By Joe Herrick, luthier
I was recently asked: I just wanted a reference about the Somogyi class since I am planning to go. Was it positive, did you learn a lot? was it worth it? Can you tell me about it?
The short answer: Yes, to all of the above.
The long answer: Where to start? If you’ve been on some of the luthier boards on the internet, I’m sure you’ve heard the controversy that always seems to pop up when “Ervin” is mentioned. For those that have gone to his class, they (now “we”, I suppose) are accused of being brainwashed (I’ve also heard “drank the kool aid”) and not sharing what we learned in the free information sharing way the internet seems to demand.
As I see it (before class even), people seem to EXPECT and DEMAND something for nothing (and this class isn’t cheap). Worse, they really just want a simple formula. In lutherie terms, they only want a bracing pattern, brace heights, numbers, etc that will allow them to follow a cook book recipe to build world class guitars…instantly.
Why all the preamble? Because, that is NOT what you’ll get from this class. What you will get is: a starting point, knowledge (and challenge) to move beyond that starting point with your tops. I learned a lot about other parts of the guitar, their design and function as well.
I’m a hobby builder making 2-3 guitars a year in my spare time. I learned to make guitars 6 years ago by taking a 2 week class 1:1 with an experienced luthier who was an excellent teacher. After I was done, I continued to make 7 more guitars (tops) exactly the way I was shown, without a whole lot of understanding. I just followed the numbers…top thickness, brace height, brace carving, etc. The guitars all sound good to me, my friends, and acquaintances I’ve built for. I didn’t WANT (or know how) to make changes, only to get to the end of many hours of work and have the guitar not sound as good as what I knew I could do following the “recipe”. What I was missing out on is how much BETTER they could be. I learned the mechanics of “how” to build a guitar in my first class. Ervin’s class taught me the “why” and encouraged me to grow. I know this all sounds “soft”, so let me elaborate some.
First let me say that Ervin is very fun, not at ALL stuffy. He is one of those rare exceptional teachers. He was patient with us and our varying degrees of existing knowledge. His passion about guitars and life is evident. He enjoys being challenged and everything is fair game for further discussion. He does not come across as a “know it all” with canned responses ready for each question. He is contemplative and, more often than not, would often ask us what we thought and then built on that discussion with his own knowledge and experience. He was NOT above saying…”I don’t know”. We discussed things often late into the night both with Ervin and amongst ourselves as students. The class has a LOT of handouts. A 4 inch binder’s worth. He follows a syllabus that builds methodically from the ground up. That’s not to say that the syllabus is inflexible. We tweaked it as we went to delve into areas that we, as a class, wanted to pursue.
Some class specifics that I found helpful:
- The first day we learned a LOT about wood; its growth patterns, grain run out and other grain effects/defects. We had hands on exercises with over (at LEAST) 50 different tops. We learned to exercise and develop our observation of these characteristics and differences and extrapolate their possible affect(s) on building a top.
- We made stiffness models of the tops that we brought to class. Then we discussed the effect of our designs as evidenced by the models.
- We made practice tops and modified them, sometimes shaving them past the “breaking point” and put them back together again differently.
- We joined a top (no bracing) and thicknessed it to a STARTING stiffness for us to (take home and) begin from, to change our tops in future guitars.
- We evaluated and discussed various bracing patterns and their affect on how the guitar sounds.
- We blind tested the guitars that each of us had built and brought. We listened and characterized their voices. This was again a great exercise to train the ear to discriminate between the tonal characteristics of a guitar. We then discussed why each guitar sounded the way it did relative to its design and construction.
- We each had to design a top to match a fictitious customer’s demands. We then reviewed, presented, and critiqued our designs.
- We also discussed design and function of the back, neck, bridge/saddle/nut. Yep, I have changes I want to make and experiment with in these areas as well as a result of this class.
Finally: The class revitalized my desire to build. It broke me out of the cook book approach and has made me think more. The class gave me a basis for making changes. I feel I can build better sounding guitars now. I have 3 different changed tops in the works right now, and one different back. Everyone that was in our class has changed their build methods. Some of them are “professional” builders (meaning, guitar building is their livelihood).
I learned how much I was really overbuilding my tops. Being in this type of class with other builders is invaluable. To see and hear their guitars, their design considerations, their experience(s).
What says it best: I’ll never build a guitar again the same way as I did before class.
Extras: I stayed in the shop. There were 4 of us there. We managed with the two bathrooms and one shower. We also ended up discussing class and playing guitars late into the night. This was immense fun. There are plenty of couches and futons to sleep on. As a late arriver, I slept in the attic on futons and a sleeping bag. Ervin can also provide pillows, blankets, towels, and sheets, which eliminates the needs to try to pack and travel with these. There’s an open-all-day-and-all-night Walgreen’s one block away that has anything you forgot to bring (everything from bathroom to kitchen stuff, office and beauty supplies, film developing, a pharmacy, and more). There’s also a shop washer and dryer, if anyone needs to wash clothes. It was quite doable for a week. Personally, I enjoyed the stay more this way than if I left at the end of each day for a hotel room.
There’s not really a LOT in the way of food in walking distance. Hamburgers, pizza, Italian, and Mexican were all good nearby. If you’re adventurous there’s also Ethiopian and Korean nearby. There IS a bakery over one street that makes really great scones and pastries. If someone has a car, the options for dinner (and more) open up a lot. For instance, we also drove to Japan Woodworker store (about 30 minutes drive) and many of us loaded up on stuff with an “Ervin class discount” of 10%. LMI also sent a lot of tops that we got to pick through (with out newly taught skills) at a great price. Shipping stuff back home was also easy since there is a box shipping store right across the street.
If you’ve hung on this long, you’re probably a good candidate for the class!