Some Reflections On My Guitar Work
Steven Jay Gould is probably the most famous scientist, paleontologist, geologist, evolutionist, and scientific historian of our time. Well, even if he shares that distinction with scientific superstars Neil deGrasse Tyson (the most popular astrophysicist on television) and Steven Hawking (of Singularities and Black Holes fame), Gould is, in my opinion, the most broadly accessible. He has written many books that describe — in language that is easy to understand and that makes those subjects interesting — the natural world that preceded us. He even uses (brilliantly!) the game of baseball as a lens or prism through which to view, explain, and help us comprehend what might otherwise be considered obscure and arcane natural phenomena. All in all, Gould’s a cool dude — even though he died in 2002.
As far as evolutionary processes in general are concerned, authorities have generally taken the attitude that evolution has always been gradual and steady. You know: one step at a time. Gould, on the other hand, held that evolution was irregular and lumpy; millions-of-years-long stretches would occur in which nothing happened, and then, all of a sudden and for no apparent reason, a major leap or advance could be seen. This is certainly what the geological evidence has revealed to us. Gould called this process punctuated equilibrium, a concept he developed with colleague Niles Eldridge in 1972.
My guitars have, in their own modest way, followed this same path. That is to say, my guitars have evolved over the years; but they have not evolved at a steady pace. At times I’d have a new idea and I’d “put it into” a guitar. I do have an impulse to continually push the envelope (which is a phrase that has baffled me ever since I first heard it) and try something new. I tend to always wonder what is around the next corner; what would happen if I made something a bit thinner… or re-shaped a brace… Also, I’d be making guitars in my usual way… and keep on working like that… until I’d eventually discover or notice something, by accident, or have an insight into something that hadn’t jelled for me previously. And then, I am always looking for new ideas concerning artistry and decoration. Anyway, altogether, these kinds of alterations would result in a guitar that had a somewhat better look and free-er (freeer?) sound.
And, on the whole: how could any of this have been any different? The guitar itself has always been my best teacher. She has always revealed herself to me bit by bit, taking her own sweet time. I’ve been the student.
SOME OLDER GUITARS
Lately, some guitars of mine from the eighties and nineties have come on the market, and some of them have come to my shop for visits, checkups, or for a tweak or repair… or because the original owner was no longer playing guitar and wanted to see if I knew anyone who would want to buy their baby. And so on.
I have been pleasantly surprised in every instance by how well they’ve held up. Yes, they’ve had signs of wear and tear – if not in small scratches and such, then most notably in the look of the lacquered finish. (I used to lacquer my guitars rather than to French polish them. Mentioning this often opens the door to the lacquer-vs.-French-polish debate, but I’m not going into that now.) Lacquer has the capacity to separate from its underlayment, over time; and these guitars show small spots of lacquer separation/bubbling from the wood underneath. This is not in the least bit serious; it’s cosmetic and easily fixable; a guitar simply looks not-brand-new in this regard.
Happily, not one of the guitars that I’ve seen or heard about, from this period, has been mistreated: they seem to be structurally sound. And I’ve been pleasantly reminded of how far back I was using certain elements of decoration, or arrangements of bracing, that now seem to me like the most intelligent way to carry out this work.
One thing that I have noticed in these instruments is how my voicing work has evolved in the last twenty-five years: I’ve gotten bolder in wood removal. Everyone has always liked the sound of my guitars, and this was true even years ago. But my newer guitars give off more open tap tones. This is a result of the fact that I currently voice my guitars to a different point of physical/mechanical responsiveness than I used to. This is itself explained by the fact that I’ve allowed myself to push the envelope just a bit further, and a bit further, and a bit further, as far as my stopping-point in removing wood and manipulating physical structure are concerned. (Those of you who make guitars and voice them must also wonder, as I have done each time: what would happen if I shaved off another 1/32 of an inch off these braces, or sanded another ten thousandths of an inch off the top??? Well, I’ve traveled that road some.)
What this is all about is that I have long been aware of the adage (in Spanish guitar making, at least) that the best guitars are built on the cusp of disaster. That is, the best ones are built so that they are just able to hold together under the pull of the strings and the stresses of use. Anything less, and the guitar would be on the slippery slope toward falling apart; anything more, and the guitar would have less than its full voice. This is an intuitive concept that is central to my approach to making guitars. It also represents a metaphysical balancing act that, in its execution, is never the same for any two guitars. In any event, mostly, I’ve tried to sneak up on that balance point. I have overdone it and overstepped the mark a few times. And I can tell you with authority that these are useful experiences, because one has to have some idea of where to stop.
(Parenthetically, making a mistake isn’t the end of the world. I’ve learned a few things. One is that we’re talking about balancing acts, and not good guitar/bad guitar. If the braces are too small, then one can use lighter strings, or thin the top so that it is no longer underbraced for its stiffness. Or one can add bracing mass (or even entire braces!) through the soundhole to re-establish a previous balance point; it’s tricky, but not impossible. Finally, and not least importantly: even if I don’t like the sound of a particular guitar… someone else will eventually come along who does like it. Basically, if you can learn something from a given project it will not have been a complete failure.)
Anyway, I’ve been impressed by my older work. It’s held up well. When I act as an agent in re-selling an older guitar for a client, I show the guitar to prospective clients, talk with them about it, and along with that offer to do some retro-voicing. This is always an option with any guitar, by the way. And I do feel, when it comes to my guitars, that there is always a little bit of a responsibility for me to lead a client to an instrument that has the best possible sound… even though that is invariably a subjective quality. So I don’t push. I merely offer to do that. I do charge for this work, of course. But considering the selling price of these instruments it’s a modest one. I need to underline that I am in no way saying that there’s anything wrong with any of my older instruments; they merely have the response of older guitars of mine. And this procedure simply introduces the option of helping the sound, if not the look and feel, of these older Somogyi guitars to be more in line with my current work.