Tim McCoy: A Respect for Tradition – An Eye for Innovation

By Pasquale Bianculli

Our rather free flowing conversation took place in Tim’s woodworking shop in Palo Alto, California. The aroma of freshly sawn woods, the sawdust beneath my feet and the neatly arranged and easily accessible hand and power tools, in the middle of Silicon Valley, is a rare find in and of itself. Couple that with some fine looking and powerful sounding guitars and you are brought back to a time when making things by hand was the standard of excellence. There, amidst the venture capitalists, app developers and Tesla driving multi-millionaires, Tim takes great delight “in riding my well worn Gary Fisher bike the last 30 years to my shop daily”.

Besides his guitar building, Tim is also an experienced and expert carpenter. His shop is large enough to accommodate both aspects of his craft: the front piled high with the woods used in cabinetry and at the rear, fine woods for guitar building from all over the world, a large table for working, and of course, guitars in various states of production. 

“Real McCoy Guitars”, as Tim has named his production line and website, is in a very real sense, the real thing. He is the keeper of the flame of his teacher and dear friend, the great American guitar builder, John Gilbert (1922-2012). Self-taught guitar builder, Gilbert influenced American builders with his many innovations, such as the pin bridge, self-designed and hand tooled tuning gears. Not only were West Coast builders such as Gregory Byers, David Schramm as well as Gilbert’s son, William, deeply affected by the senior Gilbert’s focus on accuracy and detail, but also, well known performing artists such as Fred Hand, David Leisner, David Russell, Raphaella Smits and Ben Verdery have owned and played the Gilbert guitars. Decades after purchasing, Leisner and Hand are still concertizing on Gilbert’s guitars.

McCoy had the privilege of a long lasting apprenticeship with Gilbert that became a friendship that developed into the feeling of respect one senses between a father and son. They met around 1975 and journeyed together on wood buying trips and to guitar shows in many parts of California. They spent many hours in Tim’s workshop and at the Gilbert household in Woodside, a nearby town, just building together. Tim attests to Gilbert’s generosity in sharing his ideas. If a tool was needed, Gilbert would hand craft it and give it to McCoy. While McCoy greatly admired the precision he witnessed up close in Gilbert’s work, Gilbert also admired Tim’s passion and ability to turn out a terrific instrument, or two or three in the time it usually takes a builder to make one guitar. 

Having heard and played half a dozen instruments in Tim’s shop, I can attest to the fact that these are exquisitely made instruments of a very high caliber and at the cutting edge of modern guitar building principles. In the following interview, Tim talks about his craft, a life that has travelled many paths successfully and of course, his friendship with Gilbert.

GC: Can we first talk about your early musical and creative influences? 

Tim McCoy: I grew up in the 70’s. The Beatles, light rock, and Fleetwood Mac were what I listened to. My dad actually traded a shotgun for a steel string guitar, which became my first guitar. It was a Sears & Roebuck with monster high action. They tell me the only thing I wanted to play was “Louie Louie”. There wasn’t a lot of music being played in the house, but I listened mostly to classical and light rock. I had tried before to study guitar in my early teens, from a great teacher that came to the house.  I went to a Segovia concert, and soon after that, I enrolled at a Junior College (Foothill College, Los Altos, CA) where I took a classical guitar class. 

GC: At that point, were you thinking of a career as a classical guitarist?

TM: No, I think I was practicing steady and going to school. I was never able to play a folk song, even to this day, but I was a diligent student. I think that a motivational teacher would have done me very well, versus the rigidity of the teaching that I got. I was not a good improviser but I was just diligent about playing a song over and over and over, until I got it right! ( GC: Here Tim is giving us some insight into how he works also as a builder. He tends to build a lot and worked out the kinks and the details of his building over time and through many guitars.)

GC: Interesting, I think that it is the mark of a great craftsman, to be able to stay with one thing until you get it right.

TM: Yes, like the Sor studies. I would play Sor Study #9 until I nailed it. For San Jose State I had to play Albeniz, Asturias. And at the same time I would be going to Stanford, going to the music library, copying all the guitar music there. At that time they had a good library.

GC: Who was your first guitar teacher, what was his name?

TM: His name was Fred Thrane, and he was a student of Rey de la Torre. He also worked with a couple of famous flamenco players in Spain. He taught at Foothill College and then San Jose State. 

GC: He was part of that early California guitar scene back then. Who were some of the players that might have had a role in your decision to make classical guitars?

TMc: Well, the players at that time, the young players were David Tannenbaum, Larry Ferrara, George Sakellariou. There was also Michael Lorimer and Bill Stone from New York. And there were teachers who were at the junior colleges, names like Bob Wozina(sp), Robert Orr. Charlie Fox was at Stanford, and Stanley Buetens, a lute player. So I knew these names only by virtue of hearing John mention them. I did see George Sakellariou give a couple of master classes. And Larry Ferrara, I was very impressed with his playing and his musicality. Back around 1977, there was a competition, the 2nd Carmel Classic Guitar Festival Competition (in Carmel, California) and David Tannenbaum had won first prize. I think he was just 21 years old at the time. Those were the big names locally at that time.

Every guitar teacher (late 70’s-early 80’s) at the local colleges all had Gilbert’s. Following the older teachers were the up and coming younger players, who were competing at the various competitions. And many of them went on to teach at the San Francisco Conservatory. At one time or another, they all had their Gilbert’s. 

GC: So, how did you make the jump from classical guitar student to luthier? Were there many builders around that you got to know?

TM: My first teacher (Fred Thrane) had an early Gilbert and he brought me up to John’s house one day. And, for some reason, John and I, I was 18 or 19, we hit it off. Over a few years, I did carpentry at John’s house. I did all the pallets on his deck. And, like father and son, just like an old time mentor, John became a wonderful friend to the very end. 

The names of other local builders were, Warren Wright, Gabe Sousa, Arthur Overholtzer. I did get Overholtzer’s book and read it cover to cover. Then at John’s suggestion, Welford & McCloud – an English publication. Again, read it cover to cover. Later, Kenny Hill and Greg Byers were gaining importance. Michael Thames and Randy Angella were established builders I only later heard of. They were building around the same time as John, and were also local. 

In 1992 I went to my first GFA (Guitar Foundation of America) and GAL (Guild of American Luthiers) convention. There I learned the names of Richard Brune, Robert Ruck, Jeffrey Elliot, David Schramm and David Daily to name a few prominent builders. Ruck and Brune were extremely nice to me when I was starting out. We had a free flow of information. A good friend that I have had since 1992 is David Schramm, in that we both started out kind of green together. He has stayed in it for the duration up until the present. 

If I mentioned the name of a builder to John, he would say, ” Oh yeah, so and so, he’s from the East Bay”. I think the builders knew of one another and John certainly knew of any builder out there with a reputation. He knew all the local players.

GC: You were familiar with all of their instruments too? 

TM: The only instrument I was ever familiar with was the Gilbert guitar. That is the only guitar that I heard, that I saw and studied, and that I would model my own instruments after. It was that sound…that sound…that bright sound! What a great guitar! John’s sound and end product were my watermarks. And part of that greatness was his enthusiasm for his own guitar.

GC: So then, Tim, what happened next? You mentioned that Gilbert hired you to do some carpentry at his house. He must have admired what you had done and saw something of a fine craftsman in your work.

TM: One day, when I was working out there, John asked me, he said, “Hey Timmy, you want to learn how to build?” And so I would go up to John’s house with my notebook, take notes. He was a little bit secretive asking me not to tell everyone what he told me. But he taught me how to build. And then with my own background…I had the ability to work with my hands.

I went down to his shop and he gave me all the wood for my first guitar. He let me copy his jigs as he was teaching me to bend sides over the traditional hot copper pipe with a torch blowing in it. He taught me how to do everything traditional and in his way, which was to build like Fleta, or a violin. You build the body separately and then you attach the neck. That’s the method that he taught me. He gave me every tool or jig that he had, the radius dishes used for clamping the guitar, and what not. 

I made a number of discs which turned out to be a real workout in keeping with John’s tolerances. I tried a product Santa Cruz Guitar had made some of their own discs out of, I stood in front of a friends large bowl turning lathe – trying to turn and accurate disc. Finally, I traded cabinet work for a machinist to mill me an accurate ‘master disc’. And with working with routers all the time, i made a jig to make a handful of discs I still use today in gluing up the various braces on the Sound Boards & Back

And so I was building guitars under John’s tutelage in the mid-1980’s.  I would build and go for his critique. He would comment on details of what I was doing…”the soundboard should weigh x amount” ..”you should weigh everything”….he was very scientific. Weight, strength and thickness are your three parameters to pay attention to while building. Over the years I would build guitars and bring them up to John and he’d say, “You want me to tell you the truth?” And I would say, “Criticize me to no end, John!” And we had a lot of fun. 

John would come down here periodically to use my shop. He would look at some of the cabinets that I was building and ask, “Tim, How long did that take you to build?” I would answer, “A couple of days, John.” “I swear to God,” he would say, “it would take me two weeks to draw, another week to think about it, and then a month to build!” I would pull wood off the shelf and start building quickly, and John would carefully and methodically think about what he was going to build before setting out to build. Not one piece of material would be wasted.

GC: What would you say are the most important lessons that you learned from Gilbert? What informs your building most to this day?

TM: I learned intonation from John. He wrote an article “Intonation and Fret Placement”. I read it over and over till I got it. That along with a handful of pre-kerfed finger boards John gave me for his 653mm standard Gilbert scale that I copied.

I think one of John’s greatest suggestions to me was to take notes and to document the whole build. “Think about it before you build, take your notes (weight-strength-thickness’s) and build as clean as you can. Good tight joints”

At the time, I didn’t realize how great John’s contribution was to modern classical guitar construction. But you had to understand that John also had Hauser’s, Fleta’s, Ramirez etc., in and out of his shop for repair, which he almost preferred to actually building guitars. John’s words… ” I was a young thief at one time – copying everything I thought made sense. Then I had a flow of my own ideas and designs that I recommend every builder to aspire to Make YOUR OWN INSTRUMENT”.

GC: Well, he sounds like the inspiring type, for sure, maybe one of the last of his kind, no?

TM:John was the papa figure of sharing information, kicking ideas around and he was the go to guy with any questions: how to build, physical properties of all materials, math analysis of forces, string force movements, fretting and intonation, chaldni analysis, you name it. The time that he gave to both builders and players was limitless! His approach to building anything was completely different from mine. I was improvisational and John was analyzing, drawing before he approached anything. That was his engineering background.

I was told was that he was the father of the modern guitar, with the design of the pin bridge, getting away from the traditional bridge, his I-beam design and his methodical building. John was also known for his fret work, his action. His guitar had the lowest action at that time.

When anyone would phone John up, one of the first questions John would ask was “How much does your bridge weigh?” And if they would say, “I don’t know”, he would shout back, “You call yourself a guitar builder?” So he was quite stern, but at the same time he would give hours and hours of instruction. There were many people from all over the world and they would phone up John for consultation. 

GC: Let’s switch back to you, Tim. Carpentry certainly seems to have played a big role in both developing your craft as well as being the impetus from which you met Gilbert. Were you always good working with your hands?

TM: I just stumbled on carpentry. Our family was definitely blue collar. My family didn’t know how to position us academically into college because they had never done it themselves. But they wanted us to have a good education, definitely. 

From when I was a kid, I was a cook, working at Lake Tahoe every summer, working with a pastry chef. We would cook for 500 to a thousand people a night and then down to short order line cooking. Fortunately, for ten years, my parents had a little house right there on the lake. I would get up at five in the morning, ride my bike, do my shift and then ride my bike home.  

So I was cooking in some restaurants around here (Palo Alto). I had a stint as a cook at this place called El Retiro (The Jesuit Retreat House of Los Altos). One day I answered an ad for construction help. I was 23 and working for very high-end carpenters in Atherton and Hillsboro. (in the Bay Area of California)  From carpentry, I got into trim carpentry. I was installing a lot of cabinets, and then I started copying the cabinets that I was installing. Then I opened up my first cabinet shop in 1987. 

I was just setting up a whole house shop when I fell in love. My first wife came back from Italy and my direction got somewhat re-oriented for a good 15-17 years. My contact with John was always there. Any time wood came available he would keep me informed on any good wood deals. He would encourage me to keep my daytime job (GC: remembering Gibert’s day job with Hewlett Packard) But he would always encourage me saying, “You are going to be a world class builder.” And he would encourage me to stay at it.

GC:  Both the cabinetry and the guitar building have lasted to this day. You keep both going? 

TM: Yes, I keep both doors open. It usually goes like this. If I get a kitchen job to do, it usually lasts from a month to 6 weeks. And that allows me to coast, to do my guitars. I just had a nice month and a half stint doing guitars with which I built three: finished them got ‘em strung up and ready.  I’ve got four more in the works right here. Everybody always asks me how long it takes to build a guitar. That’s about as long as it takes me to build, a month and a half. 

GC: Your passion for building guitars seemed to remain strong throughout this time. Was your return to guitar construction a gradual process, or was there one “A-ha!” moment?

TM:Definitely! I wanted to be a guitar maker. John used to joke around and say, “Timmy, I hope I die at my guitar bench working on my guitars”. I often thought the exact same thing because I was so enthusiastic.  My enthusiasm was fed mostly because of John’s mentorship and friendship, to, not necessarily please him, but just to spend time with him. It was a gift every time I went over his house.

There was a particular afternoon I went up to spend with John, a wonderful afternoon and after I left I decided that I was going to start building again. And I created this shop (within his cabinet making shop). 

Maybe 6 months before John passed away, he wasn’t feeling good, I said, “John, I got some guitars to show you and was going down to La Guitarra And he said, “Bring one up.” It was a bad day for him because his wrist hurt. But he said, “Timmy, these are concert guitars.” He was always very complimentary of my work, and it felt good. 

What I so miss is not having the collaboration with John because I have come a long ways in my own building, as has the modernization of tools, materials and all. Particularly tools. John was a machinist and had to build many of his tools. But now the tools for guitar building are sold and it making things a lot easier for us builders, the computer, sharing information. So, John came from the dark ages of building in America to where now there is the free flow of information, tools, and therefore, a lot more builders too.

GC: The blending of scientific principles, those of physics and engineering, with all of the artistic considerations that go into building a guitar has fascinated me more now, after researching and interviewing builders for this magazine. Tim, let me ask you a few questions now about your own building style. What is most important to you when beginning to build a guitar?

TM:TMc: Weight, strength and thickness were the three parameters that I continually take notes on and pay attention to. I always check my flexibility, the weights of all of the components and take notes on all those. Next would be to have a fan brace design, following how John taught me how to fan brace a guitar. I have studied a lot of guitars, studied many Gilbert guitars, and then I very much enjoy doing drawings of guitars. I was always trying to incorporate symmetry into my building to some degree. I’m not really scientific in my building. 

Just to compare the way I build guitars to the way John did: he would change one thing at a time, I would change ten things at once. It didn’t matter to me because I would just enjoy the process of building. I am a traditional builder. I am not interested in building double tops yet. Anything I don’t know about I tend to put on the back burner. If a maker took me by the hand, told me exactly what to do, at some point when I have the time to experiment on my own, then I would try out some of these ideas.

I learned very important lesson about the guitar from Jeff Elliott. Jeff would get on the floor and push his hand down over the bridge (of the guitar). He wanted to feel the flexibility. I told him he was doing CPR on the guitar! Jeffrey is a very intuitive builder. Listening to his lectures also really seemed to help me. I really like the way Jeff builds, both from his heart and with a sense of weight, strength and thickness at his fingertips. His calipers, dial indicator and scale are right there within the tips of his fingers! He is an amazing builder, and another Gilbert-like figure in both the playing and building community with his generosity of time and information.

So, I would be building the traditional Gilbert guitar, then doing my elevated fingerboard….

GC: What was that like to make that change to an elevated fingerboard? Where did this idea come from?

TM: For me, it was Gregory Byers. I think he took over John Gilbert’s slot as the pre-eminent American builder… John and Greg used to collaborate often. Even before the Humphrey design, it was Byers who developed the raised fingerboard. Humphrey and Byers had completely different theory on the design. The partial elevated fingerboard is much different than the Millennium. The Millennium from what I understand is like a harp, while the partially elevated fingerboard is still using the traditional build, just partially elevating the neck for ease of playing past the 12th fret. So I think there are two theories of what the guitar is doing are very different. Players also liked the change for the ease of playing. Now, portholes was another thing…

GC: Yes, talk about that. I notice that those are a feature of your guitars that is also very “not” Gilbert.

TM: I had a friend who used to come down, who used to work with Kenny Hill.  His name was Robert Garcia, another very good builder. And Robert would say, “Let’s put a hole in your guitars” to try I out. So, right here in the shop, we put two holes in a guitar and immediately I was able to hear the difference in sound. It felt more relaxed. It’s a better sounding instrument as a result of the portholes, and I was sold on it after that. 

I have been to guitar festivals where they were playing around with putting plugs in portholes, you know, experimenting. People would tell me that the instrument they had was so loud because of the portholes that they sometimes would put plugs in it. In fact, I could hear the difference right away. So, I am sold on the portholes. The traditional batch I am making, the Friederich, Oribe and Rodriguez, I can put portholes on later, but I am going to do a traditional build on these. (Pointing to a stack of guitars in various states of build)

GC: It’s obvious that you go back and forth between the more traditional builds and some of the more contemporary design ideas. What is the inspiration for that?

TM: Yes, I see so many of the builders now putting portholes in. And when I look at players like David Russell and others performing, I can see that their guitar is without that 20th fret, without portholes, without the elevate fingerboard. I see that they are concertizing on the more traditional guitar.  

I’m still building more or less that traditional classical guitar. I’ve incorporated the portholes, elevated Finger Board, laminated sides, 4 backs. I’m trying (almost done) with few different bracing patterns, that of 2 Friederich’s, an Oribe and a Rodriguez. I’ve just finished five in the style of the ’43 Hauser, as taught by Jeff Elliot. 

I just read an article in the latest GAL, I think by Grit Laskin, him saying that both he and De Jonge built classical’s with the sound board being tapered from the bass side to treble. Thicker on the bass, thinner on the treble side. That taper, in their opinion, produced a better sounding instrument than a guitar that has a top with the traditional even thickness. John used to have me do that, I got away from that idea. But I will try with this taper info in another build right around the corner.

In the same GAL publication, I saw some beautiful, simple bracing of a few ukulele tops that I’d like to try. I’m copying bracing patterns, but will put my own spin on the sizing/shaping of the braces.

If I see a fan bracing pattern on Facebook, in a publication, on a shirt, the internet etc., that I like, I register it for a future prospective use of the design that caught my eye. I recently just had a ’71 Ramirez in my shop with very similar bracing to that of the Gilbert. But I saw some relieving under a few braces that I’d like to try.

I do and have taken copious notes and photos of my building. Now correlating all this info is another thing. I have target thicknesses, densities and flexibility of my soundboards that I shoot for. I don’t bring a textbook knowledge of physics and engineering into my building. But instead, a feel for what I’ve done in the past, knowing I’ll get a pretty good sounding instrument if I pay attention to the building processes, which are many! At this point in time of my building, I’m enjoying trying out a few of the designs of the Master Builders. I am continuing what John taught me and may do an exact replica of a Gilbert, (as best I can) with his floating trapezoid tile rosette. I just keep having fun with the jigs/fixtures and the overall building process. 

All in all, there’s a signature sound to every builder’s instrument. The various traditional bracing designs in the soundboard in my opinion, offer a slight variation to the overall end build. If your box is the same, your attention to the building process with tight joints is the same, the flexibility of your sound board flexing like you’d like it to, you almost can’t fail but to have a nice sounding instrument.

GC: You have spoken supportively of so many famous names in the community of California Luthier’s that you have learned from, and, as I am sure, they have learned from you. Perhaps you are keeping alive that Gilbert trait of generosity towards your community and that free flow of information.

TM:TMc: There’s more builders out there than ever before, many doing spectacular work. There’s also more building info that ever before and more luthier tools available than ever before. There’s a host of builders to exchange info and how-to knowledge.

The community of financially successful builders is minute in comparison to the number of great builders building great instruments! Fortunately, I have cabinets to support my building. 

To learn more visit: realmccoyguitars.com

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2 thoughts on “Tim McCoy: A Respect for Tradition – An Eye for Innovation

  1. I have two McCoy guitars. They are excellent. I think it is important for guitar builders to share
    information, as Tim points out. Classical guitars are getting better all the time, and should.

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