Autodidactism

Searching for literature on autodidactism doesn’t produce as much as you might expect, given the range of disciplinary perspectives that might be drawn to it: historical, cultural, social, psychological. Elements of autodidactism appear in theories of ‘self-directed learning’ and the like, but don’t capture the independence, drive for autonomy and emancipatory aims that autodidactism conjures up.

Bourdieu categorises the autodidact’s knowledge, gained outside recognised institutions of education, as ‘illegitimate’ in terms of its cultural value, as it carries no guarantee of quality in the recognised hierarchy of accreditation.

Fisher and Fisher are a rare example of trying to bring the term up-to-date, arguing that an autodidact “is likely to be an active communicant within a cybercommunity… someone who has acquired high levels of expertise, usually in a particular field… [and] may well access some formally taught learning, but that this would be an adjunct to a largely self-driven and highly accelerated learning process.” They provide two case studies of autodidactism: the Communist Party of Great Britain and a contemporary group of parents of disabled babies, resulting in a tentative typology of these two types of autodidact, and suggesting that “a prosopographical study of a wide range of autodidacts” is needed.

Edwards undertook “an extensive literature review on amateurism and autodidactism” and concluded that the “extent of the literature is noticeable by its absence” and that autodidactism is “a concept not much used in educational debates at present, but has a long history.” He cites three authors: Fisher & Fisher; Solomon and Lewis. I agree with Edwards, that Solomon’s treatment of it is “too broad to be helpful and less purposeful than I am taking autodidactism to be”. Lewis’ brief note on autodidactism in the history of Jazz is interesting, but not developed.

Edwards does not refer to Jonathan Rose’s book, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, which is a history of working-class autodidactism from the Middle Ages to the mid-twentieth century. Rose doesn’t offer a straightforward definition, but the book as a whole identifies a number of characteristics, which I have extracted and summarised below.

These are my notes, with page numbers, aided by a search for ‘autodid’ in the 2010 eBook 2nd edition (there are 87 uses of the word autodidact or autodidactism). I hope they may be of use to other people interested in this subject:

Autodidacts are focused on reading widely as an interpretative strategy, “discovering new ways to interpret the world” (2010, 7). Autodidacts pursue knowledge under difficult circumstances. They desire an autonomous intellectual life to overcome disenfranchisement and for emancipation. “Working people would have to develop their own ways of framing the world, their own political goals, their own strategies for achieving those goals.” (7) “I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you…” (Job 12:3)” (7) Autodidacts are drawn to classics because they “produce novel, distinctive, provocative, even subversive ways of interpreting reality.” (8) The roots of the working class autodidact culture go back to the Middle Ages, surged in the nineteenth century, particularly the late Victorian generation, and “crested with the Labour Party landslide of 1945.” (11) “For centuries autodidacts had struggled to assume direction of their own intellectual lives, to become individual agents in framing an understanding of the world.” (12) They were pursuing a “liberal self-education” (12) A desire for intellectual freedom. “Texts do nothing by themselves. The work is performed by the reader, using the text as a tool.” (15) Autodidact culture was “an overwhelmingly male territory” until the late 19th century (18). There was a lack of female autodidacts as role models. “The fact that labouring men were engaged in cultural pursuits that involved no monetary reward provoked intense suspicion.” (21) The indiscipline of “devouring any book that came to hand” was the best method of liberal education. (37) In many cases, it was social learning as people met in taverns and libraries “for speculative inquiry and discussion” (quoting Lowery, 38). “That was the autodidacts’ mission statement: to be more than passive consumers of literature, to be active thinkings and writers. Those who proclaimed that ‘knowledge is power’ meant that the only true education is self-education, and they often regarded the expansion of formal educational opportunities with suspicion.” (57) In the 20th century, “mutual improvement” was a grass-roots movement to preserve the independence of informal self-schooling programs for working people. There was a suspicion of the faith in education “as a cure for all ills… So-called education can be used to produced slaves, soldiers, and snobs, as well as gentlemen… You can Bolshevize people by education, or you can make them into the perfect Nazi. Unless the intended victim has trained himself to think for himself.” (Quoting Thomas Thompson, 57) Mutual improvement produced “a whole subgenre of self-improving literature” (68) Autodidacts may teach themselves but they are also drawn to each other to discuss their research. “Mutual improvement drives home the lesson that no autodidact is entirely self-educated. He or she must rely on a network of friends and workmates for guidance, discussion, and reading material.” (76) Intellectual freedom had “always been the prime objective of autodidacts.” (82) The autodidact’s reading was marked by “characteristics enthusiasm and spottiness.” (132) “Autodidact culture flourished in the years leading up to the First World War” (189) due to  the proliferation of public libraries, the Victorian ethic of mutual improvement, and the lack of distractions such as cinema, radio and television. It was supported by the “increase in literacy arising from the various Education Acts of that period, and the publication of cheaper books and pamphlets about every subject under the sun.” (Quoting Frank Goss, 189) Autodidacts are characterised by a “kind of passionate individualism” (217) As access to education and particularly university broadens, autodidactic knowledge is discredited; they become “endangered species” (296). “The primary motive of autodidacts had always been intellectual freedom.” (302). Most autodidacts were “devoted to the literary canon” (315). Although they “worshipped the classics” and had tended to have a “conservative sense of literary hierarchies… they were not distressed by the jumbling together of high and low culture” and were able to recognise the essential difference. (366) Charlie Chaplin was a classic autodidact, always struggling to make up for a dismally inadequate education, groping haphazardly for what he called ‘intellectual manna.’.. In fact, Chaplin translated to the screen the same mongrelisation of philosophy and melodrama, high culture and low comedy that characterised the typical literary diet of autodidacts.” (378) In the 20th century, “autodidacts discovered that the cultural goalposts had been moved, that a new canon of deliberately difficult literature had been called into existence. The inaccessibility of modernism in effect rendered the common reader illiterate once again, and preserved a body of culture as the exclusive property of a coterie.” (394) Autodidacts “considered themselves respectable and intelligent.” (400) Compared to the leisured class, “the self-educated have only limited time to make up enormous gaps. They must move more quickly, they have hungrier minds, and they will passionately embrace any book that opens up a new intellectual landscape.” (404) “The old classics-oriented autodidacts have disappeared with the factories that employed them.” (463) 

Mike Neary (1956-2023)

Photo by Alice Neary

Mike’s published work can be found via the University of Lincoln research repository. Work published prior to his time at Lincoln (pre-2007) is not complete on that list. More can be found on Google Scholar, but the list includes the work of other people by the same name. Mike also wrote on his blog between 2014 and 2017. If you have trouble locating an article or chapter, please contact me. I may have it.

~~~

Eulogy for Mike, 14th February 2023 – Joss Winn

Mike was my friend, colleague, PhD supervisor, and co-author of ten articles and book chapters. Because we worked closely together for over a decade, I thought I would say something about Mike’s creativity; about Mike as an artist and how the influence of other artists can be found in his writing. Mike’s understanding of humanity was that we all have a natural capacity for creativity which has been suppressed. I believe that learning from and teaching Mike’s work can help us recover that creativity.

Many of you know Mike as a social theorist. Working with Mike, it became clear to me that creating theory is a type of artistic practice: exploratory, expressive, speculative, risky, and challenging, but ultimately productive because creating social theory changes the way we see the world, just like other forms of art, such as painting, theatre, sculpture or architecture. 

Throughout the time I’ve known Mike, he would draw on the work of other artists to help develop what he was trying to say: for example, the writing of Bertolt Brecht and Anthony Burgess; Jacob Epstein’s sculpture, Rock Drill; Paul Klee’s painting, Angelus Novus, and the avant-garde art movements of Dada and Vorticism. You will find in Mike’s writing, a highly original attempt to bring together the work of Karl Marx and the Medieval Bishop of Lincoln Cathedral, Robert Grossteste. There is also a wonderful piece of writing called ‘Pedagogy in Paradise’, where he experiments with rythmnanalysis and photography during his time in Chile. A favourite example of Mike the artist is the writing he produced with Glenn Rikowski, that unites Marx’s theory of value with Einstein’s special theory of relativity. When I first read that article, it overwhelmed me, like great art does. I was in awe of what they had set out to do.

I don’t know if Glenn’s experience of writing with Mike was similar to mine, but I will finish by telling you about how Mike and I would write together. At regular intervals in the writing process, it would involve us sitting together and reading our work out loud to one another, a bit like actors reading a script around a table before they rehearse on stage. By taking it in turns to read something out loud we’d have to speak slowly for the other to take it in, knowing the tone and texture of our respective contributions had to work together, to become a unified whole – one voice, not two. 

I miss those meetings but thankfully, I still hear his voice when I read the words.

~~~

We Stammer

Spoken by Mike Neary. Recorded by Nik Farrell Fox, January 2017.

~~~

A Personal Paean to Mike Neary – Nik Farrell Fox, 29th March 2023

Mike and I were thrust together by happenstance in a dialectical dance of necessity, fortune and chance. My new next-door neighbour would soon become the best friend I’ve ever had and the finest, most exemplary man I’ve ever known. Tall, handsome and graceful, his eccentricity was magnetic, his intellect was profound and his face exuded the gentleness and warmth that endeared him to so many. His lilting voice was soft and welcoming but not without authority and some piquancy when irked or when expressing outrage at the world’s immorality and grotesque injustices. The ‘pedagogy of hate’ that he espoused as a theoretical tool for destroying capitalism on the surface sat contradictorily within a man so gentle and kind. But, as with many kissed by the revolutionary spirit of freedom, Mike’s ‘hatred’ was of a pure, redemptive nature fuelled by a deep love for his fellow human beings and a great distress at their enslavement and enforced predicaments.

Although we did many things together, the details of which I’ll remember with ultimate fondness, it was our revelatory and blissful walks around the West Common that I miss most of all. We would walk around the perimeter, with each stage host to a different topic. From the gate to the northerly tip we discussed football – results, managers, players, favourite and least favourite pundits, past exploits on the pitch when we were youngsters captaining our respective school teams, funny anecdotes and leftfield observations pertaining to the most tenuous of connections. I always found Mike very humorous, interesting and playful in his observations. From here we would then traverse the next section with academia taking over, discussing where we were at with our research. Mike listened to my protracted ramblings with an encouraging, comradely ear while showing the greatest modesty in relation to his own, far more portentous deeds, which impressed me nonetheless. For the next mile or two we assailed each other with the jargon of philosophical discourse – I hit him in the jowls with Sartre, Foucault and Nietzsche while he floored me with Marx, Negri and Ranciere. Despite the intensity of our reasonings, protestations and proclamations, never for a single second did our words ever become barbed or our moods hostile. I loved arguing and finding agreement with Mike for he was an intellectual giant and a very sporting gladiator. After all, our disagreements were slight, for our minds thought similar things and our revolutionary hearts beat in tempo. For the final part of the walk, once our academic muscles had been sufficiently exercised, family became our topic of conversation in which Mike would always take a genuine interest in the minutiae of what I told him about my Loved Ones before he told me with great affection about his. Back at the Common gate, we would on occasion just want to keep talking and would repeat the circuit, trampling over the same topics and clods of earth. Otherwise, we just shuffled back together like two contented creatures along West Parade before disappearing back into adjacent houses until the delight of doing it all again in a week’s time.

Nietzsche (not him again, Mike groans), saw friendship as life’s most precious gift and as a bona fide recipe for a healthy society. There were, he said, three essential components to any great friendship – agonism (where, through sublimated competition, we each grow and develop), the sharing of joyful experiences (in which we partake of common perceptions and actions), and the virtue of bestowing (in which we pass on our knowledge and attributes as ‘gifts’ to the other). All three were ever-present in my unwavering and unbesmirched friendship with Mike, but as, Nietzsche stated, it is the bestowing virtue of friendship that carries the greatest weight. Mike’s life was a gift to us all who knew and loved him, and the knowledge, kindness and good vibrations that he bestowed will live on as vibrant memories in the hearts of many others like my own. To echo the final words of his final book, he taught us (in a soft Geordie accent) how to learn from each other and flourish together as ‘a pedagogy of excess in a world of abundance’

Adieux, my precious friend, a human being, as Nietzsche spoke prophetically of the Übermensch, ‘with Caesar’s strength and Christ’s soul’

~~~

Remembering Mike Neary: ‘Teaching as a Collaborative, Political Activity’ – Richard Lance Keeble, Professor of Journalism

Mike Neary had an enormous impact on the University of Lincoln. For Mike (inspired as he was by Marx), pedagogy was always political – and he was not afraid to put his ideas into practice. In the end, his ideas about the Student as a Producer and Learning Landscapes transformed teaching practices across the institution. But for Mike the political was also the personal and so he devoted a lot of his energy to supporting colleagues and students at an individual level.

I personally benefited from this support in many ways. One of his ambitions was to inject the research-led post-graduate culture wherever possible into the undergraduate culture. Responding to that initiative, my late friend and colleague John Tulloch, Head of Journalism, and I launched the country’s first BA in Investigative Journalism (with a prize of £200 for the best student of the year – donated by the celebrated reporter John Pilger). For this degree, the students had no formal class teaching in their final semester: instead, they were able to dedicate the whole of their time to researching and writing their individual investigative projects. They would meet as a group from time to time to discuss progress – and any particular practical or ethical issues. But essentially I met them on a personal basis as if they were post-graduate research students. I had been teaching journalism since 1984 – but the work produced by the students on this programme was amongst the best I had ever supervised. And Mike was thrilled to hear about the success of the degree.

Mike arrived from Warwick University as a recipient of a National Teaching Fellowship. When I applied in 2011, he was thus able to give me crucial advice on how to present the 5,000-word submission document. When he saw my original draft he said simply: ‘Fine – but just add a bit of theory.’ Which I did – and when I won the fellowship Mike accompanied me to London for the award ceremony.

For a few years I joined Mike, Joss Winn and others in setting up the Social Science Centre in Lincoln. Mike was clearly angry at the commercialisation of higher education and the immoral, excessive fees charged students. The creation of the Social Science Centre was one of his responses. And its aims sum up Mike’s principles perfectly: ‘SSC believes that higher learning oriented towards intellectual values of critical thinking, experimentation, sharing, peer review, co-operation, collaboration, openness, debate and constructive disagreement point towards a better future for us all. The centre works to create alternative spaces of higher education whose purpose, societal value and existence do not depend on the decisions of the powerful.’

A number of speakers at the moving ‘Stammering as Dada’ commemorative event mentioned Mike’s passion for football. I (a Notts and Forest supporter being a Nottingham lad) also liked to indulge in footie gossip with him (and after I retired in 2013 we would meet up from time to time). One thing I particularly remember him saying was: ‘Actually when I go to a game I’m more interested in watching the ways in which the managers react than the actual football.’

Mike, always acutely aware that teaching is at its core (its heart) a collaborative, highly political activity, was an inspiration for me – and for countless others.

~~~

Tribute to Mike – Alan Gurbutt

Life feels short now that Mike has gone. He was a gentle person and kind. He showed me kindness, despite my awkwardness towards inequalities in state education. That was my problem and he couldn’t fix it. Mike probably didn’t realise that his teachings evoked answers within me on how Capitalism impacted my family life growing up in a council house in the 1970s, a rare privilege today, and the issues we faced not having enough money. I learnt about socioeconomic trauma through his teachings and this gave me some closure. I remember Mike being at meetings of the Social Science Centre. He was always welcoming with a smile. The last time I spoke with Mike was at the University of Lincoln. He wished me well with my nurse training and expressed how pleased he was that I was reading mental health. Mike also encouraged my daughter’s passion for learning. I wish he could have been here longer. I loved and admired him. 

~~~

Plenary of the British Conference of Undergraduate Research and World Congress of Undergraduate Research at Warwick – Written by colleagues from the international Undergraduate Research community.

Our story of Mike Neary starts somewhere back in the early years of this Millennium when Mike was a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Warwick. Mike brought together a team of colleagues from many disciplines and many places to create the Reinvention Centre for Undergraduate Research, one of around 80 centres of excellence in teaching and learning funded at that time. Parts of the story that unfolds here are recorded more formally in the University of Warwick’s recent submission to the Teaching Excellence Framework.

Like many of us, Mike was sold on the benefits to our students’ education of undergraduate research and he was always enthusiastic about it. But Mike had the vision to see that promoting undergraduate research could have, and indeed has had, a transformative effect on universities and on us. Mike could always think beyond. He instilled his passion for Undergraduate Research in all of us and that’s embodied in everything we do. He always asked what students might have to offer and what their role might be.

In 2007 the Reinvention Centre hosted a conference called ‘The Student as Producer’, one of the first times this concept was presented in public. As well as the extensive academic debate, we discussed how to actually get on and change things in our universities. Mike had some spare funding and needed to spend it quickly. He bought a minibus! This was a typically surprising but brilliant move. The minibus had Reinvention blazoned down its sides and was a symbol of how we could connect our students to the worlds beyond the university campus.

The minibus took conference delegates to the innovative Reinvention Centre at Westwood, the first time most of us had seen beanbags in a university classroom! Mike understood the need to reinvent the spaces we study in to literally transform the landscape of higher education. The Oculus here at Warwick is a physical embodiment of Mike’s legacy, with many design features from the experimental classroom, which has now sadly gone. Around the country we see new university buildings that are directly inspired by Mike’s ideas – typically having lots of amazing classrooms for students  and a few rather miserable offices for academics!

Also in 2007, Mike moved from Warwick to the University of Lincoln where he took up a senior leadership role. One of his major achievements was to persuade the University of Lincoln to make ‘Student as Producer’ its signature pedagogy, and it featured in its strategies, website, and student prospectuses. Getting buy-in from the Vice-Chancellor and the senior management team to a concept that Mike openly said had its roots in Marxist philosophy, is nothing short of amazing.

At Lincoln Mike engaged with colleagues and of course with students in his characteristic way. Mike brought people on and he helped them learn the craft of navigating higher education. Despite being a senior leader, or he would have said because he was a senior leader, Mike often immersed himself in student life, being seen quietly sitting in the corner at a student Marxist society event or on the back seat of a minibus heading to London with students protesting tuition fee increases. Mike was the ultimate critic of university bureaucracy but could use it well to achieve his goals. Always principled,  Mike never lost sight of what he was trying to achieve. In retirement, Mike planned to develop his ideas around cooperative universities, work that others will now have to finish.

Mike was an insider outsider. He had what Jonathan Rée calls the courage of his anachronisms. He railed against the technocratic university and invited us to continually challenge the dominant discourse. He encouraged students to move beyond capitalist realism and to understand that they can change things. We really need Mike’s voices to continue being heard. Mike was not ideological. He saw universities as part of the destructive neoliberal project and drew on Paolo Freire’s  call to constantly seek change and to reinvent. Mike embodied critical hope. He could see darkness in the world and that, while there is not necessarily light at the end of the tunnel, if we restlessly reinvent we can dare to hope.

Mike was very political and knew that education is a deeply political project building us as individuals and collectives to make the world a better place – he had democratising zeal. He saw possibilities even in elite institutions for education and research to mutually reinforce each other in transformative ways. He was brave and urged us not to be scared to talk about values in designing our universities. He never shied away from awkward situations yet despite the challenges he saw, he was never combative. Instead he was thoughtful and kind, though always with an edge.

Beyond the UK, Mike’s ideas and scholarly writing were seminal in establishing the underlying framework and ethos of the Australasian Council for Undergraduate Research, which is, to this day, a vibrant community of academics and students working together to promote and advance undergraduate research in Australasia. Mike remained a member of the ACUR Steering Committee until his untimely death.

Mike believed in the potential of others and provided them with opportunities and encouragement. He was generous, humane, principled, restlessly creative and fearless in pushing against the boundaries in education. He gave so many of us fantastic starts or changes of direction in our careers at Lincoln and at Warwick. Mike would do anything for you and he changed our lives. His impact is immeasurable. He truly was an inspirational figure and the kindest of friends.

Mike loved the British Conference of Undergraduate Research. He would have been so proud to see the hundreds of students from around the world presenting their work here at Warwick. Mike Neary should be here today.

~~~

Tributes by Richard Hall and Ana Dinerstein in Network, the magazine of the British Sociological Association.

~~~

Amateurs, Autodidacts, and the First Decade of Classical Guitar-Making in Britain

I have recently had an article on the early history of classical guitar-making in Britain published in the Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society (JAMIS). The journal is available to purchase in hard copy from the American Musical Instrument Society and a ‘post-print’ version (peer-reviewed but without the journal layout and page numbering) is available to download from the University of Lincoln’s research repository.

Download the article.

I welcome any comments on the article, which has, among other things, occupied me for over two years. It’s the first of several articles related to the knowledge, education and training of classical guitar-makers that I am working towards. The abstract and brief profiles of some of the people I discuss are summarised below.

“This article explores the first decade of classical guitar-making in Britain (1948 – 1957) and discusses the efforts of amateurs and autodidacts in the recovery, codification and instruction of craft knowledge and skills. The research for this article draws on two sources of primary data: guitar magazines and the first three attempts in the English language to codify the practical knowledge of classical guitar-making into instructional texts. I begin by identifying the instrument in its historical context. Next, I present biographical summaries of key advocates and outline the work of the first luthiers. I then discuss the Do-It-Yourself texts and argue that classical guitar-making at that time gradually gained cultural legitimacy through the efforts of autodidacts who established the requisite knowledge and skills that were later adopted and validated by educational institutions.” 

Notes on a new guitar (No. 6)

My latest guitar follows a similar lightweight design to the previous four, only this time I chose to use different tonewoods and opted for a slotted headstock. The soundboard is Western Red Cedar; back and sides of Cedar of Lebanon; a Bog Oak fretboard; Lime neck; and Walnut bridge, binding and head veneer.

The following recordings are unrehearsed pieces taken with my phone, played by Rob Johns. The strings are D’Addario EJ45 normal tension.

I especially enjoyed working with Cedar of Lebanon, Walnut and Lime. The Cedar of Lebanon is very similar to Cypress, the traditional wood for flamenco guitars. The density of my set is 503 kg/m3 and I thinned the back and sides to about 2mm. It bends well and has an amazing fragrance – not the same as Cypress but just as appealing and the colour is a close match, too.

Lime is a traditional wood for carving and was a delight to work with a chisel. It also polishes up well with an interesting, tight grain across the radius of the neck. This piece of Lime is a little more dense (604 kg/m3) than Spanish Cedar, the traditional neck wood for flamenco guitars, but not far off. I routed out the centre and replaced it with a hollow carbon tube for added stiffness and lower weight.

I have worked with Walnut on previous instruments. It makes a very light bridge (13g with bone decoration) and has a nice grain pattern but its relatively low density (630 kg/m3) means that it will suffer from string wear more quickly than traditional Rosewood. To prevent this, I inserted 2mm brass tubing into the string holes.

It was the first time I have used Western Red Cedar (WRC) for the soundboard and in many respects it’s a lovely wood for this purpose. It is a very low density wood (347kg/m3) and therefore enables the lightest, most responsive soundboards. It is similar density to the Engelmann Spruce top I used on guitar #2 (385kg/m3) and I will happily use both again in the future. I think the Cedar soundboard gives the instrument a warmer sound than my previous guitars and that it suits classical and jazz more than traditional flamenco, which I have focused on previously.

The Bog Oak fretboard (909 kg/m3) was a nice idea and looks great, but I doubt I’ll use it again. It has quite an open grain and tore easily when planing it. Still, it’s nice to think that you’re working with a piece of wood that is more than 5000 years old.

The overall weight of the instrument is 1288g. Were it not for the metal machine heads, it would weight about 100g less. Once I fitted the tuners, the balance of the guitar shifted noticeably towards the head.

As you can see below, the air resonance of #6 is very similar to #3, as is the weight, once the different tuners are taken into account. However, they do not sound the same, with #3 having a little more volume and a drier, more cutting sound – just what you want from a flamenco blanca. This instrument (#6) sounds different – more versatile – with rounded notes that are even across the fretboard. The different soundboard and neck materials no doubt contribute to this and it is set up with slightly higher action.

  • #6: 90Hz (F# -47 cents); 1288g
  • #5: 82.8Hz (E +8 cents); 1319g
  • #4: 88.8Hz (F +29 cents); 1247g
  • #3: 90.8Hz (F# -32 cents); 1189g
  • #2: 92.9Hz (F# +7 cents); 1122g 1
#6 top tap tone average

No instrument, whether it is a factory-made model or an individually built hand-made guitar, will sound exactly like another; there are too many variables, not least the individual pieces of wood that are selected which vary within species and from tree to tree.

One way of trying to ensure some consistency is to measure the density and resonant modes of the wood prior to building, following the calculations given by Trevor Gore in his book, Contemporary Acoustic Guitar Design and Build (Vol. 1, section 4.5)2. With these measurements, over time I should be able to establish the physical characteristics of each piece of wood, even within a single species, and then determine the thickness of the top and back plates according to the target frequencies I am aiming for. It will take a number of instruments before I can really start to make meaningful adjustments based on what I’m looking for and should also help me develop my ear, too, by having objective data to refer to when tapping the guitar during the build process and listening to the instruments being played. Neither the traditional intuitive approach (working knowledge), where the luthier taps, listens, holds and flexes, nor the scientific approach (explicit knowledge), which Trevor Gore has explained in his recent book, is exclusive from one-another, and in fact are complementary ways of understanding the relationship between the maker and the materials.

Commodity

This chapter discusses the peculiar nature of the ‘commodity’. I start by chopping the word down to its etymological roots and then reanimate it as the ‘commodity form’. In order to explain a single word, I have to introduce others: labor-power, abstract labor, socially necessary labor time and value. I then discuss the commodity of education, students as consumers and as producers. Finally, I conclude that the university (or college, or school) is a fetish that conceals the pervasive social power of the commodity-form.

Winn, Joss (2021). Commodity. In: Themelis, Spyros (Ed.), Critical Reflections on the Language of Neoliberalism in Education: Dangerous Words and Discourses of Possibility. London: Routledge.

Download PDF

Amateurs, autodidacts and the first decade of classical guitar-making in Britain (in press)

I have had an article accepted for publication in the Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society (JAMIS), which will be out later this year. Below is the abstract and brief profiles of some of the people I discuss.

“This article explores the first decade of classical guitar-making in Britain (1948 – 1957) and discusses the efforts of amateurs and autodidacts in the recovery, codification and instruction of craft knowledge and skills. The research for this article draws on two sources of primary data: guitar magazines and the first three attempts in the English language to codify the practical knowledge of classical guitar-making into instructional texts. I begin by identifying the instrument in its historical context. Next, I present biographical summaries of key advocates and outline the work of the first luthiers. I then discuss the Do-It-Yourself texts and argue that classical guitar-making at that time gradually gained cultural legitimacy through the efforts of autodidacts who established the requisite knowledge and skills that were later adopted and validated by educational institutions.” 

Learning from drawings: An evaluation of eight flamenco guitar plans

UPDATE 15/09/20: I originally wrote about six flamenco plans but have added two more GAL flamenco plans by Tom Blackshear to the comparison spreadsheet.

I have also removed the original comparison table from this blog post because it was too difficult to read. Please refer to the spreadsheet.

~~

How do you learn to make a ‘Spanish guitar’? There have been a number of books over the years and at the heart of them is an instrument plan.

A milestone in Spanish guitar making outside of Spain came in 1954, with the publication in Guitar Review of a scale drawing of Torres FE26 by Theodorus M. Hofmeester (1897-1955). For the first time, the design features of the Spanish guitar were plain to see and widely available to guitar enthusiasts to study and copy. Hofmeester was an Architect and President of the Classical Guitar Society in Chicago. Although the authenticity of FE26 has been called into question,1 nevertheless, the drawing provided a useful level of detail for subsequent makers to learn and build from. Although published in the USA, Guitar Review had readers and contributors in the UK and the Hofmeester drawing laid the groundwork for subsequent DIY texts on classical guitar making in Britain.

Hofmeester plan of Torres FE26 (1954)

There is understandably a lot of emphasis on ‘learning by doing’ and ‘tacit knowledge’ in craft activities, with the use of books and scale drawings often overlooked. Guitar-makers don’t just do and their knowledge is not only intuitive. They observe, think, measure, study, plan and document their work.

In my survey of classical guitar makers in the UK, I asked ‘to what extent have you learned from the study of other instruments?’ Over 55% of respondents said they had learned ‘a lot’ or ‘a great deal’. Only around 5% said they had learned nothing at all from the study of other instruments.

At some point, sooner or later, the student luthier will either study a ‘historic’ instrument (by which I mean, a guitar by an acclaimed, often deceased maker, whose instruments are prized by players and collectors) or, more often, study a drawing of a historic instrument.

Locating an instrument by an important maker is not always straightforward. They may be commercially available for tens of thousands of pounds or held in private collections. Occasionally they are held in museums, yet in the UK, there appear to be just two Spanish made guitars based on the Torres design in publicly accessible museums. Equally depressing, classical guitars made in the UK hardly feature in UK public collections either.

So, the alternative to an actual instrument is to study a scale drawing. There are a number of places to buy such plans and the detail and utility of them varies. Below, I evaluate six eight plans for flamenco guitars made by three influential Spanish makers, whose historic instruments sell for unadvertised prices today.

In evaluating the six eight flamenco plans, I will be guided by the article written by John Ray et al. (2017) ‘A review of basic procedures for an organological examination of plucked-string instruments’. The ‘basic procedure’ represents the most comprehensive published methodology available for examining and documenting guitars and other plucked string instruments. John Ray is a well-established Canadian guitar-maker and author who has lived and worked in Spain since 1989.

My objectives in evaluating the six eight plans are to compare them to the procedures described by Ray et al., discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each, and highlight what can be learned from the study of them collectively. I believe everything I have to say is applicable to plans of other types of guitar and possibly other instruments, too.

The six eight plans are as follows:

A: Santos Hernandez 1934, drawn by David Merrin

B: Domingo Esteso 1934, drawn by David Merrin

C: Santos Hernandez 1934, drawn by Richard Bruné

D: Marcelo Barbero 1951, drawn by Richard Bruné

E: Santos Hernandez 1933, drawn by Roy Courtnall

F: Marcelo Barbero 1950, drawn by Roy Courtnall

G: Manuel Reyes 2003, drawn by Tom Blackshear

H: Arcángel Fernández 1982, drawn by Tom Blackshear

Introduction to the drawings

On the face of it, the instruments are very similar, being Cypress bodied flamenco ‘blanca’ guitars made by Spanish luthiers between 1933 and 1951. In fact, there were personal connections between each maker: Santos Hernandez worked alongside Domingo Esteso in the Manuel Ramirez workshop, and Marcelo Barbero was hired by Santos Hernandez’s widow to complete the instruments he left unfinished after his death in 1943. Each maker is revered and any collector of classical or flamenco guitars would be pleased to own any of these instruments.

The plans by Roy Courtnall are CAD drawings made in the early 1990s with permission from dealer, Ray Ursell. The Santos Hernandez plan is also published in Courtnall’s book, Making Master Guitars, which features an introduction to the maker and his work. The Barbero plan is not included in the book and includes no accompanying biographical notes.

By comparison, the plans by David Merrin are reproductions of hand drawings of instruments from the Granary Guitar collection in 2011. The Granary Guitar Collection is well-known among players and luthiers in the UK because the owner has held open days to visit the collection.

The Richard Bruné plan of the Barbero guitar is hand-drawn and accompanied by extensive notes on the provenance of the instrument. It was featured in American Lutherie #55 and regarded by Bruné as “the defining flamenco guitar of the 20th century” because it was played by Sabicas on his album Flamenco Puro. Bruné’s plan of the Santo Hernandez instrument was published more recently in American Lutherie #73 and is a CAD drawing, again with accompanying notes on the plan and a related article in the same journal.

Basic Measurements for an Organological Examination

Ray et al. provide a list of measurements and features to document when examining an instrument, which I list below in order to indicate whether the six eight plans provide that information.

I am not able to reproduce the rest of Ray et al.’s article here, but can say that it contains various illustrations and images to demonstrate the procedure to capture this information as well as the tools required. It is a very thorough, practical guide on what to document and how.

I should also say that Courtnall, Merrin and Bruné did not necessarily set out to document the instruments for the same purpose as Ray et al. are proposing, and this evaluation is not intended as a criticism of their efforts, which I have benefited greatly from in my own workshop.

A: Santos Hernandez 1934, drawn by David Merrin

B: Domingo Esteso 1934, drawn by David Merrin

C: Santos Hernandez 1934, drawn by Richard Bruné

D: Marcelo Barbero 1951, drawn by Richard Bruné

E: Santos Hernandez 1933, drawn by Roy Courtnall

F: Marcelo Barbero 1950, drawn by Roy Courtnall

G: Manuel Reyes 2003, drawn by Tom Blackshear

H: Arcángel Fernández 1982, drawn by Tom Blackshear

Each plan is a 1:1 scale drawing so where measurements are not explicitly given, they can be more or less found by measuring the drawing itself. All measurements in the plans are in millimetres.

For a detailed comparison of all eight plans, please see the spreadsheet here.

Discussion

As you can see, each of the plans provides a lot of detail for the guitar-maker and, from experience, I know that a guitar can be made with the information given in any single plan.

The evaluation reveals something about each author’s motivation and approach. Merrin’s plans are the most comprehensive drawings for the guitar-maker; Brune’s plans are also comprehensive and show more scholarly concern for the provenance and condition of the guitar – something which Ray et al. are concerned with, too. Brune’s plans are perhaps best seen as studies of the instruments, as well as workshop references. Courtnall’s plans are primarily intended for the workshop and provide suggested thickness ranges for top and back rather than specific numbers, recognising that each piece of wood requires an assessment of its own attributes. The layout of Courtnall’s CAD plans are clear and easy to follow.

No single plan meets every expectation of Ray et al.’s procedure for examination but it would not take too much additional effort for future authors of instrument plans to adopt their procedure in full. Merrin and Courtnall’s plans do not provide specific dimensions for the top and back outlines and they assume the back is the same dimension as the top. Indeed, it should be and for a workshop drawing, we do not need the back outline dimensions. Bruné provides back dimensions for the Barbero (D), probably because of the guitar’s historic significance and also because it appears the different top and back dimensions was intentional. Similarly for the neck relief on the Barbero (D) guitar, which is in fact convex rather than concave, or ‘negative relief’ as Bruné refers to it.

In my own experience of building four flamenco guitars, using the Courtnall (F) and Bruné (D) Barbero plans, I thought it would be nice to have the weight and the main air resonance (Brune provides the air resonance but not the weight) These are both objective measurements that are easy to obtain and revealed to the maker with the finished guitar. They result from the maker’s overall creative effort, rather than any single detail on the plan and allow the luthier to compare tactile and aural attributes of the original guitar with their own. Merrin’s plans (which I bought very recently) include the weight and air resonance.

Beyond the six eight plans

While learning to build flamenco guitars, I have also been guided by the information provided by Trevor Gore, where he analysed the weight and resonance of six eight classic flamenco guitars. Where flamenco plans include the weight, we should be aware that older guitars are likely to have had wooden pegs rather than mechanical tuners, and if the pegs have been replaced by mechanical tuners, the published weight is around 100g heavier than it would originally have been. John Ray has a useful article on this.

In addition to the six eight plans for flamenco guitars, I have found Sheldon Urlik’s book to be informative because of the detailed measurements given on 82 “fine Spanish guitars” including 21 flamenco guitars. I have calculated the average measurements for the flamenco guitars in this spreadsheet for ease of reference and comparison. (On a separate worksheet there is also data taken from guitars for sale on the Solera Flamenca website). Looking across the average data for those 21 guitars, reveals the design attributes which make a flamenco guitar sound and feel like a flamenco guitar. They are very lightweight, the plates and ribs are thin, and the bridge is low. If you know anything about flamenco guitars, you knew this already, but the numbers really emphasise the importance of building within those parameters.

Having six eight plans to study is better than one, but not because the plans are significantly lacking. Having six eight plans helps you understand that the work of a single luthier will vary and that there is not just one way of making the same type of instrument. For example, it shows you that the brace does not have to be exactly that height, because on other guitars, it is a different height. Having six eight plans shows you that there is room to relax and work with the materials and not just with the plan.

The comfort of the good

For Richard and his Nan.

The truest end of life, is to know the life that never ends. He that makes this his care, will find it his crown at last. And he that lives to live ever, never fears dying: nor can the means be terrible to him that heartily believes the end.

For though death be a dark passage, it leads to immortality, and that’s recompense enough for suffering of it. And yet faith lights us, even through the grave, being the evidence of things not seen.

And this is the comfort of the good, that the grave cannot hold them, and that they live as soon as they die. For death is no more than a turning of us over from time to eternity. Death, then, being the way and condition of life, we cannot love to live, if we cannot bear to die.

They that love beyond the world cannot be separated by it. Death cannot kill what never dies. Nor can spirits ever be divided that love and live in the same Divine Principle, the root and record of their friendship. If absence be not death, neither is theirs.

Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass, they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure.

This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.

William Penn, 1693

Notes on a flamenco guitar (#5)

I finished another flamenco blanca guitar recently. It’s the fourth of this design and my fifth guitar.

Like the previous three instruments, it’s based on a Marcelo Barbero plan, has a Spruce soundboard and Cypress back and sides. It differs from the previous three by having an African Mahogany neck and Ebony fretboard. The particular piece of Mahogany was relatively lightweight, comparable to a dense version of Spanish Cedar, which I’ve used on other necks, such that I could hardly tell the difference. It was the first time I’ve used Ebony, too, having previously used Rocklite. The Ebony was kindly given to me by the luthier and author, Robert Welford, when I interviewed him for my research.

Shortly after I started working on this guitar in January, I bought Sheldon Urlik’s book, A Collection of Fine Spanish Guitars, which is a superb resource for luthiers because, in addition to photographs and descriptive text, it contains the measurements for each instrument; not only the exterior dimensions, but thicknesses at 14 points across the soundboard (including the strutting design), 9 points across the back (including the bracing pattern), and the thickness of the ribs (both bass and treble). If that wasn’t enough, the dimensions of each instrument’s bridge is also given as well as the wood species for each component. Highly regarded luthiers, Richard Bruné, Jeffrey R. Elliott and Cynthia Burton examined and documented the guitars.

There are 21 flamenco guitars in the book (and an accompanying CD of Richard Bruné playing them), so that’s a lot of useful data to learn from and music to enjoy. I put a summary of it into a spreadsheet for easy reference and also to see what the average measurements were across 19 of the guitars. I excluded a negra by Fernandez and also a blanca by Fleta, which was an outlier in terms of its weight and the assessment of it states that it sounds like a classical guitar, rather than flamenco.

The average weight of the 19 guitars, dated between 1883-1988, is 1172g. 14 of the guitars have wooden pegs and those average 1165g. Guitars made in or before 1948, when nylon strings replaced gut, average 1110g. Guitars after 1948, average 1256g. Scale lengths range from 646-660, with most between 650-655. Average thicknesses are:

  • Soundboard around bridge: 1.82mm
  • Bass side: 1.43mm
  • Treble side: 1.47mm
  • Back 1.95mm
  • Bridge height: 7.82mm (this is an indication of saddle height (+0.5-1mm), which gives a flamenco guitar its characteristic feel)

Although I’m not advocating designing a guitar simply by numbers, they do consistently illustrate the build characteristics of a traditional flamenco guitar.

When I built my first flamenco blanca, I was guided by scale drawings and also the observations by Gore and Gilet, which I summarised as:

Based on their analysis of six vintage instruments, Gore and Gilet suggest that a good traditional sounding flamenco guitar will have an air resonance below 100Hz and a top resonance of around 180Hz (between F and F#) or around 190Hz (between F# and G). They suggest a bridge of no more than 15g, back and sides that are no thicker than 2mm and an overall weight of around 1100g. 

Building a full-size guitar that weights around 1100g narrows down the choices of tonewood and build decisions, such that you almost inevitably end up with a flamenco blanca with wooden pegs. For my fifth guitar, I thicknessed the soundboard to around 1.8mm, the sides to 1.5mm and the back to 1.9mm. The neck, strutting, bracing and end block followed the Barbero plan (a 1948 Barbero guitar in the book weighs 1185g, 134g lighter than my #5). The density of the tonewood I used is:

  • Mahogany neck: 514kg/m3 (640)
  • Ebony fretboard: 1258kg/m3 (955)
  • Indian rosewood bridge: 848kg/m3 (830)
  • Cypress back: 646kg/m3 (535)
  • Cypress sides: 642kg/m3 (535)
  • Euro spruce top: 446kg/m3 (405)

The density of a species of wood varies from tree to tree, but if I compare these numbers to the Wood Database (given above in brackets), the neck is relatively light and the back and sides are relatively dense. The fretboard is relatively heavy with the finished fretboard before gluing weighing 60g more than the equivalent Rocklite. Clearly the way to reduce the weight of my guitar to that of Barbero’s (1185g), is to select lighter examples of wood and to use wooden pegs. For comparison, guitar #3, built to the same design, has a relatively light Spanish Cedar neck (448kg/m3), Rocklite fretboard (801kg/m3), Ebony pegs and weighs 1189g.

My latest instrument came together in a relatively straightforward way. I roughly shaped the bridge in January; prepared the neck and joined the head in February, and did everything else over 16 days in April when I had some annual leave. A further week of French polishing in the evenings, a week of waiting, and then a day to fit the pegs and set up the guitar.

It weights 1319g. The neck and fretboard woods added a bit more weight (about +100g) and the geared pegs weigh 34g more than Ebony pegs, so taking that into account it’s very consistent with number 3 (1189g), which has a Rocklite fretboard and Ebony pegs. The body resonance is E +47 cents (84.7Hz), compared to F# -42 cents (90.3Hz) of #3. The lower resonance is probably because the soundboard is thinner on #5.1

I expect more experienced luthiers will look at all this fuss over weight and think that I’m overlooking the importance of a subjective assessment of the materials and an intuitive approach to the build. I agree, but having made only 5 guitars (each about six months apart), it takes more repeated practice to develop that tacit knowledge. It is happening though, as I noticed the difference in the soundboard flexibility for this guitar, the crystalline character of the Cypress, which David Dyke had marked ‘OLD’, and carving the neck with a knife was easier and quicker this time.

Looking back over my workshop notebook, I wrote that, “I still refer to Roy’s book but more for process-related guidance, rather than what I should do. When not what.” I blame my tools a lot, or rather my use of my tools: the circle cutter blade is “crap”; the tape I use to clamp the binding kept peeling away and I resolved to find a better method, and the method of how I constructed the rosette was probably no more effective than how I had done it previously. When things go well, I note that it’s usually because “I took my time”; it’s not that I need to slow down, but that I am learning how best to use my time.

The next guitar will be of the same design but using Cedar of Lebanon back and sides, Western Red Cedar soundboard, Bog Oak fretboard, Lime neck and Walnut bridge. It’ll be interesting to see how it sounds using mostly local wood.

Slides for the Holy Grail Guitar Show

I was due to be in Berlin this weekend, attending the European Guitar Builders symposium and giving a talk at the Holy Grail Guitar Show. Of course, it was cancelled due to Covid-19, but quickly turned into the Holy Couch Guitar Show!

“How do luthiers learn their craft?

All of the luthiers at the Holy Grail Guitar Show had to learn to make their first guitar but what are the sources of guitar-making knowledge and how are the practical skills learned? For the last two years, Joss has been researching how guitar-makers learn and teach their craft. At the HGSS, he will discuss the results of a survey of guitar-makers from across Europe, focusing on their education, training and experience. He will also talk about what he has found from interviews with over 30 guitar-makers and his on-going study of guitar-making at Newark College, UK. In doing so, he will refer to the efforts of amateurs and DIY culture in the 1950s, the later development of college courses, and the professionalisation of guitar-making since the 1970s.” 

Here’s a one minute video for social media, where I introduced myself and the ‘talk’.

Embedded below is my ‘talk’ for the HGGS, heavily annotated in the notes section of each slide (Download the Slides or a PDF version which is easier to read).

It’s an expanded version of presentations I’ve given before, this time incorporating more from an article that will be published later this year on the role of amateurs and autodidacts in the first decade of classical guitar making in the UK.

It also includes new survey data from March 2020. I issued a modified version of my original survey to EGB members and other makers outside the UK. The new data suggests my original data for classical guitar makers in the UK is fairly representative for guitar makers in general and now I’m writing up the surveys for publication.

If you have any questions, comments, want to talk about the research or participate in some way, please do get in touch. It would have been great to meet and talk with people in Berlin.

Email: jwinn@lincoln.ac.uk

Instagram: @josslwinn

Twitter: @josswinn