Everyone in the guitar making and selling business makes their guitars as shiny and beautifully attractive as they can. They also cite their guitars’ sound as a selling point. And they invariably tell you or imply that their wares have good quality. Why would they not? A further selling point might also be that you should buy a particular guitar because some prominent person out there has one just like it. Is this quality? Not at all: it’s simply how the world works.
I’ll return to the subject of sound further on.
ON QUALITY AND CRAFTSMANSHIP/WORKMANSHIP
One can quibble endlessly about what is and what is not Quality. I pointed out in a previous essay that quality means quite different things to different people. For the buyer, it is greater functionality, durability, craftsmanship, and satisfactoriness. For the manufacturer it generally means problem-free production, consistency of product (minimal number of rejects/seconds), and a good bottom line. For the seller it means sellable, and no complaints or returns.
Let’s look at this from your perspective. For you as a buyer Craftsmanship/ Workmanship will have to do with anything that is done purposefully and with skill. Therefore, you might want to find out what you’re really paying for in terms of who had done what work. It is increasingly common for luthiers to get their guitar necks, bridges, and other parts made by a CNC service. So the question for you becomes: am I paying for your luthier’s craftsmanship, or for his assembling parts that he subcontracted with someone else with high-tech equipment to make? Don’t get me wrong, technology embodies a lot of skill and craftsmanship: someone had to create the machinery and the computer software that will do a complex task at the touch of a button. But technology, by itself, offers no craftsmanship of its own: it is aimed at well-greased rote procedures. And you should know whether you’re being expected to pay for actual craftsmanship or someone else’s prior (and expensive) craftsmanship that is embodied in a (bought or leased) push-button format. Amazingly, this makes no difference to some people.
Still, as long as we are focused on craftsmanship, there are things that one should expect to see, hear, and find on an expensive new guitar (vintage guitars are subject to different standards) that won’t be features of cheaper instruments. My own list would include the following. They are all features that my guitars have, and each one of them takes extra time, attention and effort to do.
** Impeccably clean workmanship. ‘Workmanship’ here implies hand work, not machine work. That means smooth, ripple-free surfaces that bespeak of good wood preparation, a lack of visible file or sandpaper marks, and crisp joints, seams, and edges. The finish should be mirror-smooth and free of the tiny scratches that buffing wheels leave. If you’re considering buying a guitar I’d recommend that you spend a good ten or fifteen minutes carefully looking it over to get a sense of the workmanship in it; use a magnifying glass if necessary.
** All-wood construction and appointments such as bindings and purflings. This comes automatically on classic guitars, but steel string guitars very often have plastic bindings and tuner buttons, etc., because the market has long since accepted these. Wood is better. Solid wood is best for soundbox construction; plywoods are characteristic of cheaply made instruments.
** Mitered [like picture-frame corners] purfling joints. Every angled juncture of line elements should be a mitered joint, not a butted one.
** If tone is your focus, then straight-grained body woods are more desirable (and also more scarce) than highly figured and wavy ones. The straighter the grain the more stable and predictable are the vibrational properties of the soundbox.
** The body woods on expensive acoustic guitars are traditionally rosewoods. The most expensive of these are straight-grain Brazilian; the second choice is East Indian. Other woods on expensive guitars can be alternative rosewoods, figured maple, figured koa, and figured mahogany. Topwoods are typically spruce, or sometimes cedar. In my opinion European spruce and Sitka spruce have equivalent tonal potential, in spite of the fact that most people have been taught to believe that the former is better than the latter. Being an import, it’s merely more expensive.
** A certain amount of customizing (without altering the identity of a guitar) is a real plus; it is not unreasonable to expect some original inlay work such as beautiful shop-made rosettes. Some guitars are so ornamented that they stop being guitars and have become artwork that uses guitar-shaped wood as a canvas. Such guitars really belong in art galleries, not music stores.
** Delicate elements such as small-profile heels. A guitar’s typical neck-heel curve is a 4″ diameter one, achieved by the front roller of a belt sander. Smaller heel curves require more work and are ergonomic: they let the left hand get closer to the high frets.
** Ergonomically offset strings: there should be more clearance between the first string and the edge of the fretboard (so that the string doesn’t pull off during play) than between the sixth string and its edge of the fretboard.
** Evenly spaced strings. You’d be surprised at how many guitars are sloppy on this feature.
** Rounded, not beveled, fret ends. Rounded ends provide more playing area than beveled frets do
** If at all possible, custom-shaped necks contoured and matched to the individual’s hand and style of playing. But this is more likely when commissioning a new guitar instead of buying an already-made one.
** If the guitar is a cutaway model, the cutaway should blend seamlessly into the neck and heel, without the ‘corners’ that many guitars offer. In fact, seamlessness of construction is always a clue that something is better made.
** Heelcaps are best if they are an extension of the surface of the back, rather than being a stepped point of discontinuity. This goes to the fact that, historically, the most expensive and prized guitars have been made using the Spanish method, in which the necks are firmly part of the guitar body. This allowed the heel and the back to become one uninterrupted surface. Lately, and especially in steel string guitars, bolt-on necks have been making inroads into high-priced guitar territory; heels and guitar backs do not meet in such cases. Traditionalists think this manner of building guitars is of second-best level construction.
** Intelligent voicing. Most buyers won’t know what to look for, but the guitar’s responsiveness will be the proof of this factor. If the guitar’s sound surprises and pleases you, you’ll have one of these in your hands. Your pleasure will be the fruit of years of experience on the maker’s part.
** Extensive hand work at every stage and level of the instrument. Production facilities make money in direct proportion to how much time they can save at each step. One should expect to see handmade rosettes rather than commercially bought ones, on fine guitars; and also tasteful additional touches such as wrap-around fingerboard bindings and heelcap inlays. If aesthetics are something unfamiliar to you, consider taking an art appreciation class in night school. Or pay someone who knows what’s what for a few hours of their time.
** Thin finishes. These are more work-intensive to apply and buff out, but make a louder and more responsive guitar than would be possible with ‘standard’ finishes. The difference in tap tone between a naked guitar top or back, and one that is covered (and damped) by a standard finish, is shockingly obvious the first time it is heard.
** Instrument playability should be remarkably easy. This will have to do with the and correct set and relief of the neck and an optimal height of the strings above the frets. Steel string guitars should have about 2/32″ clearance between the twelfth fret and the first string, and 3.5/32″ clearance between the twelfth fret and the sixth string. For classic guitars these numbers can be increased by 1/32″. When these things are done correctly the guitars play cleanly, with no string buzzes.
** On the bridge, the saddle should hold the strings at about 1/2″ above the guitar’s face, in steel string guitars as well as classic ones. In either case, the saddle should protrude above the bridge itself by at least 1/16″ and not more than 1/8″.
** Most guitars, especially steel string instruments, don’t play perfectly in tune. You should expect an expensive guitar to not have this problem, either from string to string across the fretboard, nor up and down the fretboard at any and all positions. Intonation-compensated saddles are necessary to ensuring that the guitar plays in tune. When considering a particular guitar, it will pay you to sit down with it in a quiet room and actually, carefully, listen to it.
** The guitar’s center-of-balance is a positive design feature. If the guitar is going to be played in a sitting position, its mass needs to be well distributed on either side of the waist so the guitar sits on the player’s lap without effort.
** Superior design: all the guitar’s lines, proportions, and curves, will all be deliberately considered and matched to its other lines, proportions, and curves. The aesthetic will be pleasing to look at and one won’t tire of it quickly. Simple though this sounds, anything that has a classic, timeless look is based in years of thought and experience. I’ll have more to say about this further below, in the section titled “The Right Look”. Also, taking an art appreciation class as I mentioned above can be a big help.
** Finally, hopefully, an expensive guitar should have a sound that’ll knock your socks off. People describe the best guitars with words such as piano-like, full, rich, clear, sweet, warm, powerful, transcendent, and evenly responsive.
SOUND IN GUITARS
If your expensive guitars doesn’t sound all that good then you’ve paid a lot of money for furniture, a fancy planter box, or a costly birdhouse. As far as guitar sound goes, a basic thing is this: Nylon string guitars, by virtue of their design and stringing, naturally opt to be bass-heavy; they don’t naturally want to produce the brilliant, singing trebles that serious musicians are willing to pay the big bucks for. Contrarily, steel-string guitars are biased toward producing high-frequency signal: they want to sound bright at the expense of a full, rich, and present bass. In this regard, the guitar maker’s challenge in making these different soundboxes is exactly opposite. He needs to apply his skills toward eliciting a good treble from the Spanish guitar, and likewise toward coaxing a good bass response out of the steel string instrument. And, in both, the luthier strives to make instruments that have an even response on all strings and in all positions. These are no easy things to do.
Better guitars have superior dynamic range. This means that a guitar can follow the player’s lead: it plays quietly when played softly, keeps up with the player as he attacks the strings with more and more vigor, and switches gears easily with his in-the-moment musical inspiration and touch. Therefore the guitar can not only speak with power, but also with flexibility and subtlety. Second and third-tier guitars have a narrow dynamic range and sound pretty much all the same no matter how they’re played: this will work fine for playing rhythm but it makes them less suitable to be musically expressive. Many players don’t yet know about this dimension of guitar sound and the first time they meet a guitar with a notably open and flexible voice it comes as a revelation.
A better guitar should also, in my opinion, have a highly colored sound. That means that the soundbox emits a rich mix of fundamentals and overtones. Players describe such sound with words like rich, smoky, complex, or as having many voices — as though there were ‘a choir inside the guitar’. And the this sound is invariably a harmonious and blended one; no one element or component overshadows the other ones. Unfortunately many guitars, even pricey ones, sound somewhat shallow, colorless, or thin in comparison — although this may not make sense to anyone who hasn’t yet heard a guitar with a genuinely full voice. It will mean something to those of you who already enjoy orchestral music, or know things with fullness and complexity of taste or smell, or have experience of artwork that has richness of color and texture.
Such tonal qualities are the fruit of a lifetime of hands-on work in the making and voicing of guitars. This has necessarily involved making lots of mistakes and blunders, but people who buy really good guitars get the benefit of all that. In fact, that history is literally embedded (although invisibly) in each guitar that leaves an experienced maker’s shop.
Finally, while it is easy for me to throw words like brilliant, smoky, full, rich, deep, vibrant, and present at you, it will be worth your while to find someone who’s played an perhaps even recorded with a guitar with these qualities, or at least heard such guitars being played, and have a conversation with that person. Or, if you can, you should to a maker’s shop, or to any of the new boutique dealerships that cater to high-end guitars only, and play one. The more experienced ear you have, the better choices you will make.
‘THE RIGHT LOOK’
I think that really good guitars are complete packages in that, along with sound, playability, workmanship, etc., they also have something like ‘the right look’ — even though that probably sounds a bit weird. But to illustrate this, let me tell you about a personal experience.
Some years ago I tried to introduce my artwork to a very high end gallery, imagining that they couldn’t possibly turn down something as original and unique as my stuff was. Uh… wrong! The owner, a very successful, smart, well-regarded, and highly positioned authority in his field, commented that my work looked ‘cheap and gimmicky’. I was floored and offended.
I eventually understood that the man had not been trying to insult me. He had in fact been delivering a neutral but accurate assessment: within the canon of the work that he dealt in and sold, my stuff really didn’t measure up. As far as he was concerned, my work didn’t look like the things his clients would spend a lot of money on. Running a gallery, his standard was the artistic or aesthetic appearance as the main clue to the underlying artistic skill, sensibility, and integrity of design and structure.
In truth, there is a ‘look’ to special things that are expensive that is different from the look of ordinary things. You have only to look in any upscale magazine that offers expensive merchandise to see examples. Things that have ‘the right look’ involve the totality of the package, including one’s response to it. The words ‘tasteful’ and ‘elegant’ come to mind. Furthermore, this is never accidental: it is done purposefully out of an artistic sensibility and level of design skill that have taken years to master, hone, and temper. It makes for a certain tastefulness, or richness, or effortlessness-of-looking-at-it (sort of like unexpectedly seeing a gorgeous sunset, or experiencing the thrill of a sudden insight about something fundamental). And this is worth something all by itself. As far as is known, we are the only species that can have such an experience.
While ‘the right look’ can be obvious to anyone who has been introduced to such things, it can be problematically subtle for the inexperienced person. Ordinary things are, in a hundred different ways, visually off the mark: they are aesthetically out of balance in some way that the novice can easily miss at first glance. But I had been abruptly made aware of this distinction by being told that my work was, in effect, gaudy. Or, rather, the statement that my work was ‘gimmicky’ meant that I was trying too hard and without understanding the rules of harmony, balance, understatement, and good taste. I was, in the gallery owner’s opinion, in effect putting lipstick on a pig (NOTE: not that a lot of high priced stuff isn’t just that, but that’s not what we’re talking about here).
The good news for you, as a customer or buyer, is that you don’t have to be able to create the ‘right look’; you merely have to be able to recognize it. And that’s not that hard to do; it certainly doesn’t need to take years of experience. Let me give you an example. Make a trip to some clothing outlets (from boutiques to Costco!) and look at the clothes they sell. The designer clothing looks a heck of a lot nicer than the regular stuff, doesn’t it? You recognize it immediately. And it invariably costs more. Well, the thing that attracts your eye to it is that it looks better (NOTE: some of it — especially in ‘high fashion’ — might not make any visual sense; but even it looks too exotic it will nonetheless look expensive). There’s something unmistakable about that and designers get paid a lot of money to make that happen. And the kicker is: it doesn’t matter if someone else doesn’t react to the thing the same way you do: all that matters is that you know that you do.
The same principles apply to lutherie. If you simply look at some guitars — I mean simply get out of your own way and quietly pay some attention to them for a few minutes — you’ll find that some of them look quite lovely to your eyes while a lot of others don’t. You may be surprised, when you first notice this, at how you haven’t noticed it before: the difference is so obvious. I’m not talking glitz here: I’m talking loveliness, which is something that goes beyond glitz. If you pay further attention, you’ll discover reasons for your reactions. They’ll have to do with a sense of line, felicity of contour, color harmony, naturalness, balance, proportion, and authenticity. Guitars, in their own way, can fully look like Dior, Oshkosh B’Gosh, or Liberace.
I don’t think that the gallery owner who turned my work down felt that he owed me any explanation for what he said to me. Neither did he feel any obligation to educate me to the standards and aesthetics that made his business (and it was a very successful one!) viable. But that’s what I’m trying to do now: educate you.
Proper materials are important, of course, for every reason you can think of, and I’m not going to repeat all the marketing hype that invariably focuses on wood, quality, rarity, endangeredness, etc. etc. Overall, materials account for only a small part of the cost of an expensive hand-made guitar: the bulk of the price is in the skill and labor. In expensive factory made guitars, quite a lot of the price tends to be in the profit margin, as a lot of the labor will, quite frankly, have gone into figuring out how to minimize the labor and not improving the product.
As I said above, the best defense against being taken for a ride is to become as educated as possible: you should be able to tell the difference between a race horse and a painted nag with a nice saddle. If this means paying someone knowledgeable to give you some useful pointers, then you should consider doing it.