The Steel City Guitar – A Sports Car with Six Strings

By Stuart Day

“This particular instrument was a special one-off design. The model is what I call the steel city. Named after Pittsburgh for its simple elegance and its ability to work hard.

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This particular guitar is a shallower depth instrument to accommodate the powerful custom Kent Armstrong Hum-bucker which is inset into the top. With an Engelmann spruce top and Carpathian spruce bracing this guitar ended up having a wonderful balance of arch-top punch with a warmth and smoothness that compliments a wide range of playing styles.

Photo Jun 26, 12 29 09 PMI have been calling this guitar the sports car because that’s exactly how it feels.

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Its fast, quick response, but smooth and effortless ride makes this guitar a very enjoyable piece to play. The finish was inspired by a story I heard of why Steinway pianos were black. The Steinway brothers did not want their pianos judged by anything but tone and playability.

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I always loved that and had been waiting for the right client to try to pull off this ambitious finish. The combination of hand rubbed stain base under a sprayed nitro sunburst was a challenge but I think well worth it as this is certainly one of the most striking archtops that have come out of my shop. ”

“Stuart Day has been practicing the fine art of lutherie for all of his adult life. After working with some of the finest in the industry Stuart is now proud to offer his own selection of world-class acoustic Arch-top and Flat-top steel string guitars. Each and every Stuart Day Guitar is an exquisite, handcrafted, reflection of Stuart’s years of experience and dedication to the craft of Lutherie.”

 

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An Interview with Gabriel Currie of Echopark Guitars

By Steve Rider

Guitar Connoisseur: Would you say that you got an early start with guitars?

Gabriel Currie: I think it hit me like a brick when I was 7 or 8 years old that the guitar was the most amazing thing in the world besides girls. So now I can say it was early enough to look back on my life and honestly not be able to remember a time in my life without the guitar or its influence in my decision making in some way. Is that totally crazy?

GC: What prompted your interest? Were there specific moments that moved you in the direction you eventually were to take?

Gabriel C: My father is an artist and I grew up in Los Angeles in the late 60’s early 70’s. AM radio played the doors, there were drum circles on Sunday at Griffith Park, the neighborhood Mexican bands were always rehearsing in the garages. The Mexican bar across the road in back of the house, always alive!

The Southern Pacific Train Annex 3 blocks away, the huge concerts I could hear, but never go to, happening at Dodgers Stadium right across the LA river maybe 2 miles away. The discovery of my parents, mostly my dad’s, AMAZING record collection….at least to me it was a huge turning point. When I found that pile of vinyl with Hendrix doing star spangled banner at Woodstock! Blind Faith, Santana 1&2, Gordon Lightfoot, Cheech and Chong, the White Album, Revolver, the Stones from the first one all the way till exile. All his 45’s from the 50’s, and on and on. So at 10 years old, I had a good idea of a path I was definitely attracted too.

GC: You started on the ground floor at G&L under the direction of Leo Fender himself. Could you describe your time with G&L from the beginnings to running the body shop?

Gabriel C: Absolutely, Leo was at the meeting when I was interviewed. He didn’t say much, just watched me. I only knew he liked me because I brought a guitar I had made. He asked to see it. I showed it to him; he looked up and just nodded to me. He was 40 years old when he started fender, so by the time I got there he was real old and in not the best health, but he could talk and he got around to every department until he just didn’t show up one day. I got the gig because an acoustic luthier I was an apprentice to while in high school was retiring and passed my name along to his old friends Leo and George. I had little knowledge of G&L in 1988, but I found out real quick what Leo was like, and how a real guitar production shop in particular ran. He and Floyd and George were on it! So different from the modern production cookie cutter shop and push button operations that only require an operator. I am so fortunate to have that full experience. I went from cleaning the shop to unloading the lumber truck to gluing up ash body blanks and setting up/learning all the machines he designed with George. Then I was put to operating the production of all the bodies and preparing them for final sanding and paint. That and all the normal scheduling, design, and helping with the neck department, until Leo finally passed.

GC: In your Bio on Echopark Guitars website, you state that wanted to continue your education post-G&L. Why was that? What did you feel that you had gained at G&L and what did you feel you needed to reach the next level?

Gabriel C: Leo brought the industrial revolution to the music industry as the 50s landed right out of WWII.  His genius skills as a radio repairman gave him the real working foundation and knowledge of what not to do and what to do better. His actual impact on modern western culture as a whole is probably greater than any single artist, dignitary, scientist, or philosopher to date, in my humble opinion. From G&L, I learned everything I needed to know about the hand built, bolt-on production guitar, but I knew I had very little understanding of set neck, thru body, or acoustic construction and I really wanted to learn and grow from that point. So, when Leo passed away in 1991 I split to go to work for Tak Hosono in Los Angeles.

GC: Would it be accurate to say that you had an idea of where you wanted to go as a luthier at that point?

Gabriel C: Maybe. I was still young and just getting into making music too, so I was a little torn but I also l knew it was a lifetime deal within my heart of hearts. So I yes, I just dove in. But I left a margin to bail if I saw the trajectory of my career leaning towards doing the typical, NAMM every year, the name tag on the company shirt, demos, more trade shows, etc, etc. I just couldn’t do it. The thing that I wanted to do was make old new guitars, then, in 1991!  But no one was into it at all! It was still super strats and lame paint jobs and hair, so I made a promise to myself one morning. I simply said, if I can’t do what I need to do when the time comes, then I’m out. I was still young. I had playing on my mind as well as my songwriting and lots of girls started to really happen then too, so my attention and my thinking shifted out of the shop world and into the music world. The mind space that this art requires is large, there’s a lot to consider and figuring it out from where I started may seem like an easy thing, but I’m stubborn too, so I had to battle with that. As a kid, the owning or starting of a guitar biz was nowhere in my preference. But a boy can still dream! So I did.

GC: Tell us about your time with Tak Hosono.

Gabriel C: Takashi Hosono had a little shop in Glendale and he was doing mail order custom guitars, production of all the Ibanez USA neck thru stuff, Roger Sadowsky bass necks and bodies, artists like Frank Zappa, you know…the guitar culture in Los Angeles from 1980 till 1993 was bangin! He put a pneumatic shaper in my hands the first day and said, final shape and sand all those necks, then laminate these tops, then radius that fretboard, then dress that neck, then make truss rods, then mill neck blanks for 5 string basses. Tak taught me the art of preparation, neck shaping by hand by feel, the art of fretting by hammer. I still never press frets into this day! He taught me a few techniques, like the way I chamber, or my top carve, and the carve profile, the way I like to roll the edges of the fretboard,  neck thru construction, wood identification, a deep education in shop setup, and many lessons in the art of tonewood coupling.

GC: You transitioned from production work to hand crafted techniques. What is the significance of doing work by hand, in your perspective?

Gabriel C: It’s the feel of the instrument!  It’s the control of the details I’m crafting! I can take my time and work the timbers to the optimum for each one. I can pay real attention to the tonal direction from the selection process through to the final assembly. It’s the only way a true, fine musical instrument should be made. The more a builder handles that piece and pieces that make it up, the more of that builders energy is taken on and it really becomes a part of the energy of that instrument. I know it all sounds a bit hokey, but it’s absolute truth! Sit down in a quiet room with any old guitar that’s been really played on; when them chills come you’ll figure it out. I think we are all getting further from the human touch in just about everything, so I coddle every piece and I try to keep a clear vision in my head of the look of someone’s face as they open the case for the first time. So the significance of hand crafting a superior American musical instrument is being able to skillfully craft a piece of living art to feed the cycle, affect and influence the artist  vs. producing just another commercial product designed by a marketing team, mass produced to wind up in a landfill when it fails and you can’t get it fixed because that is what everything is made to do…fall apart.

Gabriel C: You are quoted as saying, “I was learning from a master craftsman and surrounded by L.A.’s finest independent builders at the time.  It was amazing.” Could you describe what that scene was like and what you gained from your peers that has shaped you as a luthier?

Gabriel C: That was a FUN time! Lots of trading build styles and lots of flipping vintage gear. I studied a lot from my tech friends and my other builder buddies and did a lot of experimenting. Fretting class was always in with Sammy Sanchez.  Gilbert Chavez was running Tobias Basses and Valley Arts, Rob Timmons had just landed here from the Venn school of luthiery, the guys at performance are killin it with Dweezil and Vai, and on and on. So yes, that was a magical period. Michael just did the whole combining of woods like no one else in that world. We were using 2 and 3 different fret wires on the same neck, finding optimum neck pitches for all the different types of builds, oh the electronics too..but mostly we just helped each other and hung out at each others shops and learned everything we could. It was a little competitive, but because of the guitar landscape in Hollywood that ‘Erupted’ in 77/78 , I really had been doing this kinda thing since jr. high school.

GC: What was the most difficult part of the process to master?

Gabriel C: Learning how to just be in business…hahaah! No, I’m a very creative type, I get bored so I have to do different things to challenge myself in the process all the time. The most difficult part of the process to master and stay up on is carving tops and specific neck shaping techniques that yield profiles in my options list like the Custom ‘38V-’59D carve or the ‘56 jr. carve. For the carved top work, after the neck pocket is routed and binding is on, the initial carve point is located with the cove bit. I only use files, steel scrapers, and blocks to sculpt the tops of the Southsider and Downtowner carve top models and the new Bakersfield models.

GC: Let’s talk about wood. How do you go about sourcing the woods for your guitars?

Gabriel C: I have 3 main connections, 2 here on the west coast, one in Hawaii, and a guy back east. I’ve developed my relationships over the years so they just send pics of what they get and they call when they get old stock or fall upon a stash of old mahogany, Korina, or exotic South American. But I do have a bit of a stash that goes back to 1987. I only want to craft instruments that last a couple centuries if taken care of, don’t have the same issues with weak tenons or goofy setups, stay in tune contain the actual fabric, the bedrock of old school American guitar tones and stay true to my vision of why and how I do my craft. Most of the time the tones from my instruments equal or surpass the actual harmonic content and tone of real choice vintage instruments, and it’s the wood!

GC: I see that you are using aged and old stock timber on some models. What do your guitars gain from an aged wood as opposed to a newer piece of lumber?

Gabriel C: I started using old mahogany from the very first Echopark because I wanted my instruments to feel and sound like old, seasoned slabs. And old stock timbers don’t move, the cell structure is cured and its bone dry. Perfect for those who know the difference and those who don’t. It’s an added value that honestly transcends any market value to any connoisseur in search these qualities. So, for upgrades to the standard models and building my case study guitars, there is nothing better. The real bonus is that it’s not a gimmick, not a trick…it’s real vintage tone because the wood is older than some of the companies that first started building guitars in America. You can’t get closer than that!

GC: It seems like your work has a very vintage feel. How does that affect your choice of materials?

Gabriel C: I select everything based on quality, function, and feel. My influences are pretty apparent…i’m into simple and classic but refined. I like soft. I like elegant. My selection of hardware and appointments is to optimize the instrument and compliment the whole piece.  

GC: How do you go about deciding which types of hardware to use on each model?

Gabriel C: Continuity. Mostly you will find that I prefer the classic styles, but it’s really about function. It has to work…really work. There are a couple types of new tuners that I love because they are still the same design as the older ones but better mechanically. From the beginning, the notion of crafting a true modern vintage included using the best, most correct looking stuff and the fact is that we’ve got 60+ years of building. We know what works and what doesn’t! We can look back and say yes, or hell no! I use steel bushings for all the wrap around /stop tails and long, stainless threaded rod for the ABR’s, raw steel plates for my ashtray bridges.

GC: How do you source your hardware? For instance, do you come up with custom designs made out of house, work with local shops, or go for the well-established name brands?  

Gabriel C: There are a few I work with: Tisonix for my ‘62 models Titanium Vintage spec. S-style 6 screw tremolo, Mastery bridge, and vibrato for all my j-models,  Pigtails wrap arounds, Grover pre-war style tuners, Waverly, Gotoh, Kluson recently a custom manufacturer out of Nashville TN. A small shop but they have it dialed for vintage repro and custom work, so we are designing a new intonating vintage wrap around that is to my spec, and a few other goodies.

GC: How important is the selection of materials for the frets? Do you have a certain alloy that you prefer, a certain size and shape? Or does what you’re looking for vary from model to model?

Gabriel C: The fret wire can make or break an instrument. I use a lot of the Jescar branded wire. I am a fan of it because it’s actually from the US. The pyramid jumbo is my personal fav, the 9055 is dead on the older Dunlop size 6105. It works great, the tangs are not as big so the expansion overall is better and much easier to maintain a level fretboard surface after fretting. I like the hardness of it; it’s not as hard as the StuMac stuff from Japan because they mix alloys differently but it is much better that anything else available.

GC: I see that you often to do a patina for that aged effect, such as a cold check patina. How do you get the perfect vintage look?

Gabriel C: My finisher, Paul Slagle, has been at this a long time and I’m very fortunate to have him. The guys at cardinal lacquer here in El Monte have been awesome from the beginning. I’ve only ever wanted to do old school finishes, pure lacquer, so we have 3 different formulas I’ve developed over the last 5 years, one is for a real old school aged finish, one is for an old school non-aged finish and one is for polished lacquer metallics and custom high gloss for the Downtowner carve tops and J-Models.

GC: Do you make your own pickups, or outsource them?

Gabriel C: Rob Timmons aka Arcane inc. is my main guy. I’ve installed a lot of pickups. I’ve listened to a lot of pickups, I’ve collected, loved, destroyed and dissected a ton of them both in awe and looking for the magic… it’s in the little things….not just the DC resistance or magnet type, so the first one we did was a replica of my 1956 double cut dog ear p90..and it’s been the staple of my slab p90 builds since then, going on 5 years now, no complaints .we quickly moved to the Gold Coil ..obviously a nod to one of the  the best things ever accidentally created by the Japanese builders in the 60’s!!  The sonic enhancements these offer slide and lap steels are still an elusive ghost so we made a new one per a custom order from Chris at Shoe Pedals…he wanted a custom silver foil set to match his Inca silver jazzmaster..so Rob found some stainless mesh we both liked and realized the additional benefit to using the new material was its magnetic properties or..lack thereof!!..the magnetic field is clear to the string because the cover is now non ferrous and you are hearing pure pickup and the nickel housing is I great to help focus the field as well ..so I’m offering this as a standard on the webstore as well as the original Gold Coil standard and a full range of what Rob and I have spec’d out over the last few years ..some ..bad ass real PAF’s, a few sets, one in particular that we may be discussing at some point in future for a little project ..and a lot of custom winds for Joe Perry the new filtertron humbucker he did for him are just perfect for that instrument …,Josh Homme, Troy Van Leeuwen, Greg Liesz, he’s all about clean headroom and can make you cry with a short passage of any lap steel.. Everyone I’m privileged to work with is really different and it forces me to listen to every guitar I build in my head first! We talk magnets and steel and wire and potting with wax or lacquer….and on and on ..Rob literally has 5 books full of pickup designs.if this was 15 years ago we would be in the same building ….I’ll get there one day if I’m lucky ..and keep breathing , I’m very happy with Wolftones as well ..I kinda tweaked his off the shelf Humbucker sets and he wound some p90s to my spec that really lived up to what Rob and I do continually so I have them to offer and use as well.

GC: Is there something you feel makes your work unique among your peers?

Gabriel C: Absolutely, there are a couple of unseen things like my standard “full tenon” set-neck,  standard 1 piece ‘slab’ body construction, only using fish glue now(wow)!!!, slab fret boards, using only steel bushings for stud mounts, Cloth wire, solid Head plates then there are the select timbers, the nitro, the range of styles and all the  different types of guitar building I hope to live long enough to do, the different models I love to produce, pickup styles and the level of instrument I handcraft consistently..I just purchased a fully restored 1956 Omsrud pin router so I’ll be totally with the modern times haha…at least I’ll feel like that…I want my schedule for building to drop from a year delivery to 6-7 months from deposit to shipping by January 2017.

GC: At one point, you took a break from building and did other things. How did you feel when you made the decision to start your own business? Was it daunting?

Gabriel C: Yes, but it was the only option that made sense really…I had walked from building because it was too much for me to bear staying in the biz threw the late 90’s-2000’s and into my 30’s I wanted to play, travel, have girlfriends…things the guitar builder lifestyle is not kind too…and it’s a path you don’t do as a hobby…So…I left historic building restoration and being a building contractor to going into debt, spending our every dime on this…yes, I was scared out of my mind but I could not see me not taking this path ultimately…my wife was 100% behind me, my family was behind me…I was a new father and I had no real tools, but I was at the edge looking over it, ran into Mike Lippe at a little guitar swap meet @2008 we built 4 Jr. style builds then parted ways, I took 2, he took 2, I briefly opened a repair biz while I put a plan together at my friend’s studio in Echo Park. Then I found a tiny shop a block up the road in the back of the old Mack Sennett building…within a year the old Keystone Studios building right next door became my shop in 2011. I borrowed $2500.00 from my friend Cosmo Jones who just said, “tell me what you think you need to get you a few pieces out the door”…I found Rick Fusco, an artist in the same compound who was doing custom finishing and painting but had some instrument background, I developed with him some of the finishing I’d not seen much of in the industry at that time..in my contracting life I met fine finishers, and faux artists, I’d seen fine finishing in the high-end architecture world, my wife is a fine artist, my father, an artist to this minute…So I found what I needed, as I needed it for that first couple years.

GC: Was it difficult to go from artisan to businessman?

Gabriel C: From the start I was keyed in on both fronts…it’s really challenging because I need to switch gears all day and I don’t do it with ease, just ask my wife…but I’m learning how to step back and just let things be what they are, the seed is growing now and do everything I can do to make sure anyone who crosses my path has the best experience I can offer but the bottom line is that my life is not mine as long as I do this..I’m subject to question, criticism and deadlines…and thank you’s from many many happy clients, dealers and players, a deep well of different artists I’ve been so fortunate to work with and some peers that as a businessman I’m definitely following their leads and advice.

GC: What obstacles did you need to overcome to make your business successful?

Gabriel C: Southern California AQMD, the city of El Monte and my own doubt.

GC: You have a lot of big names using your guitars, which must be a very satisfying feeling for a luthier. How did you get your instruments into the hands of artists such as Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and Brad Whitford, Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, even Johnny Depp?

Gabriel C: It all began with Nick Oliveri and Jonny two bags, them two guys really helped me evolve quickly, for a lot of reasons but mostly because road guys need different things that studio guys or local players or collectors don’t necessarily need, they need to be built to ride in a bus across the country and back and not need any real coddling for a long long time…so I got into that immediately…then Nick’s guitar player came by the shop, he knew Marco Moir at the time Brads tech and put in a call, Marco is a pro and he hooked it all up….I still have yet to get him a guitar!!! Joe and I met after Brad got his guitar and Jack Douglas called me in to ask about his guitar…Jack was the door to Joe…he sent Joe an email that evening with some pics and my then tiny website, I think I had just finished the first real batch as Echopark Guitars, didn’t even own the name yet, he was so kind and awesome, he took me threw all his gear…while everyone just waited, we hung all night for like a month…it’s always amazing to hang with him and just listen to him talk about how they recorded this song or going to see johnny thunders and sharing the same dope dealer or the reason duncan has a bunch of real pickups in his stash or the ampeg thing and on and on, fuck what anyone says shit about his faculty,tone or whatever…you go pull off that many years in this biz, that many road hours, riffs and solos that funky for that long with the same dudes you grew up with…he knows his shit!! Maybe more than anyone of the 70’s O.G.’s left….besides Brad..!! well maybe Beck hahaha.

GC: You have a robust internet presence, facebook, a website, Instagram, etc. What are the keys to success in the electronic age?

Gabriel C: My phone, not kidding at all…capturing moments you can let folks into your world with and, I landed very lovingly and luckily back into this walk so I like to share it!!! If I was a kid or anyone in love with the instrument the way I am I would hope they would share it too, this is not mine so it’s just a low key way to open the doors a little. I was in a band when I started this and the social media thing was all the rage…I just said, this is perfect for a broke ass like me that really has something  real to show, and I think I did an ad but it was lame on fb, but yes the videos are something I was so glad to be able to do with my old friend  Dave Osti for some years now..He’s a pro from the bar days and he’s a brother ..such soul and touch..he’s a mason by trade..so his playing style in just right to get IT out of the instrument.

GC: What have you learned from your journey so far?

Gabriel C: That I have a responsibility to do good by the instrument. To be an honest businessman and to make the best instruments I can make no matter what. That it’s important to perpetuate that alone. To spend time away from this as often as doable with my family. To continually improve and look for the faults, always do better…there are always things to improve upon. To not be too emotional, & to listen to the close circle around.

GC: What’s next? Do you have any new projects or products in the works? Amplifiers? Effects pedals?

Gabriel C: I always do..The new Vibramatic 23 amps have just passed the ultimate quality control test, Eric and I were invited into the Iggy pop party with an amp for Troy and then after that first rehearsal, Josh, Dean and Matt needed the same, because of what they heard over the course of a couple of days and the type of venues the tour was about to party apart, everyone wanted to give em a go, they are really pretty amazing for getting that huge sound at a manageable stage volume and they just don’t fuck around, meaning Josh, Iggy, Troy, Dean…they have a wharehouse full of perfect gear…they weren’t free, they had too needed these for a few reasons and there was no prep.

We had no idea that was happening until 3 days before the rehearsals were over. The real test, the road…drop ship and not one issue aside from the last gig of the tour in royal albert hall…iggy being iggy grabs a mike stand and in full legend mode sends the 12” cast iron base of his mic stand into the top of Dean’s Vibramatic 23 head as Matt was plugged in, and it just bounces off the cab still pumpin jams out…not a beat was missed, not a sputter!!! I have the full footage from the kat who took it!!! Nothing says quality like that!!! I feel like issuing a challenge to a few so called American amp companies…but I won’t. Now, pedals! The new buffer /clean boost is in Greg Leisz’s pedal board now, avid is coming soon too. It’s very much about clean headroom and a continuous buffer to keep everything very pure, there is a distortion coming as well as new fuzz/octave…, and a thing called the FQ10. Its a 5 position rotary with 5 specific caps and a depth control with an inductor driving the caps and out with the signal of the guitar as it is a 100% passive device it gives you the tonal range of something you might find in the Jet Propulsion laboratories as the original design we found in an operation and design manual from 1943, for designing parametric EQ’s for film and radio…The Acoustics that Jim Dugan and I are building are just now starting to blossoming with the new weissenborn style 1 slot head, the 12th fret parlor, 0-15, 00-14, 00-18, 000-18 all in mahogany as well..This is really where I want to land in a couple decades or so. I’m looking so forward to developing with Paul and the 2 guys I have here as assistants into full builders that can keep it rollin so that into my golden years I can walk around like my old boss and hopefully see the day I can look at a kid the way Leo looked at me that day, or better if it’s possible to keep this little tradition alive as best I can…this thing goes by fast so I can’t really make enough of these in my lifetime.

To learn more about Echopark Guitars please visit: echoparkguitars.com

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

Republished from the “First Issue” Click here to purchase in Print

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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Jens Ritter – Lutherie With Art & Humor

By Joe Holesworth

Republished from our German Issue

In a world where even the best guitar builders struggle, especially when their instruments stray too far from conventional design platforms, German renaissance luthier, Jens Ritter, is clearly an exception to the status quo. Producing 50-60 guitars/basses per year, with one partner, Ritter considers guitar as a prestigious symbol of the culture, and thus strives to create extreme hi-end musical instruments that are pieces of art as well.

It makes sense that Ritter is known first and foremost as a fine bass builder. Bass players were getting into enhanced, boutique instruments earlier- and still are on a larger scale- than the more conservative guitar community. Still, Jens has more recently introduced two luxury guitars for discriminating players and collectors alike who are ready to move on from the usual fare. And it’s great to have him serve up the Princess Isabella and Monroe guitars for us! Both guitars are stunning visually for their aesthetics and meticulous German craftsmanship. Ritter’s continues a craft ethic passed down from generations.

Regardless of your tastes and preferences, the Ritter Instruments website is a must-see destination, if only to discover & confirm that such wonders actually exist. And every instrument he has ever built is carefully catalogued there. Jens even has an instrument in the Smithsonian!

Ritter ‘s facility is actually in a centuries old German winery. Myself, living in the US Pacific NW, where wineries are the new/hip thing– had the strange thought that someday we too might evolve from wine makers to guitar makers… But only for a few seconds, because obviously we need both!

Guitar Connoisseur is proud to bring you a look into the world of one of luthierie’s most imaginative characters. An interview with Jens Ritter is bound to provide insight and inspiration!

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GC: Just to get this out of the way, I saw the Youtube video from 2012 Winter NAMM in which you posed as a journalist in order to uncover info about knock-offs of your designs being displayed by a very tight-lipped exhibitor. I was surprised at your humorous approach to such a serious issue. What’s your secret recipe for staying so cool in a situation where your creativity is being violated and blatantly ripped off?

JR: Well – before judging this company or person you need think about this: The Chinese culture is totally different to our “West world” culture. If somebody copies creative work of another person in Germany or USA, our cultural education tells us he is a thief; illegally using a product of creative energy of another person and – mostly – making money with it. In China it’s totally different. If a Chinese craftsman copies another craftsman, he or she is granting honors to a master. A few years ago I exhibited in Shanghai at an instrument fair. I had several small Chinese builders visiting me and showing me their copies of my instruments. My first reaction, always, was getting ready to kick these guys’ asses with all my rage. But I had a great “Chinese Culture coach” beside me, and he taught me to handle this situation correct. At the end I even taught these builders what they could improve on their instruments. I know this sounds hilarious in a mind of a “West world business mind”. Anyways – the instruments at NAMM show really looked like my designs. But – of course – functionally and sound wise they (would) have been a different level, fortunately. 😉

GC: Besides luthierie, what are some of your other interests?

JR: I like art a lot. I’m travelling often to art shows and like to hang out in galleries. Also I like unique stuff. Doesn’t matter if it is a unique car, a futuristic design chair, a modern arranged opera, a new sushi roll creation or other food! Oh man – I like food a lot! I like to travel through the world and just trying special and (for me) unknown food! I like to watch the development in any kind of vanguard culture in our time.

GC: I understand that you come from generations of craftsman, woodworkers and engineers. Are you the first in your family to bring these skills to guitar and bass building?

JR: Right. I had no money for a good bass guitar in my youth. So I had to use my technical skills to make it better in function and sound.

GC: Being still relatively young, and living in a small town in Germany, what key factors have assisted your world-renowned status as a top instrument builder?

JR: I guess if you speak of marketing, of course the internet is my big friend and partner. 20 years ago it was not possible to build up a company like JENS RITTER INSTRUMENTS by living in a 4000 people village here in Germany. Having a website moves my company into each house on the planet with internet access.

Also of course, celebrities like Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh, Jazz Legend George Benson, Mary J. Blige, Prince and so on, are of course very big factors. Most artists get instruments for free from big companies, so the companies can use their name to make marketing. It’s even cooler when celebrities and superstars pay full price on my instruments.

GC:  What are some of the reasons behind your decision to add guitar models to an already expansive line of basses?

JR: My first guitar – the “PRINCESS ISABELLA BARITONE CONCEPT” – was actually a fun project. It was supposed to be a one time happening. But then George Benson came by. He fell in love with the princess, I added some features to her and now we have the Benson Tribute. People just love this guitar and keep on ordering…

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GC: How do you find working with the guitar market compared with the bass culture?

JR: For the guitar market I produce what I have in mind. I have my product, and the guitar market is purchasing my product. On the bass market, I work more in custom building. I build more to the ONE customer’s specific feature requests.

GC: Trade shows like Musikmesse & NAMM provide ample opportunity for many people to finally get one of your instruments in their hands. How are the Princess Isabella and Monroe guitars being received?

JR: Both guitar models have been received very well. Especially the Princess got a lot of attention at the NAMM Show, because George Benson came by my booth and was fascinated by the sound. He actually wanted to tell me that this guitar is a hollowbody and not a solidbody. This was the biggest compliment for me, and a great confirmation for the goal I had in mind while designing the Princess.

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GC: Tell us about the “attack delay mechanism” aspects of the string bows (individual tail piece units) featured on the Isabella. How did you arrive at this solution?

JR: In my “first life” I’m a mechanical engineer. I worked a lot on projects where we analyzed specific materials in terms of vibration transmission. From this experience I designed the hardware parts of the Princess. It’s basically a mechanical way to “slow down” or even kind of “hinder” and delay the attack of the instrument.

GC: You are obviously fond of the traditional woods, i.e. mahogany, alder, maple & ebony– along with some “exotic” woods. Do you also experiment with composites?

JR: Yes – I experimented with a special plastic called Galpera a few years ago. I used it for bass bodies. Also at the moment I’m experimenting with a material called “Ebonit”. I want to use this for fretless fingerboards. These experiments are not for developing a new kind of sound material and going away from traditional wood. These are more for myself to get a wider range of understanding material vibration performances.

GC: Besides cosmetic reasons, how often do you find the need to incorporate an exotic wood to achieve a specific tone result?

JR: This totally depends on the ONE specific customer. It depends on the instrument’s sound I want to realize or this customer. I build actually more and more instruments with less exotic woods. The construction details are also a very big factor in designing the sound.

GC:  Among the various challenges of sourcing high quality tone woods and components, do you have difficulties making guitars the way you want them due to laws and regulations?

JR: These difficulties I only have if the customer wants absolutely a specific wood being used for his or her instruments. Then I need to make sure that the used wood has all the needed forms and documentations coming with it.

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“…I like unique stuff. Doesn’t matter if it is a unique car, a futuristic design chair, a modern arranged opera, a new sushi roll creation or other food!”

GC: Both guitar models are set-neck designs in spite of employing 10 bolts with your bolt-neck basses. What are some factors involved for approaching the neck joint of a guitar differently than with a bass?

JR: Speaking technically, a bass and a guitar are different vibration energy systems. The forces and frequencies are different by still using (in general) the same vibration transmission material (wood). Therefore you need to adjust the sound result by construction details.

GC: I know you utilize pickups of your own in addition to those by Haeussel. What percent of the build process time involves matching and dialing in the electronics side of a project?

JR: Not much these days, because the development of my electronics and pickups is pretty much done for my regular instruments. I only have to put development time into electronics and pickups if a customer wants to have specific requests for his or her instrument.

GC: In your experience and circles, does this profession involve sharing friendships and ideas with other builders, or is it more about being cautious with one’s own discoveries and techniques?

JR: I think it has not much to do with the profession or the kind of business. You can find everywhere people who are open to share and people who don’t share. It’s just about the specific persons. Well – if I think about it longer – there is maybe a little difference between the international guitar making specialists and the international competitors of nuclear weapon research…

GC: How much do you learn working with musicians who can tend to be abstract about what they’re hearing?

JR: Very much! It’s the key resource for my development.

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GC: The original Princess Isabella project for George Benson was a baritone which Benson loved so much that he ordered a 24.75 scale version; now a standard model. What can you tell us about the process and George’s input?

george_bensonJR: You will not believe – it was a 5 min conversation. He clearly had the features in mind and told me. Then I made the first prototype and delivered it to his house. He was very happy and we changed nothing.

GC: What music do you enjoy, especially while deeply involved in a build?

JR: This depends on my mood. But mostly while I’m working I’m listening to – I know you don’t expect this – minimal electronic or deep house music. Working on an instrument I don’t want to be distracted by similar frequencies and voices like for example the guitar I’m working on.

GC:  We also understand you’re something of a wine connoisseur. Without getting into favorite wines or anything like that, as a luthier, do you share any common perspectives on your process with wine makers or any other areas of old world craft? Any parallels there?

JR: Sure. It’s pretty much the same with all handmade products. I like wines if they have a special character or something unique. I even like wines which don’t taste good (speaking of a mainstream way) because I like to increase my range of knowledge in any kind of direction. Of course I have my favorite wines for “normal use” in my cellar, but I love to taste new wine makers’ products to see in which direction the evolutions is going to.

GC: Someone on an internet bass forum insists you have a CNC secretly hidden away down in the wine cellar… Care to address that rumor?  

JR: This is happening all the time. A few years ago there was even a rumor, that we actually don’t build the instruments by our self – the production was supposed to be somewhere in Asia. But since the first day I build instruments, I have an open atelier and people can come in anytime and of course they always see us working on the instruments.

GC: Is it safe to say that you’re not building counterfeits of third world, sweat shop designed instruments?

JR: Yes! 100%! 1000%! 1000000%!   Why should these guys have all the fun to carve and sand our instruments!?!?!?!?

GC: Thank you for sharing your time and thoughts with us!  And mostly, thank you for sharing your work with the world!

JR: You are very welcome!  Thank you for choosing to interview me!

To learn more about Jens Ritter please visit his website: ritter-instruments.com

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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 the 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 feelingly 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 the 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, the 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 sounds. 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.

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.  ((commenting 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 appeals 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 the 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 handmade 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 lockstep. 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 lockstep, 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 a 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 fibers 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 surprised 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 orchestras…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 a 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. Its 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 anyones 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 handcrafted 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 focused 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!  The 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”, which 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

Don’t forget to visit the official site at: guitarconnoisseur.com

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Michel Pellerin – A Luthier Par Excellence

By Andrew Catania

You may learn to become a luthier by profession, but, great luthiers are born, not made. And we have Michel Pellerin as a strong validation for this claim.

Born and raised in Quebec, Canada, it was as if music and more specifically, the guitar-philia, was already in his genetic codes – his very blueprint. He knew he was born to be a luthier, a great one, and that is what kept him focused on the destined path right from the very start, without much divergence, or crossroads.

After graduating from the National School of Guitar Making in 1998, Pellerin’s career had a rhythmic, systematic start, beginning with a solo workshop in a quiet corner of his apartment, where he would practice his hands, repairing and improvising on the repaired and discarded instruments. This not only polished his skill but also laid the foundation of the luthier’s mastery he was yet to gain.

Later, destiny blessed him with a chance to work as an apprentice under two luthier maestros, Laurent St-Jacques who upskilled him in classical, while Serge Michaud refined his skill in acoustic guitars.

By the time he completed his apprenticeship, in 2001, he was offered training officer position in the Godin Factory, which he accepted. All the while, he was still keeping up with his personal workshop at home, for experiments and repairs. Having a firm knowledge, understanding, and expertise at hand, he decided it was the time he gave his profession a full swing, and in 2002, started his full-time luthier shop. Over the next three years, he got his hands on a variety of guitars, for repairs, fixes, and improvisation, and also, experimenting with his hand made guitars.

The repair shop was heading fast towards his dream, when in 2005; he had to give it a partial break, restricting it to part-time, for a guitar making and repair teaching position offered at a college.

From 2007 to 2010, Pellerin worked in collaboration with Gilbert Blais, combining their skills on acoustic guitars. The mutually beneficial partnership lasted for three years, and by the time they parted ways, Michel Pellerin joined Ervin Somogyi at Woodstock Invitational Luthier Showcase, enrolling in his voicing class as a student.

Pellerin hasn’t looked back since, having crafted over 170 personally designed signature, handcrafted instruments to date. He has a strong affinity to push the tone chord limits to extremes, touching new milestones and inventing fresh musical planes that can be tuned out of the guitar strings. It is his aversion to the contemporary techniques and inclination to experiment with the sonic potential that his hand-designed instruments hold in their essence a sonic grandeur, with textural tones and subtle nuances.

His idea of an excellent, masterpiece instrument is that the chords must connect with the rhythms of your heart and coupled with the wisdom of your brain. When this trical chemistry is established, you can extract the finest, magical tones out of your cords and fingers.

Pellerin considers meeting Claude Laflamme as his career hallmark. Joining hands with the acclaimed musician, composer, producer and arranger, he has made six customized instruments for him so far. Traveling across the globe, Claude Laflamme plays Pellerin’s guitars in concerts, shows, and guitar exhibitions, bringing in his account a global recognition. His luthier creations have been exhibited at renowned music platforms such as Montreal Guitar Show from 2005 to 2012, Woodstock Invitational Guitar Show five years in a row since 2011, Ottawa Guitar Show (2014-2016), Holy Grail Guitar Show in 2014, Harp Guitar Gathering in 2013 (USA) and 2015 (Europe), and Osaka Sound Messe in 2015, to name a few.

He has a couple of exhibitions lined up already; at Santa Barbara Acoustic Instrument Celebrations in September and Harp Guitar Gathering in October, to be followed by Osaka Sound Messe in April 2017 and the first ever Artisan Guitar show in Pennsylvania the same month too.

Along with classical and contemporary acoustics, his signature 6, 12 to 21 stringed hand-crafted instruments are in high demand at music stores in Quebec to British Columbia (Canada), Osaka (Japan) and Seoul (Korea). His personal showroom has been established in Thetford Mines, Quebec, Canada and is frequented by acclaimed musicians, composers, and guitar aficionados.

To learn more about Pellerin Guitars please visit: guitarespellerin.com

Don’t forget to visit the official site at: guitarconnoisseur.com

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Bob Benedetto: Entrepeneur…Innovator…Luthier!

By Jim Kath

As a luthier myself, I think I have the insight needed to dig in and ask the questions that mere writers might miss. I know what it’s like trying to make a living in this field, and I know just how difficult guitar making is.

If you disagree that it’s difficult, then you must be making kits as a hobby because if there’s any one place where Murphy’s laws will apply, it’s luthierie and the business of lutherie.

I started working on archtop guitars back in the early eighties, before Benedetto was a household name. Nowadays, it’s hard to find anyone even remotely involved with guitars who hasn’t heard of Bob Benedetto; not only a builder of the finest archtop guitars in the world, but also a heck of a nice guy and a very generous teacher.

Even when I apprenticed forfive years, I felt that my mentor held back some of the best jewels — but not Bob. Five minutes into any of his videos he gives you the keys to the kingdom.

For this article I have had the great pleasure of speaking with Bob personally. Continuing on via email; he was always gracious and giving in his knowledge and his feelings. Instead of asking all the typical stuff that one asks in an interview, I took a decidedly business-slant approach.

Learning guitar making is a craft mixed with art. But selling what you make is a completely separate kettle of fish. “Publish or perish” is what they say in the literary world. But in lutherie it’s “Sell what you make, or call it a hobby.”

Guitar Connoisseur: Some people with whom I’ve spoken think I’m crazy for building archtops, with giants such as yourself, Tom Ribbecke, Ted Megas, etc., already at the helm. What do you think of the archtop market today and what do you think about any budding luthiers who are considering it?

Bob Benedetto: I think today’s demand for archtops is better than ever. But we have to deal with a bad economy, and a lot more competition than ever before. I had an advantage back in 1968 when I started, because there were only a few achtop makers including *Sam Koontz, Jimmy D’Aquisto, Phil Petillo, and Bill Barker.

They all made great guitars and each had their own clientele. I was a newcomer, had a lot to learn and was very fortunate to have Cindy at my side. We were both extremely focused and determined. So, we stuck with it and eventually things fell into place.

I think budding luthiers have one big advantage today because there are books, DVDs and schools where they can learn a lot in a very short period of time. And despite the stiff competition and uncertain economy, they will do fine if they follow a few basic rules; Make a good guitar, be competitive in price, and very important … be dependable.

You have to know when to be the craftsman and as importantly, when to be a businessman. When all is said and done, if the aspiring luthier wants to succeed as a self-employed guitar maker, he must be good in business.

I also think it’s important that aspiring young guitar makers understand that nothing happens overnight. They must work hard and have patience. It took me 1 1/2 years to make my first guitar. My second one was an order and took me a year to make. It was a 19” archtop with European wood for the top, back and sides. The neck was made from my family’s 30 year-old maple kitchen table. I charged my customer $600 … not a lot of money even for back then. But it was a sale and I was the happiest guy in the world. It took 15 years until the struggle was finally over, and I became established. At one point, had a 5-year wait.

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GC: With so many archtop notches in your belt, do you ever get bored with them and wish to build flattops or mandolins or concentrate more on violins or something else?

BB: No, I still have no interest in making anything but archtops.

Of course now I’m semi-retired and have a staff of six very talented luthiers, so I don’t personally do as much as I used to. But it’s still fun getting up in the morning and looking forward to being around wood and guitars.

GC: Contrasting the process for archtop building and violin building, what parts of the process do you enjoy the most and the least for each?

BB: To be honest, I have always enjoyed the entire process … from selecting the wood right up to final set-up, and everything in between … even sanding! I never preferred one step over another.

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GC: I haven’t built a violin myself but would like to.  I’ve read several books on the topic, and compared to making archtops they seem to be a breeze (it always looks easier when someone else is doing it).  What do you find to be extra challenging with the violin that you don’t face with guitars?

BB: Ha … you’re right! Although the violin community would rather not hear this, there is no doubt violin making is a lot easier than guitar making.

The only exception is the varnish … that’s the challenge. Believe it or not, it’s much easier learning how to do a perfect high gloss lacquer finish than it is to reproduce the “old world” varnish of the old European violin makers.

It’s not that the quality of the old violin varnish is better. It’s the way it looks … a warm transparent glow that was in fact the varnish of the day. It was the same varnish used on cabinets and church pews. And it isn’t likely the old violinmakers viewed their varnish as having magical properties as we do today. Anyway, that’s another story.

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GC: Are you a believer in the saying “If you build it they will come”?  Or do you try to cater to what’s going on in the music business at the time.  I know that seems an odd question for someone who builds such wonderfully traditional instruments, but it’s a dilemma we face in order to sell guitars.

BB: From the very beginning I not only felt, “if you build it they will come” … but more specifically, “if you build it right, price it right, and do good business…then they will come”.

As far as catering to what’s going on in the music business; the journey will always be easier if you make instruments that sell. In my case, I was fortunate that my preference was a traditional archtop guitar.

And since my targeted audience was always the traditional archtop jazz guitarist, it was the perfect fit. Both the player and I shared the same passion for a traditional instrument.

I was comfortable working within accepted and proven boundaries, and never felt the need to redesign the instrument to make it “better”. My challenges were learning to refine a design that was already tried and true.

Of course I met some resistance when I introduced the solid ebony tailpiece attached to the guitar with cello gut. But within a few years it became accepted by most players. Nowadays most makers and players agree it’s a great idea. I have always felt, “Would you put a metal tailpiece on a violin or cello? Only on a student grade instrument”.

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GC: I have seen some experiments with archtops, and have done some myself, where they are made into a hybrid.  An example would be an archtop with a flattop back or a steamed and bent top versus a carved top.  You seem to be a man that’s constantly thinking (my wife calls it obsession). What have you tried, and why or why would you not recommend these modifications/innovations?

BB: Well, if you are making guitars for your own personal pleasure, you have freedom to experiment any way you like with no consequences.

But if you hope to sell what you make (unless it’s a custom order), there is no doubt you will have an advantage if you make guitars that appeal to the masses. That means adhering to traditional, tried and true structural, aesthetic and acoustical designs.  Sales were always a priority with me.

When I was about 12 years old and carving miniature guitars, my mind was made-up that I would be an archtop guitar maker. And I knew very early on that I had to learn how to conduct good business if I were to succeed. That meant making a good guitar, pricing it right and delivering on schedule … no excuses.

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GC: What are your thoughts on what’s happening with the **Lacey Act and Gibson’s recent problems with the government?

BB: Well, if we discuss politics in depth, my blood pressure may go up. So, we’ll keep it simple. I believe during good times or bad (as so many people are experiencing today) our American elected officials should be doing everything in their power to help Americans and American businesses. There was no reason our federal government had to raid Gibson as they did.

The amended Lacey Act is a nightmare. It’s a mess created by politicians who are allowed to make big mistakes and are not held accountable for the “unintended consequences” that they create.

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GC: In the distant future when exotic woods may be hard to come by, what materials do you think will take the place of wood?  Do you think carbon fiber has a shot?  Are we all using wood because it’s tradition or is there a viable substitute?

BB: I think for the most part, most of us follow tradition and would like to continue using wood; but there has always been accepted alternatives. I remember when Ovation first introduced their “plastic” body in the mid-1960s.

That was a monumental departure from tradition, and there was … and still is a place for it.  As environmentalists and politicians continue to make life difficult for us, we may find ourselves searching for more alternative materials. I think we can all appreciate the value in forward thinking in considering wood substitutes, but for me wood is still best. By the way, I have never known a more environmentally sensitive group of people than guitar makers.

GC: What are your experiences with waterbourne finishes?  Do you think there are viable alternatives to nitrocellulose?

BB: Oh yes. I think waterborne finishes are a good alternative, especially for the small one-man shop…working at home.

This past year I experimented with Stewart MacDonald’s “Clear Gloss Waterbase Brushing Varnish”.The application, buffing and polishing techniques are very different from conventional nitrocellulose lacquer, but the end result is a high gloss finish that looks like lacquer, and is as good as anything I’ve seen.

My test piece has been on the shelf for about eight months and there is no sign of shrinkage any more than McFadden or Mohawk lacquer. I don’t know what it will look like a few years from now, but so far I can’t see a difference, and wouldn’t hesitate to  use it.

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GC: Being any type of successful craftsman requires two diverse sets of skills: being superb at your craft and being a strong businessperson.  Rarely can one exist without the other and achieve success, regardless of the product.  You are a man who has tackled both areas and are at the top of your game.  Building world-class instruments is hard enough. But to have such a successful business in light of the big box stores and imports is quite impressive.

I’m sure you have good people around to help but ultimately it’s your name on the headstock.  How do you manage such a herculean feat?

BB: I was very fortunate from  the beginning to have Cindy working around the clock doing all  that  she enjoyed doing…correspondence, marketing and paying
all the bills  on time. And she is a people person, and has always been very instrumental in sales.

I never had to worry about anything except making guitars … she did the rest. For the past 5 years with the shop in Savannah, my business partner Howard Paul, not only is a world-class jazz guitarist, he also does everything administrative.

So, between Cindy and him, I still am allowed to keep my focus on just making guitars. And nowadays I also train and oversee my employees.

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GC: There have been many luthiers who have had to leave the business due to the health impact of dust and lacquer.  How is it that you have lasted this long without major health problems?

BB: Good genes, a lot of luck and a glass of Miner wine every evening.

GC: What’s next for Bob Benedetto?

BB: I don’t expect much to change. Cindy and I are enjoying our semi-retirement roles these days. We still enjoy everything related to making archtop guitars. We just slowed-down a bit, and spend a good deal of our time swimming and barbecuing in Florida.

In closing I’d simply like to thank Bob for his time and thoughtful consideration of my questions. For you readers, if you’d like to know more about the man and his work, check out his guitar making videos, books and other interviews. It’s time well spent.

* To do some name dropping, I actually met Sam Koontz when I was 11 years old. It was in his shop in Linden, NJ. He was a big man. When I did

my apprenticeship in NJ in the late seventies I had the great fortune of playing and working on several Koontz guitars. They are breathtaking. I still don’t

understand why he wasn’t more well-known.

** (For those not familiar with the Lacey Act, GET familiar with it. One of the biggest sticking points, and a very vague, gray area, is what constitutes lumber and what constitutes a finished product, and that’s where Gibson ran into some problems. To export Indian Rosewood lumber is illegal, but finished fingerboards are allowed. So,it’s apparent that it’s not an ecological issue at all, but more of a political issue.)

Here’s a description from the USDA’s website:

The Lacey Act combats trafficking in “illegal” wild life, fish, and plants. The 2008 Farm Bill (the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008), effective May 22, 2008, amended the Lacey Act by expanding its protection to a broader range of plants and plant products. The Lacey Act now, among other things, makes it unlawful, beginning December 15, 2008, to import certain plants and plant products without an import declaration.

So if you have a stockpile of Brazilian Rosewood or Honduran Mahogany that you’ve been saving since the eighties, you better have provenance or you’ve got yourself one expensive pile of firewood.

www.benedettoguitars.com

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