Speaking with Greg Brandt is an insightful and enjoyable experience. A man with four decades in the luthier role, his knowledge of his materials and how do employ them is vast and deep. He’s an individual who was called at an early age, by his own two hands, to build stringed instruments and derives a joy from his passion for guitars that lights him from within.
Guitar Connoisseur: You don’t look like a man who could have four decades into lutherie. How old were you when you initially got into the field?
Greg Brandt: I turned sixty last year and when people hear that, they say that I don’t look nearly that old, which I appreciate hearing! I think that it’s just that I love my work. As a kid, I had always made plastic models and eventually, I made balsa wood and tissue paper airplane models. At some point, I made a dulcimer kit. I was in my late teens when, through a long cascade of serendipitous events…including a stranger handing me a piece of paper with the title of David Russell Young’s book “The Steel String Guitar: Construction & Repair” and, two weeks later, walking into Ren Ferguson’s guitar shop in Venice, CA… I realized that people built guitars. Once I understood that and realized I had my days free, I thought: what could be better than playing a guitar that you built! I got Dave Young’s book and found that he lived a few miles away. He helped me with materials and my many questions. It took me two and a half years to finish that guitar! When I was about halfway through it, maybe the box was complete, I had a late night, inexplicable experience where it became clear to me that my hands knew this work. It was just the beginning of a series of doors being thrown open for me, and my butt being kicked through them. At that point, I was pretty sure I was not going into the family business. [He ends with a laugh.]
GC: What was the draw for you?
GB: I always loved music. I started singing in choirs in elementary school and still do today. I heard The Beatles and, like many kids, every tennis racket or garden rake became a guitar! I’m a first generation woodworker. I come from a family of film editors. They worked with their hands, but they certainly weren’t in the shop in the middle of the night tinkering away. I eventually got a guitar and taught myself to play. As I got older, I decided I wanted to build a guitar without having any idea what was involved, because I was just being drawn into this. And, here’s a book that’s telling me how to do it and the author lives not very far away and is willing to help a little bit! I didn’t have any tools or real space to work. I would save up money for this chisel or that clamp. I worked on my cutting board in the kitchen and on my low coffee table, but it was happening. I simply thought: I know and understand this. I left the restaurant where I was working and got a job at a new woodworking store based on the half a guitar I had made so far. I always tell students, get a job in a tool store so you can learn about tools and get a discount, or get a job in a restaurant so you can eat for free! Through the tool store, I met my teacher and, after 6 months of whining, I wore him down and he took me on as an apprentice. After that, I just kept going.
GC: Were there any particular challenges you recall needing to overcome in your early years?
GB: No more than the normal challenges of finding a teacher, saving money for tools and materials, and learning how to be a craftsperson. [He laughs.] It’s important to get the hours of repetition in, of doing something repeatedly so your hands learn the work. Even in one’s early twenties, it’s scary being broke and daunting to do something that there really wasn’t a roadmap for. I remember being terrified of the idea of bending wood. How in the world does that happen? I had to be convinced that I had a lot more important things to worry about. One of the most important things, then and now, was finding a teacher. When I started doing this, there was no internet, no online courses, very few books, no DVDs. All the information seemed to be behind the walls of the big factories. Getting the information and eventually developing my own path was always the challenge.
GC: Why did you choose to focus on nylon string instruments instead of other varieties?
GB: I came to this as a steel string guitar player, so I always assumed I would make steel string guitars. When my teacher initially took me on, he insisted that I build a nylon string as well as a steel string guitar. He was mostly a nylon string maker so he was adamant about that. That first nylon string guitar I made was the first nylon string guitar I’d ever held, and I was stunned! I was taken aback by how much volume came from this light little box! It was SO different from everything else I was used to playing. For the first few years, I split my time between steel and nylon string guitars. I finally decided that I needed to plant a flag in one camp or the other. This was in the mid to late seventies. Even then, it was clear to me that factories could build great steel string guitars in a production setting, but they couldn’t do that with nylon string guitars. They need to be more finessed than a production setting would allow. So I thought there would be more money in it for me if I planted my flag in the nylon string camp.
GC: For those of us who don’t know, what are the differences between a standard acoustic guitar and a classical guitar, and why are they important?
GB: In very broad strokes, a steel string guitar is generally a bigger body guitar and it’s built with an X brace to stand up against the greater tension of the strings against the top. The strings go through the body and are held to the top in a mechanical fit with the bridge pins. Nylon string guitars are generally smaller and thinner pieces of wood. Traditionally, they are built with very delicate little fan braces. People are doing different things now: lattice bracing, using carbon fiber, double tops, flying buttresses, but in a broad, traditional sense, classical guitars are braced with little scrawny pieces of wood with the strings tied to the bridge and attached directly to the top. And if everything is going right, it’s on the cusp of exploding! A nylon string guitar has an inherent bass response, so you try to bring out the treble. It’s the opposite on a steel string guitar; which has an inherent treble response, so you try to bring out the bass.
GC: Let’s talk about the instruments. What is your design strategy?
GB: There are a few major points in my building a guitar. There’s the structural aspect and how it’s put together. There’s the acoustic aspect which is deciding the sound I’m after and working the wood to achieve it. There’s the functional part – how it feels and plays for the player. And then there’s the aesthetic part, which is how the guitar basically looks and its overall presentation.
In my guitars, I want bright yet thick and substantial trebles, a quick speaking bass and good response across the fingerboard. What still interests me the most is a fairly traditional style of building. I’m still intrigued by fan braces. I’m not interested in instruments that are loud for loud’s sake. Don’t get me wrong, I want my guitars to be loud, but I don’t think that volume alone should be the top criteria of whether your guitar is successful or not…especially when it means giving up tonal color and other musical aspects of the instruments. What interests me is working with traditional fan bracing, thicknessing individual tops, and tapping, carving and voicing my tops and bracing until I get the response that I’m looking for.
GC: Would you say that there are aspects of design that set you apart from others in your field?
GB: I have a sound that I strive for that pleases me. Ultimately, what we hear and are drawn to is completely subjective, so I am less interested in trying to please everyone as it’s a losing battle. I have an opinion of what I like to hear. If I am happy and it pleases me….it will please others, too. Everybody has their own recipe. You can talk to ten different guitar makers and get fifteen different ways to get a guitar built, and they all work. Classical guitar players are a unique bunch. Often, they will be fine with makers doing whatever they want on the inside of the box but the outside better look like what Segovia played 60 years ago! I’ve done it backwards. I experiment and try to achieve my voice with a fairly traditional design on the inside. For the past couple of years, I have been working on doing different design work on the outside of the instrument. And in that respect, my guitars are starting to look different than what is traditional. And that’s been a lot of fun and very interesting.
GC: What about materials? What do you look for in the materials for your instruments?
GB: When I was in my apprenticeship, my teacher took me and showed me good wood and explained why it was good and how it benefitted our work. Then he took me and showed me lousy wood and made sure I understood why it was lousy and the problems it could cause. He explained the sound and structural qualities of wood and what made them work…or not work. When I went to him to buy some wood, he pulled out all this junky wood for me to buy. I reminded him that he just got finished teaching me on why this was crappy wood and I didn’t want to buy his crappy wood! I think he was just trying to get rid of his old wood! I’m happy to build with Indian Rosewood all day long. I have a great source in India for forest grown wood and it’s a tremendous wood to work with. Over the years, I’ve also been lucky to collect some really nice, old, Brazilian Rosewood too. A lot came from my teacher’s shop after he passed away and some from other makers that are selling their wood. Often, you get it by hook or crook. It’s a beautiful material to work with as well. It’s a harder wood. In a certain respect, it might have more of a tendency to crack and often needs to be babied through the build process a little bit more. I also use other Rosewoods such as Madagascar and Amazon. I have beautiful European Maple and some very old Curly Koa. My tops are either European Spruce or Western Red Cedar. I’ve collected a lot of Spruce over the years and I can get amazing Cedar all the time.
GC: What was the inspiration to get more artistic with the inlays in your guitars? Was it difficult stepping outside of strict tradition?
GB: When my teacher passed away, he had an ocean of traditional mosaic rosettes that he had made for him. I took over his rosettes, partially as a path of least resistance, but also as an homage to him. I feel like I’m visiting with him every time I use one of those rosettes and I still find it sweet and touching. I never found myself drawn to making mosaic rosettes. I had an apprentice who worked with me for many years and she was also interested in building steel string guitars so there was some fairly constant investigation of what steel string makers were doing. When you get beyond the well-known factories, you see that the small shop steel string makers have a huge amount of latitude with the woods they can use, the designs they can come up with and the inlay work. There are a lot of people doing stunning and tasteful work. Like I said earlier, nylon string players often want to see what they expect to see. I’ve been trying some new design work for a couple of years now. They started as guitars with different style rosettes that I really liked. I decided that I wanted to go beyond the rosette and put some of the design elements on the back and butt of the guitar too. Most of these guitars have been guitars that were made for shows. Some people really like the work and I’m sure I aggravate some others too – which I understand and is fine with me! I continue to refine aspects of these designs as well as try new ones. It’s been a lot of fun and a very interesting time in the shop. Not only does the work intrigue me, but many people really seem to like them as well. Of course, I’m perfectly happy to build more traditional work too.
GC: The tonal qualities of your guitars are quite striking: deep bass notes, clear mids, and ringing highs. How do you coax such sounds out of your materials?
GB: We all have a basic pattern and style that we start with. Maybe it was something we were taught, maybe it was something we got out of a book Then, over a period of time, whether it’s your tenth guitar or your fiftieth guitar, or hundredth guitar, if you’re paying attention – you start gaining information as well as feeding your intuition. I would always want to experiment, but I would experiment slowly. I would never make two changes at once. Working with wood can be humbling. There are never two pieces that are exactly the same. I would just slowly try things and some I would adopt and some would fall by the wayside. I’ll weigh tops and bridges, keep track of tap tones and aspects of flexibility and stiffness. Some of it, flexing and tapping, becomes intuitive and that comes with time. I brace a Cedar top differently than I brace a Spruce top. I’m aiming to bring different things out of those two kinds of wood which have inherent differences. Regardless of the top wood, I want a guitar that has clear, singing trebles. I want a full, round bass but one that’s not too overpowering. I want a wide variety of tonal colors and an evenness up and down the fingerboard as well as across it.
GC: To adjust intonation on an electric, you simply turn some screws a few times. How do you go about setting exact intonation on a fixed bridge instrument?
GB: Well, first of all, exact intonation on a fretted instrument does not exist. It’s all a compromise. Equal temperament is a compromise. The F# in a D chord is not the same note as the F# in an F# Major chord. Violin players have no frets, and they can roll their fingers forward and back, sharp or flat, play in tune with their section, and their section play in tune with the orchestra. They’re taught that from the beginning. But with a fretted instrument, it’s a compromise. The string needs to be stretched down to the fingerboard which is going to make it play sharp. So, we figure out how to deal with the compromise by adding “compensation” which is small adjustments to the scale length. I shorten my distance from the nut to my first fret an amount. Because the action is usually higher on the bass side and the mass of the bass strings greater, I put in a saddle slot that isn’t parallel to the front of my bridge but slants back towards the bass side. Guitar players are used to seeing that on steel string guitars…less so on nylon string guitars. So my string length has compensation on the treble strings and extra compensation on the bass.
GC: Can you explain the process of how you join your necks and bodies?
GB: Originally, I was taught to build in the Spanish style…..where the heel and the inner heel block are the same piece of wood with slots that the sides fit into. I built steel and nylon string guitars that way! I don’t build in the Spanish style anymore. I have a neck to body joint that is more similar to steel string guitars. It’s not a dovetail but a floating tenon. Matching joinery is cut into the box and the neck, and the tenon is fit. It allows me to be more in control of my pitch angle and other aspects that are important to me.
GC: Tell us about the artists that play your guitars and what sorts of work they’re doing?
GB: I live in Los Angeles, so I have always been in touch with the studio players. Tommy Tedesco bought three guitars from me, the first being the 5th guitar I made. Other first call session players in the business play my guitars. My mom has never heard one of my guitars played in a recital setting, so I can often tell her to go see XYZ movie and she’ll hear my guitar. A lot of great jazz players – Jim Fox, John Pisano, Pat Kelly, Barry Zweig play guitars that I made. Fingerstyle great Laurence Juber plays a guitar of mine. The biggest “star” that ever bought a guitar from me was Andy Griffith, of all people. I’m happy to get my guitars into any and all guitar players’ hands. Often, I get very good students coming to the shop that are in strong university guitar programs. They’re really important to me, often, more important then a famous name. I know that these players are depending on my guitar. They’re going to be playing it in a concert setting and recital halls where my guitars are going to be most successful. I’m always thrilled to have studio and jazz players play an instrument of mine. And I always find it very, very satisfying to work with people who like nice things, who might want to have something built especially for them, maybe have the chance to pick out wood, and have a guitar build by someone they can talk to and ask questions of, and kick ideas around with.
GC: Looking back over the past forty years, what is your perspective on your journey?
GB: Well….the journey is still on! I feel really lucky and thankful that I’ve been able to make a living at this and to do the craft for so long. I have been more than on the fringes of artisanal guitar making in America. When I started, there wasn’t anywhere near the amount of information as there is now. It’s great that you can find practically whatever you want in YouTube videos, but it makes it harder for new makers to make a living because there’s so much competition now. Also, I’m thrilled to see women makers doing stunning work in what too often has been a male-dominated craft. I don’t think about retiring. As long as my hands and eyes hold up and I’m doing work that I’m proud of and that interests me – I plan to keep on building.
GC: What have you got in the works now or going into the future.
GB: In the short term, I have some shows coming up. I look forward to doing shows because it gives me an opportunity to try new things. I have other designs that I want to experiment with, and I will do that. I always look forward to teaching. Craftspeople are always striving for the next peak, the next plateau, then next peak again. That’s what I most enjoy. That and building more guitars!
To learn more about Greg Brandt’ Guitars please visit: gregbrandtguitars.com
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