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.