Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Guitar Mystery...or is there a mystery?

         The Big Guitar Secret (Don't Tell Anyone About This!)


On this particular morning in the history of the Buildmyguitar blog, I went to see Bruce Roper for what I thought was going to be a glue session but instead, turned into a conversation about the philosophy of guitar building. This is an area full of conflict that Bruce seems to avoid by just focusing on craft. He is a woodworker who happens to build guitars. He could just as easily turn those skills toward building nice mahogany boxes, or furniture, or quality mirror frames or who knows what? Fortunately, he stayed in the world of guitars.

Things are moving along quite well on my own guitar. Here are the back and the front, both upside down so you can see where we are on the bracing front. Bruce is very traditional about this. There is nothing you see here that you would not see at the C. F. Martin factory in Nazareth, Pa. or at Gibson or at Collings or Taylor. Bracing patterns have been worked out over many years. Still, in the world of luthiers, there is always debate about this fine point or that.

We started out by thumping on some wood.

That is my guitar top Bruce is thumping on with his fingernails. "Hear it?" he says. There is a little echo to it, maybe a little music if you apply some imagination. Basically, it sounds like a hard piece of wood that is being thumped. That makes it a little different since most guitar tops are made from spruce or cedar. This one is Sapele, which is like mahogany, but not mahogany. Some luthiers put a lot of weight on how these pieces of wood sound. Bruce doesn't. He believes you can get different sounds from different woods, but the real deciding factor is how the guitar is put together, not whether the wood rings when you thump it.

So why the emphasis on thumping? Bruce thinks it comes from history.

There has always been a fascination about what makes a great guitar sound so...great! It could be that the answer resides more in the ear of the owner than in the selection made by the luthier. We picked the wood for my guitar because it is going to be drop dead beautiful when it gets a finish on it. It has chatoyance and figuring that will make it dance in the light. But we aren't sure at all about how it will sound.

I have two Martin guitars (see the earlier blogs) that have spectacular voices but I don't know that they had them on the day they left the factory. I once talked to Chris Martin IV about that, and he said the worst a Martin guitar will ever sound will be on the first day you play it. After that, it gets better and better and better. My guitars, from 1958 and 1963, are proof of that. There's a process involved called "opening up" and a guitar won't have its best voice until that happens. It can take a while.

I have played lots of Bruce's guitars. They have their own voice. Their own feel. Their own unique finishes and decorations. I'm looking forward to that, and also to the point I can settle in with the instrument and give it a chance to open up. But I'm not kidding myself about what is involved here. It is serious craft, not art, and there is not much luck to it.

So, in the end, there is no mystery at all. But there is something else: mastery. And that only comes after building and building and building. We'll get back to that process in the coming Buildmyguitar blogs. Bending wood is on the horizon, and that's something Bruce loves.
And me too.


  1. I love this blog Charlie. The quote from Chris Martin rings true. In 1992, it took me a full year to finally buy my Martin guitar. I visited and played that guitar 3 times a week in the Old Town School's Different Strummer Music store, and while I'm sure many others "exercised" that instrument too, I'd like to think that I seasoned that baby all by myself, so that by the time I got the cash together (and the gumption) to purchase it, that guitar was like a comfortable old shoe that fit just right to my acoustical needs. Of course, the gentle prodding of all the store employees to "buy the damned thing already" might have been incentive as well. I may not have realized it at the time, but obviously that instrument got better and better as I played it, and now, all these years later, it's basically like an extra limb. Of course, I'm a huge fan of all of Bruce's masterpieces, as each one has it's own distinct personality, timbre, heft, look and, most importantly, sound. -deb

  2. It's like watching a birth. The mechanics are the same but the end result is always a unique individual!