Friday, September 12, 2014

My Guitar Is Built!

In front of the Steinway
The Buildmyguitar project is finished, and so is this blog, for the most part. There will be one more next week, just to tie it all up. Bruce Roper, the luthier from the Old Town School, reset the neck Friday morning to get the action closer to proper, then adjusted the tension rod and then we sat down to play.

I'm not one for bragging, but it was close to perfect, and will probably end up being perfect after we do some tweaking next week, put on strap pegs, cover the tension rod adjuster hole and maybe stick a little strip of wood under the saddle to replace the piece of plastic we stuck in there Friday just to get the saddle to the right altitude.

I took the guitar straight home and sat it in a couple of different places just to see how it would look. Best of all was this spot in front of the Steinway, one of my other favorite instruments. But it didn't stop there.
Atop the Steinway
I decided I wanted to see how it would look up on top of the Steinway, where it joined a cigar box guitar a guy made for my son, one of the guitar repair experts at Guitar Works in Evanston. The new guitar sits up there pretty well, I think. But a Steinway kind of earned its own space in the house, so I don't want to clutter it up with too many things. The guitar deserves its own space, too. I just haven't decided where that might be. There are lots of guitars in the house in various places, but this one deserves its own, at least while I am still so tickled about having it. I am well aware that the day will come when I view it as another good musical tool in my collection of good musical tools. But that's a bit down the road yet.

I would be a crass fool if I didn't stop here to thank Bruce for his dedication and patience with this guitar, and with me, over a period that began in February at Owl Lumber in Des Plaines and ended when I walked out of Bruce's shop off Lincoln on Friday afternoon. He has patiently answered all questions and never even once elbowed me out of the way as I pushed close with a little camera to get a shot.

I really enjoyed working with him on the blog. He is a funny, gifted man with a master's touch on the chisels and saws and other pieces of equipment that helped this guitar come together. I thought in the beginning that I knew what he meant when he said this guitar would have excellent chatoyance, but you can really see it, even by the light of a Nikon flash, as it sits there on top of the piano.

The finish isn't shiny. We agreed on that early on. It has a couple of coats of shellac on it, then a couple of coats of gun oil on top of that, with some light sanding between the layers to get rid of any bumps. I have to say the finish is what makes it so beautiful. A lot of gloss on this one would only ruin the sense you should have that you are looking at something that was once a tree.

That is more true of this guitar than of most guitars. It is solid sapele, back, sides and top, all cut from the same piece of wood. We turned away from spruce or cedar, more common guitar tops, to craft this instrument from one solid tone wood. I was surprised when I hit the first chord on Friday. It's loud, but not harsh. I counted 15 seconds of sustain from a simple harmonic on the "e" string, and that's a real tribute to the guitar. It held its tuning through about 40 minutes of playing at home, everything from "Mood Indigo" to "Deep River Blues", "The Sinking of the Jeannie C", "Freight Train" and "Don't Think Twice" played against the music from a chunk of the Pachelbel Canon. That one sounded great. The guitar fairly screams and moans when you play the blues, which is not too much of a surprise since it is modeled on a Gibson Nick Lucas from the 1930s, long a favored acoustic blues guitar. I worked it on "Trying to Win," and some of my own blues songs. It stands up to all of it and fairly well dances on some. Lovely.

With the pots and pans in the kitchen
I played it for a while in the kitchen to see how that would sound, then took a shot of it with pots and pans. I don't know why. It's just lovely anywhere you sit it.

I got to thinking about this a lot over the past week because it is very rare that a player would get to see a whole guitar constructed, from a slab of wood right up to the stringing and playing. What an honor that was for me. I have played guitars since I was about 14 years old but I never appreciated them so much as I appreciate them right now, thanks to Bruce and his skills.

I been to C.F. Martin in Nazareth and walked through the 300 steps they use to build them, and I have visited with Jean L'arrivee in Victoria, B.C. (and Vancouver) to see how a smaller operator put them together. But in both of those cases, there were a lot of people working on the instruments, so you couldn't actually have a sense that one person built any of them. I have an old Martin that was built that way in 1958, and it's different.

But not like this. It's built by one human for another human. Each part has Bruce's thought and action attached to it. I would argue it has something of his voice, the special part of a guitar that you just can't define. I saw him identify the problems and fix them. I saw him decide just how much to trim from the neck to make it sit properly.

I can't thank him enough. If you want an instrument made for you, he's the man to see.

Come back one last time. Maybe you can hear it play then.


  1. You better play that thang. I'm waiting.

  2. Ah! What a blessing! What a beauty! Of course it is meant to be played, but the look of it is a work if art in itself! Hopefully someday I will hear you play it. Hearty congratulations to Bruce!