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Materials, Design, and Philosophy

See also the article that was published in New Millennium Magazine in 2002

Materials

All of my instruments are made from woods that I have been collecting for over 10 years. Indian rosewood (Dalbergia Latifolia) is still quite plentiful, even in the best of grades. All of my back and sides sets are almost totally quarter-sawn, with beautiful color and character. Both the Engelmann spruce (Picea Engelmanni) and the Western red cedar (Thuja Plicata) are from British Columbia in Western Canada, and are the best grades available, specifically chosen by me for stiffness, color, and lack of run-out. The neck is made of Spanish cedar (Cedrela Odorata), which is both stiff and light. I stiffen the neck blank by inlaying a piece of rock maple just beneath the fingerboard.

The bridge is made of either Brazilian or Indian rosewood, depending on what sound I am after. Most people are not aware of how critical both the choice of wood and the overall design of the bridge are to achieve a great sounding instrument. The ebony for the fingerboards is usually from Africa (Diospyros spp.), as this tends to be the blackest of the ebonies. However, as with the case of Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia Nigra), this wood is becoming increasingly difficult to find in both quality and quantity. As an aside I would say that in the not too distant future more and more alternative species will be used in the making of fine classical guitars, with exceptional results. I think most luthiers would agree that there is something of an irrational bias toward certain species of wood used in the best instruments. It is very possible to build a successful guitar from non-traditional materials.

For the bracing of the soundboard I use two species of cedar: Alaska yellow cedar (Chamaecyparis Nootkatensis) and Port Orford cedar (Chamaecyparis Lawsoniana). Both of these varieties are incredibly stiff relative to their lightness, thus allowing me to use less material while still gaining the advantage of their stiffness properties. I’m especially fond of working with Port Orford cedar because of its unique scent. There is nothing like the smell of cedar plane shavings in the shop. Port Orford can also have a particularly high resin content, which I believe adds to the overall character of the sound of my guitars.

The headstock overlay is usually Brazilian rosewood or ebony. This is serving the function of a lamination over the critical neck/head joint. It is also an aesthetic element, chosen for it beauty of color and grain. The nut and saddle are made of cow bone, which has proven itself as an excellent material for these applications.

I make all of the purflings and bindings, and design and make my own rosettes. For several years I have been making a rosette with a design element borrowed from the great Antonio de Torres. The original braided rope design was done in mother of pearl, but I have attempted to duplicate the design in the traditional mosaic form. The rosette is a tribute to the father of the Spanish guitar.

As wood ages the resins in the cells of the wood begin to crystallize and harden. It is commonly believed that this action, which occurs through a process of aging over many years, contributes to the quality of sound that wood has the potential to produce. Paradoxically though, it is entirely possible for one to build an instrument with the best materials available and end up with marginal results. This is where design comes in.


Design

The classical guitar is a complicated architectural marvel. The luthier is walking a fine line between under-building and over-building the instrument. If the guitar is too lightly built, it can sound loud but thin, and may not stand up to the rigors of heavy playing and hence be short-lived. If it is built too heavily it will not vibrate properly, and both volume and timbre will be compromised. It is the luthier’s job to find the weight and stiffness that, within his or her design, works adequately. Taken separately the design of the neck, body, and bridge are equally complicated, and must work together for the result to be acceptable to the concert player. A guitar might sound incredible, but be impossible to play; conversely it might play easily but sound awful. Every design element must be taken into consideration relative to the design as a whole.

The soundboard is the engine of the classical guitar. My tops are thicknessed to 3mm initially, and then go through a painstaking process of selective thinning and bracing. The final top thickness will be somewhere between 2.5mm and 1.6mm depending on where it is measured, and what the inherent stiffness properties are of that particular piece of wood. The ubiquitous term ‘bracing’ might actually be a misnomer. It is commonly thought that the bracing is there to stiffen the top, and help it maintain its domed configuration. This is only partly correct. The braces also serve the critical function of directing the energy input from the bridge to the rest of the top, helping to radiate that energy and involve as much of the top as possible in the action of vibrating as a whole. There are countless examples of both Spanish and historic European instruments that have no braces other than one above and below the sound hole; instruments that have not collapsed under the pressure of the strings over time. There are as many successful bracing styles as there are successful luthiers working today, and certainly many more. You can see examples of one of the styles of bracing I work with in the ‘Workshop’ gallery.

Each builder is creating a sound unique to him or her, whether they try to or not. It seems difficult to imagine that one can do this much handwork, molding an instrument into its final shape, and not impart some degree of his or her personality into the sound. It might be a result of how present one is when doing the critical work of bracing the guitar. I suppose this is debatable, but anyone who has held and played a truly magical guitar can intuitively sense that something extraordinary is happening. Even given this fact, it is still one of the great challenges for those of us building guitars to be consistent in the sound that we manage to get from each instrument. Even consecutively cut timbers for the top are not inherently identical, and thus have the potential to sound differently. The maker must treat each top individually, perhaps making small but important changes to the overall thickness or brace dimensions or profiles.

The player seeking a fine guitar should choose their instrument based on many criteria, most importantly the sound and playability. They might also consider the willingness of the luthier to customize the instrument to their requirements. While I believe my standard dimensions for the body, neck, string spacing, etc. will be comfortable for almost all players, I can change most of these parameters to suit the client. I’m often asked to make a slightly narrower fingerboard, or add a 20th or 21st fret, or make a particularly thin neck. This is the greatest advantage of working directly with the maker, in addition to having access to him in the future if necessary. Once a client has decided to have me build them a guitar, a series of correspondences will begin in an effort to establish exactly what the player’s needs are. Of the over 100 instruments I have built I have yet to take one back from a dissatisfied customer, but my offer still stands. If you are not entirely satisfied with your guitar I will take it back, and as soon as I resell it I will begin another for you.

The overall design of the instrument must take into account all of the individual design parameters. Some of the critical elements of design are: the overall shape of the body, or plantilla, the depth at both the neck end and the bottom, treatment of the soundboard, size and location of the sound hole, the neck angle, the shape of the fingerboard, and the design of the bridge. All of these, and other minor design considerations, must function together in order to achieve the best results.

At present I am no longer finishing guitars with lacquer. I have decided that the health risks of working with such dangerous chemicals are unacceptable. As such my guitars are now completely French polished with shellac.

Philosophy

Building fine classical guitars is an extremely challenging and rewarding occupation. From the onset of a project I envision the final product, the sound it will make when first strung up, and the potential of the sound as the guitar breaks in. Even with the confidence that the guitar will sound as I have intended there is always a moment of trepidation, of brief anxiety before the first note is sounded. It always seems a remarkable thing that the instrument can sing, can become a voice for the player to express the depth of their ideas and consciousness. It is continually encouraging to know that I am creating something that will add beauty to the world.

Notes played on a fine guitar have a life of their own, as they radiate out falling on peoples’ ears and moving their emotions, but when and where does the energy of those notes stop? I believe there is an engaging philosophical discussion to be had surrounding this concept, but I’ll leave that until such time as we meet, and have the opportunity to discuss the beauty and esoteric nature of music.

As a musician, composer, woodworker, and inquiring mind, I find building classical guitars to be the most engaging endeavor of my life. It is equal parts demanding and rewarding. It is a marvelous thing to see various bits and pieces of wood transform into a musical instrument. I hope you’ll consider working with me to build a guitar that will allow you to reach your highest musical aspirations.

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