Friday, July 17, 2015

Luthier acoustics

A student of mine has become an intimate personal friend. Enrico Schiaffella resides in Rome, Italy, and has become noted as a fine classical builder in his own right. He wrote to me to recount his discomfort at being interviewed on TV, with questions that assumed that he knew just how guitars worked and how they sounded like they do. He wrote: "...but he is not the only who talks about scientific aspect of sound. I cannot bear it: I mean, the luthier is just an artisan—kind of a specialized  carpenter. He is no PhD in physics. How should he know about acoustics? I would not know what to say. These people are just crazy. They make a lot of talking about nothing." I responded,

I thought this was just a stupid American weakness. Your message is proof that it is a universal weakness.

People look at a string. It is silent. They look at a guitar. It is silent. But when the string is moving, beautiful sound is created. It must be magic. It must be science. The builder must know precisely how to make the inert material sing. He must be steeped in great, ancient wisdom. He must be a shaman. Or at least an apprentice shaman. 

So with this illusion, they are excited to ask you to explain the magic. You don't want to deflate their expectations. That would be rude. Besides, if you admit that you are working at the edges of true knowledge, they will think, "wrong guy. Impostor. I should be interviewing a real shaman. Later for you."

But the truth will set you free. You simply refuse to play the game. When someone asks you to answer a "loaded" question like "have you stopped beating your wife?" You can't answer just yes or no, because in either case you are admitting to being a wife-beater. You can only answer. "How did you come to the conclusion that I am beating my wife?" THEN you can respond to that.  

The guitar-making version of a loaded question is , ""Do you build with a thin back so that the whole guitar vibrates, or are you married the modern school where the back is very thick because you don't want it to vibrate? In this case, the soundboard is mainly responsible for the sound generation"

The only answer is "I build the back to the same thickness of the traditional models that I admire." and then, "I am only married to the school of Hernandez y Aguado." and then "where did you hear that the soundboard is mainly responsible for sound generation?" They might then answer, "well I heard it from great guitar builder so-and-so, who affirms that this is true." 

Your response would then be, "did you ask him how he came to that conclusion? I would like to know how he found that out! Did he study acoustics? Did he do double-blind experiments? I hope he didn't just make it up!"  

You may be fearful of being seen as an ignoramus because you aren't sure why your guitars sound so good. But instead, I would look forward to this opportunity to deflate and perhaps end this bullshit-propagating process. All in a polite, non-threatening or insulting way, of course. 

Don't answer his questions directly at first: question the questioner's assumptions. The assumptions that he is trying to make you validate. You simply don't validate the assumptions.  You can reveal that the emperor has no clothes--that there is no Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. The posture of being fascinated by the many mysteries of sound production is not an unattractive stance. You can say that it is these mysteries that keep you fascinated and energized to pursue this ancient craft. But for someone in your position--as a scientist--working in a realm of mystery, you remain skeptical of the many scientific claims made by non-scientists. You tend to trust empirically-derived conclusions, such as: 

  • That soundboard timbers cut in a certain way give a more satisfying response than if they are cut in a different way.
  • That an extremely wide array of soundbox wood choices give satisfying results, not just rosewood.
  • That the closer you can come to the choices and techniques of the great masters of the past, the better the chances that your guitar will sound like the models that we all have come to love and admire.
  • That guitar acoustics is in such a state of infancy, that it can only shine very little light on how the guitar works. But a basic knowledge of acoustics helps dispel the many made-up popular explanations of how it works, such as "the soundbox amplifies the string sound." and, "the back is a sound reflector" or "the soundboard generates all the sound of the guitar." 
  • Until guitar acoustics matures, your only reasonable recourse is to simply look for the answers in the work of the great masters. The closer you can get to their solutions and decisions, the more masterful your guitars will result.  

Does that help?

Abrazos, mi hermano...