Boaz Elkayam: “There is no wood supplier in the world that can say he sold me wood for building guitars.”

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There are people that like to walk the path opened by others and walk it the best they can with respect. They have to know every detail and share it with others who shall continue walking to keep that path alive. Sometimes there are individuals, who after years of the good walking, start to think about what’s on either side of that path and go for it. Boaz is one of those. From learning the tradition of Torres, and working with the Paracho Guitarreros, to teaming up with scientists and musicians, his résumé is an amazing journey in search of “The Voice” of the Guitar… and an example of love for the craft. Surrounded by hand planes, precious tonewoods, mathematics, and computers, he will guide us through the past, present and future of guitar building. Make yourself a large cup of tea, relax and prepare to be amazed. And maybe, rethink all you know about the mechanics and nature of the Guitar. I hope that you enjoy this instructive and inspiring interview as much as we did.

Guitar Connoisseur: How did you get started with guitar building?

Boaz Elkayam: Before the age of 13 I built my first guitar. It’s the small one that’s hanging above my latest guitar. I built it from parts of a broken guitar and also recycled the frets. My father advised me throughout the process. So how does the saying go? “A picture is worth a thousand words.” It all started with that one small guitar.

GC: Who were the mentors that had a big influence on your guitar building that you would like to mention?

BE: The list is long, but I’ll try to put them in chronological order.

My father, who gave me the tools to distinguish between what is important and what is not. In other words, to know how to choose good ideas, and to reject the not so good

Antonio DeTorres, whom of course I never met. From him, I learned that the intuition of the tip of the finger is one of the most important tools when building a guitar by hand.  Now, what does it mean to build a guitar by hand? Imagine your workshop is not connected to electricity. The guitar that will come out of this workshop will be truly hand built.

Francisco Navarro Garcia, whom I lived next door to for one year. He is the person who most influenced my technique when building by hand. When I think about a builder to admire, he is most sincerely one of them.

The Holy Triangle, Richard Schneider, Prof. Michael Kasha, and Kurt Rodarmer.  Schneider taught me how to think outside of the box. He also helped me to understand how my traditional background would allow me to enter into the world of modern guitars in the right way. Not avant-garde. Prof. Michael Kasha, and the knowledge he gave me is priceless. From him, I understood that the future of the guitar is not in the workshop but in mathematics physics and microphysics.

Kurt Rodarmer is a musician and not a guitar builder. He was a child prodigy and is one of the only classical musicians under the Sony label.  Kurt helped me understand what it is that top musicians are looking for in an instrument, other than volume.  After hundreds of hours together and in three different continents and countless hours of phone calls, I realized that it was not a matter of philosophy but rather something very practical. An instrument must service the musician from A to Z.  Imagine a lamp with red cellophane over it.  The light in the room for most people will be red. Kurt taught me how to take off the cellophane and see the real color of the light. Just to put six strings on a box, I did it at the age of twelve.

Today my focus is going beyond in search of that missing dimension. George Majkowski and Bob Foster, maybe my two biggest teachers. They taught me how to take the rules of physics and mathematics and apply them to guitar construction.  I could not accept any mathematical theory if I couldn’t apply it to my instruments. And these two gentlemen opened the gate to differentiate between a carpenter and a luthier.

GC: How was your guitar building experience in Paracho, Mexico? Did it require you to learn other basic techniques using minimum tooling?

BE: In Paracho I learned that with a bottle of Tequila every guitar is a good one. A builder in Mexico has to deal with wide variety of guitars, (Classical, Flamenco, Requinto, Bajo Sexto, Tricordio, Guitarron,); and we didn’t even start the list. So 20 years ago when there was hardly any electricity, one day yes, one day no, one day maybe, you couldn’t work with jigs and fixtures. The reality obligated them to take a carving knife and create the part by hand. In addition, the income for most guitar builders was very low. They could not buy tools like a violin maker from Bavaria could.  It is true that for most of them the results varied. But at the same time, I can tell you about builders that if they knocked on my door, I would put out the red carpet. For example, Daniel Caro Leonardo, Frutoso, German Vasquez Rubio, and Francisco Navarro Garcia. I won’t risk my reputation by just giving names. Trust me, they are internationally acclaimed builders that I was fortunate to live, drink, and go hunting with. So yes, in Paracho I learned to work with minimum tools and to make guitar building a way of life.

GC: What type of guitars are you building nowadays?

BE: Normally I work on two guitars simultaneously. But in the last two years, I have been also performing so I have a bit of backup. So today, I’m working on six instruments altogether.  The first guitar is a Clarita Negra for a customer from Germany. The second is a guitar inspired by Simplicio from 1941 for Artyo Dorvayed who plays with the Moscow Philharmonic.

The third guitar is a 10-string Clarita Negra for the conductor Eyal Zeidman.The fourth is a Flamenco cut-away. The fifth is an 18th century Lady Parlor guitar for a Chinese customer. The last one is a Traditional Classical guitar for the head of the Guitar Academy in Kiev. Most importantly, I recently finished a plastic modular guitar that took me four years to design.  The concept is to be able to change between various necks and various bodies.  In addition, you can also change to various pickups. All to be done in seconds, click clack.  It has normal and fine tunings, and a special feature where the intonation is automatically tuned.  All for the manufacture price of $15.  My partner and I are looking for investors, so if you guys know anyone interested, send them my way.  Someone preferably with marketing abilities and is willing to settle for 33%. The sky’s the limit.

GC: Can you give us an introduction to the Kasha – Schneider concept?

BE:  Before we talk about Kasha-Schneider bracing let’s talk about Kasha himself.  He is a micro-physicist who’s résumé is from here to the moon. He was nominated for the Noble Prize six times.  He never won because he never filled out the forms. From this, we can know how humble of a man he is and that money is not a driving factor.  Now let’s understand what are the Kasha Principles. The most important part of the guitar is the soundboard and its brace concept, because of its direct influence on the sound.  We all know of the famous Antonio Torres experiment when he made a guitar with a paper-mache back.  He claimed the guitar sounded good. But trust me, if we built a soundboard from paper-mache the guitar will sound cheap. When someone builds a Spanish guitar, it is a Torres design. I will now explain to the readers who are not guitar builders. If we look inside of a guitar we will see braces. If we try to imagine the location of the bridge we’ll see that the braces cross it. This is in a nutshell, the Torres design.  It doesn’t matter if it is 3, 5, 7, or 10 braces.  A soundboard with lattice bracing is a Smallman design, regardless of length and angles. And now to the point. The Kasha bracing design is on both sides of the bridge. It does not cross it. Also, the bridge itself is an important part of the design. This is the most basic way of explaining Kasha’s design. And if we take a step further, the braces are not symmetrical.  When we listen to music from a stereo there is also asymmetrical dividing. The low frequencies are coming from the sub-woofer. The mid-range comes from the speaker.  And the highs come from the tweeter. There is no symmetry between highs and lows.  The low can be 70hz\sec, and the highs can be 40,000hz\sec. If the difference between low and high was 70hz and 90hz, symmetry would make sense.  But when the range is in the 10’s of thousands, it is clear that there is no symmetry. This is why Kasha offers an asymmetrical brace layout. But theory is one thing, and the practical is another. The first Kasha guitar was lacking.  But Kasha and Schneider wanted to make history. And for 40 years they built instrument after instrument with only one parameter change at a time. They continued this slow evolution until the tragic death of Richard Schneider. After his death, Kasha invited me to work by his side and continue the evolution.  When I came into the picture, Prof. Kasha already had built an acoustic laboratory at Florida State University in Tallahassee. In the lab there is anechoic chamber where the guitar is plucked mechanically. The note is caught by sensors that measures the length, sustain, strength, harmonics, and more. All the information is fed into a computer that shows a 3D graph of what the guitar gives. The guitar is also checked with a Rentgen X-ray machine that shows the brace layout. This way we can see what kind of sound is generated from which layout. Guitars of some of the best builders in history were measured in the laboratory. For me, access to this information and being side by side to a six time Nobel Prize nominee, was the best school in the world. I couldn’t have asked for more. It is important to say that when building Kasha-Schneider guitars there is no guarantee.  Imagine if someone builds a Torres’ Spanish guitar which is not great. The fault is not Torres’. The same with Kasha. You still need intuition, good materials, and an understanding of the principles.

GC: I totally agree with your statement that the Spanish guitar didn’t evolve over the last 150 years. Builders did minor variations with the Torres design. But, why do you think builders and players seem to prefer something that has had a minor evolution through years of trial and error, rather than something created based on research and development? Could this be a matter of aesthetics?

BE: It is not what most people prefer. And it is not a question of aesthetics. I think it is something much deeper. It is human nature. Humans are naturally curious to find new ways, new options, and new knowledge. The question is general and at the same time philosophical, so I will answer both.  From the first day of creation, we continue to be more complex and more knowledgeable until we find perfection. If each and every one of us were to do good we would get there faster. If we do bad the process will be slower, but nonetheless, we will get there. I don’t believe that building and developing a guitar based on science and research is a bad thing. On the contrary, it is a good thing. And it doesn’t hinder the traditional guitar to be popular, more or less.

GC: Let’s talk about your “Clarita Negra”, with this guitar it seems that you have found your way to building a guitar with a huge projection, good note separation with deep basses, singing trebles and sustain, and what is more important without sacrificing the inherent voice quality of the instrument. Which are the most relevant innovations that you applied on the design and building of this guitar?

BE: It’s very difficult, to sum up in an article years of trial and error, but I will try.  First of all, you need to understand that I work by hand.  It doesn’t mean that ‘by hand’ is better.  Just the opposite, power tools, jigs, and fixtures give a more exact result.  And of course, is much faster.  But, in handwork, there is a direct connection between the materials and the hard work.  The process is longer but there is more ‘feel’.  For example, a hand planer, I take off of each shave 3/1000 of an inch, while holding the piece in my hand.  This way I can feel it going from the ‘rough’ stage, till I can to the point when it’s ‘just right’.  All my students can give testimony to the fact that I don’t work with measurements.  I neither measure the thickness of the soundboard, nor the thickness of the back and sides at any stage of the process.  I work till I feel it is the right thickness and then I stop.  With a router, both it and the material are held by a jig.  In one shot you take off what you need to the desired measurement.  It’s faster and more exact, but that ‘fourth dimension’ is missing.  I already know that the last 3 lines above will create a lot of comments.  It is also very possible that I am wrong.  There is the possibility that one might develop a ‘feel’ and intuition for a router bit and CNC machine.  And of course, there are those that combine both of these approaches.  It is well known that every piece of wood has different flexibility and durability.  Not only every type of wood, but also the same type of wood.  If you divide one piece into two exact sizes you will see that each is different is flexibility, hardness, and weight.  It’s organic guys.  For this, we understand that there is no sense in measuring something that is not constant.  Also, my selection of the material is very critical.  Or to put it, in other words, there is no wood supplier in the world that can say he sold me wood for building guitars.  So from where do I get the material?  The answer is I bring it myself.  Exactly like that.  there are things in the wood that I must see it with my own eyes.  Not spiritual parameters like as if there is a spring with blue minerals next to the tree.  Or if Robin Hood hid in that tree.  Or if it’s from Stradivarius’ secret forest.  Rather, they are important things like how straight or how big the tree.  Or, to look a the amount of moss to know how long the tree has been laying on the forest floor.  And more and more and more…  This process is longer, more difficult and much much more expensive.  In some cases, can even be dangerous. Last year, I was in the northern Sudan with an American passport and an Israeli one.  Both of them are not welcome in northern Sudan. It could have made an uncomfortable diplomatic incident.  So maybe I’m a little crazy, maybe a little adventurous.  But one thing is for sure.  I must be present at every stage of the selection process, without compromise. Also, on my list of teachers, you can find something very interesting.  George Majkowski, before we met, had only built two guitars by himself.  Prof. Kasha, Kurt Rodarmer, and Bob foster all had never built a guitar.  So what did I learn from them?  That’s exactly the point.  My life journey as a builder was focusing on one issue.  Sound, sound, sound…  They are not carpenters, they just understand the mechanical working of the sound.  Or what is the definition of sound?  You need hot understand that sound is a very exact science.  Just like 4 and 4 are 8, so is 440hz/sec an A note. Also, meeting with hundreds of builders around the world, writing back and forth.  Being a part of the family at the Guitar Salon in NY in the early 1990’s.  Having the honor of hosting big players in my home for days at a time.  Restoration of historical guitars like Torres or Fleta, of which I’m right now restoring a 150-year-old guitar owned by a Russian Tzar.  All of these things, together with G-ds’ help, may be the answer to your flattering question, what makes my guitars special.

GC: How do you approach fingerboard and neck to body geometry on your classical guitars?

BE: I connect them in the traditional approach which is called the ‘Spanish heel’.  The reason is simple.  I never saw a neck connection problem with traditional jointing.  I saw cases where the guitar was totally broken, but the neck was still connected to what was left.  On the dove-tail connection or flat-joint, problems can come up with time.  You can see in guitar repair tool catalogs a lot of jigs and fixtures for repairing dove-tail joints.  So, of course, I’m not going to compromise.  Unfortunately, the traditional neck connection is much harder to work with throughout the building process.  You need to work with the guitar attached to the neck.  Carving the heel is more difficult because the sides get in the way.  Calculating the neck angle and of course putting the binding all become more challenging.  All these and more.  Just so you know, all of these difficulties made 99% of factories move towards alternative neck connections.  This way being able to work on body and neck separately and in the end to connect with dove-tail or flat-joint.

GC: Apart from wood selection and action adjustments, do you voice the tops of your classical and flamenco guitars differently?

BE: No. When I finish the soundboard, before I connect to the body, it’s 95% done.  I don’t touch it until the end of the process.

GC: Can you give us some information about how the different choice and combination of woods do affect the final tone of a guitar? Do you have a particular combination that is your favorite?

BE: Yes,  For the fingerboard, I prefer African ebony, black and dry.  For the neck, either ebony or Brazilian Rosewood.  Of course, it is more expensive and not everyone can afford it.  It is also heavier, but there are ways to reduce the weight.  For most of my guitars, though, it is Honduras mahogany.  For the soundboard, I have no specific preference.  I love all types.  Each has its own beauty and character.  For the back and sides, I have a serious problem.  In the past, I built with Indian rosewood and Cypress for flamenco.  But, every time when the customer could afford the Brazilian rosewood, I saw the guitar had qualities that I didn’t achieve with other woods.  It’s something like when you look at 10 beautiful girls, and one of them is intelligent.  It is also the preference of many of the legendary builders of the past.  With all the benefits that Brazilian Rosewood has, there are 4 serious problems with it.  First, it is very difficult to work with it and bend it by hand.  Second, it is a tree that is extinct.  There is a plantation, but they are very young.  We need to wait 80 years for them to suitable for guitars.  Here and there people find tables, doors, and house rafters made from Brazilian.  It is really a big treasure.  The third problem is when you find it, it is very expensive.  It can 10 or 20 times more expensive than most other trees.  Lastly, there are a lot of fakes.  They look very similar to the real thing.  A month ago, someone from Indonesia contacted me to see if I was interested in buying Brazilian rosewood… from Indonesia.  Also, my student brought Brazilian rosewood” from Brazil”, but it did not have the famous cocoa smell to it.  We are, however, very fortunate that we have other trees with their own magic.  But also when searching for diamonds, zirconium is a nice alternative.

GC: What are your thoughts about the influence of finishing materials on the sound of an instrument? Does the use of violin finishing recipes make more sense than anything else in terms of aging, restoration and preservation of the natural sound of the woods?

BE: When it comes to finishing materials, there are 4 parameters that are important to achieve. First, the lacquer needs to be thin.  Second, the lacquer needs to be hard.  Third, you need to have the possibility to melt it and take it off, in the case of repairs.  Lastly, if the lacquer after years cracks, like in old violins, this is very desirable for stringed instruments.  Of course, the shellac achieves all these things.  It doesn’t matter if you apply it in a violin or french polish.  The same can be achieved with a nitrocellulose finish.  It is a long process of building layers.  It takes me a minimum of 3 weeks.  It takes also about 6 months to cure.  Yes, it is dry after a few days, but to be totally cured takes the full 6 months. I personally don’t connect to the synthetic finish like polyurethane.  It may be strong, but it is thick and heavy.  And I also do not like the synthetic look.  It is true you can put a thin layer on, but still, that layer cannot dissolve with any other solvent.  The only way to take it off is with sandpaper which is a lot of work.  There is, though, a benefit of polyurethane. That is after 3 seconds from the application with a spray gun you can pass over it with an ultra-violet light to cure it. 3 minutes after, you can start polishing it and the same day send it to the customer. So if time is money, it is the ultimate finish.

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