Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Guitar for Mike Seeger

I recently had the honor of making a guitar for one of my musical heroes, Mike Seeger, . I can't say enough good things about Mike. He's a fantastic player, scholar and historian. In addition to being the first person to record Elizabeth Cotten, and the person who tracked down Doc Boggs, Mike is one of the people who made the world at large aware of old time traditional music, as well as Bluegrass. As a member of the New Lost City Ramblers, he turned people's ears from the Folk Revival back to the source material that the Revival was to have generated from. Two of his latest recordings, Southern Banjo Sounds and Southern Guitar Sounds, are essentials for any collection.

I first met Mike at the Appalachian Music Festival in Clifftop, West Virginia. He is working with country music historian, and fellow Madisonian, Bill Malone on his biography, so he occasionally passes through town. He came to the shop a few years ago to see what I was up to. This past summer he was in Madison to play at the Sugar Maple Traditional Music Festival. He had sent me a Galiano guitar to do some work on and stopped by the shop to talk about the work. He saw some of the things that I was working on and expressed interest in getting a new Fraulini. He was interested in getting a guitar made of all North American woods and wanted something lightly built as he preferred to use extra light gauge strings. He said that one of his favorite guitars was a Bradley Kincaid Hound Dog, which I believe was made by Harmony in the early 30's.

I borrowed a Hound Dog from Wil Bremmer at Spruce Tree Music. After going over it, I realized that it was very similar to my Loretta model, so I was able to use existing molds. The Hound Dog was a little deeper than my standard Loretta. Other than that, it is a fairly standard, very lightly ladder braced parlor guitar.

Mike said that he liked white oak for back and sides and I had some nice oak that came from a tree not too far from the shop. For the top I used red spruce, which came from the Adirondacks in New York. I used yellow poplar for the neck. Poplar is a great neck wood. It is strong and stable, knot free, carves nicely and takes stains like a dream. I have several old guitars with poplar necks and they have stayed straight and true over many years. I would use a lot more poplar if people understood how good it was. I used persimmon for the fingerboard. I have heard that persimmon is the N. American ebony and have wanted to try it for a long time. I also wanted to try it because it grows in Mike's part of the country and because of the old song "Possum Up the Simmon Tree". Master fiddler Kirk Sutphin was able to locate some persimmon boards that were perfect for fingerboards. For the bridge, I used some maple which had previously been part of an old beam in a barn that I worked on back when I was a carpenter. I did a simple black/white/black diagonal purfling and a maple binding.

For the finish, I fumed the oak using industrial strength ammonia. The ammonia causes the oak to turn dark brown. It also caused the top to turn green, but a coat of garnet shellac made it instantly look 80+ years old. The garnet shellac also added to the color of the fumed oak. I ebonized the persimmon fingerboard and maple bridge, and I stained the poplar neck a reddish mahogany color. I used an oil based varnish over the shellac and left it thin, in keeping with the lightly built, old style motif.

The final product surpassed my expectations. The white oak back and sides and red spruce top gave the guitar a lot of volume and sustain, while the deeper sides gave the tone a little more time to develop. I was a little nervous that, with the extra light gauge strings, it wouldn't generate all that much sound, but keeping the bracing and the finish on the light side allowed the top to move enough so that it made plenty of sound. You didn't have to lean into it either, it almost played itself. What a relief.

Monday, March 2, 2009

New 14 Fret Model- Felix

I've been wanting to make a guitar for my friend Craig Ventresco for a long time. Craig is one of my favorite guitar players of all time. He plays real ragtime, drawing from source material that is neglected by the vast majority of musicians who attempt to play early American music. Craig has an incredible of knowledge of early popular music and plays it with the spirit and attack of some of my favorite early blues players, without attempting to imitate their music. He has a unique technique, using a flatpick while also picking with his ring finger, that leaves the listener wondering how one person can possibly make all that sound. If you haven't heard him, I strongly encourage you to look him up and get one of his CDs, or check out one of his YouTube videos. You won't be disappointed.

Back to the guitar. All of my existing models have 12 frets to the body. Craig is a player who takes full advantage of the fingerboard and really needs to have a 14 fret model. In general, the guitars that I draw my inspiration from are 12 fretters, and there are a fair amount of luthiers who are making copies of early Martin and Gibson 14 fret guitars, so I didn't want to copy one of those. I decided that I would have to design a model especially for Craig. I tried to imagine what some of my guitar building heroes might have done if they had to build a 14 fret guitar.

I started out looking for suitable shapes. I settled on an early guitar by John D'Angelico. D'Angelico learned his trade in the shop of his uncle, Raphael Ciani, and built a lot of really beautiful instruments before he started making arch tops in the early 30's. The shape was very distinct with a wide lower bout and a tight upper bout.

For woods, I chose a German Spruce top and maple back and sides. I wanted the guitar to be loud and to ring out very clearly. Craig is a dynamic player and I wanted to make an instrument that would be capable of kicking out some sound, but wouldn't muddle all that was coming out. I've had good results with the German and maple combination in the past, so I thought it would work well for this one. I ladder braced the top.

It's always fun when you just get to build a guitar and you don't have to follow any rules or try to match an existing instrument. Craig gave me free reins on the project, so I was able to pick appointments from some of my favorite instruments and mix them up on this guitar. I chose a headstock design that I saw on a guitar by Rocco Mango, a NYC luthier who worked independently in the early part of the last century. The design is fairly common on Neapolitan mandolins, but doesn't tend to show up in guitars. It is a beautiful effect.

I used the same fingerboard inlays that showed up on many of the old Galiano and fancy Oscar Schmidt instruments. The old inlays were most likely cut in Germany and sold through some supplier at the time as they show up on quite a few of the old instruments.

For the bridge, I designed a sort of hopped up floral/mustache bridge, similar to the bridge on the Stoneman Galiano, but with relief carved flowers on the ends, something that shows up on a lot of early European parlor guitars.

I figured that there was enough going on with the general aesthetic, so I used a fairly plain diagonal purfling, along with a rosewood binding .

I finished the guitar with an oil based varnish. The oil based varnish can go on thin, not quite as thin as French polish, but gives better protection than either shellac or spirit based varnish. It also dries nice and hard, which I think contributes to the tone. Most importantly, it's not super toxic, like nitrocellulose lacquer, it's relatively easy to work with and gives a great depth to the finish.

The end result was a great sounding guitar. I haven't heard Craig play it yet, but from all reports he's happy with it and it's doing everything he asks of it. I'm really looking forward to the time that I get to hear him play it in person. Hopefully it won't be too far off.