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’.
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.