Of Wood and Words….Master Guitar Builder, Ervin Somogyi

By Pat Bianculli

On a beautiful, sunny day in late July 2014 (to a New Yorker, every day is beautiful and sunny in the Bay area of California!) I scouted out the legendary steel string guitar builder, Ervin Somogyi [pronounced: Suh-MAH-jee] at his workshop, a large white house just off Telegraph Ave. at 52nd Street on the border of Oakland and Berkeley.

At the top of the stairs, Somogyi meets me in front of a gate that features a very elegant carp done up in wrought iron, one of his signature design creations he often carves into the soundboards of his guitars. (see photo). Although claiming to be a “former hippie”, I am struck by Somogyi’s youthful appearance, his gold wire-rimmed glasses, a remnant from his days as an English major at U.C. Berkeley. He bears a more than casual resemblance to singer/songwriter, John Denver, had Denver lived into his 70’s.

Coincidentally, Denver was a client of Somogyi. He built two instruments for the musician while he was at the top of his career. Somogyi explained that, much to his chagrin, Denver never played these guitars publicly, relegating them to special, private performances for his personal friends and close acquaintances. But he did happen to tune in to a music presentation that Denver was doing at the White House, the George H.W. Bush White House, where he can be seen serenading the President and Barbara Bush with his Somogyi guitar. (The YouTube video shows Denver performing his signature hit songs, “Rocky Mountain High” and “Sunshine On My Shoulders” for the Bush’s)

He clearly loves words as much as he loves wood. He has written extensively about his work, in sentences that at first emanate from the skilled artist and builder that he is. In this role he describes complex principles of engineering and the physics of sound with ease and clarity. Then, the consummate teacher takes over as he shares his findings, insights and passion for the guitar, in words that teach and inspire readers to think for themselves.  In the numerous articles that he has written for major trade publications, Somogyi reflects vociferously on the culture in which we live and the loss of skilled, manual labor, the artisans who were the carpenters, stone cutters, decorative painters:

“But to witness permanent losses of anything that has informed and shaped one’s life from one generation to the next . . . as we are witnessing in the gutting of the very oceans, forests, and life-species of our planet — and less dramatically but just as fellingly in the loss of handiness of people in general. Increasingly, people who work with their hands are doing things that we call service jobs: in restaurants, laundries, gardens, medical technology, house cleaning, janitorial work, etc. If you’re paying attention, that’s hard to take without flinching.

A Holocaust survivor, young Ervin and his family fled his native Hungary and traveled extensively throughout Europe before arriving in America. He grew up in a very authoritarian household, with his father dictating without discussion the path and career choices that Somogyi was obliged to follow. This did not include making guitars. Through it all, Somogyi found his own way, first as a builder of classical guitars, honing his craft by repairing stringed instruments. A chance liaison with the Windham Hill record label, a company bent on sonic perfection in their recordings, would alter his career and point him towards construction of the steel stringed acoustic guitars that he is famous for.

All the while Somogyi retains a whimsical sense of humor, which he directs both at himself and the world in which we live. Our interview was punctuated by laughter. When I told him that I normally interview for the magazine via email and that this would indeed be my very first face-to-face interview for Guitar Connoisseur, Somogyi offered that we find a coffee shop and conduct the interview with bags over our heads. One is greeted in the hallway by a framed album cover of legendary classical guitarist, Andres Segovia, with the title, “Greatest Hits”. It features Segovia’s head photoshopped on to the body of an accordion player.

Through some five hours of interview, Somogyi was fluid and generous with his words and his thoughts. We conducted the interview at his kitchen table surrounded by books and art, pots, pans and a large tea kettle on the stove.

This first question came out of a preliminary discussion we had prior to the actual interview. I had learned from an article I was writing for this magazine on the Hermann Hauser family of luthiers, that, finally, a woman appeared in what I perceived to be a male dominated world of guitar builders, in the person Kathrin Hauser, daughter of Hermann Hauser III. Ervin concurred with my understanding that there are few women in the field, and added that no African Americans, and few Asians could be found making guitars. It’s a field that is mostly dominated by white males, and blue-collar guys at that. He was referring to the society of people who build guitars and other instruments by hand. I asked:

GC: How do you fit into this world of American guitar lutherie?

ES: (responding jokingly) I fit in!! I fit in a bit anomalously but I feel very comfortable here. The genesis of American guitar making culture has roots in the centuries long crafts traditions brought over from Europe that pertain to making things by hand. This WAS before the Industrial Revolution. Many of the people who wound up gravitating towards this work on these shores (America) were from the trades (i.e., blue collar & working class people) and it’s continued to be that.

Now, European labor was organized around the “guild” system, so that if you wanted to do a particular kind of work you’d enter a guild and be trained, tested and approved. That guild system was already falling apart by the time this continent was being populated. So, when Europeans came to this country and started to figure out how to make a living they didn’t have guilds or master teachers, or anything like that. They brought with them whatever education, skill, talent or ambition they had, and the field was wide open.

From the very first, on these shores, you would rent a space, hire some workers, tell them what to do, and you’d have some kind of a production shop without all the folderol and tradition.  You didn’t have to have 12 years of training. You might have a little bit of training, scrape some money together, rent some floor space, hire some guys, and, you had a manufacturing concern. Or, you sub-contracted, and you became an organizer of other people’s products, manufactured under your label. That was the model.

This American model, since its inception and until my generation has been, “You want a guitar? Some factory is going to make it for you”. You had the Martin’s, the Gibson’s the Guild’s, etc. until my generation, when individuals came forth and started to play with the work. And, I personally think a significant reason that young, single, skinny males from my generation thought they could do this kind of work was the general culture of permissiveness, which was an outgrowth of the very important fact that these were the first generation of Americans — the post-war generation — that were economically secure.

Previous generations had to scrabble for a living: life was uncertain, the depression, wars, life on the prairie, making a living from farming, etc . . . so we were very privileged and we felt safe enough to do this oddball thing, because we knew if it failed, our parents would take us in and support us. And, in those days it wasn’t hard to find a job doing something. There was great prosperity. So, it was in that crucible, I think, that the impetus to take up hand tools and make guitars first arose.

Understandably, the people who began to do that work quickly found that, “Uh-oh, I don’t know what I am doing”, and there weren’t any teachers around to get help from. There were no books, no magazines, no lutherie schools, no internet.  So, it was really hard to find a way to survive.  Many didn’t survive; they dropped out, and ran off and got some other work.  And, simultaneously, a good many of the people doing this work found that their chances for survival were vastly increased if they were efficient, cranked up and got jigs, templates, molds, power tools, and limited their production to something that sold. They stood a chance of making more guitars per year, making a name for themselves, and surviving like that.

I mentioned that I’m somewhat anomalous. I never seemed to have been interested in setting up any kind of a production regimen or shop. So a lot of my guitars are one of a kind. They’re very artistic. I’m happy with that. It keeps the work from becoming stale. And also, I am better educated than a lot of these folks were at the time. That’s because I’m European, and my parents brought with them a sense that education is important. They stuck me in schools all my life. I spent 500 years in schools, colleges, universities! I learned how to talk to professors, how to write papers, and how to sound like I knew what I was talking about. That’s all from the formal education.

Back of future guitar

GC: My next question comes in response to your list of “what the guitar is about”. I quote from your blog:

“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.”

In listening to and viewing your guitars, there are clearly two distinct ways one can appreciate your work. One is in appreciating your instruments as works of art, which they clearly are, and two, that they are about the sound. Which comes first?

ES: Well, left to my own devices, I’ve always liked to keep my hands busy…crafts projects, models, whittling, gluing things together, etc. So, somewhere in there is a sense of allowing myself to play with ideas, if I can put it like that, and to make something nice, unique, something I think is really cool or neat, rather than your basic art project, whatever that might happen to be. So, there is an element of creativity in my approach to things. You might call it playfulness. I think the way I speak to people is sort of elastic and playful in ways that are not unlike the way I work with my woods and my tools.

From the standpoint of economic survival, the sound has been the more important of the two. I should mention here my relationship with the Windham Hill label. That relationship gave me a significant impetus and direction to my work. In the early 1970s I began doing work for some of the serious guitar players who happened to be recording on Windham Hill. That label wanted to make really good recordings and pressings on a par with orchestral sound levels and fidelity.  And that became the point in time at which new demands were made on the guitar, as guitar players began to find that, one, the available guitars really didn’t play in tune. They never had, because they never had to. And two, the Windham Hill people needed guitars that would record evenly. This has to do with the fact that microphones hear things differently than the ear does. Most guitars throw their sound out very inconsistently, so that if I were sitting here playing guitar, and if you were sitting there, [points across the room] you’d hear one quality of sound, and if you moved your chair over there [points to another part of the room], it would sound different.  One of the things that the recording engineer gets paid for is to figure out where to put the microphone so as to capture the most satisfying part of the envelope of sound that comes off the guitar body.

Somogyi - Nudists bathing-5453

So, guitars that played in tune became hot commodities, because if they don’t play in tune the notes will sound sour.  Other things also came into play, like projection, volume, and evenness of response — that is, the balance between bass and treble. I somehow seemed to have been able to solve a lot of those problems by the time these Windham Hill fellows met me. I didn’t know that I had done that until they told me, [upon hearing one of my guitars] “Oh, hey, this works better!”

GC: What do you attribute this to? How did you come to solve these problems?

ES: I can largely attribute that to the fact that I had started out making Spanish guitars not steel string guitars. That brought me into contact with the classical guitar playing network, one of whose most important adjuncts is the classical guitar making network. And these individuals have high standards. Guitar makers in that field approach the instrument more seriously than steel string makers had been allowed, or taught, or trained to do. They pay attention to detail. They pay attention to nuances of sound because the players are concerned with those!  In the aggregate, I was paying attention to little things on the guitar, in a way, because of that initial exposure to the classical guitar world, Anybody who bought a book to learn how to make steel string guitars wouldn’t have been exposed to that. For them, it has very largely been a recipe approach [to building guitars]:

  • You take this wood.
  • You take it down to this thickness/size/shape.
  • You glue it on to that piece
  • …and, presto! You have a guitar!

But they had not had available to them any regimen of mental digging to find out, “OK, What’s going on? Where do I have to wind up? And how do I get there from here?” It’s a very different mindset.

GC: That whole side of the problem solving that you experienced through working with classical guitarists, having to please these high profile performers, was this missing, or did they [steel string builders] simply not have the exposure to such feedback?

ES: Yes. Here’s one really interesting difference between these networks. At first I made nylon string guitars, because that’s what I play, and that was my point of entry into this network. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I did the best I could. Most of my guitars weren’t all that good. However, one thing that I noticed was these students of somebody, some local teacher, would come to my shop, and I would have had a guitar that I completed recently. I would say “would you like to try it?”  And they would sit down and play it. Then, to my utter astonishment, they would say, “Oh, can I borrow this guitar and show it to my teacher?.” And my thinking was…”No!…Over my dead body are you going take the guitar without paying for it”.  What they were telling me, without knowing it, was that they didn’t feel entitled to their own opinion. They had to have the worth of the instrument validated by an authority figure.

Right about that time, I was doing mostly repair work. I started meeting steel string guitar players.  These were perfectly nice people, and I began to make steel string guitars.  And one thing that really struck me about this network was that somebody would come in, they’d play my guitar, and they’d say…”WOW! You made that?  That’s really cool!” Or they’d say, “Well, you know, that’s not really what I am looking for.” But, they knew! They knew what they felt and what they thought. They didn’t have any trouble feeling entitled to their opinions. And that was really different from the classical guitar crowd, whose entire approach to the guitar and to me, bespoke of a hierarchy that existed in that world which was absent from the steel string guitar world.

I spent a lot of time thinking about all this in the intervening years. Way back when, I don’t think I could have put those things into words and sentences. But I’m really convinced that that was exactly what was going on. And I just happened to notice the tip of it. I have a lot of respect for people who try to make a living by making Spanish or classical guitars, because they have a different set of challenges before them. Mostly, they have to please whatever classical guitar teachers there are in their community. If the teachers like their work, they will recommend their work to their students. So, that’s the path. With the steel string guitars, there are teachers, but they’re not God. So, you get the word out as best you can, you advertise, take out ads {photo here of the funny ad for Somogyi guitars used as a bow and arrow}, and make your impression in that way. But, I think for what they are, the classical guitars are on average, more intelligently conceived and constructed. Because those guys have more…’this is important…that is important, and this is also important’…kinds of things to juggle around, than less well-trained, steel string guitar people who think that the guitar is all about . . . well . . . more mechanical things.

Somogyi guitar #3b

GC: Assuming of course, that each instrument has its own distinct “personality”, what consistent features do you include in all your guitars that make them a  “Somogyi”?

ES: It’s a subtle, complicated question, but I can give a big chunk of the answer in the following way. The guitar to me, it’s a sound producer. That’s the main difference between it and this table (points to his kitchen table). The guitar is a constructed something that we rely on to produce sound, whereas we don’t rely on a table to do that.

In terms of the physics, sound is nothing more than excited air molecules that hit our eardrums. And the greater number of air molecules and the greater extent to which they are excited gives us various sensations of tone and sound….volume, projection, all that kind of stuff.

The guitar is something I think of as being an air pump. If it pumps a little air, that translates to a little bit of sound. If it excites a lot of air, then, you get a lot of sound. This is accomplished with a fixed energy budget — the energy of the strings. You can play violins all day long until your arm falls off and they’ll keep on producing sound. But with the guitar the instant the strings stop, there’s no sound. [Here, Somogyi is referring to the fact that the sound on the violin continues as long as the bow is continually drawn across the string, while on the guitar, from the moment the string is plucked, the note starts to die away]. So there is a limited amount of energy to drive the guitar and the job of people on my end of it [the builders] is to see how much of that we can capture structurally and how much of that can be used to excite air.  So, if we can think of the guitar as being an air pump whose job it is to push a lot of air around with a fixed energy budget then you can start to think about how would one go about making such a device.

In Spanish guitar making, there is an adage that is profound: that the best guitars are the ones that are built on the cusp of disaster. There’s nothing comparable in the steel string guitar canon. As a matter of fact, steel string guitar makers make their instruments very sturdily. They’re really overbuilt.  But the idea behind the Spanish guitar is to make it so light that it almost breaks apart, but doesn’t go past that point. Because if it were a little bit too lightly constructed it would eventually fall apart.  So you want to find the balance point where that pull of strings, that amount of string tension, is just withstood by the system.  The energy then will go through the system, if the woods are live enough, and give you the desired end result, which is sound.

(Somogyi leaves the room, then returns with three items in his hand: a small local phone book, a larger book but with rigid covers, a Japanese fan.)

This is one way that I have of illustrating the concept of the guitar as an air pump to my classes. [he tries to fan himself with the phone book]. There’s a certain energy from my wrist and my hand moving this clunky object. But the phone book is flopping around and it’s really not very effective as an air pump, I mean, given how much work I’m doing here, clearly, this is not the best arrangement

A better arrangement would be this: I usually take a board, which is nice and heavy. [He has a book in his hand, stiffer than the phone book used previously, in place of the board he describes]. So, this does a better job of moving air, [he fans himself with the book]. Now, it’s a little clunky because this thing has a lot of mass and it takes quite a bit of effort over the long run for this part of my hand to hang on to this and to move it. If there were limited energy budget, I could only do this a limited number of times before the energy was gone, and then you have to strum the strings again.

Somogyi guitar #1a

Everything is made with principles of structural engineering in mind: buildings, bicycle, chairs, etc.  Everything: because you want that thing to hold up. If there’s any refinement of that thinking, then you are going to be thinking about the stiffness or strength-to-weight ratios. If you can use fewer materials in it and make it sturdy enough to hold up, it’ll be cheaper. So that’s where power line towers and bridges come in. They are made up of bolted together truss elements, but they’re not solid like a brick wall. In those areas, it’s acknowledged that it’s the internal structures that are doing all the heavy lifting. Whatever skin that is on the outside is mostly decorative and minimally structural.  In structural engineering it’s actually what is on the inside that is holding it together.

There is another branch of engineering called monocoque engineering. Most people have never heard of it. But that’s the study of structures and constructs in which there are no structural elements in the traditional sense of the word.  Rather in which it is the skin which holds it together.

GC: You are right, I never heard that word, can you please spell that for me?

ES: [Ever the comedian, Somogyi replies] Sure! S . . . K . . . I . . . N. . . !  (Laughter)  Examples of monocoques are cardboard boxes, which are really very strong for such little weight. You can stand on some of them. Eggs are monocoques, as are lutes. Those very lightweight airplanes that are made out of a few internal trusses and covered by mylar or some lightweight skin, those are monocoques as well. Canoes are monocoques.  It’s the skin that holds these all together and which is tough enough to do the job.  The idea is to have a construct that is so delicate, a membrane held together minimally by minimal structural elements, that is yet strong enough to hold up under the driving forces that it will be subject to. And, in the case of the guitar, that it will simultaneously be an effective air pump.

So, this (still holding the more rigid book in his hands) represents the way in which most factory guitars are made. They’re seriously overbuilt. (He picks up a Japanese fan, opens it up and fans himself.) This is a monocoque. This is like a properly made guitar. {put a picture of a Japanese fan here and write…this is a guitar as the caption} It takes very little effort for me and there’s quite a payoff in terms of air excitement, air movement.  Now if I were to hook this monocoque up to a 5-horsepower motor, this would be torn apart. But that’s not required of this [the fan]. The only thing that is required of this is that it be connected to my wrist, and my wrist is not going to destroy it.

It’s the same exact thing with the guitar. You want to pare back on unnecessary structure and mass, and you will observe a simultaneous increase of tonal response. In a nutshell, that’s what I try to do that makes my guitars different.

GC: You seem quite comfortable talking about these principles of engineering, yes?

ES: Well, you see, these are things that are amazing to people like you and me when you first learn about them. It’s engineering 101. All engineers know this; but guitar makers aren’t engineers. They’re blue collar guys who like to use their hands and work with wood. But they haven’t had the perspective that knowing about these things brings to the work and which will make it much better than it could be otherwise.

[As he readies to illustrate another point about the nature of what makes his guitars so original, Somogyi has assembled a series of mounted photos and drawings on the kitchen table that he uses in teaching his classes. They are a drawing of a guitar (a composite), a photo of Half Dome (in Yosemite national Park), an insect, a baseball player rounding home plate, the Mona Lisa, and a maple leaf (Photos available)]

ES: (continues) I set these in front of the class and I say, “As design projects, regardless of size, scale, color, mass, age, cost, what its made out of . . . regardless of all of those things, just as designs, and as a design project, which of these does not belong?” And there is a very serious purpose to this exercise that, to my way of thinking, goes to my approach to the guitar.

GC: You know that is a hard question to answer. From a visual standpoint the first thing I am trying to do is to look for similarities in the photographs. Is that the wrong approach?

ES: No.  Shall I just tell you what the correct answer is?  This one…(he points to the photo of the guitar)…Now this is a composite (I didn’t want to offend the manufacturer by specifically singling out his guitar) of a guitar model that you can find in the stores. What’s different about that is that none of those lines occur in nature. All the others are made up of natural lines. Most commercially made steel string guitars look like they were drawn with a compass and a straight edge. They look clunky. They don’t look organic.

So, once we have arrived at this standard of natural lines vs. unnatural lines, then I show them this (He holds up a photo of nudists bathing.  Laughing ensues)  and ask them, which natural lines do they prefer? I mean, there are beautiful natural lines and not so beautiful ones.  In this exercise, regardless of which lines you prefer or not prefer, there will be reasons for your preference. Then, when you walk into a guitar show and you see an irresistibly gorgeous guitar, you’ll react to it even if you might not know why. If you see a certain clunky guitar, you’ll react to it visually. People work like that. I think one should make one’s guitars look beautiful rather than merely utilitarian. It’s interesting paying attention to that. I’m not saying that my guitars are meaningful. But I want them to be attractive.

GC: Do you have an instrument that I could try today?

ES: I think I have one, if you want to plunk on it. (Photo available)

GC: That would be an honor.

(We retire to Somogyi’s teaching studio and he hands me a very fine looking guitar. I play a series of E chords up the neck. I notice right away the incredible balance between the strings, and then hear the “bloom”, a sound quality that Somogyi has worked on and written about for many years, which for me occurred in the upper positions (7th to 9th fret). The sound, quite noticeably, seemed to get stronger before its normal decay.  Being a classical guitarist, I played some Bach and a lyrical piece by Stanley Myers, “Cavatina”. Once again, the separation of the melody from the chords was clear and distinct. I mentioned how easy it was to play in the upper positions, even without a cutaway).

GC: Can you comment on some of the details on this guitar?

ES: (commenting on heel design.) You’ve seen lots of guitars. On the typical steel string guitar that curve from the neck to the heel is a 4-inch diameter circle because the front roller of every belt sander on the planet is 4 inches in diameter. It’s not in the tradition of manufacturers to invest time in handwork and hand tools. My guitar heels are all carved by hand, and the small-radius curve is an ergonomically more intelligent arrangement for the left hand. Even if you don’t have a cutaway, that will let you get your hand higher up there (points to the higher frets)

(commenting on the inlay) This is green abalone, and it gives a nice little sparkle. This rosette is something I came up with. You won’t find this on the average guitar because no one has thought about doing something like this. I call it the sunset rosette. Rather than being geometric its just shadings of color, which I think is very nice.

Somogyi guitar #2b

GC: It seems to go along with what we discussed earlier about the more natural flow of lines rather than having it look like it was just machined in there. That is really beautiful.

ES: Thank you.  ((ommenting on the bridge): That was my attempt at an art deco bridge. It takes more work than the average bridge, which looks like it’s quickly made; and they really are. They’re very efficiently produced. This bridge took some time.  Even though it doesn’t do anything that other bridges don’t do, it’s got some detailing and it just looks prettier.

GC: Let me put a question to you from the point of view of a prospective customer. If I were to order a custom guitar from you I would tell you things about the guitar that appeal to me. For instance, I like the sound of a cedar top for steel strings but I like the sound that I get from spruce when I am using nylon strings. Can you build me a guitar that has those qualities?

ES: When [customers] approach me, they are looking for something…They have some reason for looking for something better, or more exciting, or newer. I ask questions such as: “What’s not working for you?” “What do you think would work better?”, and “can I do that?”  It’s like cooking food.  I try to figure out what are they after?  And, if it makes sense to me and if I think I could produce that, then I will.

Most people want the same thing although they don’t quite know how to say it. Aside from whatever words and phrases you could bring up to describe this thing, they want something that they could sit down with, strum, and say, “Oh my God!”  That’s what they want…something that is warm, that is open.

GC: When I put my fingers on the strings of your guitar, it was as though there was no effort at all needed to produce the sound. It almost felt as though I might be playing a harpsichord, where you just touch the key and there’s the note! There was no effort.

ES: That’s another level to making guitars.  One thing clients sometimes tell me is something like, “You know, I’ve had this guitar for a long time but I sit down after thirty minutes and my left hand hurts.” So we start looking at the contouring and the size of the neck, because that’s ergonomic. It involves, in part, the musculature of the hand.  But if the guitar is not comfortable to play, that’s a legitimate reason to figure out what can we do about that.

Now sometimes I can tell someone that they don’t need a new guitar, but maybe they need to have the neck worked on so it’s comfortable for them, or the strings need to be a different width. People come in all different sizes but guitars usually don’t.

I did repair work for many years. Most young guitar makers have never had repair experience. They know how to assemble a guitar but they don’t know much about how guitars are built and what fails. I have had quite a few people over the years who would call and say, “Look, I’ve had this guitar for four years. It’s not playing in tune anymore. I think the tuners are slipping. I might need you to replace the tuners.” They would bring the guitar over. The tuners were fine, the nut and saddle were fine; frets and strings, all good. It was their ear had improved!  Now they could hear that the guitar could not play in tune, and they simply could never hear that before. You have to meet people where they are.

GC: That’s the thing. Guitar players come to you having only played factory guitars, maybe a few hand made guitars, and they don’t understand what is actually happening to the instrument. For me also, I have played a lot of steel string instruments and yours is not like any of those that I have played. The moment I picked it up I could tell. The balance between the weight of the neck and the body is so correct, so balanced. It doesn’t feel like the neck is going to go this way (angles the neck to the floor) or that the body feels so cumbersome.

ES: A free helium-filled balloon with each sale to hold the neck up!

GC: Can you tell us of any new and/or surprising discoveries that you made after completing one of your instruments?  What might have accounted for that surprise?

ES: There are a number of things I can mention. Let me answer the question in this way. Do you know about the metronome experiment? Somebody filmed this phenomenon and put it on YouTube. You can find it by google-ing “metronomes in sync”. It’s really a hoot to watch this. When you look at the screen, there are thirty-two metronomes on a table. They have all been set to the same oscillatory speed, but they are all stopped. Two hands appear and jiggle all of them and set each of them into motion. And pretty soon all of them are just waving their cursors around and, they’re WAY out of sync. It’s like a classroom full of kids who are raising their hands and trying to get the teachers attention. Chaos!  If the table or surface that they are on is really solid, those metronomes will continue to be out of sync forever. And why wouldn’t they? They were started out of sync with each other. But, if that table or surface has a bit of yield or plasticity to it, then the metronomes can modulate one another. What that means is that they can borrow and lend energy to their neighbors, so that after about 2 ½ minutes, all of them are in lock step. It’s really amazing. And, if you pay attention, you can see some of the metronomes actually speed up or slow down in order to catch up with their neighbors. After a while they are all in lock step, just like those Chinese acrobats and dancers at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics a few years back. So, anyway, that’s an interesting phenomenon.

Somogyi guitar #2a

What this has to do with guitars is that if a particular one is built to a certain threshold of delicacy, it stops being stiff, clunky and massive. I mean: all guitars will make sound; but if you make them flimsy enough, then you notice a really interesting thing happen. Normally, you strum a chord and the chord comes out of the guitar.  You teach guitar, so you can check this out for yourself, because some of your guitars will do this, and some of them won’t.  You strum the chord, and the chord comes out and hangs around as long as it’s going to, and it attenuates and eventually, it disappears.  The sound comes out as strongly as it’s going to be, like horses coming out of a starting gate, and then drops off.

Certain guitars that are flimsy enough so that they have parts, sections and sub-sections that can modulate one another.  When you strum such a guitar the sound comes out, and then after a perceptible amount of time, the sound gets louder. That is, louder in the sense that it’s more full.  You’d think this is completely bizarre because you haven’t hit the strings again. So, what is going on that the guitar is now being louder than when you first strummed the strings?

Well, I think what’s happening is that the parts and sections and wood fibres are lining up with each other and working more in sync, and it takes them maybe half a second or so to sort of stand in line, as it were, and march as a column. This can be understood in terms of impedance, which is another engineering concept. This one happens to be from the realm of electrical engineering. Do you know what that is, impedance?

GC: [At this point I was feeling as though I was in an episode of Science Friday on National Public Radio!] Is it resistance in the wires?

ES: Yes, it’s a resistance to transmission of energy from one material into another, or through the same material, or one form of energy into another. So, if you have, for instance, electrical energy through some tool you have made, or some device, that same electrical energy may be converted to mechanical energy, or kinetic energy, or light energy, or sound energy, or magnetic energy, or whatever. There can be a mismatch of those so there’s impedance: there’s a loss and you get less output than there was input.

One example of impedance matching, which is really cool is, if I were to approach your car, parked on level ground and the brake wasn’t on, and I fired a gun at your car, then the bullet would probably go through your car or maybe smash itself against the engine block. But your car wouldn’t move. It might jerk a little bit, but it wouldn’t move. On the other hand, if I pushed the car with the same energy the bullet had, but spread out over a larger area, and slowed the speed down to match the frequency of the automobile, as it were, with that energy, I could move the car over a couple of inches. That’s an example of impedance. You can arrange things so that one material or object reacts very fully to input or energy, or not, depending on how you’ve matched, or prevented, that nexus. If you vary impedances, you can get something that really fights you, or something that reacts with amazing freedom, ease, and amplitude in a way that brute force alone would not previously have been able to achieve.

That happens in guitars. Most guitars fight their strings to some extent. The strings cannot unload the energy into the guitar. The guitar parts are too solid and unreceptive. What I’ve done here is simply to have noticed this. And I’m not the first to have noticed this, and I certainly didn’t invent the phenomenon. Now, the Spanish makers whom I so admire weren’t academically trained, but they paid attention! They listened (to sound, and to the guitarists who played their instruments) and thought, something like, “that last guitar was better than this other one. What did you do?”  Not being distracted by computers, Wikipedia, or books, the Spanish guitar makers simply noticed things that were right in front of them.

So the surprise that you asked about was that I noticed that my guitars got louder when I strummed them. More specifically, I noticed that my guitar’s sound blooms after I strike the strings. And that really surprised me. It was completely unexpected. (Somogyi writes extensively about the “bloom” in sound both in his book and on his blog.) It didn’t seem to be my doing. It was something the guitar was doing.  And this brings us back to what the metronomes were doing: holding hands and walking together, working together. And it’s right there in front of you, in the metronome experiment.  And it’s just as surprising to hear it in a guitar as to see it with metronomes.

GC: On your website, I count nine different models of guitars that you build, seven are steel string and two nylon. What are some of the differences found in each of the steel string models?

ES:  If you were a guitar player in Spain you’d go to your local friendly guitar maker and say, “I want a guitar”.  And, everybody knew what that meant because Spanish guitars are pretty much all the same size and shape. But in this country, the industrial powers needed to produce consumer goods for a growing and very mobile population; and they came up with different versions of the guitar that were marketed for different purposes.  That was not needed in Europe, but was very useful here.

The first guitars were small. In time, people wanted LOUDER guitars, because the nature of popular entertainment changed; it grew hugely. Also, there was a greater popular music culture in American than there was in Europe. There had to be. The population was more ambitious, was growing, expanding, and traveling. There were no TV, movies, or computers. If you weren’t working, music was the way to be entertained and to meet people. You hung around and played, or danced.

Metal strings came on the scene around the 1880s; that was a big boost, because you could get more sound. This itself came about largely through advances in wire making technology when this country was expanding westward and they needed wire for fences, etc. Therefore, society came up with the method for making a lot of wire. They put some of the wires on guitars and this material lasted longer than gut strings, was cheaper, made more noise…everybody was happy.

One of the entertainment modes that existed was the orchestra. There were, accordingly, guitar orchestras, mandolin and mandocello orchestras, balalaika orhestras…you name it!  The guitar model that was assigned the function of playing in the orchestra was, imaginatively enough, the Orchestra Model, or what we now call the OM, which is a very popular model of guitar. The dreadnaught was BIG and it put out a lot of bass, which worked for a lot of popular music because the bass accompanied the rest of the orchestra very well.

Somogyi - Ervin with carp carving-5406

Altogether, for a long time, the guitar did not have its own identity. It was, by itself, a more or less anonymous member of a group of instruments that played as part of an ensemble, usually with mandolin, banjo and fiddle, and maybe some other things. Even in jazz the guitar is only part of an orchestra.

The guitar only began to have its own distinct voice in the 1950’s, when Elvis Presley was on TV and first exposed a lot of people to the sound of one guitar alone.  It actually was the first time that many people just heard a guitar.  I am talking here about a mass audience, rather than the audience that might have been in a real audience at an actual musical performance.

GC: So it seems to me that the different models, or styles of guitar arose out of need and/or usefulness. Was it the players or the manufacturers who determine which models needed to be produced?

ES: The accepted models are mostly set by the Martin company, maybe the Gibson company.  Everybody knows them, and everybody copied them, until people like me came along.  Also, historically, even though various “models” had been prototyped or made in small quantities, the principal manufacturers never undertook making any kind of guitar in large quantities until they were sure that enough market demand for these existed so as to make the venture profitable.  Some of our most popular and familiar models of steel string guitars were not made in large quantities until twenty years after they had made their initial appearance.

In my opinion, most steel string guitar makers are not well trained, or they don’t have broad knowledge. The make guitars, but they don’t know, I think, that most of them are making copies of copies of copies, etc, of the original, and that there has been very little variation of them. The Dreadnought is the most popular. I have made Dreadnoughts, although I don’t make them anymore. The Dreadnaught is THE most popular shape of steel string guitars today. I make something I like better that I call the Modified Dreadnaught. I was probably the first one to make something like that, and this was before alternative names for models got to be popular. 

I took a Dreadnought and re-designed/shaped it for a client who wanted something that worked better ergonomically. I called it the Modified Dreadnought, which doesn’t sound very imaginative, simply because I didn’t know what else to call it. But now, if you look in guitar magazines, everybody who makes whatever model has some romantic proprietary name attached to it. “The Sequoia”, “The Grand Teton”, “The Empire” model, “The Golden Cuspidor!!” (laughs) It’s become quite an industry — which is another difference between steel string guitar making culture and European guitar making culture. In the European culture, for anybody who works as an individual luthier, it’s unthinkable to not put one’s own name on their instruments.  In this country the attitude is: “who knows my name? I’m going to call it something that sounds GREAT!”  The factories are just as often called something iconic or geographic (Santa Cruz Guitar Company, Froggy Bottom, Running Dog, Ovation, True North, Guitabec, Tacoma, etc. etc. etc) as they are called after people. But many individuals make the “this model” or the “that model”.  One’s name might appear on the label but it’s all about marketing.

Commercial sounding guitar names are often associated with nature. The Running Dog brand is owned by a very nice guitar maker named Rick Davis. I asked, “well, how’d you come up with Running Dog?” He said, I was talking to friend of mine who suggested using my initials, RD. I said, “Running Dog”? Doesn’t it sound kind of feral and vicious? Couldn’t you get something more user friendly like “Rubber Duckie”? (laughs). It’s part of our culture to think corporately. We’re used to it.  It’s not good or bad. But it never occurred to me to call my guitars anything other than my name.

GC: What is your Modified Dreadnought all about? 

ES: A Dreadnought is a big blobby guitar. The classical guitar has some very nice curves. The Dreadnought . . . well, not so much. It’s just BIG. It’s musical uses were for people in a group, who were standing while they played, with a strap around their shoulder to hold the guitar up. The physical balance was never important. But when you sit down to play it, it slides around your lap; the waist is kind of shallow; it’s a little top heavy.  It’s not made for sitting the way the classical guitar is. So, the Modified Dreadnought is the Dreadnought re-shaped, not re-sized. It has a more pronounced waist and a higher center of gravity and it’s not top-heavy. You can sit it and play it comfortably on the lap.

Within my lifetime, guitar fingerpickers have come to the fore. These are people who play the guitar in a sitting position. They need an instrument that works with those ergonomics: that’s the Modified Dreadnought, in fact. I listened to what my client wanted and I came up with something that made him happy. I believe I was the first one (to modify the Dreadnought).

(The following question is the one that seemed to give Somogyi time to think about and reflect upon his career and contributions to lutherie. He clearly possesses a rational and analytical mind. To wrap his head around a topic such as what might have been, a somewhat speculative question, took a succession of three more emails before we both felt it was adequately dealt with. I have incorporated text from all the emails as well as our in-person discussion. Though it departs from the normal interview structure a bit, the emails provided a keen insight into Somogyi and what he has found most significant in his life and career. )

Somogyi guitar #3a

GC: My next question is also drawn from something I read in your blog. It concerns your visit to the Woodstock Invitational Luthiers Showcase in New York State, and the remarks you made about the culture and style of East Coast/ New York guitar builders who mostly specialized in archtops rather than flat, etc. I found this very interesting. I want to ask you how do you think your career as a builder might have been different had you started out in New York rather than in the San Francisco/Oakland area?

ES: Well, we could talk about chaos theory! That’s a relatively new concept. To my understanding, it’s that mode of thought that recognizes that one thing follows another in unpredictable ways. You just can’t know what impact something you would have done has had, or whether it has any impact or effect other than the one you intended, or where on the planet or to what extent. And, for me to consider, for me to imagine that I might have been living back east rather than here, and to try and imagine how my life would have wound up, I can’t do it, because one’s week, let alone one’s month or one’s year or one’s decade is made up of so many things that are below the level of consciousness or awareness. I mean, just to be facetious, let me say that if I had crossed the intersection of 42nd and Grove on April 12, 1964, I would have been hit by a truck. That wouldn’t have happened had I been in New York.

GC: (Laughing) I am sorry but I think my question came off as way too broad. I was thinking more specifically about sound and how perhaps building archtop guitars might have affected the way you thought about sound.

ES: I’ll tell you something that is significant. I started out making guitars in the early 1970’s as a hobby. As it turned out I never was able to find a real job and I stayed with it.

GC: Lucky for us!

ES: I’m still chewing on the question of how my life would have developed differently had I been located on the East coast.  But a lot of life’s successes and failures come about because of context and being in the right place at the right time.  Period.

Well, I’m going to tell you about three things that happened that were unexpected but that influenced me fully as much as the 3,689,917 things that might have happened to me had I been living back east would have.

I’ll start with some context first, though.  When I began making my first guitar in 1970 I was more or less a hippie — that is, a bearded (but clean-smelling) young man who was living without much sense of direction.  I was living in the Bay Area largely because I’d graduated from U.C. Berkeley, and it was “home” to me.  I embarked on that first guitar making project casually; as far as I knew it was going to be a hobby-project to tide me over until I got “a real job”.

I didn’t know any American guitar makers in those days; I had not even heard of anyone outside of Spain or Germany to be making guitars by hand.  Still, I’d spent a Summer in Spain and hung out around some of the guitar shops in Granada; and later, when I went to grad school in Wisconsin in the late sixties I met a man, Art Brauner, who had built a guitar with the help of Irving Sloane’s pioneering book Classic Guitar Making.  I was impressed; having been a student much more than anything else in my young life I’d not produced much of anything other than lecture notes, papers, essays, reports, and test results — but this fellow had made a real object!  An actual guitar!  It made an impression, in spite of the fact that doing this kind of woodworking was an odd way indeed to spend one’s time in those days; no one in my family had ever puttered with hobbies, done woodwork in the basement, welded, built models from kits, made furniture, or anything like that; they were too busy surviving and simply didn’t have the time to.  Anyway, I eventually completed my first guitar — a classical model — using Sloane’s seminal book.  I think all of us young American guitar makers used that book to get off the ground: American lutherie culture was in its very early stages.

Having made that first guitar brought me a bit of repair work from friends, and this represented a bit of welcome income — so I opened up a small guitar repair shop on Grove street (which later became Martin Luther King avenue) in Berkeley, California.  This was in 1971.  One year later I took over retiring guitar maker Denis Grace’s larger shop in Oakland, and for a long time made my living principally by doing all kinds of stringed instrument repairs.  It’s amazing that I survived, because I had no training, no experience, no knowledge, few tools, no teachers, no work discipline, no professional standards, and marginal skills.  Still, I survived, and made a few guitars each year.  Because I played flamenco I was making mostly Spanish (classic and flamenco) guitars, as well as lutes and dulcimers; if nothing else, I wasn’t afraid of tackling different projects.  I also made a few steel string instruments which, in reality, were nothing other than bigger Spanish guitars with metal strings.  Well . . . I didn’t know any better.  I did feel more or less pleased to think of myself as a luthier, though; I think the romance of it kept me going.

It most certainly wasn’t the income; I remember that I grossed $1800 the first year and $2500 the second (I had a part-time job teaching, on the side, to help me pay my bills); it helped that I was young and single and living simply.  But I didn’t really face up to how inadequate and amateurish my work was until 1977.  In that year I was invited to display my guitars at the Carmel Classic Guitar Festival, as one of seven luthier exhibitors.

The Carmel Classic Guitar Festival is the first of the factors I mentioned above.  I’d built a handful of guitars by 1977 and felt happy to be invited to show my work.  I can tell you that while my parents could not begin to fathom what I was doing making guitars when I could have had such a promising career doing something reasonable, my friends had been unfailingly supportive and encouraging to me in my guitar making efforts.  (Guess which set of people I put my faith in?)  In any event, I went to Carmel feeling a little cocky and smug, thinking to impress the people there just as I had wowed my friends.

Carmel is an upscale vacation community four hours’ drive from San Francisco; there’s no reason to go there outside of visiting art galleries and restaurants, to play golf, breathe clean seaside air, and relax.  The guitar festival itself — the first one I’d ever gone to — was a prestigious event that drew important people from all over this country and even a few from overseas.  It had been organized by a prominent local classical guitar teacher, Guy Horn, to whom I remain indebted to this day for reasons that I will go into below.  Among my fellow exhibitors were Jeffrey Elliott, Lester DeVoe, Randy Angella, and John Mello — all of whom went on to support themselves by making Spanish guitars.

The festival was a catastrophe for me.  My work, in its full and splendidly careless amateurishness, was the worst of anyone’s there.  Worse yet, this was clearly revealed to everybody.  The three-day long event was a disastrous, humiliating, and sobering experience that I came back from feeling severely shaken and depressed.  My friends had, in fact, been no help to me at all with their uncritical kindness and I hadn’t learned anything from it.  I confronted the fact that I had been more or less wasting my time living out a hippie fantasy.  It calmly stared right back at me.

Understandably, I experienced a crisis.  It became clear to me that I had two choices: quit making guitars and do something else, or buckle down and do better work; the experience of the Carmel festival was decisive and made any denial or rationalization impossible.  It took me several weeks of re-evaluating to realize that I actually liked making guitars enough to stick with it, 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 was within a year of that decision to do the best work I could, and not let things slide, that I started to make steel string guitars.  Miraculously, the timing worked out: I was starting to meet serious steel string guitar players in that period — and specifically the first of my Windham Hill contacts.

The second factor was that the timing of all this was fortuitous in a much larger sense: that was when making [hopefully better] guitars was beginning to make a blip on the cultural radar.  The folk/rock movement of the sixties and seventies had certainly sparked the playing of guitars; but all the famous folk, country, bluegrass, and popular singers, duets, and groups who used guitars — such as Peter, Paul and Mary, the Mamas and the Papas, the Kingston trio, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Weavers, Dave van Ronk, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Simon and Garfunkel, Roy Orbison, Ricky Nelson, Buddy Holly, the Limelighters, the Everly Brothers, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Kate Wolf, the New Christy Minstrels, Phil Ochs, Ian and Sylvia, Joan Baez, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. — were all using store-bought factory-made guitars, not handmade ones.  These were, by the way, all steel string instruments; the only guitarists who were using hand crafted instruments at that time were the nylon and gut string group: the classical and flamenco players.  Handcrafted steel string guitars were only about to make an appearance . . . via the Windham Hill label.  That Windham Hill door, it turned out, was one of the most important ones that had or would ever open up for me.  And none of that would have happened without my disgraceful showing at the Carmel Classic Guitar Festival.

I should explain my reference to Windham Hill a bit.  That recording company introduced solo steel string guitar music to the public.  Windham Hill’s impact on this specific music, and contemporary guitar music on the American and world scene in general, was phenomenal.  The guitarists who recorded on that label became leading points of musical inspiration and reference for many young guitarists, both compositionally and acoustically — in part because, for the first time, the guitar was being recorded and listened to at the level of fidelity of sound previously occupied by classical music alone, and in part because no one before them had composed interesting and complex music for the steel string guitar alone**.  And this acceptance of better-quality guitar music also became my point of entry into the world of serious lutherie.  I was lucky to have met the Windham Hill guitarists when the Windham Hill phenomenon was just getting off the ground.  That was the point in time when factory made guitars were showing their limitations and guitarists were for the first time needing genuinely better instruments: guitars that played in tune, that had good sound and dynamic range, and that recorded well.

[** This isn’t 100% true, but it’s close.  The very first strains of melodic and solo guitar music (as opposed to its being an accompanying instrument) came from John Fahey, Leo Kottke, Clarence White, and Doc Watson.  They were pioneers and inventors; they just weren’t mass market successes in the way that Windham Hill was.]

I was also lucky to be living an hour from Palo Alto, which was the epicenter of that musical ferment.  It helped that I’d figured some things out about guitars by then; I’d had six years of experience which I finally began to pay serious attention to after my disappointing showing at the Carmel Festival, and my instruments were by then finally good enough that people could consider playing and buying them.  Happily, my steel string guitars performed well not only acoustically but also did exceptionally well in the recording studio; the players very much appreciated being able to make better recordings; and my word-of-mouth reputation grew.  But none of this — other than the incidental fact of my living an hour away from a group of talented steel string guitar musicians — would have happened had I made a good showing at the Carmel Classic Guitar Festival.  I would probably have continued to make classical guitars and my life would have gone off in a very different direction.

If you remember, I had mentioned three influences. The third one was that I met a woman whom I married, which relationship enabled me to continue to make guitars at my own pace without worrying about surviving, She was bringing in the income.  If that piece hadn’t been in place, then I might have needed to decide, for expediency’s and survival’s sake, that I was going to make one model only and bet my future on that effort.

As it happened, it wasn’t a happy marriage at all.  If it had been, then I might have had many children and my life would have been full of that, instead of my work.

Well, everybody has stories like these and these are just three of mine. How does one evaluate the importance of that kind of matrix?  I have no clue. These just happen to be significant artifacts of my life experience.

Let’s segue into something that has also been influential.  This is that my family’s agenda for me was that I go to medical school and be a doctor. I almost did. I came very close to that something accidental and unexpected happened at the last minute that made me think that maybe I didn’t want to do that.  But if that hadn’t happened, I would have continued on in my original direction. Now, I don’t know if I would have become a good doctor, a bad doctor, a happy doctor, a doctor working in some corporate place, or a hospital, or Doctors Without Borders – or even a doctor at all, in spite of having tried.  I just don’t know. But I don’t think we’d be having this conversation.

(and from a later email, Somogyi continues on his point in answer to my original question)

ES: I often find myself thinking from a wider perspective than the original question or proposition had been. My mind works like that.  And for that reason, hypothetical questions such as “how do I think my life would have been different if I’d lived in New York rather than in the Bay Area” are nothing more than invitations to fantasize about what might have been. I truly cannot know, but I can imagine many possibilities (how impossible would it be for me to have wound up running a whorehouse in Singapore, for instance?  Stranger things have happened, as Somerset Maugham was especially brilliant in describing in his short stores.)

In any event, the guitar scene itself was an important real-life factor in how my life has developed.  I play flamenco guitar.  This would have brought me into contact with nylon string guitar players, and eventually steel string folk and bluegrass guitar players.  The East coast is famously more the natural habitat of the archtop guitar, which I’ve never really become interested in.  There’s less of that on the West coast.  I might have found my way to making archtop guitars had I been living in New York, but I don’t know how much energy and focus I could have mustered behind that effort, as I genuinely don’t connect to them.

Somogyi - perfect monocoque-5481

I do expect that there’s a fairly healthy acoustic guitar scene on the East Coast, and there certainly would have been the Greenwich Village music scene going on in New York.  I am fairly confident that I would have been attracted to that. There’s probably even a good classical guitar and flamenco network, and I may well have been pulled into that world.

I am thinking that this question is somewhat along the lines of an intellectual exercise for you.  You may have read my autobiographical chapter [in my book] by now and become aware of the fact that I am a Holocaust survivor.  There were numerous instances in that history in which had circumstances been a little bit different I would have been killed. It was, as a matter of fact, the national policy of the country of my birth at that time that, because of the accidental fact that my father was born a Jew, we be exterminated.  To be blunt, I’m not alive for lack of anyone’s trying.  Finally, there was a war going on at the same time, which mandated that there’d be a hell of a lot of random civilian deaths in any event.

So, you see, I’m not really set up to mentally follow out hypothetical threads that have any great logic or linearity to them.  That kind of thing works on certain levels, of course, but my own life has been such that I’m more amazed at the roller-coaster ride than by the skill and foresight of my personal protoplasm.

Also, the question of what I would have become focuses on the things I do for a living, not on what I might have become internally, as a person.  I am actually more interested in this level of life than I am in outward manifestations or actions. I became who I am, internally, in terms of my sense of self (as opposed to my job description) from a series of what anyone in their right minds would consider accidental meetings. And a lot of competent psychotherapy.  I bow to the forces of life for having allowed me to be in the right place at the right time in these instances. They saved my soul.  I have NO idea how I would have been able to negotiate such journeys had I been living in another city with another culture. Really.  The sheer randomness of life as I have seen it is beyond words.

On the other hand, there’s a concept in psychology called “overdetermination”. This is the eventual recognition, when one has looked at a structure or a personality or a character long enough, that whatever happened could not have happened in any other way or along another line or in another direction: it was overdetermined.  Everything pointed to that, whatever it is or was.  All the gravity and motives pulled in that direction.

That utterly applies to my life, in spite of and also along with everything I’ve just said.  But you’d have to know more about me to understand how true this is. From that point of view I probably would have become what I am now, but with quite possibly quite a different spin, on the East coast.

Well, that’s it for now.  Did I mention that my brain likes to take the overview route?

GC: There is a feeling I get from you, one of wanting to “give back”, to other guitar builders and to your students, for example. It comes across to me, for example, in your book, “The Responsive Guitar”, where you included photos of other people’s work. [in fact, the book opens with 22 pages of photos of other people’s guitars that Somogyi admires, followed by a lesser amount of beautiful photos of the details found in Somogyi’s instruments]. Also at an earlier point in your life you were heading for medical school, which would have benefited people in a different way from how your life and work has benefited people through your art.

ES: Well, not quite. My parents…well, I was brought up in a very authoritarian household. We never discussed anything. My father issued orders. So, it was irrelevant whether I might have wanted to do this [going to medical school] or whether I was even interested in doing that. I WAS going to do that! So I probably wasn’t thinking of being helpful to people. I mean: this was my portfolio, this was the job description that was quite literally handed to me.  And, I don’t know what I would have made of that. I probably wouldn’t have become some kind of capitalist, money grubbing medical mo-fo, but I don’t know.

GC: (Pushing the point that there were inklings of a generous, altruistic spirit lurking about I pressed on with my point.) You went into the Peace Corps, for gosh sake! That’s the point I’m making. (The Peace Corps – Ervin states that he was in South America, in Peru – was a really good experience for him. It really broadened him.)

ES: That was after. It was largely because I didn’t want to get drafted for the Vietnam War. This was 1965!  My derailing of my medial career occurred in 1964. I mean, it’s really complicated.  You know, there’s a Jewish adage that I like a lot: “if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans”.

One thing I like about my job is that it gives me time to think. A lot of the work is sort of rote. I mean, you’re sanding or something, and I’ve got the kind of mind that flits around, lands on things…like…words. I like words a lot, I always have. Every now and then this thought hits my brain about words. You and I are having a Conversation. “Conversation” turns out to be rooted in the Latin “versere” or “vertere”, wh ich means “turning”. That root appears in other things that speak of turning in the human condition. There’s vers-atile, ad-verse, ob-verse, uni-versal, di-verse, a-verse, verse, vert-ical, ad-vert-ise, in-vert, contro-versy, vice-versa, con-vertible, re-verse, intro-vert, extro-vert, vert-iginous, per-vert.. I just, WOW! And these are all metaphorical turnings. I think that’s really cool.

To learn more about Ervin Somogyi please visit: esomogyi.com

His two books, “The Responsive Guitar” and “Making the Responsive Guitar” can be found at: www.esomogyi.com/books

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