Biography and Lutherie Background
In 1980, I discovered a book entitled "Classic Guitar Construction" by Irving Sloane. In addition to clear instructions for building guitars, Sloane provided some details regarding the Bouchet designs. I had some basic woodworking and modeling experience so I decided to try building my first guitar based upon the Bouchet top bracing designs. I have to admit that the result was pretty crude looking, but it was playable and it had some characteristics that I was quite pleased with.
The top from my first guitar was from cedar and I decided to try a second using spruce. This guitar turned out to be considerably better than the first and I was surprised by its volume and tonal characteristics as compared with the mass produced spruce top classic guitars available through local retail stores. I began taking it with me to play at local guitar society gatherings where it began to attract some interest. Shortly thereafter, our guitar society engaged the well known Cuban guitarist Leo Brouwer to put on a concert and I was assigned the privilege of transporting him from the airport. During our conversation while driving to the city, I told him about my guitar making adventures and brazenly asked if he would take the time to try my guitar. Leo graciously agreed (not the first time he'd done that I'm sure). The next day, I brought my guitar to his hotel at the agreed upon time. Brouwer took the guitar and played a few scales and then, to my considerable surprise, he began playing excerpts from his repertoire. I was stunned by the beautiful tones he was coaxing from my creation. After about an hour, Mr. Brouwer put the guitar down and told me that I should continue my pursuit of guitar making. He also tactfully pointed out shortcomings and, while I will always be grateful for the inspiration Brouwer imparted, I was even more appreciative of the constructive criticism.
Over the ensuing 20 years, I went on to build more than 30 guitars while I continued with my increasingly demanding banking career. The earlier guitars were as often from cedar as from spruce. Later I began working almost exclusively with spruce always striving for improvements in my construction methods and experimenting with variations on the Bouchet design. Throughout those 20 years and to this day, David Grainger Brown, a close friend, guitar teacher and an accomplished player has played my guitars exclusively. His advice and collaboration have been of enormous value to me.
In 1996, our guitar society engaged the Greek guitarist Antigoni Goni to stage a concert and I once again heard a guitar that made a lasting impression. This guitar, by Jose Romanillos, exhibited wonderful clarity throughout its full range. Its tone was transcendent and, while I would not categorize it as a "loud" guitar it reached out to fill the hall in every important way.
I could mention at this point that I had looked into some of the new approaches being taken by Smallman, Damman, Humphrey, Ruck and others utilizing radical designs and/or synthetic materials. The guitars that I've heard are impressive, particularly in terms of their loudness.
However, these instruments did not inspire me to change my standards from those imprinted in me by the Haselbacher & Romanillos guitars that I've talked about. While far better players than I will ever be have sung the praises of these guitars, words by Julian Bream might express my thoughts most appropriately when he said; "It is not my intention to argue about the merits of recent developments in the art of guitar construction, but I would like to add that it is, in my considered opinion, a debatable virtue to search for greater volume of sound at the expense of sound quality".
Following the Antigoni Goni concert, I revisited an article written in 1976 about Jose Romanillos who said " I work by tapping, by tapping the soundboard. I also go by the feel. When I'm shaping the struts, I take the top and flex it. The feel of the timbers and the tapping will give you more or less what you're after, if you're lucky. Sometimes it doesn't work because sound is not the sort of thing that's easy to understand. There's no physical law that tells you what you've got to do, you can only go by your own experience. You've got a sound in your ear and you try to get that sound out of the top. There's only one way to make it work, feeling it here, tapping it there." Later in the article he says " It's the material which is critical- You must know the material and what to do with it. The timber is absolutely vital."
Jose Romanillos subsequently wrote a book about Antonio de Torres (1817-1892), the Spanish guitar maker who developed the classic guitar from its earlier origins and set many of the standards for today's classic guitars. One of the stories in this book had a profound impact on my understanding of guitar building. At a dinner party organized by local clergy, Torres was asked to "share his secret with others and not take it to his grave". Torres replied "It is impossible for me to leave the secret behind for posterity; this will go to the tomb with me for it is the result of the feel of the tips of the thumb and forefinger communicating to my intellect whether the soundboard is properly worked out to correspond with the guitar makers concept and the sound required of the instrument."
These readings suggest that there is much more to building a good guitar than good design and sound craftsmanship. However, I had not undertaken a lot of tapping and feeling as part of my building experience. Even if I had, I would not have had any clear points of reference to relate to. So...I stayed with my design based approach and worked to further refine my construction methodology and overall craftsmanship.
In April of 2000 I retired from my banking career and resolved to pursue my guitar building with more vigor. I built 4 guitars that year based upon some new design & construction concepts that I'd worked out and they turned out to be my best ever. Furthermore, I was achieving more consistency in my results than I had in the past. Nevertheless, the 30 year old memory of the Haselbacher guitar along with the more recent memory of the Romanillos guitar continued to haunt me. Would I ever find a way to approach these high standards ?