September 22, 2012
I want to tell you about an interesting experience I had a few years ago. A good many of you out there may well be able to relate to it.
Some of you readers may know that I play flamenco guitar. Well, in the best Shoemaker’s-Children-Have-No-Shoes tradition, I didn’t have a good flamenco guitar of my own for a long time; I was playing a borrowed cheapo. So, with friends’ benevolent prodding to motivate me (but that’s the subject of another article), I decided to make myself my own guitar. And I did. With great eagerness and anticipation.
When the moment finally came to string it up and play it, I was struck by what a magnificent bass response it had. My shop was then in a high-ceiling warehouse space, and this guitar’s bass absolutely filled that cavernous room. It made the air space resonate. It was like a Taiko-drum guitar. The bass was, in a word, simply awesome. It entirely overshadowed the treble end.
Unfortunately, a really good bass is not the sound that a good flamenco guitar needs to have. One wants something bright, zingy, penetrating, with the traditional flamenco rough edge. Where had I gone wrong? (Does this scenario sound familiar to any of you?) Technically, I’d built a guitar with a kick-ass good monopole, but not much cross- or long dipoles — although this was language I was to learn later; I was not familiar with such concepts at the time.
I spent some time pondering what to do. Shave the braces? If so, which ones, where, and by how much? Should I sand the top thinner? Again: where and how much? Should I put on higher tension strings? Or install a new fretboard with a longer scale? Or perhaps become withdrawn, eat compulsively, drop out of lutherie and realize my life’s secret ambition of becoming the first Hungarian-American sumo wrestler? Heck, I had lots of options. It also occurred to me that I could call some of my expert fellow luthiers and get some informed advice. It seemed, at least, a good way to get some consensus as to where to start. They’d know exactly what to do, surely.
I called noted authority Richard Brune; he not only makes classic and flamenco guitars, but is also a skilled flamenco guitar player. He’d certainly know how to fix this. So I described the guitar to him over the telephone, taking care to be as specific as I could be about sizes, measurements, thicknesses, etc. He took in my information and immediately told me that my braces were inadequate to the job; I needed much bigger braces. He advised me to rebrace the guitar in that way, or at least retrofit meatier braces in through the soundhole. I thanked Richard for his advice and hung up.
I’d hoped for an easier fix than to either futz blindly for hours through the soundhole; or retop the guitar; or remove the back, rebrace the innards, and then replace the back and then do refinishing. That’s a lot of work. Besides, it wasn’t as though the guitar were for an important client or anything. So I thought that I could perhaps get a second opinion — to at least force me to do this work by the sheer preponderance of advice. I called Robert Ruck, an internationally and deservedly noted Spanish guitar maker who also plays flamenco guitar. I’d known him, as I’d known Brune, from any number of G.A.L. conventions, private correspondence, phone conversations, etc. Many of you reading this will have attended their lectures, read their articles, and also met them.
Once again, I went through the process of describing my guitar to a knowledgeable expert; same guitar, same measurements, same parameters, same conversation. Robert took my information in, and just as quickly as Brune had given me his opinion, rendered his own: my braces were too big. According to him, I needed to shave the braces down drastically in order to gain a satisfactory sound. He offered to fax me a drawing — which he in fact did the next day — of a special brace-shaving tool that he’d invented for shaving hard-to-get-at braces through the soundhole; it was especially useful for shaving down the Spanish guitar’s diagonal braces — the chevrons that are farthest from the soundhole and the most impossible to get to. I thanked Robert for his input and hung up.
I’d hardly expected to get identical input from two independent luthiers; but this was ridiculous. My next idea was the obvious one: to call someone else and at least try for a consensus of two out of three. I needed more input. Whether I wanted it or not.
I happened to have a conversation with luthier Steve Klein the following week. Steve doesn’t make flamenco guitars — or conventional guitars of any kind, for that matter. Still, he’s a very smart, articulate luthier and a brilliant designer with years of guitar making experience behind him, so I mentioned the two conversations I’d already had about my guitar’s spectacular lack of tonal balance. I thought that Steve might have a useful perspective on my problem; after all, bass is bass and treble is treble and a guitar is a guitar, right?
Steve’s opinion, diplomatically rendered after I described my situation to him, was that my bridge design was faulty. In Steve’s opinion, I could improve the sound of my guitar in the desired direction by replacing the bridge with — I forget which now, since so much time has passed since this conversation happened, and I was a little shell-shocked anyway — either a lighter one or a heavier one. I thanked Steve for his input and said goodbye.
Armed with all this advice and support from some of the more prominent of my professional colleagues, I was, how shall I say it, not yet quite fully enlightened. The thought of hacking wood away from my guitar — or gluing wood on — here and there, hoping to strike gold through luck as much as skill, didn’t have much appeal for me. And, suppose I managed to destroy the bass response without improving the treble? Or even (God forbid) even improve it?! I agonized. But, I thought: I am a professional, am I not? Bottom line: I still needed to get at least some clarity on this matter. Understandably, however, I found myself a bit reluctant to ask for input from anyone else.
Right about that time I visited nearby-based luthier Randy Angella’s new workshop; Angella had been making lovely and really good sounding classic guitars for years, had then dropped out and gone into different work, and had more recently come back into lutherie. I thought I might get some ideas from him. But I wasn’t going to ask directly: I’d tried that tactic and it had been leading nowhere. I was going to sneak around and try to get a hint from whatever methods he was using.
Randy is a very nice man and is able to share freely of his knowledge and techniques. He was at the time making his guitar tops’ perimeters very thin — including the edge along the lower transverse brace, sometimes known as the harmonic bar; he was tapering the top on the bridge-side of the lower transverse brace, and leaving it full thickness past that brace. I took note of this. Unfortunately, as the wisdom I’d received to that point in time indicated that thinning the perimeter of a guitar face would loosen its “hinge” movement and help the bass, I couldn’t see that going in this direction was going to be of any help to me. I already had too much bass, and maybe I should have asked about Randy’s thinking. Bugfat.
I reviewed my options again. I could jump in and shave some braces. I could sand the top thinner. In both cases I’d simply need to figure out where and how much. I might have luck with higher tension strings; but they might make the guitar sound even more robust. Or lower tension strings: they’d give me a more delicate sound, surely. I could install a longer fretboard and scale; or a shorter one; this would be more or less the equivalent of experimenting with string gauges. I might dump the project and retop the guitar. Then, I could also leave town quietly. Yep, I still had lots of options.
I’d begun to get to know luthier Eugene Clark at about that time; he was living about fifteen minutes away from me. He and I got together at a local restaurant, after having had made on-again/off-again plans for some time. Eugene is almost legendary as a Spanish guitar maker, and, not surprisingly, the subject of my problematic guitar came up. Over coffee and dessert I described my problematic situation, and Eugene in turn explained his concept of the Spanish guitar to me: it is — in a nutshell — a thin film of lightly braced wood stretched over a spare framework of massive main braces that (1) strictly delineate its vibrating areas and simultaneously (2) sets the resonances of these areas by virtue of the level of introduced rigidity. As far as the face is concerned, Eugene’s idea of the most effective design is to have a thin, domed plate of topwood held up by a rigid perimeter and by rather substantial upper and lower transverse braces (i.e., the ones that straddle the soundhole) which are moreover fully anchored into the sides. That is, these braces aren’t scalloped at the ends — which weakens their attachment to the main structure, and hence their stiffening/load bearing capacity — but rather butted at full height against the sides, and then held in place on each end with a bracket. I showed him my guitar; Eugene immediately showed me something interesting: that by simply pressing on the guitar’s face with his thumb over the lower transverse brace, he could stiffen that brace — and the quadrant it served — sufficiently so that the tap tone became significantly altered. When he let go with his thumb, the original (and, frankly, thuddy and dull) sound came back; when he pressed down again, the top responded with a dramatically more live ping. No rebracing; no rethicknessing; but tightening the top up — even in this ad hoc and artificial way — made a difference that I could instantly hear. In dynamic terms, such a mechanical change toward brighter response would come at the expense of the monopole (which my guitar had in abundance); and it brought out more of the long and cross dipoles — which is exactly how a flamenco guitar ought to be functioning in the first place. I was very glad for this input.
In due time I went back to my workbench and reworked my guitar. I spent a day carefully removing the lower transverse brace through the soundhole. I did it carefully and cleanly. And I installed a meatier replacement. The toughest part was cutting the linings away; I had to do that to make room for a replacement brace that extended fully from side wood to side wood and whose ends I could glue brackets over. I had to cut two of my Japanese woodcarving knives’ handles way down to make the tools small enough to fit into the guitar’s body. I did a little brace shaving, but not much. Simultaneously, I did remove wood from the top selectively with sandpaper and a sanding block, so as to facilitate the dipole motions of the bridge. I reasoned that this additional operation would help further the phenomenon Eugene had showed me. Then I re-French polished the face.
It worked. I took this guitar with me to the next Healdsburg Guitar Festival — not to display, but to have and play after hours, to amuse myself musically. By then the guitar had settled in (as all guitars eventually do) and light reflecting off the face was revealing that the face was thinned to the point that one could see the “imprinting” of the braces underneath; I don’t think this had happened before; but the guitar hadn’t existed in its originally thicknessed state long enough for it to settle in, so I’ll never know.
Anyway, I signed up to do an open mic performance at one of the local coffee houses one of the evenings of the festival, and I played that guitar. To my surprise, a man came up to me after my performance and offered to buy that guitar from me on the spot. I’d never had such an experience before, and I’d certainly not expected to make a sale that weekend in such a way. But I did!
All in all, this had been a terrifically broadening experience, filled with surprises of all kinds at every turn. Lamentably, the world lost its first Hungarian-American sumo wrestler, but that couldn’t be helped. My thanks to all the people who helped me to learn something.
This article has been previously published in American Lutherie magazine.