|The following article was originally published in
New Millennium Magazine in 2002
Oberg Guitars-An Overview
Every guitar maker and serious guitar player knows
a great guitar when they hear one. The qualities
that instrument must have in order to be successful
are clarity, sufficient volume, power, and projection,
a wide spectrum of dynamic responses, balance and
separation through the registers, and ample sustain.
I think most would not argue with these criteria.
For me, one other criterion just as important is
that of character. The underlying, or maybe its overlaying
character of a guitar is what gives it personality.
Every instrument has some character, to one degree
or another, that will perhaps be experienced as warmth,
openness, sophistication, boldness, or liveliness.
These are the qualities that separate an average
guitar from a really great one.
I believe clarity to be perhaps the most important
aspect of a guitar’s sound. For a guitar to
have this each note must consist of a reasonably
strong fundamental with a relatively even mix of
partials. No overtone should jump out at you; their
relative amplitudes must be such that they blend
nicely to create a pleasant timbre to each note.
Of course strings can either enhance or detract from
this quality, but the guitar will have certain tendencies,
and those should lean toward a timbre that consists
of a not-overbearing fundamental and an even mix
of overtones, diminishing in volume as their pitch
increases. If the higher overtones are too strong
the note will have a bite, a sort of rough edge,
as the higher in the overtone series you go the more
enharmonic the notes become relative to the fundamental.
If the overtones are weak the note will lack character
and color, creating more of a dry sound. The question
is of course how to achieve this.
My focus is to build guitars that embody this ideal
of timbral quality, yet are not so even and neutral
that they lack character. They must also satisfy
all of the other requirements already mentioned.
It is my job to listen to the client, find out which
elements of sound they find attractive, and build
a guitar to these parameters. As a classical guitar
player for 38 years, a composer for 10 years, and
previous careers as both a piano technician and furniture
maker, I feel I have a natural affinity for this
Over the years I have worked with many bracing patterns.
The pattern I am primarily using now is a modified
fan system that utilizes three somewhat wide and
very low braces, in conjunction with four standard
fans. The wide and standard fans alternate from left
to right, with a wide one on the centerline. All
of the fans notch over the bridge patch, except the
outside fan on the treble and the base sides. The
center wide fan stops very close to the end block,
and the two closing fans at the bottom stop well
short of the centerline. Including these two braces,
I suppose the system is really a nine-fan system.
The wide braces are crossing a lot of grain, so
they are helping to discipline the top. However they
are shaped to a very low profile, domed in cross-section,
that has its highest part just forward of the bridge.
There is not much mass to the wide braces after they
are shaped, so their effect is to unify the top in
its modes of vibration, without stiffening it up
too much. This combined with the open V at the bottom
and the two outside braces free from the bridge patch
contribute to fullness and openness of sound - one
that is amply controlled yet free enough to create
plenty of volume.
The regular fans are profiled with their highest
points in the same area as the low fans, and are
nearly triangulated. These braces drop off substantially
in height, terminating in a featheredge. I vary the
height and width of these fans depending on the top
stiffness and what kind of sound I am going for,
but I am always looking for that focus that translates
to a unified, even sound with no dead spots on the
Because of the concept of sympathetic vibration
there will always be some notes that are reinforced
by the open strings more than others. Not every note
shares a harmonic strong enough in amplitude to add
to its volume. However, if all notes are strong enough
without the support of sympathetic vibration then
the effect of differing volume between notes will
be minimized. This is necessary to achieve evenness
throughout the registers. The wide brace system helps
create evenness in volume from note to note.
For about four years now I have been using two small
auxiliary sound holes in the sides of the upper bout.
These are placed 31/4” out from the centerline
on either side of the neck. The effect is to open
the sound up more-especially for the player. However
after playing guitars with this feature for some
years now I believe it enhances the instrument’s
ability to speak, and to project. The holes are 7/8” in
diameter, so they are not so large as to bleed off
too much energy. I have experimented with larger
holes and various placements and believe the current
arrangement to be ideal. To me the greatest advantage
of the holes is the greater awareness of nuance and
subtlety they afford the player.
I build guitars one or two at a time in my shop
in San Marcos, California. I have a ‘dry’ room
where I regulate the humidity level, and all of my
materials are master grade and well seasoned. I try
to keep a guitar once it is finished and strung for
one or two weeks-the object of this is to give the
guitar a little time to settle in. If necessary I
can make minor adjustments that will affect both
the sound and the action, before I ship the instrument
to the client.
A number of people have been instrumental (no pun
intended) in helping forge my career. Ervin Somogyi
of Oakland, California gave me my first job working
for a luthier, and his influence in my aesthetic
and general approach to the craft has been lasting.
Ervin has a tremendous eye for line and curve, and
a creative and ingenious approach to jig and fixture
making. Add to all this his unparalleled dry sense
of humor and one can see how a year in his shop would
be a valuable experience.
My two years working with Robert Ruck changed my
whole concept of the classical guitar. We built some
65 guitars together, and Rob was generous with his
practical knowledge of and philosophy about guitar
making. His hand tool skills are remarkable, and
I was forced to take my own skills to another level.
It was in Rob’s shop that I was introduced
to both the wide brace concept and the auxiliary
sound ports. Though I don’t always use the
wide braces, I believe in their efficacy, and am
able to control the system to achieve consistent
There have also been many guitarists and other musicians
who have helped shape my ideas about sound and players’ needs.
Listening carefully to their comments, and trusting
my own intuition and abilities have been invaluable
tools over the years in my growth as a luthier.
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