By Steve Rider
Aaron Green is one of those rare and lucky people who discover their passion in life at a young age. He began building guitars before leaving high school, and that passion has led him to the pinnacle of the guitar world. Humorous, insightful, and dedicated to music and luthiery, Aaron’s patrons are happy even to wait for two years to acquire one of his handmade masterpieces.
Guitar Connoisseur: It seems that you had an idea that you wanted to learn to build guitars at a very young age. Can you tell us about when that idea first took root and the time in your life between that and meeting Alan Carruth, the man who would take you on as apprentice?
Aaron Green: I went to Colonial Williamsburg when I was about twelve, and that was the first time I’d ever heard of building instruments. They had a musical instrument shop with someone making violins and harpsichords. He passed around pieces of maple and spruce and had people tap on them and it seemed amazing to take hunks of wood and make musical instruments. It planted the seed earlier than any research on my part. It got me thinking somewhere in my subconscious about it. Later on when I was playing electric guitars as a teenager and was trying to decide what I would do after high school, I met a friend who made some comment about guitar makers making a lot of money because guitars cost a lot of money, which also piqued my interest. That notion was disabused quite early on by my first teacher, Alan Carruth; in fact the very first day I met him.
GC: Alan took you on and you studied with him for three years. Can you tell us about that time in your life and how your craft developed early on?
AG: Alan was in a lot of ways the perfect person to show up, because he’s an incredibly easy going man, incredibly generous, no guile about him, just a lovely person. He also happened to be a really accomplished instrument builder. Most builders, including me, specialize. Alan can and does, build everything under the sun. I would go to his place in Denham, after I got my driver’s license, on Friday afternoons for a couple hours and just work on the guitar. I didn’t have anything in the way of woodworking experience or knowledge and basically just jumped into the deep end and started working with hand tool because that’s how Alan builds. I built a twelve string acoustic guitar. I remember thinking, How hard can it be? And I found out right away!
I was about halfway through the guitar when I understood that this was what I really wanted to do. We went to the Guild of American Luthiers conference in June of ’92 right after I graduated high school. . I hadn’t planned on going, or rather wasn’t actually invited. Alan’s brother-in-law was going to drive out with him and ended up having to bail for some reason. The road trip was from Denham Mass. to Vermillion South Dakota in a minivan carrying a bunch of instruments, including some massive basses and other instruments by Carleen Hutchins. That particular conference was a joint venture between the Guild and the Catgut Acoustic Society. Carleen was one of Alan’s most significant teachers and I had heard all about her. So the combo of the road trip and getting to meet this lady, whom he revered, then going out and meeting a bunch of instrument makers was more than I could bear to miss out on. So I went and it was this huge watershed moment for me in a lot of ways. One was I got to see what other builders were like. I also got to see a wide range of instruments, which made me decide to build classical guitars. I saw a guy playing Bach and it was actually watching his hands move. I was still thinking like a guitar player at that point. It was just so cool to watch and of course the music is timeless. One maker from Boston that came out to South Dakota was Tom Knatt. He actually taught Alan early on in Alan’s career and mainly focuses on classical and flamenco guitars. Tom plays flamenco and about that time I first heard that music and saw him employ the technique known as rasqueado; the finger roll strum that really identifies Flamenco and is quite impressive. It really grabs your attention if you’ve never seen it before. So all lot of it was just getting the visuals and seeing the instruments that other people were building. Classical is one of the most difficult styles to build. It has so much stacked against it. Nylon strings are pretty lousy compared to steel strings as far as producing sound so it’s very challenging to make a nylon string guitar that functions on the highest level. Also, the demands of the musicians can be incredibly particular and unforgiving. Not that there aren’t really great steel string players out there, but the challenge of the classical guitar really appealed to me.
GC: Carruth once said about you “I was always impressed by his use of color and proportion in design and trim work.” What is your approach to these?
AG: The best way would be to say that I take everything that inspires me from builders who come before and then create my own aesthetic within that framework, sort of be a continuous line from what came before. Pretty much everything I’m doing is about standing on the shoulders of those who came before me in a way that’s unique to me. At a casual glance, there isn’t very much identifiable about one guitar vrs. another, the guitar looks like a guitar. But the greats still managed to create an identity that is unique to them and that is definitely what I want to do. Just copying other’s instruments is not of very much interest to me as a builder, though it’s definitely the way you want to start.
GC: It seems that your relationship with Dennis Koster has been very rewarding. Can you tell us about how you met and how he has been involved in making you the luthier you are today?
AG: Pretty early on in my career it became apparent that I needed to have as much exposure to great musicians and great instruments for me to really figure out what I was supposed to be doing. So I got involved with the Guitar Society. It was my way to meet lots of guitarists and see a lot of instruments. And again, it was like being tossed into the deep end of the pool. They were talking about things that I had no ability to really grasp, but the information was still there when I was ready for it.
As a duty of the being on the board of directors for the society, II drove to New York to pick up Dennis for a concert in Boston. It was the society that was presenting him and as such had to arrange his transportation. I jumped at the opportunity and kind of lied and said I was going to be in New York already and I would be happy to drive him back. I honestly expected everyone to decline, because I was an exceeding eager young guitar maker. He would be stuck in a car with me for four hours while I was working him over. But apparently they didn’t see it that way, so I went and got him. Dennis is a lovely and generous, wonderful guy. He’s a true artist. What really counts in his life is music, art, and being an artist. He’s a very active teacher as well. So when I met him, I told him I was a guitar maker and he said, Sure, I’ll take a look. And he played it and said, Oh that’s really nice. And I know a brush off when I’m getting one, so I pressed him a little more. I kept pressing him, and finally he started to get really specific. He laid stuff on me that I was nowhere near capable of understanding how to approach, or how to rectify. Nonetheless, here it is, this is what’s not right, gave me some examples of better guitars. I think he liked my tenacity and the fact that I could take a beating and come back for more. He was always very nice about it. But other guitarist in New York City didn’t really care about your feelings. It’s New York City, after all! I knew that this was what I wanted to do and I was going to do it, hell or high water.
Dennis was very young when he met his teacher, Mario Escudero. And I think he had that same experience with Mario early on. As a result, due to his determination to become a great Flamenco guitarist he was performing at a young age and was already a very good guitarist, on his way to becoming a great one.
GC: In addition to building your highly praised classical and flamenco guitars, you are also skilled in restoration work. Can you tell us a bit about that?
AG: I work on restorations with Karl Franks, a brilliant luthier from the violin world and a good friend as well. We have done a number of high end, very difficult jobs, and we tag team on them. I’m the guiding force behind it with my specific knowledge of guitar, and Karl being the microsurgeon with a bag of tricks and big time chops from his time doing fiddle work. He has this ability to sit down and be as patient as he has to be. He can “out-patience” anything. It’s very rewarding to take dead instruments and breathe life back into them.
The building and restoring and dealing of guitars, they all kind of dovetailed together. When there’s a really good instrument around, I want to see it. That’s one that’s great about being near New York City. One of the people that Dennis introduced me to early on was Beverly Maher with The Guitar Salon. She was very kind to help me on my way of understanding the work of significant builders of the past.
GC: Would you say that your restoration work has influenced your building?
AG: Yes, that’s a great question. I would say without a doubt, because once you start to see what can go wrong with an instrument and how difficult it can be to fix it even under the best of circumstances, it gives you pause when you’re making your own decisions. The guitar is not an instrument that is intended to be taken apart from a design perspective and many of the choices we make only compound that difficulty. People don’t realize how important it is to be able to disassemble an instrument. A violin is easily taken apart and that’s a main reason why we have four hundred year old violins. They can be taken apart, the problems can be addressed without compromise, and they can be put back together. Where as in the guitar, a lot of repair work is done through the sound hole, which is like brain surgery through the nostrils. It’s doable but not an ideal situation by any stretch of the imagination.
So, for us to be able to take guitars apart and restore them, and have those guitars be valuable enough for people to want to go through that time and expense is very rewarding.. It has been a great experience. It has helped me learn as a builder why those old guitars are the way they are and also what choices I should be making in my own work. You see a lot of things that work and those that simply don’t.
GC: You were involved in selling the very famous 1951 Barbero ex Sabicas guitar. Could you tell us about the history of this instrument and your experience with it?
AG: Well, that is a legendary guitar, and I was very lucky that I got to learn from it. I knew the owner; he was a student of Dennis’. And this was a guitar that players were talking about and builders were copying, but none of them had ever seen it or heard it. Richard Brune discovered the guitar or more to the point, identified it as Sabicas’ guitar. He restored it in the early 1990’s and wrote an article about it, drew up some plans and launched it into legend. It was used to record this landmark, legendary album and then disappeared. What happened was that Sabicas gave it to a friend and that friend sold it to his student, who was a college kid. The college kid grew up to be a famous doctor and later in life, took up studying with Dennis. It was an unbelievable opportunity to get to know that guitar personally as I’m one of only a few who has. Notoriety aside the fact is that it’s a really successful guitar. Incredible actually. As a builder it’s really hard to know what you’re shooting for if you’ve never experienced it. When Dennis played that Barbero…first of all, it’s a cannon. It’s incredibly alive. It’s got very very fast attack. The notes are super sharp but have a tremendous weight, a real depth to the notes. . And it’s a very versatile guitar. Dennis played a percussive, even aggressive piece in the rhythmic form known as “bulerias”, which in the context of the nylon string guitar, is as close to flat out rock and roll as you are going to find and then went straight into Bach, the guitar just morphed right along with him. For a guitarist this demonstrates a guitar that is an incredibly sensitive and flexible vehicle of expression. I had no idea how anyone could ever achieve that, but I saw that it was possible. It was right there in front of me. I’m a big believer in the power of intent, that if you put a huge amount of energy and focus into achieving something that you’re going to manifest it eventually. So I went down that path, and as I got closer to it, I would make decisions that put me even closer. You know, as a dealer I get to see a lot of guitars. And I will listen to it and then look inside and think, how did they get it to sound like that by doing it this way? I could never get that through the method they used. Every builder has to find their own path.
GC: How has the art of Luthiery changed from those old masters to builders like yourself today?
AG: That’s a good question. I think it’s changed in a lot of ways. I think the internet has made it infinitely easier for people to learn, even in the time that I’ve been involved. That was the biggest challenge to me, finding someone to teach me. Now you can find everything through a Google search and that can’t be a bad thing. That being said, the ones who had to go out there and really figure it out such as the previous generation to me, they had to spend a lot of time catching up to where the Spanish builders were at. And then in a lot of ways eventually surpassed them because they nothing other than their own tenacity.. Kind of the Japanese way, someone doesn’t teach you, you steal. And when you do that, it’s yours, you own it. It’s not an abstract concept that someone is laying on you, you’re actually going out there and realizing it. So that’s, maybe, an advantage that they have, if you can call it that. People who make it through that system do so because they make it so.
GC: What materials and techniques do you use in the construction of your guitars?
AG: Well, I’m pretty spoiled. I do have a huge stash of tone woods that I acquired over the years, being very young when started. I had little to spend my money on besides buying wood. You pick it up little bits at a time over the years and one day you look and say, I’ve really got a ton of wood here! That trip to the Guild conference in 1992 there was a benefit auction. Someone had donated six sets of Indian rosewood. I would have given anything for that rosewood at the time. I went to this little watering hole that had slot machines and I had three dollars. I played the slots, hoping to hit it so I could go buy that rosewood. I was eighteen, broke and figured karma would get me through. It didn’t and I was out my last three bucks.
GC: As some species of wood become harder or impossible to source, do you see alternate woods coming to be the norm for builders of the future?
AG: I think so. I’m actually looking at that issue myself right now from a couple of angles. One of the things I’ve been doing for the past few years is trying to engage the government in a way that’s beneficial to the people in the industry. Not really changing any laws at all, but just creating compliance pathways so that the government knows that we’re not part of the problem. The history of the government issues with guitars is easily forgotten, but when they put Brazilian rosewood on Apendix 1, which in effect took everything that was totally legal and fine and made it illegal overnight with absolutely no retroactive pathway. There was no way to be compliant in a real world, reasonable sense of the term. At first, it was seen as an unmanageable piece of legislation so it basically wasn’t even enforced. Later on, the powers that be at CITES thought we were all a bunch of criminals, frankly. Things got blown way out of proportion on both sides of the fence. People thought that officers were going to come and take away their guitars and wood and stick them in jail. And when I actually spoke to the guy at Fish and Wildlife, they were thinking we were out there slashing and burning, raping and pillaging, and basically thumbing our noses at the government, which of course is something they don’t take very kindly to. What I told him was that there was no way for people to get on board, so how could they expect anyone to be on board? What I hope for is that people who are not criminals to have a very clear and workable way to identify themselves as such.
But in the future, it might not even be wood sources we are using for instruments. The fact is that these forests are disappearing, certainly in any commercial sense of the word, for reasons that have nothing to do with guitars. Perhaps it is only a matter of time and evolution that we will have to move on to other materials.
GC: What are you looking for in the wood you use that makes you say, yes this is for one of my guitars?
AG: I like the traditional materials. They’re traditional for a reason: Brazilian rosewood, for example. However just because it’s the “right” species doesn’t mean it will make a great stringed instrument. I go more by the qualities of the wood versus the species. A good piece of wood has to have something about it; it wants to be a guitar, it has soul. I tell people it’s potential. A good piece of wood can make a great guitar, but you can also screw it up.
GC: What do you have going on now, and are there any plans for the future you’d like to tell us about?
AG: I am working on increasing my profile in the guitar world or re-upping is perhaps a better way of putting it. I used to be very active in guitar events, festivals, concerts etc and eventually I backed off due to other interests in and out of my career. I’ve always been busy but I’d like to think that was more from focusing on the quality of my work than being at all the guitar shows. But in business you can’t neglect that side of things forever and I am feeling far more inspired to be a part of that again.
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