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

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.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

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!