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.
My third guitar is a 660mm scale flamenco blanca and like the last one, it’s based on Courtnall’s Barbero flamenco plan, with an eye on Courtnall’s 1933 Santos Hernandez plan and Brune’s 1951 Barbero plan, too. Like the previous two, it took me about six months to complete during evenings, weekends and holidays. I was asked to make it for Rob Johns, my guitar teacher, who liked the previous instrument that I had made for myself. As it happened, I loaned him #2 for much of the time I was working on #3, so it was nice to deliver his guitar and have my own back.
The back and sides are cypress, the top is engelmann spruce, the neck is Spanish cedar with a rocklite fingerboard, and the bridge is Madagascan rosewood. It differs slightly from #2 in that the back braces and end block are spruce, rather than Spanish cedar and the previous fingerboard was rosewood. I tried to advance my decorative skills a little more with #3 by making and inlaying a red/green/white purfling and back inlay that carries onto the heel. The rosette is a copy of a Barbero rosette. Overall, the workmanship is an improvement on the last guitar although not at the level I am satisfied with.
The sound of the instrument will change as it is played in, but first impressions are very satisfying. My hope is to make flamenco guitars that have similar characteristics to the sound of this wonderful Siguirilla, played by Paco del Gastor. Turn up your speakers and listen to the first minute (or more!)1
My guitar has a very punchy ‘cut’, decent bass and clear trebles, and just a little sustain – more sustain than the previous guitar. Notably, the instrument is very loud. I’ll try to get a recording of it after it’s had a few weeks of being played.
The overall weight of the instrument is 1189g compared to 1119g for #2. I deliberately chose a pale, lightweight piece of cedar (with graphite rod and beech peg bushings) for the neck (448kg/m3) and adjusted the thickness of the back, sides and top according to the % difference in density compared to #2, but it still ended up being 70g heavier. The rocklite fretboard (801kg/m3) is around the same density of some rosewoods. The back and sides (626kg/m3) are 1.8mm and 1.6mm respectively, and the top (424kg/m3) is 2.2mm around the lower bout gradually moving to 2.5mm in the upper bout and 3mm around the soundhole. The very low profile rosewood bridge (980kg/m3) weighed 16g with the bone on the tieblock attached. The bridge measures 6.1mm in front of the saddle with 1.7mm wings.
My obsession with the weight of the instrument is partly because of the success of the previous guitar in terms of how it sounds and the weight of that instrument was influenced by an observation in Gore & Gilet’s books on the characteristics of classic sounding flamenco guitars, which they observed were around 1100g. My obsession with weight is also because without the cumulative intuitive knowledge, based on the experience of making dozens of instruments, I’m relying heavily on the basic material properties of the wood that I can easily record and adjust. For my next guitar, I intend to measure the stiffness of the wood as well as the density.
The body resonance of the previous guitar is 92.189Hz (F#2 -6 cents) and a top resonance of 191.78 (G3 – 38 cents). The new guitar has a resonance of 90.17Hz (F#2 -44 cents) and the top is 191.78Hz (G3 -38 cents). Almost identical. The body resonance on #3 guitar is in the middle of two fretted notes (F and F#) which is the ideal place for it to be so as to avoid ‘wolf’ notes.
Action and saddle height
In addition to the weight, another technical consideration was to improve on the action for this guitar because I ended up re-fretting guitar #2 to eventually achieve what I wanted. First, I looked for what data I could find and compiled a spreadsheet of 55 flamenco guitars, recording the saddle height and action at the 12th fret. The data came from the Solera Flamenca website. Here’s a summary of the data:
Mean action and saddle height: 2.66mm and 7.78mm
Median action and saddle height: 2.6mm and 7.8mm
Mode action and saddle height: 3mm and 7.6mm
I realise that the data on each guitar is not necessarily how it left the workshop, but reflects the set up by the seller. I’m also assuming the data is accurate because people are spending large sums of money to buy instruments online and unseen, so when they receive them, the set up needs to be as described. I believe the action on that website is recorded with the bass E string.
Data on the weight of those guitars is not often recorded but looking at the weight of 16 cypress guitars from famous makers, the numbers suggest that Gore and Gilet’s sample of six guitars of around 1100g were slightly lighter than average:
Mean = 1200g
Median = 1210g
Mode = 1290g
The scale length across the 55 instruments is consistent:
Mean = 655mm
Median = 655mm
Mode = 655mm
The nut width is pretty consistent, too:
Mean = 52.9mm
Median = 53mm
Mode = 52mm
I was interested to see whether there was anything characteristic about the set up of older instruments.
For the seven pre-WWII guitars, the average action is 2.5 and saddle height is 7.6mm.
For 28 guitars up to 1969, the average action is 2.6 and saddle height is 7.8mm.
For 13 guitars made after 1980, the average action is 2.8 and saddle height is 8.1mm.
Again, the action and saddle height may have been adjusted and it’s quite possible that the nut and saddle have been replaced on some of the older instruments, but there does seem to be a trend towards a slightly higher saddle and action.
In the journal, American Lutherie, Richard Brune discusses flamenco setup and writes:
“Originally, all Andalusian Torres models had a low action, about 1/8″ or considerably less between the 12th fret and the string. In the 20th century beginning around the 1930s and continuing after WWII, due to the influence of Segovia and other classical players who were playing larger halls, the standard ‘classical’ action began to increase, culminating in the impossibly high actions seen on Ramirez instruments from the 1960s to the present. However, action is always a matter of individual preference. Many modern flamenco players use a very high action, as did Ramon Montoya for precisely the same reasons, to avoid buzzing. More important is the consideration of neck angle and setup with negative, neutral, or positive relief (back bow, straight, or up bow) which greatly affect the ‘percussive’ quality of the traditional flamenco guitar. Corollary to this is the height of the strings above the soundboard at the bridge, which again was always very low for all Spanish instruments until the advent of nylon strings in the 1950s. This relates to torque on the top, which directly relates to how thin the top can be made, and how lightly it can be braced. Again, traditionally the Spanish guitars were all very lightly constructed, but since the 1930s, beginning with Hauser, classical guitars have gotten thicker and more substantial, with higher actions, taller bridges, and heavier bracing.”
Brune, R. (2000) American Lutherie #61.
So, with all of this in mind, I wanted to more accurately design the action and saddle height into the build of guitar #3, aiming for a saddle height of 7mm and action at the 12th fret of 2.5mm, which I know Rob would appreciate. Just as importantly, I wanted the string height at the 1st fret to be as low as possible, too, without the open strings buzzing. This involved setting a neck angle of 1.5mm into the solera, tapering the underside of the fingerboard slightly between the 12-19th frets to fit the angle, and gluing the slotted fingerboard onto the neck. I then made and temporarily fitted the finished bridge, nut and saddle and planed the top of the fingerboard until a straight edge was 3.5mm above the surface, which would result in action of 2.5mm above 1mm fretwire. I also had to take into account the 2mm dome of the soundboard (which collapses to under 1mm without string tension using my chosen bracing pattern) and anticipate the amount the strings would pull the soundboard upwards. This put me in the region of where I wanted to be so I had enough room to make adjustments to the saddle and nut when the instrument was finally strung up. The finished instrument has a saddle of 7mm and action of 2.5mm, as I had planned.
Although a seemingly trivial thing, the golpeador or tap plate is something that I’ve spent a long time trying to figure out a method for fitting. There are basically three methods: using self-adhesive plastic sheets from luthier suppliers; using blank plastic sheet (0.15mm) from craft suppliers, cutting it to size and shape and gluing with white PVA glue; or using epoxy rather than PVA. I’ve tried the PVA and epoxy methods before on mine and other people’s guitars and prefer the epoxy method that Aaron Green outlined. The PVA never dried thoroughly for me, whereas the West System epoxy bonds slow enough to get all the air bubbles out and position the plastic perfectly, and then dries hard to produce a nice glassy tap. I like this approach, also, because it feels like the fitting of the golpeador is part of the build process – something I make – rather than an accessory that I fit. Incidentally, gluing the golpeador didn’t change the overall air resonance of the guitar, whereas gluing on the bridge lowered it by about 70 cents.
The next guitar
My next guitar will be another flamenco blanca but this time using non-tropical and local wood. Flamenco guitars are traditionally made from cypress because, as Richard Brune argues, it is the only suitable tonewood native to Spain and was therefore cheaper to produce instruments from. In the mid-to-late 19th century, when the Spanish guitar design was established by Antonio de Torres, most players were Gypsy flamenco players who required cheap, loud, percussive guitars to play in the cafes. The flamenco guitar is therefore basically a folk instrument and I want to see what I can produce that is faithful to my own context. I also want to see what a Western red cedar top will sound like using the same Barbero design. The back and sides will be aromatic Cedar of Lebanon, which is light and strong and looks similar to cypress (the set I have is 503kg/m3 and comes from a tree cut in the UK). The neck will be lime from the UK (545kg/m3), the fretboard will be English bog oak (922kg/m3), and the bridge (630kg/m3), bindings and head veneer will be English walnut. The WRC top I have is 347kg/m3. I’ll report back in 6 months!
My research looks at how luthiers learn and teach their craft. In addition to documentary research, I am talking with experienced guitar-makers across the country about their learning and teaching experiences and conducting a case study of the Musical Instrument Craft degree at Lincoln College (Newark), the only course of its kind in the UK.
The photograph shows Manu (left) and Adrian (right) working together in a race to build a guitar. To save time, they are sharing the task of scraping the sides of a guitar smooth. The race between two teams is held early in the academic year to enculturate new students and promote peer learning. It is tiring but fun, too. New students can observe more experienced students and participate in the making of an entire instrument in just a few days, whereas it could take them a year to build a guitar of their own.
The making of ‘concert’ classical guitars in the UK began after World War II and at the same time, methodologies and techniques were explored and codified by amateur instrument makers. I am currently writing an article that will discuss this at length but in the meantime thought it would be of interest to some people to learn about another one of the artefacts I have come across during my research.
I have previously written about Theodorus M. Hofmeister’s plan of the Torres FE26 guitar, which was published in Guitar Review in 1954. I have also written about Clifford A. Hoing’s series of articles for Woodworker magazine in 1955. A similar series of articles by Eric V. Ridge was published in Guitar News in 1956-7 and later republished as a single publication in 1959.
Eric V. Ridge was a Committee member of the International Classic Guitar Association (ICGA) and an amateur instrument maker, having already made a few violins. He was encouraged by Wilfred M. Appleby, the Editor of the ICGA’s ‘official organ’, Guitar News, to make use of the Hofmeister plan to construct a guitar and write about his experience. Appleby had previously encouraged Clifford Hoing to write his series of articles for Woodworker and the Hofmeister plan may have been available to him, too.
In The Birth of a Guitar, Ridge writes:
“Owing to the dearth of information available to prospective guitar makers I was forced to the examination of existing instruments, both good and bad and the perusal of short articles which had appeared from time to time in various publications, combining my knowledge of woodworking, instrument making in particular, with a certain amount of commonsense.
I commenced therefore, after months of contemplation and experimenting, with a firm idea in my mind as to how I intended to proceed with my first instrument, free and untrammelled by the experiences and writings of past guitar makers, and if some of my ideas seem revolutionary, let me say here and now that at no time during the making of the instrument was anything done without due consideration and forethought.” (p.5)
“The best modern concert guitars are all based more or less on the model designed by the great Spanish guitar-maker, Torres, who has been called ‘the Stradivarius of the guitar’. I was fortunate to have the detailed plan and measurements of one of his finest instruments so I used these in planning my guitar”. (p.6)
Here are the first couple of ‘chapters’ from the 1959 reprint of Eric V. Ridge’s series of articles (click to enlarge):
The original series ran over six issues of Guitar News, from Oct/Nov 1956 to Sept/Oct 1957, coinciding with A.P. Sharpe’s book, Make Your Own Spanish Guitar, which was published in early 1957. An advertisement in Banjo Mandolin and Guitar (BMG) magazine in June 1957 claims that over 1000 copies of A.P. Sharpe’s book had already been sold.1 It was A.P. Sharpe’s book that Jose Romanillos used to make his first guitar and is also the guitar-making publication from that formative period that is most widely recognised today. To his credit, Romanillos also mentions the Hofmeister plan and Ridge’s series of articles in his book on Antonio de Torres, which is what led me to look for them in the Bodleian Library (Guitar Review) and British Library (Guitar News).
These four publications by Hofmeister (1954), Hoing (1955), Ridge (1956-7) and Sharpe (1957) constitute the foundational instruction on classical guitar making in the English language. It wasn’t until a decade later (1966) that Irving Sloane would publish Classic Guitar Construction, which Wilfred Appleby described as “the sort of ‘De Luxe’ book on the subject which we dreamed and hoped would eventually appear.”2
Guitar makers often work from detailed drawings of instruments made by earlier makers. In his book on Antonio De Torres, Jose Romanillos refers (p. 58, 125-6 & 187 of the first edition) to a plan of Torres FE 26, drawn in 1953 by Theodorus M. Hofmeister, and published in the 1954 issue of The Guitar Review magazine. Romanillos writes that this was “a landmark in guitar construction of the Torres school because, for the first time, guitar makers, professional and amateur alike, could have an insight into the work of Torres and more importantly, into the dimensions to draw upon for making a guitar.”1 In the catalogue section of his book, Romanillos cautions the reader that there are doubts about the accuracy of the drawing and in fact the authenticity of the guitar itself, but nevertheless it offered aspiring guitar makers the first opportunity to construct a classical guitar along the lines of that of a legendary luthier.
I have acquired2 an original copy of The Guitar Review 1954 and scanned the Hofmeister article/plan, which can be downloaded as a PDF. I don’t know where this guitar is currently held or whether its authenticity was ever resolved, but in the history of classical guitar making it marks an important moment in what was to become a widespread practice (e.g. here and here) of creating scale drawings to study and be guided by in the workshop.
As part of my research into the education and training of classical guitar makers in the UK, I am beginning to review the Do-It-Yourself literature on the subject, much of which is aimed at autodidacts with little or no experience of lutherie. I am reviewing the literature fairly systematically to compare the different methodologies of construction as well as the written style, use of language and idiosyncrasies of each book. I also make use of the books when making my own guitars, especially when I lack the confidence in my own experience or have made a mistake and want to take the advice of several teacher-authors. On the whole though, I stick to a single methodology and book, written by Roy Courtnall, the luthier who taught me locally.
I recently conducted a survey of 102 classical guitar makers in the UK and of the 61 who responded, all but one said they had used one or more of the books available and the majority consider themselves self-taught to a significant extent:
Most of the books listed above will be well known by classical guitar makers. Two books I neglected to include but were listed several times under ‘other’ were Jose Romanillos’ Antonio Torres (1987) and Making a Spanish Guitar (2013). I hadn’t thought to include the 1987 book about Torres among instructional DIY books, but I do understand its significance as a source of learning for classical guitar makers. Not including Romanillos’ 2013 book was simply an oversight.
Readers of Romanillos’ books and various interviews will know that he first learned lutherie by following A. P. Sharpe’s book, Make Your Own Spanish Guitar (1957). What is less well-known is that an earlier set of instructions for making a classical guitar were published in Woodworker magazine (Jan/Feb/Mar/May/June, 1955).
HOING, Clifford A. (1903-89). A distinguished modern maker who worked at High Wycombe, Bucks. Originally trained as a wood-carver but became during his lifetime one of the most respected violin-and viola-makers. Credited with about 150 handmade instruments with choice wood. Followed classical Italian modelling with one or two of his own features. Diploma of Honour, The Hague, 1949. Instruments signed and branded. See Alburger, and Strad (July 1990), 558. S 11/92/240, 1958, £1,705.
Harvey, B. W. (1995) The Violin Family and its Makers in the British Isles: An Illustrated History and Directory.
It is worth repeating that Hoing’s series of articles in Woodworker magazine pre-dates the better known book by A. P. Sharpe, Make Your Own Spanish Guitar (1957) by two years. In his first article of the series, Hoing makes an implicit reference to another book by Sharpe, The Story of the Spanish Guitar, which had been published the previous year. Quoting (but not naming) Sharpe, Hoing seems to suggest (see 2nd paragraph in the image below) that the few passing details on guitar construction in Sharpe’s 1954 book were “ignorant” and this motivated Hoing to write the series for Woodworker. I own the 1963 third edition of The Story of the Spanish Guitar and can’t find anything ‘ignorant’ written about the construction of the modern Spanish guitar. Perhaps Sharpe revised it after the first edition. In a 1965 reprint of Hoing’s articles in Woodworker, his criticism was removed.
Apart from wanting to address Sharpe’s ‘ignorance’, I suggest there are at least two reasons why Hoing’s article appeared when it did, one specific to the introduction of the classical guitar in Britain and another to do with a post-war culture of DIY.
The popularity of the classical guitar in the UK was established in the 1950s through its commercial promotion, the growth of guitar societies and the emergence of players like Julian Bream and John Williams. It seems that instruments were difficult to come by at first. Chapter 5 of Stewart Button’s 1997 biography of Julian Bream quotes a series of exchanges by letter in 1946 between Bream’s father, Henry, and Wilfred Appleby, the editor of the Bulletin of the London Philharmonic Society for Guitarists (PSG), concerning what type of guitar Bream should perform and record with. The letters illustrate how even among enthusiasts in the UK, there was still some confusion over what constituted a ‘classical guitar’ at that time and how to obtain one. This is not surprising, when we consider the direction English guitar-making had taken in the first half of the twentieth century:
Guitar construction in England rapidly deteriorated [in the late 19th c.] as indigenous luthiers abandoned the mainstream instrument in preference for what Appleby euphemistically termed ‘novelty variants’. English luthiers diligently experimented with the guitar’s physiognomy in an attempt to enhance sound projection by introducing resonators, additional soundboards, unusual bridges, fingerboard keys and extra strings. These were often pretentious inventions, exhibiting inferior aesthetic form and unable to preserve a position in the fretted instrument hierarchy. Moreover, English luthiers failed to acknowledge – or ignored – the metamorphosis occurring in guitar construction. Crucial innovations, pioneered by Antonio de Torres Jurado (1817-92), were disregarded.
Button (1997, 47)
According to Button’s biography, Bream’s first classical guitar in the Spanish (i.e. Antonio Torres) style, was a Clifford Essex ‘Hauser’ model given to him in 1947 by Terry Usher. Usher is a pivotal figure in the introduction of the modern (i.e. Spanish) classical guitar in Britain. Button writes that Usher began playing the Spanish guitar in 1945 “and announced in 1948 his ambition to ‘establish the classical guitar in Britain as a legitimate instrument by composing, lecturing and giving recitals’. (BMG, February 1948).” (Button, 1997, 68) Usher received a grant from the Arts Council to promote the instrument through a series of lectures and recitals in 1949 and published in 1956 what I believe is the first English-language, organological article on the classical guitar. In that article, Usher writes about a number of specific instruments, including a Clifford Essex guitar from 1953 and a Harald Petersen guitar from 1955.
At that time, Clifford Essex was run by A. P. Sharpe, and published the monthly Banjo, Mandolin and Guitar (BMG) magazine. The luthier at Clifford Essex was Marco Roccia, whose work Sharpe celebrates in Make Your Own Spanish Guitar (1957). Roccia had worked for Clifford Essex since 1927 and after serving in WWII, resumed his job and began making classical guitars. Usher writes enthusiastically about Marco Roccia in his 1956 article (p.33) which Sharpe quotes in the Introduction of his 1957 book.
Harald Petersen was a Danish luthier who had moved to the UK and sold his instruments through the Spanish Guitar Centre, a business established in 1952 by John William’s father, Len.
Bream and his father first met Terry Usher when they eagerly travelled to Manchester in July 1947 because Usher had “a very good Clifford Essex guitar” (quoted in Button, 1997, 68). In fact, according to Button, Usher’s Clifford Essex guitar was “was actually constructed by the influential German luthier Hermann Hauser (1882-1952)”.1 In a letter for the Bulletin of the Philharmonic Society of Guitarists (1947, no.13), Usher refers to the guitar as “my new concert Hauser model”. Bream’s father wrote that Usher “considered this guitar to be the finest he had ever heard or owned… [Julian] played the Clifford Essex which was certainly a very nice guitar, particularly sustaining and very sweet tone. Better than anything else Terry had there and in perfect condition.”
Bream borrowed the Hauser guitar but two weeks later came across a “dilapidated” model by Spanish luthier, Jose Ramirez, in a shop in London. Bream and his father compared it to the Clifford Essex/Hauser and found the Ramirez to be a better instrument. Once restored by Bream’s father, Bream used the Ramirez to perform for a BBC recording on 30th August 1947.
What this activity highlights is how difficult it was to find a quality Spanish guitar in the UK at that time, let alone one made by a British luthier. There is some evidence that Clifford Essex were making a ‘Spanish Guitar’ in 1947, because for several months, Usher placed a ‘Wanted’ advertisement in BMG offering to buy a ‘Clifford Essex ‘Maestro’ Spanish Guitar’, although I can find no other reference to the instrument. It is not until August 1951 that Usher reviews the Clifford Essex ‘concert guitar’ (purchased in November 1950) made by Marco Roccia and claims that it is “The first true concert guitar to be produced in this country… a landmark in the history of the guitar in Britain.”
In addition to all of this activity around the emergence of the classical guitar as a concert and recording instrument in the UK, it’s also important to recognise the growing popularity of DIY more generally and therefore the wider context that magazines like Woodworker were part of. Andrew Jackson’s PhD thesis, Understanding the Experience of the Amateur Maker, provides a useful summary of amateur making in post-war Britain (p.22). At that time, there was a shortage of housing and labour and between 1941 and 1951, the only furniture available was through the government’s Utility Scheme. The war had resulted in “an unprecedented level of self-help and resourcefulness” (p.23) Home ownership was being encouraged by banks and building societies and so new owners were faced with having to furnish and manage repairs on their homes rather than ask their landlord. A labour shortage made it difficult to find a tradesman to carry out repairs and so people were encouraged by television and magazines like Woodworker to take up DIY.
Looking through the issues of Woodworker from 1955, this social context is made very clear: Along with Hoing’s first article on making a guitar, readers were shown how to make a window seat, bookcases, cupboards, a ‘ladies’ mobile work box’ (to hold sewing materials), and sharing the same page as Hoing’s article were instructions on making a fishing float.
So, in 1955, a growing popularity for playing the classical guitar, a lack of reasonably priced and good quality instruments, and a popular culture of DIY was the context in which Hoing, a reputed violin-maker wrote five articles (12 pages in total) for Woodworker on how to make a guitar, at a time when there were no other published sources of information available.
The first article focuses on the back and ribs with Hoing stating that “full instructions will be given which will enable anyone with a fair knowledge of woodwork to make a good example of the classic guitar.” (January, p.19). A half plan of the plantilla is provided. Having established the drawing and measurements of the back of the guitar, there are then three paragraphs about making a mould for the ribs. Options are given for making it out of laminated or solid wood and a lightweight wood such as obeche is recommended. “It is important that a good job be made of the mould, because a good guitar cannot be made on a bad one.” (p.20)
Although instructions are very brief by comparison to later books, Hoing offers a range of advice including measurements, making of jigs, choice of wood, how to plane thin pieces of wood, and how to make and work with a bending iron. Illustrations are provided for the rib mould and bending iron. The first article covering the back and ribs amounts to eight paragraphs (two pages including illustrations and plan).
The second article covers assembly of the back and ribs, jointing of the soundboard and installation of the rosette. The brevity is remarkable and assumes a significant amount of experience and confidence of the maker. Here are the full instructions on making and installing the rosette:
The methodology for the rosette is unconventional by today’s standards. Cutting the soundhole out before inlaying the rosette and deciding which face of the wood to use makes later thicknessing of the wood more difficult. Cutting of the circle with “a small cutting gauge” assumes that the maker can fashion a suitable tool. ‘Purfling’ is referred to for the first time and we are left to work out that it must be thin strips of wood suitable for inlay. This example is typical of each step in the building of the instrument. It assumes a level of resourcefulness, confidence and, in a sense, individual ‘freedom’, that gradually disappears with each subsequent guitar making manual since 1955. However, we should also recognise that it is part of a magazine where the techniques of tool and jig making, inlaying, design and measurement are written about on a regular basis, so the article should be seen as a complement to the variety of instruction and learning that the reader is assumed to gain with each issue. A. P. Sharpe’s 1957 Make Your Own Spanish Guitar, although very brief by today’s standards, is almost three times longer (32 pages) than Hoing’s series of articles and, while still assuming some experience and resourcefulness, stands alone as a book and therefore has to provide more detail to the maker than a periodical.
The rest of the series proceeds along similar lines: Part three is about ‘Shaping the bridge and fan-strutting’. Anticipating some errors, Hoing states that “it is usual to insert one or more strips of inlay at the centre of the ribs at the bottom of the guitar. This will hide any bad joint at this point. If the bottom joint of the ribs is good, you need not bother to do this.” (March, 58)
It is suggested that the bridge be made of rosewood but failing that another dense wood can be substituted, such as English Walnut. If a softer wood is used, then the bridge should be made thicker to “compensate for the difference in density” (58). Hoing writes that, contrary to other luthiers, he prefers to “rough out” the bridge and glue it before doing the final shaping when the instrument is almost complete. Even in 1955, this seems to have been an unconventional (and irrational?!) approach to making and fitting a key component of the instrument. However, more generously it is again a sign of Hoing’s acceptance that the reader can make up their own mind and use their own judgement and he cautions us that whatever decisions we make, “it must be remembered that work on a musical instrument must be more carefully done than if it were merely a piece of cabinet work, otherwise the tone will be far from musical. There can be no faking of joints in this kind of work.” (58) As such, Hoing establishes lutherie in a hierarchy of practical skills that stands above more domestic DIY projects in Woodworker.
Like the back of the instrument, the soundboard is domed and Hoing suggests achieving this by curving the underside of the bridge, such that when the bridge is fitted, it bends the top with it. Relatively detailed instructions are given for carefully gluing the bridge to the soundboard, with tips such as “Wipe off the surplus glue with a rag that has been dipped in hot water and wrung out tightly. This simple operation will save much bother later.” (59)
A plan for the soundboard is given with sufficient detail, including the direction of grain for the struts and the reader is told to curve the braces to the curve of the top.
Finally, the box is closed with warnings about being sufficiently organised, having the right clamps to hand (instructions and an illustration is provided for making such clamps), and ensuring that a good join is made all the way around.
There is no article in April 1955, but the May issue focuses on the neck and fingerboard. A diagram is given to show the position of the frets as well as a full column on how to calculate their position. The neck joint is a dovetail, perhaps because Hoing used this method when making violins. He offers little in the way of instruction on preparing the joint, presumably because readers will be able to refer to articles elsewhere in Woodworker, or know someone who can show them how to approach it. He offers some advice on fitting the joint, which I cannot follow. Perhaps with more experience it will become clearer to me:
The final article, published in June 1955, focuses on ‘Fixing the frets, banding, purfling, and varnishing’. It is two and a half pages long, including illustrations. When installing the frets, Hoing advises us that “some makers notch or burr the bottom edge of the tongue so as to make a better fit. Others run a little painter’s knotting into the cut before fitting the fret.” (June, 121). What is interesting here and found occasionally elsewhere in the series, is how Hoing draws on his understanding of others’ work, presumably having studied their instruments or seen them at work. How else would a maker of fretless instruments (violin, viola) know about notching the tongue of the fretwire?
Following instructions on levelling the frets, the machine heads are fitted and the head and heel are shaped with reference to the illustration given in the previous article (above). Assuming this is the first of many guitars, Hoing suggests that “when you have more experience in guitar making you may wish to design your own special pattern head.” (122)
As with a number of specialist tasks, an illustration is provided for cutting and fitting the purfling and banding. This is a difficult task to do well and the instructions are too brief but, viewed more sympathetically, it suggests that Hoing has confidence in his readers’ abilities and willingness to learn from their mistakes.
Next, we are instructed to brush on shellac varnish (“no stain should be used on stringed instruments”) and once dry, it is lightly sanded with fine sandpaper. This is followed by a further coat, then two clear coats of varnish, a coat of linseed oil, a coat of amber varnish, then a varnish diluted with meths is polished on.
Finally, the guitar is set up and Hoing warns us that “there is no economy in using cheap strings as they break more quickly and do not do justice to your efforts as a maker or player.” (123).
Having read through Hoing’s series of articles a few times now, I have got over the brevity of his instructions and admire what he attempted at the time. Presumably given a limited amount of space in a popular, monthly magazine, he, like Usher and Sharpe, were contributing what they could to promote the classical guitar to a wide audience and support a growing demand for the instrument. In my interviews with luthiers so far, I know of one person who used Hoing’s articles to construct their first guitar, having already apprenticed as a carpenter, and he went on to make highly regarded instruments and co-author a DIY book for classical guitar making. I don’t think we can criticise Hoing for what he attempted, even if his instructions appear brief and some of his methods are unconventional today. He did for the classical guitar, what no-one else in Britain had done. Given his experience as a violin maker, I am now curious as to what books or magazine articles were available to British readers at that time for making violins and how his writing compares or departs from an established genre of written lutherie instruction, if there was one.
I recently finished making my second guitar, a ‘flamenco blanca’, or a traditional, lightweight, nylon-stringed guitar made from Cypress, Spruce and Cedar. It largely follows Courtnall’s 1950 Barbero plan, but with an eye on Courtnall’s 1933 Santos Hernandez plan and Brune’s 1951 Barbero plan, too. Studying the three plans offered a great deal of information about what makes a traditional flamenco guitar sound the way it does and the different design choices available to the maker.
I also studied Gore and Gilet’s books for any references to flamenco guitar design and found their analysis of six vintage flamenco guitars to be extremely useful. It gave me a couple of key design goals: to build an instrument that weighs around 1100g and with air and top resonances within the ranges they identify.
Finally, I wanted the sound of the instrument to be very dry and percussive with a loud, short, ‘cut’ when appropriately played. I also like to hear the strings buzz under the control of the player. This video of luthier, Richard Brune, playing a 1970 Manuel Reyes guitar has been a constant source of inspiration:
I built this guitar for myself, wanting to learn to play flamenco but not having an instrument designed for that style of playing or sound. The first guitar I made, a contemporary classical design, is completely unsuited to flamenco. As Gore and Gilet write in their book:
“The flamenco ‘cut’ is provided by the high mobility of the top, which contributes to high excursions of the soundboard and the necessarily low sustain relies on air damping and energy diffusing into the low mass sides and back via an impedance matched top and sides junction; exactly the opposite of our objective for all other types of guitar.” (p.1-91)
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.
Throughout my time making this guitar, I kept an eye on the weight and density of every piece of wood, as well as the overall weight as it came together. The soundboard is made from Engelmann Spruce, thinned to 2.5mm in the lower bout area. The bridge is Madagascan Rosewood, weighing 15g, the Cypress back and sides are 2mm and 1.5mm respectively. The beautifully figured fretboard, head veneer, binding and pegs are all rosewood. The finished instrument with strings and golpeador weighs 1119g, has an air resonance of 88.15Hz (F2 +16.62 cents) and a top resonance of 189.76 (F#3 +44 cents). 1 Here’s a graph of the tap tone data:
And here’s the finished instrument.
I’m pleased with the outcome and the instrument sounds as I had hoped it would. Of course, the workmanship could be improved and I made a number of small mistakes along the way that needed rectifying, especially early on. The main thing I wish I had rectified in the build process is the saddle height. I had drawn out the guitar beforehand to determine the string height and neck angle and opted for a flat (no angle) neck, a scale length of 660mm and no fretboard tapering. I calculated that I could get a saddle height of 9mm and action at the 12th fret of 2.25mm.2 However, the finished setup is a saddle height of 10mm and an action of 2.25mm.3
The whole experience made me realise that although it was my second guitar, it was in fact the first guitar I was making on my own without direction and supervision from a teacher. In craft work like this, the experience of having to think for myself, face my own errors of judgement or execution and learn how to correct or live with my mistakes, was part of the process of learning, as well as a useful source of humility. Even with all of the detailed plans and scientific information at hand, I still had to rely on my own intuition and relatively inexperienced feel for the wood and tools. Fortunately, I’ve been asked to make the same guitar for someone else and so have the chance to improve on the same design.