Saturday, September 20, 2014

Thank you and help name this guitar...

Back in the beginning, there was just this:

Bruce Roper and the big slab of Sapele at Owl Lumber

We picked this wood because of its beauty, its chatoyance, the way the figures danced on the surface. Also, it was one hard piece of wood, not mahogany but like mahogany, a good thing to build a guitar out of. Not just the sides and the back, but the whole body of the guitar. Bruce's thought was it would be a great flitch matched project and would immediately convey the sense that this instrument came not from a factory, but from a tree somewhere in Africa.
This is what it became, a guitar pretty enough for framing with a strong voice and a solid, hand-made feel that I find pretty inspirational. Now it needs a name.  We wanted to use this guitar to show you how the instrument is built, what kinds of problems you have to solve, the role of the craftsman in the construction of a modern instrument. Bruce was patient along every step of the way and explained it all to me. I thought I would like to build one, but now that I have seen him work, I'm not so sure. This is not easy.

This is the 50th guitar Bruce has constructed (although you could add hundreds more if you listed the number he has worked on as luthier for the Old Town School of Folk Music's "The Different Strummer" music store. Any time over the past nine months that I visited Bruce's shop, there were guitars and mandolins and banjos everywhere, all of them lined up for his repairs. It made me kind of philosophical about the whole process. If you love your guitars to death (and I do) and they are broken, then he is like the man who fixes broken hearts. I believe that now, having worked with him. What a skill.

Building one is just that much more impressive. I have made and repaired furniture, but I have never done anything that approached the detail of the process I have watched since February, when Bruce bought the wood and cut it into guitar sets.

The whole story is here in the various entries of this blog, and I encourage anyone who is interested in hand made instruments to stroll through them and stop to see what is going on wherever you need to. Not a day passed that didn't involve something I found fascinating.

Playing it is not like playing my other guitars, which are all fine instruments (my son, a repair tech at Guitar Works in Evanston, would say the best ever made anywhere). I can't disagree with him because he knows his stuff. What I can say is that it is different. It has a fine voice and plays well. But knowing how it came together somehow changes everything.

Bruce gave me a good book at the beginning of this process, "Grand Obsession: A Piano Odyssey," by Perri Knize. It's a great book about a woman's quest to find out what happened to the sound of a beloved piano when it was shipped from New York to her home in Montana. The magic of the thing left and she was heartbroken. She ends up in Germany at the factory where the piano was constucted. She learns that every one who touches an instrument during construction leaves something of himself, or herself, in it. In her case, it was the proper tuning she was searching for, and finally found. But in the course of that journey, she learned all about pianos and how they come together.

Guitar sets maturing in Bruce's shop

I never thought much about how my Martin or Collings guitars were made, although it was clear they were made well by people who knew what they were doing. But I could not imagine how they touched them, measured them, coaxed them into life.

Now I know, thanks to Bruce. The difference is that at C.F. Martin, you can see the 300 steps taken by about as many people to assemble an instrument that must meet a high standard. And at Collings, I am certain, you can see a collection of diligent people working on a series of instruments. That's how its done in factory building.

At Bruce's you get to see just one thing:

That's Bruce, building my guitar.

I hope you enjoyed this blog. I certainly did. I hope you appreciate what you have seen, and maybe will even consider asking Bruce to help you build your guitar. There aren't many luthiers around town who will do that with you.
If you go down that road, it might just carry you to the point at which a slab of wood is transformed and takes on its own soul.
Help me name this guitar. Thank you for following us. Charlie Madigan


  1. brother dear if I could play it I would help you name it but I can't. I know you'll find the name through playing it if it calls for one. I suspect it has a beautiful one...but like a painting first it finds its voice then it finds its name.I wish you joy in your quest

  2. JOY....simple. How could it be anything but that. Can't wait to hear it!

  3. She's obviously female. Such a figure. In honor of one of John's most beautiful songs, with its reference to shimmering ocean colors, and because you have a kind of lake symbol at the top of yours guitar, and because Bruce is a big Beatles fan, how about Julia. I can also tell you the African languages, remembering the heritage of the wood, have a staggering number of words for beautiful and music. But then, it's kind of like naming someone else's child...

  4. After much consideration, I settled on Sweet Heart, engraved on a copper plate that sits across the top of the instrument.