Do you make double-top guitars?
The short answer is no. Double-tops have two very thin sheets of spruce and/or cedar forming a sandwich around an internal layer, typically of the synthetic honeycomb material called Nomex. The main attribute of these guitars is increased volume, which these days makes them very fashionable. They are also often dark and muddy and have an ersatz flavor to the sound. They are difficult to make well. I have tooled up to make one particular version but I continue to hesitate to go forward with this project as it takes considerable commitment and I haven’t yet seen results that persuade me it is worth the effort. Times change. I will probably give it a try someday soon. If someone were to order one I would certainly give it a go.
Do you make lattice-braced guitars?
The short answer is yes, I make lattice-braced guitars. For the past 10 years I have been working with a lattice bracing system for the lower bout of the soundboard. Before I get into the specifics, I would like to try to dispel a few misconceptions about “lattice-bracing”. The most well-known lattice-braced guitars are those of Greg Smallman and his followers in Australia. These guitars tend to have a rather unique set of sound characteristics. By reputation, they sound quite distinct from a traditional guitar like a Torres. It has become commonplace, particularly among players, to use the term “lattice-braced” to characterize the sound associated with Smallman guitars. Thus, if a guitar is described as lattice-braced, for many players the expectation is that it will sound something like a Smallman. However, many luthiers around the world employ lattice systems that give diverse results quite unlike the Smallman “sound”. It would be a mistake to pigeonhole lattice guitars this way. Just as fan-braced guitars can embody a rich and wide range of sonic personalities, so can lattice-braced guitars. In fact, I expect that just as much variety can be found among lattice- as among fan-braced guitars. Further, the potential overlap in results between the two systems is considerable.
My own approach has been to exploit this potential for overlap and try to duplicate and extend the sound I get with more traditional fan-bracing. To do this I have, in essence, taken two sets of 5 or 7 fans and rotated them with respect to each other to form a lattice, one tall set riding over and fitted to a low set. This approach mimics the increased support in front of the bridge inherent in a fan-braced design, but introduces the main advantage of a lattice, which is to give more uniform support to the entire soundboard. Of course, when I say support, I mean graded stiffness and mass that can influence the sound in myriad ways. Overall, this system is extremely versatile. I look upon it as an extension of fan-bracing rather than an alternative.The resulting guitars are typically a little bit better than their fan-braced siblings in almost every regard. There tends to be more presence to the note without sacrificing sustain; richer, bigger basses; excellent evenness from note to note and string to string; and great clarity and projection. Yet if you compare one directly to an older fan-braced “Byers”, you will find the timbral palette is remarkably similar. Overall, the transition from one system to the other has been smooth and successful.
What about scale length?
I build most of my guitars to the standard 650 mm scale length. In addition I build short-scale guitars, typically at 630 mm and 613.5 mm. There is a great range of hand sizes among guitarists. Finger length and width of spread can easily vary 25% between a man with large hands and a woman with smallish hands. Yet the difference between 650 and 613.5 is less than 6%. I commonly encounter the belief that scale-lengths of 645 mm or 640 mm are sufficient to accommodate players struggling with 650. There are surely players for whom these lengths are optimum, but I think the value of even shorter lengths is underrated. Take a guitar of 650 scale and capo at the 1st fret. You now have a scale length of 613.5. If your hands are small and you are having a struggle with 650, try this. In addition, if you can have a local luthier make a new nut for your guitar with closer string spacing, you might find an even better fit. (The normal string spacing at the nut is about 43-44 mm, E to E, center to center. A person with very small hands might benefit with spacing as close as, say, 37 mm. It is usually best to keep string spacing at the saddle unchanged, since no matter how small the hands, free-stroke playing requires about the same amount of space between the strings.)
I have great faith in shorter scale lengths and feel they have been unjustly “belittled” for having reduced power and volume. For people with smaller hands the increased playability could far outweigh any perceived loss of power. This loss can occur, in theory, because of reduced string tension or reduced box dimensions. Yet by using higher tension strings the first objection is overcome, and as for the effects of reduced box size, bigger is not always louder. Every design will have an optimum box size and shape to maximize volume, but a smaller box may actually increase projection or quality of sound. Some of the smaller Torres and Hauser I guitars faired quite well in the concert hall. These sizes are easy to adapt to shorter scale lengths. I reduce the size of the plantilla by only about 3-5 mm around the perimeter for both my 630 and 613.5 scale guitars. The sound can be very lovely and without one of my 650s for direct comparison, diminished volume is not obvious. Beyond compromised enjoyment, discomfort from too big a guitar can be a precursor to a repetitive stress injury. Without wishing to cause undue alarm, I think this possibility should not be taken lightly, and may often be obviated by playing a short-scale guitar. End of rant!
Spruce or Cedar?
It has been my observation that players who are used to spruce find it more to their liking; and those used to cedar prefer it. Part of this seems to have to do with the sound we expect to produce. Part seems to be that different techniques are required to obtain the best sound from each. It often takes some time to adapt the appropriate right hand follow-through to compliment each wood. There is a tactile difference here, perhaps related to the generally quicker development of the note in cedar. Beyond this, the sonic differences are subtle. For many players it is not hard to feel the difference but as a listener it is easy to be fooled. In general, spruce is clearer, yet with a denser, more complex sound and longer sustain. Cedar is “punchier”, often with more headroom and is sometimes described as “darker”. It may seem louder to the player but in large halls spruce often carries better, perhaps because of its clarity. Spruce is usually more colorful. These distinctions are subtle and not always apparent. Both woods can make great guitars. I personally tend to prefer European spruce, but North American spruces, particularly Adirondack and Engelmann, can be very attractive. Likewise, coast redwood and Port Orford cedar can make excellent guitars.
What do your guitars sound like?
Try listening to CDs or recorded sound files (some are available on the Audio/Video page) of my guitars. This can be very deceptive, though. If you don’t have access to a recent guitar (try the dealers listed on the order page), here is my two cents on sound. Recording conditions, player technique, and when the instrument was made all have mitigating influences on what you hear. Here is what I work toward: a big sound, very even and sustaining, of great clarity and depth, yet warm and dark. I look for a quick lively response, fundamental support for every note, and the ability to easily shape the sound, both with vibrato and color. It should also have a shimmering brilliance when called upon, that carries to the back of the hall. I want the sound to come out effortlessly, but there should be enough headroom to really push the dynamic range. Do any of my guitars have all these qualities in spades? Perhaps not, but this is what I strive for as I build, and for which I make conscious design decisions. Some of these qualities are often thought of as representing tradeoffs, such as volume and sustain; or clarity and warmth. It is often possible to overcome these limitations, though sometimes at the expense of other qualities. Designing and constructing a guitar with a full plate of desirable attributes is a subtle balancing act. I approach it with whatever advantage experience and intuition has bestowed upon me.
How fast do you work?
Slowly. I build about 12 guitars per year. Normally I work on one or two at a time; sometimes three. I prepare neck blanks, fingerboards, bridge blanks, linings, heel and tail blocks, purflings and rosette materials, as well as a few other parts in advance and in bunches. I usually plant rosettes in half a dozen tops at a time. This gives me the advantage of a certain economy of scale, but when it comes to putting it all together and producing a guitar, there is no substitute for one-at-a-time. I suppose I could build faster but to try to industrialize the process much more than it already is can give no greater quality, and in the final analysis quantity has to be subordinate to quality (as long as it continues to put food on the table!).
Do you teach guitar-building?
I have given workshops in the past, and intend to again. At present I have nothing planned. I also offer the opportunity to learn one-on-one in my shop. This is tailored to the needs of the individual, but generally consists of spending several intensive days watching and taking notes while I work and teach in the normal flow of my production. Contact me if you wish to discuss the possibilities.