Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Beautiful Chatoyance

I thought this would be a good time in the Buildmyguitar process to introduce you to the guitars I already use and look at some features in wood that are important to this new project. Bruce Roper, the Chicago luthier, is building a sapele guitar for me based on a 1930s Nick Lucas Gibson. I have convinced myself I need this because it will be unlike the ones I already own.

                                                             My Guitars

                                                   This is a 1968 Martin D-12-35. Brazilian rosewood with Sitka top.
                                        It was the best 12 string I ever played. More on it later!

Then this, a 1958 D-28 in Brazilian rosewood with a sitka top. When I was working on a book on President Obama's 2008 election, I found this guitar in Pennsylvania, maybe 60 miles from Nazareth, where it was built in 1958. A carpenter and wood worker owned it and put it under his bed years ago when he hurt his hands. I played it and told him he should call me if he ever wanted to sell it. About a year later, the call came. It was one of the strangest negotiations because he kept asking for less than I was offering. Finally, one of us gave in. I'm not going to tell you what I paid, but it was way less than the price you see on these guitars now. I felt it was some blessing for some good deed I had forgotten. It's a dreadnaught, of course, so it has that blue-grassy voice people seem to love. I don't play it much that way. It is a wonderful guitar for finger picking.

                  And finally, this Collings, an extra deep special 00 model in Indian Rosewood with sitka top. I felt I needed this one because I had never seen more cleanly finished guitars than the Collings models I played at Guitar Works. The first one I had was relatively old. I gave it to my son to trade on a vintage Martin he was rebuilding, then bought this one. There is no place on the neck of this guitar that doesn't present a strong, clean note. I flat pick on it.

Three guitars for three different jobs. 
What makes them special?

The Martins, the D-28, and the 12-string, were both built before the folk boom went crazy at the midpoint of the 1960s, when all guitar makers pushed production so hard that quality declined. These are Martin guitars as Martin guitars were intended to be, I think. The Brazilian rosewood makes them that much lovelier and some would argue, enhances their sound. But that is so subjective I'm not going to argue the point. I love these instruments as much as anyone ever could. They are that good. Sometimes I just sit an look at them. Here's how they look on the backs, with the D-28 first.

Notice that the grain on this guitar is very straight, almost conservatively so, and there are not many  fancy interruptions in the flow. I believe that's because that is how Martin defined quality in 1958, and there was certainly nothing in the marketplace to contradict that. Building a Martin guitar is a 300 step process in the modern factory and I suspect there were fewer steps in 1958, but it's clear the builders at Martin paid close attention to every aspect of the instrument, from picking the wood to putting it all together. This is one of those guitars you compare all other guitars against. 

When we shift to the 12 string, notice right away that the back is made of three panels. Why? Again, a guess but I would assume Martin wanted to get everything it could from its supply of Brazilian rosewood, so it used smaller pieces. It didn't hurt anything. People tell me this is the sweetest 12 string they have ever heard. It was rescued by Terry Straker at Guitar Works in Evanston (where my son works in the repair shop.). Terry rebuilt it, put tuners on that are precise and actually work (this guitar will hold its tune for days, remarkable for a 12-string).

Here is the back of that guitar. I am just showing you a bit so you can see the detail in the wood. This stuff is certainly wonderful, reeks of quality and has joined the other parts to create an instrument that is a delight to play. But I suspect if you looked at all Martin D-12-35 guitars from that era you would notice a stunning similarity across the board (forgive that pun!) Factory guitars, no matter how good they are, remain factory guitars. Brazilian rosewood just makes them much more costly. If you want something with special features from Martin these days, you have to go now to the Martin Custom Shop. 

I already have two Martins and a Collings. A third Martin from the Custom Shop would be a fine idea, but not a fine financial idea. That's why Bruce's plan is so compelling. I am getting a custom guitar from a fine builder, a music maker with my own marks on it. That is special. What might they be like?

Take a close look at this piece of wood. It was cut from the big piece of sapele Bruce and I picked up at Owl Lumber in Des Plaines. See that shimmering quality in the wood? That's chatoyance, usually a word to describe what happens in gemstones. Many furniture markers love chatoyance because of the look it creates. It was one of the important characteristics Bruce saw before he bought the slab.

           You don't see markings like these in most quality guitars. Bruce says there was a time when companies like Martin and Gibson would just toss away this kind of wood. Think of the challenge factory guitar makers face. They have to produce thousands of copies of D-28s and D-12-35s and a couple of dozen other models that look just like the ones in the catalogues, or just like the other ones in the store. To be sure, they are high quality instruments that meet tough standards and last for years and years.

          But I'm thinking I already have a couple of stunning examples of that kind of work. Don't get me wrong, I love those guitars. But I am no longer excited by just the thought of them. Bruce is upping the ante for me, offering me a distinctive guitar that won't match the richness of the Martin look, but might offer something unique, precious, lovely, in a different way.

     Can't wait.


  1. Charlie, if you want to send me more money I could really use it!
    Really glad you love my old guitar.

    1. Really happy to hear from you Dave. Hope you and yours are very well and that Harrisburg isn't getting you down! Charlie