Taking the Archtop into the Future – A Conversation with Stuart Day

by Martin Berka

Guitar Connoisseur had the opportunity to talk to an exciting young luthier based in Pittsburgh, PA. Stuart Day’s regular guitar models range from an electric thinline, called the Ardent, all the way to parlor- and OM-sized flattops, but the instrument closest to his heart is the archtop guitar.

His Steel City and Church models, which can be further customized according to the customer’s wishes, are instruments of the utmost beauty, which are clear testaments to Stuart Day’s dedication, craftsmanship, and his keen eye for detail.

Stuart learned his craft at Bryan Galloup’s renowned School of Guitar Building and Repair. After spending 18 months with Bryan Galloup, Stuart was invited by none other than archtop master Tom Ribbecke to work at his shop in Healdsburg, CA. Stuart spent the better part of six years at Ribbecke’s workshop, garnering invaluable hands-on experience from the master luthier.

Here’s a quote from Tom Ribbecke you can read on Stuart Day’s website:
“I thoroughly enjoyed the ‘Stuart Day era’ in my private shop, I was blessed to have his creative focus and intellect and have genuinely missed having his quiet focused companionship here in the shop, I think he will have a brilliant and long lasting career. I expect great things from Stuart, and am sure he will not disappoint!” Great praise, indeed.

For the past three years, Stuart has been running his own shop in Pittsburgh, handcrafting his own instruments, as well as doing repair and restoration work.

Guitar Connoisseur: One question I like to ask all my interviewees is: Why did you take up the guitar? What is it that fascinates you about the instrument?

Stuard Day: I first became fascinated by guitar (like millions of others) when I heard Jimi Hendrix for the first time. I was probably 15 or so, and I listened to my dad’s “Best of” compilation, and I remember that feeling of a door leading to endless possibilities opening up in my mind. I just didn’t know music could really be like that, and I became hooked. I formed a pretty strong obsession with music and the guitar after that.

But really, I think what it is about the guitar that pulled me in so deeply is just that it is so versatile and so expressive. You can go from Jimi to Tommy Emmanuel, to John McLaughlin, to Andre Segovia, to Frank Zappa, to Joe Pass, to Bob Dylan. It is really just an incredible instrument when you consider what an impact it has had on culture, music, and art.
When I was younger it just served as this whole universe I could disappear into. I’ve always liked sounds. I used to lay on the floor in my room with the acoustic Alvarez my grandparents bought me, and just hit the open E over and over and over again. It was almost like a meditation – just listening to the way the note blossomed and decayed, and feeling it in my chest. I would just get lost for hours playing my guitar. I guess, the simplest explanation would just be to say it was love.

GC: What is it about the archtop guitar that captures your imagination?

SD: It’s funny, because, while I sort of disagree with the characterization, most people consider the archtop to be a “jazz” instrument. And what’s interesting about it is that my love for the archtop came about in a similar way as my love for jazz. Jazz was not a genre of music that I instantly loved. For a long time, as a music lover, I didn’t “get” jazz. But one day, I was searching for new music and I found “Bitches Brew” by Miles. I liked the album cover and had heard of this guy Miles Davis, so I bought it. That was another one of those Hendrix-type moments, where something just blew the lid off what I previously thought I knew. And so I started diving into jazz. Herbie Hancock, Miles, John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery – and it just clicked. You know, for years it didn’t – and then at some point it did. And from that point on, jazz has been one of my favorite genres of music.
So, my love of the archtops came in a similar way. I started off at Galloup and I built an archtop there as a student. And it was cool. It had the floating bridge and the tailpiece and the f-holes – I mean it was a very sexy instrument, but I didn’t really understand it. I liked flat top guitars. Then I got this job with Tom Ribbecke. Wow, right? I was this young wannabe guitar maker apprentice, and I got offered a gig with one of the guys in the Blue Guitar Collection. I was excited because of Tom’s reputation, and I loved his color work, and the lines of his instruments – but it still wasn’t about my love of archtops. It was more about design, and lineage, and the fact that all the grown-up luthiers in my life were making me feel like I had just won the lottery.

It wasn’t until working with Tom for about two years, having lots of late-night discussions in his shop with him, carving tops and backs, and listening to these amazing instruments, that one day it just sort of clicked. Just like listening to that Miles record. It was extremely helpful to have access to great players who really know how to play archtops. A lot of archtops need a certain kind of playing, the attack is a little different, you need to lean into the string a bit more to build up some energy to make it “pop”. When you are in the presence of great players, who know their way around the instrument (which I was, because I was in Tom’s shop), you get to hear the instrument at its best, which then informs your concept of its potential.

I love building all instruments, flat tops, archtops, an occasional electric, or other fun project – but the Archtop has really captivated me. For one, I just really enjoy the process. In comparison to my experience with flat tops, I’d say that building an archtop is a much more visceral experience. It’s physical, it’s tactile, it’s intuitive.
Just about everybody in the flat top market these days is, on some level, utilizing FFT-analysis during the building process. They are looking at the material properties of their plates, running them through equations, looking at frequencies , and so on, to get a better grasp on what their material will offer them, so they can control the piece. It’s not like people just build the same measurement every time, and call it a day. All of that is much more difficult to do in the archtop. Because you are using a much thicker material to start with, which represents a lot more variables and unknowns, and you are carving complex curves down through different areas and directions of wood grain. So, the equation is exponentially more complicated and really just pretty difficult to quantify in a meaningful way. I still do collect data as I build, and it helps me make decisions, but ultimately, it’s a very intuitive and experience-based process. Which, coincidently, is why I encourage younger makers to stay away from CNC machines for carving their plates, until they have made a good number of archtops by hand. This is such an experiential process that you need to have that intuitive store of information, before you can start messing around with robots. It’s also a very tactile process, when you are carving an archtop you are constantly running your hands along its surface. Feeling it. And that process is pretty intimate and feels like you’re building a relationship with the wood and the instrument, and I love that. It feels less like putting parts together, and more like creating or cultivating something. Carving is also quite physical, as is shaping maple necks. And I’m a physical guy, I like feeling like I’m working hard.

GC: Is the archtop still “relevant” as an instrument today?

SD: Well, it depends on how you define relevant, I suppose. I think music, art, and certainly lutherie experience cyclical trends. Right now fingerstyle flat tops are huge. I think parlor guitars are pretty popular at the moment, too, and ukuleles are exploding. Archtops aren’t really mainstream at the moment. But that doesn’t mean, to me, that they are not relevant.
Tonally I think archtop guitar are incredible instruments when they are built as acoustic instruments. There is a precision, a clarity, in an archtop guitar that isn’t found in flat top guitars. Flat top guitars tend to drag the colors of the tone together a bit, creating that characteristic full-bodied sound, which is beautiful and big. But archtops are more like rainbows, where you can see clearly each separated color.
The common misconception when it comes to archtops is that they are tinny, limited, thin-sounding instruments. That misconception, in my view, has been created a) by the increasing attitude that the archtop is an electric instrument, b) by people approaching the archtop as a woodworking challenge first and a musical instrument second, and c) by a general misunderstanding of its history and development.
I know from my experience that the archtop guitar, when approached as the acoustic virtuoso instrument it really is, can have a very dynamic, rich, full tonal palette with healthy low ends and great volume while maintaining its precision and projection. And that to me is not a limited instrument, but a very versatile one. I think, if we could get over some of the misconceptions of this instrument, we could see that the archtop is actually perfectly suited for many styles of music beyond jazz. Anything, where you have a large orchestration, with more than three instruments, horns, pianos, or you, have a need for your guitarist to solo while also maintaining a melodic chordal backbone, the archtop will really shine.
Right now music is dominated by electronics. So, I think in general there is less interest in learning to play an instrument, but I don’t see that remaining so. Things come and go, and come again. I think the guitar needs to evolve, and some current trends in music need to run their course, before it’s going to be a hot instrument again.
I don’t believe the archtop will ever be irrelevant, though, because the people who really understand the craft of lutherie, who really have a deep love for music, and the people who simply enjoy nice elegant things, know that the archtop guitar is special. Even if they don’t play it.

GC: Where do you see the archtop guitar today in terms of its developmental span? Are we past the “golden era”, or are there still important developments ahead of us?

SD: I do think there is a lot of development still ahead for the archtop guitar. I think the archtop was a victim of misfortunate timing, in some ways. It gained popularity, because of a lack of amplification technology. But it didn’t take very long for pickups and amps to come around, so it was sort of relegated to jazz and big band music, because that tone had become synonymous with these genres. Other people returned to the rounder sounds of the flat top. So the archtop sort of got stuck in its early developmental period.

Then, as tends to happen, people started viewing the instrument from a traditionalist point of view, and lots of development was stunted. Don’t get me wrong, I have so much respect for the great designs of that period – the Gibsons, the D’Angelicos, the Stombergs, the D’Aquistos. Those instruments laid the foundation for what I’m doing today, but the archtop kind of got chained to this one musical style.
But I think we are moving past that now. With people like Ken Parker, Tom Ribbecke, Nigel Forster, and many others, doing some really interesting and innovative things to improve upon the amazing foundations that have always been there.

I would personally like to see a sort of purist return to the motif of approaching the archtop as an acoustic musical instrument. There’s also long been this phenomenon of the two extremes in archtop building – the “traditional” solid wood, dovetail, nitro thing on one hand, and the extreme modern carbon fiber sort of thing on the other. I think there is a lot of fertile ground in-between for development. If you study material science, or polymers, or production technology a little bit, you will find that there are lots of interesting avenues to be explored in relation to stringed instruments, that don’t necessitate that we abandon everything we know and love about them.

One thing I’m very interested in is lamination. I think it’s an important step to take in terms of responding to the sourcing and scarcity of some exotic hardwoods, but it also offers some interesting, and potentially fruitful benefits for structural stability and tone control. Lamination unfortunately got a bad rap due to cheap mass-produced imports, even though it is simply a method of building. Not all laminations are created equal, and with good material and adhesion choices, combined with some knowledge about material and mechanical science, you can really create some very high-quality Space Age stuff that offers a lot of stability (far more stability than solid wood) without damaging your tonal requirements.
You know, we just need to get over some of the more mystical thinking when it comes to guitars. Wood is a material. So is plastic. There is nothing mythical about either. It’s all in how you understand these things, and how and where you use them. You’ve got to use them smartly, and not because you are trying to cut costs, but rather because you are trying to improve something or solve a certain problem. So, yes, lots and lots of development is still possible with the archtop. In some ways, I think, we have only just begun.

GC: How do you approach the building process?

SD: Each instrument is conceptualized in my head first. I sort of form an image of the instrument – what I want it to sound like, what it’s going to do for the player. Then I pick out the wood I want to use for that instrument, and I begin building. I have the basic designs thought out for all my models. So the fundamentals are all set, but when it comes to aesthetics, design elements, and voicing, I’m fairly spontaneous. The whole process is a bit like a dance between me and the instrument. I don’t mean to over-romanticize it – it’s really not that poetic in real life – but it’s a give and take. You know, I’m not trying to force my will on the pieces of wood. I’m trying to work with the wood to achieve something. And the same goes for the instrument. It’s difficult to explain, but at some point, your design takes on a life of its own and starts dictating things to you. And I think one of the things individual luthiers can do that factories cannot, is to have the sensitivity and awareness to respond accordingly. That’s why it’s hard for me to think of my instruments as products. Not because I’m taking a stand or anything, just because that’s not how they feel to me. They feel more like expressions.

GC: In terms of finishes you seem to prefer nitrocellulose lacquer; where do you stand in the debate about the best finish materials for guitars?

SD: Yeah, I still use nitro for the most part, although that’s more just because I always have. It’s what I learned, so I’m very good at it. Ribbecke, in my opinion, is one of the best in the business when it comes to finish work. So I learned from a great finisher. Finish work is just such a pain, it’s so much work, it’s just never-ending, and there are always problems. Not to mention it represents a pretty significant investment. So, the biggest reason I use nitro is because it is what I know, and at this point it would have been too big of an upheaval for me to get into the learning curve of a new-fangled finish. But that’s on my horizon for sure. I like nitro, but I don’t have a sworn allegiance to it. I think it’s very good at ageing from a tonal perspective. It’s fairly forgiving, offers good reparability, and it looks pretty.
But poly finishes have come a long way. They offer better durability – the instrument looks new forever, basically – and they are no longer deadening to tone if applied right. They also have the advantage of having a much lower VOC (volatile organic compound) content, which is better for everybody.

One person can only do so much at a single time, and I have bigger fish to fry in terms of developing my processes right now, but I do a lot of experimenting with finish, when I have time. I’m doing a sort of hybrid oil/urethane finish on a flat top I have on the bench as we speak. I like it, it brings out some nuances in the wood that thicker finishes tend to lose in refraction, it’s pretty, and it’s thin, which is good for tone, but probably not protective enough for most clients. I also have a commission for a poly-finished archtop.

The challenge for me, which is not such a big deal for flat top guitars makers, is color. Color work is sort of a big signature thing for archtop makers, and with a fine art background it’s something I really enjoy. Since leaving Tom’s I’ve really gotten into hand-rubbed alcohol stain bursts, which has been a lot of fun. And I’ve mixed hand-rubbed bursts with spray bursts. I have a lot of fun with color. But since I’ve never sprayed a poly burst, I’m not sure how it will work with the colors. So right now, I only offer poly on my natural instruments.
Eventually, I think nitro will be all but outlawed for its high VOC content, and I think that’s a good thing. Some of the best acoustic guitar makers in the world have started to embrace alternatives to nitro. Whether people like it or not, it’s happening.

GC: What are your criteria for selecting timber for your guitars?

SD: This is an area where I’m hesitant to accept all conventional wisdom. I think the grading system for wood – the A, AA, AAA, “Master grade” etc – has sort of misguided people a little bit. It’s pretty much an aesthetic grading system. When you are looking to create the best-performing and best-sounding musical instrument you can make, should you be choosing your wood based on an aesthetic grading system? I’m not sure. I think it’s a question worth asking. I mean, of course, beautiful high figure, mind-blowing wood is awesome. Who doesn’t love that? But, to me, it isn’t the first consideration. Instruments are tools that are meant to be used, played, and they should last for a long time. They have structural loads on them that exert high pressures 24 hours a day for years on end. So you need wood that is structurally sound. Then, unlike furniture or buildings or boats, you also need to have wood that performs acoustically and creates a musically advanced instrument. This means that straight grain, consistency, appropriate density and strength-to-weight ratios are the things I look at first. Moisture content, age, and orientation of grain are very important, too. I refuse to pass over wood that has good mechanical properties, just because of aesthetic “blemishes”. I won’t impose that standard on wood. So, you will see guitars of mine with knots, or streaking, my ebony won’t be all-black, and I won’t dye it either. I just don’t believe in it. I think all wood is beautiful, and my priority is how the guitars sound and how they play.

GC: What are your views on the viability (and need) to move to alternative wood species, or even man-made materials, in guitar making, due to environmental pressures?

SD: This is a huge issue for me. I think this is the biggest area of development we have ahead of us. Finding creative ways to minimize our use of increasingly rarefied exotic hardwoods. Lamination could be one answer here, also three-, four- or five-piece backs. Why not? Go to a musical instrument museum and see how many old instruments have single- or double-piece backs. Not many. In fact, a lot of early luthiers would just cut out pieces of wood that had the preferable grain, and use only these strips as multiple-piece tops or backs. So, I’m very open to all of that, not only for the preservation of wood, but also because I think the tail has been wagging the dog for a long time, when it comes to our obsession with using only solid wood, or single or double book-matched sets, or wood that looks a certain way.

And, let’s incorporate man-made materials where it’s appropriate. I don’t believe that a man-made material as the main driver of tone will ever sound right, but there are lots of areas on the instruments where we don’t need to use wood, or where you can use a creative combination of wood and man-made materials. I’m working hard on researching and developing a new pickguard substructure, which I may 3D print (in-house) out of high-strength PVC polymer. This could open a lot of doors in terms of interchangeable electronic components and such, which I could also laminate with wood. I see plenty of aesthetic potential, while decreasing the unnecessary use of solid wood for parts that shouldn’t warp or bend.
I feel we should be using our expertise, knowledge and experience as craftspeople to think outside the box in terms of building methods, so that we can create better solutions than just using solid pieces of wood everywhere.

GC: What does it take, in your view, to “make it” as an independent luthier?

SD: It’s a huge challenge. You have the actual craft, which you need to be good at. You need a driving passion and a lot of dedication. But then you also have to be a great small business owner.
It’s such a dynamic craft that requires you to be good at so many different skill sets. You just need to put a tremendous amount of time into it. I’ve sacrificed a lot for this obsession. We all have. My entire Twenties were dedicated to this to the fullest. I never had a social life, like the rest of my peers. All my money went into tools and wood. I work an average of 60 hours a week. I’ve had good relationships not work out, because this career got in the way. It’s all for love. I’m passionate about this! I feel it’s my calling, and I don’t regret anything about it, but younger makers need to understand that it’s not a Nine-to-Five occupation.

The other thing is business sense. Many people get into creative fields a lot of the time, because they don’t want to be business people. Only to find that if , to be able to keep doing creative things you need to make money and be great business people. So learning how to keep your books, provide great customer service, be on time, keep your commitments, source materials and parts and inventory, and so on, and so forth. You gotta be good at all of that. And the truth is that it is art form in itself, too. I really love being a business owner. It can give me headaches and keep me up at night, but I really do enjoy the art of building a business.

You should never forget, though, that building instruments, while being very isolating at times, is a people business. Music, art, instruments – they facilitate connections between people. And that’s a beautiful thing, and you need to embrace that! Always, no matter what, treat people fairly and well, because that’s the most important thing about this business. I’ve been very lucky with the networks of people I’ve been able to develop in this industry as a young guitar maker. Working with Bryan Galloup and Tom Ribbecke really helped me meet a lot of important people, who I now consider great friends. But what I’m talking about is not networking – it’s connecting. Whether you are a luthier, or a player, or a collector, we are all connected, because we share a love for music, lutherie, woodworking, craftsmanship, and that’s a pretty special thing.

The absolute best part of building instruments is seeing the reaction of clients when they play them for the first time. It’s really a magical experience that is unlike anything else. It’s my own special reward, you know. The player gets their reward in the instrument, but they don’t know what it’s like to have built it and see that reaction. So that’s mine. That moment of connection between human beings, across borders and boundaries, through passion, love, and skill. I love it!

GC: Where do you see Stuart Day Guitars in, say, ten years time?

SD: Well, I’m currently in the process of settling final arrangements with a building owner, so I can move into a larger shop space and get a storefront. The last three years have been all about finding my own voice after my time with Tom Ribbecke. Developing my designs, working on my brand and my business foundation, and just finding my feet. Now it’s time to really hit the gas and start producing more instruments, build a strong repair business for our tri-state area, and just keep chipping away at building a good honest reputation.

In ten years? I’d hope that in ten years time I will have earned my spot in the world of lutherie, and particularly in the archtop guitar world. I’d hope that I will have made some developmental improvements on the instrument that are worth some merit. I guess those are the lofty goals, but really I just hope that I’m able to take my vision for the instrument, and turn that into a self-sustaining career. To carve out my own little corner in the trade. I’m a minimalist in life – I don’t need much to be happy. I just want to be able to put food on my plate and in my dog’s bowl, keep a roof over our heads, and keep doing what it is I love to do.

GC: We wish you the best of luck for the future. Thanks for talking to us, Stuart!

To learn more about Stuart Day Guitars please visit: stuartdayguitars.com

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