The Art of Listening

 

Scraping Guitar Top Listening to top Listening to top

Guitars are a personal thing. The sound we love is both a mix of the sound we have been taught and the sound that expresses who we are. This is as true for the player as it is for the maker. And we can be thankful for this as it means that there is an endless variety of instruments available to us.

For me as a maker, the point has always been to capture the romantic spirit of the guitar when its domain is no longer limited to the salon. The demands made on modern guitarists are quite different from those in the time of Tárrega, Llobet and Segovia. In today's modern concert halls, the guitar needs to be able to hold its own with the entire instrumental family.

Having said this, there are clearly traditions of building and dimensions of sound that the educated ear and player can detect when exploring the world of the classic guitar. For example, the country of origin often is reflected in the style of the instrument; the source of inspiration - be it Spain or Germany - can clearly be seen to affect the tonal range and dynamic characteristics of the instrument. This of course is a generalization, but nevertheless it is a good place to start when talking about guitars and their characteristics.

As I said, guitars are personal and making them is a personal project that brings with it both long hours of detailed labor and huge rewards. My vision of the guitar seeks to bridge the gap between its romantic roots and present day requirements. The guitar needs to be tonally rich and yet have the power to fill the concert hall. My journey towards this end began with a study of the great guitars of the early and mid-twentieth century. In a sense, Ignacio Fleta might be called my "teacher". Certainly, my guitars bare the hallmarks of this great maker's ideas.

Incomplete howell guitar - back and sides Incomplete howell guitar - sides Incomplete howell guitar - back

Let me outline some of the central features of his instruments that can be found in my own. For a start, every step of my guitar making is done by hand. This means not using any machinery when crafting the sound of the instrument. Also like Fleta, I French polish my instruments using a similar list of ingredients and the same ancient polishing techniques. Furthermore, my choice of woods and the general shape and design are also indebted to him. Finally, and this is being somewhat esoteric, there is an indebtedness to the general principals of sound and tone quality that can be detected.

My guitars, however, are a personal expression of my conception of sound, the nature of the instrument and its potential on today's concert stage. So, although the lineage is evident, I am seeking to make modern instruments that can meet the challenges and demands of the modern guitarist. Although I can only anticipate these needs, it is clear that two overriding factors need to be described:

1.) The tone of the instrument needs to allow for the extended range in repertoire and technique that has occurred in the past two generations of players.

 

2.) The instrument must have the ability to project with clarity and power under the most arduous conditions of solo, ensemble and orchestral conditions without detracting from its tonal range.

 

The tonal qualities I seek are rooted in my vision of the modern guitar as an instrument with a dynamic potential well suited to the concert platform. I seek to express this through an approach to the construction of the instrument that relies upon sensitivity to the unique tonal qualities of the wood I use. This of course centers on the wood chosen for the top, but in fact is equally indebted to the interaction of the back with the top. The result is a synergy that places the overall tonal potential beyond any one step or piece of timber.

Listen to back Bending sides Polishing guitar

 

Let's use Fleta to illustrate this point. Having studied many of his instruments, it is clear that he chose to use Indian rosewood when using cedar for the top. This was clearly not an economic decision (Indian rosewood being cheaper than Brazilian rosewood) but one of compatibility. These two timbers are most suited to one another when a maker seeks to develop a specific type of sound.

 

Working with these woods can be tricky and there is no substitute for experience. The end result depends on the combination of the final pitch of the top and back when they are completed and ready to be stuck to the sides. The relationship between these two needs to be held in mind as you work with each separately. At the risk of getting technical let me elaborate on this point. The first priority is to determine the top's final thickness. Here listening to the wood is essential. It is no use to thickness it with a sander, the wood must be scraped down and consulted regularly, by tapping and flexing, for it to fulfill its potential.

But bear in mind that thinning a piece of wood makes it lighter by reducing it's mass, this has the effect of raising it's ability to vibrate more efficiently within the guitars range. However, thinning will also reduce it's stiffness which will have the effect of lowering the frequency of resonance. Here again experience must lead the way. Once the final thickness has been determined we can consider the braces, how many to use, where we place them and their mass. This is a balancing act because the final pitch of the top is determined by the combination of thickness and bracing.


The back follows a similar path, as with the top the final pitch of the back depends on its thickness, its cross braces and their mass. The end result is determined by how these two pieces of crafted timber interact with one another. Tonal quality, dynamic range, balance and intonation combined with a powerful presence are largely the result of this work.

Polishing Guitar Top Polishing Guitar Back Polishing Guitar Back (Closeup)

My commitment to building powerful guitars is based on the recognition that the modern guitarist is playing and working in situations and with repertoire that earlier guitarists had not encountered. The emergence of a number of remarkable guitar ensembles, the expansion of the orchestral and solo repertoire and the general trend in music towards percussive and brilliant playing all demand of the modern instrument maker that they build instruments able to meet these needs while maintaining a richness and range of tone that is rooted in the guitar's romantic past.


So, what are the basic criteria for a great guitar? First, a great instrument is one that you, the reader/player- likes. As I said earlier, guitars are personal. Your friends may prefer their own instruments, but as in any relationship- if you simply like the instrument, that should be the first priority. From a more objective perspective, the guitar must possess volume, balance, separation, clarity and sustain. These are the hallmarks of a successful luthier, and any player of discrimination knows to look for these features when assessing an instrument.

Achieving these things is the age-old struggle, as quality can never be taken for granted and as in all creative endeavors, the artist must continue to explore the range of possibilities of their art. For me, this translates into a commitment to the finest aged timbers and painstaking craftsmanship. The goal of my work is to produce instruments that compliment the artistry of the guitarist whether they are playing for their own pleasure or in the concert hall.

 

My use of quality timber is essential to the success of my instruments.

Many of the woods I use are up to fifty years old and have been in my personal store for over thirty years. I select woods for a guitar with the specific player in mind and work them purely by hand. This point cannot be overstated. In the modern context of making, trust in one's own hands is often replaced with a reliance on a hi-tech range of tools to help the maker achieve what perhaps can be only fully realized via a personal, physical directness of touch and intuition. In saying this I am not rejecting the benefits of technology, but I am trying to put them into context and in general, I have found that machinery may make the guitar look better- but it will not necessarily make it sound better.

Certainly, my guitars owe their uniqueness to my insistence on this principal. The ear leads the hand and, as the guitar is a medium for sound- this seems to make sense. In this process, craft and art are engaged in a tug of war and the results vary according to how one

interprets the art of listening.

Polishing Guitar Sides

So, my guitars are the result of my personal quest to balance the instrument's romantic roots with modern demands. These goals are achieved through a commitment to using the finest timbers and craftsmanship. The personal vision I have has lead me to explore the ways in which wood and technique interact to create instruments of vitality and power. The pleasure in this has been as important to me as mastering the simple minutiae of construction. So, to end on a light note I'd like to refer to some concluding remarks from a magical violin maker and the writer of a nineteenth century treatise on the subject violin making as it was, and is:

 

"Until he has pursued the art no one can imagine the fascination of violin [guitar] making- the thousand pains the player never dreams of, the thousand touches the uninitiated eye never appreciates, the exquisite work of the interior which no eyes, save those of the maker and repairer, ever will be privileged to see. These are the things that make the luthier love the work of his hands, as if it were his own child."

Ed Heron-Allen, 1885

Polishing Guitar Sides