Michael F. Lazar

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Which is better Spruce or Cedar?

I am often asked why I tend to favor spruce over cedar as a top wood for guitars. First off, I should probably say that I do not think it would be valid to suggest that my preferences should be taken as defining criteria in this or any other area. As a guitar player, I came to prefer spruce, particularly after hearing guitars by makers like Haselbacher and Romanillos, however, many players have come to prefer cedar after hearing and/or playing instruments with sound boards made from that material. 

A client of mine once explained to me that, when evaluating a guitar, we tend to measure it against the sound we are accustomed to and therefore expect to hear. Another client who is a very good player tells me that his preferences are influenced by the different "feel" the spruce topped instrument in addition to just the sonic responses. Most of what I have heard and read suggest the following differences. 

Cedar tends to have a darker tone. It has a "punchier" response and tends to have a little more "head room" in its dynamic range. Cedar may give the impression of being louder, particularly in a smaller room.

Spruce tends to have a brighter tone with more clarity and sustain with a broader range of colors. Spruce may carry better in a larger hall, probably as a result of its clarity. 

I have a client who held a preference for cedar but had me make a spruce top guitar because of my recommendations. When he got the guitar he was very pleased but kept wondering if he would not have liked a cedar top even more. 

This client has been enormously helpful to me in terms of feed back, so I made a cedar guitar and sent it to him on the understanding that he could work with both of them for a couple of months and keep the one he liked best. He said it was a difficult choice and that he wavered from one to the other before finally deciding to keep the spruce instrument. Here are some comments that he sent to a prospective client in New York.

"I returned the Cedar guitar. The Spruce has it all. Power, clarity, trueness of note (as opposed to just volume), separation, but huge sustain. My guitar teacher is very impressed and was blown away by the value of the instrument. I can't say enough about this guitar."

"The Cedar was very nice and HUGE on the bottom end, which was immediately impressive. But after a few weeks I kept going back to the Spruce...and it was apparent that the Spruce was my choice. I was almost positive I would have liked the Cedar over the Spruce, and I was really trying to force myself...but fortunately I was given the time to really relax and discern the best instrument for me."

In conclusion, I will say that while spruce is a structurally stronger wood, cedar may be a little more stable and less prone to expansion and contraction during changes in relative humidity. That having been said, I believe that cedar may be more prone to cracking. In terms of performance characteristics, the musician's preferences must be the governing factor and the choice might well be that which best supports and inspires the his/her musical expression. 

How can guitar Intonation be optimized?

Perfect intonation is not possible in a guitar, however, it is possible to get a considerably better result by addressing three different intonation issues rather than just one of them as is the case with most guitars. The three issues are inharmonicity, string elasticity (stiffness) and string diameters. This of course assumes we are discussing instruments with accurately placed frets.

When a musical note is sounded on a stringed instrument a series of overtones are produced that are, theoretically, multiples of the fundamental frequency. These extent to which these overtones are produced are part of the "richness" in the sound of the instrument. However, in actuality, these overtones are sharper than the theoretic multiple and the higher the overtone the sharper the actual result. In translating the signal received by our ears, our brain tends to average out these inconsistencies with the result that the note is heard somewhat sharper than its actual fundamental. As higher notes are played the discrepancy becomes progressively sharper. This phenomenon is called "inharmonicity". In an instrument such as a piano is is addressed by tuning the strings to compensate for this inharmonicity. The process is called "tempering" (it is referred to in the title of a Bach composition ie; "The well tempered clavier" ).  In a fretted instrument, such as a guitar, inharmonicity is addressed by placing the bridge saddle a little further back from its theoretically perfect position. The resulting extra string length results in notes that are flattened slightly. As notes are fretted progressively higher,  the additional string length represents a progressively higher percentage of the theoretic length and the notes become progressively more flat. In this way, the instrument is "tempered" to the extent that it sounds more

properly tuned to our ears. All well made guitars will have their bridge saddles "set back" slightly to address this issue, however, many luthiers and musicians are not aware of the inharmonicity issue and they think it actually addresses the next issue we need to look at.

Unlike keyboard instruments, fretted instruments face a second major issue, that being string elasticity or stiffness. When a string is pressed down to the fret, its tension is increased and the pitch is raised slightly. This creates an intonation discrepancy in relation to the pitch of the string when it is not being fretted (open string pitch). The only way to address this issue is to shorten the open string at the nut by moving the nut forward slightly. This then raises the pitch of the open string in relation to the fretted notes. This nut "set forth" results in a distinct improvement intonation that becomes even more apparent when a capo is applied to the guitar. 

The third issue I will address is the variance in string diameters. Even if strings were perfect (which they are not) the variance in diameters and differences in characteristics among the wound and monofilament strings require that different amounts of saddle set back and nut set forth be applied to each string. In order to facilitate this, I use a saddle that is a full 3mm wide as opposed to the thinner saddles found in most guitars. 

In addition to addressing these issues in my own guitars, I have had many folks bring other guitars to me for alteration along the same lines. Every one of these clients were frustrated by their intonation problems and every one of them were greatly satisfied with the result.

How long will it be before I can really judge the sound of a new guitar

I have often heard that it can be months (or even years) before a new guitar will "open up" and begin to reveal its ultimate potential. If this is true, making a decision about acquiring a new guitar would be difficult and fraught with considerable anxiety. As it turns out, I have found that there is some truth in this but after careful observation and research I've been able to reach some conclusions that I believe should be very helpful. 

During my research, I came across an article in the February 1996 edition of a publication entitled "Acoustic Guitar" featuring an interview with the late Thomas Humphrey, a highly respected maker of concert guitars. I found some of his description of the "break in" process to be most helpful and certainly accurate in relation to my experience. Humphrey commenced his discussion by saying: "The first days in a guitar's life are the most profound. The sound grows really fast as it comes under tension, and the biggest sound improvement happens within the first 24 hours. " Further on he says: 

Have you ever noticed that after you have played a guitar for an hour or two - given it a good bashing - it becomes a different instrument? Newer guitars take longer to wake up eac h time you play them and they go to sleep again fairly quickly when you stop. As a guitar ages, it wakes up quicker and stays awake longer after you put it down. Well-aged guitars that are played regularly always sound their best and never go to sleep." 

 I am in complete agreement with Humphrey's views on the issue, especially the "waking and sleeping cycle". As a result, I suggest that if you do are not impressed with a guitar within the first few days, it is probably not the guitar for you. As a luthier it is my objective to provide players with instruments that they will find inspiring and exciting right "out of the gate". They should not have to wait until the guitar improves to experience this. Yes, I do know that  guitars will improve gradually over time but this should be "the frosting on the cake" that keeps them excited about the instrument as time goes on.

Do you do repairs?

Making guitars and repairing them involve some similar disciplines, however, in my opinion quality repair work requires higher levels of crafting skills while making new guitars requires higher levels of intuition (for want of a better word). As a result, I will tackle simple repairs such as the intonation adjustments discussed above, french polish renewal and other fairly minor things. I refer more serious repairs to a steel string luthier friend who is a brilliant craftsperson and far better than I at repairing serious damage. Where high quality classical guitars are involved I consult with him to ensure that nothing is done that might compromise the instrument.   

How long would I have to wait for one of your guitars?

For the past few years, I've been operating at my capacity, which is quite small actually. As a result, I'm usually able to start an instrument within a month or two of commission. Completion will usually take between 2 and 3 months  depending upon how many guitars I am making at the same time.