PART 1 OF 4
This is the first of a four part series on the state of contemporary American guitarmaking. I intend to sketch out the general landscape of how the guitar developed historically, what it is now, and, lastly, what shape I think it is likely to take in the future. As I am a professional luthier, I'm going to tell this story from my hands-on perspective. It'll be a nice change from the editorial voice of commercial/music/factory industry, which already gets a lot of copy space. This is just as well, in my opinion, because the story of American lutherie is well worth knowing.
When I began building guitars thirty years ago there were very few independent guitarmakers around. Those few who had gravitated to this work were generally creative, not able or willing to work within the mainstream system, and personally rather eccentric. Borrowing or stealing what little guitarmaking lore had leaked over from Europe, virtually all of these early builders made classical and flamenco instruments in the "old fashioned" way -- with carpentry tools. The mainstream system, as far as guitarmaking was concerned, consisted of American factories such as Martin, Gibson, Harmony, Guild, Gretsch, and Fender. Such Japanese and Taiwanese guitar factories as existed were turning out ornamental crap, and the only real luthiers anyone had ever heard of -- like Ramirez, Torres, Orville Gibson, Santos Hernandez, C.F. Martin, Simplicio, Hauser, the Larson brothers and D'Angelico -- were all long dead. This was not a lutherie environment rich in promise. Those very first independent guys really had a hard time fitting in, and they paid a high price for being trailblazers. Not a few of them fell by the wayside into craziness or simply disappeared, unable to make a living at lutherie. Their legacy to us is that they formed a nucleus of interest and possibility for newcomers who also wanted to work wood with their hands, to create something that had beauty and gave pleasure, and to have a life which offered a different flavor of meaning than that of American pop culture. We, who came later, owe them a lot.
American guitarmaking has come a long way since those early days by several measurable standards. First, a generation of American musical instrument makers has preserved, refined and extended an originally European tradition of woodworking which had lain moribund with disuse in this country, and made it viable. Second, whereas thirty years ago a luthier was mostly an object of curiosity and an anachronism, handmade lutherie (whether you are making two guitars a year or forty) is now a more or less familiar and accepted part of the American landscape. Consequently it is now more possible for a luthier to make, if not a living, at least some money at it. Third, the guitars which are being produced now are, on the average, much better than the average instrument produced then. Fourth, a generation of instrument makers has evolved which is not made up so much of hardcore mavericks, but rather of established professionals and intelligent amateurs who take their work seriously and with a great deal of justifiable pride. Fifth, an entire (and continually growing) body of literature and have been created by this group, where there were none at all before. Sixth, this general growth of interest in musical instrument construction has created the conditions which have made possible the rise of two national luthiers' organizations; furthermore, these not only provide active forums for free exchange of information to anyone who has interest in this craft, but are in fact the leading sources of information for young instrument makers overseas. And, lastly, we have created the first generation of American luthiers who are considered world class. Not bad, for a bunch of guys who started out as self-taught hippies.
In this time, factory production has changed dramatically as well. While lutherie has grown from the romantic passion of the slow, carefully working amateur and enthusiast to the serious business of making a living -- with all the jigging, tooling up, scheduling and paper/office work this requires -- factory production has become almost unrecognizable in its investment into technology and large scale, high-speed and automated production. The use of new and synthetic materials has become common. Operator-run work stations are rapidly being replaced by computer-operated ones. Subcontracting has become an essential partner to assembly operations. Marketing and business strategies have become at least as important as design of product. And advertising has become an essential tool for assuring the public that the products in question are the best, the cutting edge, the state of the art, and even the most patriotic purchase. This has become an astoundingly sophisticated, complex and highly competitive business.
Whether you are a fan of individual lutherie or commercial/ factory production, these are the two main legs, so to speak, on which contemporary American guitarmaking stands. They are also the frame of reference for the writing of these articles. And, in order to bring this frame into better focus, I want to sketch out its beginings.
Origins of the Classical Guitar
The classical guitar is the first modern guitar. It is European in origin and it supplanted the earlier vihuelas, Baroque guitars, lutes, guitarras batentes and citterns to become the dominant portable stringed instrument of its time. Its body shape has been more or less universally agreed on for some l50 years, with rather little variation from one maker's design to another apart from minor differences in size, internal bracing layout and the signature shape of each maker's peghead.
The standardization of parameters for the modern guitar came into being with the work of Antonio de Torres around 1850, ending a period of extraordinary experimentation and diversity of design which followed the disappearance from use of the earlier fretted instruments. This quest for a more satisfactory musical instrument occurred within the context of a general European cultural expansion in music and musical entertainments, which was itself created by the social and political changes that gave rise to a new European middle class -- a class with sufficient resources of disposable time and money with which to cultivate a taste for the various arts. If the design of the modern guitar was crystallized in the work of Antonio de Torres, it was then cast in concrete by the work and influence of Maestro Andres Segovia between l890 and l950. Segovia took an instrument which was considered a folk instrument at best, and virtually singlehandedly made it serious and respectable the world over. The students he taught, and in turn their students, are the leaders of the world of the classical guitar today. In their playing, in their teaching, in their promotion of proper playing technique, and in their position of moral authority these individuals have, together with the luthiers who made their instruments, defined what the classical guitar can do, needs to be, and is. I must add that everything said here about the classical guitar applies to flamenco guitars as well. Even though these instruments are played in distinctly different musical networks, there is evidence that there was no meaningful distinction made between "classical" and "flamenco" guitars, by either the makers or even most musicians, until the 1950s.
Classical and flamenco guitars originated within a tradition of hand craftsmanship of stringed instruments. This is not so much because hand craftsmanship is inherently superior, as that the roots of European lutherie predate the industrial revolution and its relentless mechanization of all modes of production. Hand craftsmanship was the only option for a long time. This is not a bad thing, because the level of skill brought to lutherie was unbelievable -- as a visit to any museum with a good collection of historical string instruments will show. And, because this kind of lutherie was associated with real individuals, a tradition has been created whereby modern classical guitarmakers are the inheritors of some past heroes to look up to and whose work they can emulate. These revered icons, cousins to the illustrious icons of violinmaking (Amati, Stradivarius, etc.), are people like Antonio Torres, Hermann Hauser, Luis Panormo, the Fletas, the Ramirezes, Simplicio, Santos Hernandez and other historical European makers. Modern classical luthiers like to think of themselves as walking in these pioneers' footsteps, or at least following the path that they traveled. None of this has stopped classical guitars from being produced in great numbers in factory settings; but the basic design has changed only minimally because the acceptability of this guitar's design is still rooted in the traditional look, and traditional expectations still attach to it. The name of the game in contemporary classic guitar lutherie is adherence to and refinement of -- rather than experimentation with or departure from -- traditional design. Anyone who has ever gone into a classical guitar store will have been struck by the fact that, besides differences of coloration of their woods and minor details of design, these instruments all look remarkably alike. There are exceptions to this, of course, but as a rule it is the rare classical guitar maker who can make substantive changes in traditional design, and survive. This inflexibility of design does not apply, however, to the steel string guitar: quite the opposite, actually.
Origins of the Modern Steel String Guitar
Steel string guitars, unlike classicals, do not come to us from a tradition of handmaking. Also, unlike classicals, steel string guitars come in many shapes and sizes and seem to thrive on variety. There are dreadnoughts, jumbos, weird little travel guitars, concert models, parlor guitars, orchestra models, twelve and fourteen fret neck guitars, cutaways, bowlbacks and flatbacks, flat tops and arch tops, multiple neck instruments, electrified models, six stringed and twelve stringed and drone stringed guitars, fanned-fret and taper-bodied and bubble-top guitars, space-age plastic guitars, etc -- not to mention the explosion of ornamental decoration and inlay which is the current rage, and, finally but not least, shapes or designs which are associated with a specific maker like Steve Klein, Larry Breedlove, Stefan Sobell, George Lowden, Jeff Traugott, myself and others. This list, moreover, is bound to expand. This plentitude is shaped by some important factors.
The steel string guitar is an American instrument, not European. It is much more a child of the mass market and technology than it is of tradition. Because of this, it is short on heroes, pioneers, or personal models. The first steel stringed guitars were made in this country by Old World trained violin and guitar makers who quickly went to small factory production in response to the needs of the American market -- which were for plentiful, cheap, and easy-to-hear folk, parlor and band instruments. The godfathers of the steel string guitar aren't seen as having established American lutherie; those whose names we remember today, such as Martin and Gibson, aimed at and achieved production, which is a different thing altogether. In fact, production became the model, and factories were for many decades the only sources of steel string guitars. Individual American lutherie in the craftsman tradition -- with the exception of the Larson brothers and later John D'Angelico -- did not flourish. In consequence, the contemporary steel string guitar maker has been deprived of a personal link to the past and must either identify with a largely factory/production tradition, or claim independence from tradition and sort of give birth to himself. There is now, finally, a small core of very talented contemporary steel string luthiers who serve as models for others. But, significantly, they're all of the postwar generation and most of them are still alive. It's not the same as having pioneer models from a hundred and fifty years ago.
In terms of having an individual musical identity of its own, the flat-top steel string guitar only began to be taken as a serious instrument some forty years ago, about the time when white society at large embraced the folk music movement. Before that, the guitar had an oddly divided life. In mainstream culture it was used largely in a parlor setting or as a folk, rhythm, band and accompanying instrument. In fringe society, on the other hand, jazz players like Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang brought the guitar to life with an energy and musicality that was astoundingly original, and Delta blues players like Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy played soulful and evocative music of heartstopping expressiveness. But, outside its use in jazz and blues, there was no solo guitar to speak of until the 1950s. There wasn't even a body of music specific to the guitar until relatively recently; most songs played or accompanied have been folk, traditional or popular melodies or fiddle tunes adapted to the guitar, or orchestral arrangements. The folk music culture of the sixties brought into public consciousness the Mississippi Delta blues stylists and singers who would otherwise now be forgotten but who strongly influenced a new generation of players, singers and music. Individuals like Hank Snow and Merle Travis pioneered the playing of actual melodies on the steel string guitar; this was subsequently refined wonderfully in the music of Chet Atkins. Doc Watson, within our lifetime, became the first serious steel string guitarist the world knew -- and remained the only one for about ten years. He was joined by players like Clarence White, Tony Rice and Dan Crary, who became seminal influences in opening up the musical possibilities of flatpicked steel string guitar -- and John Fahey and Leo Kottke, who are the initiators of the continually growing fingerpicking idiom which presently includes players such as Alex de Grassi, Chris Proctor, Peppino D'Agostino, Duck Baker, Peter Finger, Ed Gerhard, Martin Simpson, Don Ross, Pat Donohue, Doyle Dykes, Michael Hedges, Jacques Stotzem, Pierre Bensusan, John Renbourn, Bola Sete, Shun Komatsubara, Tim Sparks, and many, many others. This music is enriched by its receptivity to and inclusion of elements of folk, ethnic, ragtime, Celtic-Irish, jazz, blues, Latin, Caribbean, African, and classical music -- and those instrumentalists such as Larry Coryell, Tim Sparks and Steve Hancoff who are transcribing for the guitar from orchestral and pianistic influences must also be acknowleged.
I mustn't forget to include mention of the popularization of Hawaiian slack-key music through the efforts of musicians such as Keola Beamer, George Winston and Raymond Kane. And then, there's the slide guitar. The list is long. Nonetheless, it is most important to note, with regard to the history of the modern steel string guitar, that it is so new that many of the very important people in its musical development are still alive (just like the postwar guitarmakers) and their music freely obtainable. I should also mention, finally, the phenomenally widespread and significant growth in this generation of the electric guitar, its music and its players -- although this is a subject so far outside the scope of this article that its adherents have not only their own separate demographics, culture, magazines, icons, discography, books and publications, but clothing as well. All in all, the steel string guitar has had a long gestation period in which to soak up many complex and varied musical influences, strains and flavors -- in exactly the same way the classical guitar simmered between about 1730 (the end of the dominance of the lute) and 1850. I think such simmering is a very good thing, and I'll address some of the things this has led to in the next installment of this series.
PART 2 OF 4
It has been pointed out that the classical guitar was established as a serious instrument within the timeline starting with Antonio Torres and ending with Andres Segovia. And one could equally maintain that this -- now -- is the golden age of the steel string guitar. Within the past forty years it has gone from being the virtually unknown backwater to the point that it has worked itself into all music, especially ethnic music, worldwide, and is now being used to play music that is serious, complex and challenging. The steel string guitar is experiencing an explosion of design, shape, dazzling and original ornamentation, technique, music, and, not least of all, seriously talented makers and players. From this, all kinds of glowing predictions have been made, and are continually made, about the nature and course of the guitar's future. The logic seems to be that if there's growth, things will grow in good directions, right? Well, yes, of course, you bet; just like the stock market. But if we want to project the direction of small-scale and commercial-level guitarmaking and design into the future, it will be a big help to understand what factors have driven change until now, and why.
We should start with the recognition that steel string and classical guitars are supposed to accomplish distinct musical tasks. This sounds obvious but, in fact, specific and different things are required and expected of these instruments by their players, their listeners, and even by the makers. Exactly what these guitars are expected to do, and how the luthier's or factory's work relates to producing these results, are the main subject of this article.
A very important difference between classical and steel string guitars is that classicals are typically not miked or amplified in performance, while steel strings are. Another is that the classical guitar is very largely a solo instrument, while in general only the fingerpicking steel string guitar is. The flatpicked steel string guitar is almost always a group instrument and often accompanies singing; being a group or accompanying instrument corresponds to the classical guitar's secondary use. A third difference is that while classical guitars are, with few exceptions, played in standard tuning, the steel string guitar (particularly the fingerpicked one) is often played in quite a number of open tunings. This has great implications for both tone and musicality. A fourth is that steel string guitars' internal construction is so different from classicals' (for reasons of their needing to withstand greater string tensions as well as their different tone-producing dynamics) that they can be considered to be different instruments -- to the point that steel string luthiers usually cannot make a good classical guitar, and vice versa. Some years ago Spanish luthiers started to make steel string guitars: they failed, stopped it, and haven't tried again. This subject is highly interesting and so complex that I can only mention it in passing. It really needs its own article.
Let's take a close look at the classical guitar first. On the level of serious performing, the challenge in building a good classical guitar is to produce the volume and projection necessary for a large hall. On the level of serious chamber (small setting) playing, the challenge is that it have all the voicings, dynamics and subtle tonal qualities which the repertoire and the player's technique require. Let's hear what some classical guitar authorities have to say on the subject:
Noted French classical luthier Daniel Friedrich speaks at length in Roy Courtnall's book Making Master Guitars: "My early guitars were relatively simple; pleasant to play, and the sound was quite 'explosive'. Since about l973 I have increased the weight and the guitars have more sustain, and a richer, sweeter sound, but they are still easy to play. . . Over the years I have tried to master the various qualities that different guitarists look for. Some players attack the strings heavily and they want a long sustain. This contrasts with the Latin-Americans like Alvaro Pierri, Roberto Aussel and Eduardo Fernandez, who want a sound that is more explosive, full-bodied, higher in contrast and very coloured, because they play with a lighter style. The pupils of Lagoya are looking for a sound that is powerful and sustained with a very even response. My personal taste, along with my style of playing tends towards a sound that is full-bodied, full of charm and depth, and more like a piano than a harpsichord. . . [For a period] I used East Indian rosewood which is often lighter in weight than Brazilian. This allowed me to make lighter instruments which are more sensitive to vibrato and tonal contrasts."
Tom Humphrey, maker of the 'Millenium' model classical guitar, is quoted in the February l996 issue of Acoustic Guitar: "[My basic philosophy of guitar making is] simply that great guitars are conceived and constructed exclusively for the purpose of playing music. Yet to date no existing classical guitar has fulfilled all the musical requirements: dynamic range, sustain, voice balance and clarity, articulation, voice separation, volume and projection, color, and quality of sound. These elements are all part of the music being written for classical guitar."
Sharon Isbin speaks on this subject in the August, l990, Acoustic Guitar: "The instrument I select must be able to respond to a wide variety of musical demands, from the contrapuntal complexities of a Bach fugue, to exotic tone contrasts in contemporary music, to the sensuality of Spanish music. [I test play . . . for] the following categories: sustain . . . beauty of tone . . . dynamic and timbral contasts . . . clarity and speed of response . . . balance . . . resonance . . . intonation . . . [absence of problematic] condition . . . and comfort."
It's not hard to find similar quotes from Narciso Yepes, Julian Bream and other classical guitar luminaries, but three are enough to illuminate a very impressive spectrum of goals for the luthier to aim towards. These statements, moreover, speak loudly to the fundamental consideration of classical guitar design -- that the guitar is designed to be played by a musician with a trained musicality and technique, for people who are listening without distractions. Every serious classical guitarist's main fantasy is to play in a concert hall, on a guitar that will be equal to the task.
In contrast, there is no such acoustic musical tradition, requirement of, or format for the steel string guitar or player. To begin with, technique and sensibility are still being developed: look at the relatively recent contributions of people like Leo Kottke, John Renbourn, Michael Hedges, Martin Simpson and Peppino D'Agostino. Second, the guitarist almost invariably plays into a microphone or amplification system which, unless it's a very good quality system, renders the natural sound and power of the instrument secondary. The challenge for the steel string guitar luthier is threefold: first, to produce an instrument which requires the least electronic equalization in studio or stage conditions -- in other words, a microphone-friendly guitar. This is important because microphones "hear" sound differently than the ear does: a guitar which sounds fine unamplified can easily sound dull, boomy or uneven when played into a microphone, and a guitar which records well does not necessarily sound good to the ear. The second challenge is to produce an instrument which, if it is not going to be electronically boosted out of all proportion to how it actually functions, can hold its own and be heard in a group musical setting. If accompanying voice, the guitar can't be so loud that it drowns out the singer: its task in this setting is to accompany and be heard clearly, but not dominate. The third, and most acoustically important, challenge is to build a guitar which is actually and noticeably (that is, to those players who are sensitive to coloration and quality of tone, even if they do not yet have the language to articulate this to the layman) more responsive, sensitive, loud, even, musical, has superior dynamics and is easy to play.
Another important factor to be taken into account is that the repertoire for the serious steel string guitar, comparable to that which the classical guitar player has had available for over a century, is only beginning to exist. Much of what is available are arrangements, adaptations and transcriptions of earlier folk, traditional and fiddle tunes. Flatpickers such as Doc Watson, Tony Rice and Dan Crary have done seminal pioneering work in this area. But steel string guitar music which is to be taken seriously -- that is, music which is well composed, which can be savored as it is listened to, and within which the dynamic possibilities of the guitar are explored and expanded -- is only now being written, transcribed, arranged and played for the first time, most actively by fingerpickers, transcribers and arrangers such as Steve Hancoff, Ed Gerhard, Pat Donohue, Peppino d'Agostino, Peter Finger, Chris Proctor, Martin Simpson and a growing host of talented others. Likewise, the audience for a steel string guitar sound which can be appreciated on its own merits and which operates on a level of sophistication beyond the basic ability to discriminate bass from midrange from treble, is only beginning to emerge -- as is also a common language for the qualities of steel string guitar sound. Tim Sparks (in the May-June 2000 issue of Fingerstyle Guitar magazine) is the first steel string guitarist I know of to articulate a need for qualities of voicing, coloration and response as specific as those which individuals in the classical guitar network [re-read to the quotes above] have been using and thinking in terms of for a long time. This is an important step forward.
For all the reasons outlined above, innovations and evolution in the classical guitar have generally been internally driven -- by the needs of the music and by the sound-making and projective capacity of the soundbox -- and the success of the design is judged by how well the soundbox can generate tone in response to the player's skill. Such innovations normally have to do with bracing, wood thickness and mass, bridge design and stringing: the exterior aspect of the guitar is hardly affected. Currently, the luthiers best known for radical innovations in classical guitar design are Richard Schneider and Tom Humphrey -- whose guitars do look different externally -- and Greg Smallman, whose guitars don't. The bulk of successful, world class classic luthiers -- people like Friedrich, Romanillos, Brune, Velazquez, Ruck, Gilbert, Oribe, Elliott, Fleta, Ramirez, Hauser, Contreras, Kohno, Hopf, Bernabe, etc, etc, etc. -- are known for refining the traditional design and producing a superior variation of it. But not for radically redesigning anything.
For contemporary steel string and electric guitars, on the other hand, multiplicity of shape, features and sound are hugely driven by external factors -- that is, by the commercial producers, the marketers and the market. Steel string and the electric guitars are mostly mass market instruments: look at the advertising. The commercial music industry makes great efforts to introduce different and new brand- and feature-identifiable guitar models and to make them as attractive and saleable as possible through ad campaigns. Purchases are driven by endorsements and advertising at least as much as by personal or musical need, and success for commercially produced models is measured by viability in the marketplace as opposed to [re-read the quotes above] how well it plays music. Again, look at the advertising in any guitar/music publication during the past ten years. I'm not trying to insult the many talented individual luthiers who are producing wonderfully crafted steel string or electric guitars, nor the manufacturers who are trying to make a living by the rules of doing business. I am pointing out, though, that steel string and electric guitars pretty much have existed as commercially produced merchandise which has no unity of musical purpose outside of (1) accompanying singing and/or other instruments, generally in an amplified way, and (2) capturing a market niche for the producer. This is unfortunate, because most people don't know what utterly beautiful sounds a well made steel string guitar is capable of making, nor what a revelation its lyricism and expressiveness can be. For an example, listen to anything recorded by Ed Gerhard. He produces a sound that can be savored and which is set off by the intelligent and sensitive use of something not much in evidence in a lot of steel string guitar music, although it is a normal element of much classical music: pauses.
Most musicians or would-be musicians are (and I think will always be) happy to get and play any number of comercially made guitars, and will be perfectly satisfied with their performance. However, those players who desire something unusual or unique, or want specific qualities of sound and response because their music is better for it, or simply want the personal touch, are more likely to find these in the instruments of any of the better hand makers. I see this as a trend which, while not exactly new, has only relatively recently become viable.
Part of the growth of steel string guitarists' capacities to seek and find better guitars is the gradual emergence of a common vocabulary toward the discussion of steel string guitar sound. This vocabulary includes qualities like (l) loudness, (2) clarity, (3) evenness, and (4) sustain, which are self-explanatory. It also includes (5) dynamic range: the ability of an instrument to play quietly as well as loudly, to sound differently whether played near the bridge or near the soundhole, and in response to different attacks or picking strokes; (6) coloration: the mix of fundamental to overtone content in combination with sustain, which gives sound its richness, texture and "flavor" so a guitar can sound sweet, dry, evocative, romantic, sad, etc.; (7) projection: having to do with whether a guitar throws its sound out far from the player and whether it does so in a focused and directional way or radiates it in a multidirectional manner, or whether it primarily creates a cloud of sound which stays near the player; (8) voicing: related to dynamic range, and having to do with the rise-peak-decay envelope of the notes as controlled by the player: better guitars can make sharp, choppy or sweetly weeping sounds as well as smooth pear-shaped ones, depending on technique; (9) articulation: the quality of clarity, flow and connectedness in the music as a function of how even the same note sounds when played on different strings, as well as the player's ability to get crisp, sharply defined notes or more fluid and rounder-edged ones from the same instrument; (10) separation: the ability of an instrument to make chordal music in which each string can be heard distinctly, as opposed to getting a cloud of undifferentiated sound; and, not least, (11) intonation: getting a steel string guitar to play perfectly in tune is more difficult than for a classical one, for reasons that are interesting and complicated and which deserve an article of their own. Because until recently an awful lot of steel string guitar playing consisted of strumming on first, second and third position chords, this has been a non-issue. But it's changing.
Given this change in the musical environment and the types of expansion and growth we can now see in it, what changes could we expect, in response, for how future guitars are to be made and sound? I'll address this topic in the next two installments of this series. In the meantime, check out some of Ed Gerhard's music on a good sound system and see how many of the above described qualities of sound you can hear.
PART 3 OF 4
As I pointed out previously, design of classical guitars is very largely internally driven. That is, by the needs of its music. Classical guitarmakers are trying to make tools for musicians who are focused on qualities of sound such as sustain, separation, dynamics, clarity, projection, evenness, balance, richness and timbre -- all of which provide a palette of tone with which the music can be expressed and through which the music sounds better, more complex and more interesting. The classical musician's concern with nuances of tone and voicing have not applied to the steel string guitar until recently. Music for this instrument has primarily been amplified and/or accompaniment, and has served to show off composition, style, rhythm, accompaniment skills, percussion (Michael Hedges started a whole new industry of such playing style), and also effects and volume. But there has not been a need for an acoustic sound which can stand on its own merits and which enhances and expresses tonal qualities of musicality, as there has been for the classical guitar. Design in steel string (as well as electric) guitars has been externally driven, by commercial producers of guitars and electronics and all their marketing -- as well as by the needs of the greater musical performance culture of folk, Celtic/Irish, blues, jazz, bluegrass, R & B, gospel, country, rock, ethnic, rock and roll, New Age, fusion and popular music.
I think predictions about the future must take these root influences into account. However, since there are two main influences or traditions out of which guitars are made today (factory and craftsman), there will likely be two sets of answers to the question about what the future will bring. Or three, to the extent that there's overlap. Let me explain what I mean.
In the first of these articles I described the trajectory of growth of American lutherie over the past thirty years. Concurrently, there has also been a spectacular explosion of factory production. In my professional lifetime the names of Breedlove, Taylor, Larrivee, Bourgeois, Rainsong, Collings, Ovation, Goodall, Fox, Godin, Gurian, Mossman, Santa Cruz, Gallagher, Dean, Tacoma, etc. and a host of electric guitar brands such as Alembic have been added to the earlier established commercial producers -- and that's just in the U.S. and Canada. This list will doubtless grow.
By the rules and logic of operating at a factory or commercial level and surviving in that competitive business one has to think, plan, implement and advertise changes and improvements of the product in terms of (1) use of advanced technologies such as computer-operated tooling, (2) use of improved-yet-cheaper, alternative, and space-age materials, including things like ultraviolet-cured finishes, (3) introduction of variety and new, heretofore unavailable, models, (4) streamlined and more efficient methods of production, (5) improvements in quality, (6) celebrity endorsements, and (7) higher per-dollar value, presented to the consumer's attention through continually changing and increasingly sophisticated advertising. There is a truth and a logic in these things, and they will underlie much of what the guitar playing public will be exposed to, and buy, in the future. Because I see these as being very much the wave of the future for commercially made guitars, I'd like to say more about several of them.
Advances in Efficiency and Technology
Factory production of guitars has become amazingly sophisticated, compared to how such work was done only twenty years ago, and is likely to continue on this course. Most notably, the changes are in the area of technical supermechanization and computerization in the service of efficiency and productivity. Parts are now routinely cut and shaped by computer-guided tooling, and human labor is increasingly limited to asssembly of parts, administrative support (office work, recordkeeping, accounting and billing, supply requisitioning, R & D, payroll, marketing and management), training, subcontracting, and tool maintenance -- exactly as in any automobile assembly line. Subcontracting has grown to be an important part of all factory production, which is increasingly becoming a forum for the speedy assembly of components made by someone else and, increasingly, this someone else is in a foreign country where labor costs are low. Vacuum clamping has revolutionized the holding of parts as they are shaped and glued and has speeded up these processes dramatically, and new fast-drying glues made specifically for industrial production speed these processes along even further. New ultraviolet-cure finishes involve new technology coupled with the use of a new material, and have the advantage of allowing a guitar to be completely finished in around four hours, compared with days or weeks for the same results to be achieved with lacquers or urethanes. Electronics are continually improving and we have more and better ones to choose from than ever before. Guitarmaking at all levels has shifted from use of more or less trained and skilled labor into reliance on a general and institutionalized infrastructure of jigs, forms, molds and fixtures, the purpose of which is to insure error-proof repetitive operations by relatively unskilled workers.
The reliance on the new computer-operated tooling is daunting and dazzling to those who don't work at that level. Insofar as its purpose is to eliminate as much as possible of the human factor in the production of identical parts, it is entirely logical to assume that one of the next steps will be to eliminate, as much as possible, the human component in the assembly operations. This is being done now robotically in the automobile-making and electronics industries. As commercial guitarmaking involves many of the same repetitive operations as any other manufacturing process has, there is no reason whatsoever to think that some form of robotics won't be brought into guitarmaking as soon as it is feasible. The use of computers in record-keeping, inventorying, billing, designing and prototyping, desktop admaking and marketing, etc, -- unknown twenty years ago -- is now so commonplace as to be entirely unremarkable and even essential. Everyone has computers, beepers, faxes, cellular phones, modems, call-waiting, etc.
New and alternative materials
After technological advances, the next big item in the picture of changing commercial production is the growing reliance on new materials, finishes (already mentioned), adhesives and processes. Use of plastics and synthetics is steadily on the rise, starting in the l970s with Ovation's space-age synthetic cast-body design, Adamas' aluminum necks, phenolic resin fingerboards, increasing use of epoxy-graphite neck reinforcements, etc, etc, and currently ending in Rainsong's graphite instrumens and Martin's recent release of a guitar made out of high quality formica. Bet your boxers that we'll see more of this kind of thing in the future. New quick-curing wood glues, cyanoacrylates and epoxies are now used commonly because of their obvious savings in time. The Breedlove guitar company has committed itself to using various plentifully available and sustainable yield domestic woods as an alternative to the traditional but rapidly disappearing rosewoods and other exotics; and their guitars are being found to sound good. Amplification systems are continually evolving and improving and have resulted in the steadily growing culture of acoustic-electric instruments: to list the newest equipment alone would probably fill up at least a page of text. The larger factories such as Taylor, Collings and Larrivee have switched to the new ultraviolet-cure urethanes; these are much easier to apply than other finishes, look good, and increase both productivity and profitability. And as soon as this technology becomes more easily affordable, smaller factories can be expected to follow suit.
Production of New Models
Commercial enterprises must produce new products continually. They are in the business of making mass-produced products for a mass market, and the mass market requires newness and differentness. Accordingly, new models appear regularly as old ones fade from popularity and/or new market niches are identified to be exploited. Thus we have the ongoing parade of small guitars, large guitars, entirely new models, re-issues of previous guitars, anniversary and commemorative issues, travel guitars, blue/green/red guitars, student guitars, collector's editions and presentation models, use of materials in new combinations, electronics, features, etc., etc. Variety sells.
It's natural and logical to ask how all these things improve the quality of the final product. Making something faster sounds postive; but one might equally ask what is the advantage of making a plastic guitar more quickly, outside of the bottom line. This doesn't seem like an unreasonable question. One should understand that the notion of quality in manufactured products is different than the notion of quality in individually made products. According to a guitar industry spokesman at a recent trade symposium, quality, from a factory point of view, is the same as replicability of components and efficiency of assembly. That is, the factory man considers quality to be the measure of how efficiently his parts can be identically made and how fast his instruments can be assembled in a consistent and trouble free manner. I'm not making this up: this is how the language is used. Some elements of design and assembly may in fact result in improvements in structure and response in a guitar, but these are incidental to the streamlining of the production operations. In fact, all the elements of the future of commercial production which I've been describing have more to do with the conditions of production than with the end product. I repeat: for commecial producers Quality = Efficiency of Assembly Process. If you trouble to peruse the professional and trade literature you will find that no other criterion is ever mentioned.
However, from the end user or musician's point of view quality has nothing to do with any of this: it has to do with how playable a guitar is and how good it sounds. This also is, normally, the attitude of the small scale maker, for whom efficiency is important but secondary to his concern for creating a personal and effective tool for the musician. While the main ideal behind factory guitars is that they be made quickly, strong and salable, the highest ideal behind the handmade instrument is quality of sound, playability, and craftsmanship -- even if the craftsman is inexperienced and falls short of this goal. These concerns, and how they are likely to play out in the future within the context of competition with factory made products such as those described above, will be the topic of the next, and final, installment of this series.
PART 4 OF 4
In the last installment of this series I wrote about what future changes can most be expected from factory-level guitar making. These, according to the industry's own sources, have to do with advances in tooling, mechanization and technology, as well as in use of alternative materials in response to the dwindling and increasingly expensive supplies of traditional woods. These changes go hand in hand with the fact that quality of product is defined completely differently by commercial makers than by small-scale ones.
Quality, for the factory man, is identical with the degree of speed, efficiency and consistency attained in the making and assembly of identical things. This cannot be so for individual or small-scale makers, however, for obvious reasons: a lot of them work at vastly different levels of skill and creative talent and they may have different ideas of "best", even though these ideas typically exist in reference to the objectives of good sound, playability, and user-friendly design. Frankly, hand-making can be so absurdly labor intensive that only adherence to the emotionally felt end of Getting Something Done Right would seem to justify it. It's been pointed out that comparing a handmade guitar to a factory made one is like comparing a painting to a toaster. While this sounds too affected and cutesy to be true at first hearing, it bears scrutiny. A painting is something which some individual somewhere took some time and effort to make, and it was likely made to please or satisfy some impulse. A painting might be good or bad or beautiful or charming or tacky, or personally meaningful. It may be original, interesting, spiritual, or well composed -- or not. Some paintings can be amateurish, expressive, or static. Some speak to issues, emotions, ideals or themes. Some can be startling, even fascinating. And some paintings are timeless, significant and really great. A toaster, on the other hand, will do what it was designed and built to do, every time, or one fixes it or discards it. One does not normally think of a toaster as being a nice try, a masterpiece, original, happy, sad, thematic, childish, unintelligible, profound, clichéd, abstract, derivative or timelessly great. Toasters are not about being personally meaningful in any way. A handmaker is trying to make a useful tool for a musician, and to please himself in this effort. A factory's main goal is to make mass produced goods to sell to a mass market. Qualitatively, these goals are about as different from one another as goals can be.
The quantitative differences are great, too. Small scale makers are competing for laughably infinitesimal niches of the market under conditions and with resources far different from those available to commercial producers. The small maker is ridiculously undercapitalized; he only rarely has an advertising budget, employees or staff; and his tooling is modest and often home-made. But, most importantly, inefficiency and expenditure of time are not his deadly enemies. In fact, to him, they're his advantages. Whereas commercial producers have to assemble guitars quickly and efficiently, the small scale maker does not: his task is to refine and improve the product identified with him. Let me explain what I mean.
There now exists for the first time a body of steel string instrumentalists who bring wider, international sensibilities of musical voicings to their music. These musicians are also for the first time, in addition to being focused on the standard compositional and rhythmic aspects of their music, very much tuned in to the sounds and voicings they can get out of their boxes. Guitarists such as Ed Gerhard and Martin Simpson are for the first time playing steel string guitar music with pauses in it . While this is not a flashy enough development to have gotten much media attention it is, in fact, one of the most significant single developments in steel string guitar music in the past thirty years, and its threshold importance cannot be overstated. Pauses are what allow you to really hear a sound. An example of this new sensibility appears in the May-June 2000 issue of Fingerstyle Guitar in which Tim Sparks, a talented fingerpicker from North Carolina, says about a recently released recording that he "was trying to emulate the evocative sounds of crying, moaning and laughing that one hears in Klezmer violin or clarinet". To talk about sound and expressiveness in this way is new, and it bespeaks a new need musicians have of their guitars. They will, at their own pace, seek out those makers and instruments from which they can get the warmth, dynamics, voicings and ergonomics that they want. Within my experience with my own clients these requests have included specific qualities of enhanced sustain, piano-like volume, responsivity and sensitivity to left-hand technique, brilliant and singing trebles, evenness of volume and responsiveness all the way up the neck, fidelity of intonation all the way up the fingerboard, necks comfortable to classically trained guitarists, guitars built for specific open tunings and/or designed around a player's specific body size, superior recordability without need for equalization, great tonal expressiveness and depth, extremely specific action and intonation setups, ergonomic designs to get around a player's physical limitations, and a wide range of dynamics and tonal colorations. The purpose of any and all of these qualities is to make someone's music more satisfying, period. I think that such work -- namely, really custom-working with a musician in a way that goes beyond merely mechanical things like fingerboard width, copying some features of the popular Brand X model, or beautifully intricate fingerboard inlays -- will grow in importance for guitarmaking.
One of the forces fueling the quest for better sound is the fact that almost anyone can now record and burn their own CD albums. And many do. Since these individuals are expressing something out of themselves and largely for themselves, it's perfectly understandable to think they'd sooner or later be on the lookout for a better guitar than they now have.
I think the demand for better guitars will have a general effect of encouraging refinement of design and more formal study of structure, acoustics, dynamics and playing technique. Small scale makers especially will want to learn the fine acoustical and ergonomic points of their craft, such as what effect ten thousandths of an inch less in the thickness of a top will have on bass response, how a bridge 2 mm higher will affect a note's onset gradient, what difference the use of fir or redwood in braces might make, or what impact on sound the diameter of the soundhole has. Such minutiae are really -- and always have been -- the guts of lutherie work. As I mentioned in Part 2 of this series, classical guitar luthiers have long focused on the minutiae and subtleties of internal construction in the recognition that the relationship between structure and sound is what it's all about. This is only beginning to be understood by steel string guitar makers, and the young ones are hungry for information. There will be increased dialogue between luthiers and musicians who are wanting guitars which are tonally ahead of them. This is not quite the same as a manufacturer agreeing to produce an individual musician's signature-model guitar: sound doesn't work like that, although commerce does. The process of wider learning has already begun with the establishment, in the past years, of several American lutherie schools; these are increasingly drawing students from abroad. Overseas students, especially from Japan, are also seeking and finding apprenticeship opportunities, most notably with members of the Northern California guitarmaking community. Northern California is not only becoming the Pacific Rim's most active hotbed of lutherie activity but is also becoming a point of destination for both makers and students from all over this country.
In the end, whereas commercial makers will become more efficient at automation, mass production and marketing, custom makers will become more skilled, sophisticated, and experienced in doing the work on a small scale. The logic which drives commercial production is to eliminate delays, inefficiency and errors in production by eliminating the human factor as much as possible. The logic which informs custom making is to eliminate errors in production by increasing skill and mindfulness in the human element as much as possible. The fact that the imperatives which drive these groups are so opposite illustrates how little they have in common in spite of the fact that they are making products which look virtually identical.
I expect to see other changes too. Since small scale makers are more able to spend time on individual projects than commercial operations can, I expect to see significant advances in artistic creativity and design as applied to ornamentation and custom work. Grit Laskin, Larry Robinson and I are spearheads in this movement at this time. The fact that such work is likely to be one-of-a-kinds or limited small editions, rather than the computer-operated designs produced in large quantities by commercial operations, makes them both more interesting and valuable, in my eyes. Since small scale makers are not in a position to capitalize their businesses to the point of using space-age materials, I expect their explorations into alternative materials to be largely limited to the use of real woods, real seashell, etc. And even if superplastics should become cheaply available, the rationale for a handmaker to use them escapes me.
Carleen Hutchins has become famous in the violinmaking world for developing a family of violin instruments which vary in size in calculated and specific increments for the purpose of giving bowed instruments voices in all parts of the spectrum, from alto to tenor to baritone to contralto and everything in between. Banjos and mandolins of similarly premeditated sizes were made in the 1920s for the banjo and mandolin orchestras which were popular at the time. Guitarmakers have not yet, to my knowledge, entered the area of designing dedicated instruments around the specific problems of voicing -- but as soon as a body of musicians arises whose music will be enriched by such, then small scale makers will be the first to make them.
When this happens, I think it will likely start in regard to the fact that steel string guitars (unlike classicals) are commonly played in many open tunings: it's an important and unique part of the steel string guitar's life. The significance of this is that open tunings not only change the sensibility and voicing of a guitar as a function of their mode, key or harmony, but they also change the guitar's energy dynamics (bright or mellow response, etc.) as a function of how much tension the strings put on the system. The player's whole sound is dependent on how his guitar is tuned. And, if the player has a preferred tuning, then there'll be a mode of construction that will make his guitar sound the best at that tuning and stringing. It makes sense to explore guitar design, soundboard thickness, refinements in bracing, optimal soundhole and bridge size, etc. with respect to the problems of a variety of specific stringings and tunings, and these will serve the needs of musicians who are, in effect, specialists. I think this will be one of lutherie's growth areas in the future, and one in which commercial operations, which are best suited to standardization of design in the service of large scale production processes, are not likely to be able to compete effectively.
I should say a few, final, words about the growth and future of the guitar culture in general. When I was young the guitar was a nice instrument which people like Joan Baez, the Kinsgston Trio, Bola Sete, the Everly Brothers, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Jose Feliciano, Elvis Presley, Peter, Paul and Mary, etc, etc. played on stage when Andres Segovia wasn't in town, and about as often as not it was something that you bought a ticket to go hear. But along with the growth of both lutherie and commercial guitarmaking an entire culture of guitar life has been created, not only in this country but internationally. This culture and ferment includes a vast body of students, teachers, players, pickers, pluckers, strummers, sliders and twangers; an equally vast body of instrumental recordings and published sheet music; the creation of a staggering corps of serious musicians and musical groups of all parts of the musical spectrum; the creation of music schools and lutherie schools, guitar departments of music conservatories, music societies, music camps and festivals, and workshops of many stripes; the appearance of annual contests, competitions, and prize awards for guitar events; the establishment of a huge network of agents, venues, tourings, bookings of gigs from beer-joints to concert hall appearances to stadium-filling extravaganzas, along with all the merchandising that goes along with these; the entering of MTV and other media involvement; the appearance of publications, newsletters, trade journals, magazines and internet websites for every kind of musical idiom that the guitar participates in (bluegrass, classical, rock, blues, folk, fusion, ethnic, experimental, etc.); commercial musical merchandising events and shows such as NAMM, vintage trade expos, and handmade guitar exhibitions; the creation of an international network of retailers, importers and exporters, experts, collectors, representatives and agents, middlemen, materials suppliers, shippers and insurers, and even museum curators knowlegeable about contemporary musical instruments; and, lastly, regional instrument makers' organizations such as the Northern California Association of Luthiers, and professional shows such as the Guild of American Luthiers' conventions, the Guitar Foundation of America's conferences, and the Association of String Instrument Artisans' symposia.
As I said before, this is not bad for something that a bunch of skinny hippies had a hand in starting, and it's taken on a life of its own. Parts of it are humble and informal, and parts of it are Big Business. And it doesn't seem to be slowing down.
(reprinted from Fingerstyle Guitar, #40,41,42,43, 2000)