Greg Brandt: A Luthiers Journey

By Steve Rider

Speaking with Greg Brandt is an insightful and enjoyable experience. A man with four decades in the luthier role, his knowledge of his materials and how do employ them is vast and deep. He’s a an individual who was called at an early age, by his own two hands, to build stringed instruments and derives a joy from his passion for guitars that lights him from within.

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Guitar Connoisseur: You don’t look like a man who could have four decades into lutherie. How old were you when you initially got into the field?

Greg Brandt: You know I meet people and I tell them I’m sixty and they say you don’t look like a man in his sixties, and I tell them I appreciate that, but I’m not going to give you a discount. Ha ha. Really, though I think that it’s just that I like my work. I was in my teens when I realized that people built guitars, through a long and cascading consequence of serendipitous events. Once I understood that, and realized I had my days free, and that what could be more cool than playing a guitar that you built, I started right away. I got David Russell Young’s book, he helped me with materials. And it took me two and a half years to finish that guitar. But I was maybe halfway through it, maybe the box was complete, and I just had one of those kinds of mystical experiences thinking, my hands know this work. I was pretty sure I was not going into the family business.

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GC: What was the draw for you?

GB: I always loved guitars and music and rock and roll and stuff like that, and once I realized that I could maybe do this. I’m a first generation wood worker. I come from a family of film editors. They worked with their hands, but they certainly weren’t in the shop in the middle of the night tinkering away. I just thought, again without realizing what I was getting into because I was just being drawn into this, I just thought I want to build a guitar. Again what could be more bitchin’ than playing a guitar I made? And here’s a book that’s telling me how to do it. It just happens that the author lives not very far away and is willing to help with materials and give me advice. I didn’t have any tools. I had to save up money for this chisel or that drill. I worked on my cutting board in the kitchen or on my low coffee table, but it was happening. I just thought: I know this, I understand this. I left the restaurant and went towards the woodworking store to learn more about tools, and get a discount on tools. I always tell students, get a job in a woodworking store so you can learn about tools and get a discount, or get a job in restaurant so you can eat for free. Through the tool store I met my teacher and wore him down to get him to take me on as an apprentice. And I just kept going. Doors and windows were just being thrown open for me and my butt was being kicked through them.

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GC: Were there any particular challenges you recall needing to overcome in your early years?

GB: No more than normal challenges of saving money for tools and materials. I remember starting out on my very first guitar just being terrified of the idea of bending wood. I remember asking David Russell Young, who was helping me, how do you bend wood? How does that happen? How do I do this? And I remember him saying, bending wood happens, you’ve got a lot more important things to worry about. And he was right. From then, I guess, once you really decide you want to be on your way, it’s finding a teacher. When I was getting started doing this, there was no internet, no online course, no books, no DVDs. And you would talk to someone and they would say, no, no, no, the information has been in my family for generations and generations. It was a very closed school. That was always the challenge.

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GC: Why did you choose to focus on nylon string instruments instead of other varieties?

GB: I came to this as a steel string guitar player and I always assumed I would make steel string guitars. When my teacher took me on, to serve some definition of an apprenticeship, he insisted that I build a steel string and a nylon string guitar. He was mostly a nylon string maker. He insisted. When I had strung up my first nylon string guitar, it was the first nylon string guitar I’d ever held. I was stunned, taken back, how much volume came from this, and how light it was, and how different from everything else I was used to playing. So when I went out for the first few years I split my time between steel and nylon string. And I finally decided that I needed to plant a flag in one camp or the other. And the, this was in the late seventies, factories can build great and successful steel string guitars in a production setting, but it was clear to me even then that they can’t do that with nylon. They need to be much closer to the bone than a production setting will allow. So I thought there would be more money in it for me if I planted my flag in that camp.

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GC: For those of us who don’t know, what are the differences between a standard acoustic guitar and a classical guitar, and why are they important?

GB: In broad strokes, a steel string guitar is generally a much bigger body guitar and it’s built with, now, an X brace thanks to the Martin company and is more massive to hold up against the tension of the strings against the top. The strings go through the body and are held to the top in a mechanical fit. Nylon string guitars are generally smaller and thinner pieces of wood. They are built with very delicate little fan braces. People are doing different things now, lattice bracing, using carbon fiber, double tops, but in broad traditional senses classical guitars as just little scrawny pieces of wood with the strings attached directly to the top, tied to the bridge. And again, if everything is going right, it’s on the cusp of exploding! A nylon string guitar has a sort of inherent bass response, so you try to bring out the treble. It’s the opposite on steel string guitars; it’s got an inherent treble response, so you try to bring out the bass response.

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GC: Let’s talk about the instruments. What is your design strategy?

GB: In nylon string guitars, you want singing trebles and good response across the fingerboard. What interests me the most is the traditional style of building. I’m not interested in double tops, or lattice bracing, or instruments that are loud for loud’s sake. I want my guitars to be loud, but I don’t think that should be the top criteria of whether your guitar is successful or not. What interests me is working with traditional fan bracing, and voicing tops, and thicknessing tops on my own, and tapping, carving and voicing bracing until I get a response that I’m looking for.

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GC: Would you say that there are aspects of design that set you apart from others in your field?

GB: Everybody has their own recipe. You can talk to ten different guitar makers and get fifteen different ways to get a guitar built, and they all work. So people that are interested in building traditional style guitars, like I am, they might look inside my guitars and wouldn’t see anything that would be shocking to them. Maybe different from what they’re doing, but not shocking. For the past couple of years, I have been working on doing different design work on the outside of the instrument. And in that respect, my guitars are starting to look different than what is traditional. And that’s been a lot of fun and very interesting.

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GC: What about materials? What do you look for in the materials for your instruments?

GB: When I was in apprenticeship, my teacher took me and showed me good wood and how its grain was, and how it grows to get that. And he took me and showed me lousy wood and why it’s problematic. He got into the sound qualities and what made them work. I went to him about a month later and said, I’ve got some money and I’d like to buy some wood. And he pulled out all this junky wood for me to buy. And I said, Bob, you just got finished lecturing me on why this was crappy wood, and I don’t want to buy your crappy wood! Knowing my teacher, I think he was very much just trying to get rid of his crappy wood! I’m happy to build with Indian rosewood all day. I have a great source in India. It’s a tremendous wood to work with. I also have been lucky over the years to collect some really nice, old, Brazilian rosewood. From my teacher’s shop when he passed away, from other makers that are selling stashes. You get it by hook or crook. It’s a beautiful wood to work with. It’s harder, in a certain respect. It might have a tendency to crack. Sometimes the grain patterns in it that people like leave a tendency for it to crack. But some people want that forbidden fruit, and I’m happy to use Brazilian rosewood. I have beautiful maple, but rarely do people order maple nylon string guitars anymore. In nylon string, it just gives you a different sound, a much dryer sound. I’ve made guitars out of curly Koa, but people mostly want rosewood.

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GC: What was the inspiration to get more artistic with the inlays in your guitars? Was it difficult stepping outside of strict tradition?

GB: For instance, when my teacher passed away, he had an ocean of rosettes that he designed and had made for him. And I took over his rosettes as homage to him. Every time I used a rosette it was like me visiting with my teacher, and I took it as a sweet and at the same time mindless thought. I had other students who were interested in building their own rosettes, and good luck with that. Sometimes it’s an aggravating art form unto itself, like finish work is. And then I had an apprentice who worked with me for around five years, and she was accepted into a steel string building apprenticeship with another maker at some point. But it was a year or so before she was able to go to work in this shop. So there was a mutual investigation of what steel string makers were doing. When you really start digging beneath the Gibson, Fender, Martin, and Guild aspect of it, you see that the boutique steel string makers have got a huge latitude with the woods they can use, and the designs they can come up with, and the inlay work. And there are some people doing tremendously artistic work, and tasteful work. In nylon string guitar world, players are thinking you can be as weird as you want and innovative on the inside of the guitar, experiment away, but the outside better look like what Segovia played seventy years ago or I’m not interested. I’m really just six or seven guitars into this thing. It’s difficult for me to come up with a design that’s interesting to look at and interesting for me to do, but not aggravate people. The first two guitars that I did a few years ago were received very nicely, and they sold. I had people come up to me and say, I want to order a guitar and I want this aspect of the design work, I like this rosette, pick and choose a little bit. So now I’m building a couple guitars for the Santa Barbara guitar show. I built some more, and experimented, and tried something different in one respect, and stretched out on a design once before but wanted to see if I could refine. It’s a blast. Not only does it intrigue me, but people that play them love them.

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GC: The tonal qualities of your guitars are quite striking: deep bass notes, clear mids, and ringing highs. How do you coax such sounds out of your materials?

GB: We all have a basic recipe that we start with. Then, over a period of time, whether it’s your tenth guitar or your fiftieth guitar, or hundredth guitar, if you’re paying attention you start gaining information. You tap, and you listen, and you pay attention. I would always want to experiment, but I would experiment slowly. I would never make two changes at once. Working with wood, it’s a very unscientific material in some ways. I would just slowly morph. This top was very successful. What did I do? I’ll weight tops and bridges, keep track of tap tones and some aspects of flexibility. Some of it is just intuitive. Some of it’s just flexing with your fingers. That just comes with time. The bottom line is that handmade guitar is just going to sound varying degrees of good. If you just build the guitar, it’s going to be the best sounding guitar you’ve played up to this point! So how do I coax the sound that I want? I coax it out of experience and becoming bolder and saying I’m going take this top down .005” more, I’m going to make those braces thinner and carve them a little more aggressively. I’m a better guitar maker now than I used to be.

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GC: To adjust intonation on an electric, you simply turn some screws a few times. How do you go about setting exact intonation on a fixed bridge instrument?

GB: Well, first of all, perfect intonation on a fixed scale length instrument with frets does not exist. It’s all a compromise. Equal temperament is a compromise. The F# in a D chord is not the same note as the F# in an F# Major chord. Violin players have no frets, and they can roll their fingers forward and back, sharp or flat, play in tune with their section, and have their section play in tune with the orchestra. They’re taught that from the beginning. But with a barred fret, it’s a compromise. The string needs to be stretched down to the fingerboard. That’s going to make it play sharp. So, we figure out how to dance the compromise. I shorten my distance from the nut to my first fret an amount. I put a slanted saddle on my bridges. I don’t do it as significantly on my nylon guitars as one might on a steel string guitar. But I compensate it on the treble and extra compensate it on the bass.

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GC: Can you explain the process behind how you join your necks and bodies?

GB: I don’t build in the Spanish style. I have a neck to body joint that is more similar to steel string guitars. It’s not a dovetail, but I build a box, cut some joinery into the box and the neck and I have a floating tenon that I use. I cut a slot into the body and the neck and I have a piece of wood, with the grain running a particular direction, which gets glued in. It allows me to be more in control of my pitch angle and other aspects that important to me.

GC: Tell us about the artists that play your guitars and what sorts of work they’re doing?

GB: I live in Los Angeles, so I have always been in touch with the studio contingent. Tommy Tedesco bought three guitars from me. Other first call guitar players in the business play my guitars. Nine times out of ten, I can say to my mom, go see this movie, you’ll hear my guitars in it. A lot of jazz players. Jim Fox, John Pisano, used to be Joe Pass’ guitar partner. Pat Kelly at USC, a lot of different players. Big stars, not really. The biggest star that ever bought a guitar from me was Andy Griffith, of all people. I’m happy to get my guitars into all guitar players’ hands. A lot of the time I get good students coming into the shop that are in very strong guitar programs. They’re more important to me, often, then a famous name. I know that these people are depending on me and my guitar alone. They’re going to be playing it in concert settings and recital halls, where my guitars are going to be most successful. I’m always happy to have studio players. I’m always happy to have jazz players who might want something different from the classical. I always find that enjoyable. And I’m happy to build for people who like nice things. I’m not a great guitar player, but I like nice things that are made for me.

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GC: Looking back over the past forty years, what is your perspective on your journey?

GB: The journey is still on. I feel really lucky that I was able to make a living at this and do it for so long and be on the fringes, at least, and maybe a little bit more, of a golden age of artisanal guitar making in America. In Europe there was always the guild system, where you learned the secrets, and were sent on your journey and went and worked. But there weren’t teachers and guilds in the United States for learning how to build guitars. You could maybe get a job in a production setting. In the mid ‘70s some people got together and said I want to build a guitar, and someone else said the same thing, and they decided to get out there and find information and share it. And the Guild of American Luthiers started, and it was an information sharing guild. Tons of great information and everybody just sort of built up together on the backs of each other. And I was on the fringe of that. It was the beginning of artisanal guitar making in the US. And it was great to be on the fringe of that, and have a perspective on that, and see new makers and other makers and women makers be part of that. Seeing the work a lot of women are doing, it means a lot to me, I think it’s important. I don’t think about retiring. As long as my hands work, and my body works, and I can stand up in the shop, I’m not going to retire.

GC: What have you got in the works now or going into the future. 

GB: In the short term, I have the Santa Barbara show coming up. It’s called the Santa Barbra Acoustic Instrument Celebration; I think is what it’s formally called. It’s an invitational and international show. I look forward to doing more shows because it gives me an opportunity to do show off guitars. I have other designs that I want to experiment with, and I will do that. I always look forward to teach. I just look forward to moving forward. Making tops a little thinner, voicing something a little differently. We’re always striving for the next level, the next plateau, the next peak. That’s what I most look forward to. Build more guitars!

To learn more about Greg Brandt’ Guitars please visit: gregbrandtguitars.com

Have a look at our current issue of “American Guitars”

Featured Interviews with Joe Bonamassa, and Greg Howe as well as  Luthiers Gabriel Currie from EchoPark Guitars, John Monteleone, and a look at Benedetto Guitars after 48 years by CEO Howard Paul. The Photographers Vault by Derek Brad of his shoot of Joe Bonamassa at the State Theatre.

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