Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Lil' Champ

  I just flew home from Alaska and boy are my arms tired.  No.. seriously.. tired from playing music for basically five days straight.  I was in Juneau for the 40th annual Alaska Folk Festival where my band the Gallus Brothers was the official guest dance band.  What an honor and what a ton of fun it was!  Some highlights were watching and listening to Bonsoir Catin from Louisiana, hanging out with Ray Troll in a great antique map shop, playing the Alaskan Bar (our old Juneau stomping ground), and staying up until daybreak playing music and getting goofy just about every night.  It was great to reconnect with lots of folks up north, and make lots of new friends too.  It was also a particularly great time for me because I got to take my latest guitar up there and put it through the paces.  Ladies and Gentlemen....    The Lil' Champ

  It's my first resonator guitar that I've built, and the first guitar I've made that I get to keep!  I've played on a few different metal bodied resonators over the last decade, most notably a couple by National Resophonic.  They are excellent guitars and have treated me well for performing and touring.  Over the years I've found myself gravitating towards the wood body sound, so building one has been on my to-do-list for a while.  This was somewhat new territory for me and I wasn't sure what I'd end up with.  My expectations have been fully realized and surpassed, and simply put, this guitar kicks butt!  It's got the volume, the tone, and the feel that I want.  Loud without being distorted, and the full, bass-rich tone with crystal clear treble that I've come to appreciate with the N.R. guitars.  I played it bare fingered in jams, with picks, and miked in a large concert hall, a gymnasium and a smallish bar and it shined in every setting.  It's 1 13/16" wide at the nut and a modified V neck that sits perfectly in the hand.  12 frets to the body, with a 25" scale length.  The body is the same shape as my concert model.  It's a thick, solid Sitka Spruce top, solid flamed Western Maple for the back and sides, and inside is a suspended, solid poplar soundwell.  The neck is three piece mahogany and runs straight through to the tailpiece just like on metal bodies.  The "lil' champ" logo is stenciled, in the fashion of some of my old favorites.

  I've also been busy with a couple other guitar styles that are a bit out of my norm.  First up.. the venerable workhorse, the J-45.

  OK, so this one's not much of a departure from what I'm usually building except for the sheer size.  I've never wanted to get into building Dreadnoughts.. they're not really my thing, and there's already plenty of people building 'em.  But Gibson's old slope shouldered sunbursted beauty has always appealed to me.  I tried to keep to general early 40's Gibson specs on the bracing and basic design.  It's a Sitka top over Honduran Mahogany, with Rosewood bridge and fretboard.  It's finished with a french polished spirit varnish.

  Next we have the gypsy jazz classic..  the Petite Bouche

  This is also one of those guitars that I've always loved and has been on the bucket list for awhile, so I was happy to oblige when a friend made the commission.  Since my friend lives in town here, he could come by and dig through the wood stacks with me.  He chose a great piece of bear claw Sitka Spruce for the top, and this pretty wild Myrtle for the body.  We decided to stay all domestic, so this one features poplar for the neck, and reclaimed walnut for the fretboard, bridge and head cap.  I made the tailpiece by hand with brass from and old letter press tray.  This guitar proved to be a fun challenge.  The thin flat top is heat bent just past the bridge, and the braces are all carved into a rather tight bend too, resulting in a domed top under considerable tension.  It's a very cool design that Mario Macaferri invented in the early 30's.  For this guitar, I used Francois Charle's excellent plans of Selmer #807.  The results, so far, are absolutely wonderful.

  And here's a photo of these two build buddies, in the works...

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Winter Fun!

It's cold and dark outside, but it's always warm and dry down in the shop and I've been staying plenty productive down here.  Here's a couple of the most recent guitars to come off the bench.

This Grand Concert model was custom built for a great musician and friend of mine, Charmaine Slaven.  She kicks butt at everything I've seen her do, and that includes playing guitar, fiddle, clogging, calling dances, raising goats, and just being a general positive character in our community.  So I was naturally stoked when she asked me to build her a guitar.  This is what we came up with..

  That's Indian Rosewood for the back and sides, Engelmann Spruce top, Mahogany neck, and Ebony for the bridge and fingerboard.  Charmaine plays in a couple Seattle bands, The Tallboys, and a sort of splinter duo Squirrel Butter.  Inlaid on the headstock is a squirrel and the theme continues down the fretboard with nuts and seeds for position markers, and then culminates with the rosette with squirrel paws dancing around the sound hole with old dance step instruction style dotted arrows.

  We have an acorn, a pecan, and yes.. that's a peanut.  That's also Evo fretwire, which is a relatively new alloy on the fret market.  It has a slight brassy gold color, and supposedly outlasts the old nickel silver standby.  This is my first time trying it out, on some good recommendations, and will likely continue using it (of course the standard nickel-silver will always be available to those who request it).

  Charmaine's guitar is X-braced, feather light, and already sounds awesome.  Full, loud and rich.  I got to hear her breaking it in all weekend at The Portland Old Time Music Gathering, where I delivered it.  I can't wait to hear it more!

  And now for something completely different...

  This one was commissioned by a friend who had a vision of a big body electric archtop with all the bells and whistles that retains a simple old-school look.  It's a newly drawn, extra large body profile, with TV Jones pickups (made just down the road from here in Poulsbo, WA), Bigsby tremolo, and custom ivoroid appointments.  The "Extra Standard".

  All the inlays are hand cut from ivoroid which also matches the binding, heelcap, pickguard and truss rod cover.  The top and back are hand carved from scratch out of book matched Western Maple, and Engelmann Spruce respectively.  Hand rubbed stain, varnish, and then french polish for the finish.

  It sounds amazingly good as an acoustic guitar, considering the amount of hardware on it.  It had been awhile since I had done any wiring work and I was a bit anxious to hear it through an amp.  I rolled up my sleeves, plugged 'er in and did my best Merle Travis impersonation and...   phew!  It plays like a dream.  It screams, and bounces, and moans, and flashes, and to my relief I had to try really hard to make it feedback.  I never knew I wanted one before, but now that I've made this I won't rest until I have one for my own.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Harvest Season

  The apple and pear trees around Whatcom County are bent and heavy with fruit right now.  I've been doing my part by picking what would otherwise be left to fall and rot, and grinding 'em up and squeezing 'em out on my homemade cider press.  Always putting aside plenty for tasty home brew too.  As we all revel in our current local bounties, I'm also finding myself with an abundance of another great local resource.  Wood.

  My good friend John Deacon runs Great Northern Tree Service out of Bellingham.  He recently let me know about a good size oak tree he was going to have to take down.  I've always loved the oak guitars I've come across, and I love using this domestic wood for instrument building.  It is great to bend, smells wonderful while working it, and is just beautiful to look at, especially when quartersawn.  So naturally I jumped at the opportunity to help move a couple heavy logs, load 'em on to John's truck, and head out to Everson to have them milled up.

  That's Brien Thomas on the left and John on the right.  Brien runs Mad Marmot Mills, and pulls his sawmill all around the county.  This time we brought the logs to his home worksite, drank good strong coffee, had lots of laughs, and turned a couple oak logs into a manageable stack of 2" thick planks.  Brien occasionally comes across something special like this salvaged old growth red cedar...

  Once back at the shop, I set to painting the ends of all the boards, and then stacking and stickering them to air dry.  I'll give it a few years, then resaw the planks into workable pieces for backs and sides. 

That's the fresh milled oak up top and in the foreground, black walnut on the middle rack, and some really pretty figured myrtle on the bottom.  Ahhh, like looking at a shelf full of canned peaches, or a carboy full of cider, it is sure satisfying to have a good looking wood supply.  Some for now, and some put aside for tomorrow.

Saturday, July 13, 2013


  It feels like genuine summer around here.  The sun's been out everyday and it even feels hot (by NW Washington standards anyway).  I got to spend the last couple weeks in nearby Port Townsend where I participated in two back to back music camps..  Voiceworks, and The Festival of American Fiddletunes where I also got to tutor in beginning old time fiddle.  Fun and challenging!  There was lots of reconnecting with old friends, making new friends, late night goofiness, and of course tons of music.  There were a few of my guitars around and it was wonderful to hear them cranking away in jams with some excellent musicians.  Right before heading over to PT, I had just finished a pair of guitars..

  First up is a concert size guitar for Matt Novak..

  It's beautiful Oregon Black Walnut for the back and sides, Sitka Spruce top, and Maple bindings.
The fingerboard, bridge and strap pins are Indian Rosewood, and the rosette and purflings are made of curly Koa, and Ebony.  It's ladder braced and has a good bark when laid into with the pick a little.  Played gently, it has an easy resonance that suggests a larger box than it is.  So far, it is a delight to play, and I can't wait to go out and see and hear it being put to work.

  Matt is a great picker who's been playing in and around Bellingham for years with Quickdraw Stringband, and Pretty Little Feet, as well as being an accomplished songwriter on his own.

  Next up we have a Grand Concert built for Johnny Fitzpatrick of Seattle.

  This one has an X braced Sitka Spruce top, and Indian Rosewood back and sides.  Maple bindings, and Ebony for the fretboard and bridge.  The neck is Mahogany with a Rosewood Headstock veneer.  Johnny had lots of ideas for decorative details, and one we kept coming back to was a skillet.  While trying to keep the inlay fairly simple and symmetrical I was able to get a skillet down there on the twelfth fret.  And just to make sure the skillet idea was not lost, it's drawn on the label too.  We also managed to work the rooster from the old Robin Hood cartoon (music by Roger Miller!) onto the headstock. 

  Johnny, who plays banjo in Porterbelly Stringband had this to say...

"I'm amazed at the guitar's versatility.  It speaks loud, clean, and clear during heavy strumming in a full band setting, and sings sweetly solo with soft bare-finger picking on the porch or in the living room.  It plays easily up and down the entire neck and already has a warm, rich tone even though it's a brand new guitar.  Visually, the guitar has a beauty akin to that of an old, well played, instrument, with great and unique attention to detail.  This guitar is a dream come true for me as a player and I look forward to my new life-long instrument. 

Devin was a such pleasure to work with through the long decision making process involving a custom guitar.  His extensive knowledge and experience helped me make the right choices for a guitar that would suit me as a player.
Thanks Devin!"

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Some Recent Instruments

  Here's some of the last instruments to come off the bench here.  First up is a 14 fret Orchestra Model (OM) built in standard Martin fashion as far as shape, and bracing goes.  I built one OM before this back when I was at Roberto Venn, but in general I've wanted to stay away from building Martin style guitars.  Partly because I'm usually attracted to a different sound and aesthetic, and partly because there's enough people out there building Martin inspired creations.  But my friend and great songwriter Louis Ledford approached me with an interesting commission.  He had a really nice guitar case..  and wanted me to build the guitar to fit it.  The details on how and why he had just this case and not the guitar were fuzzy, but we brought it down to the shop, measured it up, and sure enough it was built to fit an OM.  So after a bit of research and settling on wood selection and details, we came out with this.

Louis chose the headstock shape based on a really cool old European guitar he has.  The four leaf clover was also his idea, and is suitable as this is my 13th guitar.

   It's got Walnut back and sides, a Cedar top, Ebony fretboard and bridge, Maple bindings, and Mahogany for the neck.  The sound is awesome!  Resonant, and loud, but still retaining a lot of warmth.  It's a very balanced, sweet tone that collaborates very well with Louis' mellow raspy voice.  You can check him out here..

  Next up is an X-braced L-1 made for great musician, and my good friend, Reeb Willms.  This one has Mahogany back and sides, Sitka Spruce top, and Rosewood fingerboard, bridge, and bindings.

With the dark sunburst and the inlay style, it is reminiscent of the old Gibson Nick Lucas.  The middle of the rosette is curly Koa.  Reeb sings and plays with Foghorn Stringband, and you can find more about them here..

  Finally the most recent build here is this all mahogany mandolinetto.

  Based on the century old Vernon, this little buddy boasts a more modern style with a curly maple bound fingerboard and matching pickguard.  The fret position inlays are also maple.  It carries a lot of volume, and packs a warm, woody punch.  I sat playing this for a good hour after stringing it up, and found it very versatile with a good range of tones available.  The fingerboard and bridge are Oregon Black Walnut originally felled and milled by Doc at Doc's Banjos.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Archtop Completed

Here's some photos of the recently finished archtop guitar.

  This has been quite the project having never built a carved top instrument before.  I am very happy with the final result.  It is such a different beast from the flat tops I usually build, so it was a joyful, somewhat mind-blowing experience to play those first few notes.  I continued to play for a long time, relishing the sound and feel of this guitar. 

  I am fortunate to live in the same town as the excellent musician John Miller, and I invited him to the shop to check out the newly stringed instrument.  If you are unfamiliar, John is an accomplished guitar player who plays a wide range of musical styles from country blues to Latin jazz, all with a comfortable authority.  You should check out his website here..   Here is some of what John had to say.
   "It already knows it is a musical instrument, not something that is always a given for a brand new, practically un-played guitar.  In a relatively brief amount of time, I tried to put it through its paces, and it rose to every challenge I could think of, sounding clean and warm whether played in Carter-style, thumb lead, Western Swing closed chords, Bossa Nova and chord melody, and Country Blues. 
  The guitar's sound is unusual in a couple of ways for an arch-top.  Many or most of them that I have played have a pronounced, spikey attack, but such a rapid decay that notes practically seem to suck themselves into silence at the back end.  This guitar has a lovely, natural sustain--not excessive or swimmy, but just singing.  A lot of arch-tops don't particularly care for open strings in chord voicings, they kind of crap out, but this one works just fine for complex partially open voicings, as are used in Bossa Nova on occasion.  Its voice is really clear up and down the neck, even including single string lines played on the E, A , and D strings in the neighborhood of the tenth--twelfth fret, an area where most guitars get really woofy.
  Appointments are plain but handsome.  The sunburst is a beauty.  Pretty maple binding and a really nice hand-carved rosewood tailpiece.  The neck contour is a rounded V, very comfortable and with a nice amount of mass.
  This is an exceptionally fine guitar, but for a brand new guitar and a first-time effort at building an arch-top, I would say it is spectacular--and it is only going to get better as it is played more."

  Here are a few more photos of some of the process.

 Hand drawn label and my favorite plane.

Wood bindings all bent and ready for gluing.  

Scraping the re-curve on the back.

Taped off and ready for stain.

Getting polished.

At rest in the parlor.