Thursday, July 28. 2005
I've spent time the last few days with #30 performing top and strut tuning. I wanted to write a brief note about the process and its relationship to the personal development and growth of the guitar maker. Tuning is, in a way and at its best, a spiritual practice. For me, it is a time when I abandon all the preconceptions of what I planned and hoped the new guitar to sound like, all those intellectual and technical artifices which the analytical mind deploys as tools of the will, and I enter into a process of discovering what the new guitar IS, I explore it, listen to it, i try to enter into a receptive state where my intuition guides me, and I discover the nature of the new instrument that has just been born by my hand, I hear its latent potential and veiled beauty, and I give myself to the process of sanding away here and there on the top while the instrument is strung but unfinished, sanding slightly on the struts with my hand through the soundhole, strings spread with a short piece of basswood, always listening testing, refining, working to bring forth that which lies obscured, to allow the instrument to assume its full potential and nature.
And in discovering the harmony and beauty which lies within this instrument i built, i discover the harmony and beauty that pervades the world and myself, it too longing to flower to realization as a full participant in the song of life.
This is the Art of stringed musical instrument building.
Friday, July 22. 2005
Towering thunderclouds build in the skies as I shape the back of the neck and prepare to string the flamenco for the first time.
Echoing peals of thunder break the silence while the temperature outside drops. Something dramatic is about to happen.
Good omens. Very good omens for #30.
more soon ...
Rosewood, approx. 30mm x 7.5mm x 192mm, 3mm bone saddle, ivory tieblock cap. The bridge is concave on its lower surface so that it fits the arch of the top. I usually slightly tilt my necks into the bridge so that i can lower the height of the bridge and saddle. A lighter bridge makes for a quicker attack to the note and a more responsive feel. I offset the saddle position about 1.5mm for a 650mm scale, ie: the saddle center lies at about 651.5mm from the nut. This also depends a bit on how the top is built, because the position of the saddle under the steady state pull of the strings is often different from its static position.
Ebony is normally used for the fingerboard on a classical guitar. I've used Madagascar Rosewood too, and its colorful grain can add a modern and hand crafted look to an instrument, but ebony is traditional. Remember, the dominant aesthetic in classical guitar building is subdued, relies on the beauty of the natural materials, and subtle contrasts between woods. We're building for beauty of tone and playability and everything else is secondary.
Fingerboards should be glued with a hot, slightly thin, hyde glue so that they can be removed if necessary many years hence for repair or replacemen. Hyde glue sounds better too.
Lots of people labor under the misconception that fingerboards should be flat. They should not. A string vibrates in an arc, its point of maximum excursion at the 12th fret is greater than at any other point. I think that for the best dynamic range and the best feel the fingerboard should be slightly concave, but only very slightly. I fit, slot and fret my boards before glueing them to the guitar.
I, like most other builders, use a hard nickel silver medium sized fret with a tang that is barbed. As the fret tang is pushed into the fret slot, the barbs bite into the wood and hold the fret in place. I like to take a triangular file to the top of the fret slots and slightly relieve the edge so that if a fret needs to be removed it won't pull chips of the fretboard with it. When I've finished fretting a board, i'll dampen it with water or a danish oil based finish to help the wood swell back around the fret barb and tang and hold the fret securely. It is not necessary to glue a fret.
Thursday, July 21. 2005
The guitar builder is provided with a beautiful palette of colors by nature. The warm gold of cypress, the golden brown of honduras mahogany, the ink black of ebony, the pale white of spruce, the unmistakable light brown of boxwood, the cinnamon brown of cedar, the oranges and reds and purples of rosewood, the buff white of lime and basswood.
I've just installed a brazilian boxwood heel cap on #30, the flamenco in cypress and spruce. When i build in rosewood i continue the back into the heel cap area and terminate the bindings in points that almost join at the heelcap, leaving a bit of rosewood connecting the back with the heelcap.
But cypress is too soft for a heel cap and the boxwood provides a nice visual contrast to the cypress of the back and the honduras mahogany of the neck, one that will improve with age.
A guitar builder seeks to build a fine sounding instrument whose looks harmonize with the character of the sound. A flamenco looks best with an artisanal appearance to it and should not be too finely finished. And when played, it should speak in an ancient pensive tongue of times and places, sights and sounds ,last seen and heard on a caravan somewhere between India and Moorish Spain.
The fingerboard and bridge go on #30 tomorrow ...
Tuesday, July 19. 2005
I've made the binding and side purfling for #29 and #30. #29 (rosewood/spruce) gets rosewood with cypress/black purfling and #30 (flamenco in cypress and spruce) gets cherrywood with black/cypress/black purfling. The cherry should mature over time to a reddish brown which will look nice against the golden brown of aged cypress. When i choose materials i try to do it with one eye towards how they will look some years from now. I want to build instruments that develop a beautiful patina and harmony of appearance over the years.
A note on preparing binding: I am usually able to cut the binding strips from the pieces of wood used for the sides, before they are bent. After I've cut the binding strips to size I glue up the veneer stack for the side purflings and, when dry, cut it into strips the same width and length as the bindings, approximately 1/8" x 30". I glue the purfling to the edge of the binding strip before it is bent using a yellow glue and a wrap of thread to hold the two pieces together. When the glue is dry, I scrape the strips to final size using a hand scraper and then bend them by hand on a hot bending iron. The yellow glue holds when hot and is flexible enough to allow movement of the purfling on the binding strip in the tight bend which fits the waist of the guitar.
This is the easiest way I've found of doing this task.
Monday, July 18. 2005
I'm building #29 and #30 together. I fitted the back linings and glued the back of #29 on this morning. #30 is ready for the purfling. Now #29 is also. Once purfled I'll fit the fingerboards and bridges, nuts and saddles, then string them up and see what we've got !
As I discussed in an earlier post, the back of a guitar is slightly convex for strength. When fitting a back, the sides must be trimmed in the lower and upper bout areas so that the back lies easily on the sides and linings before glueing. A back fitted in this way will vibrate more freely in response to the top and provide a more lively instument.
Backs should be glued with a good quality hot hyde glue so that they can be removed at a future date should repairs be necessary to the instrument.
While i'm finishing #29 (cedar/rosewood) and #30 (flamenco in cypress/spruce) i'm creating a new label. In the past, I've hand written my labels in India ink on art paper, with variations. I've decided its time to make a standard label I can use in my future work. I've got the woodblock carving tools out and I'm working on a preliminary design - a stylized 3 point crown in madder with gold leaf details and space for a signature in a band across the crown. Next to the crown is space to date and number the label, printing running vertically, bottom to top in two lines, in the area to the right of the crown.
The Japanese were masters at woodblock printing and there is a great legacy of beautiful work. Check out some of the great work David Bull has chosen to showcase at his www.woodblock.com site.
Wednesday, July 13. 2005
I am re-reading the great book 'Antonio Stradivari, His Life and Work (1644-1737) by the Hill brothers, London.
Stradivari continuted to build violins until he was 94.
May i be so fortunate.
Cypress is a very fragrant wood that grows along the shores of the Mediterranean. It is traditionally used for the back and sides of flamenco guitars and has a wonderful smell which embues the air with a heady and spicy aroma. It is very elastic, fairly soft and ages to the most beautiful gold/brown color.
I'm bending the cypress sides for #30 right now. Its a great pleasure. One of the joys of owning and playing a flamenco guitar is the way it perfumes the immediate area with the smell of the Mediterranean shores.
Monday, July 11. 2005
The motion of a top occurs primarily in two axis. Vibration in the axis perpendicular to the top directly modulates the volume of air in the body, and this modulation coupled through the sound hole to the room contributes to an instrument's loudness and ability to project. [ Surface vibratory effects are an important psychoacoustic influence on the player and need to be managed correctly by the builder, but these effects don't usually project well ]
Vibration of the top in an axis parallel with the bridge in a rocking action has less effect on the volume of air in the body of the instrument because as one end of the bridge rises, the other falls and the net effects cancel themselves out. However vibration in this axis introduces sympathetic harmonics which are generally out of phase with the exciting string, and they lend interesting color to the musical personality of the guitar.
A classical guitar builder can control the relative balance of these two modes through design of the fan bracing and the graduation of the top. A shorter and broader fan is less stable laterally than a long fan with a narrow included angle at its apex.
Some master builders model the top as a reed extending from the bottom cross brace to the bridge area and graduate the top so that this area is thicker by a few tenths of a millimeter than the rest of the top. This reed is excited by the bridge acting at its tip under the force of the strings, and the rest of the top is designed to be a light and stiff diaphram suspended by a compliant recurve area, effectively amplifying the vibration of the reed. This graduation technique can provide a very nice flamenco sound when done right, and is the approach i've adopted for #30, a flamenco in Italian cypress and German spruce. The devil is in the details, of course, and getting the trebles right takes some experience. However, when done right it is pure magic. I've got my fingers crossed ... the top for #30 is graduated and braced.
Saturday, July 9. 2005
Each classical guitar maker develops, sooner or later, a conceptual model of the top which attributes particular aspects of the musical personality of the guitar to particular physical characteristics and building techniques of the top.
I'll go into this a bit more later this afternoon. #29, #30 and #31 are in progress. I've just finished the necks and am concentrating on graduating and bracing the top for #30, a flamenco in Cypress and German Spruce. A flamenco guitar needs to be tight, percussive, gravelly in the bass and bright, sensitive and quick in the trebles. It needs to speak in an ancient pensive tongue last heard spoken in the caverns of Moorish Spain.
I've been working with a 5 strut system for the last year. This system is particularly useful because it is easy to tune. It is also fairly light and provides a quick response and sensitivity to touch, when appropriate top thickness graduation techniques are followed. The basic pull or feel of the strings can be tuned by adjustment of the center strut and forward areas of the inside two struts, and characteristics of harmonic overtones and tonal balance can be tuned using the outside struts.
In the Spanish method of construction, a classical guitar is constructed on a solera, or wood workboard. The solera is concave
in the area between the bottom of the soundhold and the endblock. The top, lying face down on the solera, is formed into an arch and given strength by wood braces glued to its surface. These braces ensure that the top retains the arch shape formed by the concave solera and allow us to build a light and responsive top that is strong enough to resist the pull of the strings. The bracing style and top graduation techniques are two of the most important factors that define the sound of an instrument.
Many 'bracing styles' have been used in the past. Traditionally, the braces are arranged in a 'fan shape' with the apex somewhere between the 9th and the 15th fret. Braces are usually made of the same wood as the top and vary in height and thickness depending on the philosophy and practice of the individual builder. Brace dimensions (width x height ) of 3.5mm x 4.5mm to 6mm x 5mm are common. Braces are usually of a triangular or arched profile and are frequently tapered at the ends and at times along their length. Some builders use 5 struts (Hernandez and Aguado, Rodriguez) , some 7 (Torres, Hauser) and some 9 (Ignacio Fleta) . Some builders close the fan with two diagonal braces, one each running from the endblock to the side of the lower bout. Other builders add a transverse bar on the treble side running from the bottom of the soundhole to the area of the treble end of the bridge. Yet other builders extend the top braces through the lower, and at times the upper, crossbrace. Some builders abandon the fan style of strutting and adopt their own unique and innovative solutions to bracing the top.
Combined with all the variations in practice of top thickness graduation, there are many possiblities for controlling the way the top responds to the vibration of the strings. Unfortunately, a good experimental analytical methodology hasn't been developed that can help us reduce the complexity of these variables and scientifically define their relationship to specific aspects of the musical personality of the guitar.
A luthier is thus compelled to learn through continuous practice of his/her craft, to learn to recognize the value of, and develop, intuitive skills, to seek the company of, and study the needs and requirements of great players and their repertoire, and to study the great guitar makers who came before us to make continuous forward progress in our art and craft.
Fortunately there are several excellent collections of great instruments in the hands of professional players and private collectors and the serious luthier should spend as much time as possible studying and listening to the guitars of the builders of the past. There is a thread which runs continuously through them. It winds its way through time and life from the oud and lute, gypsy migrations, North Africa and Moorish Spain, through Europe and on to the New World. Listen carefully and you will hear echoes of these lands and people in a fine guitar.
Monday, July 4. 2005
I wanted to take a few minutes today to talk about what i find one of the most interesting aspects of a fine classical guitar, and one of the mysteries of the instrument which compels otherwise sane, rational and analytical builders to start ranting metaphysically about the Art of stringed instrument building and wood boxes with souls.
#28 has been hanging in the room, its French polish toughening and drying out. I take it down a couple of times a day to play and listen to it and assess the changes to its sound which occur as its finish hardens. My neighbor Bill came by Friday afternoon. Bill spent many years hanging out in Bernabe's workshop in Madrid and plays flamenco with a very natural and sensitive style. He has a good ear for the real thing. His wife Maria is a professional classical guitar player and teacher.
I handed Bill #28 and he sat down to tinker with it. The guitar sounded dead in his hands. Of course ! It had been hanging, drying, unplayed. Within a few minutes, Bill and the guitar found each other. Because his style is flamenco and that is the idiom in which his heart, mind and ear is tuned, #28 began speaking flamenco negra. And the more it spoke, the more Bill responded to it, and in this way #28 warmed up, opened up and by the time Bill left we were both sure we had a very nice flamenco negra on our hands.
When I pick up #28 to play, I find something completely different. I like the lazy but gruff sound of the bass strings played softly but with the nail. I like the sonority of the D and the attack of the G with its rich snap and good sustain and I like the clarity of the B and E and the way they sing out over the gravelly bass strings with promise of contrapuntal greatness. I'm not a professional player, my instinctive approach to the instrument is more tonal than melodic and my style is to explore and discover, not to control and direct its tone. This tends to move me into a jazz direction musically. And because this is where i go, this is where it follows and the direction it develops when in my hands.
So this is one of the greatest mysteries which compels me to continue on the path of the Art and craft of stringed musical instrument making. A fine musical instrument has personality and soul, It lives. The toal is greater than the sum of its parts. A classical guitar has moods, sleeps, awakens, responds to the way it is played. In the hands of one player it is a flamenco negra, in the hands of another it plays exquisite Bach. In the hands of a third, it is a tool for meditation and contemplation. In the hands of a fourth, it sleeps. And fine instruments retain the impressions of their existence and life. I can pick up a fine old guitar built by a master builder and hear and feel the faint echos and remains of the music it has played, the builder who made it, the players who have played it, the collector who has left it hanging forlornly on the wall.
I started out this journal with this entry, and have come full circle back to it:
"A fine guitar is born like a babe into this world, embued with potential by its maker, to develop to maturity in the hands of a player, giving voice to music written by a composer. It is these three elements in harmony: builder, musician and composer, which create the magic which we recognize as beautiful music."
I'm having a lot of fun trying to find words which convey some of the magic and mystery and tradition of this wonderful Art and craft. In the future, I'm going to try to elaborate a little on those areas of the craft I feel embue a classical guitar with life and soul while i continue to document my building activities. #29, #30 and #31 are underway. #29 is rosewood/cedar, #30 is a flamenco in cypress and cedar with pegs and #31 is a classical in rosewood and fine swiss spruce.
(Page 1 of 1, totaling 15 entries)
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