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
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.
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.
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.
I’ll be going to Leicester MusicFest for the third year running. It is held 14th-16th February and is a friendly and supportive event with classes and competitions.
Roy Courtnall always makes a guitar to be given as a prize and there is some very good quality classical guitar playing at the Advanced Guitar Recital on the first day. I’ll be attending on the Sunday, when Rob Johns will be playing the flamenco guitar I made for him. Adrian Lucas will also be attending, as Rob will be playing one of his steel-string instruments.
Rob will demonstrate playing different styles on different guitars including classical guitar, authentic flamenco, and steel-string.
An eclectic mix from Bach to Blues, we will ask and try to answer ‘what is the difference between the acoustic guitars?’, and ‘are they really that different?’
So whatever your jam, come and join us for this friendly demo!
I joined Lincolnshire-based luthiers, Roy Courtnall Summerfield and Adrian Lucas, and musician and teacher, Rob Johns, at the New Monday Art Group. We were invited to talk about guitar-making and listen to pieces played by Rob on classical, steel-string and flamenco guitars made by Roy, Adrian and myself. We talked about the history of guitar design, my research into the teaching and learning of guitar-making and then listened to over half an hour of guitar-playing. It was a surprisingly popular event for a Monday morning, with over 50 people attending.
Thank you to Roy Courtnall for the invitation to contribute to the event and to Shan Dixon of the New Monday Art Group for organising it.
I finished making my fourth guitar just a couple of days before Christmas. It is, in many respects, very much like the previous two. It’s based on the same Barbero plan, has Cypress back and sides, and this time a European spruce top and walnut for the bridge, head veneer and bindings. It’s 650mm scale rather than 660mm. I built it for a friend, Andy, who heard guitar #3 and wanted one like it. The only instructions I received from Andy were to use mechanical pegs (I opted for Wittner pegs) and that he liked the square head shape of my previous two guitars.
Overall, I am pleased with the outcome as it is very consistent with guitar #3. The air resonance of #4 is 90.3Hz (F#-42 cents) compared to 90.2Hz (F#-44 cents) of #3, and the weight is 1247g compared to 1189g of #3. The mechanical tuners weigh an additional 34g over the ebony turners used on #3, so taking that into account, the overall total weight difference is just 24g.
I used hide glue for the first time which was difficult at first but became easier as I got used to it. It gels very quickly and needs to stay quite runny (i.e. warm) to achieve coverage over large areas. I didn’t feel confident enough using it to joint the top and back, nor to glue the bridge with it after having french polished the guitar, but I’ll definitely continue to use it for certain tasks such as making the rosette and gluing the linings, purfling and binding, when the quick grab time is useful.
My workmanship is slowly improving. Throughout the build process, I’m often reminded of David Pye’s concept of the workmanship of risk vs. workmanship of certainty, whereby the use of jigs and machine tools can increase the the certainty of the outcome, compared to workmanship that relies more on hand tools, individual judgement and the maker’s skill and is therefore more risky. I work in a very free manner but a few more jigs and templates would be helpful and improve the accuracy of my work. When I interviewed luthiers in their workshops during the course of my research, it was very common to see a variety of jigs and a small number of machine tools. Machine tools are mainly used to reduce the labour required, whereas jigs improve the accuracy and consistency of the work. One of the reasons apprenticeships in lutherie are so rare is that machines have replaced the labour that apprentices used to be employed for. The labour time that I put into an instrument is of little consequence because I’m not trying to make money and I enjoy the physical and leisurely pace of work, but I do want to make some more jigs before I make the next guitar (which will also be a flamenco guitar for another Andy).
There was a point while making this guitar that I felt like I was achieving more autonomy in my work. I wasn’t constantly referring to the DIY books or previous notes quite so much and I am beginning to intuit what comes next in the process; not entirely – not like the luthiers I spoke to who have all the measurements in their head – but I’m experiencing a growing sense of taking the lead, rather than being led. As someone who only makes a couple of instruments a year, I think it will be a while before I fully embody the process of making.
On Saturday 5th October, I took part in Lincoln Fun Palace.
“Fun Palaces is an ongoing campaign for cultural democracy, with an annual weekend of action every October. The campaign promotes culture at the heart of community and community at the heart of culture. The weekend of action uses the combination of arts, craft, science, tech, digital, heritage and sports activities, led by local people for local people, sharing their own passions and skills, as a catalyst for community-led transformation, with active participation for all ages.”
My contribution was ‘How to Make a Spanish Guitar’.
“Do you know how a guitar is made? How do you learn the knowledge and skills to make a guitar? Where do you start? This session will show you how an acoustic guitar is made and discuss the different ways people teach and learn the craft of guitar-making.”
I took a range of items from my workshop, including specialist tools such as bending iron, circle cutter, go-bar deck, hide glue and small planes as well as all the tonewood needed to make a guitar. I also took the first two guitars I made and a range of books and magazines that I’ve accumulated while doing my research on classical guitar-making. A series of images from my research looped behind me on a display as I talked about the different items I had brought with me.
The two demonstrations were very different: the morning was busy with young children and their parents. There was lots of curiosity and interest from children who didn’t realise you could make glue from animal bone (yuck!) or bend wood on a hot iron (don’t touch!). They stuck wood together with hot hide glue and saw how quickly it grabbed. I planed a bit of Cypress so they could smell wood that had come all the way from Turkey. I showed them spruce felled from old trees in the Italian Alps and demonstrated how to glue struts to the soundboard with a go-bar deck. One of the dads played both the guitars I had brought with me and noted how different the flamenco felt compared to the classical (there’s about 500g difference in weight). I told them about Newark College, which is near to Lincoln, and gave them brochures for the courses in musical instrument making.
In the afternoon, I had just two people visit: a retired couple who had recently moved to Lincoln. Like me, the gentleman had made a few guitars and we swapped notes. He’d learned a different methodology based on Trevor Gore’s books. I showed him how a Spanish heel is made and how the body is assembled around the neck, whereas his method uses a bolt-on neck, so the neck and body are made separately and then joined in the final stages of the build process. It took us both a while to realise that we approached the joining of the body and neck in a completely different way – a reminder that the design of the instrument and the methodology of making it are intrinsic to one-another. Learn one structural design and you learn a methodology that it requires; you make the jigs that make the methodology more efficient, and you learn the hand skills and knowledge that are required to practice the methodology. It’s so obvious, it goes unacknowledged until you come across a different way of doing something and have to deconstruct the process in order to explain it. In doing so, I was reminded about the benefits and limitations of each method compared to the other and in the back of my mind, I was thinking about what it would take to switch approaches.
There are the practical and economic considerations such as having to re-tool in order to change the build process and learn a new method when I still don’t feel like I’ve fully embodied my current approach. There’s also a decision about which of the different craft traditions you want to align your work with. Is it the 19th century workshops of Spain, or Austria, where Johann Georg Staufer used a bolt-on neck, or the C.F. Martin (German and earlier Staufer) method of using a dovetail joint?
When I interviewed guitar-makers across the UK, some people felt quite strongly about maintaining the continuity of the Spanish methods, not only advocating the practical and musical benefits but also identifying with a cultural history of making, an admiration for the instruments it has produced, and identification with past luthiers. Not all makers expressed a strong cultural affiliation though. For some, there’s an appeal to sticking with what one knows best and continually refining it. The word ‘efficiency’ was used sometimes to express such refinement that it had become an art. In the example of the Spanish heel, some makers prefer its elegance and the way it joins the body and neck into a single, undetachable whole.
I went to the Fun Palace simply wanting to share my love of lutherie and the research I am doing with people in my city. I left the Fun Palace having been reminded of the rich conversations that can be provoked by a single technique, tool or piece of tonewood.
My research into the ‘rebirth’ of classical guitar-making in Britain (1947-57) has led me to read around the literature on the ‘amateur’ and ‘autodidact’. There is not much literature to work with, especially concerning the latter, but it has been useful to help understand that early period of twentieth century guitar-making and some of the key people involved.
That amateurs were at the heart of the early classical guitar world and, indeed, classical guitar-making, is evident from the literature of the period and has been asserted by John Huber (1994, 69) who wrote that “completely in keeping with its amateur legacy in performance, the guitar has proven to be without prejudice of any kind against amateur makers.” Huber makes the important point that many professional players, such as John Williams and Julian Bream, have performed on “instruments that would in any other profession be defined as amateur made.”
Reference to the role of amateurs can be found in BMG magazine, too. For example, in BMG November 1949, an unidentified author rejects the criticism of amateurs being ‘dabblers’ and argues that often the only difference between amateur and professional guitar players is the way they present themselves to the public and that the amateur can achieve the presentation of the professional through repeated practice and challenging themselves.
An extended defence of the amateur, written by Jacques Barzun, the French-American intellectual, was published in Guitar Review (1955 #18). In his essay, ‘The indispensable amateur‘, he argues how the amateur (a ‘lover’ of something) exists in “dialectical opposition” to the orthodoxy of the professional. He claims that the “The role of the amateur is to keep insisting on the primacy of style, spirit, musicianship, meaning over any technical accomplishment.” Yes, the amateur “wastes time, rediscovers what is known, and makes colossal blunders” but their achievements outweigh such characteristics; their faults are “harmless”. Yes, the amateur draws most of his knowledge from the institutions of professional society but he/she gives more than they take. He concludes by saying: “We may complain and cavil at the anarchy which is the amateur’s natural element, but in soberness we must agree that if the amateur did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.”
The relationship between the amateur and professional and the legitimacy of their respective knowledge is discussed by later writers, such as Pierre Bourdieu (2010) and Edward Said (1994, 82-83). Bourdieu categorises the self-teaching that takes place outside of the formal educational system as ‘legitimate’ or ‘illegitimate’ types of autodidactism, referring to whether the “extra-curricular culture” (i.e. autodidactism) is attributable to the individual’s existing academic qualifications or not. For Bourdieu, the cultural measure of amateur knowledge is accredited professional knowledge. Said argues that the amateur intellectual is motivated by “care and affection” rather than “profit and selfish, narrow specialization”. They have a different set of values and prerogatives to the professional intellectual, who would do well to adopt the “more lively and radical” spirit of the amateur; “instead of doing what one is supposed to do one can ask why one does it, who benefits from it, how can it reconnect with a personal project and original thoughts.”
This dialectical opposition between the professional and amateur is useful at a conceptual level, but in reality, as all authors recognise, we can find characteristics of the amateur in the professional and aspirations towards professionalism among amateurs. When studying guitar-makers and no doubt other artisans, the weakness of this dialectical opposition is quite evident to me and better explained by Robert Stebbin’s theory of ‘serious leisure’ (1992), which recognises the contribution the amateur makes both in intellectual and materials terms, without necessarily making it their livelihood.
The common distinction between the professional and the amateur is that the professional earns the majority of their income from the activity while the amateur does not. In my survey of over 100 classical guitar-makers in Britain, I asked:
“Is lutherie your main occupation? i.e. do you rely on lutherie for all, or the majority, of your personal income?”
Of the 60 luthiers who replied to the question, 43% said it was not their main occupation, suggesting that ‘amateurs’ have a significant role in British classical guitar-making. However, the number of individuals is probably less important than the number of instruments made and as we would expect, where it is their main occupation, luthiers make about ten-times more instruments (and this takes into account the number of years they have been making).
Finally, I want to add that the literature on amateurs vs. professionals frequently refers to the ‘freedom’ of the amateur, compared to the regulation of life that full-time work imposes on individuals. Andre Gorz’s distinction between heteronomous work and autonomous work offers a way of understanding how people could choose to spend their time, whether in professional or amateur pursuits. For Gorz, the objective is to reduce the amount of necessary, unavoidable, heteronomous work as much as possible thereby allowing one to autonomously volunteer our free time to things that are socially fulfilling and that we love. For Gorz, and for Marx before him, wealth is not simply measured by money, but by how we spend our time. What is interesting to me is that among the 30 guitar-makers I have interviewed there seems to be an implicit understanding of Gorz’s distinction as many have chosen lutherie because it is a way of overcoming the exclusive distinction between regulated, heteronomous work and free, autonomous activity. Yes, professional makers depend on making an income from their productivity, but for the most part, they retain the amateur’s love of their craft and the relative freedom that self-employment and hand craft give them. They spend most of their time doing necessary work that they love and continue to learn from.
For those of us interested in the 20th century history of the guitar, Banjo Mandolin Guitar (BMG) magazine is a key source of information. BMG was published between 1903 and 1976 and claimed to be ‘The Oldest Established and Most Widely-read Fretted Instrument Magazine in the World’. In January, I came across efforts to digitise every issue of BMG and at the time, there were 372 issues online. Yesterday, I checked and was impressed to see that a further 211 had been scanned and uploaded in the last few months, amounting to about 70% of the total. It’s a rich resource for documentary research – effectively a form of primary data – and a source of historical and social minutiae coloured by the obsessive personalities of the writers.
Two other magazines that are very useful to researchers are Guitar News (1951-1973) and Guitar Review (1946-2009). They are held in libraries, but digitisation would enable researchers to OCR them (Optical Character Recognition) and thereby run keyword searches across the entire collection. This is what I have done for BMG and it is a timesaving, systematic and thorough way of mining the magazines for information.
Graham Wade wrote ‘An Obituary for Guitar News’, published in BMG, May 1973:
“Guitar News became a historic and vital record of the growth of the guitar’s popularity throughout the world; the earliest editions are now of considerable value and a complete collection of the magazine’s 119 editions would be worth its weight in gold for any researcher or aficionado of the “classic” guitar… A complete study of these early editions will yield an incredible amount of information… to the discerning reader this information proved a remarkable compilation of the guitar’s history, and often Guitar News was the only periodical to contain either a hint of some guitarist to emerge from the depths of South America (or Japan) of significance or a report of some obscure guitar course in some part of the world attended by a renowned guitarist. The magazine became the eyes and ears of the guitar world, like a seismograph recording every vibration of a guitar string on the face of the earth, and through the years building up an infallible library of reference and informative material by reason of the sheer cumulative weight of its pages… The value of Guitar News as a historical record of the guitar is monumental; its importance is greatly in excess of the sum of the individual editions, and we can but thank its editor for the single-minded labour he lavished in the cause of the guitar.”
Over the last 12 months I have been travelling around the UK interviewing classical guitar-makers. It’s been a really interesting experience and although I have not yet begun to analyse the data, I thought it was worth writing up a few notes on the process up to this point, partially in support of a seminar I am running at our doctoral study school this month about the ‘art of listening’ (cf. Les Back, 2007) and hope that this account offers students some insight into the work of interviewing.
So far, I have interviewed 30 luthiers 1 My interviews with luthiers are unstructured, with most conversations lasting around 2 hours. On a few occasions, I was invited to stay for lunch and kept the recorder running while we talked. I also kept the recorder running when people were showing me around their workshop. I think all of this constitutes the ‘interview’, which was
“based on a clear plan that you constantly keep in mind, but are characterized by a minimum of control over the people’s responses. The idea is to get people to open up and let them express themselves in their own terms, and at their own pace.”
Unstructured interviews are not unplanned nor informal interviews. Mine were planned quite carefully, from the initial selection of interviewees, the timing and logistics of the interview and the preparatory list of things I wanted to cover. There was a formality that defined the start and end of each interview, and between those two points, a desire to create a relaxed, natural conversation that remained on topic.
Selection of interviewees
I selected to interview most participants based on their response to a survey that I conducted between August and October 2018. Next, I will say a bit about the survey as background to the interviews:
Over eight months in 2018, I compiled a list of classical guitar-makers in the UK, living and deceased. I began by contacting members of a popular Internet forum for classical guitar, stating that I was interested in whether it was possible to construct a genealogy of UK classical guitar-makers, identifying the relationships between teachers and students and therefore the passing on of craft knowledge. Members of the forum offered names and references to consult.2 I created a spreadsheet of publicly available information so as to organise what I was finding, including any details about the luthier’s education. Many luthiers have biographical details on their website so as to offer potential customers an insight into the length of their experience, their values and approach to lutherie, how and from whom they learned their craft. Within a week of searching, I had a spreadsheet of 81 luthiers, both deceased and alive; within two months, 100 names. I made the list publicly readable, so that forum members might be prompted to offer new entries.
At the time of issuing the survey in August 2018, there were 130 names on my spreadsheet and I was aware of 102 luthiers who constituted the total living population. Since then, I have learned of a further three working classical guitar-makers and there are certainly more amateur luthiers who have attended night classes or short courses and made one or two instruments.3 Nevertheless, it has surprised some people I have subsequently interviewed that there are over 100, the vast majority of whom are still active.
The survey was piloted with 3 luthiers, whose responses were included in the final results. After piloting the survey in July, I first posted information about it on the Internet forum, inviting UK luthiers to complete it. I wanted to see what the response was from this method before sending it directly to the list of people I had compiled. Only four people completed it over the course of a month (all within a few days of me posting to the forum). At the beginning of September, I then sent an email with information about the research and a link to the online survey to all 101 luthiers I had contact details for and sent a reminder two weeks later. I closed the survey at the end of October 2018.
In total, 61 individuals responded to the survey and 49 people offered follow-up interviews. So far, I have interviewed 21 survey respondents plus a further 9 people who either subsequently contacted me or who I contacted directly. In selecting people for interview I wanted to achieve good coverage of experience, including both younger and older luthiers; those who said it was their main occupation and those for whom it is not; individuals who were self-taught and those who went to college; people who had taught on short courses, in college and privately one-to-one, and those with and without a formal qualification in musical instrument making. Furthermore, I also sought to interview people who had achieved significant reputations for their work, and occasionally I interviewed people because it was convenient to do so e.g. if they lived near someone else I planned to interview. I have two more interviews planned in September and a further three I would like to do over the following year, if possible.
I interviewed 30 people across the UK, from Edinburgh to St. Ives, over the course of 12 months. I was awarded £2541 funding from my university to cover the costs of this (it also paid for trips to the British Library and London Metropolitan University archives for document research) and the entire budget has now been spent. Another implicit cost is the time it took me to do the interviews. Like other academics on the national contract, I am allocated 222hrs/year for scholarship and research purposes, which amounts to about a day a week, and some of that time was used for conducting interviews. I also used annual leave and weekends because it was more convenient to me and/or the interviewee to do so. My point here is that the time spent on research and on annual leave and on other work became more fluid than it might otherwise have been in order to visit people in a time-effective manner, grouping interviews whenever I could in different parts of the country. More commonly, I would take a day to visit two people who lived in the same region of the country, interviewing one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. I took three trips lasting several days to Northumberland and Scotland, East and West Sussex, and Devon and Cornwall, usually incorporating bank holidays and weekends.4
I conducted one interview via Skype because the interviewee’s plans changed at the last minute and he said it would be more convenient to do it this way. The interview went well, but it was the shortest interview I conducted (49 mins) because online communication doesn’t allow for a relationship to be developed in the same way as being there in person. You can’t drink coffee together, talk about the lutherie books they have on their shelves, visit their workshops, look at their instruments, and so on. In one sense, online interviews could be seen as efficient in terms of time and money, but in my case the quality of the data was less rich.
A lot of my travelling was by car because it was easier for me to predict how long it would take for me to get to a person’s house or workshop and because people don’t always live within easy reach of a train station. Trains are a more expensive way to travel too. Typically, I would hire a car at £25/day + fuel and using my phone as a SatNav, I could very accurately predict when I would arrive at each destination. I hired cars because it is university policy to do so when travelling more than 100 miles round trip, which was always the case. Also, I do not use my own car for work, so am not insured to drive it for ‘business purposes’. It may seem rather banal to talk about car hire here, but it had an unanticipated effect on me as a researcher for two reasons: First, it complicated the idea of being ‘at work’. When I was travelling for interviews at weekends and on leave I was doing so, insured, for a ‘business purpose’ (i.e. research) but outside of conventional work time. Second, I found myself wanting to explain to interviewees about the car hire because, as they typically walked me to the vehicle as I was leaving, I felt ‘inauthentic’ about getting into a new and pristine car. I’ve never had a new car (our actual car, bought last year, is 10 years old) and I felt that the hired car might suggest something about me which I do not identify with.
Finally, I want to say that although it has been tiring at times driving around the country, it’s also been a pleasure to meet and talk with everyone and to see so much of the UK, driving to places I’ve never been and experience the beauty of the countryside where luthiers often choose to live.
Conducting the interviews
After the initial welcome and offer of tea/coffee, I would begin each interview by ensuring that the person had completed the consent form and understood the nature of the research and by doing this, we might talk a bit about my background and how I came to do the research. I checked to see whether they had opted for anonymity and everyone, without exception, said they wished to be referred to by their actual name if quoted in subsequent publications. At times during interviews, they might indicate that something they said was off the record (or ‘I maybe shouldn’t say this…’) and I will use my judgement to ensure that no-one is quoted in a way that is likely to cause any negative repercussions. If in doubt, I will check with them again.
I had an interview schedule, which I glanced at occasionally to ensure that I touched on each of the same questions and themes in each interview. I told the interviewee I had prepared these questions but that I preferred not to work through them systematically in the form of a Q&A. Instead, I asked the person to “tell your story” and I said that I would prompt them when necessary to ensure that my questions were answered in the course of the conversation. Interviewees were happy with this. As we sat around their kitchen table or in their workshop, it made sense to take this approach and, I hope, allowed them to relax. Several people thanked me for the opportunity the interview gave them to reflect on their lives and work.
As I said above, the interviews would usually take around 2 hours (a couple of interviews with retired luthiers, lasted up to 5 hours). I turned on the audio recorder as soon as I could because interviewees would start saying things of value to the research almost as soon as I’d entered their home or workshop. I also learned to keep the recorder running until I was almost out of the door, for the same reason. Early on, when I thought an interview was over and had turned the recorder off, we then launched into further discussion which I had to quickly recall and write down while sat in the car outside after I’d finally left. Although at first I was worried that interviewees might feel uncomfortable with a recorder running, one person said they were pleased I was using it because a previous interview they had given to someone else was not accurately reported and he blamed it on them not having recorded the interview.
For the first couple of interviews, I used a dedicated digital recorder but soon switched to using my phone, which worked flawlessly. It had plenty of storage space; the microphone was very sensitive and automatically filtered out background noise; the battery lasted for hours (and could be charged while in the car between interviews), and it was unintrusive to have a phone on the table or in my hand as we walked around the workshop. I used the VoiceRecord7 app for iPhone which also allowed me to easily and wirelessly export the audio from my encrypted phone, to my encrypted laptop and then backed up to secure cloud storage provided by my university, which I did shortly after each interview.
I also took photographs of each interviewee and took along a good quality camera in addition to the camera on my phone. On a couple of occasions I forgot to take photos so I subsequently got into the habit of taking my camera out of my bag and putting it on the table to indicate to the interviewee that I’d like to take photos but also to remind me to use it. I used the dedicated camera to take portraits, usually in the workshop, to act as a visual reminder of the meeting and possibly for publication. Occasionally I would ask people if I could take a photo for Instagram, where there are a lot of luthiers sharing photos of their work. This was a way for me to share what I was doing with a small and interested group of ‘followers’ – mainly luthiers; to indicate the ‘journey’ of the research, and to humanise it with images of participants. Guitar-makers in the UK, as I have seen and been told, are quite isolated with many people working alone at home, and social media appears to be a way that is drawing some people together to share their work. The consent form made it clear to me how people wanted to be identified and, as I said above, every single interviewee chose to be identified by their real name and to allow me to take photos. I made it clear to interviewees that the purpose of my research was not to evaluate their work or promote the businesses of specific individuals.
Each interview felt like a unique and valuable experience. I was worried that the recording app might malfunction (it never did) and would occasionally check it was recording throughout the interview, drawing attention to the fact that we were being recorded. I took notes during the interview, too, mainly to aid my navigation of the recordings when I come to analyse them. Consequently, I’m able to look at my notes and be reminded about some of the things we discussed and the order in which they were discussed.
Although the interviews were what researchers call ‘unstructured’, rather than ‘semi-structured’ or ‘structured’, they were purposeful and productive. The interviews were naturalistic but didn’t happen naturally. Interviewees understood why I had visited them and that this is my work – they didn’t want to waste my time or theirs. By asking them to “tell your story”, my aim was to “get people onto a topic of interest and get out of their way.” (Bernard, 2006, 216) In effect, I had defined the focus of the interview and the interviewee was determining the content. Once settled and relaxed, I tried to let the interviewee take the lead. (Bernard, 2006, 217) This didn’t mean that I simply sat back and listened but my role in the interview was to listen carefully, probe and steer the conversation just enough to stimulate the information I was looking for without making the interview about me. Sometimes it was enough to let people pause and think about what they wanted to say next, at other times I would summarise where we had got to and they would pick up again from there. There are a variety of ways to keep a conversation going and in the right direction (see Bernard, 2006, 217-222) As we get older and interact with more people in different social situations, we gain experience in keeping conversations going, or changing the subject, showing enthusiasm and interest in what other people have to say, and digging deeper when someone has said something interesting. Such experience and ‘social skills’ are drawn on and developed over the course of multiple interviews.
One regret is that had I the time, I would have listened to and even transcribed each of the interviews before doing the next one, but it just wasn’t possible alongside everything else. That said, it is still possible to learn from the experience of each interview and the responsibility I have as a researcher to my interviewees quickly became apparent. People were not only giving me their time, but were openly talking about their lives and keenly supporting the research, rather than simply aiding it. I was often congratulated on the work I was doing and thanked for making lutherie the subject of my research. People were usually keen to know what would happen after the interview and it became clear to me that I was doing the research on behalf of others as well as trying to satisfy my own questions. 5 This sense of responsibility to the research and its participants has been hugely motivating and again blurs the boundaries of professional and personal identity because I feel I have a personal obligation to the people I met, whose homes and workshops I visited, and to carry through with what I said I was going to do.
There was in some cases a very good rapport with the luthiers I interviewed and this may have been aided by a number of ‘response effects’ – the “measurable differences in interview data that are predictable from characteristics of informants, interviewers, and environments.” (Bernard, 2006, 239) Such characteristics could be: That I am a 45 year old male of similar class background to many of the people I interviewed; that I can demonstrate both a personal and professional interest in and experience of classical guitar-making; that I understand the craft process, the history of the tradition and its language; that I could often tell the interviewer something they didn’t know about their own craft tradition; that the interviews took place in the familiar surroundings of their home or workshop; that I dressed appropriately (clean and casual!) and had prepared adequately, and that I was open and honest with people about my motivations and hopes for the research. Had I been, for example, a 21 year old female from a higher social class, with no workshop experience, perhaps a research assistant recruited for the interviews, rather than the main researcher, then I may have received different responses – no less true and honest – but more limited in their depth and breadth.
Having said that, the interviews are not direct access to the ‘truth’ – nothing is – and I acknowledge that people could have been telling me what I wanted to hear, not dishonestly but in an effort to make the experience seem worth my while. (see e.g. Hammersley (2003) for a round up of views on this). We are all susceptible to telling the truth how we want to see it or how we wish it were, to put ourselves in the best light, and tend to remember or prioritise our achievements rather than our failures. I am aware that when asking people about their college experience 40 years ago, or the feedback they got from a famous guitar player, there is the opportunity for error or exaggeration, and it is part of my work to make a judgement on that both during the interview process (in my response and my personal notes) and in the analytical process following the interview.
A complement to my research so far would be to observe people at work rather than ask them about their work. This is something I am doing at Newark College, having spent around 50 hours observing students and tutors in the guitar workshop over 12 visits so far, amounting to 10,000+ words of notes and 170 photographs. In an auto-ethnographic sense, I have also observed and take notes about my own guitar-making and in a limited way, I have seen my teacher, Roy Courtnall, at work, too. On many occasions, I have thought that it would enrich the study to spend time observing a single maker for a prolonged period but the logistics of this, even after someone was willing to put up with the intrusion, are complex, not least needing a month to observe the making of just one instrument.
The slides below are an overview of some of the data and observations I have collected over the past year. As you will see, I have completed a survey of classical guitar makers in the UK and just last week, I completed 30 interviews of luthiers across the country as well as interviewing students and staff at Newark College. I have also been researching the history of classical guitar making in the UK and am currently writing up a journal article on this. Fragments of that history can be found on this blog as I came across interesting publications. I continue to visit Newark College and will spend the next year analysing and writing up my findings from the interviews.