Friday, May 8, 2015

Can re-stringing hurt your guitar?

Dear Bill,
I am having what's turning out to be a rather heated debate with a few of my friends on the topic of re-stringing an acoustic guitar. They are saying that you should NEVER take off all the strings at once, but rather change them one at a time. They think that removing all the strings at once is somehow detrimental to the guitar. Having built a few steel-strings from your book, I say "hogwash". Take off all the strings if you want. It won't hurt a thing.

A note from you on this topic would settle it once and for all. 

A "heated debate" about how removing all the strings are "somehow" detrimental to the guitar, huh? Anybody advance any...evidence on their side? I did'nt think so. It must have been battling Beliefs.

The Belief most likely originated from rather good advice for players of all TAILPIECE instruments (violins, cellos, arch-top guitars): if you take all the strings off, the bridge falls off! —and in many instances, the soundpost falls, too. This useful tip apparently jumped at one point from one instrument world to another, starting as sound advice on violins and arch-tops and becoming dopey advice on guitars. The skewed information subsequently got handed down uncritically from teacher to student over the years and thus became generally enshrined as a Belief. By the way there are dozens of similar religiously-held myths among players/teachers/makers—like, never cut the strings. "It damages them" I heard. I should try to list them all some time.

I also love watching proponents "reverse engineering" a justification for a myth! That is, they start with a myth, and then create an elaborate set of highly logical and credible reasons why it must be true. A quintessentially human trait. 

Musical fascism

60 Minutes on CBS interviewed Andres Segovia during the 1980s. During the interview he was asked, why he played the guitar. His answer: "I play the guitar to save it from the Flamenco players."

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Artisanal Sublime

     I was recently privileged to be asked to be a reader for a manuscript for an upcoming book by the Yale anthropologist Kathryn Dudley. The 2-inch thick manuscript covered in marvelous detail almost every aspect of the artisanal guitar making scene of the past fifty years. Previously, she had interviewed me--and as well a host of other prominent North American artisanal guitar makers and personalities in adjunct fields--and my comments and the comments of the others, and her analysis, formed the basis of the work. Dudley approaches the guitar makers' universe with the clear eye of an anthropologist, with insights on the social factors that knit this unique world of buyers, makers and suppliers.
     I was flattered to find that Dudley began the manuscript with my story and then pursued as a recurrent theme throughout the work the metaphor that I had used to describe the original source of and continuing fascination for the craft. It was my account of the power and magic found in the old Pinocchio story, i.e., the humble Gepetto artisan witnessing with surprise the sudden animation of the artifact he had just fashioned from dead wood, springing off his work table and acquiring a life of its own. Pretty heady stuff--but I think many amateurs that find themselves driven to pursue the mysteries, agonies and glory of artisanal guitarmaking, can likely identify something of that story in themselves. Ms. Dudley asked me for comments after reading her manuscript, which I will share with my readers below:

I'm returning your manuscript with appreciative thanks for your thoroughness. It is really was a great revelation to me, as I will discuss further below. You were able to fill in all the blanks in a field that I've been living in for over 40 years! It is indeed an amazingly encyclopedic overview of the luthier's world in the United States. I'm flattered you included me--nay featured me, by placing me first-- along with all the principal figures in the American "artisal" guitar universe, from Linda Manzer and James Olsen to Golab Gidwani and Dan Erlewine. I couldn't put it down, it was so satisfying and insightful. A true delight. A serious masterwork!

It was also quite a revelation to me: It seems that I'm the only nationally-recognized, professional luthier in the United States not making $20,000+ for each guitar! Now that I can clearly see the full landscape of my own field, I feel something like a odd bird—in contrast to many of my colleagues. I seem to be different from most of the accomplished makers described in the manuscript, in that the market I want to serve is almost entirely composed hard-working session musicians and serious up-and-comings. I price my instruments at what I need to support myself in a modest lifestyle, to support the costs of my studio and materials and to support the careers and art of the working artists that I esteem so highly. If that works out to $4-5000.00 per instrument, I feel it rather grasping to charge $25,000, essentially for a 20 inch wooden box with somebody else's strings and tuning machines attached to it. I suppose that makes me an odd bird in this aviary.

You've made me aware of the careers of handful of self-made builders who have leveraged their career success on the purchase of one or several of their guitars by some superstar guitarist or other. This good fortune of happenstance now permits them to command $20,000-$30,000 for all their subsequent instruments. Now, they can't make them fast enough at that price¡ Well, far for me to begrudge the financial success of others. But I feel that it is legitimate to point out the distance between us: between what I think drives them and what I know drives me. I serve my craft. I don't expect it to enrich me. I'm privileged that it does afford me a living stable enough to continue doing it, free from financial anxiety, yes. But striving to a level that makes my work largely inaccesible to the working artists which I serve, no.

Becoming a jet-setting guitar-craft superstar, the darling of wealthy collectors and acquisitive dilettantes, or pursued by the agents of celebrity musicians—may be the aim of some artisans, but it was never my driving ambition. The pursuit of my craft is my religion, not a ticket to fame and fortune. My aim always was always simply to make working tools that facilitate artistic expression, not producing sexually-tinged objects of desire, aimed at attracting the acquisitive urges of people who like extraordinarily expensive, shiny fetish objects. 

You've made me realize, for a starter, I simply am not pursuing the same market as any of them. I'm satisfied with my choices and the freedom and flexibility that this market affords me. I choose to make tools for every-day working musicians, and I make my instruments to be accessible to them. I identify with the struggles and the earnest commitment of these artists. I appreciate that they haven't yet been driven into excess and eccentricity by wild fortune and fame.

I'm often told that I'm crazy not to just jack up my prices, and how that, in itself, will attract high-rolling customers, like flies to honey. I have no doubt that, perversely, jacking up my prices in this curious upside-down artisanal guitar world will indeed encourage sales. But my refusal to do so comes from my recoiling from the prospect of my then having to suck up to wealthy, acquisitive, entitled dilettantes who view the guitar as a "work of art" that they are so clever to invest in, and feel proud of the discernment that their purchase displays among their equals. 

What was eye-opening was that virtually every luthier on that list of makers commanding astronomical fees was previously struggling, making guitars for years and years--and starving. Many were about to give up and throw in the towel. It's a story repeated over and over: then, virtually without exception, fate runs them into some celebrity superstar that wanders into their shop, buys one of their guitars (or whose agent buys one of their guitars)--and soon after, the value and commercial appeal of their work skyrockets--not because the technical quality of their guitars suddenly improved 500%, but because of its fetishistic transformation, as if their work now was elevated in esteem simply by the fame--and by shaky extension, the implied discernment--of their patrons. But that's the American Story, isn't it?

So it appears that one of your conclusions is that for that astronomically-priced market, the guitar is not a simple commodity, but a fetish object. Success in that market is not directly proportional to the amount of some specific kind of special "sound" or technical excellence that these guitars possess or fails to possess--Just to the fame of the luthier's past clients. To enter that world, you must be touched by Grace to prosper. Those celebrity luthiers are really selling guitar-shaped sculpture to collectors. All the more power to them, they deserve each other. The rest of us are selling tools to inspire working artists.

Another remark: yours is a great encyclopedic work that should nonetheless be titled the AMERICAN artisanal guitar, following as it does the distinctive world of mainstream guitar making, starting from about the early 1960s. There's a lot of tantalyzing history missing, for example, of the New York City guitar artisan scene during the 20s, 30s, 40s and even 50s, which consisted essentially of highly skilled Mexican, Puerto Rican, Greek, Italian and Armenian tradesmen toiling away under the radar in hole-in-the-wall shops in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. Just from my Hispanic background I can point to my wishing to know more about of Freddie Mejias, the Mexican luthier; Juan Orozco or the Puerto Ricans Tito Baez, Yomi Matos (who recently got a lifetime fellowship recognition from the National Endowment of the Arts), and Nate Tirado. Perhaps the greatest living luthier Manuel Velazquez is given woefully short shrift. Also un-noted is the owner of Casa Ronda on Lexington Ave. Efrain Ronda, who was building artful guitars and cuatros during the mid 30s--and who's shop was the social gathering spot for all the great Hispanic artists of the day, including Andres Segovia. True, William Del Pilar's prominence in the city when my first teacher Michael Gurian was just a kid sniffing around various shops—is mentioned, but not explored. Maybe that is the stuff of another book. Maybe I should write it. That's a good way to learn, isn't it?