Song in the Wood: Reflections on a Guitar Maker’s Journey

By Richard Howell and Marcus Bussey

 

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A guitar maker’s journey is a love story and like all love stories it has its ups and downs. This love is for a certain kind of sound, it is what characterizes each maker’s art and career and what calls him or her to keep making. Thus the maker is always striving for a certain sound and certain balance that is characteristic of their inner vision – or what I call inner listening. I made my first guitar in 1967 and began making classic guitars in the early 1970s turning professional in 1978. This is a peculiar passion and one I still do not tire of. For me it is a story of striving and that striving has lead to various experimentations with form and wood.

In this work I have spent a lot of time looking at the great makers of the past. I see my guitars as part of the great instrumental tradition that goes back to Antonio de Torres Jurado (1817-1892). In the back of my mind there has always been a sense that the classical guitar offers a way to understand sound that is unique to it. So this ‘love story’ is about each maker’s quest to achieve an instrument that expresses their vision. There is a song in the wood and we seek to unlock that song and give it form so that each player in their quest for the ‘perfect’ sound can deepen their musical journey. This article sketches out some key elements in my own development as a maker.

In the very early years, like all beginners, I began by copying the form of an established maker. In my case this was Kohno. This was the best guitar I could get my hands on at the time. The first thing that struck me about Kohno was the precision of these instruments: the workmanship was always perfect. Also the sound quality and balance was consistently excellent. This set an important benchmark in my mind and was always something in those early years to strive for. My earliest guitars are indebted to the Kohno yet it was not long before I came across the guitar s of Hernandez and Aguado. Their instruments, it seemed to me, each had their own personality. This individuality was the result of them being truly hand crafted guitars and contrasted with the Kohnos which were defined by their consistency rather than their individuality. What stands out for me now as I look back on this period is the importance of beautiful French polish for the finishing of the instrument. Hernandez and Aguado guitars are beautifully made instruments in which the French polish makes its own contribution to the sound. That polishing and the wood combine to produce an over overall effect was an important lesson for me.

It was in the mid 1970s that I had the good fortune to encounter the work of the great Ignacio Fleta. His guitars were a turning point for me. I learnt so much from them. His method of construction is entirely different from the Spanish method used by Torres. Even so, both Torres and Fleta understood the guitar as a whole in which the parts come together in the service of their inner vision and maker’s craft. There is a story that illustrates the importance of this point. Torres, it is said, when putting his instruments together would lock himself away in the workshop. At meal times his wife would come and leave the meal on the doorstep of the workshop. Not even she was allowed to see how he put the instruments together. He jealously guarded the secrets of his method of construction.  No one was to see this phase of construction! The interesting thing is that he did not mind people seeing the top or the back or the neck individually – what he considered his secret was the method of bringing the parts together. So when I encountered the Fleta I began a journey that led me over many years to understand that it is not just the parts but their relationship to one another in the construction that is so important. 

The difference between Torres’ work and Fleta’s is that for Torres the construction of the guitar was set according to invariant rules. For Fleta the construction is dependent on the relationships of the parts to one another. There is no one rule in this but the relationship of the parts to one another is what counts. In fact it is how they interact with one another – neck with body, bridge and saddle – that defines the final instrument and is a central element in the deeper understanding required of a maker.  So a key element in this work needs to be understood as the reading of what is required when the parts come together.

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For instance there is the shape of the instrument. Fleta’s have a slightly larger upper bout than either the Kohno or the Hernandez Aguardo guitars.  Similarly, the body of a Fleta is a little longer. The effect is to increase both the volume and surface area of the body. The next is that he used a dove tail joint for the neck as opposed to the traditional Spanish slipper heal method of joining neck to body. Although I did not realise it at the time this was to become one of the most important observations to be made about his instruments – yet it only really makes sense when considering the overall relationship of the parts to one another. The dove tail allows for the body to be completed separately to the neck and then for the neck to be joined to the body such that the contour of the top and the height of the bridge and saddle can be taken into account when setting the neck angle.  In the Spanish method, neck and body are constructed together with a preset neck angle. Thus the Fleta style instrument allows for a greater degree of variation than the traditional Spanish method.

This insight set me on my journey as a maker. I now began making ‘Fleta copies’ which I call my A shape. These instruments are characterized by a surprising strength and projection that does not sacrifice tone or balance for volume. Over this time I worked at refining the craftsmanship of making while striving to understand what the wood required of me as a maker. These were exciting years as one insight led to another. I would say this period of the first 100 or so instruments is heavily influenced by the exploration of the Fleta shape.

After some years of making and reflecting on these A shaped instruments I was ready for something new. So I decided to make a slightly smaller bodied guitar which I call my B shape. These instruments are light, bright and breezy in nature. They have a tendency to be less powerful than the A but offer the player an extremely satisfying and intimate experience. The listener also enjoys the dynamic and bright nature of these guitars.  To further my exploration in sound I began alternating between the A and the B. In this way I was able to learn more about the relationship of parts to whole as described earlier.  

hboneMTo continue these experiments I decided to look at what the Hernandez Aguado shape allowed an instrument to do. So in the mid 1980s I developed what I call my C shape. This was predominantly an Hernandez Aguado shape and as such was a little larger than B but smaller than the A. It also used the traditional Spanish slipper heal method. This allowed me to explore what it meant to have the neck angle set in advance of the body’s construction. The overall effect was still characterised by my sound and yet, for the player, the C had some of the lightness of the B shape whilst having much of the tonal power of the A. During this period I made 39 Bs and 29 Cs.

The explorations of shape and construction method lasted over a number of years during which I at first stopped making As altogether instead alternating between Bs and Cs. In 1987 I made my last B (No 147) returning to the A shape. For some years I would remain making Cs but these became fewer and I made my last (No 274) in 1994. This period was one of consolidation in which I was coming to realise how the parts related to the whole and how best I could realise my striving for that sound which most satisfied my inner sense of a guitar’s potential. Another aspect of this journey was that I reduced the variables pertaining to sound by using only cedar. In fact I made 123 cedar topped guitars in a row: No 63 through to No 186! However by 1989 I was ready to return to spruce with guitars No 187 and No 188. Both were A shapes.

It was exciting to work with Spruce again yet I felt this wood demanded something else from me so I developed shape D to accommodate this. D is a dove tail method so still very much in line with Feta although it is slightly smaller. The D allows spruce to get off to a better start (given that cedar is always much faster to open up for the player than spruce). The D shape achieves this because its smaller body allows for 7 struts instead of the 9 that the A (following the traditional Fleta) requires.  

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Today I make spruce guitars as both A and D and in 2005 I began a new project exploring another dimension of spruce through making detailed copies of the Torres guitar. Torres guitars use the traditional Spanish slipper heal and have a smaller body size then the A shape. Yet there were specific differences in his construction method than those applied today in Spanish guitar manufacture. In these instruments I apply all these differences, no matter how insignificant they may seem. Understanding what any one difference means is hard to say but what is clear is that they do make a difference. This requires painstaking observation and attention to detail. In consequence these instruments take a good deal more time to make then my cedar and spruce As and Ds so are made only to order. What I have learnt by closely following Torres is that each instrument confirms my appreciation for the relationship between parts and whole. My Torres guitars have an extraordinary clarity and projection. They offer the player a sense of tonal freedom and a surprising intimacy of sound and colour that is supported by a balance across the neck that is hard to surpass.

I still make the As today and indeed they are my most popular instrument due to the many similarities they have with the Fletas that inspired me years ago. Each guitar is a journey in its own right and the line between my early instruments and the ones I make today is clear to any player with a discerning ear. Yet the instruments I make today are clearly defined by this appreciation I have developed for the guitar as an overall piece of work that brings together the parts into a single instrument. As I noted with the Torres, it is the thousand seemingly unimportant things one does as a maker that add up to the whole. Inattention to any of them will impair the final work. The woods I work with have unique qualities. Each top has its own song. I am currently working on the 450th instrument and it, like all my instruments, offers me unique challenges and possibilities. Each instrument draws for inspiration on the great names of the past whilst bringing something new and exciting into the world. For me each is a new experiment in the quest for finding the song in the wood and bringing it to life in the hands of the player.