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Wednesday, March 18, 2015
Recently I had a conversation with a friend who is a Wisconsin farmer. He works his tail off from early Spring to late Fall, then spends his winters in Honduras. He has been working for several years on a project, planting trees, mainly mahogany, on mountainsides in order to restore forests which have been clear cut. Because the mountainsides are free of trees, erosion and mudslides have become big problems as there is no structure to hold the soil together during the rainy season. The clear cutting is largely the result of the demand for Honduran mahogany. The guitar industry uses lots of mahogany and the conversation has once again brought my mind around to thinking about domestic alternative tonewoods.
The first several guitars I built were made of all North American woods; White oak back and sides, maple necks, fingerboards and bridges. I wasn't approaching them with any kind of ecological consciousness, mainly I was just copying the old instruments I was collecting and repairing. At that time, I was making guitars for myself and for friends. As I began to make them for folks farther afield, I started using more exotic woods as that is what people seemed to want. Ten to fifteen years ago, the guitar world wasn't very receptive to the idea of using domestic woods, despite the fact that they were used extensively in the early 1900's, and played by many iconic musicians. It was quite difficult to market and sell instruments with woods like white oak or birch (not to mention poplar necks or stained maple fingerboards). I'm not sure if people have become more receptive to it, but over the years I've come to feel stronger about it, and I have greater urges to make domestic wood instruments that have the integrity of the old stuff, and are tastefully executed. I recently finished two guitars made completely from domestic woods which I've dubbed "The All Americans".
The first is an Erma with a spruce top and white oak back and sides. The spruce came from the Northwestern US The white oak came from a Wisconsin tree that grew three miles from my house. The neck is made of poplar, which grows in abundance in the Northeastern US, big beautiful trees which yield a strong and stable wood. The fingerboard and bridge are maple from Wisconsin which I stained black. This combination of wood is in keeping with what Oscar Schmidt used on many of their Stellas. The guitar was patterned after an old Stella that I've played for the last 15 years. It was made in the 1920's and has a poplar neck, and an "ebonized" maple fingerboard and bridge. The neck could stand to be reset. but it has remained straight for 90 plus years. The fingerboard has also held up over time and is free of wear, despite the fact that the guitar has been played extensively and has had at least two fret jobs.
This guitar has a fairly reserved aesthetic. It looks like a plain old Stella, and sounds like one as well. I'm very happy with the way it turned out. I especially like the look of the flames on the back. A few coats of varnish really bring the white oak to life.
The second guitar is an Annunziata and was made in the spirit of the great Mexican American luthiers, Guadalupe Acosta and his sons Miguel, Luis and Jesus, and his apprentice Martin Macias. The Acosta's made guitars for luminaries like Lydia Mendoza and Lonnie Johnson. The bajo sextos of Martin Macias are highly prized, but he also made some great six string guitars. The back and sides, fingerboard and bridge are made from black walnut, which they all used extensively (Mike Acosta, the son of Miguel, told me that while they used mahogany on most of their instruments, they used walnut for all of the best ones). This particular wood came from a tree in a friends back yard. The top is spruce from the Northwest. The neck is poplar, which the Mexican American builders called "magnolia" as it comes from tulip poplar trees. The rope binding is made from Wisconsin walnut and maple. This is an exceptionally resonant guitar.
Both of these guitars are made like old instruments. I built them in the same manner that I build them for friends. I refer to this approach as "building it like an old guy", they are well made, but I didn't sweat the details. I left what I call "the mark of the hand", tool marks, steam marks from bending the sides (on the inside of the guitar), an exposed pore or two, things you see all the time on vintage instruments, but not in the modern world of perfect shiny instruments. The difference from these two and older instruments is that these have two way adjustable truss rods, compensated saddles, medium frets which are dressed and in their proper place. They sound every bit as good as an old instrument but are more playable. As always the guitars completely hand made, are assembled with hide glue, dovetail neck joints and varnish finishes. They both sound and play great and should be available shortly. Stay tuned.
Wednesday, March 4, 2015
I've been keeping my nose to the grindstone, working in the shop and haven't taken the time to update the blog. I have a backlog of pictures that I've been meaning to get up. So here are 11 guitars that closed out 2014 and brought in 2015.
1. A customer asked me to build a very plain Erma, in the style of some of the early Antonio Cerrito built Galiano guitars. These guitars usually had top binding only, a very simple black and white rosette and two dots on the fingerboard. This guitar has a red spruce top, mahogany back and sides, maple binding, Brazilian rosewood fingerboard and bridge. It is ladder braced with a 24.9" scale. While the Galiano's were usually grand concert sized, this guitar's shape comes from a smaller, concert sized Oscar Schmidt guitar.
2. Here's a nice Angelina 12 string, red spruce top, ribbon mahogany back and sides, mosaic purfling, headstock inlay, handmade tuning machines and a six pin pyramid bridge. This is probably my favorite type of 12 string. Very lively sound, light in weight. Pretty too!
3.I made this Angelina six string for Jerron Paxton, a great young player who will be a household name before long. Jerron wanted something with some volume and punch. We worked together on the design. The pickguard is inlaid into the top, inspired by a Lyon and Healy six string he had. I made the rope purflings. Spruce top, mahogany back and sides, rosewood fingerboard and whale tail bridge. I look forward to hearing him play it.
4. My friend John Miller, who is a fantastic guitar player, was interested in getting a baritone six string. We had talked about it for many years and I was happy to get the opportunity to build one for him last year. We decided to use an Angelina as the template. The guitar has a hemlock top which was salvaged from an 1890s warehouse beam. The back and sides are cherry, provided by John's brother. The guitar has a 26 1/2" scale and is X braced. A fairly understated aesthetic, green/white/black rosette and purfling, maple binding. I look forward to hearing what John comes up with on it.
5. I'm constantly thinking about guitars and this one had been on my mind for a while and was dying to get out. I was able to fit it into the schedule last fall. I call it the Midnight Special. It's an X braced Fenezia with a short 24.9" scale, The top is ebonized spruce with an inlaid pickguard. the back and sides are mahogany, rosewood fingerboard and bridge. This guitar was incredibly light in weight, only 3lbs 6 oz. It sounded fantastic and was a blast too play. So much fun that I had to get it out of the shop because I wasn't getting enough work done, all I wanted to do was play it! It found a happy home with a great customer.
6. I probably get more requests to build Leadbelly 12 string than any other model. I always love to do them and never get tired of it. This one was headed to Germany. It had an old German spruce top, mahogany back and sides, ebony fingerboard and bridge, handmade German tuning machines. I was really happy with the way it turned out.
7. My friend Todd Albright asked me to build him a 12 string. The only input he had was that he wanted a big one and he wanted it to have a tailpiece. He told me that he didn't want to see any pictures and wanted to see it for the first time when he opened the case. I decided on a Fenezia with walnut back and sides. When I spoke to Mike Acosta (grandson of Guadalupe Acosta, son to Miguel Acosta, who built Lydia Mendoza's 12), I asked Mike what kind of wood they used for the back and sides. He said, "Most of the time they used mahogany, but for the good stuff, they used walnut." A buddy had just given me some nice walnut boards and I was looking forward to making another walnut guitar. The guitar really sounds exceptional. Nice hollow, old time tone.
8. A customer in Nashville asked me to build an Angelina six for fingerpicking country blues. This one is ladder braced, has red spruce top, mahogany back and sides, ebony fingerboard and pyramid bridge. While all my guitars have a varnish finish, this varnish seemed to have an especially warm tone. I wish I remembered what it was!
9. I made this 14 fret Angelina for my buddy Catfish Stephenson. I played with Catfish for eight years or so. He was instrumental in my development as a musician and in my understanding of music and life. I hope to write some more about him and this guitar, but here's the skinny; It's an X braced 14 fret Angelina, similar to an L-00, but it's own thing. Spruce top, walnut back and sides, from the same board as the above 12 string, rosewood fingerboard and whale tail bridge. It's a great guitar, very responsive and fun to play. A fingerpicking machine.
10. I brought the Midnight Special (black Fenezia listed above) to a party where some friends were playing music. I left it with my buddy Arne while I went out for a walk. When I came back Arne asked me, "What do I gotta do to get a guitar like that?" I told him to save his pennies. He called me a month later and told me he had saved some dough and asked if I'd make him something. He said he wanted the same guitar, maybe with a sunburst. I came up with this. Spruce top, mahogany back and sides, rosewood fingerboard and bridge. X braced 24.9" scale. Very lightweight at 3lbs, 7oz, 1 oz heavier than the black one. It sounds great, nice bass which should continue to develop.
11. My friend Jan in Norway asked me to build him a Loretta parlor guitar for playing Blind Blake. He pointed out a couple sunbursts that he liked. I came up with this guitar. It is inspired by the sunbursts that Gibson did in the 1910's an 20's on their guitars and mandolins, which were hand rubbed and had a varnish finish over the top. For me, those are the most beautiful finishes. I'm very happy with the way that this one turned out, especially the birch back and sides. With a 24 1/4" scale this guitar is a lot of fun to play. The perfect thing for Blind Blake and Lemon Jefferson.