Saturday, September 6, 2014

Last minute things before the guitar plays!

If it isn't one thing it's another.

Actually, it's a lot of things, and another, and then some.

But this guitar is just about ready to sit down and start singing. There are some final, delicate things that have to happen before that event. So let me explain. Here it is:

Almost done!
As you can see, it's strung up and it looks ready to play, but it's not. On Friday, Sept. 5, Bruce Roper, the luthier at Old Town School, made the nut that goes under the strings at the top and the bridge that goes under them at the bottom. Then he voiced the big and little "e" strings to make certain the saddle would have the proper angle for all the strings to play in tune. Then he decided, remarkably with just his fingers and his eyes, how he should slot the white nut at the top so the strings would be just the right distance. Then he reamed out the rest of the string holes in the bridge. Then he strung it all up and handed it to me and said, "Play it."

It was terrible to play, for sure. The strings were waaaaay off the fingerboard, hard to push down without distorting the note. But you could get some chords out of it, and some notes and guess what, terrible to play or not, this guitar has a fine, strong voice that will sound wonderful when Bruce gets all the adjusting and shaving and fussing finished. I am certain he knew it wasn't ready. But he did want to hear it and so did I. We've been at this since last February, and to see it go from a big slab of sapele at Owl Lumber in Des Plaines to what it is today has been nothing less than inspiring. I don't want to imply there is any magic to guitar building at all. It's just that players don't usually get to see what goes into what they are playing. I know every millimeter of this guitar now. I bonded with it well before I played that first difficult chord. I might just call it "Love Child" (but don't quote me.)

This is the point at which you thank God you have someone fussy working on the guitar. I'm not saying someone fancy (which we will discuss in a while) but someone fussy. A guitar that won't play in tune will spend its days hanging on a wall someplace gathering comments, but not sending out any sweet songs. All of this is called "setting up" the guitar. Bruce has done this maybe a thousand times in his life so he is comfortable with everything he has to do to make it work right. We got into a big conversation about how fancy we wanted to make this guitar before it's finished and I'm sort of leaning toward, "Let nature be the fancy" because the wood is so lovely. I'm even rejecting the idea of a pick guard because, first, what the hell am I going to do to it that I need a pick guard? And second, look what happens when you put a pick guard on it:

Probably a bad choice
To my mind and eye, the pick guard almost completely ruins the lovely waist that is built into this guitar, with its grand shoulders and its elegant hips on either side. Put the pick guard there and it takes something away from the form of the thing. And in this guitar, the form of the thing is important because of the chatoyance in the wood and the matching all around. So no, no pick guard. I thought maybe one of those fancy clear plastic things Jean L'Arrivee uses on his guitars, but Bruce says those can yellow and get dirty around the edges and draw too much attention to the wrong thing.

I've never been a piss pounder on any of my guitars. I don't think there is a violent mark on any of them (and I have lots of guitars.) I loaned one of my Martins to a woman singer once and she returned it with big, sweeping scratches from the neck down across the top front of the guitar. She never held that guitar again and went off on her own way to wreck someone else's instrument. I was that angry about it.

Bruce says he wouldn't mind if I dinged it up a bit, or even a lot, over the years, because it would mean that I was playing it hard and often. Fair enough. But I don't want to plan to do that. This one is such a keeper, I want people to be swept away by its beauty. Bruce would say that's bullshit, that what you want to sweep them away with is your music. The guitar is just a tool in that process, and I have to agree with him. So the challenge will become writing music up to the beauty of the guitar. That's a good challenge to have.

It's crazy to get enthused about the wrong things. That was the lunch time conversation with Bruce over cheap but delicious hamburgers. Some luthiers and their advocates talk about these instruments as though they were special gifts of God delivered thru blessed hands given a magical gift at birth. There is none of that to Bruce in guitar making. Each one of his instruments is individual, and he knows that because he has made each part himself. He doesn't sweat over much of anything. If it all comes together well and plays well, he is happy. The older it gets, the better it will be. The more it is played, the better it will be.

These are very healthy thoughts to have for a luthier because they put the person in the same camp as any skilled craftsperson. Furniture, for example, can be just lovely if it is constructed properly. But no one would think it was a gift handed down from God. Violin makers take on the same, mystical essence sometimes. But not all of them. Some of them recognize its just a bunch of wood prepped up by someone who knows how to do and what to do. In the case of my guitar, you might someday see it and say, "That must have been a lovely tree!" and I would agree. But I don't think I want anyone fainting over the building or playing of it.

Bruce is one of the most practical men I have ever met. Musically, he writes brilliant songs and performs them so well with the Sons of the Never Wrong, and I am certain many a heartbroken guitar owner has had his concerns eased by Bruce's repairs. But if you are looking for mysteries, I am certain he would say, try a church someplace, because there are no mysteries in a guitar.

Take a look at this and you will see what I mean:

Making a nut and saddle

That white thing he is slicing at on his bandsaw is a piece of Corian that was born as a little cheese board. The minute he saw it, he knew what it would be good for. Corian cuts like wood, sands like wood, even glues like wood, but it's not wood. It's harder. So it makes a great nut and saddle for a guitar. That's what Bruce is doing above, cutting out a nut for the guitar. Some luthiers would view this as heresy. Bone! That's what you want! Bone. Nope. Corian is just fine. It has nothing to do with tone. It just holds the strings in exactly the right place for the guitar to play well. It would be hard to pay more than $20 for a whole sheet of it.

You cut it and then you use this machine to form it the way it needs to be formed:

Grinding down the nut

Bingo! You have yourself a nut.

The same process works for the saddle down at the other end of the strings. It's a little more complicated because it has to fit into a slot Bruce will cut in the actual rosewood bridge with his Dremel tool.
Slotting the bridge

Cutting the saddle slot is a little tricky because you can't just drag the bit of the machine down the line and cut out the wood. Instead, Bruce uses it as a plunge router, taking out little cuts at a time. That way the bit never overheats or gets jammed up. One clean pass after he has made about 20 little holes clears it all out. He repeats the process a couple of times to make sure the slot is deep enough. It has to be strong enough and deep enough to hold the saddle in place against the tension of the strings. Too shallow and the strings will pull it out of the slot, or maybe break it.

Once that is completed, the rough stuff is over and it's time to voice the guitar. Bruce puts the Waverly tuners back on and then gets the big and little 'e' strings. You do this, Bruce says, by stringing up the e's and then putting a little nail like block under the string down at the bridge to see how close it is to accurate. And how would you know that?

If you just touch a string at half its length, then pluck it, what you get is a bell shaped note. The same things happens at an octive, and a lots of equal points along the line to infinity. These are called harmonic notes and they can NEVER be wrong. Push the string down to the fret and what you get then is a fretted note and these can be wrong a lot. The objective is to have the fretted note and the harmonic note issue exactly the same pitch, which you measure with a tuner.

It takes Bruce just a few minutes to complete this task on the small "e", then he takes a white wax pencil and makes a mark for where that part of the saddle should sit. Then he does the same thing with the big E string and makes that mark. Then he connects the two marks with a line. That should be exactly where the saddle sits on the bridge.

I become impatient during this process, which makes me wonder whether I will have the chops I need to build a guitar later. Maybe not. We will see.

The bridge with saddle in place
This is what it looks like when it's finished.

So then Bruce strings up the whole guitar to see how it sounds. I get to play one chord then give it back to him.

He plays one and announces he is going remount the neck with a little more back end to it to pull those strings down closer to the fingerboard. He will use shims on the neck where it hitches to the guitar to do that. He will trim the nut and the saddle to get the heights just right.

But that's for next week.

Come back please!


  1. Patience is such a virtue....what a talented and wise man. Would love to meet him someday and hear his music as well. Looking forward to the first song from this virgin.