Wednesday, May 6, 2009

9 String

A few years ago my friend Mike Ammons and I were looking at the liner notes to the very excellent CD of minstrel tunes, Good For What Ails You, on the Old Hat label, and Mike asked me "What kind of guitar is that?", commenting on a picture of Daddy Stovepipe. I hadn't really looked at the picture that closely as there are plenty of odd things going on, a musician in a top hat posing next to a recording horn. We got out the magnifying glass and saw that the odd shaped headstock had 9 strings, three single strings on the bass side and three courses (six strings) on the treble side. Neither of us had heard of a nine string before, and I thought it would be a fun side project.

I could tell from the photo that the guitar was an inexpensive Chicago made guitar, smaller in size. Since I didn't have any orders for a nine string, and seeing as it didn't seem likely that I'd get one, I decided to start by making a neck and fitting it to an existing body. I had a couple candidates, the leader being an old Regal whose neck had been boogered up by someone along the line. The Regal was an all birch Hawaiian model. The top was in pretty rough shape, so I decided that it would probably be best to replace that while I was at it. I know what you're saying, "Why didn't you just start from scratch?" At a certain point I think I asked myself the same question, but these things tend to snowball, and when you're obsessed and have to get something out of your system, you don't always make the most prudent decisions.

I put on a new spruce top and made a poplar neck for the guitar. Lots of folks don't take poplar seriously as a neck material, but as I've said before and I'll say again, it's great stuff. I've made several poplar necks and have never had issues with them. The 80 year old guitar that I play on a regular basis has a poplar neck with no reinforcement and it's as straight as the day it was made. I'd choose it over maple any day of the week. I made a rosewood fingerboard and a six pin pyramid bridge.

The guitar had a short scale of 24 5/8", so I put on light gauge strings (doubling the 1st and 2nd course with an octave on the third) and tuned it up to E. I was pretty happy with the way that it turned out. Definitely a lot of fun to play. I sent it around to some friends, one of whom, John Miller, decided that he would rather keep it than send it off, so we worked out a deal. I was very happy to see it go to such a fantastic player.

As these things tend to work, I eventually got an email from someone who inquired about the nine string. Gary Selufsky, who proved to be one of my bravest customers, put in an order for a nine string and decided to have fun with it. I was very excited that Gary decided to get maple back and sides and a poplar neck. He also decided to add a Kay Kraft type bridge, funky pick guard, bound headstock and fingerboard. I was really looking forward to building an uptown version of the guitar.

The guitar turned out great. After some experimentation with strings, we decided that the it was happiest with a set of extra light strings, doubled on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd courses.
I was very happy to hear that Gary and John met at the Country Blues Week at the Port Townsend Washington and were able to compare their nine strings. My only regret is that I wasn't there to hear the ensuing madness.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Celebrating Five Years of Self Employment

This weekend I celebrated five years of making my living solely as a guitar maker. I've been making and repairing them for much longer than that, but I made the leap from a nice cozy, secure construction job, for a life as a luthier. From a financial standpoint, it probably wasn't the smartest move in the world, but I'm healthier and happier for it and I've been able to pursue my passion. The task would not have been possible without the many great customers that I've had, the musicians who play my guitars, my consigliere Frank Basile and, most importantly, my very loving and patient wife Lily who has stood by me during all of it, encouraging me and advising me along the way. Thank you to all.
As part of the celebration my old friend Paul Geremia came to visit and play a gig. I don't know how long I've known Paul for, but I've been going to see him play for quite some time and he was very instrumental in developing my interest in the 12 string guitar, as he is one of the only people who has been playing an old style, long scale 12 string for his entire career which has spanned over 40 years. Paul is a real road warrior. He plays all over the country at venues ranging from small coffeehouses, to blues festivals, to Prarie Home Companion. He drives every inch of the way, putting on miles like a long haul trucker.
Paul comes through Madison about twice a year and usually plays a gig at the local cofeehouse. He stays at our house and we usually end up doing some setup work on his 12 string, adjusting it for seasonal changes or applying some French polish where the finish has been worn away by his right hand. He's had his Fraulini for 4 1/2 years now and has probably played it every single day of that time. As a result it is an extremely live and open instrument. When I was making it for him he told me to build it as lightly as I dared, which I did, but the real reason it sounds so great is that it gets daily use, by one of the best people in the business. An instrument is happiest when it is played.
The gig was at Mother Fool's Coffee House, a local institution that is the best place in town for acoustic shows. I opened the show and played a variety of songs spanning from Reverend Alfred Karnes to Cryin Sam Collins. I always like to open for Paul because then he comes out swinging, showing everybody why he has the reputation that he does. He was fantastic! My favorite tunes were Silver City Bound and Meet Me in the Bottom. Of course I'm biased because he plays both of those on 12 string (his 30's Gibson J-35 sounded pretty good too). It's always great to sit back and listen to a master play, especially when it's an instrument that you've made. I'll look forward to the next time he comes.