Monday, March 22, 2010

Birch 12 String

For the most part, I try to build my guitars like the old ones, but standards and expectations have changed a lot since the old days and I think that in order to sell guitars, the workmanship has to be a lot cleaner than it was in the old days. Not that I judge my guitars by the same standards as some of the small and medium shops of the day. When I look at a lot of the stuff that comes from some of the small and medium shops, it looks flat to me. It doesn't have the depth of the old stuff. So many modern builders rely on CNC technology that their instruments are more hand assembled than hand made. Some folks think they look great, but I don't see a lot of distinction between some of the high end American makers and some of the stuff being made in China.

Enough of the ranting.

Occasionally I have a desire to build something "like an old guy", build a great instrument but without the attention to details that is expected of the modern luthier. Don't worry about cleaning out every little bit of glue on the inside of the box. Don't worry about pencil lines on the inside of the box. Don't worry about filling every single pore in the wood, and push the limits in terms of the lightness of the construction. I had a very rough winter and needed something a little cathartic to distract me.

Pat Conte is one of my favorite musicians alive today. Pat plays both blues and old time hillbilly music equally well, and he has mastered a variety of instruments, including fiddle, mandolin, banjo and six and 12 string guitars. He's a great singer and interpreter of old music. I had talked to Pat a while back and he said he was interested in a BBQ Bob style 12 string. It seemed like Pat was the perfect fit for the kind of build that I wanted to do.

I started out looking really closely at the photos of BBQ Bob, trying to figure out if there were any details that I had missed from previous viewings. Judging from the shine on the sides of his guitar, it looked like birch with a heavily tinted finish. I had some nice flamed birch which I decided to use for the project. I also had some nice diagonal checkered purfling that I made last fall that would give the guitar the perfect old time look. For the top I picked the gnarliest set of red spruce that I have ever seen. The grain was very tight in the center, then turned to wide, then tightened up again. It had some irregular steps in the grain that gave a bearclaw effect, but was very close to being knots. I also decided to go for a poplar neck (not truss rod) with a flat fingerboard and very small mandolin frets. The old guitars had much smaller frets than they do now and were equivalent to modern mandolin wire.

At a certain point the guitar departed from being a straight BBQ Bob copy and took on a life of its own. I've been into the whale tail bridge lately and decided to go that route on this one, with six pins instead of 12. I also considered a "ebonized" maple fingerboard and bridge, but decided to switch to rosewood as it would be an improvement to the sound and feel.

For the finish, I used button lac, which is the rawest, least refined variety of shellac. It has a deep orange color with lots of impurities that add to the character. It's probably the closest thing to what was used on the old inexpensive instruments. I put a bright white binding on the guitar, and let the finish give it an aged tint and pool up in areas, something you always see on old instruments. I gave both the birch back and sides and the poplar neck a brownish red stain to simulate mahogany. I strung the guitar with my standard gauges, but with round core nickel strings instead of bronze.

I'm really happy with the way that the guitar turned out. I built it in about half the time I usually spend on an instrument, and because it was built so lightly and had such a light finish, it really roared. Every time I do a project like this, it gives me a little more insight into the past. I get to try out some different techniques and see if I'm on the right track in terms of what the old guys were thinking and doing. I'll look forward to doing more like it in the future. Plus, it went to one of my favorite players!

Thanks to John Heneghan for the video and to Frankie for being the test pilot and delivery man.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

So Long Pop.

After a long battle with cancer, my Father, Orlando Dominic Cambio, a.k.a. Champ, a.k.a. Fred, passed away on February 11th. He spent his last month in hospice, at his home, with is family providing much of the care. Three days before he died, he and my mom celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary.

My father was a brilliant man. He spent most of his life working as a mechanical engineer. He had 14 patents granted in his name and another 7 which were granted in the name of companies he had developed them for.

He always said that an engineer who didn't know how to use a hammer or a wrench wasn't worth much. He practiced what he preached. He was a great mechanic, cutting his teeth on his first car, a Model A Ford, at the age of 12. He built a few hot rods in his teens and twenties before getting his engineering degree. He always worked on his own cars to keep his mechanical mind sharp. I remember when I was a teenager, he disassembled a Fiat transmission, cleaned it, replaced some worn bearings and put the whole thing back together again without ever looking at a manual.

When I was a kid, my folks bought an old dairy farm. My dad refurbished the whole place, and in the process honed his skills as a carpenter, mason, plasterer, plumber, electrician, and architect. When I was working as a carpenter, I remember being impressed with his abilities as a self taught trim carpenter, not to mention the fact that he had shaped many of the mouldings and trims in our home.

My folks were a little to old to be hippies and went back to the land before it was a movement. In addition to four kids, they raised chickens, ducks, geese, lambs, steer, a few ponies and a couple of horses. He kept bees and we made cider in the Fall. It was a great way to grow up and I'm grateful that my folks had the courage and abilities to make that leap.

I should also add that, with four young kids in the home, my father made the very bold move of becoming self employed. He worked as a consultant for over 30 years. He could have made a much more comfortable living had he stayed with one of the companies that he had worked for, but it was more important for him to spend time with his family.

My father was proud that I eventually ended up making guitars. He always liked the fact that I played music, though I'm not sure he could relate to it. He could relate to working with your hands, building something that was well thought out and honing your skills as a craftsman. I had the good fortune of working with him on making the tailpieces that I'm using now. If it hadn't been for his contributions, I never would have been able to pull it off. I remember taking the plans that he had drawn for the tailpiece to the machine shop that made the die. Four machinists surrounded me and asked, "Who did your plans?" I wasn't sure what they were getting at so I asked, "Why, is there a problem?". "Not at all. They're beautiful," was their reply.

My dad was the tech guru of the family and the day after he passed away, my computer died. I had lost all of my photos, business records, email contacts etc. After getting over the major frustration that this entailed, I realized that he had taken the hard drive with him so that his Luddite son would be forced to get a little more tech savvy. With the help of my brothers and a couple friends, I was able to recover the lost files, replace the hard drive, reload the drivers and get the computer up and running again. In two short weeks I finally feel a little bit of competence when it comes to computers.

I can't say enough about my Dad. He was a really great man. Never talked down to anyone, never gossiped. For the most part he was very quiet, and when he did say something, his words were very measured and they cut to the chase. He provided all of his kids and grand kids an example to live by.

So long Pop. And Thanks.