Carving Out My Sound- Part 1

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I can pick a large handful of times I’ve walked in the house with a newly finished guitar in hand, grinning ear to ear. “You have to hear this thing!” I exclaim to my supportive wife. I strum a chord or two and watch for her response. Which usually goes something like “WOW!”. Then I’ll complicate things with a “can you hear the way that the…blah blah wah wah blah?!”. She’ll usually say something along the lines of “I mean, it sounds like a guitar…”. And as far as she and many guitar players/listeners are concerned, she is right. They all sound like guitars. They all have six strings tuned to the same pitch and create the same notes. Sort of. Even what we might all ‘bad’ guitars can find their place in the universe. At least that’s what I believe. Because at the end of the day we all just want to make music.

Take for example my grandfathers J50. I absolutely adore that guitar. My dad on the other hand has always been pretty ‘meh’ about it. Saying it sounded cardboard like. It does. It is dead flat. But it is old, and beautiful, and so perfect. So, as far as I’m concerned there is quite a bit of emotion at play when we say we ‘love’ a guitar. The way it feels in your lap. An inexplicable feeling of connection and joy just to hold it. And it’s all very relative to the style of music you intend to play on said guitar. In short, the world of good and bad guitars is extremely subjective.

We are in an age where lutherie has exploded. Since I started building it’s gone from “Whoa! You make guitars?!” to “Oh cool, yeah my brother went to school for that, too. He works at Guitar Center.”. With that, there seems to have been a compounding of progress and available, FREE information simply because of the sheer number of folks building combined with the wondrous world wide web and social media.

As a builder, I never had any formal training. If you’ve poked around my website you know this and my background of how I got into building. My first guitars were something frightening. But, nevertheless, I’ve honed my skills as a craftsman, cleaned up my woodworking, and come up with some original designs. A well carved neck with smooth transitions, clean bindings and purflings and perfect fretwork and setup are all something to be expected in a top tier instrument. The number of builders whose work is unbelievably clean and crisp is overwhelming. Thousands, I’m sure, scattered around the world, each displaying clean craftsmanship and devotion. It’s truly amazing. But what each of these builders also brings to the table is a sound all their own. Some more apparent, some more nuanced, but it’s there. Some are very deliberate in their ‘sound’, choosing interesting new bracing layouts and voicing techniques. Some are using the tried and true methods. Either way, the outcome is a direct reflection of each of these luthiers, from aesthetic to sound.

In the early years of building I spent most of my time focusing on aesthetic designs. I came up with my own body shapes and other details to set my work apart. There are plenty of places for a builder to put his or her stamp on their work such as rosette, headstock, fretboard termination, bridge, inlays, end graft, etc. These are great little touches that catch the eye of players and get the guitar into their hands. It wasn’t until a few years into building that I began to think about sound and started hearing the word ‘voicing’.

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At this time I was already completely enamoured by guitar making and so it presented a new challenge to embark upon. I would surf the web for hours on end, reading everything I could possibly find about making guitars. I read every article and bought every book on voicing and tap tuning. I scoured other builders’ websites to get a glimpse of how they carved their bracing. It all helped, and I’ve built guitars a number of different ways. A shoutout to Kent Everett, Roger Siminoff, Alan Carruth, Kevin Ryan, Tim McKnight, and of course Ervin Somogyi for helping guide me in the early years and ultimately to where I am today.

In 2012 I picked up my copy of The Responsive Guitar by Ervin Somogyi on a recommendation of a friend. I can’t begin to explain how game changing that book was for me, and still is. So much so that I forked over the big bucks to fly out to Oakland and spend 10 days with Ervin in his shop, diving further into the world of voicing the guitar. The experience was a complete blast and I learned first hand the implications of design and carving braces in the guitar. Even today, I’m still sorting through and applying the theories and information to discern how to carve out my own sound. Each guitar sheds a new sliver of light on this idea in my mind of what MY guitars sound like. I’ve made some progress…and built a few that ended up getting the tops ripped off and redone. Yes, some were stinkers. Going back to what I said earlier, I’m sure these guitars would have found good homes. But it’s my obsessive pursuit of finding my sound that kept these guitars from living more than a few months before being married to new tops.

The approach in a nutshell is to treat the top of the guitar as though it were a speaker cone. That is, to get the top pumping air. I’ve had a good bit of success with this approach right away. My guitars immediately became more responsive and open. The lows became deeper and individual notes more clear and powerful. They are more musical and expressive. The thing that takes some time to figure out is the stiffness to mass ratio that gets me where I want to be. Do I leave the top a little thicker and shave the braces down, or thin the top and leave the braces a little taller? Both achieve the same stiffness, theoretically, as long as I’ve done my job right. What I’m finding and playing with lately is the differences in resonant frequency in that relationship, and the way that ultimately contributes to tone. Not to be vague, I just don’t exactly have answers yet. I have hypotheses and ideas, but I am still testing them.

My ultimate goal is to have a very in depth understanding of these concepts, not only just to nail down what makes my guitars sound the way they do and do that with consistency, but to be able to colour the tone of each guitar to suit a variety of players’ needs. It is also my goal to one day teach what I learn. But this is years down the road.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

*hint

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Updates and Shop Happenings- Oxwood 2017 and the year ahead (Part 1)

This past year has been filled with some very interesting turns and events.  We took off in our remodeled camper...got to South Carolina and turned back around.  Sold the camper, remodeled a bathroom, packed up and moved to South Carolina, moved OUT of South Carolina, then went to San Diego where I interviewed and accepted a job as a cabinet maker.  Whew...and the year isn't over...nor are the twists!   

I landed back in Detroit a couple weeks ago with the intention of packing all of our stuff, which was still in boxes, into a u-haul and taking it back to San Diego.  I had the job, I had lined up a place to stay- everything was in order or so it seemed.  But these past few months have been some of deep reflection and inner examination. Where are we? who are we? Why do we feel so desperate to move away?  Is it the cold?  Hmm, didn't seem to be bothering me all that much.  What do we really want out of life...or at least the next 5-10 years?  Definitely want to own and renovate our own home.  Was that even possible in Southern California for us?  We wrestled with the options, numbers, possibilities, long term vs. short term plans and even though we want San Diego, something just didn't feel right.  Today, we feel the same way, something just isn't right about it for us.  We love Southern California and definitely want to be there, but at the end of the day have decided that there are circumstances and bigger reasons that have lead us to stay here in Michigan after all, and I'm definitely looking forward to relaxing a bit and finally letting go of this "we have to get out!  How are we getting out?!" madness that has plagued the last 9 years of our lives.  Which brings me to the rest of the year and what I am planning for 2018 and beyond.  

As of now, I'm in the process of setting the shop back up and tying up some unfinished projects that have been lingering for years.  Clearing out the 'in process shelf'.  The first is this nylon string 00.  Using a combination of this awesome book from the 1970's, Ervin Somogyi's books and a few internet searches I took my standard steel string 00 shape and built a sort of classic/crossover style nylon string prototype.

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Gluing the fingerboard in place here- with a two way adjustable truss rod.  This guitar will have a pretty thin, Spanish Cedar neck and I wanted to have maximum adjustability and stability.  And then also getting the top binding glued in place.  Continuing with the somewhat modern rendition of a Classic instrument, it will also include a small bevel on the treble side of the upper bout for a bit of comfortable access to some frets past the body joint.  It 

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I hope to have in in finish over the next couple of weeks.  My initial thought was to French Polish the entire guitar, but being that its a prototype and it will likely be in the laps of many players, I'm leaning toward finishing the back, sides and neck in nitrocellulose lacquer and French Polishing the top.  Here's where were at-

 

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There's still quite a bit of work left to do, but I'm happy with the progress and the way it's all coming together.  

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Stay tuned for more progress pictures of the build and things around the shop and follow me on instagram to see more frequent updates and build photos- @brad.the.guitarmaker

Brad

Black Limba OM- Finished

I was able to finally get the finish buffed out on the OM last week and assemble it.  With only 4 days of being a guitar I couldn't help myself and wanted to play with my new Rode mic.  So, here is a little clip in open D tuning.  This is an original tune, though I don't consider myself much of a player let alone a composer.  Just a little tune to demonstrate the guitar.  Put on your favorite head phones or ear buds and give it a listen.  

 

If interested, it is for sale, please contact me.  I will get some finished/professional photos of it later next week and add a for sale section to the website with more info and photos.  For now, cheers.

A Travelin' We Will Go!

A few weeks ago I wrapped up the woodworking on three new guitars.  I also hinted at something exciting that was happening for us and I'd like to share a little bit about whats happening now.  Here are a few photos of the work.

 

As some of you know, we left Michigan with our travel trailer in search of warmer weather and adventure...and just in time!  They got hit hard just 2 days after we drove out.  That would have been ugly.  

Anyway, we've always had this dream to travel together as a family, exploring the United States (and hopefully the world).  Lonnie is 2 1/2 years old now and school is just around the corner.  We want to make sure we get in as much quality family time in these early years as possible and also show him some of the unique and different places as well as some of our favorites that we've found over the years.  We're all having a blast so far.  I figured since we're going to be out and about I should take this opportunity to meet up with fellow builders and players with a couple of guitars in hand.  I'll be doing my best to document the whole trip and even providing some quality sound samples when possible.  

Here are the two guitars that will stay with me on this trip.  I snapped these just after I sealed them up with shellac.  Then I packed them into their cases and headed out the door.  First is a Carmen (OM) in Sitka Spruce and Black Limba.  

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The second is an Ox (Modified Dreadnaught) in Sitka Spruce and Curly Maple.  

In order to get out of Michigan before the snow flew, it required some finagling and figuring out how to accomplish the finish and assembly on the road.  Luckily I have a friend in South Carolina who owns a cabinet/furniture shop with a nice paint booth.  He was kind enough to let spray the lacquer on these guitars over the last couple of weeks.  So I threw together this crate of tools to complete the guitars amidst the travels.  So far I haven't figured out that I've forgotten anything, fingers crossed!

As of now, both guitars are in their final curing stages and will be buffed out and assembled later this week.  More updates to come.  Cheers!

The 00's from Woodstock

Earlier this year I was overjoyed to open my email and find an invitation to the Woodstock Invitational Luthiers Showcase.  I'd been wanting to exhibit in this show for quite some time.  Builders, players, collectors and appreciators from all over the world are in attendance.  It's a truly wonderful time to chat with enthusiastic guitar lovers and finally meet the other builder's we see around on the internet.  

I started to think about what I would bring with me.  Immediately I thought was a great opportunity it would be for me showcase a 2 1/2 year project I'd been working on- the Oxwood 00.  I decided since I was also celebrating 10 years as a luthier I should build something very special.  I chose the most beautiful set of Brazilian Rosewood I had in the pile and a wonderfully silky Lutz Spruce top.  I paired it up with a second 00 build of Amazon Rosewood and Western Red Cedar.  So, without further ado, here they are...and stay tuned for a more in depth post about my journey through finding my sound in the 00.