistant. It will be resistant to the extent that if you keep on pushing so as to bend the plate, it will crimp at the points where your thumbs are. That is, you will induce a bend at those points that is different from the bend that the wood will take between those points.
That tells you that the wood isn't ready to bend evenly yet. Keep on removing wood. By the way, if you've read my chapter on the Cube Rule you'll understand that removing seemingly small amounts of wood will make a huge difference in the wood's measured stiffness. So don't hack a lot of wood off too quickly: go slowly and methodically.
Keep flexing the wood and removing wood. There will come a point at which the wood will "relax" in your hands and, when you press on the long axis with your thumbs, the board will begin to make an even arc along its entire length. It's not fighting you.
That's your starting point. No fancy equipment other than your hands and fingers, and a bit of sense of the wood, is needed.
You can of course keep on removing wood, and you can do so until you've reached a threshold on the other side and rendered the wood too wimpy to be useful on a guitar. (At the extreme, you can imagine how relaxed and unresistant a paper-thin slice of wood would be, right?) Your next twenty years can be happily spent exploring the range between these two extremes -- which define a range of thickness that's probably on the order of 1/16 of an inch. It's pretty amazing what a few thousandths of an inch can do -- and that's not even considering the possibilities of selective tapering, bracing, and thinning!
THE REMFAGRI FACTOR IN LUTHERIEAugust 8, 2011
I teach an annual week-long class in Voicing The Guitar. Some of my students have told me, in retrospect, that they were not prepared for the kind of class that this actually is: a few days into the class, after we'd discussed basics such as the physical properties of woods and the main modes of vibration, they'd begun to wonder exactly when I'd get around to saying anything really important -- such as the essential secret techniques I'd perfected over the years, along with the requisite correct specific measurements. It would be at about the third day, when various items of information had begun to connect, and pieces of the puzzle had begun to attain unexpected significance, that these good people began to see that I'd actually been giving them pertinent information all along. It simply hadn't looked like any useful information they'd ever been given before and they hadn't recognized it as such. They had, instead, all been waiting for the secrets of the remfagri to fall into their laps.
REMFAGRI is my personal shorthand for the idea of a Recipe-Method For Achieving Great Results Immediately. It's much like the idea of, say, the perfect recipe for French onion soup: it doesn't exist, and never has, but that hasn't stopped people from seeking it. It's well known that some chefs make absolutely heavenly French Onion soup -- but there's ALWAYS another recipe out there that might be even better, if one is willing to keep on buying cookbooks . . . even though the recipes ALL depend on the same basic ingredients and techniques.
It's hard to know whom to blame for our collective focus on REMFAGRIs, but they are endemic and epidemic. One has only to go to the nearest bookstore and look at the How-To and/or Self-Help section. No subject is left unsimplified, and even ungodly complex projects such as wars and choosing mates are conceived out of the same here's-how-to-get-the-job-done mindset.
I'm inclined to believe that what is missing in general is any sense of . . . well . . . scale. The kind of thing that induces some personal humility and awe. You know, something should I put it . . . profound . . . or at least greater than you . . . and worth approaching with respect . . . rather than it merely being an extra-large-pizza-sized chore or challenge to deal with before you check it off your list and go on to the next thing to conquer. If you react to a sunset, or the great outdoors, with any sense of it being special you'll know what I mean. And my question is: did you ever pair that sensation with doing any of your work, or learning anything, or having a discussion with someone? When do we ever think, or do, or meet, or eat, anything that we consider to be special?
These are nutshell descriptions of Life-Attitudes that are so fundamental to one's thinking (or absent from it) that one doesn't usually have an awareness of having such an attitude. It's of course expressed in humor, which every culture has its own spin on. American humor is no less complicated than anyone else's, but an awful lot of it is about belittling, diminishing, or simplifying what's in front of us -- and thereby reducing its scale, importance, or specialness.
It's understandable that this should be so, given all the pressures of our contemporary lives: it's tempting to find projects and relationships that we can exercise our powers over so that we can feel in control. And then, most cultures and religions (including all the secular ones) DISCOURAGE questioning of their basic beliefs. Doing so makes people uncomfortable (I mean, it's sooooo intolerable to suspect that even French onion soup might be bigger than we are, no?). But, heck, let's face it: we can't even really comprehend basics such as gravity, amoebas, or trees. What's wrong with admitting to some sense of scale?
THE MAPLE ANDAMENTOMarch 25, 2011
Some of you may know that I made a rosewood Andamento guitar about two years ago; it's a wonder of design and craftsmanship if I do say so myself. The cutting, the inlaying, and the design itself took a long time to execute; and the work also included the design and making of eleven separate rosette logs. It's the most fancily inlaid thing I've ever produced.
I initially thought of making something like this because I liked the design. The idea came from my dropping a spoon while having dinner at a Mexican restaurant; when I leaned over to retrieve it I noticed this same pattern in the floor tiles and was captivated by it. What a lovely pattern! I've since learned that this is a fairly common pattern that is used in both floor tiles and textiles. There's even a picture of Michelle Obama, on the front page of the New York Times, wearing a dress with this print pattern on it! If the first lady is sporting the Andamento pattern, it's got to be a winner, no?
Of course, the pattern isn't called the Andamento; that's a word that my associate Lewis Santer came up with after some research into inlay patterns. It turns out that inlay artists in the Renaissance gave that name to certain of their decorative patterns. Andamento refers to the movement (the going or traveling across) of a decorative pattern, through a material, or across one's visual field. My guitar's mosaic pattern has a lot of movement in it, so the name Andamento, invented by Italian craftsmen centuries ago, seemed to fit.
After completing the rosewood Andamento, I then embarked on a second one, in maple. I seemed to have a vague idea of making a matching pair of dark and light wood instruments.
It's gorgeous, of course, but I learned that doing this kind of work in maple is MUCH more difficult than it is in any dark wood. You can hide mistakes in dark woods; you cannot in maple: any miscut, any splintering, any irregularity, any breakage or tear-out, any subsequent repair . . . all will be forever visible. If the parts don't fit perfectly, of if there's the slightest gap, a glue line that would have been invisible in a dark wood will stand out. White wood is simply unforgiving.
It's ironic that, because maple is so much cheaper a wood than Brazilian rosewood is, this guitar would ordinarily command a lower value than its rosewood counterpart. But from the standpoint of sheer patient, skilled labor, there's no comparison: the maple Andamento took significantly longer to execute and make look perfect. My helper Chris Morimoto deserves a lot of credit for this, because without his consummate attention to detail this guitar would have taken twice as long to produce.
Besides the beauty of the maple, this guitar has close to 200 mosaic tiles -- of eleven different mosaic patterns -- inlaid into it. The tiles are about half the size of a dime and each one is made up of 200 tiny pieces of wood. And then, of course, there are several hundred feet of (mostly) two-inch long inlaid sections of black-white-black purfling, each mitered into and butted against each other.
This needs to be a pricey guitar, for obvious reasons. It is spectacular in photographs and even more so up close. It is available now. If you're interested, please call or email me for price information.
ON CRITIQUING OTHER PEOPLE'S GUITARSMarch 5, 2011
I remember that, when I was starting out, years ago, I spent a lot of evenings backstage at different concert halls or clubs hoping to show that evening's guitar player an instrument that I'd made. Some evenings were a complete waste of my time, but I learned two things from those efforts. One is that there is constructive criticism and destructive criticism (partially stemming from a set of values that various guitar-playing subcultures learn to apply differently; I describe this at length in Chapter 32 of my book The Responsive Guitar). The other thing is that if you are ever asked to render an opinion of someone else's work -- and you agree to it -- you should give the guy something. The guy has a right to expect a few minutes of your honest attention; he's earned it by having put 100-plus hours into the guitar he's showing you.
It's easy to spot the inadequacies in someone else's work, especially if they're more or less new to it. The thing is, though, effective criticism -- and certainly constructive criticism -- requires some real experience, thought, and standards. At a minimum, it involves the learned skill of simply looking and seeing -- and getting the other person to look and see equally dispassionately; it's possible that he had been so focused on following the instructions that he didn't notice the details. Constructive criticism is also a learned social skill that borrows heavily from the Salesman's Handbook: a little tact and generosity go a long way. Even the worst guitar has some good things in it, and an intelligent critic will do well to find them and acknowledge them. To do otherwise is tantamount to giving the man a business card with your name on it followed by the word "asshole."
When asked to comment on someone else's work I find it useful to ask them what their assessment is. What do they think the pluses and minuses are? What did they learn from this or that? That will give me a good starting point for giving feedback. I mean, if they think that they are showing me an object of transcendent beauty that they can't imagine will receive anything but high praise, and I see only an amateurish mess, I have to be a bit tactful in turning their focus to some of the things that are not yet obvious to them. Take it from me, even experienced guitar makers can be surprisingly touchy about real or perceived negative input. On the other hand, once you ask for advice, listen to it: it is your job as a maker to learn your work and get past your fantasies, blind spots, and pet beliefs about it.
Regardless of how skilled your eye and ear might be in finding the pluses and minuses of a someone else's work there are two main things that I have found it useful to be aware of. The first of these is easily overlooked, even though it's actually more obvious* than the specifics of a guitar's construction. It's the fact that the person who is showing you that instrument actually made it. Consider that there are more people on this planet who would like to make a guitar, intend to make a guitar, plan to some day make a guitar, wish they could make a guitar, have thought about making a guitar, or at one point actually started to make a guitar but didn't finish it . . . than there are people who begin such a project and carry it through to completion. Period. That simple fact counts points and needs to be acknowledged. And it's not really (only) a simple fact: it's a complex one made up of effort, dedication, and focus -- and, not least, expended time and energy. The person you are talking to has crossed a significant threshold and has paid certain dues. If 'the expert' whose opinion is being asked isn't aware of this, he's not much of an expert.
Making a guitar is a complicated process: anyone who has made a guitar or even read a book about instrument making knows this. It's far easier if you're building a kit, of course, but unless you're working in a fully automated shop the work involves literally hundreds of discrete steps, substeps, procedures, operations, and multiple materials. And besides all the time and effort it takes, there's a learning curve loaded with twists, mistakes, dead ends and switchbacks. So, for someone to comment on the end result of such a demanding and complex project, as though it were ONLY a collection of nice tries . . . is to devalue the work. I repeat: find a few of the hundred things that were well done in that guitar and mention them. As a bonus, if you do this, the recipient's opinion of you will be higher because he'll recognize how perceptive you truly are. NOTE: I'm not suggesting an ego-stroking-compliment-fest; I'm suggesting sugar-coating the pill.
The second area of critical mindset is also one that is normally unrecognized by most people; yet, it vastly enriches the conversation if one is simply aware of the fact that a handmade guitar carries information. It is a veritable repository and warehouse of embedded (but invisible) information -- in a way, moreover, that a factory made guitar is not. In fact, in a handmade guitar, the invisible information at least matches the amount of visible information. Let me explain what I mean.
A handmade guitar is, in a sense, like a photograph: something that has been frozen in time. It includes not only the woods, glues, lacquers, ivory, metals, etc. that it's made up of, but also the engineering, physics, woodworking, acoustics, art, design, and tradition that it embodies. In addition, the guitar contains the intent, energy, focus, planning, skill, knowledge, priorities, interest, hopes, judgment, and intent of the maker. The fact is that the guitar would not have gotten made without these. One might argue that these quantities might have been "insufficient" because the guitar falls short of some standard of perfection -- and that assessment may be "factually true". But this brings us to the next important fact to consider: that guitar that you're looking at is simply what the maker has accomplished at this point in time. If it's not the maker's first guitar then it ALSO contains the progress that's been made since the previous one -- and the seeds of the next, better guitar as well. As I said, it's a frozen part of a process or progression, and the fact that you might be oblivious to this doesn't mean it's not any different. These things are most definitely "in there" because the maker put them in there. The instrument embodies all this.
I repeat: every item and detail in that guitar (including every lack of detail) speaks to one or more of these considerations. In case you're thinking that I'm being fanciful, there is precedent and a reality basis to this kind of thing. Archaeologists can adduce the most amazing things out of a bone or a piece of pottery. The detailing of the formation of any aspect of an object, the fracture lines, its position in the ground and its location in relation to other things, the wear patterns, the age and composition, etc. are all clues that tell some story. Archaeologists understand the usefulness of geographic, geologic, technological, developmental, historical, meteorological, chemical, dendrochronological, etc. context. They will have some idea what came before or after in that same tribe or species and/or their neighboring tribes or species. Each clue has a part of the greater story to contribute.
Why should it be any different with the details and micro-details of a handmade guitar? Why should the visible sanding scratches on an interior surface not suggest something about the care, workmanship, prioritizing, awareness, experience, technological sophistication, etc. of the maker? Why should the straightness of the neck (or lack of it) not speak to his level of skill and conscientiousness, or even to prevailing lutherie theory? Well, they do. And speaking of context, is it surprising that someone working out of, say, Podunk, North Dakota, might be making less sophisticated guitars than someone working out of Seattle? It's fair to assume that we're looking at an example of the best that the maker knows/knew how to do. But why might we assume that the guitar in question does not represent, along with everything else, a point on an active learning curve? It most certainly does. It contains that information along with everything else I've listed. I think one's analysis of a handmade guitar is made richer by appreciating such larger context, and any luthier will appreciate your recognition of the fact that every guitar (except the last one he'll ever make) is, in part, an expression of Hope and Aim. Seriously. And that last guitar just might be an expression of a culmination.
As they say in Joisey, it never hoits to see past the woist in something. And, I underline: this is about nothing other than giving useful information. One goes to a doctor for medicine, not friendship. Give him the pill, but don't make it a bitter one. I mentioned that hand made guitars contain information in the way that factory made ones do not. I've written at length about 'the differences between handmade and factory made guitars' in an article on this same website. If you're interested in further discussion of this issue, please go read that.
* (By the way, the word obvious is interesting. It's from the Latin "ob", which means against -- in the sense of close proximity (as opposed to contrariness) -- and "via", which means road. Something that's obvious is something that is on the road right in front of you -- in other words, something that's so in your face that you can't miss it.)
AN IRONICALLY GOOD BAD EXPERIENCE . . . February 25, 2011
I became an official guitar entity in 1971 when I paid the City of Berkeley $20 for a license to operate a Guitar Repair business. I was young and I'd made one guitar with the help of Irving Sloane's book. I didn't know anything. But I was willing to drive around to music stores and do guitar repairs for them -- at my workbench in my own bedroom. I lived on a shoestring income, in a shared house with other struggling and confused young adults. But I'd found a way to make a bit of money and was off and running like a herd of turtles.
I did a lot of guitar repairs in the next few years, and I made a few guitars as well. A lot of this work wasn't all that much to be proud of, really, but I didn't know any better. But I got to call myself a guitar maker, which gave me a much-needed sense of identity.
I was making classic and flamenco guitars. This brought me to the attention of the organizers of the 1977 Carmel Classic Guitar Festival; it was the first guitar show to ever invite my participation. This was a genuinely important and prestigious event that would attract serious performers, teachers, and amateurs from all over California and even from the rest of the country -- and even a few from Canada. I'd been building guitars full-time for five or six years by then and felt happy to be invited to show my work; I was going to be one of seven exhibitors. I should tell you that my friends had been unfailingly supportive and encouraging to me in my guitar making efforts all this while -- even as my parents could not fathom what the hell I was doing making guitars when I could have had such a promising career doing something reasonable. In any event, I went to Carmel feeling a little cocky and smug, thinking to wow the people there.
Instead, I ran headlong into a brick wall. My work was the worst of anyone's there, both visibly and audibly. It was amateurish and careless and everybody could see it. It was a disastrous, humiliating, and sobering experience. I returned from that event severely shaken and depressed. My friends had, in fact, been no help to me at all with their uncritical kindness: I hadn't learned anything. And I was now faced with the inescapable fact that I'd been wasting my time in living out a hippie fantasy -- without actually having the discipline, education, skill, experience, or motivation required to do good, serious work.
As my sense of shock gradually settled down it became clear to me that I had two choices: quit making guitars and do something else, or buckle down and do better work. It took me several weeks of re-evaluating to realize that I actually liked making guitars and that the path was open to me if I wanted to apply myself and do professional level work. That was my real starting point as a guitar maker -- and it took that disastrous experience to arrive at this crossroads. And it was within a year of that decision to do the best work I could, and not let things slide, that I met up with the first of my Windham Hill contacts, who were to open some important musical doors for me. The rest is (my) history.
It's sobering for me to think that if my work had been better -- say, acceptably good -- at the Carmel Classic Guitar Festival, then it's likely that I would have continued to build guitars out of an essentially immature and complacent mindset, and never feel a need to challenge my own perceptions of the worth of my work. Really, doesn't it sometimes seem to you that the basic building blocks of the Universe are carbon, hydrogen, and irony?
WOODSTOCK GUITAR SHOWNovember 9, 2010
I attended the Woodstock Guitar Show on the weekend of October 23-24. I'd like to tell you a bit about it. It didn't strictly speaking take place in Woodstock; it took place in Bearsville, which is close by.
The Woodstock area is a lovely, semi-rural, rather upscale series of townships in upstate New York that are, historically, associated with the legendary Woodstock music festival of the folk era -- in spite of the fact that the event was rained out and that the property became a sea of mud. Still, with luminaries like Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan and others, and plenty of hallucinogens around, the mud didn't seem to matter all that much. I didn't go to that event myself, but I've heard about it for most of my life. Anyway, it's beautiful there in October, and I got to spend the weekend (indoors) with a bunch of my fellow guitar makers. It was quite something. (There's a photo-essay book about the Woodstock festival and its various luminary performers -- and signed by Bob Dylan -- currently for sale through www.abebooks.com; they want more than $5,000 for it. Wow.)
Apropos of nothing, the Woodstock area is in the Catskills, a famous resort and retreat area, that has traditionally offered lots of fishing, food, whitewater, and entertainment. The Catskills, I'm told by someone who lived near there for many years are not, technically, mountains (and indeed, the Woodstock area is not at all mountainous). The Catskills are actually a "dissected peneplain." The real mountains (the Adirondacks) are a couple of hours north. Again, wow.
Anyway, I got there by taking my first-ever redeye flight: from eleven p.m. to eight a.m., across three time zones. An overrated experience, I must say. I cannot sleep on planes. Especially sitting upright in a padded, seat-shaped sardine can.
Guitar-wise, the Woodstock guitar show is in the stomping grounds, and the descendant of, the famous-but-no-longer-happening New York Guitar Show -- for a time the most prominent American handmade guitar show. It was heavily weighted toward archtop and jazz guitars, as New York and its surrounds is the epicenter of jazz's musico-geographical territory and home to legendary archtop guitar makers such as John D'Angelico, Jimmy D'Aquisto, John Monteleone, Ken Parker, and many other talented-to-legendary makers and jazz players. For archtop makers and players, Woodstock is very near Mecca.
Unfortunately, of course, I make flat-tops. But no one minded that. [My former apprentice] Michihiro Matsuda and I got invited to Woodstock< I think, because our names -- like so many of the legendary archtop makers -- end in vowels too. I think there's some rule about that. (The vowel in Ken Parker's last name is silent; or they make exceptions for the letter 'r'.) :
Speaking of Ken Parker, spending time with him was one of the really high points of the festival for me. For those of you who don't know him, do please look his website up; he's creative beyond words -- and whereas I kid a lot about many things I'm not at all kidding about Ken. He's awesomely smart, capable and original -- and a human being of impressive integrity.
One thing that I couldn't help noticing about the Woodstock festival was how many collectors I met who had REALLY IMPRESSIVE COLLECTIONS of archtop guitars made by several of the most legendary makers. Usually, I meet people who have three or five or ten guitars, most of which are pretty ordinary; these collections SPARKLED. But then again this geographic region is home to a lot of people who can afford the best several times over . . . and they go for it.
Interestingly, one reason for the preponderance of interest in archtop guitars in this region is the climate: the marked Summer heat and humidity alternates with the severely dry Winters. Archtop guitars can survive such weather whereas flat-tops will often crack, warp, and be subject to other problems of wood movement.
The reason for this is that wood expands and contracts with changes in the weather, and of course guitar tops and backs are also more fragile and delicate than furniture is. Archtop guitars allow such 'accordioning' freely because they lack across-the-grain bracing. The flat-top guitar does have that. While this is good for tone in the flat-top guitar it simultaneously prevents wood movement, as the woods fibers are 'locked' into one configuration that allows very little movement. Therefore, if the wood wants to shrink but is prevented from doing so by the bracing, it will instead crack from the resultant pent-up tensions. As most luthiers know, making any flat-top guitar destined to live out its life on the East coast requires attention to the conditions under which the soundbox is assembled: a humidity-controlled room is a must.
I mentioned this to a friend and he is of the opinion that the sovereignty of the archtop in that area is not a function of weather but of culture. He said, quote: The NY tradition of jazz guitars going back to D'Angelico remains strong but I don't think it's related to weather as much as to NY'ers insularity -- for one of the world's great cosmopolitan cities, NY breeds a strong sense of local superiority. It's the one place I know where "not a prophet in one's own village" doesn't apply. To a real NY'er, if you're not from one of the five boroughs, you're a yokel -- and if you're from Staten Island, you're not really a NY'er either -- and only things from NY are good enough for a real NY'er. So if people in Manhattan are making archtops, well, there you are: they're the best no matter what people are doing anywhere else. End quote.
The truth is in there somewhere, I'm sure. But okay, enough technical talk.
My apprentice Jason Kostal came with me to help at my table, which was a big help to me. He also came with his partner Catherine, whom he took a few days off with to show her the area. Jason graduated from West Point Military Academy, which is not far from there; they visited his old Alma Mater and saw a few of his friends who are still in the area. From what I've heard West Point's discipline and work load are legendarily fearsome: only about a third of any entering class graduates. It says a lot for Jason's stick-to-it-ness that he made it through.
The Woodstock show itself is the brainchild of Baker Rorick, a local fellow who knows a lot of the wider guitar community. Several years ago he thought that a small showcase event for his friend Ken Parker's work might be simpatico and fun; they started inviting a few fellow luthiers in and it grew into what has the potential to become a really special national-level show. Baker will of course now have to deal with whether to keep it small or allow it to expand -- and deal with the acompanying organizational logistics. I don't know how much money he made off this event, but he seems to have earned it: he was everywhere, all the time, running errands and problem-solving and pressing the flesh and everything else in between. I gotta say he looked tired. As a rule, first- and second- and perhaps even third-time events don't make money; they're too new and the costs are high. But if the show gets a good reputation and grows, then some money starts to roll in.
I have been working on unusually heavily inlaid guitars of late; I made a rosewood Andamento guitar a year ago and just finished a second one in maple, which I showed at Woodstock. Working ornamentally in maple is an act of madness. The thing is, a dark wood such as rosewood is forgiving: you can make a mis-cut and no one will ever see it. You can't get away with that in maple: any glitch or miscut will be visible. So, this project took infinite care and patience. I'm indebted to my apprentice Chris Morimoto for having the patience to take much of this work on; that guitar really shone! That guitar was quite well received and got tons of compliments. But as a matter of fact, I was surprised to be told by a good handful of people that they'd only come to the show because they'd heard that I was going to be there, and they wanted to meet me. I'm flattered that they would make the effort of driving several hours each way, to talk with me. I guess my reputation as a maker of things really worth seeing has gotten out there. Next, I'm gonna work on my reputation as someone whose work you really have to buy to be considered cool.
Michi Matsuda, by the way, also makes highly lookable-at guitars that are brilliantly designed. He was two tables away from me and attracted more of a crowd than most people and he made a sale to Steve Earle, the very prominent Nashville guitarist. Go Michi!
Lodgings in the Woodstock area require a rental car; there are lots of little communities in the surround, each a few miles from one another, and each with its Bed-and-Breakfast or small hotel. But there's no big central area such as you'd find in any city. Ken Parker got me put up at a friend's house, and I have to say that meeting Perry Beekman turned out to be another high point for me. Like so many people who attended the show, Perry has been in the music biz for years and is impressively knowledgeable about people whom I've read about for years but never before met. And I've got to say that Perry is one of the wittiest people I've met, and a pretty hot jazz guitar player. I'd like to meet him again. Perry hosted a Sunday evening dinner at his house for some of the attending luminaries; we were all in exalted company! I should add that some of our group are home vintners; we did some pretty good male bonding over some of their bottled hobbies.
I usually simply fly back home after one of these shows but this time I took an extra day off. I'd been contacted by Bob Visintainer, an audio-visual media guy who'd found out about me and my work a few months back, and liked what he found. He wondered whether he had any contacts that would be useful for me, to enhance my professional presence on the East coast -- and volunteered to help me. So I spent Monday with him in Manhattan, being introduced to some of his professional network in the world of art and furniture galleries. I must say there's some really impressive and expensive stuff in these places. I don't know yet what can come of these introductions; they are like planted seeds. But it was a pretty amazing day. Bob makes a living by selling outrageously expensive high-quality audio-video equipment for home entertainment centers and security systems. He is the dealer for Goldmund (Swiss) speakers that have extremely high fidelity and output: the top-of-the-line system weighs 1200 pounds and is rock-solid STABLE; it's installed in a sensurround way, all around a room. I mean, it practically takes a home remodel to install these . . . the speakers go into and behind walls and screens so no one sees them . . . and they are soooo impressive when you hear them. Bob sells to clients like Jerry Seinfeld, who is a non-guitar player I've actually heard of. Interestingly, Bob had a significant life-changing (and very near-death) experience about a year and a half ago; it caused him to slow down and spend some time enjoying some of the flowers growing at the sides of the road through life, which he told me he'd been zipping down at a respectable Type-A speed. So now he involves himself in things that are interesting, enjoyable, broadening, and 'feel right'. I have to say, the world would be better if more people made those kinds of things a priority.
I got home about one o'clock on Tuesday morning. At 1:30 that afternoon I was at the Santa Rosa (about 75 miles North of me) courthouse to read a Victim Impact Statement at the sentencing event for Taku Sakashta's murderer. Taku was a very much loved member of our Northern California lutherie community, who was killed last April by a drugged-out paychopath. The guy had been caught, a lot of forensic evidence was collected, he was judged and found guilty of murder, robbery, burglary, evading police officers, and something else. I was a close friend to Taku and Kazuko, his widow, had asked me to be part of this.
Without going into detail, I might say that it wasn't like they show it on television. The event was hushed and ponderous and full of legalese. Everything moved slowly and inexorably forward, like the sound of a grandfather clock in the hallway at night. The culprit -- who was wheeled into the courtroom shackled to a wheelchair (he'd exploded in rage when the jury announced its verdict three weeks before, and had to be restrained by the courtroom police) -- was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, plus eight years (there are convoluted legal formulas for adding 'enhancements' to sentences, for reasons of special circumstances).
I'll miss Taku: he was very special; and he certainly didn't deserve to be killed with the brutality that he was subject to in the last moments of his life. I have to say that Taku was a sort of genius in lutherie, and he said more than once that he expected to die young; I don't know how he came up with that piece of wisdom. My partner Karen and I had a Japanese maple tree planted in front of my house that we will call Taku's tree. Otherwise, it was horrible; a real lose-lose. Kazuko lost a husband, we lost a friend and colleague, the perpetrator's mother lost a son . . . the murderer is 28 years old and basically has thrown away his life; no one outside of the prosecutor's office didn't lose something from this.
I got home from Woodstock to find my emailbox chock full of new mail, and my shop basement a little bit flooded. Email-wise, who knew I could be so popular, or how many people know that I need viagra? I've spent several days answering emails, and I'm pretty much done with the flood. Now I'm almost done with this letter, too. The basement is being taken care of tomorrow.
Apropos of nothing, while I was out of town Karen saw a play that was extraordinary and that she's recommending to anyone and everyone. It's playing in Berkeley now, but for anyone in NY who likes theater, "The Great Game: Afghanistan" will be there, at the Public Theater, in December. It's a British production (Tricycle Theatre). Karen chose to do it as a one day marathon, but that's not mandatory. It's many mini-plays clumped into three performances. The first performance starts with British imperialism, the second performance involves the USSR and the US arming Pakistan, etc and the third performance is very recent history. Well, that makes it sound like a history lesson, but it is great theater. Lots of different points of view. Brilliant acting.
Love, Ervin S.
TONE PRODUCTION AND THE LOGIC OF WOOD'S USESOctober 16, 2010
Bass response in the guitar is associated with a top membrane that is loose enough, while also sufficiently 'held together' with bracing, to move as a single unit. This can be visualized as a sail that is billowing in and out under the wind. A thin, relatively flimsy top that is held together by any interconnected latticework of bracing will be able to billow back and forth, in unison with itself, and at relatively low frequency. In the guitar, this is called monopole movement. As an example toward illustrating the importance of materials' looseness to the billowing action of the monopole, imagine a ship with sails made of plywood; the billowing action will pretty much cease. While loss of monopole is not disastrous in a sailboat (it merely needs adequate surface area of sail), a guitar needs topwood that will move. In steel string guitars, any specific high-frequency potential or behaviors of the topwood -- i.e., of the material itself, independent of an interconnected bracing lattice -- are not so relevant to this mode. This is because the metal strings themselves, by virtue of their own mass and stiffness, will bring plenty of high frequency signal into the system. One doesn't need the wood to bring its own additional high-frequency contribution into the soundbox.
On the other hand, treble response is associated with a top membrane that is stiff enough to allow high-frequency/low amplitude motion, and which is not simultaneously 'drowned out' or overshadowed by prominence of monopole movement. The more the monopole is suppressed, and the top is prevented from moving like a sail or undulating like waves (think sailboat with plywood sails), and the more it is enabled to move in rippling fashion in small-to-tiny sections, the better the high end -- which is usually identified in the literature as dipole and tripole movement. Or, looked at from another point of view, the more that the top discharges its energy by billowing in and out like a bellows or a sail (monopole), the less energy is left over for the high end (dipole and tripole). And vice-versa. This is mediated by the fact that -- as is true of any set of speakers/amplifiers -- it takes a lot more energy to generate low frequency sound than it does to make high frequency sound.
Without getting too technical the trick in guitar making, obviously, is to not make the plates so loose that you lose the high frequency end, nor so tight that you lose the low frequency end. You want both, and the luthier's task essentially becomes one of management-of-energy-budget. This boils down to having a command of top thickness/size, bracing, profiling, wood choice, stringing, bridge torque, soundhole diameter, etc. . . . and that's all a subject of endless . . . well . . . uh . . . endlessness.
NOVEMBER GUITAR VOICING CLASSSeptember 30, 2010
I'm teaching my annual class in Principles and Practice of Voicing the Guitar again this coming November, from the seventh through the thirteenth.
I have one place left in it, in case any of you has been thinking of taking a class like this.
This is a seven-day, and very hands-on, intensive. It contains a huge amount of useful information about how the guitar in its various forms works -- through the prism of forty years of my own practical, hands-on experience, as well as my thinking about the what the soundbox is all about.
In brief, it covers basic principles of structure and acoustics that are well known to every engineer and physicist -- but they are presented in everyday language, and with common-sense examples of the things that engineers and physicists would ordinarily be talking about. These are real eye-openers (and ear-openers) to guitar makers, because they have never been exposed to the kind of information that examines and explains the relationship between structure (i.e., all the things one can do to make and shape the soundbox) and sound. These principles are not all that hard to grasp. The challenging part is learning to translate and apply them with different emphasis as would be most appropriate to the kind, size, shape, steel or nylon string, etc. of guitar the student is most interested in making.
The voicing class developed into its present form over time. I taught conventional guitar making classes for many years. Eventually a lot of other people offered the same service and I withdrew from teaching the basics. Then about fifteen years ago the American School of Lutherie in Healdsburg asked me to teach a class in voicing the guitar . . . so I organized a five day class for that purpose. It went amazingly well. And I realized that this level of instruction is entirely missing from the landscape. So I taught it again. Eventually this expanded into a seven day class that is entirely unique and whose time has definitely come. Eventually I imagine that others will teach this too, or at least their version of it. But for the time being, this is it. It's an enormously informative and useful learning experience. It is not a class about the mechanics of how to build a guitar, however: it is a class about how to bring out the guitar's voice, and it's assumed that one knows the basics about how to assemble the soundbox.
Get in touch if you want to know more.
Tony McManus stopped by the shop...September 3, 2010
Tony McManus came through Berkeley on tour and stopped by my shop, where we spent a morning together. This picture was taken in my classroom and you can see a few of the two dozen or so guitar tops and backs and assorted guitar parts that hang all over two of the walls. This is where I teach my classes and do my consultations: the room is full of visual aids and models of the various guitar-related things that my students, clients, and I can talk about. It's great to have actual examples of things to refer to, examine, compare, and tap on, when words fail. And words certainly fail when it comes to Tony's awesome musical chops.
A CANDID VIEW OF VALUE, PRICES, AND GUITAR LUST
The question of why some guitars cost a lot more than others (which look pretty much the same in size and shape as others, and are made of similar materials, and sound roughly the same) gets asked often in one form or another. The answer, I think, is usually any of the dozen clichés you've ever heard of or thought of:
(1) the quality [workmanship, artistry, materials, or whatever] is better
(2) it sounds better
(3) it's one of a limited number; it's one of a kind; it's exclusive
(4) there's more labor in it; it took longer to make
(5) it's special: it's made by someone renown; you're buying a piece of history
(6) it's really worth the price. Or, better yet: it's a good deal; it's cheap considering how good it is
(7) this guy really knows what he's doing; his stuff is really good
(8) the better people all own one
(9) everybody wants one of these and they're going fast
(10) it's beautiful; it's truly artistic
(11) you'll become desirable or interesting or superior if you buy this; it separates the men from the boys and the average Joe from the Players
and (12) it's what the market can bear.
Any or all of these things may well be 'true', but we've all heard them so often that I don't think I need to go over any of this again. However, I do think this is the wrong question to be fascinated by. I mean: do you really care why something costs a lot, other than academically? A much better question is: what is the reason you would/should buy anything significantly expensive? Let me explain my thinking.
A PEEK BEHIND THE MARKETPLACE CURTAIN
Let's first look at the proposition that something is 'of higher quality' than something else. This can sound plausible. However, quality means quite different things to different people. For the buyer, it is greater functionality, durability, and satisfactoriness. For the manufacturer it generally means problem-free production, consistency of product (minimal number of rejects/seconds), and a good bottom line. For the seller it means sellable, and no complaints or returns.
While the fine print to these points, if I may put it like that, is never mentioned out loud it is essential to understanding the Dance Of The Purchase-And-Sale. This fine print is: (1) The salesman is undoubtedly a nice person, but isn't really interested in your happiness; he needs to make the sale; the friendlier he can do this the better. (2) The manufacturer, very likely your average guy who is trying to make a living, doesn't care about your personal happiness nor the salesman's; he needs to make and ship his product out and keep his own people happy. (3) You, likewise, are a good person but don't really care how many problems the manufacturer or salesman have: you want to get a good deal and be happy. This isn't cynicism, by the way; it's just that when money is involved you are operating exactly within this territory -- along with these other people who happen to be on temporarily intersecting paths. Moreover, everybody concerned (including you) has their own [and rarely mentioned] overhead, however it may be calculated.
THE LAWS OF PRICING
Aside from quality, however it may be defined, there are three main factors that affect the price of anything. They are pretty common-sensical and shouldn't mystify anyone. The first of these is: the market has its own rules for setting prices. These rules have nothing to do with you other than statistically. Furthermore, nothing exists at only one level of price and quality. You can buy a toaster for $29.95 or $229.95, or a car for $10,000 or $300,000; monkeys, bananas, and everything else in between all follow this general rule. Guitars won't be any different.
The second factor has to do with Supply and Demand, although this is disguised as quality and spoken about in terms of rarity, stylishness/workmanship of design, uniqueness, the time, effort, and skill involved, and, not least, marketing and cost of doing business. But these still come under the heading of "supply and demand".
The third factor is the most interesting because it is entirely irrational: it has to do with whether something speaks to one or has personal appeal -- as though we were talking about matters of Art or Religion. It doesn't matter whether this is based in personal greed, passion, obsession, spirituality, taste, altruism, competitiveness, lust, fantasy, reality, or ego. The brain's Pleasure Center gets a definite jolt from some purchases. This is not good, bad, smart, stupid, or greedy: it's simply how things work. And as long as one has the money it takes, the thornier aspects of decoding the quality of something may be happily ignored. Don't get me wrong: there really is such as thing as Essential Quality; it's just that you're not going to hear about it from anyone who has a vested interest in selling you something; you have to talk with an informed and neutral party to get to that.
The most powerful single component of this irrational factor is that things produced or associated with well-known people or entities command higher prices. This is an immutable law. Note that I'm not saying this is bad; it is merely not rational. Any famous artist's work commands higher prices, regardless of how weird his art is. The value of such things resides in a tangle of true worth or merit, 'brand loyalty', current popular opinion or faddism, "owning a piece of . . . ", canny-to-unscrupulous marketing, nostalgia, being "ahead of its time" or "vintage", or any of the feelings listed in the second sentence of the preceding paragraph.
What do these things mean, for us? I think they mean two things. For starters, it means that we should consider admitting that it is the least rational part of buying something that makes the experience the most thrilling. Second, it means that the more expensive the thing is that the buyer is in the market for the more The Iron Rule of Buying (known in the old days as the Caveat Emptor clause) needs to be obeyed. In buying horses you should be able to tell the difference between a race horse and a painted nag with a nice saddle; the same goes for guitars.
For these reasons, most important rational corollary to the pricing/buying complex is that you need to have a sense of whether the claims that are made about an expensive object match its actual pluses and minuses. You must do some homework!!! If this means paying someone knowledgeable to give you some useful pointers, then you should consider doing it: otherwise you becomes the seller's lawful prey (it's his job, after all, to sell you something) and your thrill will have a short half-life. While this probably sounds a bit overdramatic it is really no different than looking both ways before crossing the street.
Finally, to return to the question I posed at the beginning: why, really, would you buy some thing expensive? Your reasons are your reasons, of course. But be honest with yourself. Some good reasons might be:
(1) I really want it. The impulse does not go away within a day. I will derive pleasure from this item for a long time to come
(2) I need one (for this or that plausible reason)
(3) This [item] is really, really good; I've done my homework
(4) This is better than the one I have now; it's an appropriate purchase
(5) I'm serious about this; I collect
Some more questionable reasons might be the following (again, just be honest with yourself; people purchase things for all of these reasons, and more):
(1) I can afford it
(2) I want to show off and get admired
(3) I want to celebrate [something] and this'll do it
(4) I don't have something like this
(5) I can turn this around quickly and make a few bucks off it
(6) The salesman intimidated/shamed/pressured/sold/convinced me
(7) I'll add it to my hoard
(8) I believe the hype; the thing has to be good; everybody says so
(9) Having one will make me feel great
(10) It's expected of someone at my level
(11) I'm bored; it's time to buy something
(12) I can't pass this up
WHY WOULD YOU BUY IT?
At the beginning of this thread I said that the question of why some guitars cost a lot more than others is the wrong question to be fascinated by -- other than academically. As a general matter, who really cares? A much better question is the personal one of 'what is the reason you would/should buy anything significantly expensive?'
There are only two reasons that I can think of for buying an expensive guitar. The first is that one will love it. The second is that it is looked on as an investment. These motives can be combined in any guitar purchase and, with both, it involves doing your homework and paying attention to your own motives, experience, and desires as well as evaluating the guitar on its own merits. Play it. Listen to it. Compare it. Check it out. Would you buy a house without a structural report on it?
Most people have never had the opportunity to listen to a truly good guitar's sound or to appreciate the fine points of its design. They consequently understand these things about as well as they understand the tax code. Fortunately, as I said, one can pay someone knowledgeable for a few hours' tutorial; it is well worth the cost. And, I repeat, you owe it to yourself: it's your job to equip yourself to tell the difference between hype and the real thing. This is no easy thing to do in an environment where we're all neck-deep in perpetual hype. But the fact remains that if you're looking for something better than average, and if you can't tell the difference between something genuinely good and something glitzed up but mediocre, then you have no business thinking about buying an expensive guitar. And simply reading other people's opinions as posted on internet discussion forums isn't likely to help much, I'm afraid. On the other hand, if you get taken for a ride, guitar-wise, it isn't the end of the world: you can learn something from it.
Finally, people are motivated to buy things partly because they feel time pressure; they believe they must act quickly or lose the sale. My wisdom on this matter is that there are mighty few true once-in-a-lifetime opportunities; it's simply the market's job to make you think this sale is one of them. Also, some perspective helps: the guitar you are agonizing about is just a guitar; it's not a kidney.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Ultimately, in buying an expensive guitar, you are not dealing with a simple case of 'like' or a 'not like'. It's an analysis for which any checklist of specific items or qualities is merely a set of guidelines. You're actually playing and listening and looking for the overall quality of the experience.
Everything should be of top quality: at a top level it has to be so. You're looking at: 'is every element technically correct'? And then you're looking at the creativity, and the little touches. Does it work as a whole? Does the balance of the various elements work? Is the sound rich, full, and expressive? Does any part of the sound fail to compare with any other part? Does the response under any particular left-hand playing position overpower that of any other position? Do different right-hand positions produce full and interesting tones? Does anything in the visual field dominate everything else? Do the curves of the upper bout 'match' the curve of the waist and the curves of the lower bout? Is the rosette the right size for that guitar, or is it too emphatic, or underprominent? Do the colors of the various parts and woods match and complement one another? Does the guitar seem put together by one artist, or assembled by a committee? If any one thing grabs your attention more than any other element and doesn't let go, does that not somehow denote a lack of balance on some level? Any lack of balance denotes some degree deficit, and a five star guitar (to borrow a ranking system from the restaurant business) should be of the highest quality and be 'right' in everything. Including the quality of the thrill.
CRAFTSMANSHIP, SOUND, 'THE RIGHT LOOK', MATERIALS, AND THE MARKETING OF THE GUITAR
Everyone in the guitar making and selling business makes their guitars as shiny and beautifully attractive as they can. They also cite their guitars' sound as a selling point. And they invariably tell you or imply that their wares have good quality. Why would they not? A further selling point might also be that you should buy a particular guitar because some prominent person out there has one just like it. Is this quality? Not at all: it's simply how the world works.
I'll return to the subject of sound further on.
ON QUALITY AND CRAFTSMANSHIP/WORKMANSHIP
One can quibble endlessly about what is and what is not Quality. I pointed out in a previous essay that quality means quite different things to different people. For the buyer, it is greater functionality, durability, craftsmanship, and satisfactoriness. For the manufacturer it generally means problem-free production, consistency of product (minimal number of rejects/seconds), and a good bottom line. For the seller it means sellable, and no complaints or returns.
Let's look at this from your perspective. For you as a buyer Craftsmanship/ Workmanship will have to do with anything that is done purposefully and with skill. Therefore, you might want to find out what you're really paying for in terms of who had done what work. It is increasingly common for luthiers to get their guitar necks, bridges, and other parts made by a CNC service. So the question for you becomes: am I paying for your luthier's craftsmanship, or for his assembling parts that he subcontracted with someone else with high-tech equipment to make? Don't get me wrong, technology embodies a lot of skill and craftsmanship: someone had to create the machinery and the computer software that will do a complex task at the touch of a button. But technology, by itself, offers no craftsmanship of its own: it is aimed at well-greased rote procedures. And you should know whether you're being expected to pay for actual craftsmanship or someone else's prior (and expensive) craftsmanship that is embodied in a (bought or leased) push-button format. Amazingly, this makes no difference to some people.
Still, as long as we are focused on craftsmanship, there are things that one should expect to see, hear, and find on an expensive new guitar (vintage guitars are subject to different standards) that won't be features of cheaper instruments. My own list would include the following. They are all features that my guitars have, and each one of them takes extra time, attention and effort to do.
** Impeccably clean workmanship. 'Workmanship' here implies hand work, not machine work. That means smooth, ripple-free surfaces that bespeak of good wood preparation, a lack of visible file or sandpaper marks, and crisp joints, seams, and edges. The finish should be mirror-smooth and free of the tiny scratches that buffing wheels leave. If you're considering buying a guitar I'd recommend that you spend a good ten or fifteen minutes carefully looking it over to get a sense of the workmanship in it; use a magnifying glass if necessary.
** All-wood construction and appointments such as bindings and purflings. This comes automatically on classic guitars, but steel string guitars very often have plastic bindings and tuner buttons, etc., because the market has long since accepted these. Wood is better. Solid wood is best for soundbox construction; plywoods are characteristic of cheaply made instruments.
** Mitered [like picture-frame corners] purfling joints. Every angled juncture of line elements should be a mitered joint, not a butted one.
** If tone is your focus, then straight-grained body woods are more desirable (and also more scarce) than highly figured and wavy ones. The straighter the grain the more stable and predictable are the vibrational properties of the soundbox.
** The body woods on expensive acoustic guitars are traditionally rosewoods. The most expensive of these are straight-grain Brazilian; the second choice is East Indian. Other woods on expensive guitars can be alternative rosewoods, figured maple, figured koa, and figured mahogany. Topwoods are typically spruce, or sometimes cedar. In my opinion European spruce and Sitka spruce have equivalent tonal potential, in spite of the fact that most people have been taught to believe that the former is better than the latter. Being an import, it's merely more expensive.
** A certain amount of customizing (without altering the identity of a guitar) is a real plus; it is not unreasonable to expect some original inlay work such as beautiful shop-made rosettes. Some guitars are so ornamented that they stop being guitars and have become artwork that uses guitar-shaped wood as a canvas. Such guitars really belong in art galleries, not music stores.
** Delicate elements such as small-profile heels. A guitar's typical neck-heel curve is a 4" diameter one, achieved by the front roller of a belt sander. Smaller heel curves require more work and are ergonomic: they let the left hand get closer to the high frets.
** Ergonomically offset strings: there should be more clearance between the first string and the edge of the fretboard (so that the string doesn't pull off during play) than between the sixth string and its edge of the fretboard.
** Evenly spaced strings. You'd be surprised at how many guitars are sloppy on this feature.
** Rounded, not beveled, fret ends. Rounded ends provide more playing area than beveled frets do.
** If at all possible, custom-shaped necks contoured and matched to the individual's hand and style of playing. But this is more likely when commissioning a new guitar instead of buying an already-made one.
** If the guitar is a cutaway model, the cutaway should blend seamlessly into the neck and heel, without the 'corners' that many guitars offer. In fact, seamlessness of construction is always a clue that something is better made.
** Heelcaps are best if they are an extension of the surface of the back, rather than being a stepped point of discontinuity. This goes to the fact that, historically, the most expensive and prized guitars have been made using the Spanish method, in which the necks are firmly part of the guitar body. This allowed the heel and the back to become one uninterrupted surface. Lately, and especially in steel string guitars, bolt-on necks have been making inroads into high-priced guitar territory; heels and guitar backs do not meet in such cases. Traditionalists think this manner of building guitars is of second-best level construction.
** Intelligent voicing. Most buyers won't know what to look for, but the guitar's responsiveness will be the proof of this factor. If the guitar's sound surprises and pleases you, you'll have one of these in your hands. Your pleasure will be the fruit of years of experience on the maker's part.
** Extensive hand work at every stage and level of the instrument. Production facilities make money in direct proportion to how much time they can save at each step. One should expect to see handmade rosettes rather than commercially bought ones, on fine guitars; and also tasteful additional touches such as wrap-around fingerboard bindings and heelcap inlays. If aesthetics are something unfamiliar to you, consider taking an art appreciation class in night school. Or pay someone who knows what's what for a few hours of their time.
** Thin finishes. These are more work-intensive to apply and buff out, but make a louder and more responsive guitar than would be possible with 'standard' finishes. The difference in tap tone between a naked guitar top or back, and one that is covered (and damped) by a standard finish, is shockingly obvious the first time it is heard.
** Instrument playability should be remarkably easy. This will have to do with the and correct set and relief of the neck and an optimal height of the strings above the frets. Steel string guitars should have about 2/32" clearance between the twelfth fret and the first string, and 3.5/32" clearance between the twelfth fret and the sixth string. For classic guitars these numbers can be increased by 1/32". When these things are done correctly the guitars play cleanly, with no string buzzes.
** On the bridge, the saddle should hold the strings at about 1/2" above the guitar's face, in steel string guitars as well as classic ones. In either case, the saddle should protrude above the bridge itself by at least 1/16" and not more than 1/8".
** Most guitars, especially steel string instruments, don't play perfectly in tune. You should expect an expensive guitar to not have this problem, either from string to string across the fretboard, nor up and down the fretboard at any and all positions. Intonation-compensated saddles are necessary to ensuring that the guitar plays in tune. When considering a particular guitar, it will pay you to sit down with it in a quiet room and actually, carefully, listen to it.
** The guitar's center-of-balance is a positive design feature. If the guitar is going to be played in a sitting position, its mass needs to be well distributed on either side of the waist so the guitar sits on the player's lap without effort.
** Superior design: all the guitar's lines, proportions, and curves, will all be deliberately considered and matched to its other lines, proportions, and curves. The aesthetic will be pleasing to look at and one won't tire of it quickly. Simple though this sounds, anything that has a classic, timeless look is based in years of thought and experience. I'll have more to say about this further below, in the section titled "The Right Look". Also, taking an art appreciation class as I mentioned above can be a big help.
** Finally, hopefully, an expensive guitar should have a sound that'll knock your socks off. People describe the best guitars with words such as piano-like, full, rich, clear, sweet, warm, powerful, transcendent, and evenly responsive.
SOUND IN GUITARS
If your expensive guitars doesn't sound all that good then you've paid a lot of money for furniture, a fancy planter box, or a costly birdhouse. As far as guitar sound goes, a basic thing is this: Nylon string guitars, by virtue of their design and stringing, naturally opt to be bass-heavy; they don't naturally want to produce the brilliant, singing trebles that serious musicians are willing to pay the big bucks for. Contrarily, steel-string guitars are biased toward producing high-frequency signal: they want to sound bright at the expense of a full, rich, and present bass. In this regard, the guitar maker's challenge in making these different soundboxes is exactly opposite. He needs to apply his skills toward eliciting a good treble from the Spanish guitar, and likewise toward coaxing a good bass response out of the steel string instrument. And, in both, the luthier strives to make instruments that have an even response on all strings and in all positions. These are no easy things to do.
Better guitars have superior dynamic range. This means that a guitar can follow the player's lead: it plays quietly when played softly, keeps up with the player as he attacks the strings with more and more vigor, and switches gears easily with his in-the-moment musical inspiration and touch. Therefore the guitar can not only speak with power, but also with flexibility and subtlety. Second and third-tier guitars have a narrow dynamic range and sound pretty much all the same no matter how they're played: this will work fine for playing rhythm but it makes them less suitable to be musically expressive. Many players don't yet know about this dimension of guitar sound and the first time they meet a guitar with a notably open and flexible voice it comes as a revelation.
A better guitar should also, in my opinion, have a highly colored sound. That means that the soundbox emits a rich mix of fundamentals and overtones. Players describe such sound with words like rich, smoky, complex, or as having many voices -- as though there were 'a choir inside the guitar'. And the this sound is invariably a harmonious and blended one; no one element or component overshadows the other ones. Unfortunately many guitars, even pricey ones, sound somewhat shallow, colorless, or thin in comparison -- although this may not make sense to anyone who hasn't yet heard a guitar with a genuinely full voice. It will mean something to those of you who already enjoy orchestral music, or know things with fullness and complexity of taste or smell, or have experience of artwork that has richness of color and texture.
Such tonal qualities are the fruit of a lifetime of hands-on work in the making and voicing of guitars. This has necessarily involved making lots of mistakes and blunders, but people who buy really good guitars get the benefit of all that. In fact, that history is literally embedded (although invisibly) in each guitar that leaves an experienced maker's shop.
Finally, while it is easy for me to throw words like brilliant, smoky, full, rich, deep, vibrant, and present at you, it will be worth your while to find someone who's played an perhaps even recorded with a guitar with these qualities, or at least heard such guitars being played, and have a conversation with that person. Or, if you can, you should to a maker's shop, or to any of the new boutique dealerships that cater to high-end guitars only, and play one. The more experienced ear you have, the better choices you will make.
'THE RIGHT LOOK'
I think that really good guitars are complete packages in that, along with sound, playability, workmanship, etc., they also have something like 'the right look' -- even though that probably sounds a bit weird. But to illustrate this, let me tell you about a personal experience.
Some years ago I tried to introduce my artwork to a very high end gallery, imagining that they couldn't possibly turn down something as original and unique as my stuff was. Uh . . . wrong! The owner, a very successful, smart, well-regarded, and highly positioned authority in his field, commented that my work looked 'cheap and gimmicky'. I was floored and offended.
I eventually understood that the man had not been trying to insult me. He had in fact been delivering a neutral but accurate assessment: within the canon of the work that he dealt in and sold, my stuff really didn't measure up. As far as he was concerned, my work didn't look like the things his clients would spend a lot of money on. Running a gallery, his standard was the artistic or aesthetic appearance as the main clue to the underlying artistic skill, sensibility, and integrity of design and structure.
In truth, there is a 'look' to special things that are expensive that is different from the look of ordinary things. You have only to look in any upscale magazine that offers expensive merchandise to see examples. Things that have 'the right look' involve the totality of the package, including one's response to it. The words 'tasteful' and 'elegant' come to mind. Furthermore, this is never accidental: it is done purposefully out of an artistic sensibility and level of design skill that have taken years to master, hone, and temper. It makes for a certain tastefulness, or richness, or effortlessness-of-looking-at-it (sort of like unexpectedly seeing a gorgeous sunset, or experiencing the thrill of a sudden insight about something fundamental). And this is worth something all by itself. As far as is known, we are the only species that can have such an experience.
While 'the right look' can be obvious to anyone who has been introduced to such things, it can be problematically subtle for the inexperienced person. Ordinary things are, in a hundred different ways, visually off the mark: they are aesthetically out of balance in some way that the novice can easily miss at first glance. But I had been abruptly made aware of this distinction by being told that my work was, in effect, gaudy. Or, rather, the statement that my work was 'gimmicky' meant that I was trying too hard and without understanding the rules of harmony, balance, understatement, and good taste. I was, in the gallery owner's opinion, in effect putting lipstick on a pig (NOTE: not that a lot of high priced stuff isn't just that, but that's not what we're talking about here).
The good news for you, as a customer or buyer, is that you don't have to be able to create the 'right look'; you merely have to be able to recognize it. And that's not that hard to do; it certainly doesn't need to take years of experience. Let me give you an example. Make a trip to some clothing outlets (from boutiques to Costco!) and look at the clothes they sell. The designer clothing looks a heck of a lot nicer than the regular stuff, doesn't it? You recognize it immediately. And it invariably costs more. Well, the thing that attracts your eye to it is that it looks better (NOTE: some of it -- especially in 'high fashion' -- might not make any visual sense; but even it looks too exotic it will nonetheless look expensive). There's something unmistakable about that and designers get paid a lot of money to make that happen. And the kicker is: it doesn't matter if someone else doesn't react to the thing the same way you do: all that matters is that you know that you do.
The same principles apply to lutherie. If you simply look at some guitars -- I mean simply get out of your own way and quietly pay some attention to them for a few minutes -- you'll find that some of them look quite lovely to your eyes while a lot of others don't. You may be surprised, when you first notice this, at how you haven't noticed it before: the difference is so obvious. I'm not talking glitz here: I'm talking loveliness, which is something that goes beyond glitz. If you pay further attention, you'll discover reasons for your reactions. They'll have to do with a sense of line, felicity of contour, color harmony, naturalness, balance, proportion, and authenticity. Guitars, in their own way, can fully look like Dior, Oshkosh B'Gosh, or Liberace.
I don't think that the gallery owner who turned my work down felt that he owed me any explanation for what he said to me. Neither did he feel any obligation to educate me to the standards and aesthetics that made his business (and it was a very successful one!) viable. But that's what I'm trying to do now: educate you.
Proper materials are important, of course, for every reason you can think of, and I'm not going to repeat all the marketing hype that invariably focuses on wood, quality, rarity, endangeredness, etc. etc. Overall, materials account for only a small part of the cost of an expensive hand-made guitar: the bulk of the price is in the skill and labor. In expensive factory made guitars, quite a lot of the price tends to be in the profit margin, as a lot of the labor will, quite frankly, have gone into figuring out how to minimize the labor and not improving the product.
As I said above, the best defense against being taken for a ride is to become as educated as possible: you should be able to tell the difference between a race horse and a painted nag with a nice saddle. If this means paying someone knowledgeable to give you some useful pointers, then you should consider doing it.