Thursday, August 28, 2014

More Necking with Bruce! A perfect fit!

Just take a good look at how the buildmyguitar project looked at the end of the day Thursday.

I think this guitar is lovely. I can't wait to play it. That should be maybe late next week, or certainly the week after that.  It took a good deal of time Thursday to get the neck set into the guitar properly, and I now know why Bruce's long experience at fixing and building guitars adds so much value to the instrument.
My guitar with the neck set

This is about the most important part of the project as far as the playing condition of the guitar is concerned. The neck does a lot of work and it has to be set just right to make certain everything lines up properly. There is only one way to do that, get out your chisels, put on your glasses and put the neck on and take it off about a half a million times or so. (Actually, about a dozen times. But it took a long time to do that.)

It's not actually a geometric formula that defines all of this, but you do have to think of the neck at work on a couple of different planes. Let me explain. First, it has to sit under the string just right so they can be toned properly. Just a hair off and that E won't sound so good when you move up the neck to G and A and beyond. And that's just one string. All six have to be sitting the right way.

How hard could that be?

Take a look at the working end of the neck.

Checking the angle on the face of the neck
What you are seeing is the end of the neck, the tenon joint, the bolts that will hold it firmly in place and the small aluminum legs Bruce installed to make certain the fingerboard (that's the dark brown piece that faces up) fits tightly against the top of the instrument. A lot of guitar builders and companies glue all of this into place. But a couple of decades of guitar repair led Bruce to this system, which, once it is in place, can come off easily and cleanly without damaging the surface of the guitar.

The challenge now is to fit it properly to the guitar. It doesn't just stick in there. It has to sit at the proper angles vertically and horizontally so the neck is in the right alignment with the bridge, where the strings hook to the top of the guitar. The only way to do that is to put it in place, see what happens, measure all of those different planes and then take a chisel to whatever part needs to be cut down to improve the fit. Bruce will actually back cut around the tenon, from the sides inward, to make that part of the neck a little concave.

Trimming away another slice to improve the fit
It's a pretty physical job and it takes a good deal of wood away from the edges that fit against the guitar. You want the outside of the neck edge to fit tightly against the body, even as the inside of that edge is concave from the carving so it will fit right. It seems to me that it would take roughly a dozen guitars built and working well just to get into the swing of it. Bruce has built lots more than that. So he keeps slicing away and putting the neck back in place to see how it fits. This is the perfect time to have a good talk about old girlfriends, embarrassing moments and a couple of other things that should be in a completely separate blog about the wonders of aging! But it does kill a little of the time. If you are not actually doing the work, this is kind of boring. If you are doing the work, I suspect, its a little scary because it has to be right. A beautiful guitar with a bad neck set will be good for hanging on the wall and not much more.

Using a string to check the set

This is what Bruce uses to check whether the neck needs to shift left or right. It's a sophisticated piece of equipment I would call, "An old piece of string!" He does this on both sides of the neck. There is a separate tool, a piece of straight wood with a little heel on it, that lets him check the "action" (how far the strings will be off the fingerboard) and how high the saddle will be on the bridge. Watching the process, it's easy to see that he has to take a little wood off of the left side of the base of the neck to move that string a little toward the center. The problem is the same on the other side of the neck, but the adjustment needs to move the string a little toward the outside of the neck.

There is no simple way to describe how to do this. Bruce (and all good guitar makers) use their eyes and their experience in trying to figure out how much to slice away. It's kind of unnerving because my typical mistake would be to slip with a chisel and put a deep gouge someplace it should not be. Bruce doesn't do that. Not at all in fact. He is confident and specific about what he wants to remove, does just a little at a time and constantly checks to see what effect the trimming had on the set of the neck.

At one point in the process,  Bruce found an irritating squeak when you shifted the neck in its groove and traced it to one of the holes in the body that the bolts in the neck pass through. He attacked with his chisel, making the round hole a little oval to solve the problem. I commented that this process must take a lot of patience and Bruce said it wasn't about patience, it was about building the guitar right. There are reasons why so many steps evolved in this process, and this is one of the most important. It's one place where it pays to be fussy.

Looking at string and bridge height, all a function of the set of the neck.
After a good two hours of trimming, removing and replacing the neck, Bruce affixed the two nuts to the bolts that hold it all in place, tightened them down and it all pulled together quite nicely. This means there is not much work left to do before we can string it up and play it.

Eyeing the neck set
It's all looking good, Bruce says at the end of the session. Next week, we cut the slot for the saddle, make the holes big enough to hold string pegs and put the final touches on the headstock of the guitar. We're thinking a piece of copper should cover the adjusting rod. That will match the copper strap that will go across the top of the guitar.

Come back, please. I'll play something for you before you know it!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Crossing A Crucial Bridge

Well, Bruce Roper and I have reached the last couple of visits on the Buildmyguitar project, and I'm happy to say one of the most complicated parts of them all comes just about last. Take a look at the guitar as it sits right now:

It's all but finished. What's missing is the bridge, the tuners, the nut and the saddle. The bridge and the saddle are the reasons the neck isn't attached yet. We're moving into that frightening world that is a mix of math and geometry, and the calculations Bruce uses will determine exactly where the bridge should sit on the body of the guitar, and then how the neck should be placed to make certain the intonement is just perfect.

But we didn't start the day at Bruce's shop. Instead, we went to Guitar Works in Evanston, where the folks in charge let us peer into this guitar:

This is just the top. I put it here like this to show you the name, "Greven", which is an important name for Bruce. Greven works by himself in his shop in Portland where he turns out just about 40 guitars a year. That's a lot for one person. What is amazing is that they are of such high quality. Here's the rest of the one from Guitar Works (the room was too small to get a good shot).

Bruce and I went to Evanston because we had dropped in last week, saw and played this Greven, and decided to go back and look inside to see what made it so special. And it is special. Finger pick on it, thump it hard, wham it with your fingernails, whatever you do it feels and sounds great. Bruce put his mirror inside and used his flashlight to light it up. He looked around and concluded "damn" it's just like any other guitar, maybe even a little heavy inside in some ways. But the sound is wonderful. The only thing that kept me from buying it is I already have too many good guitars, Bruce is building me another and it would be crazy to add to the pot, especially when I'm not playing them out and making money.

"I don't know how he can do that," Bruce says of Greven's output and high quality. But he does. Greven explained it all at a Luthiers Convention workshop in 2011. It sounds simple. You just line up a whole bunch of wood, form it, glue it, finish it in stages and there you have it, a guitar! If you read the transcript from that workshop, what you learn is that Greven has been making instruments for 50 years and spent a stint running the repair shop at Gruhn Guitars in Nashville. Gruhn Guitars is like Mecca for acoustic guitar players. It's where failed country stars can sell their best stuff, where the biggest names got their instruments tweaked or repaired, and so on. Greven learned a lot there and built it into how he constructs his own guitars.

Bruce has an immense respect for Greven and he bows to the man and his processes even as he builds my guitar. Back to the bridge story!

Using a fret tool to measure distance

Because everything has to be just right after this point, Bruce uses a fret measurement tool to find out where he is going to place the saddle in the bridge on this guitar. He marks the spot with a white grease pencil. Then he brings in the bridge to position it over that spot. It has to be square and lineup with the center line on the instrument.

Positioning the bridge
When that's done, he has to find a way to cope with the fact that the top of the guitar has a gentle arch and the bottom of the rosewood bridge is absolutely flat. To accommodate that curve, he tapes a piece of rough sand paper to the top of the guitar. Then he slides the bridge up and down on the sandpaper, creating the same arch in the bridge as the one that defines the top of the guitar.

Sanding the bridge to match the guitar top.
 Every few minutes, he vacuums the dust from the paper and watches closely as he starts the sanding process again. He is looking for the point at which everything is sanding evenly, which means the shaping of the bridge is complete.

Scraping an area for the bridge
When that is done, Bruce takes a very sharp chisel and scrapes the finish from the part of the top that is covered by the bridge. (He used an Exacto knife to create an outline just inside of the edges of the bridge. This is because you never glue wood to finish. You can only glue wood to wood if you want it to hold. He creates the clean space on the top of the guitar for the bridge.

Putting glue on the bridge and the guitar
See the holes in the guitar top? Those are the holes that will ultimately hold the big and little "E" strings. But for now, they will serve as guide posts and anchors to glue down the bridge.

Posts and bridge clamps in place
It's almost finished now. By the time Bruce is done, every fraction of an inch of the bridge will be glued tight. It's sitting just above the bridge plate glued on the underside of the top way back in March. The edges of the bridge are glued directly over the x-braces that run diagonally under the top of the guitar. Put it all together and it's a very solid package to hold a couple of hundred pounds of string pressure.

The last step
After the bridge glue dries, Bruce will be setting the neck. If you look at his bolts and the joint above, you can see there are spaces to trim face wood and bottom wood, which will give him the set he needs to make sure the neck and the bridge are in alignment.

We're just about there.

Come back.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A talk about songwriting as buildmyguitar proceeds!

                    Okay, I could just leap right into showing you how Bruce Roper did this, but I would rather describe what we talked about on Thursday during our weekly visit (delayed by vacation and family visits). This is the top of the guitar Bruce is building for me. No one else will have one that looks like this because he built it himself, engraved it himself and finished the inlay himself. I don't know what to even call it, a star, a spark, a shape, but I am in love with it. It's so full of spirit, sitting right there on the top of the guitar. It will have one strip of copper, fitted just perfectly, across the top to set off the stylized "M" Bruce cut into the headstock. That will suggest the letter "C".

                    He cut the shape up on top with a bandsaw and finished sanding it Thursday. He cut the inlay two weeks ago and filled it with epoxy and dental enamel and then sanded it flat. It has a great, natural look to it that just pulled me in. I am a hopeless sap for this kind of thing because it shows up as a simple, clean addition to the instrument.

                   But the real question today is "What do you think of 'Don't Think Twice'," Bob Dylan's big folk scene introductory song from back in the 1960s? I have played it the way Dylan plays it. I have played it the way everyone else plays it and I have come to hate it for reasons that don't have anything to do with the song. It's how people approach the song. The damn thing is a heart break from start to finish and brilliant in its soulful simplicity. "It ain't no used to sit and wonder why, babe, if you don't know by now." How much more desperate can you get? It's full of leaving and longing and loss. The only person I have heard play it in years who really touched me was Dennis Cahill, who rewrote it with a minor key introduction and very sparse accompaniment, then sang it in not much more than a whisper. It was a minimalist's way of saying, "Listen to these words."

                That made it work for me.

Drilling holes for tuners. Bruce lines them up
with a wax pencil, punctures the surface so the
drill will be square. The holes are bigger on the
top than on the bottom, so they must be drilled
with two different bits.

                 Bruce loves that song and because he has been writing fine music for 30 years, give or take a decade, and sending it out through "Sons of the Never Wrong," the band he plays with, I had to have second thoughts about it. We talked about this while he was drilling the holes for the tuners that will go into my guitar. A lot of people, he said, start out thinking about song writing in terms of where the horn section will go, who will play the break, what kind of percussion will fit and so on. But that's wrong because what is always most important is what the song says.

                 Go on iTunes and get some of the Sons stuff to see what he means. The music is great, of course, but the words are so strong they take the front place. Sure, when Sue Demel sings, "I'll Fly Away," her droning guitar in the beginning draws you right in, but what keeps you there is her voice and the band's rendition of music done many times before, but not nearly as well. It's all about how the words are presented. Over some delicious but very cheap burgers for lunch Bruce told me that was one of the things he appreciated the most about the departed Robin Williams, his use of language was subtle and always emphasized the array of meanings attached to all the words.

               Not the kind of thing you would expect from a luthier, is it?

               That's why this process has been so fascinating for me. The luthier part is what is right in front of you with Bruce. The music part is deep, well tested and very sophisticated. There are no wasted conversations about music with Bruce, even down to the economics. The only way you can make money, he suggests, is to sell CDs from the stage during performances. That means A. You need to be good enough to perform. B. You need to have some good CDs and C. You need some gigs to sell them at by presenting your music well and making people want to take it with them.

               Maybe you will somehow get a song on TV! Maybe on the radio! Maybe the music gods will come down and give you the very last record contract with an advance that anyone will ever get. Don't count on that. Count on the fact that music is best when the objective is delight, enjoyment, sharing with your friends. Make it about passion and not profit and then you have a hope. You can't take that to the bank, but you can't trust banks anymore anyhow, so why not just enjoy it? I noted to Bruce that no one was paying when Doc Watson sat on Clarence Ashley's porch to play old time stuff so many years ago, but they both clearly delighted in it.

The headstock ready for the tuners. Note the different sizes in
the holes. The chrome nuts will go into the holes first from
the top, then the tuning pegs will come up from the back.

              That was the point at which I decided the first song I will record on this guitar is "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," by Bob Dylan. I know that sounds arrogant, but I finally understand what that song actually means when all the hoo-hah and fancy stuff is stripped away. I think I will build it around something classical, but I am not certain yet. Just like this new guitar, it will take some dedicated work to get it ready.

The little copper bonnet that will sit across the top of my
guitar. Bruce is thinking about what kind of nails he wants
to use to hold it in place. 

                  Bruce finished the day with some focused sanding on the neck and some fret dressing (you use a file and your fingers to take down high points on the side. Very important.) Then he took a little can of gun oil, the finish he has used on the body of the guitar, too, and put a layer on the neck. That will be polished up with fine steel wool before another coat goes on.

                Here's how we left it.

              Bruce will let that dry up. Put the tuners back in and then move next week to setting the neck and finishing up. I'll be going back to the classroom at Roosevelt, too, so my other life has slipped onto the scene, which is fine because, well, we all need other lives.

              Pretty soon we will see how this turns out. Stay tuned, please.