Saturday, November 17, 2012

New Logo & T-Shirts

 The great artist Robert Crumb just drew a new logo for me which has a portrait of my grandmother, Angelina Fraulini-Cambio.  I just had some100% cotton, U.S.A. made t-shirts printed with the new logo and they are available while supplies last.  $20 plus shipping.  Sizes from Small to XXL.  Any color you'd like, as long as that color is black.  Send me an email if you are interested: todd at

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Guitars (and banjo) For Sale

 I've been going through some of my old guitars and have decided to sell off a few.  Please contact me if you're interested or if you have questions todd at

Stella Concert guitar with floral bridge

1920's Stella Concert Guitar - This is the first Stella that I've seen with this type of bridge.  The bridge was likely made in Germany, along with the inlays and purfling.  I've had this guitar for a number of years.  The original bridge had been broken at the saddle and I hesitated to make a reproduction of it.  I finally got around to it, making the bridge out of ebony instead of pearwood.  It turned out great.  This guitar is in very nice shape.  I think that the bridge broke early in its life, saving it from a lot of playing wear.  There is a side crack on the bass side which has an old repair.  It could have been cleaner, but it is stable.

The top is crack free, as is the mahogany back.  Leabelly style purfling on the top and on the back.  Stella inlays on the fingerboard.  Interestingly the label reads "Stella Mandolin".  They must have run out of guitar labels that day.  The neck is mahogany and is 1 3/4" at the nut with a soft V profile.  It has a fresh neck reset with very comfortable action.  Original tuners, bridge pins and end pin.  The scale is 24 7/8" and the lower bout measures 13 1/2". Comes with a hard shell case.  A great little guitar SOLD

New and old bridges.

Bass side side crack

Stella Grand Concert

1920's Stella Grand Concert guitar- This is a well loved solid guitar with a spruce top, mahogany back and sides, Leadbelly style purfling and a nicely "alligatored" shellac finish.  There is some playing wear on the top, two very tight repaired top cracks and two very tight repaired back cracks.  Ebony replacement bridge with a compensated bone saddle.  Original tuning machines.    Fresh neck reset makes for comfortable action.  Includes a hard shell case.

1 13/16" at the nut with a soft V profile to the neck.  26 1/2" scale, 14 3/4" at the lower bout.  SOLD

Teens Era Thornward Guitar-Probably made by Lyon and Healy and sold through Montgomery Wards this is a great parlor guitar.  After much debate, I made the decision to replace the top and in doing so the guitar became the best of both worlds.  The varnish on the top really makes it look old.  I've shown it to quite a few people, even some experts, and no one knew that the top was not original until I told them.  The back and sides are Brazilian rosewood, the top is ladder braced to accept light gauge strings.  This guitar sounds exceptional.  Original ebony fingerboard with new frets, new ebony bridge with flattened pyramids.  There are a few repaired cracks on the back which are reinforced with linen.  Original tuning machines with ivory buttons, and original ivory end pin.  1 7/8" at the nut with a deep, yet soft V profile.  Includes a hard case SOLD

Keith Prowse & Co. English Banjo-This old girl is a cool instrument that needs some TLC.  It was made in London, probably in the 1890's.  Though there are six tuning machines, it was intended to be a five string banjo.  There is a brass tube which runs under the nut and fingerboard and pops out of the fingerboard at the fifth fret.  The string would then ride over the sixth fret (you can see it in the fingerboard photo).  This was a way of getting around the fifth string peg.  Resonator has a Brazilian rosewood veneer.  The rim is missing some inlays, as is the fingerboard.  With a little work it could get up and running.  Sold as is SOLD

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Unknown Handmade Guitar- This guitar was most certainly made by an individual rather than a shop, I would guess it is from the late 1800s.   The spruce top has a few cracks. The bridge is not original.  I think the back is a single piece of sycamore.  the sides and neck also seem to be sycamore.  There is a nice monogram painted onto the top.  The inset purfling seems to have been put in one piece at a timeThe tuning machines appear to be original.  They are in good shape and have bone knobs.  An interesting piece.  Sold as is SOLD

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

12 String Sets

I just received a shipment of fresh 12 string sets in light and heavy from the good folks at La Bella.  The Mari family has been making strings for a couple hundred years and they know their stuff.

The heavies are my standard sets which I've been using for a while.  They are great for getting a Leadbelly sound.  The lighter sets were put together by Frank Basile and myself for more of a McTell sound.  They have a certain ring to them that the heavier strings don't, but lack the rumble of the heavy set.  Both are intended to be tuned down to C, B or A, and the lighter sets are usually more suitable for older instrument. 

If you're interested, they are $15 a set.  Contact me at todd at

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Hand Rubbed Sunburst

I've been curious about sunbursts for some time, but have had a few obstacles in my way.  For starters the guitars that I normally make don't always seem suitable for sunburst.  Second, since I don't spray my finishes, I French polish, I'm not really set up to spray a sunburst.  Third, a lot of sunbursts don't really do it for me.

1924 F-4, courtesy of Spruce Tree Mus
For the most part, the bursts I like are the very early ones, especially early Gibsons, when Orville still had his hands in things and they were still "The Gibson".  After Orville left, they still did things the way that he did them and they still got great results.  I haven't seen many old Gibsons in the flesh, and have come to these conclusions from looking at photos.  That all changed one day when I walked into my local music shop, Spruce Tree Music, and saw a very beautiful 1924 Gibson F-4 mandolin with a sunburst that delicately blended from yellow to red.  I was in love. Though mandolins aren't what I build, I often look to them for inspiration and new ideas.  This was an incredible finish and I wanted to try my hand at it. 

  As I started to look into sunbursts I realized that there were a few different ways to do them.  One is to stain the wood directly, either rubbing the stain in with a rag or spraying the stain onto the wood.  Another is to tint the finish and blend the colors with a spray gun, so the color is in the finish, rather than in the wood.  I found out that the sunbursts that I really preferred were done the first way, by applying the colors directly into the wood, staining the wood itself rather than the finish.  This is the way that Gibson did their sunburst in their early days, presumably rubbing the stains into the wood with a rag, then applying varnish over the top.  As I don't spray my finishes, this seemed like the ideal way for me to proceed.

I was not aware of any guitar makers who are currently doing these types of sunbursts, but quite a few mandolin makers are doing them.  Mandolin builders seem to collaborate nicely as they try to crack the secrets of Loyd Loar's instruments.  I contacted a few mandolin makers and some great advice.  John Hamlett was the person who really seemed to have a method that would work well for me.  There's a great video of him applying a sunburst to a mandolin on Youtube.  He recommended I practice on a lot of scrap, so that's where I started.

 Once I felt like I had a grip on the technique, I decided to try it on a guitar.  Luckily at the same time I had a most excellent customer who was willing to let me build him a guitar with a sunburst.  I didn't want to have a customer's guitar be the first one, so I decided to build a practice guitar as well.  For both of them, I wanted to keep the trim relatively simple.  I use a lot of mosaic purfling with multiple layers, colors and patterns, but I don't think these details go well with a sunburst.  Things tend to get too busy and one element gets lost in the other.  I skipped all that and went with black and white straight lines, except on the rosette of one of them, when I gave a nod to Orville Gibson and bordered a maple ring with a black and white diagonal checker.

I used several old Gibson guitars and mandolins as my models and for the most part I used three colors, yellow, red, and brown.  After I had a blend of colors that I was happy with, I put down a few coats of an orange/green varnish, then French polished several coats over the top.  I was extremely thrilled with the results.  Applying the color directly to the wood highlights the figure of the wood in a way which having the color in the finish doesn't seem to do.  It gives it a depth and softness which seems to be lacking in many modern sunbursts.

Both guitars turned out wonderfully and a lot of folks have been smitten by them.  I just sent one off to the awesome customer who ordered one and the practice guitar is still looking for a home.  Let me know if you're interested.  It's an X braced 14 fret 0 sized peach, red spruce top, maple back and sides.  Here are some photos:

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Chitarra Battente

I have a love for Italian music, which has become more intense over the past few years.  In addition to collecting Italian 78 rpm records, I've been listening to more Italian folk music and my interest in traditional instruments like the friscalettu (cane whistle), zampogna (Italian bagpipes), and the chitarra battente has continued to grow. 


Lionel Bottari, Charlie Rutan & David Marker

Much of what I've learned about traditional Italian music has been passed along by my friend David Marker.  David is an Italian American who has made several trips to Italy and made some incredible field recordings and shot hundreds of hours of film of some of southern Italy's most traditional musicians.  His wonderful film, "Zampogna, the Soul of Southern Italy",  traces his journey from his family's home in Sicily to a zampogna festival in Scapoli, and introduces some of the players and builders he meets along the way.

Over the past few years David and I have been corresponding about the chitarra battente, an instrument which is typically used as a rhythm accompaniment to vocals or other instruments like the accordion or zampogna.  Chitarra battente translates into "beating guitar", and it is usually played as such, with the right hand strumming the strings, at times using various finger rolls, and striking the top to add to the rhythm.  In the past there were several different kinds of chitarra battente which reflected different regional variations.  Some had four single strings, others five.  There were also double string varieties with eight or ten strings.  These days the typical chitarra battente is of the ten string variety, with five doubled courses.

Marie DiCocco and Celeste DiPietropaolo
Recently I had the pleasure of attending the All Things Italian Festival in Fairfield Iowa, which focused on traditional Italian music this year.  David Marker helped to bring together many of the musicians who performed at the festival.  It was likely the largest gathering of zampogna players, or zampognari, in the history of the U.S.  They came from Italy, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington D.C.,  Kansas City and California.  It was a wonderful gathering with a lot of incredible music.

Charlie Rutan, Domenico Porco and Gianluca Zammarelli
One of the issues that David faced was that one of the performers, Gianluca Zammarelli, was coming from Italy and was unable to bring a chitarra battente for the trip.  David asked me if I could set up an old guitar for Gianluca to use as a battente. I had been wanting to make one for a while and figured that the time had come.

David was not really sure about the dimensions of the chitarra battente and there were no specifications available online.  I emailed a couple people in Italy but was not really able to get any answers.  I think the reason was that there is not really any "standard" for the instrument.  They were folk instruments, and folks built them in their own way. There were regional variations, but for the most part, people did their own thing. As a result, I decided to do my own thing, using one of my existing body shapes and building it according to how I build.  I used photos for reference, as well as a variety of videos.

I used my Loretta model for the shape, and at David's urging, decided to make a four string variety which is the tradition in the Campania region.  I also decided to bend the top, the same way they are bent on bowl back mandolins, and to have an extreme radius on the back.  Many battentes have rounded backs, similar to a lute, others are relatively flat.  Rather than using a slipper block construction on the neck, in which the neck block is part of the neck an the sides fit into kerfs in the neck block, I decided to go with a dovetail neck joint as it is what I'm used to and would give me more control setting the neck angle.  The neck is relatively short, with only 10 frets to the body, and the strings are very light, four .009" gauge strings, so there is very little string pressure on the neck.  Another unusual feature is that the fingerboard is flush with the top of the guitar.

The tuning for the chitarra battente also has regional variations.  We tried a few different tunings on this instrument before settling on one that Gianlucca uses, E, A, F#, B.  The top three string are usually fretted, while the E is usually unfretted and acts as a drone.

This was one of the more unusual projects I've undertaken, also one of the most rewarding.  Gianlucca gave me his blessing, though he did suggest tweaking few finer points in the setup.  It was great to hear it played by a master.  So, here he is, Gianluca Zammarelli playing a couple songs from Catania,  the first a "song of disdain" about lost love, the second a humorous song, full of double entendre and sexual inuendo.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Paul Geremia Shop Concert

 This Saturday, March 19th, we'll be having a shop concert featuring Paul Geremia.  There will be plenty of other musicians including Catfish Stephenson and the Five Points Serenaders.  Come one come all.  See the shop and hear some great music.  Festivities start at 7:30.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Eight Year Anniversary

 Eight years ago I left a good job as a carpenter and project manager to build guitars full time.  Like anything it's had its ups and downs but I've had no regrets.

It was rather fortuitous that this past weekend had a few Fraulini customers pass through town.  My old friend and oldest customer Alvin Youngblood Hart came through to play a gig.  Alvin has the third guitar that I built, an oak Angelina 12 string.  He's been playing it and touring all over the world with it for the past ten years.  It was nice to see that the two of them are holding up well.  Dom Flemmons and Hubbie Jenkins of the Carolina Chocolate Drops also stopped by in the middle of their tour to get a few tweaks done on their guitars.  It's always nice to see the guitars after they've been out in the world, road tested. 

Thanks to all of my friends and family (most especially my very patient wife), to all of the customers I've had throughout the years, and to the musicians who use my instruments on a daily basis.  I'm very fortunate that you all have helped me do what I do.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Building a Bajo Sexto

My friend Dan Margolies has had an interest in Mexican music which has gotten more and more intense over the years.  He started playing the bajo sexto a few years back and recently asked me to build him one.  The process has been quite an adventure and I thought I'd share some of the photos of the process.

 The bajo sexto is a unique instrument, it's main use is to accompany accordion or fiddle players in Northern Mexican, Norteno, and Tex-Mex music known as Conjunto.  The bajo player provides the boom chang rhythm behind the floating melodies, and fills in the space with bass runs.  The instrument has 12 strings, tuned down to the E of a bass guitar, across the board in straight fourths, E-A-D-G-C-F.  The string gauges start at .026" and end at .092".  And you thought the .066" for the 12 strings were fat!  This is not to be confused with the guitarra doble, which is a different Mexican 12 string, the type which Lydia Mendoza played, similar to the 12 strings I normally build.  Here's a nice clip of Lorenzo Martinez on accordion & Rodolpho Lopez on the bajo quinto (the ten string version, which omits the low E string).

The man who defined the modern bajo sexto was the great Mexican American luthier Martin Macias from San Antonio, Texas.  Macias bajo sextos and bajo quintos are much sought after by bajo players.  The Macias family is still going strong with George Macias now following in the footsteps of his grandfather Martin and his father Albert.  George builds beautiful instruments and makes fine strings.

At the start of this project, I didn't know much about the bajo sexto and I wanted to get my hands on an old Macias to see how they were made.  My friend Steve James, one of the finest proponents and practitioners of American fingerstyle guitar, knew Don Martin Macias in San Antonio, used to hang out at the shop and has acquired a couple Macias instruments over the years.  Steve graciously loaned me a late 1950's bajo quinto to use as a reference.

1959 Macias bajo quinto

One of the things that really appealed to me about Steve's Macias was the use of all domestic woods.  The back and the sides were walnut, as were the fingerboard and bridge,  the top was white pine, the neck was magnolia and walnut.  The rope binding was made up of walnut and magnolia.  The guitar was built very sturdily, one of the reasons it was preferred by working musicians, it can take a lickin and keep on tickin.  The neck joint was a Spanish heel, or slipper block construction, where the neck and block are one and the sides fit into slots in the neck.  The bracing was a ladder/X hybrid.  One feature which seemed odd at the time was the lack of a saddle on the bridge.  The strings came out of the front of the bridge without going across any sort of hard material like bone or metal.

The challenge for me was to build something that was respectful to the Macias instrument, and to make a few changes that might improve the playability and put my own touch on the guitar.  For starters, I decided not to do a slipper block neck joint.  I have never done this before and I didn't want to start on an instrument that was fairly new to me and one which was going to be putting some fairly hefty demands on the neck joint.  I went with a dovetail, a joint that I'm intimately familiar with, and one which can be reset at a later date if need be.  Second, I decided I would fit the bridge with a saddle, which I thought would improve tone and would give a little control over the action of the strings.  Third, I decided to do a standard 12 string headstock, rather than one in which the fingerboard ran beyond the nut as it did on the Macias.  My friend Dan wanted an instrument that was like an old Macias, built with domestic woods, hide glue, varnish finish, etc, but was a little easier to play.

I started by making a plan of the Macias, mapping out the unique bracing style.  Second, I had to make up the rope binding and the purfling to be used on the rosette.  I used walnut and maple for this step.  Making the binding was fairly straightforward, more so than installing it, which proved to be quite challenging.  Steve James told me that Don Martin Macias would do the binding one piece at a time, and I was tempted to go that route after some of the frustration involved in the method that I used.


Strips are stacked &glued

Maple and walnut strips for binding

Stack is cut into angled pieces
Angled pieces are glued together
Angled stack is cut

I used red spruce for the top and black walnut for the back and sides.  The walnut that I used came from a tree that I cut down back when I was a carpenter.  The tree was on the site of a house I was building and I had it milled up by a local farmer.  I've used it for various projects over the years and had reserved a couple pieces for a guitar.  I was glad to finally put them to use on this project.

Gluing linings
Bracing the top
Unique bracing pattern

Dan wanted a full bodied bajo, as opposed to one with a cutaway.  He also wanted a single pickguard, rather than the three that are on the Macias.  I was able to get some great mother of toilet seat material for the pickguard (old stock) which gave it a nice vintage look.  As I stated earlier, I fit a saddle to the Macias bridge, which presented some design challenges, but worked out great.  I finished the guitar with a spirit varnish applied by French polishing.  I'm very happy with the way it turned out.  A fun project with many unique challenges.  I'm tempted to build one for myself.

Handmade strings by Guadalupe