Classes & Consultations

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Classes and Consultations

I am available on a consulting basis to problem-solve, give advice, render opinions, and give whatever guidance I can in the matter of guitar construction.

I also offer an annual week-long class on the subject of The Principles and Practice of Voicing the Guitar.

There are a good many beginning classes already being offered these days that teach how-to-build-a-guitar. They are wonderful learning experiences, and the student gets a chance to build his or her own guitar, which is a very satisfying experience.

This is not principally what I am teaching though; my class not about how to bend sides or how to make a bridge, nor any of the other basic procedures involved in the assembly of a soundbox. My class is about the next step, when one says: o.k., I've made a guitar; now what? The next concerns and questions are always things like: How come my guitar doesn't sound like the [insert brand name here] guitar that I bought? What goes on inside the guitar, anyway, to make it work or not work? Why do different guitars have different sound? How do I make a guitar have this kind of sound or that kind of sound? How does choice of wood affect tone? What are different bracing systems or patterns all about? What does scalloping do? Or doming? And how much is not enough, or too much? What do you do if your guitar is too bassey? Or too trebley? Etc., etc. As such, this is an intermediate-to-advanced level class, and I strongly believe that students who have already made one or more guitars will get a lot more out of it: they will already have covered the basics.

The class centers around gaining both a theoretical and a practical understanding of the principles of how a guitar top/soundbox works. Understanding the main principles that regulate the behaviors of an acoustic soundbox allows one to have freedom of choices in future work -- just as a skilled cook can with confidence mix and match this ingredient in this amount with that one in that amount, knowing that on a fundamental level they'll work successfully together in a meal. The theoretical part of the class consists of me explaining, in lecture form, and with lots of Q & A time, (1) a summary of my considerable empirical experience and (2) what the technical writers have been incomprehensively saying ever since they've been publishing their studies. These are, if opaque, at least reality-based and short on hype -- and useful to those who can decipher them.

The practical part is the heart of the class, and it takes a directly hands-on approach (as opposed to a scientific one using various forms of electronic or mechanical instrumentation). Everyone makes at least two guitar tops following my method. That is, we work to stiffness, not to thickness. We do this because of the innate variability of wood as a material: identically thicknessed plates of topwood can vary by up to 100% in density, 200% in longitudinal stiffness, and 300% in lateral stiffness. Because the guitar, when all is said and done, is nothing more nor less than a sound-producing air pump, the physical qualities of the materials become important tone-related qualities. It is much more useful to focus on a materials' actual stiffness and mass than simply on its dimensions.

Once the target stiffness has been arrived at, the student braces one of his or her tops up, clamps it into a body-mold with the braces facing outwards so that these are accessible, and then systematically cuts, carves, shapes, scallops, sands, etc. wood away. We do this methodically in the class, focusing on the effect of this work on the different quadrants of the guitar face, tapping and listening to and otherwise taking flexion readings at each step of this process. We are, in a direct way, learning the principles of voicing. Furthermore, we do this in comparison with (1) my own guitars, which are noted for their sound, and (2) in comparison with the tap tones and structures of guitars that some of the the braver students will have brought to class with them. There are discussions and questions-and-answers all through this process. With regard to the students' own brought instruments, it must be underlined that they are shared with the class for comparative and learning purposes only: all work is treated with respect and no one is made to feel bad or foolish.

In order to do the voicing work described above, I provide all the body-molds that the class needs. Moreover, they are of different sizes and are also modular -- meaning that they can be modified in mid-work. The idea is to systematically work our proto-tops down while simultaneously paying attention to (and comparing the effect on tone of) varying the depths and widths of guitar body size. And we discuss. At great length.

To my way of thinking, the main tools in my class are the feel of the wood and the tap tone -- techniques that a lot of people don't believe in because these are typically spoken of as being too subjective, vague and unreliable -- and also because no one today is being taught how to use them properly. But they are in fact extremely useful. All the historically important guitar makers relied on their feel of the wood to produce their results -- electronic and scientific testing apparatus not having existed in those times. And, those early luthiers achieved wonderful results using nothing more than carpentry tools and the sensitivity of their hands and ears. These skills are still available to be learned.

The Feel Of The Wood is the traditional focus of every skilled and pre-oscilloscope-era maker, as is the Tap Tone -- literally, the voice -- of the material. Tap tones tell us the resonances at which the top and back act; tap tones are essential, in my approach, to evaluating the voice of the soundbox and its various quadrants, as well as to tracking that voice as it is changed by one's work. The tap tone is at the heart of voicing work, which is otherwise defined as (1) the setting of the body's main resonances through the manipulation of its main plates, and (2) the manipulation of the top's ability to engage in its three principlal vibrational modes: the monopole, the cross-dipole, and the long-dipole. The Feel Of The Wood is learned over time: I don't know of any shortcuts to it. Students won't learn it all in this class, but they'll learn how to begin to use it and to learn from it in their future work.

The class lasts seven consecutive days, from ten in the morning until about six or seven in the evening. The first day takes the form of a tonewood selection workshop. I have a selection of graded and graduated guitar top woods that the students are asked to pay attention in specific ways. We do the hands-on component with the help of a syllabus that takes us through a number of learning exercises, starting with (1) fundamental just-noticing-and-registering-qualities, and moving up to doing (2) comparisons and (3) critical thinking about the potential uses of each piece of tonewood, depending on its unique qualities. Each piece of wood we'll ever handle will present us with up to some twenty features and qualities that we'll need to evaluate, and which are freely available to our hands, ears and eyes if we only know what to be on the alert for. Then we make some guitar tops, choosing our materials with a new awareness.

In making and voicing these tops, we feel, tap, listen, discuss, compare and learn . . . as we debrace and rebrace these test tops. The main things to learn are where to remove wood from, and when to stop removing wood. Also, we remove wood to the point where the sound degrades, and past it, and [if we want] then re-brace to re-establish a former level of response. Not least, we learn how to interpret the sounds that inform how near the stopping-point we are. We can even rebrace each top differently and go through the process again. There are, after all, "X" bracing patterns to learn about, Kasha bracing patterns, fan bracing and ladder bracing, radial bracing, and some interesting hybrids. The best way to make sense of what these systems are doing is to have a firm grasp of the theoretical principles of top movement. In the hands-on work we go back to theory and first principles continually to help understand the ways in which these varying bracing systems either work or don't work, and how they are similar to one another: we already know they all look different, right?

These tops that I'm describing are not keepers: they're learning tools. We aren't concerned with having them be pretty. We're concerned with getting a sense of how we can shape and manipulate the top's three most important vibrational modes, which give the guitar its tonal character. On the other hand, the second top each student makes is a keeper; it will go back to the students' workshop to be a standard which they well refer to in their next projects and which will remind them of the principles and functions they learned in the class. These reference-tops may actually be only the first of several hands-on standards that the student will have as he or she evolves and changes their design(s). The purpose of these "standard" tops is to be permanently available to feel, tap, measure mechanically or electronically, do Chadni testing on, etc. and even modify to the size and shape of that luthier's designs: they are not to be wasted on becoming an actual guitar. At least, not until one has a better standard.

As I said before: at every step there are Question-And-Answer periods open to everyone. One thing worth mentioning is that the participants can make room for addressing each others' specific questions such as why something might not be working for them at their own workbenches, or areas of confusion and struggling -- in a context that feels safe, and without feeling that a particular question might be dumb. The class is vastly enriched if everyone participates, asks questions, contributes out of their own experience and thinking. I can't think of anywhere else to go for something like this, and it turns out to be a really dynamite learning experience [sounds of drums rolling and horns blaring. Imagine confetti and streamers falling].

One real plus to the class is that once a student has a grasp of What's What, he or she can better interpret the stuff other luthiers throw at them. One will be better able to discriminate between what's useful and well thought out on the one hand, from all the hype and acoustical myth on the other. And one other thing: graduates will be better able to appreciate the subtleties of the intelligently carried out work of other luthiers, as opposed to the glitzy superficial stuff.

The class is not a joyride: it's demanding of energy and attention, albeit fascinating. It's an intense week. Ex-students have reported to me that weeks or months after the class ended they've had "Ah-Ha!" experiences where, at their own workbenches, something clicked and they finally got something that we'd covered in class.

Just as importantly, to my mind, participants will have had a significant community-building experience out of which they will probably find that they'll feel comfortable contacting one or more of the other participants in the future when questions come up that are puzzling -- and they'll likely receive such calls themselves. In fact, part of my thinking about organizing this class is specifically the one of starting a sort of support group in the sense that we're all in this together in that we all feel overwhelmed by commitments, logistics, time constraints, etc. of the work.

A main learning tool in the class is that the hands-on (and ears-on) work is continually reinforced by reference to Theoretical First Principles. To my mind, this is key. The basis for any successful and repeatable hands-on work is a coherent concept of what one is doing. And one way in which the class helps to internalize theory is to dedicate a day to Theoretical Design. Each student is assigned a certain kind of guitar to make, as though it were commissioned by a client. One person may be asked to come up with a full-size plan for a proposed Jumbo twelve-fret guitar with a 26" scale length that is supposed to be an orchestral instrument, or maybe have a bluegrass sound. Another student may be asked to make a baritone 14-fret, 25" scale length guitar for the accompanying of hymns in church: would fan bracing or "X" bracing work best? And, specifically, how would one shape/size/brace these? And why? A third student might be asked to "make" a 26-fret dreadnought cutaway guitar with a cedar face for playing jazz. Where would one put the soundhole? And what would that do to the bracing? And why? The possibilities are rich for thinking and learning. And everyone gets to design and draw a plan for something and then explain and defend it to the class as members ask questions, suggest alternatives, voice bafflement, etc. Some of the best learning experiences come when someone will have designed something that won't work for one reason or another -- and can then understand the reason why. Just as importantly, while the class always contains humor and good-natured jesting, no one seriously makes fun of or otherwise puts anyone's work down at any point.

The ground rules, again, include operating out of professionalism and respect, and no one criticizes anyone else's work or thinking. That's reserved for me. Oh, just kidding. Really: we'd be here to learn, period, and to find ways to improve our work. The focus is on (1) learning a method whereby we can arrive at an understanding of why our instruments are what they are, (2) acquiring a method by which we can test out our ideas, (3) having a conceptual grounding so that we can have better ideas, and (4) learning the principles by which we can evaluate the work of others. By this last I mean not only critical evaluation (in a constructive sense), but also ability to evaluate the opinions and thinking of every other luthier we'll ever meet who will tell us about their pet theory. It's no secret that some people really know something, while others are full of hot air: but they often sound pretty much alike.

Another way in which we internalize the material of the class is to spend a morning criticizing/evaluating the work of others. I have a file of photos of other makers' guitars, bracing systems, innovative ideas, etc. that I've collected over some time. Each one of them yields some information about the structure, the thinking behind, and the tonal possibilities of the guitars we're looking at. It's an amazingly useful critical exercise.

The class itself is organized systematically so that each day contains lectures, discussions and hands-on work. The work of each day is predicated on the work of the previous day. We build from basic principles [ structural stiffness and engineering factors in materials; dynamics of vibrating plates; the functions of bracing; etc.] to some degree of becoming familiar with the work "from the inside" -- and which we'll keep on integrating and adding to after we return to our own workbenches. Sometimes participants ask questions about something that we're scheduled to cover, say, two days later; we hold those thoughts until that part of the work is gotten to, and then we deal with the question -- not out of my having given an answer just because I know the answer, which pretty much has the function of making me look good, but exploring the answer out of everyone's in-the-class and pre-class actual experience. This makes all of us look good. Every time we have a discussion we make connections between hands-on work and mental blueprint . . . and internalize another piece of learning.

There are also plenty of handouts. Plenty of handouts. These are given out daily and pertain to the work of that day. It's helpful to read them in the evenings, but often students are so jazzed/tired by a long day of everything else that they simply read them after the class is over. I charge the costs of printing and xeroxing.

My shop is in a refurbished residential building, and I can put students up for the duration of the class. I have futons, pillows, a full kitchen, 1-1/2 bathrooms, food, and plenty of floor space. It's not luxurious, but it is comfortable. I have plenty of rooms too [my shop was previously used as chiropractic and law offices] so that each person can close a door behind them at night. For those who want more privacy, their own bathroom, etc. there are hotels and motels. Gigolos of both genders are available at extra charge. There are a heck of a lot of restaurants in the area, and students can choose to either eat out or fix meals in the kitchen and save money. For those who stay in the shop, discussions and talk reguarly range far into the night.

Get in touch with me for more information, costs, etc. The price is reasonable given that it has taken me a lifetime of experience to coalesce, refine and integrate my methods and my understanding of the principles of instrument making, and also how much the work of former students has been improved. I say this because all my students who are actively continuing to make guitars report this. For those who need, I'm open to working out some acceptably do-able payment plan.

To receive further information call me at (510) 652-5123, or write me c/o 516 52nd St. Oakland, Calif, 94609, or email me at

By Joe Herrick, luthier

I was recently asked: I just wanted a reference about the Somogyi class since I am planning to go. Was it positive, did you learn a lot? was it worth it? Can you tell me about it?

The short answer: Yes, to all of the above.

The long answer: Where to start? If you've been on some of the luthier boards on the internet, I'm sure you've heard the controversy that always seems to pop up when "Ervin" is mentioned. For those that have gone to his class, they (now "we", I suppose) are accused of being brainwashed (I've also heard "drank the kool aid") and not sharing what we learned in the free information sharing way the internet seems to demand.

As I see it (before class even), people seem to EXPECT and DEMAND something for nothing (and this class isn't cheap). Worse, they really just want a simple formula. In lutherie terms, they only want a bracing pattern, brace heights, numbers, etc that will allow them to follow a cook book recipe to build world class guitars...instantly.

Why all the preamble? Because, that is NOT what you'll get from this class. What you will get is: a starting point, knowledge (and challenge) to move beyond that starting point with your tops. I learned a lot about other parts of the guitar, their design and function as well.

I'm a hobby builder making 2-3 guitars a year in my spare time. I
learned to make guitars 6 years ago by taking a 2 week class 1:1 with an experienced luthier who was an excellent teacher. After I was done, I continued to make 7 more guitars (tops) exactly the way I was shown, without a whole lot of understanding. I just followed the thickness, brace height, brace carving, etc. The guitars all sound good to me, my friends, and acquaintances I've built for. I didn't WANT (or know how) to make changes, only to get to the end of many hours of work and have the guitar not sound as good as what I knew I could do following the "recipe". What I was missing out on is how much BETTER they could be. I learned the mechanics of "how" to build a guitar in my first class. Ervin's class taught me the "why" and encouraged me to grow. I know this all sounds "soft", so let me elaborate some.

First let me say that Ervin is very fun, not at ALL stuffy. He is one of those rare exceptional teachers. He was patient with us and our varying degrees of existing knowledge. His passion about guitars and life is evident. He enjoys being challenged and everything is fair game for further discussion. He does not come across as a "know it all" with canned responses ready for each question. He is contemplative and, more often than not, would often ask us what we thought and then built on that discussion with his own knowledge and experience. He was NOT above
saying..."I don't know". We discussed things often late into the night both with Ervin and amongst ourselves as students. The class has a LOT of handouts. A 4 inch binder's worth. He follows a syllabus that builds methodically from the ground up. That's not to say that the syllabus is inflexible. We tweaked it as we went to delve into areas that we, as a class, wanted to pursue.

Some class specifics that I found helpful:
(1) The first day we learned a LOT about wood; its growth patterns, grain run out and other grain effects/defects. We had hands on exercises with over (at LEAST) 50 different tops. We learned to exercise and develop our observation of these characteristics and differences and extrapolate their possible affect(s) on building a top.
(2) We made stiffness models of the tops that we brought to class. Then we discussed the effect of our designs as evidenced by the models.
(3) We made practice tops and modified them, sometimes shaving them past the "breaking point" and put them back together again differently.
(4) We joined a top (no bracing) and thicknessed it to a STARTING
stiffness for us to (take home and) begin from, to change our tops in future guitars.
(5) We evaluated and discussed various bracing patterns and their affect on how the guitar sounds.
(6) We blind tested the guitars that each of us had built and brought. We listened and characterized their voices. This was again a great exercise to train the ear to discriminate between the tonal characteristics of a guitar. We then discussed why each guitar sounded the way it did relative to its design and construction.
(7) We each had to design a top to match a fictitious customer's
demands. We then reviewed, presented, and critiqued our designs.
(8) We also discussed design and function of the back, neck,
bridge/saddle/nut. Yep, I have changes I want to make and experiment with in these areas as well as a result of this class.

Finally: The class revitalized my desire to build. It broke me out of the cook book approach and has made me think more. The class gave me a basis for making changes. I feel I can build better sounding guitars now. I have 3 different changed tops in the works right now, and one different back. Everyone that was in our class has changed their build methods. Some of them are "professional" builders (meaning, guitar building is their livelihood).

I learned how much I was really overbuilding my tops. Being in this type of class with other builders is invaluable. To see
and hear their guitars, their design considerations, their

What says it best: I'll never build a guitar again the same way as I did before class.

I stayed in the shop. There were 4 of us there. We managed with the two bathrooms and one shower. We also ended up discussing class and playing guitars late into the night. This was immense fun. There are plenty of couches and futons to sleep on. As a late arriver, I slept in the attic on futons and a sleeping bag. Ervin can also provide pillows, blankets, towels, and sheets, which eliminates the needs to try to pack and travel with these. There's an open-all-day-and-all-night Walgreen's one block away that has anything you forgot to bring (everything from bathroom to kitchen stuff, office and beauty supplies, film developing, a pharmacy, and more). There's also a shop washer and dryer, if anyone needs to wash clothes. It was quite doable for a week. Personally, I enjoyed the stay more this way than if I left at the end of each day for a hotel room.

There's not really a LOT in the way of food in walking distance. Hamburgers, pizza, Italian, and Mexican were all good nearby. If you're adventurous there's also Ethiopian and Korean nearby. There IS a bakery over one street that makes really great scones and pastries. If someone has a car, the options for dinner (and more) open up a lot. For instance, we also drove to Japan Woodworker store (about 30 minutes drive) and many of us loaded up on stuff with an "Ervin class discount" of 10%. LMI also sent a lot of tops that we got to pick through (with out newly taught skills) at a great price. Shipping stuff back home was also easy since there is a box shipping store right across the street.

If you've hung on this long, you're probably a good candidate for the class!

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