Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Outdoor guitarmaking

My name is Uri, and I am trying to make an steel string guitar with your book as my guide. The only place I can work in is a semi-open balcony, in which I have no means of controlling the humidity level. I purchased an unserviced kit from lmii, and let it acclimate for some time in that semi-open space. When I got around to handling the top yesterday (about two months after their arrival, and after a heavy raining storm last week - now it's suddenly summer) - it was all curled up. My back and sides, of curly maple, are in about the same condition. I can get a pretty reasonable glue joint in the middle of the plates, but I'm quite sure it'll cause me trouble down the road when I plane the plates to thickness. I really don't know of a way to get around this, and also don't really know if there's any major change in humidity in the near future as I'm at mother nature's mercy. I would really appreciate your response or any input on that matter.

If you're keeping your plates face down on flat surface, like a table top, you are exposing the up-face to the weather and shielding the the plate will curl. Try flipping them over and waiting for a day or so to see if they flatten by themselves (if left too long, they might continue to curl in the opposite direction and actually reverse). So keep an eye on them, and when they flatten, instead of keeping them flat face-down on a table, tip them upright against a vertical surface (or hang them with clips from a stretched string, like the Spaniards do). The point is to have to freely expose both faces to the air. When you finish working with them instead of laying them flat, tip them upright or hang them.

But a very likely outcome is that if you build your guitar in the outdoors in a changeable climate, when you bring your finished guitar indoors, especially to a period of dry weather, the guitar will probably crack or distort. You can bet on it. And curly maple, especially if it is flat sawn is, among all the guitar-woods the most reactive of all to humidity changes. I don't know where you live, but if it is rainy and warm in the summer and cold and dry in the winter, your guitar is likely to become a small time bomb waiting to pop.

I know this will happen because I am from Puerto Rico and all the folk instrument makers work outdoors. But in Puerto Rico, the tropical weather doesn't change during the year: it's always warm and steamy. So after they are made, the folk instruments remain fairly stable. But when travelers bring those water-soaked sponges to the Northeast United States with its long, cold, dry winters and artificially heated apartments, the instruments invariably shrink, twist and crack dramatically.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What species has the greatest impact?

Everything I read (and people I talk with) suggests that, although there are a seemingly infinite number of contributors to sound, the top wood has the single largest impact.

Let me guess: none of those you read or talked with that told you that the top wood has the "single largest impact" specified what kind of impact they were talking about, nor what precisely about the top wood was making the impact, nor for that matter, specified what was being impacted, by the soundboard.

Am I right?

The impression you must have received was that just that somehow, some kind of "good" flowed from making some kind of "good choice" about the soundboard. Kind of vague, right? The advice sounded pretty convincing (after all, the strings sit right on the soundboard, right?), but it nevertheless left you with that funny feeling that you had been given important information, but you didn't know whether you were smarter now after knowing it--or not.

The advice must not have been so enlightening, because here you are asking me to confirm or decipher it for you.

Welcome to the world of guitar lore.

If you're interested in eventually making consistently good guitars, my first advice is to a) learn to recognize lore when you hear it and then b) disregard it.

How can you distinguish what is lore? If the source is a person, ask, "how have you come to that conclusion?" He better sound very convincing to your well-developed skepticism. If it's something written, if it is couched in broad, vague generalities ("the top wood has the largest impact"), put all the red flags up. There's nothing to be learned here.

There is no "best" soundboard wood specie, so don't waste your time trying to find which one it is. There is no "best" bracing pattern, so, likewise. There is no "best" body wood, so, likewise. And so forth. So what makes the greatest "impact" ?

Precision of construction

Quality of cut and seasoning of materials

Precision of scale and saddle placement; uniformity of fretwork

Architectural choices: i.e. structural efficiency and minimal adequate structure

Closely following precedents set by cultural models

The precedent set by cultural models is, with a very few exceptions, coniferous softwoods. The precedent is vertical grain, resulting from the plates being sawn from a split billet. The demands of woodworking excellence is that the workpiece be scrupulously well-seasoned. There is no precedent for species.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The illusion of tap tuning

It's the most mysterious and compelling aspect of the guitarmaker's craft--the one that commands the greatest mystique and controversy, particularly among neophytes: the mythic skill claimed by, and claimed of, some older luthiers, the skill of consistently being able to impose the optimum "quality" of tone [whatever that means] into a guitar during its construction by selectively removing material--usually from the soundboard--until it elicits a particular response. This purported conversation between the dead wood and luthier savants is often described as "tuning" or "tap tuning" the top, and is described by those claiming to be able to teach that the optimum moment arrives when the top rings at a certain musical note, or as admittedly I once thought, twenty-five years ago and declared, no note at all.

I've often reported my conviction here that this is a sad illusion that these people are laboring under--as reading a number of earlier posts in this blog will testify. Well, I'm admitting here that there was a chink in my certainty all along. The fact that I seemed to be a lone voice opposing the din, the only one speaking with any kind of conviction on this, made me a little concerned that I may be wrong. Was there no one to corroborate my perception that I was sane and the rest of the world was crazy?

Well then, imagine my sheer delight in listening to none other than the "last of the great Spanish luthiers", the great maestro Jose Romanillos. There he was, in a youTube video, an ocean away, echoing my thoughts, as if reading from a script that I could have written for him, myself: in his modest and gentle way, he was saying, like I do, that tuning is an illusion, and the only over-arching "secret" to making great guitars is... striving to achieve minimal adequate structure!

It takes a lot of guts and knowledge to take this piece of wood down to the bare minimum. And Hauser, with the traditional regularity of thought, the strength, the rigidity, all things--he couldn't really go further in his thicknessing of the wood as the Spaniards. And that is because the bass resonance of the Hauser--it hasn't got to the level of the...if you listen to the first recording of Segovia in 1912, Ramirez, Santos Hernandez, the bass is...deep. And the Hauser never got that resonance, never got to that level. And that is precisely--this is my opinion, for what it's worth--because he didn't quite go a step farther into that situation

Then, in the video, Erwin Somogyi appears for an instant, asserting that:

I like the adage that the best guitars are built at the cusp of disaster. Which means that--just strong enough to hold together. So that they're maximally able to respond without breaking.

Well that's odd, from what I understand, that's not exactly what he teaches. In other similar youTube videos he advocates tap tuning.

Then Romanillos continues:

..there is a lot of talking about tuning the guitar to G, G sharp and all that. Because some of the innovative guitars, they are tuned to that. And they haven't got the quality that is required for the classical guitar.

There is a lot of speculation about tuning the soundboard to a specific frequency. And that, it cannot be done on the open [plate]. And when you put it on [the guitar], the thing changes. What happens is that some guitars for some reason sound better, or people think they sound better. But what happens, that's the area where the normal guitar, the resonance of the normal Spanish guitar concentrates in the space of about 10 or 12 cycles (gestures up and down) and that is it.

But you cannot control that. It happens by, if you like, by natural resources, that the guitar is built up to that set of frequencies.

And when some people think, it hits there, its a good sound. Well, I don't think that is because if you could tune anything to G sharp or G and not produce the sound quality.

I read somewhere that Herman Hauser used to sit on a chair with a jug of beer and get the guitar in tune by taking [off] here and you know, there, pieces and scraping. I think that is to me, total nonsense.

People today, they finish the guitar and then they tune the guitar by, with a little plane, taking a piece from the bass...and that sort of thing, until they get the resonance they think [is good]. Well it could work to a specific frequency, but we haven't got to, we haven't acquired enough knowledge to produce, or more or less control, fixed resonance. And all this is's good in a way, because it creates a field for people to think about it, you know...but there is you know, you could really change [the soundboard] by scraping.

There. Well said. I swear I didn't write his script.

And believe me I don't want to rag on Erwin or rain on his parade. Erwin makes beautiful guitars. But there were people who built beautiful guitars who believed that it was their mastery of numerology that gave you them power to achieve consistent perfection. Or deflection tests. Or like Jimmy d'Aquisto said, he made oval soundholes because it caused the sound to squirt farther, like pinching a hose.