ESS-ential Guitar Building: Part Three

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Finally . . I’m getting around to writing the third, and final, installment of ESS-ential  (Expression, Strength, and Simplicity) Guitar Building.  Expression and strength were the subjects of my previous two entries.  Today I want to address simplicity.

The basics of guitar design are not all that complicated.  Strings under tension vibrate and resonate through a box, producing sound.  The builder can accomplish this with relative ease using onimg_1822ly materials at hand and creative thought.  Diddley bows are constructed with simple boards, wire, and cans.  Cigar box guitars are exactly what the name implies, guitars made from cigar boxes.  These crude and inexpensive instruments, in the hands of even a mediocre player, produce raw, basic, and extremely pleasinimg_1935g music.  On the other hand, there are guitars so finely engineered, expertly crafted, and extravagantly adorned that they cost many thousands of dollars.  These are made in high end factories (the guitar at the right is the one millionth guitar Martin produced), or in the shops of custom builders.  These, then, are the extremes: very simple on one hand and bafflingly complex on the other.  The challenge for builders, like myself, is reigning in the desire for the complex so that the simple can be learned, practiced, and employed.

One must learn to intentionally move from the ‘complexity of possibility’ into the ‘practice of now’ and then on to the ‘complexity of refinement.’  In other words: from the complex to the simple and back to the complex again.  Let’s examine these one by one.

I confess that I have a problem with the ‘complexity of possibility.’  I think so many things are cool that I have difficulty focusing on just one and actually getting it on my workbench.  Currently I have eleven specific guitars that I plan on building or restoring.  Six acoustics, three electrics, and two cigar box guitars.  Each one has consumed more dream/fantasy time than I care to admit.  Many times Ramona, my wife, will come out to the garage and find me just sitting in a chair.  “I thought you were out here building,” she’ll say.  My reply is always the same:  “I am, I’m just thinking.”  Thinking and doing are critical components of building a guitar.  Each deserves, and requires, proper attention.  But at some point painful choices must be made, full well knowing that each decision necessarily excludes hundreds of other possibilities.  And some of those may never come to pass.  But when you know what you want to do then the ‘practice of now’ begins.

This second stop on the creative journey is the simple stage (from the complex to the simple and back to the complex again, remember?).  But simple isn’t easy.  Practicing ‘now’ is an orderly progression.  Nothing is random.  You refine the design (always knowing that it will change), select the wood, collect the materials and tools, execute the skills, solve the problems, fix the mistakes, and sand (lots of sanding!).  It’s critical to remember that practicing the ‘now’ requires immediate, focused attention.  You cannot think too far ahead and you must always work within your capabilities.  If you’re not satisfied with your present skill set then you have to put off learning and practicing that skill for another time, when you can concentrate on it solely.  But, all told, at this point you have a playable instrument.  You can leave it as is or . . . move on to the next stage, the ‘complexity of refinement.’

Adorning a guitar is a complex issue requiring intricate inlay and carving skills, knowledge of materials (mother of pearl, abalone, etc.), and artistic flair.  In my opinion, this level of complexity can get way out of hand.  Take another look at the photograph of the one millionth Martin guitar.  It’s beautiful to look at but I wonder how it sounds and plays.  I’ll never know.  Only a few people have ever held or played it.  Because of its fragile decorations it lives in a perfectly maintained, humidified, and lighted case in the museum at the Martin factory.  Look, but don’t touch.  I know so many players who own such ornate guitars that they’re afraid to get them out of the case, fearing scratches or smudges.  To me, this belies the purpose and nature of a guitar – to bring harmonic resonance into the universe.  A guitar should have a functioning balance between form and beauty.  As a builder, I try to remember that this stage of the process, the ‘complexity of refinement,’ is made possible only upon the successful achievement of the first two steps, ‘complexity of possibility’ and the ‘practice of now.’

My guitars are what I call approachable.  I’m very comfortable in touching and playing them, and I’m not afraid to allow others to do the same.  And I think they look pretty darn good, as well.  From the complex to the simple and back again to the complex.  It’s mystical!

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ESS-ential Guitar Building: Part Two

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In this much delayed second installment of a three part series I am going to ruminate about the element of strength in building and life in general.   As a reminder, I am calling this ESS-ential guitar building:  E-xpression (previous post), S-trength, and S-implicity.

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In 2010 I won my division in the ADAU national powerlifting championships.  Powerlifting is a weightlifting competition in which the contestants must complete, to the satisfaction of the judges, three different lifts:  squat, bench press, and dead lift.  The total of those three efforts determines the winner.  Success in this arena depends upon a few things:

  1.  A qualified, encouraging trainer.  People work out by themselves all the time, and that’s great.  However, to press and pull heavy weights one needs to be taught proper form, instructed in the art of beneficial training sessions, and motivated to push harder.
  2. Willingness to be judged.  My trainer stressed to me early on that “it doesn’t count until you do it on the platform.”  There’s a lot of chatter, bragging really, in the gym about setting personal records and such.  However, until put yourself out there in front of three judges and win their approval it just doesn’t count. 
  3. Auxiliary training.  If all you do in the gym is curl a bar you’ll end up with impressive biceps and nothing else.  Powerlifting demands that the main muscles used in a lift be worked sufficiently.  But all of the supportive muscles must be exercised, as well.  Major muscles and contributing, auxiliary muscles must all be given attention.  They augment each other.
  4. Healthy lifestyle.  Proper nutrition, rest, hydration, mental attitude and discipline are equally as important, if not more, than the three previous factors.

So what does all of this have to do with guitar building?  Well, let’s take them in the same order:

  1.  Proper instruction.  In the past if one wanted to become a luthier it required becoming part of the guild system and serving an extensive apprenticeship.  In this fashion skills and knowledge were passed from one generation to the next.  It was demanding and secretive.  This has changed significantly, though.  Today it is possible to access voluminous information on instrument building through the channels of YouTube, the internet, books and publications.  But information alone is not sufficient.  I don’t know of any accomplished builder who claims to have learned this craft completely on his or her own.  No – we need to constantly seek instruction, advice and support.
  2. Getting your work out there.  I started in this avocation by building cigar box guitars.  When I decided to attend my first session of acoustic guitar building at Nazareth Guitar Institute I did so with a great deal of apprehension and trepidation.  My wife suggested I take one of my cigar box guitars with me to show the instructors and other students.  I objected strongly.  After all, these were professionals and I didn’t want to be embarrassed.  She is quite convincing, however, and I took one along.  It wasn’t until the third day of the school that I worked up enough nerve to take the guitar in for ‘show and tell.’  Much to my surprise, it was received with great enthusiasm.  So much so that one of the instructors purchased it from me!  You never know how good your work is until it’s judged by others.  Neither do you ever learn.  Growth comes from overcoming the fear of judgement.
  3. Becoming well rounded.  A luthier is one who completes every aspect of the build, from design to completion, by him or herself.  Just as physical muscles have to work together, so do all the pieces of the guitar.  I enjoy building fretboards and shaping necks.  But if I concentrate solely on the things I’m good at, or enjoy, my guitars will never achieve a pleasing sound or aesthetic.  I have to become proficient in designing bridges, scalloping braces and bending sides, as well.
  4. Joyful living.  Several months ago I attended a workshop given by, among others, Michael Millard of Froggy Bottom Guitars.  Someone asked the question, “How do you become a better builder?”  His reply:  “You become a better builder by becoming a better person.”  I have become a firm believer that a truly great guitar is the result of the convergence of the spirit of the guitar (yes, I hold that they are living entities) and the spirit of the builder.  Constant attention to, and improvement of, my moral character and life ethic is not to be dismissed or neglected.

So strength, as one of the three elements of ESS-ential guitar building, is made up of these parts.  Come to think of it – so is life!

 

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ESS-ential Guitar Building: part one

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I want to talk about the building blocks, through my understanding and experience, of effective guitar building and creativity in general.  Those three blocks are expression, strength, and simplicity; the ESS-entials of any endeavor.  This particular blog entry is the first of three parts, in which  I shall discuss expression.

Every person on this earth is unique and perceives the world through different filters.  These filters, among so many others, include family background, place of birth, religious heritage, genetic makeup, financial setting, education, experience, travel opportunities, cultural surroundings, physical abilities, etc.  All of these combined serve as a funnel through which raw information flows into the brain and spirit of an individual, becoming a storehouse of usable material.  The old saying is “use it or lose it.”  Unfortunately, either because of fear or deep sense of inadequacy, most of this raw bounty is never used, causing it to turn rancid and lethal.  What a shame.  Guitar builders, as well as artists and craftsmen of all types, consciously choose to enter the ‘flow’ of the universe, allowing their inner voices to be heard and experienced.

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I had a lengthy conversation some time ago with the art critic from one of the Pittsburgh papers.  Our discussion turned to Andy Warhol, who he referred to as a genius, and I asked him why he thought that was so.  After all, he came to prominence and fame through his paintings of soup cans.  Anybody can do that, right?  “Sure,” he said, “anybody can do it, but he was the first to see it.”  Vision, therefore, is a critical component of creative expression.  There are millions of copiers in the world, but very few visionaries.  And even fewer who actually dare to put what they see out there for others to appreciate or criticize.  (In my experience I find the harshest critics to be those most constipated with the rancid, unused raw materials previously discussed.)  On the surface, and to the untrained eye, most guitars look about the same.  But each one in some way reflects the world view of the builder, and demonstrates the courage to get it ‘out there.’

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Many years ago Bob Ross, now deceased, had a weekly instructional show on PBS called ‘The Joy of Painting,’ featuring his ‘wet on wet’ techniques.  I loved that guy, not so much for his artistry and teaching abilities, but because of his commentary.  Putting “happy little trees” into the landscape because “it’s your world” always amused and inspired me.  Still does.  But here’s the thing: in order to effectively use Bob’s medium for true artistic/creative endeavor, you had to really learn the technique.  The vast majority of viewers, myself included, never learned, nor ever had any intention learning how to paint.  We just wanted to have fun and live in the fantasy that we might, someday, become true artists.  Andy Warhol did not just wander into a studio, pick up a brush for the first time, and paint those iconic soup cans.  He was already an accomplished, practiced artist.  Nobody just goes into a workshop and produces beautiful instruments.  Those who express themselves through what they do have spent hours upon hours learning technique until it becomes second nature.  Only then does that person have the capacity to express the wonder within.

A guitar is a wondrous, magical, living instrument.  It provides a window into the soul of the builder.  When passed into the hands of the musician it continues the journey, providing yet another window into the soul of the player.

Expression: the first ingredient of ESS-ential guitar building.

 

A Committee of One

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Abigail: my silent partner!

I’ve literally spent thousands of hours attending committee meetings through the course of my life.  For the most part they’re poorly run, lacking in leadership, devoid of vision, late starting and even later ending.  Creativity crushers is what they are!  The two best definitions of committees I ever heard are first: a committee is a cul de sac into which good ideas are lured and then strangled, and second: a committee should be called idea skeet, as someone says ‘I have a good idea” and someone else yells ‘pull!’  What always happens in committee meetings is that somebody will be brave enough to put forward a really challenging, creative thought, to which all gathered are initially excited and supporting.  But (and there’s always a but!) another person will say, ‘I like everything about this except for this one little thing.  Would we all agree to remove it?’  And one by one, around the table it goes until everybody’s had a chance to delete the parts that they find offensive.  What’s left, then, is a project that nobody’s offended by – but nobody’s excited about either, including the originator.

When I’m in my shop building guitars I am a committee of one!  I set my own schedule, work at my own pace, make all the decisions, play the music I like, pat myself on the back at appropriate moments, and hold myself accountable for mistakes made.  For me, this solitary endeavor is, perhaps, the most important part of the creative process.  Oh sure, I consult with others from time to time for advice and opinions, but it’s on my terms.  I’m proud of what I do!  My work is far from perfect but it’s improving steadily.  I enjoy exhibiting my instruments and saying ‘I made that.’

It’s been said that a camel is really a horse created by a committee.  Some of my guitars may look like camels to you, but they’re my camels – proudly and boldly brought into existence by a committee of one!

Drink the Magic, Baby!

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Within a span of twenty minutes last night I encountered, engaged, and embraced the magic.  I was headed out to a meeting carrying my brief case and guitar when I was stopped on the sidewalk by two homeless men waiting to get into our shelter.    “Hey man, you play the guitar?”  I stopped and chatted with them for a few minutes, talking about music, life, and unfulfilled dreams.

I crossed the street and entered the lobby of the parking garage where I was intercepted by the security guard.  “I didn’t know you played guitar.  Can I see it?”  Well, I was a little late but I put my things down and obliged his request.  He had a lot of questions:  “What kind is it?  How long did it take you to learn to play?  What kind of wood is that?”  When I told him that it was actually a guitar  I made:  “What?!?  You made this?”  This led to another round of Q&A, which I enthusiastically entertained.

Just as the elevator doors were closing I heard a voice saying, “Hold the door.”  A well-dressed, 60ish woman got in.  “Ooh, a guitar!  I love guitars!  Can you play something for me?’  I was tempted to bedazzle her with my Smoke on the Water riff but I had reached my floor and was now running pretty late.  I told her maybe some other time.  As the doors closed behind me I heard her say, “I love Gordon Lightfoot!”

I was carrying two things.  Nobody asked me about the brief case.  It was all about the guitar.  It’s magic!

Drink up!

Soul, Voice, and Mojo

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Guitars are living things.  And, like humans, each one is unique with an appearance, voice and personality all its own.  One only needs to spend a little time in any guitar shop observing how people are drawn to particular instruments to begin to understand  this.  They look, touch, fondle, and play the guitars that “speak” to them. The alluring siren call that unites guitar and player is magical, romantic even.

I, particularly as a builder, understand this.  Every material, decision, choice, glue joint, or sanding stroke that goes into the process helps bring that guitar from the moment of conception, through the embryonic stage, and into birth.  There is a point in this creative venture when the guitar on my workbench begins to dialogue with me, making the final result a cooperative, collaborative endeavor.  When it’s all said and done that guitar has a unique voice.  It has soul.  And it starts down the road of its musical life developing mojo.

All of this was particularly brought home to me recently when I attended another session at the Nazareth Guitar Institute (americanarchtop.com), building an archtop guitar under the tutelage of Dale and Tyler Unger.  Five students began the eight day session with the exact same materials.  We did the same things together every day, paying attention to the same instructions and examples.  Yet, when we strung those five guitars up on the final day and began to play them, guess what?  Each one sounded different from the others.  Some sweet, some throaty, and some deep, but each one its own.  How does that happen?  It’s the creative force of the universe, and I bow before it.

Most of the guitars I build will mature, move on, and end up in other’s hands,  Their voices will meld with the voices of their players, creating music that brings enjoyment and satisfaction to many.  I may never hear it but I will always resonate with their living vibrations.

Play Me

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The process of creativity necessarily includes many steps.  Visualization, concept, design, construction and finish all play roles in the ultimate sense of satisfaction for the artist/craftsman and the sense of appreciation by everyone else.  Beyond that, however, is another critical element that I, as a luthier, always have in the background of my mind – approachability.  Will the guitar I’m building end up as an objet d’art to be admired or as an instrument to be played?  The answer can, and should be both.

It is my privilege to know an expanding circle of accomplished luthiers who create guitars selling for mega-thousands of dollars.  I’ve asked each of them the same question: what is your market and who is buying these fabulous instruments?  Usually the response is that they end up in the hands of collectors or folks who just like to put them on display.  I have friends who own such guitars.  They rarely play them, afraid that they might get scratched or harmed in some way.  I understand that, and actually wish I had the means to acquire such beauties.  But it stirs in me a fundamental problem.  When does a guitar cross the line of form preventing function?

My guitar teacher, Ryan Neitznick, and I spend more time talking about the philosophy of guitar playing than actually playing.  Some might say that this is an incredible waste of my money and his time.  But this has been invaluable to me as it has made me a better player and, more importantly, a better luthier.  Understanding the dynamics and possibilities of six strings resonating in a box translates into better craftsmanship and technique.  I want the guitars I build to be approachable and inviting.  When a player sees one of my guitars I want his first thought to be, “Wow, I want to pick that up, see how how it plays, and hear how it sounds.”  And the second thought should follow closely behind, “and it sure is beautiful.”

Hardly anything is more satisfying to me than watching and hearing an accomplished player make music with one of my instruments.  At that moment I know that I have created a living thing, something that will facilitate creative flow for many years to come, not just an end unto itself.  I harbor no illusions that somebody like Tommy Emmanuel, one of the greatest acoustic guitar players alive today, will call me anytime soon and ask me to build him a guitar.  But somebody named Joe Yacabucci, who plays at the local fire hall on bingo night, just might.  In either case, I want the guitar I put into his hands to be a vehicle of passionate creativity.

Guitars communicate.  Mine say, “play me.”