I welcome any comments on the article, which has, among other things, occupied me for over two years. It’s the first of several articles related to the knowledge, education and training of classical guitar-makers that I am working towards. The abstract and brief profiles of some of the people I discuss are summarised below.
“This article explores the first decade of classical guitar-making in Britain (1948 – 1957) and discusses the efforts of amateurs and autodidacts in the recovery, codification and instruction of craft knowledge and skills. The research for this article draws on two sources of primary data: guitar magazines and the first three attempts in the English language to codify the practical knowledge of classical guitar-making into instructional texts. I begin by identifying the instrument in its historical context. Next, I present biographical summaries of key advocates and outline the work of the first luthiers. I then discuss the Do-It-Yourself texts and argue that classical guitar-making at that time gradually gained cultural legitimacy through the efforts of autodidacts who established the requisite knowledge and skills that were later adopted and validated by educational institutions.”
My latest guitar follows a similar lightweight design to the previous four, only this time I chose to use different tonewoods and opted for a slotted headstock. The soundboard is Western Red Cedar; back and sides of Cedar of Lebanon; a Bog Oak fretboard; Lime neck; and Walnut bridge, binding and head veneer.
The following recordings are unrehearsed pieces taken with my phone, played by Rob Johns. The strings are D’Addario EJ45 normal tension.
I especially enjoyed working with Cedar of Lebanon, Walnut and Lime. The Cedar of Lebanon is very similar to Cypress, the traditional wood for flamenco guitars. The density of my set is 503 kg/m3 and I thinned the back and sides to about 2mm. It bends well and has an amazing fragrance – not the same as Cypress but just as appealing and the colour is a close match, too.
Lime is a traditional wood for carving and was a delight to work with a chisel. It also polishes up well with an interesting, tight grain across the radius of the neck. This piece of Lime is a little more dense (604 kg/m3) than Spanish Cedar, the traditional neck wood for flamenco guitars, but not far off. I routed out the centre and replaced it with a hollow carbon tube for added stiffness and lower weight.
I have worked with Walnut on previous instruments. It makes a very light bridge (13g with bone decoration) and has a nice grain pattern but its relatively low density (630 kg/m3) means that it will suffer from string wear more quickly than traditional Rosewood. To prevent this, I inserted 2mm brass tubing into the string holes.
It was the first time I have used Western Red Cedar (WRC) for the soundboard and in many respects it’s a lovely wood for this purpose. It is a very low density wood (347kg/m3) and therefore enables the lightest, most responsive soundboards. It is similar density to the Engelmann Spruce top I used on guitar #2 (385kg/m3) and I will happily use both again in the future. I think the Cedar soundboard gives the instrument a warmer sound than my previous guitars and that it suits classical and jazz more than traditional flamenco, which I have focused on previously.
The Bog Oak fretboard (909 kg/m3) was a nice idea and looks great, but I doubt I’ll use it again. It has quite an open grain and tore easily when planing it. Still, it’s nice to think that you’re working with a piece of wood that is more than 5000 years old.
The overall weight of the instrument is 1288g. Were it not for the metal machine heads, it would weight about 100g less. Once I fitted the tuners, the balance of the guitar shifted noticeably towards the head.
As you can see below, the air resonance of #6 is very similar to #3, as is the weight, once the different tuners are taken into account. However, they do not sound the same, with #3 having a little more volume and a drier, more cutting sound – just what you want from a flamenco blanca. This instrument (#6) sounds different – more versatile – with rounded notes that are even across the fretboard. The different soundboard and neck materials no doubt contribute to this and it is set up with slightly higher action.
No instrument, whether it is a factory-made model or an individually built hand-made guitar, will sound exactly like another; there are too many variables, not least the individual pieces of wood that are selected which vary within species and from tree to tree.
One way of trying to ensure some consistency is to measure the density and resonant modes of the wood prior to building, following the calculations given by Trevor Gore in his book, Contemporary Acoustic Guitar Design and Build (Vol. 1, section 4.5)2. With these measurements, over time I should be able to establish the physical characteristics of each piece of wood, even within a single species, and then determine the thickness of the top and back plates according to the target frequencies I am aiming for. It will take a number of instruments before I can really start to make meaningful adjustments based on what I’m looking for and should also help me develop my ear, too, by having objective data to refer to when tapping the guitar during the build process and listening to the instruments being played. Neither the traditional intuitive approach (working knowledge), where the luthier taps, listens, holds and flexes, nor the scientific approach (explicit knowledge), which Trevor Gore has explained in his recent book, is exclusive from one-another, and in fact are complementary ways of understanding the relationship between the maker and the materials.
This chapter discusses the peculiar nature of the ‘commodity’. I start by chopping the word down to its etymological roots and then reanimate it as the ‘commodity form’. In order to explain a single word, I have to introduce others: labor-power, abstract labor, socially necessary labor time and value. I then discuss the commodity of education, students as consumers and as producers. Finally, I conclude that the university (or college, or school) is a fetish that conceals the pervasive social power of the commodity-form.
I have also removed the original comparison table from this blog post because it was too difficult to read. Please refer to the spreadsheet.
How do you learn to make a ‘Spanish guitar’? There have been a number of books over the years and at the heart of them is an instrument plan.
A milestone in Spanish guitar making outside of Spain came in 1954, with the publication in Guitar Review of a scale drawing of Torres FE26 by Theodorus M. Hofmeester (1897-1955). For the first time, the design features of the Spanish guitar were plain to see and widely available to guitar enthusiasts to study and copy. Hofmeester was an Architect and President of the Classical Guitar Society in Chicago. Although the authenticity of FE26 has been called into question,1 nevertheless, the drawing provided a useful level of detail for subsequent makers to learn and build from. Although published in the USA, Guitar Review had readers and contributors in the UK and the Hofmeester drawing laid the groundwork for subsequent DIY texts on classical guitar making in Britain.
There is understandably a lot of emphasis on ‘learning by doing’ and ‘tacit knowledge’ in craft activities, with the use of books and scale drawings often overlooked. Guitar-makers don’t just do and their knowledge is not only intuitive. They observe, think, measure, study, plan and document their work.
In my survey of classical guitar makers in the UK, I asked ‘to what extent have you learned from the study of other instruments?’ Over 55% of respondents said they had learned ‘a lot’ or ‘a great deal’. Only around 5% said they had learned nothing at all from the study of other instruments.
At some point, sooner or later, the student luthier will either study a ‘historic’ instrument (by which I mean, a guitar by an acclaimed, often deceased maker, whose instruments are prized by players and collectors) or, more often, study a drawing of a historic instrument.
Locating an instrument by an important maker is not always straightforward. They may be commercially available for tens of thousands of pounds or held in private collections. Occasionally they are held in museums, yet in the UK, there appear to be just two Spanish made guitars based on the Torres design in publicly accessible museums. Equally depressing, classical guitars made in the UK hardly feature in UK public collections either.
So, the alternative to an actual instrument is to study a scale drawing. There are a number of places to buy such plans and the detail and utility of them varies. Below, I evaluate six eight plans for flamenco guitars made by three influential Spanish makers, whose historic instruments sell for unadvertised prices today.
My objectives in evaluating the six eight plans are to compare them to the procedures described by Ray et al., discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each, and highlight what can be learned from the study of them collectively. I believe everything I have to say is applicable to plans of other types of guitar and possibly other instruments, too.
On the face of it, the instruments are very similar, being Cypress bodied flamenco ‘blanca’ guitars made by Spanish luthiers between 1933 and 1951. In fact, there were personal connections between each maker: Santos Hernandez worked alongside Domingo Esteso in the Manuel Ramirez workshop, and Marcelo Barbero was hired by Santos Hernandez’s widow to complete the instruments he left unfinished after his death in 1943. Each maker is revered and any collector of classical or flamenco guitars would be pleased to own any of these instruments.
The plans by Roy Courtnall are CAD drawings made in the early 1990s with permission from dealer, Ray Ursell. The Santos Hernandez plan is also published in Courtnall’s book, Making Master Guitars, which features an introduction to the maker and his work. The Barbero plan is not included in the book and includes no accompanying biographical notes.
By comparison, the plans by David Merrin are reproductions of hand drawings of instruments from the Granary Guitar collection in 2011. The Granary Guitar Collection is well-known among players and luthiers in the UK because the owner has held open days to visit the collection.
The Richard Bruné plan of the Barbero guitar is hand-drawn and accompanied by extensive notes on the provenance of the instrument. It was featured in American Lutherie #55 and regarded by Bruné as “the defining flamenco guitar of the 20th century” because it was played by Sabicas on his album Flamenco Puro. Bruné’s plan of the Santo Hernandez instrument was published more recently in American Lutherie #73 and is a CAD drawing, again with accompanying notes on the plan and a related article in the same journal.
Basic Measurements for an Organological Examination
Ray et al. provide a list of measurements and features to document when examining an instrument, which I list below in order to indicate whether the six eight plans provide that information.
I am not able to reproduce the rest of Ray et al.’s article here, but can say that it contains various illustrations and images to demonstrate the procedure to capture this information as well as the tools required. It is a very thorough, practical guide on what to document and how.
I should also say that Courtnall, Merrin and Bruné did not necessarily set out to document the instruments for the same purpose as Ray et al. are proposing, and this evaluation is not intended as a criticism of their efforts, which I have benefited greatly from in my own workshop.
As you can see, each of the plans provides a lot of detail for the guitar-maker and, from experience, I know that a guitar can be made with the information given in any single plan.
The evaluation reveals something about each author’s motivation and approach. Merrin’s plans are the most comprehensive drawings for the guitar-maker; Brune’s plans are also comprehensive and show more scholarly concern for the provenance and condition of the guitar – something which Ray et al. are concerned with, too. Brune’s plans are perhaps best seen as studies of the instruments, as well as workshop references. Courtnall’s plans are primarily intended for the workshop and provide suggested thickness ranges for top and back rather than specific numbers, recognising that each piece of wood requires an assessment of its own attributes. The layout of Courtnall’s CAD plans are clear and easy to follow.
No single plan meets every expectation of Ray et al.’s procedure for examination but it would not take too much additional effort for future authors of instrument plans to adopt their procedure in full. Merrin and Courtnall’s plans do not provide specific dimensions for the top and back outlines and they assume the back is the same dimension as the top. Indeed, it should be and for a workshop drawing, we do not need the back outline dimensions. Bruné provides back dimensions for the Barbero (D), probably because of the guitar’s historic significance and also because it appears the different top and back dimensions was intentional. Similarly for the neck relief on the Barbero (D) guitar, which is in fact convex rather than concave, or ‘negative relief’ as Bruné refers to it.
In my own experience of building four flamenco guitars, using the Courtnall (F) and Bruné (D) Barbero plans, I thought it would be nice to have the weight and the main air resonance (Brune provides the air resonance but not the weight) These are both objective measurements that are easy to obtain and revealed to the maker with the finished guitar. They result from the maker’s overall creative effort, rather than any single detail on the plan and allow the luthier to compare tactile and aural attributes of the original guitar with their own. Merrin’s plans (which I bought very recently) include the weight and air resonance.
Beyond the six eight plans
While learning to build flamenco guitars, I have also been guided by the information provided by Trevor Gore, where he analysed the weight and resonance of six eight classic flamenco guitars. Where flamenco plans include the weight, we should be aware that older guitars are likely to have had wooden pegs rather than mechanical tuners, and if the pegs have been replaced by mechanical tuners, the published weight is around 100g heavier than it would originally have been. John Ray has a useful article on this.
In addition to the six eight plans for flamenco guitars, I have found Sheldon Urlik’s book to be informative because of the detailed measurements given on 82 “fine Spanish guitars” including 21 flamenco guitars. I have calculated the average measurements for the flamenco guitars in this spreadsheet for ease of reference and comparison. (On a separate worksheet there is also data taken from guitars for sale on the Solera Flamenca website). Looking across the average data for those 21 guitars, reveals the design attributes which make a flamenco guitar sound and feel like a flamenco guitar. They are very lightweight, the plates and ribs are thin, and the bridge is low. If you know anything about flamenco guitars, you knew this already, but the numbers really emphasise the importance of building within those parameters.
Having six eight plans to study is better than one, but not because the plans are significantly lacking. Having six eight plans helps you understand that the work of a single luthier will vary and that there is not just one way of making the same type of instrument. For example, it shows you that the brace does not have to be exactly that height, because on other guitars, it is a different height. Having six eight plans shows you that there is room to relax and work with the materials and not just with the plan.
The truest end of life, is to know the life that never ends. He that makes this his care, will find it his crown at last. And he that lives to live ever, never fears dying: nor can the means be terrible to him that heartily believes the end.
For though death be a dark passage, it leads to immortality, and that’s recompense enough for suffering of it. And yet faith lights us, even through the grave, being the evidence of things not seen.
And this is the comfort of the good, that the grave cannot hold them, and that they live as soon as they die. For death is no more than a turning of us over from time to eternity. Death, then, being the way and condition of life, we cannot love to live, if we cannot bear to die.
They that love beyond the world cannot be separated by it. Death cannot kill what never dies. Nor can spirits ever be divided that love and live in the same Divine Principle, the root and record of their friendship. If absence be not death, neither is theirs.
Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass, they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure.
This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.
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.