What I’ve Been Up To These Days

August, 2016

I celebrated my 72nd birthday last May. Wow. I remember that, in college, I imagined 45 as being old. Wow again. I am doing o.k. these days, although tangibly slowing down. I have more things to be thankful for than I do things to moan and groan about (the complete list is of the latter is available on demand, though), and more work than I can handle. Also, aside from making guitars, training apprentices, writing, and having a home life, I am spending some time thinking about end-of-life issues. I am entirely a part of nature’s cycles of life, right up there with trees, jackrabbits, octopuses, and spiders… and I am 72 years old. I think about retirement, but I doubt that I will; when people ask me about that I tell them that if I ever do retire, I’m thinking of getting Michelins.

In thinking about retirement-type matters, the one about whatever legacy I can and will leave behind comes up. That likely legacy comes in several packages. The most visible one is my professional achievements, reputation, work, and all that. The second is to watch my daughter make her way through the world; she’s a lawyer, and a competent one, and is very happy at this point in her life. Then, there are my writings and publications. And then there is my place in the world, as a human being, in real terms. Well, as a friend of mine recently quipped, he started out with nothing, and after all these years he still has most of it. One of the things I haven’t had a lot of in the past, but that I’m earnestly working on having a better grip on, is the ability to say no to others, in favor of carving some time out for myself and my personal happiness. You know… as opposed to working on other people’s projects and catering to their needs all the time. Saying “no” in the proper way is a respectable skill set that I’m only slowly and lately acquiring.


I mentioned that I have more than enough work to do. The main reason that I am so busy is that, as my friend quipped, I really did start with nothing and worked without ever advertising myself commercially, and then managed to have myself be “discovered” by the larger public, all within the past few years. This has happened very largely through the internet, YouTube, magazines (I seem to be interview-worthy now; where were these people earlier on when I needed them?), social media etc.

The upshot is that is now not possible for me to continue to be the semi-anonymous little old guitar maker whom only other guitar makers as well as the more discerning members of the public have heard about. I am now a point of reference for people from places all over the world, with all the correspondence, multi-tasking, and administering that entails. It’s quite a load, especially at a time in life when everyone else normally goes out and buys Michelins. Otherwise I am greying, aging, sagging, and wrinkling with world-class grace.

On the “training” front I’ve recently taken on an 18-year old intern. He’s a friend of a friend of the family and he’s taking a gap year between high school and college, with the intent of seeing something of the real world and broadening his mind. He does not intend to become a guitar maker. Otherwise, he’s a young genius, a young science-whiz who is much brighter than I am, and he’ll be a millionaire when he’s an adult. No, I am not kidding. It is an interesting experience.



As an example of the work that I have been doing lately, I completed an interesting guitar-making commission for a client last year… that was unique enough to make us think about filming a ten-minute long YouTube clip. The initial commission was for three guitars that were identical in every way except for the choice of topwoods – which were to be European spruce, Sitka spruce, and cedar, respectively. The project soon morphed into a something more seriously academic: a methodical exploration that was intended to pin down and document the specific tonal differences that these woods carry.

Guitarist Michael Chapdelaine was brought on board to play, and record, and be filmed, playing these guitars. He edited our initially conceived short YouTube film and released it; you can view it here. Next, the videographer we hired wanted to expand the project and is presently applying for grants funds to finance a more ambitious documentary, for public television. This may or may not happen; we’ll see. In the meantime Michael Chapdelaine, on his own initiative, put out a CD featuring these three guitars. It is titled “The Somogyi Incident” and shows off the sounds of these three woods very nicely – particularly if played through a good quality sound system. Michael plays on each of the three guitars, and identifies which guitar is used for which track, and at the end plays the same song three times over, each with one of the guitars. It’s a brilliantly thought out production that highlights the tonal possibilities of these different woods – and the do produce audible differences. I recommend it to your attention.

I am now writing the whole experience and up as a report and an analysis of the relationship between specific wood species and their tonal possibilities. I also pause and reflect that, formerly, I would have simply made the guitar (or guitars), delivered it (or them), and that would have been it. But this new kind of thing has take time, planning, coordination, and effort… and this particular project is still not completed. It may take another year.



I’m also writing my next book; actually, it’s likely to be a two-volume set just like my first one. That first set was published in 2009 and was well received; it has generated an enormous quantity of correspondence, requests, calling things to my attention and giving me information that I didn’t have before, telephone calls, corrections of typos — all in response to something that I said or didn’t say or didn’t say clearly enough. So much thinking and writing and new information have come out of these discussions that I noticed that I have enough material for another book project. All in all I am beginning to feel a little bit like a celebrity. . . but without the paparazzi, the notoriety, the autograph seekers, the toned body and suntan, and certainly without the money. Maybe a couple of racy centerfolds might help. (I might mention that one of my guitar-making colleagues had the idea of a nude guitarmakers’ calendar a few years ago, and put out the word for submissions. He failed to get twelve (my own submission was unfortunately wasted), so the project was abandoned. I think it was a silly idea, right up there with, say, calendars of nude photos of politicians, defense department subcontractors, therapists, jazz musicians, podiatrists, or city councilmembers.) I might also add that writing a book — any book — is endlessly time-consuming in its own right; my first books took me 8 years to write.

The main thing I am doing these days, besides teaching and making “Somogyi guitars” as people have gotten to know them, is making guitars that carry some rather extravagant ornamentation. I seem to be attracting clients who are older, more discerning and mature, and who have some money to spend, and who want something unique that they will leave to their children… rather than to go around buying and selling and swapping guitars as is often the case. This phenomenon did not exist when I began doing this work: handmade guitars have only relatively recently become “collectable”. Also, making unusual guitars is fun.

There are no limits to the kinds of inlays and ornamentation that one can put on or into a guitar. Art is forever and infinite, and many luthiers are doing artistic work of one kind or another. Rather few are copying my own artistic style, mostly because it’s so painstakingly time-consuming. I’m including three jpegs to give you an idea of some of my new projects. They are all hand-done wood inlay and wood carving: no paint, no decals, no laser work, no shortcuts.