Michihiro Matsuda: Master of the Blade

By Michael Watts

It is no exaggeration to describe Michihiro “Michi” Matsuda as an icon of the modern acoustic guitar scene. His sense of line and form is groundbreaking, bold and instantly recognizable. Indeed, Matsuda’s work has proved hugely inspirational to a large number of the new generation of luthiers with many of his visual flourishes being appropriated by other builders seeking to add semantic weight and luster to their own guitars.

The tonal spectrum of Matsuda’s guitars coupled with a responsiveness informed by his years as an apprentice to Ervin Somogyi makes for a deeply inspiring and thought provoking playing experience which, I know from personal experience, tends to stick with you…

I caught up with Michi at The Holy Grail Guitar Show in Berlin to talk about his work.

Guitar Connoisseur: You were Ervin Somogyi’s second apprentice, how did that connection come about?

Michihiro Matsuda: When I was about to finish the program at Roberto- Venn School of Luthiery in Arizona, Ervin asked if anyone in the class was interested in being a helper in his shop during the school winter vacation. When I heard this, I was very interested. Just seeing the workshop of a well-established luthier, like Ervin, meant a lot to me. So, I went to his shop and worked for him for two weeks. In that two weeks, I found out that he was looking for an apprentice. So, I had that opportunity, as soon as I finished Roberto- Venn.

GC: Somogyi apprentices often play a vital role in the development of the masters own sound and building ethos. What aspects of the instrument did you concentrate on while at the Somogyi workshop?

MM: I don’t know if I had a vital role in his shop. I just wanted to see what he does, how he does it, and why he does it. I wanted to observe everything and try to understand it. It was not only about his guitar making, his sound design, philosophy, and how to run business etc. To do it, I followed his way. I simulated what he did by my hands. I wanted my hands to memorize what I learned. And I wanted to understand his work by my senses, not by theory. I think it was a very Japanese way to learn something. I have heard that in the U.S. teachers expect students to respond back with their opinion. He or she doesn’t have to follow the teacher’s lead if they find out or know a better way to do it. It is common that students challenge teachers. My attitude was opposite. I wanted to follow his way even if I could think of a better way. Ervin might wonder why I was always copying his way. But, it worked for me. It was good old experience based learning process, which is what apprenticeship is all about. I needed a certain foundation before starting my own way.

It was the time when Ervin just started having apprentices. Now he has a well thought out apprentice and helper’s program, but back then it was more flexible. Along with his guitar making schedule, I was able to experience all aspects of making Somogyi guitars. Though he explained it and showed me his way, there are a few things he had to do by hand on his own. For example, selecting materials, top thickness, brace turning, French polishing, final set up, etc. Especially for bracing turning, I remember that he was in a humidity-controlled room all day, and did his brace turning work according to a tapping tone he made with his fingers.

It was a great experience just watching him tapping the top, listening to it, feeling it, and starting to shave and sand the braces. It was truly priceless.

GC: Your time at Gryphon Stringed Instruments no doubt also gave you the opportunity to repair some wonderful instruments. What insights did this give you about vintage guitars?

MM: My experience at Gryphon has been another foundation of my guitar making. I go and work there one day a week. You can see all kind of stringed instruments, new to old, traditional to exotic. And there is always something new happening on Frank Ford’s workbench. I have learned, and still, am learning so many things from him. He is another great influence.

It is a great opportunity to be able to work on vintage guitars.

You can’t imagine how many new things you can learn from the old. They help me understand history, philosophy, and the tradition of guitars.

One of the amazing things when I work on or see vintage guitars, is, of course, their sound. There is something special about their sound. For example when I try out an old Martin parlor guitars, and I find how loud its acoustic volume is with a nice balancing tone. When I try an old Gibson L-5, and I am surprised how sweet and smooth the sound is. I think that there is something different from new guitars and vintage guitars. However, I am not saying that all vintage guitars have the same pleasant quality. I don’t know what it is. I assume that something happens in the aging process. You can find a lot of scientific research, and folklore types of stories. But, I don’t know which is the truth. I am still studying.

Here is an interesting observation. When you describe “the vintage” sound in the U.S., the most common adjective I hear is “rich”. It seems to me that it reminds me of the same reference wine is getting; rich taste by aging, or cheese is getting rich in flavor by aging. In my mind, it has an image of adding more characters to the original. On the other hand, an adjective that I hear most to describe “the vintage” sound in Japan is “Kareta”. Its literary meaning is whether plants or trees die or are dead. But, it has another usage in the artistic genre. It means revealing something essential by progressing in time.

It is not the same meaning as mature. It shows it’s own character more to get rid of something extra. In my mind, it has an image of “purity”.

I think it is an interesting contrast describing the same vintage sound. I think it shows unique musical diversity in the world. Coming back to your question, so far I haven’t found or seen any new instruments with vintage sounds. But, the more important thing for me is having an open sensibility, with which I can appreciate a vintage sound in both ways “rich” and “Kareta”. And when you are looking for something new, I would think that new concept may be found from sensitivity you can recognize in vintage sound “Kareta”, which is a new musical concept in west.

 

GC: You are arguably unique in your understanding of both Japanese instruments such as the Shamisen and Koto, and the steel string guitar. Your sense of line and texture is obviously shaped by your Japanese heritage, how do you think your upbringing has influenced the tone and response of your guitars?

MM: Before I moved to The U.S. I didn’t have much interest in Japanese traditional music and instruments. Now I am getting mature, and since I live outside of Japan, I appreciate it more. I have many friends who play and practice Japanese music professionally or for fun. I also practiced taiko drumming for a while.

I am not interested in making guitars with Shamisen sound. It is meaningless. But, I am interested in fusing some Japanese sound philosophy in guitars. One major characteristic in Japanese musical instruments is complex tone quality: a lot of overtones, sometimes they are dissonant, and sometimes they sound like noise when you see them in western standard music. They are developed that way. Traditionally Japanese musicians make their musical expression with minimum notes, like one blow of a Shakuhachis (bamboo flutes), or one hit of a taiko drum. There is no systematic melodic and harmonic theory of western music there. Music is made by relationships of sounds in western music. On the other hand, a sound is equal to music in Japanese tradition.

So, Japanese traditional instruments are developed in kind of an opposite way than western musical instruments are developed. It is not easy to cross over two different characteristics. It is challenging, and I am still looking for how to do it at this point. It is not like making acoustic guitars with an overdrive unit in order to increase complexity in tone. (Actually, it might be fun to try it.) With keeping guitars as guitars, the ability to make beautiful harmony and melody, on top of these I would like to have each individual tone contains expressive complexity. It would be something I am looking for.

GC: You make so many physically unique guitars, how do you maintain your desired quality of sound when dealing with such revolutionary body shapes and styles? Is anything left to chance?

MM: Thank you for your nice comment.

I like to try new things and I have a lot of ideas to try. I think it is the natural motivation of creative people in any art form. At the same time, I understand that good sound design comes from not only pure imagination, but also you need consistency and critical analysis. And in my case, I put importance in intuition that comes from experience.

I make unique prototype guitars, and do experiments. And I take them to guitar shows. Guitar shows are good opportunities for doing this. But, other than those prototypes, most of my guitars I make have consistency from one to another from the perspective of sound design. Every part of the guitar has a connection to its sound and tone. But, some parts have a stronger connection. Some parts have a a very small connection, which you are absent from the human ear. I don’t make radical changes in those areas strongly related to sound. For example, I use 3 body shapes for steel strings flat top, and I don’t make changes to these body shapes and dimensions. The Bracing system is my version of X bracing. I make slight changes to it one by one, according to my research, material differences, and tap tone characters, etc. But I don’t make radical changes in them. Rosette is one section where guitar makers show off. I make a different rosette for each guitar. I try to create unique inlay work around the sound hole and upper section. I never extend the inlay into the lower part of the guitar top, which is an important section that produces sound. I don’t want to change the stiffness, tension, and the balance that I established from tap tuning previously.

For making one-of -a -kind instruments like harp guitars, experience and opportunity to work on, and access to historical harp guitars at Gryphon helps me a lot. This is another example of how important the repair experience is for my guitar making. It is reverse engineering. I break down those historical harp guitars in my imagination and then re-construct them again in my imagination adding my ideas. I repeat this process, and once I get the basic shape of my version of the harp guitar in my imagination, it is much easier to start the actual project sound design wise, and construction wise.

GC: The astonishing visual impact of your work has inspired everything from subtle “homages” to brazen imitation. How does that make you feel?

MM: In the beginning, when I started seeing guitars which have the same kind of design as I do, I have mixed feelings. But, I feel a little more relaxed now. There are honest people there, and they ask me permission first to use my design or similar ideas. I appreciate it. When people contact me, I say OK, and just ask them to please credit my name. Everyone has influence from someone including myself. Respect is the key for it.

There is Japanese saying “when you start seeing someone copying your work, you are considered full-fledged”. I am thinking this way.

GC: Your “Deconstructed” range of instruments is fascinating. I was astonished by the tone and musicality of the ukulele I played at your workshop in 2011. I know you’ve since applied this methodology to an arch top guitar. Will there be a flat top acoustic in the future and if so what can you share about how you will approach the build?

MM: Thank you for your comment. It is my latest project. It could be applied to a flat top too. I developed this idea for guitars from the ukulele, and I am currently working on a headless arched shape top guitars. And I have more ideas to try with this arched shape top. So, I will continue to work on the arched shape top in a few years. In my mind, I don’t have any type classification in this project. It is an Acoustic-Electric hybrid, it doesn’t have a sound box, only top construction with a skeleton-like frame. I would like to try flat top instruments in the future with this concept. But, it may not be purely acoustic. Acoustic-Electric hybrid is part of this concept. When you use pickups on acoustic guitars because you need more volume, we are always looking for how we can amplify acoustic tone purely. Hybrid is not like this. It is stringed instruments which have large volume with acoustic and electric elements. The acoustic and electric help each other and make the sound and tone. Someone may say it would be the same as electric guitars. Electric guitars used to be guitars that amplified sound electrically with wood body and pickups, when they were invented. But now it seems that the meaning of the electric guitar sound is changing. People don’t think there is pure electric sound. It would be Telecaster sound, Les Paul sound, and so on. Deconstruction comes down to not only structures of guitars, but also to the sound of guitars.

GC: Your “gunpowder-scorched top” 00 has garnered a lot of attention since its debut at the Montreal Guitar Show. What can you tell us about the thoughts and processes that went into this guitar?

MM: It is another ongoing project. The idea comes from the Koto (a Japanese traditional wooden harp). It has a scorched body traditionally. Scorching is one way to stabilize wood. I just wanted to see what would happen when I tried it with guitars. It was an experiment. For scorching, Koto makers use traditional methods, which is pressing a big hot iron against the body. I tried using a hot iron first. It was too aggressive for guitar tops, since they are so thin. Then, I tried using a burner, and torch. They are also too aggressive. I was looking for a controllable way to scorch. I came across a You Tube video of Cai Guo-Qiang who is a Chinese contemporary artist. When I saw him making beautiful figurative pictures using gunpowder in the video, I thought gunpowder may work well on my project. Then I was able to make scorching on the top.

This guitar has really responsive sound. Every time when I took it to a guitar show, I had great reviews. So far, this is the only guitar I made with a scorched top. So, to find out why, I need to make more scorched top guitars. I am still in research and study in this project.

GC: What are your influences outside the world of guitar making?

MM: I like music, visual art, performing art, architectures, cooking, eating, etc…

The Interesting thing to me is that I get older, my brain has started connecting things in these different genres, and gives me new ideas. Getting old is not too bad, I think.

GC: Please make me a pair of sandals!

MM: It was a fun project. When I have time, I would like to make some more art pieces. It is getting harder to find extra time these days. I like playing guitars. But, after I started guitar making full time. I don’t have time to practice. It is ironic. Maybe sometime in future, I hope I have more time to make them. Please keep in touch until then.

GC: Arigato go Zai masu Michi!

To learn more about Matsuda Guitars please visit: matsudaguitars.com

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