Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The aspiring guitarmaker's dilemma

I cannot thank you enough for your book and online articles. I have dedicated countless hours to those words of instruction. I wish to ask for your advice on a concern of mine, but first I want to set the stage from where my questions arise.
When I was considering building guitars I interviewed a guitar maker in San Francisco about what he thought of the craft and the business. His words were "Don't do it! You will lose your house and family, everything you care about... become a doctor or something." At the time I wasn't married nor did I own a house so of course I decided to move back to Southern Illinois to build guitars. I found a good day job to pay the bills and proceeded into seven years of learning to build acoustic guitars. My autodidactic nature proved to be a good fit.
I built guitars like tanks at first. They were not dreadnoughts, just dreadful. They did get better. After seven years of absolute gut wrenching euphoric devotion I discovered how little I knew and that it would probably take another 5-10 years of practiced learning before I could actually start selling them. But that's when my first daughter was born. My devotion to her won out over guitars and I stopped building so that I would not miss being a parent for those early years.
After almost six years of not being in the shop I feel it is time to return to building, but now feel the responsibility of caring for my family financially. Those ominous words I heard years ago from the disgruntled guitar builder still ring in my ears. My relationship to guitars has never been one of a side hobby. It is either all or nothing. The process takes everything I have. In doing so I, look forward to a possible day that I could make an income. I use to feel that I had a lifetime to devote to the craft, but with the family there is now a sense of urgency upon me to make the right choice. Now for the questions...
In these rather scary economic times is guitarmaking a viable choice? The market seems to be flooded with well-made guitars both factory and handmade. Is there still a market for all of them? Or is this recent golden age of instrument construction taking a downward turn in terms of sales. It seems a solid number of the luthier's websites have vanished. I wish I could give up all hope of fruition and just focus on the moment of building, but will that ever provide for the basics of food in mouth, roof over head. Of course it depends on whether or not I could be a highly skilled competent builder with something to offer, but lets consider that true for the questions at hand. I come from a long line of craftsmen and want to continue the tradition. There is a fork in the road here.
I respect your work and life immensely and am asking for some feedback as to the current state of affairs in the guitar world. Thank you.


Your dilemma arises in your viewing this as an either-or, all-or-nothing proposition. "Either I drop everything to become a prominent, successful, famous and wealthy guitarmaker, or cast this foolish, impossible dream from my mind forever and go back to making widgets for a living." Sounds silly when put that way, doesn't it?

Fact: given the required time and the required persistence you can eventually make glorious and coveted guitars.
Fact: at any given time there will be guitar makers better than you, that is, far more experienced and established.
Fact: luthier-made guitars are not a necessity like toilet paper or food. They are more like a sacramental fetish object, an object of desire and mystery. Only a subset--a surprising large subset--of the population can play a guitar. They live all over the World. There's a rising horde of millions of them in China alone. But within that subset, there is another subset that covets them, desires them, dreams of them. New people are daily joining that subset-within-a-subset. That subset will move heaven and earth to obtain the object of their desire.
Fact: within THAT subset, there's the fifteen people a year that are willing to pay you $5-10,000 for your guitar. Not a Taylor, not a Martin, not a Collings. Your guitars. 10-15 guitars: that's a living. And that is your potential market. You don't have to find enough buyers to buy 100 guitars a day, like Martin must; or 1000 guitars a day, like Goden does. Just 15 guitars a year, a decent living. Not getting rich, mind you, but enjoying a high-status, moderate income job. If you have have rich tastes and like to overindulge yourself. THEN forget it.
Fact: those 15 guitar cravers are looking for something different, something that they can't get from a Martin or a Taylor. It could be just a look, or a size, or a feel, a shape, a sound. You must be patient enough to wait until you find that market, and that market finds you. In other words, you have to find and work yourself into a sparsely-populated niche where you excel, and wait till those who find that niche attractive, find you. It's a lot like the music business, no? Or...just the business business.
Fact: You won't be able to create that coveted niche product by next week. Or the next. But given the required time and the required persistence you will find that niche and that niche product.
Fact: I know, easily, several dozen people with your same passion. And a day job. They see the day job as a valuable asset, because it buys them the time to incrementally find that niche and excel in it. They don't see it either-or. They've joined their dream with reality. They've made their passion, their calling, a practical pursuit. Sure, some of them have since thrown up their hands and went, naaaah--*&(^k -it.
But they were the ones that were not called.
You seem to express the similar "fire-in-the-belly" that I had when I began. But I began thirty-five years ago where virtually all the guitars being made and sold in the United States came from large factories. I also had the unlikely privilege as a 20-year old of being paid while I learned. Once on my own, my business grew with little competition. It was easy to stand out in a world that consisted of just a handful of individual builders working hundreds, if not thousands of miles separated from each other. Now aspirants to the profession face a completely different market, a market crowded with dozens of builders in every state who are more experienced than you are, many with a developed market and an efficient operation--which you have yet to develop, let alone just learn how to make a consistent and attractive product. So you are facing a different set of obstacles than I had to. But I had obstacles of my own to overcome, you can be sure of that. The world thought I was crazy and self-indulgent, for one. I had to suffer poverty for a dozen years, for another. But I persisted.
Having said that, as an artist, I'd be the last to urge you to abandon your passion for prudence. I developed as a guitarmaker while casting aside any care, notice or fear of the immense impracticality of it all. If I had thought of all the practical and prudent reasons for dumping this silly dream I could easily have persuaded myself out of it and would be retiring now, 30 years later, from an industrial design office (my degree was in Industrial Design) with a hefty pension (or maybe a string of layoff notices) and a heart problem. But I kept my blinders on and persisted. And the world rewarded me for that single-mindedness and persistence: I finally made a creative, self-directed life doing what I loved and received a measure of security, recognition and a lot of good will for it.

So I would have to tell you that there are probably as many good reasons today to drive you away from pursuing a career in guitarmaking as there were 35 years ago for me--just different reasons, unique to today's world. But knowing what I know now, if I started today, I would NOT set my goal to be independently wealthy and successful as a guitarmaker-superstar--but simply to educate myself in how to make unique and beautiful instruments, consistently and efficiently. Not to become Eric Clapton's guitarmaker, but for the sheer power that that knowledge in and of itself bestows--and the soaring feeling of accomplishment when you look back and remember those clunky dreadnoughts and what transpired between then and the sonorous, light and enchanting instruments which you will be producing. If indeed that is your goal--your self-transcendence as a creative artist--you will indeed find your unique niche in this now-crowded field.

Friday, July 3, 2009

To dome or not to dome

Hello William, I have this doubt I cannot wait for another month. Suppose we have two identical tops, same thickness, same rigidity. Let's say they are clone of each other. One you build flat or with a slight arch on the lower face brace (as described in your book), the other one is built on a concave dish (I started to use one). Do you think you need the same bracing? Or, in other words, if you use the same bracing on the two tops, do you think you will get the same results? I am asking because I started to use a concave dish. I like the result better, but I suspect that the top is much stiffer this way and using the same bracing as built flat, will inhibit vibrations. I am not sure, but this is an aspect where I notice a difference. It might be one of those macroscopic aspects you were telling me.

Grazie, Enrico


It is very hard to answer your question in a helpful way. You're presupposing that there is a "good" stiffness opposed to a "bad" stiffness. But how do you ascertain or quantify those two? How do you predict or evaluate the results of the two? How can you be certain that the difference in sound is the result of that particular difference in construction? Do you know precisely how much stiffer the top becomes when you impart a "slight" dome to it? How would you measure that? How would you evaluate the results in a way that can facilitate a clear choice? In practical terms, the question is moot, unanswerable. There is no "tipping point", but shades of gray. You have to be very careful of assuming you may ultimately be able to master the "science" of something which is essentially a cultural artifact, that ultimately is to be evaluated subjectively.

The universal consensus is that the lower transversal needs to be slightly arched. It is a matter of opinion, however about the value of imparting a "dome" to the area below. I don't do that, so I cannot advocate or dismiss that technique. I'm not even sure how gluing the fans against a hollow form actually succeeds in doming the soundboard. Does it? Does it dome it more than just the residual dome resulting from the curved transversal? Does glueing together two elastic components while both are pushed against a curved surface impart a permanent curve into the results? How permanent? You would imagine it does. But...does it? Then, what results when the entire elastic assembly is subjected to 43 kilograms of string tension? What happens to your minuscule dome then?

Assuming it actually succeeds in doming the soundboard, you would imagine that the bridge would then have to be hollowed to conform to the curve--closely. Then you would also have to curve the bridge block used temporarily underneath the top to clamp the bridge to it while it's glued, in order not to disturb that careful dome. That means the bridge is now sitting higher than it would be on a flatter top. the fretboard inclination would have to account for that.

I'm too lazy to do all this, especially since the advantage of the extra work is inconclusive, or unprovable, and when too many world class guitars just aren't made that way. My philosophy is, also, that the simplest solution is more often the best solution.

But if you believe that the domed workboard gave you better results---go with it!!! Perhaps the dome thus imparted is interacting synergistically with some other aspect of your sequence and design that you may not be (and perhaps will never be) aware of. All you have, really is your belief. Or, you can fritter away your concentration imagining impossible scientific experiments that perhaps may illuminate the quandary. But I think that is an illusion. Those thought experiments (two perfectly cloned tops, one made one way, the other made the other way...which would be "better?") I can't image to be ultimately very productive.

Go with your belief. That is what is called intuition: following the path which you cannot prove will be successful before hand. And my experience is that your intuition gets better the more you exercise it. If you domed your last top and didn't "compensate" with the stiffness of the bracing--and the results were clearly positive--assume it was because of what you did differently, or at least know that you did no harm, so keep doing it and be content and turn to something else on the agenda. It is the habit of modern man to want to KNOW before proceeding. But you often cannot Know. And must proceed.

All I know is that my guitars became consistently successful--by the responses I get from clients--after making many of them--and relying on my intuition. Your initial success evidenced by the acceptance of your last guitar by a discerning musician, is the product of your trusting your instincts and then following them with persistence.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

An imagined problem

I recently bought Guitarmaking Tradition and Technology, as I will be building my first classical guitar once I've tooled up for the job. The book is it to bits! Thank you so much. :~)

Perhaps you would clarify something to do with the build process that is nagging at me a bit? It is to do with joining the back and top to the sides. In your book you show the sides/lining being sanded with a large flat board, giving a flat surface. Yet the top and back are radiused, meaning they will contact the sides at an angle. The thing that is nagging at me is that this would give a rather small joining surface between the sides and the back/top. Perhaps the effect of the radius over the distance of the side thickness and lining that serves as the gluing surface is so small that it doesn't matter? Am I on the right track?

I hope you will indulge an old fool with his silly questions.

Smart people are the ones that ask the questions. Silly old fools think they know it all already.

I understand why you find a problem that ought to exist, in your mind's eye. But in practical real-world terms, it simply does not exist as a problem. Guitars have been made for eons without the elaborate CAD/CAM domed sanding shells that the suppliers would just love to sell you to satisfy those imagined "common sense" problems. If every thing on the guitar was rigid as glass there might be a problem. But wood is elastic and the offset from flat of a 1/4-inch segment of a 15 or 16-inch chord of a very, very large circle is next to negligible and what there is flexes under pressure to come together and adhere permanently. So my advice is to worry about other things, and put that to rest.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Twelve-string setup

I have a question for you about 12 strings guitar set up.
I do not have much experience in playing and setting up 12 strings guitars.

I am setting up a 12 strings guitar and I have found that is difficult to
press two strings, on the same row, that have different diameter with the
same pressure. So I find that if I press the fifth row of strings (0,039 - 0,018) I am able
to press the 0,039 string well but the 0,018 not so well and it rattles
because it is not pressed well. This happens also for the third, fourth an sixth rows (less in the sixth). This guitar has good action (1/16 & 3/32 at 12 fret).

1. Is it possible to reduce this difficulty installing higher frets (this
guitar has 0,04" tall frets).

2. Is it possible to reduce it setting each string row more apart?
(each row is more or less 1/16 apart at the nut and 3/32 apart at the
saddle). Which distance do you recommend?

3. Do you think that it is better to cut nut slots with different height in
the same row to gain more comfortable action at the first fret?

That's all.
I Hope you will find the time to answer me.


The greatest clarity of sound on a 12-string is the not the result of fret height, or in a difference of slot-depth at the nut for each member of the string-pairs. In your case I see the following difficulties:

1- There is no getting around that a 12 string player has to develop more grip strength than a 6-string player. A beginning 12-string player will have clarity problems no matter what the string spacing or string set up is, until the player realizes that more muscle pressure is necessary to press both strings down firmly for a clear sound. It takes specific hand skills to play a 12-string expertly. So be assured that a weaker player will undoubtedly complain about clarity no matter how expertly made or set up the 12 string is. So as a builder or repair man, you must be ready for that dilemma and not blame yourself exclusively.

2- Your strings are indeed too closely spaced at the nut, if they are 1/16 inch (1.6 mm). That can also contribute to a lack of clarity if the strings clash together, the smaller string being overpowered by the larger. At the nut, the optimum spacing is an average of 3/32, with the trebles a tiny bit less and the basses a tiny bit more. At the bridge, the diameter of the bridge pins is a limiting factor, since it is not good practice to cut grooves into the saddle. However if your pins are very fat, you may make a clearance notch in the bridge pins to insure that the optimum spacing between the pairs is 1/8 inch.

3- Your action height is too low. The thinner string will be the first to be dampened when it strikes the frets. So what is the optimum height? Optimum is the highest action possible, given the limits of the players strength, that is, not so low that the strings jangle and rattle on the frets, yet not so high that the player can't press them all the way down. That's the dilemma: a beginning player will complain of difficult action even at a very low setting, which then makes the strings easily contact the frets; then complain about the lack of clarity. Expert 12-string players have a well-developed grip, but also have developed an instinctive ability to press the strings appropriately and efficiently no matter what the string height. But given the choice, they prefer a high action to a low because they are strong enough to overcome it, and it gives them a better tone and a wider dynamic range.

So the 12 string is not an appropriate instrument for a weak or beginning 6-string guitarist. So don't let them blame you for their own lack of development. You learn to play the 12 string guitar AFTER you have become a competent 6-string player. If a weak beginner insists on playing with a very low action, they must accept a sizzly, jangly, unclear sound until they become strong enough to play with a raised action.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

If Ramirez does it, shouldn't I ?

I noticed that you don't use the ebony stripe that goes in the neck. You never even talked about it. I was advised to put one in my necks for stability. Should I use it? I don't have power tools, so it is a pain to insert an ebony (or rosewood) stripe in the neck. What do you think?


I see these ebony center lamination on Ramirez' guitars, and think, "well, they should know." But no amount of reasoning can persuade me that it is useful for neck "stability". Mahogany is far more stable (lower in reactivity to environmental changes) than ebony. The mahogany neck, which is rather large and massive when compared to that of a thinner and narrower steel-string neck, is well up to the task of withstanding the modest tension forces imposed by nylon strings: barely 36 kg--and only half of that, since the neck bears one half of the stressed string, the soundbox bears the other half. So if "stability"is defined as low-reactivity to environmental changes, it just doesn't seem helpful to put a stripe of very-reactive ebony down the center of exceedingly-unreactive mahogany neck to "enhance" it's stability. If "stability" is defined as low deflection, the ebony strip--which is denser and stiffer than mahogany is over-kill. If deflection of the mahogany neckshaft were a problem, we would see action rising as a result of the neck curving or bending under stress. But I've never seen that on a nylon string guitar. Action rising as a result of string tension has always seemed to result from a stretching of the soundbox, and a rotation of the rigid neck at the neck-body junction, not a curving or bending of the neck shaft.

I can, however, read into the ebony center-strip an effort to perhaps harness or modify the acoustic response of the instrument. Trying to think here, like the very talented folks at Ramirez, I find it entirely reasonable to propose (not affirm) that stiffening the neck--not for structural reasons, but for acoustic reasons--reflects the strings' wave energy towards the far-more compliant soundbox. Or that damping the neck to modify the tone, hopefully in a positive manner. The neck's total mass, stiffness, and inertia is an important variable in the guitar's tone production. Adding an ebony strip down the middle creates a new variable, and for Ramirez' perhaps, for them, a reasonable justification for inserting an ebony center strip.

Why NOT glue?

I'm readying myself for a classical guitar, and I've noticed in your book that you do not recommend gluing the sides into the headstock slots. This would seem to compromise stability between the neck and the body in the finished product. What are the pros and cons of this practice, and would I be making a serious mistake if I glued the joint?


I'm not sure what you mean by "stability", but when you consider that everything converging on the neck joint is tightly glued, save for the sides in the slot, the system ends up being completely "stable" regardless of whether the sides are glued into the slot or not. Setting aside the basic woodworking no-no against gluing onto end-grain, there are good, practical reasons for not gluing the side into the slot. But the best solution depends on the quality of fit that you can achieve, of the side into slot.

The ideal would be that the slot/side clearance offered a glove-fit to the side. The seam would be tight and the side rattle-free. In that case, it would be a disaster if you then attempted to include glue into the slot along with the side. You'd have an instant to properly position the side into the slot before it became permanently locked as the side and the slot swelled by a tiny amount. Try it on scrap, you'll see. If it slides in with no wobble, it'll lock virtually instantly when you slide it in with glue. Another bad thing would be if any glue were to be squeezed out on the show side, it would be unsightly and difficult to completely remove.

I happen to be able to control my slot and side widths so I can achieve a glove fit--one which require no glue. Many experienced builders such as myself do not glue the slot in also, but they've also learned from bitter experience that if you do use glue, you need to cut a generous clearance-fit to avoid the hydraulic locking problem. But then a generous clearance can lead to a visible gap on the show side, which is structurally trivial but visually, very disconcerting. So the solution for builders who don't have the resources to consistently produce a glueless glove-fit between slot and side is to cut a rather wide slot for a wobbly fit; then during assembly, they slide a tapered veneer wedge, with glue, behind the side in the slot. This pushes the side against the slot wall on the show side. And everything is glued together so your "stability" worry is relieved.

But try gluing a side into a tight slot only at your peril! You may loose both your side and your neck in the process.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Is Adirondack REALLY superior to Sitka?

What I am wondering is, do our ears really have the sensitivity to tell the difference between the tone of an Indian Rosewood back over a Brazilian Rosewood back?

To simplify, is a rosewood species equivalent, in general,
when it comes to tone? Likewise, is mahogany species a mahogany tone. Now I understand that density can play and overall role in tone but are the variations in the same genus or even the same species significant enough to say that one is superior over the other? Are we paying for "appearances" when it comes to rosewoods (for example) or is there really an argument for unique tone?

Also, is a soundboard like Adirondack really superior to sitka? Can our ears really notice it? Is bearclaw sitka really superior to standard sitka? I played a dreadnaught with an adirondack top and indian rosewood back at it was indeed a canon compared to some other Sitka/Rosewood dreads I have played. Can that experience really be due to Adirondack spruce or am I falling prey to the "myths" and my ears are hearing what they think they should?


It must have been that guy who writes the cutesy-pie ad copy for the Mandolin Brothers circulars. My guess is that the person that told you that Adirondack spruce is the "best" wood for steel-string tops, is likely to be someone selling an Adirondack spruce guitar, trying to seed a mythology about the material. Or someone impressed by one who was. Be skeptical. Be very skeptical.

Anyone making finger-wagging pronouncements about the inherent "superiority" of one species over an other, is to my sights, likely to be either a faker or a fool. I can tell, because when I began my long journey into this field, I was repeatedly mis-educated by their pat, self-confident pronouncements and many just like them. And usually, it was the more expensive varieties (imagine that!) that floated to the top of the pile. Common, low-cost species were beneath contempt. The only worth considering were the ones whose stratospheric cost and impossible rarity were proof of their magic. No further explanations were given as to what kind of scale these comparisons were being judged on. Just that mahogany was just okay, Indian rosewood was good, Brazilian the best, and so forth. To this day, forty years later I am still unlearning those sentimental myths.

There is no objective reference for beauty. Beauty does not emerge by your knowingly selecting one species and not another. A skilled, experienced, thoughtful maker can make a beautiful instrument from any species.

Beauty can emerge, but from the synthesis of a hundred values and senses acquired slowly, almost as a gift--as a reward for persistence.

Given that, which then is an efficient learning path for the luthier?

1- Give up your search--and don't fall for--quick tips that claim to achieve beauty. Disbelieve anyone claiming that "Mahogany will sound warm, Rosewood will sound clear." Run from them like the plague. If someone tells you if you do a certain thing on a guitar it will make it "sound better", ask how specifically they came to that conclusion, and what evidence they found persuasive. Then don't wait for an answer.

2- The greatest illusion of all: "tonal manipulation." Give up the illusion that anyone can teach you guitar "tap-tones"--however they're defined--and that you can objectively use them to make a guitar sound "better". They can't teach you: they don't make the sound "better." The system is too complex to be reduced to tap tones. Don't tune the parts to any note. Don't sand in any spot until its "right." Don't carve braces so they look like a cartoon of the Alps, thinking that will achieve beauty. Don't think that the secret to this certain guitar is that it's braces leap over and tunnel under each other. It isn't. The guitar's secrets are not obvious or easily revealed. The tantalyzing prospect of direct manipulative control over guitar tone is mythical, illusory.

3- What is a guitar, essentially? No, it's not a wave-transforming apparatus. It's a cultural artifact. And what is the highest calling of a luthier, essentially? No, not some eccentric kind of inventor, forever plotting how to invent a better mousetrap. By my sights, the highest calling of a luthier is more properly a skilled duplicator of a high cultural value, whose purpose it is to try to elicit from a long-familiar cultural form a long-familiar sound--a sound prized by the culture's collective ear.

Different culture--different idealized form, different prized sound. The Chinese pi'pa sounds like to us like somebody slapping a rubber band against a cigar box. But it sounds like heaven to the Chinese. The master pi'pa luthier's calling is to get that nasal twang just right.

The guitar's sound is a largely a consequence of its form. What follows is that as you change its form, a different sound emerges. Cultures change its preferred, prized instrument sound---with its iconic instrument's attendant change in form--very slowly, like the movement of a glacier. Heed this advice, ego trippers with the delusion that the culture will beat a path to your hastily-contrived novelty guitar form.

4- What to actually strive for is not ineffable beauty. Therein lies madness. What to strive for are achievable, objective goals: accurate pitch, comfortable action and playability, precise neck geometry, clean workmanship, tight glue joints--the result of sharp planes and chisels; precise measurement and attention paid with brain in gear. If you apply this to the familiar, culturally-derived forms, the guitar's culture will reward you. Your guide, then, are the precedents and solutions set forth by and found within the work of the various extraordinary makers that came before--makers already prized by your culture who, by the sheer variety of successful solutions to the similar problems, teach that there are several good ways to make the same delicious pie.If you do this you will likely be, as I was--surely and eventually--rewarded with the ability to make beautiful guitars consistently. No, I can't tell you how long it will take. It took me about 10 years when I noticed that I had reached a routine and mind-set that was working. Then another 10 years to learn to do it with acceptable efficiency and effortlessness. Then a 20 years voyage towards mastery. You may be able to do it sooner, I don't know. I'm a slow study.

And 5- Avoid the inevitable mystification of the craft. True, this here is a realm of deeply-ingrained iconic and historic cultural values--very strong medicine. But keep it under control. The mystique may have driven you into the craft--fine. But you soon best cast it away, because it is an impediment to attention to the doable, knowable. Others may think this is inspired, shamanic activity. You'll find that it is complex, demanding, often frustrating activity. But what it really is, is real-world problem solving. Given ample time, it is mastered by reason, attention, introspection and persistence. Then, mystically, the beauty begins to appear on its own.