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.