or.. what I do, and why I do it
I'm a luthier, a guitar builder and repairman, which is a very suitable occupation for a fellow like myself. It lies at an interesting intersection of carpenter, musician, artist, tinkerer, collector, folklorist and a few other things I'm sure. I feel genuinely lucky to participate in this craft, and I'm humbled by all the wonderful artisans that I see out there. There so many ways to approach luthierie, and I'd like to talk about some of the fun nerdy details that add up to my style of building.
Design and Construction
I'm old school. I like old movies, old music, old graphic design, and I just love old instruments. I've owned a few (ok, more than a few) great vintage and antique instruments, and as a repairman I've had the chance to get well acquainted with many a fine old guitar. Simply put, I just like the way old guitars look and sound. That's my starting point for design, aesthetically, sonically, and structurally. For the most part, I try to build a lightweight instrument. It's one of the first things folks comment on when picking up one of my guitars. This light weight translates to a generally more responsive guitar with more volume, and is direct result of carefully hand selecting and tooling each piece of wood.
For most of my joinery, I use fresh hot hide glue, while Titebond (aka: regular old wood glue, aka: aliphatic resin) also is big help. All my neck joints, braces, bridge plates, and bridges are assembled with hide glue, as well as all my repairs to antique and vintage guitars. Joints glued with hide glue are considered somewhat easier to repair, in part because of the glue's ability to turn to liquid again with the introduction of heat and/or water, and then set back into it's hardened glue state. In my experience Titebond joints are also fairly easy to disassemble with some heat, although unlike with hide glue the remaining residue must be thoroughly cleaned off before rejoining. Some people believe that hide glue sounds better. I don't subscribe to that belief myself, but I sure do enjoy using it and will continue to do so for the bulk of my work, and it certainly doesn't sound worse!
Ladder bracing? Yep. The bracing on the underside of a guitar top serves as a structural web to help hold the guitar together under the tension of the strings. More than just carpentry, the braces also have a significant effect on the sound of the guitar. Some of my favorite old guitars feature ladder bracing. Parlor guitars from the 1920's and 30's by Washburn, Oscar & Schmidt, Lyon & Healy; Gibson-made Kalamazoo brand guitars from the 1930's; the great Chicago-made Harmony Sovereign, and so many others. These guitars are all wonderful examples of tried and true ladder braced guitars. People who are looking for a "dry" sound with strong, crisp fundamental notes and not a lot of overtone tend to favor ladder braced guitars. If you like listening to old 78 rpm records of old country and blues players, chances are you might be enjoying that ladder braced sound.
X bracing? Sure thing. While it's debatable if C.F. Martin was actually the first to use a crossing X pattern of braces on a guitar top, he certainly was among the first, and the guitars made by him and subsequent generations have long inspired builders and players alike. There's no question in my mind, from a purely structural standpoint X bracing is a superior design to ladder bracing. The X distributes the force being exerted upon the top in an even way. But again, it's not just about carpentry here, and the overall character of sound is strongly influenced by the choice of bracing. Very generally speaking, an X braced guitar will give a more balanced sound. Perhaps a richer sound with more harmonics shining through. These days it's certainly a more familiar sound, as X bracing is the industry standard for 95% of steel string flat top guitars out there. (I just made up that statistic, but I'd bet it's something close to that.)
These thoughts are just generalizations and not necessarily the hard rule. When I first got started building, I was real excited about using ladder bracing. It seemed like not many people were doing it anymore, and in fact I was actually encouraged against it at school. But I wanted to make a guitar that sounded like the old guitars that I loved, and part of that puzzle seemed to be the bracing. About half of the guitars I've made are ladder braced, the rest being X braced. Both styles can be wonderful, and ultimately it's a personal choice to be made by the player, which guitar they prefer at a given moment.
I make almost every part for every guitar I build out of wood. There are lots of trees out there, and lots of options when it comes to the material a guitar is made from. Generally speaking, I like to use domestic (North American) woods as much as I can, and here's why. When I buy a piece of ebony (Africa), or rosewood (South America, India), I don't really know the path that it took to get that wood to my hands. I might get it from my local lumberyard or a respected tonewood supplier, and they may have gotten it from a reputable importer, but it gets blurry trying to follow that trail further to the point of felling the tree and the business, politics, and stewardship surrounding it. There are certainly folks out there working hard at building alliances with "sustainable" lumber dealers in other countries, and I am grateful for those efforts and buy from those type of sources where I can. Still, a piece of wood shipped from across the globe has to travel many miles, burning fossil fuels, passing through varied hands with money exchanges going in all sorts of directions, before it finally becomes a simple headstock veneer or fretboard on a guitar. This is true of so many things in today's world, including food, clothing, and the computer I am typing this on. This is global capitalism at work, and I'm not saying it is bad, but I can't say that it's all good. The lines between harmless and hurtful, between genuine and greedy, between honest and deceptive, get blurry. It's a complex world out here, guitars are a relatively tiny piece of the puzzle, but I'd like to keep things as simple and honest as possible. Buying Oregon Walnut from a local supplier just feels better to me. Along this line of thought, I also occasionally enjoy using reclaimed wood from old furniture and the like.
On a guitar top, I want a piece of wood that is lightweight and strong. Light and flexible enough to vibrate and produce a pleasing sound, but strong enough to hold up to the enormous pull of the strings attached to it. Those qualities can be found in almost any species of conifer, when properly selected and cut. Spruce is the old gold standard for soundboards on guitar, violin, piano and more. There are many varieties of spruce, as well as pines, firs, cedars, and other softwoods that share similar characteristics. My most commonly used top wood is Sitka Spruce. It is considered to be an excellent all-purpose sort of tonewood, capable of being driven for volume, or played gently, with a moderate break-in period and neither an excess of overtone nor predominant dryness.
...lot's more to come when I give myself some more time to sit in front of a screen.
as the great John Moteleone said "and now back to sawing something in two."