On the challenges to the luthier in mastering both steel strings and classical guitar making
Harder Than Getting A MacArthur Grant; Easier Than Long-Term Weight Loss.
This is the text of chapter 32 of my book The Responsive Guitar. It is different from the others in that isn’t about guitarmaking principles, dynamics or techniques of musical instrument woodworking. Rather, it describes, to the best of my knowledge, the human networks that use either the Spanish or steel string guitar as their principal point of musical/cultural reference. For purposes of keeping it manageable, I am focusing specifically on the classical guitar rather than on the more general and inclusive category of the Spanish guitar. While flamenco guitars are not all that different from the classic version, their cultural network certainly is. I address the flamenco guitar separately, in chapter 33 of my book. Otherwise, I am focusing on the steel string guitar in its two most common acoustic guises of fingerpicking and flatpicking instrument.
In my division of the material into “classical vs. steel string” I have been arbitrary in that I have left out entirely a huge network of guitar players who, for lack of a better word, I would call the Chet Atkins/folk/popular school, which falls in between the two polarities of the guitar that I’m going to discuss. This middle group comprises of musicians who are everything from formally trained to self-trained, who play on both steel string and nylon string guitars, who play both acoustically and electronically, who play with both plectrums and fingers, and who play the most astonishingly broad spectrum of playful-to-popular-to-“serious” music imaginable: old standards, freshly minted compositions, folk songs, marches, ragtime, anthems, hymns, impressionistic ditties, favorites of the classical repertoire, Broadway show tunes, fusion/arrangements of everything you can imagine, and everything else you can think of except maybe flamenco and Indian ragas. They have, as a musical subculture, their own palette of techniques, tastes, standards, and musical boundaries. Many of them play with great verve, talent, imagination, and musical intelligence. And, in the best folk and popular music tradition, they often sing along with the playing. To repeat: while none of this may seem relevant to a book on how to build a guitar, the message of this chapter is that it actually is, for anyone willing to take a wider view.
Many luthiers make classical guitars and many make steel string guitars, but hardly any make both -- at least, not successfully. The woodworking skills necessary to build one kind of guitar are largely the same as those required to build the other, but these are, even if thoroughly mastered, insufficient by themselves to producing a successful guitar. This is because the musical tasks these instruments are expected to accomplish are markedly different, and the sounds that are created have to be acceptable to their listeners. Classical guitars will usually wind up in the hands of players who are taught (or will be taught, if they are serious beginners) to expect to be soloists most of the time. Being thus 100% responsible for the musical experience of their audiences, such players need to have not only mastery of rigorously learned technique, but control of a whole palette of sounds. Moreover, players will aspire to play for audiences that will listen politely and attentively and, hopefully, with discernment with regard to musical nuance and subtlety. In contrast, steel string guitars will very largely wind up in the hands of players who will be looking to making music as part of a group, who will more often than not be accompanying singing, and who will in general be playing sounds which are electronically amplified, either through pickups or into microphones. They will not expect to play solo for a quiet audience, unless they are playing for just themselves or a few friends. All this is slowly changing, but at present it is mostly true, and is likely to remain mostly true forever. As far as their respective instruments go, classical guitar players have long needed guitars that can deliver specific qualities of tone and responsivity such as evenness, dynamic range, coloration, timbre, and separation of tone. Steel string guitar players have, in one blunt phrase, not needed such a thing until rather recently. Guitar makers for both of these networks have quite properly and sensibly striven to deliver exactly the things that have been wanted, expected, and needed, and nothing more.
Classical and steel string guitar subcultures are organized in their own specific ways around different musical interests. They have their particular hierarchies of personalities, authority, playing technique, music, language, etiquette, musicography, history, tastes and values. (As a small but telling example, so thoroughly is the Spanish guitar associated with things European that the sizes and measurements of these instruments are almost invariably conceived of and given in metric and decimal terms. The steel string guitar, in comparison, being an American invention, is always thought of and described in inches and fractions of inches.) I’m going a little bit out on a limb in addressing the sociology of guitar culture and my observations and opinions will undoubtedly collide with others’ contrary ones. On the other hand, I’m not making any claims other than that these are mine.
But first, in order to better understanding the classical and steel-string guitar cultures, I think it’ll be useful to have a brief outline of the history and development of their instruments.
A FIVE-PARAGRAPH-LONG HISTORICAL OVERVIEW (which can be skipped if you want)
The Spanish guitar, as we know it, is the first modern guitar. It supplanted earlier fretted instruments such as the vihuela, the lute, and the cittern. Its body shape has been more or less universally agreed on for some time, with rather little variation from one maker’s design to another apart from differences in nuance and embellishment such as the soundhole rosette and the peghead design. This standardization of parameters came out of a period [the 1700s and 1800s] of remarkable experimentation and diversity of design that followed in the vacuum left by the decline of the guitar’s most successful predecessor, the lute. It was also accompanied, as Western society in general grew and changed, by a huge expansion in varieties of musical entertainments. The design of the modern Spanish guitar was crystallized in the work of Antonio de Torres around 1850, and the classical version of it was then cast in cement by the work and influence of maestro Andres Segovia in the period from about 1900 to about 1960. Segovia took an instrument that was not considered serious and virtually single-handedly made it respectable. The students he taught, and their students in turn, 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 should do, needs to be, and is. 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. 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.
The steel string guitar, in contrast (in both the flat-top and arch-top versions) has been much more a hotbed of experimentation and departures from the norm. This has to do with the fact that while the classical guitar emerged from a tradition of individual craftsmanship, with an identifiable point of origin in the work of a single craftsman (Antonio Torres), the steel string guitar -- particularly the flat-top -- is a creature of factory production with a much slower arc of development and a much more diffuse pedigree. It is a folk instrument that only began to be taken seriously about fifty years ago, and it is still struggling to become “respectable”. From early on and until well into my own lifetime it has been used mostly as a parlor instrument or as a folk, rhythm, and accompanying instrument in both formal and informal social settings. It was, musically (and particularly in white society), something largely tame and sedate.
With the possible exception of the archtop's use in jazz, there was no solo steel string guitar to speak of until the 1950s. There wasn’t even a separate body of music for it until recently; outside jazz and blues, most of its songs (whether played or accompanied) were folk melodies or fiddle tunes adapted to the guitar, or orchestral arrangements. Individuals like Hank Snow and Merle Travis pioneered the playing of actual melodies on the guitar. Doc Watson, within our lifetime, became the first serious flatpicking steel string guitarist the world knew -- and remained the only one for about ten years. He was
soon joined by players like Clarence White 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. This list absolutely must include the overwhelming musical influence of Chet Atkins, who, more than all the above players combined, popularized the use of the electric, steel string, and nylon string guitar in the furthering of melodic music of virtually all contemporary types.
Two things are important to note, with regard to the history of the modern steel string guitar. The first is that it is so new that many of the very important people in its musical development are still alive, and their music freely obtainable. The second is, in my opinion, even more important: the American guitar rose to preeminence in the first half of the twentieth century largely because of its pervasive participation in radio and movie entertainments [especially Westerns] and thereby became associated with popular and financially viable social myths. Specifically, from the 1920s through the 1950s this guitar became associated with the voice of the struggling but honest working man: the good guy. By the time of the folk music movement of the 1960s, when it first became a vehicle for protest among educated and middle class white people, the guitar had already become an icon of the ordinary individual who was facing a hard life in good faith and with a clear conscience.
If the classic guitar was established as a serious instrument within the timeline starting with Torres and ending with Segovia, the steel string guitar first came into its own through the remarkable efforts and artistry of the Larson Brothers starting in the early 1900s. One can reasonably maintain that we are now in the middle of the Second Golden Age of the guitar. Within the past fifty years it has gone from being a virtually unknown backwater to the point that it has worked itself into all music, especially ethnic music, worldwide, and is now commonly 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.
CLASSIC AND STEEL STRING GUITARS AS TOOLS
If, as stated initially, musicians use classical and steel string guitars for such different musical purposes, then one can legitimately ask just what is it, exactly, that these guitars are supposed to do? And how does the luthier’s work relate to what the musician wants?
The answers are several. One important difference in function, already mentioned, is that classical guitars are typically not played into microphones or amplified in performance, while steel string guitars are. Another is that the classical guitar is typically a solo instrument, while only the fingerpicking steel string guitar is. The flatpicked steel string guitar is normally a group instrument and it usually accompanies singing. Notice how the next guitar you see on television is being used. Given these basic differences, what qualities of sound do these instruments strive to have in common? Mainly, just two: maximal audibility and evenness of response. (Of course, we’re talking about better-quality instruments here, not just any old cheap ones; no one expects much of anything from the cheap ones except that they make adequate plucking, strumming or twanging sounds.)
A concern with maximal audibility is self-evident; one simply wants a guitar that can be easily heard. Evenness of response is trickier. Steel string guitars, by their nature, want to be bright and trebly. It is one of the specific challenges of the steel string guitar luthier to balance out the guitar’s response by bringing out a satisfying bass. The classic guitar is opposite in this regard: it naturally wants to have a strong low end. It is the challenge of the classic guitar luthier to bring out a brilliant and satisfying treble -- no easy thing to do -- out of the givens of the classic guitar’s size, wood thickness, and bracing. After that, on a purely technical level, getting an even response (including a midrange that matches the bass and the treble) is the area of greatest specific challenge to the luthier who wants to make either kind of guitar.
On the level of performing, the challenge in building a good classical guitar is to produce the volume and projection necessary for a large room while retaining all of the subtle tonal coloring required by the repertoire. Here are some samples of classical guitar authorities’ statements on the subject:
Noted French classical luthier Daniel Friedrich speaks at length in Roy Courtnall’s Making Master Guitars: “My early guitars were relatively simple; pleasant to play, and the sound was quite ‘explosive’. Since about 1973 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 “Millennium” model classic guitar, is quoted in the February 1996 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, 1990, 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 contrasts . . . 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, John Williams, 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 considerations of classical guitar design -- that the guitar is designed to be played for people who are listening to it without distractions. Every formally trained classical guitarist's main fantasy is to play in a concert hall, on a guitar that will be equal to the task. Moreover, the guitarist’s instrument is expected to have not only evenness of response from bass through treble, but all the way up and down the fingerboard for each string. Why is this important? Because a lot of the music is melodic and relies for effect on individual notes in certain runs or successions. If one plays enough compositions each note on the neck eventually gets a chance to shine and sometimes be emphasized; one really can’t have any dead notes anywhere without one spoiling a particular piece of music.
There is no such acoustic musical tradition or format for the average steel string guitarist (at least not yet, and most certainly not in the realm of public entertainment, which is where the money is). He almost invariably plays into a microphone or amplification system that renders the natural sound and power of the instrument secondary. The challenge for the steel string guitar luthier is threefold. First, is 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 and a guitar which sounds fine unamplified can easily sound dull, boomy or uneven when played into a microphone. The second challenge is to produce an instrument which is noticeably more responsive, sensitive, even, loud, and easy to play than the average. The third is to build a guitar which 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 is to accompany and be heard, but not dominate.
The repertoire for the serious steel string guitar, such as that which the classical guitar player has had available for a century, does not yet exist. Much of what is available are arrangements, adaptations and transcriptions of earlier folk and fiddle tunes. Original and serious steel string guitar music -- that is, music which can be savored as it is listened to (and in which dynamic possibilities over and above simple rhythm and speed are explored) -- is being written and played for the first time just now, most actively by fingerpickers and arrangers such as Ed Gerhard and Martin Simpson. As importantly, the repertoire for the fingerstyle guitar is moving in genuinely new directions of rhythm, tonality and technique. The radically new percussive style of playing that Michael Hedges first brought to the guitar is being evolved into new musical dialects by the work of talented players such as Preston Reed, Claus Boeser-Ferrari and Peppino D’Agostino. 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 -- and includes a wide and nuanced array of tapping, drumming, stroking, pulling and hitting sounds -- is only beginning to emerge. As is also a common language for the qualities of steel string guitar sound.
THE BASES OF CONTEMPORARY GUITAR DESIGN
For the reasons outlined above, innovations in classical guitars are generally internally driven -- by the needs of the music, and the tone-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, and stringing: the exterior aspect of the guitar is not much affected. Currently, the luthiers best known for radical innovations in classic guitar design are Richard Schneider and Tom Humphrey -- whose guitars do look different externally -- and Greg Smallman, Sergei de Jonge, Dernot Wagner and Matthias Dammann, whose guitars don’t. The bulk of successful, world class classic luthiers -- people like Friedrich, Romanillos, Velazquez, Ruck, Gilbert, Oribe, Elliott, Fleta, Ramirez, Hauser, Contreras, Brune, Kohno, Hopf, Bernabe, etc., etc, etc. -- are known for refining the traditional design and producing a superior variation of it. But not for redesigning anything.
For the steel string guitar, in contrast, multiplicity of shape and feature has been hugely driven by external factors -- that is, the market. The steel string guitar is mostly a mass-market instrument. Look at the advertising; or go to a trade show. The commercial music industry makes great efforts to introduce different and new brand- and feature-identifiable guitar models in such a way as to render them distinguishable from the competition (whether meaningfully or meaninglessly), and to make them as attractive and saleable as possible through ad campaigns. Guitar purchases seem to be in general driven by advertising at least as much as 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. I’m not trying to insult the many talented individual luthiers who are producing wonderfully crafted steel string 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 guitars have long existed as commercially produced merchandise which has lacked unity of musical purpose outside of (1) accompanying singing and/or other instruments, and (2) capturing a market niche for the producer. Those players desiring specific qualities of sound and response are most likely to find them in the instruments of some of the small-scale hand makers.
THE NEEDS OF THE MUSICIAN AND THE ROLE OF THE LUTHIER
The training of a classical guitar luthier teaches him that parts of an individually made classical guitar are made as they are for some reason [having to do with tone and responsiveness], and critical thinking is part of the maker's mindset. Steel string guitar luthiers, the new kids on the block after generations of exclusively factory production for the music marketplace, don't get this kind of training. In fact, their main model is the factory product. In consequence, steel string guitars are composed of many parts that are made that way because others do it like that. This generalization will be true for most aspects of top, bracing and bridge design, scale length, choice of materials, body styles, and so on. This is slowly changing.
If classical guitar players value the tonal qualities and workmanship of their guitars, what do steel string guitar players look for and value in their instruments? A rather broad archival search reveals that acoustic musicians have been comparatively inarticulate on this topic. Statements showing awareness of the guitar as a producer of tone -- as opposed to a tool with which to play arrangements -- are somewhat basic, spare and diffuse in focus and content, especially when compared with the specific language that classical guitar people are comfortable in using. This is consistent with what one would expect given the largely limited and unexplored musical use of the steel string guitar to date. Please do not consider the following quotations to be reflections of any critical attitude on my part; they are merely randomly selected soundings on the state-of-the-mindset.
Alex de Grassi (Frets, July 1980) says that he has a taste for an instrument with percussive playing; his guitar “has action high enough so that you can play notes very clearly, and yet it still plays easily. It has a really good dynamic range; you can play close to the bridge and get a very steely sound, or play up towards the neck and get a soft sound, almost like a nylon string”.
Charles Sawtelle (Frets, November 1985) says of his choice of guitars: "I tend to select these guitars -- and they select me, you know. It’s sort of mutual agreement that you end up with the guitar that you end up with. I attract guitars that are really kind of beat up. I like that because I’m not worried about scratching them. . . [and] I like [action] higher than a lot of people do . .”
Leo Kottke (Frets, May 1986): “[people want] . . . the organic, natural sounds you get from an acoustic guitar”.
Pierre Bensusan (Frets, October 1979), on his Lowden guitar: “I told [Lowden] to get the balance between the bass and the treble much more subtle for me. I wanted a little more bass. . . It’s good to be impressed several times a week by [your] instrument”.
Pat Metheny (Frets, April 1985), on one aspect of sound: “I’m famous for some bizarre tunings. I’ll not only retune a guitar, but string it backwards, upside down -- anything to get a weird sound”.
Tony Rice (Frets, April 1980), on his preferences: “What I want is a pounding sound on each note; not a crispy crackle or a booming bass -- just a richness, a tone that contains higher frequencies and lower frequencies, for a balanced tone”.
Will Ackerman (Frets, December 1979) feels that his strings’ “slightly higher action allows them a stronger, more defined sound”.
Mark O’Connor (Frets, October 1980) speaks glowingly of his guitar because “it sounds like a piano”. He’s referring to the volume, of course, rather than its notes’ onset and decay gradients.
Leo Kottke (Acoustic Guitar, November 1992) on his Taylor guitar: “I had different requirements. Taylor was willing to do just about anything I wanted, and I’ve got a guitar now that works well for me. I’m now hearing what I want to hear when I play that guitar”.
Bozo Podunavac (Frets, November 1980) believes that his guitars’ tone is enhanced by being heavier and more massive than other guitars, tops so heavily constructed that never deform under the strings’ pull, and a smaller than standard soundhole.
Nick Kukich (Acoustic Guitar, February 1993) on the OM guitar: “I can see why all these fingerpickers are in love with it, because it has such great response. You just barely touch it, and the guitar explodes with sound”.
Fred Carlson is a former student of Charles Fox. While one could hardly call his beautifully unique, whimsical and “offbeat” guitars mainstream lutherie, his mind is on the right track. He says (Frets, November 1982): “My initial desire was to see how light I could make something and still make it strong enough, because you get an amazing kind of resonance with lightness.”
Martin Simpson: “What I want is an instrument which reflects the builder. I am more interested in the effect of the builder’s guitar on my playing than the reverse. [While] it is surely obvious that the player plays and the builder builds, [I feel] it is the creation of the luthier in his or her full powers that inspires and furthers my [own] work. Each guitar affects the player differently, and certain builders’ work literally resonates better for some players than others.”
With these last three quotes I want to speak to yet another difference I notice between classical and steel string guitar luthiers having to do with their attitude toward, and quality of respect for, their work. For serious classical guitar makers the work seems to include some moments of authentic experience of their materials in which an honest appreciation for these, as well as the instruments themselves, is possible. This may be a convention or a pose, but it is consistently spoken of and seems genuine. The serious steel string guitar makers in general seem to have a different quality of connection to their work. I don’t get the sense that they are so much amazed by their guitars as that they experience themselves as craftsmen-technicians in control of the process and materials (or wanting to be in control of them) and turning out a product, however good. I don't sense the kind of attitude in which reverence, awe, gratitude, humility or spiritual connection play a part. At least, no one talks of it. Rather, their focus seems to come out of the kind of professionalism which values efficiency, well-designed jigs, cleanness of work and finish, and some umbrella quality of improved sound which is stated without going into detail. One example of differences in attitude is that the better classical guitar makers have always taken the time-consuming trouble to make their own soundhole rosettes because it’s the appropriate personal touch. Steel string luthiers have not, until recently, invested themselves in this way, and hand makers have only begun to design their own soundhole decorations within the past few years. I repeat: these things speak to what I’ve generally observed. There will be exceptions to each of these statements, and I am not stating any of them out of a motive to malign anyone.
THE MINDSETS BEHIND THE MUSIC; OR, TRANSMITTING GUITAR
LORE (i.e., THE CULTURE OF TEACHING AND LEARNING)
Some of the most useful things to view in an examination of the guitar’s culture are the learning processes involved. How do would-be musicians learn their music and become educated about their guitars? How are information, value and attitude transmitted? And what can this mean to the guitar maker?
Classical guitar players normally learn technique rather formally, taking classes either in a school or conservatory or from a teacher who operates out of learned rules which are passed from teacher to student. If one is self-taught one does so from books which act as teachers. There are different schools, methods, and approaches; but for each there will be a right way and a wrong way -- for perfectly good reasons within the logic of the technique. There is a large repertoire of music to be mastered, and the music is primarily learned by reading it and practicing it, not by hearing someone else play it or from records. Accuracy and fidelity in playing only the printed notes and dynamics is stressed, as are the techniques for producing controlled variations of tone. One practices, often for long years, in order to get the music and its nuanced interpretation right.
On the other hand, the music which is played on the steel string guitar is not yet nearly as standardized in repertoire, technique, sensibility or intent and is still open to attempts to find “better”, more evolved or simply different sound. There may be four or five accepted arrangements of Albeniz’s, Scarlatti’s, or Barrios’ works; but there are endless arrangements and versions of Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Greensleeves, Cherokee or Rocky Mountain High. Teaching is more informal, with greater stress on playing the music than on getting technique right. The net result of this, musically, has been a ferment of experimentation, accidental discovery, moments of great spontaneous inventiveness, trying new things, and lots of pleasing discoveries in -- and fusions of -- style, technique and sound. Not all fingerpickers, jazz players, bluegrassers, amplified musicians, etc. participate in this, but many do. A prominent example was Michael Hedges, who studied at the Peabody Conservatory and successfully blended formal music theory and technique with new ideas about how to play the steel string guitar. He managed to invent a whole new style. There are quite a few acoustic musicians who are self-taught and make their own recordings. Peppino D’Agostino is a breathstopping guitarist who developed his technique on his own mostly because he wasn’t taught anything formally and was ignorant of the normal possibilities and limitations. The same is true of Alex de Grassi. Martin Simpson never went to music school, but instead spent years playing music everywhere and with everyone he could learn anything from and consequently has evolved a style in which a meld of blues, traditional folk, Celtic and rock can plainly be heard. “Fusion” or “crossover” music like Paco de Lucia’s flamenco/jazz, or John McLaughlin’s Indian raga/electric are loved, imitated and admired -- and, not accidentally, well outside the radius of what would be acceptable in strictly classical circles.
There is a down side to all this, of sorts. Because acoustic and acoustic-electric popular music is so open-ended, much of the music is bad, and the lack of structure gives possibility to lowering of standard, as well as toward elevating it creatively. But I feel this is the central characteristic of this musical culture: there is no one standard. The culture is too democratic and anarchic -- if also greatly driven and shaped by the commercial and mercantile interests [of finding the most saleable common denominator] of the music-biz establishment.
While many acoustic guitar players have gone to a music school or taken formal lessons (just as classic guitar players go to school to learn their craft) I believe that most prominent steel string guitar players -- even now, but especially formerly -- got to where they are through some combination of (a) being self taught and listeninga lot, (b) learning from other players, or (c) getting valuable practical hands-on experience by playing anywhere and everywhere -- in groups, with a friend or solo, for money or for fun, at parties, camping, etc. In other words, learning through playing, as opposed to learning by practicing. For beginners in general there is also (d) the modern, more electronic, approach to teaching yourself. Since 1983, when a special issue of Frets magazine was devoted entirely to the issue of teaching [citing ‘teaching on tape’, ‘renting instruments’, ‘the computer link’, ‘books and basics’, and ‘doing your best’ as options in addition to finding a teacher], this topic has from time to time been covered in one or another of the trade magazines.
Consider an example of the different teaching styles. While a folk music teacher might comment to a student that his variation of a technique or stroke “might also work” in a given song, a classic guitar teacher is likely to correct the student and admonish him to follow the taught form: this is justified by its giving better tone, or being more musical in keeping with the composer’s intent, or simply being the correct way: that’s how it’s written. Another example, this one from my own life, is one that many of you can probably relate to. When I was young I took piano lessons: for a long, long time I played scales and fingerings. My cousin happened to be also taking piano lessons at about the same time, but from a more modern-minded music teacher, and he started playing real songs almost immediately. That was what I wanted to do, and I couldn’t understand why I had to learn the scales. If I’d stuck with it I might be better than he is by now, but that was not my focus then.
These musical learning experiences shape the student’s attitude not only about the music, but about whether or not he is entitled to his own independent opinions. The average steel string guitar player can tell me pretty quickly whether or not he likes a particular guitar -- even if he does not know how to articulate why. Young classical players, on the other hand, have more than once asked me for permission to borrow a guitar in question so they could show it to their teacher and get their opinion. I was amazed the first few times this happened, until I understood that from their point of view this is perfectly logical. In a hierarchical system one seeks validation and guidance from higher levels. Without trying to knock either of these networks or methods at the expense of the other, I’m describing them as I have experienced them. They work by different rules.
There is also a marketing implication from this. If you want to be successful in the classic guitar network, then you must impress the teachers. Then, they’ll spread the word to their students. In fact, students in this network often buy their instruments from or through their teachers, or at the very least with their help. It’s an active sideline for teachers, and it repays the luthier’s efforts to become friends with them. Steel string guitar teachers don’t usually carry the same moral authority, however, and their students are more on their own when it comes time for them to buy their next guitar. They’ll often go to a store and pick one out with a salesman’s or friend’s help. Finally, a really famous player’s endorsement seems to carry weight with both these groups.
TALKING WITH THE MUSICIANS
For reasons outlined above -- the formal training, the identification with a revered tradition of adherence to quality, as well as a more subtle identification with the musical tastes and values of a higher social class -- classical players are picky and critical. If you want to make guitars for them, your work must be impeccably clean. Any beginning luthier who has ventured to show a guitar he has labored over for three hundred hours to a mainstream classical player who will take the time to look at it, will have experienced the fine-tooth-comb going-over and the finding of small flaws and imperfections. It comes with the territory and is in no way different from the professional facade shown by a lawyer, doctor, or member of any professional group to a lay person who has asked a question touching on the former’s area of expertise. It doesn’t have to be a cold response, either, although too often it will feel like one. But with any luck it will be an informed one at some level.
Steel string guitar players are more recently coming to expect high standards in craftsmanship, as they are exposed to better and better instruments every year and the bar of what’s available out there rises. I got used, early on, to acoustic guitar players’ voicing uncritical pleasure at simply seeing a handmade guitar. More lately, while they still say complimentary things about one’s work, players will have become more sophisticated and experienced, and will now be more able to say discerning and intelligently critical things about sound, design, and playability.
There are different mindsets operating in these interactions. I believe that acoustic musicians tend to voice admiration for anyone who could actually put together something as nice as a guitar, because (1) it’s polite, and (2) they remember how difficult and complicated their own last home project was and can relate to the work in that way. It’s a personal response. I believe, likewise, that since classical guitar players are purposely trained and aspire toplay to a high standard which has cost them much time and effort to attain, it never occurs to them that anyone else would proudly and willingly show them anything that falls short of a high standard. They have a more critical outlook and they will be on the lookout for flaws. That is, after all, how their teachers have trained them: you point out mistakes and then administer correctives. Significantly, one learns not only techniques through this process but also a Sense Of Enfranchisement To Guard The Standard. The steel string guitar player, not having a stake in the heritage of woodworking that he’s being shown an example of, will act as though he’s being asked to admire the work. The classical player will act as though he’s being asked to critique it; and whether or not he or she has any real expertise is beside the point.
THE GUITARS THEMSELVES
One of the most striking differences between the contemporary steel string guitar and classic guitar subcultures has to do with the manner in which the instruments themselves are defined and accepted by the members of their own networks. This largely a direct outcome of these instruments’ respective histories of development.
Steel string guitars, largely because they have come to us through a tradition of factory production rather than individual-maker production, come in many sizes and shapes, are made of many woods (and plastics), and even come in colors: go to any music store and see the variety for yourself. They are, as outlined previously, prodigiously varied mostly for reasons of marketing and of commerce rather than for considerations of tone, response, playability, or the needs of the music. For the steel string guitar player, a guitar (of whatever size or color) is used for playing music by plunking, twanging, strumming or picking, etc. While any human being will prefer an expensive guitar with bells and whistles over a cheaper one, for the steel string guitar player there’s a surprisingly egalitarian acceptance of all varieties of this instrument: a guitar is considered to be a guitar pretty much regardless of its size, shape, or materials, and everybody understands what its use is.
This is not so, by and large, for the classic guitar crowd, however. These individuals are hierarchical thinkers and for them what is and what is not a classic guitar is narrowly defined. And even within the ranks of the accepted, there’s a definite hierarchy of quality. This is the dark side of the classical guitar world. For such individuals three considerations are paramount in taking a critical look at a guitar -- the more so as one is a serious guitar player. One is price: there is a pride that is taken in having an expensive instrument. It is no different in this regard than the mentality one is unsurprised to find in the violin, automobile, home ownership, etc., worlds: the object is admired and revered as it is pricey. Correspondingly, there is an element of contempt for cheap ones, even if they (in the case of automobiles) run well or (in the case of musical instruments) sound good. The second consideration is brand or, rather, the maker. This goes hand in hand with the first consideration. In the pantheon of classical guitar making there are revered and famous makers whose instruments are much coveted and possession of one is considered to confer status. In fact, you cannot have an expensive classic guitar without a noted maker’s name on it. Finally, and least rationally, a classic guitar is only considered to be a serious instrument if it is made of rosewood, preferably Brazilian. Anything else is a priori considered inferior, regardless of tone, playability, quality or maker: a guitar made of light colored woods is considered a folk or flamenco guitar and is not taken seriously. You can get a lot of money for a Brazilian rosewood guitar but the same guitar made out of another wood is devalued, period. Steel string guitarists are not entirely immune to such feelings, by the way, but they can pretty easily like a guitar whose body is made of maple, koa, mahogany, walnut, myrtle wood, oak, or many other domestic or exotic woods: it’s allowed. But for the classic guitar the dark wood of his guitar is part of his uniform, and he will feel highly uncomfortable without it.
This is interesting in the light of the fact that Spanish guitar makers themselves, until well into the 1950s, made no distinction between their rosewood guitars and their non-rosewood (generally cypress) ones. For them a guitar was a guitar, and they made guitars variously priced to suit their customers’ budgets. The rosewood models were more expensive because the materials were more expensive. The more affluent clients tended to be classical music buffs rather than folk or flamenco musicians and could spend the money for the more costly rosewood guitar: so that’s what they bought. This pragmatic distinction caught on and the cost factor early on became an element of pride that has lost no momentum in this group.
I must add that, obviously, not every classic, steel string and folk guitarist has these behaviors and attitudes to such an overt degree, and there are many exceptions. But the socio-economic truth that most underlies the guitar phenomenon is that classical guitar music -- like violin but never fiddle music -- is associated with the musical tastes of the ruling class; folk, popular and ethnic music are not.
SPEAKING AND INTERPRETING THE LANGUAGE
You will not sell a guitar to anybody unless you can speak his or her language. This is fully as critical a skill as any in lutherie -- and guitar players, like any culture or subculture, have their own language. I believe that such language skills, unlike woodworking skills, can be learned but cannot be taught. This is because the music of the classical and the steel string guitar come from different social classes and are connected to different ways of looking at the world. Some may disagree with this view. Still, it seems useful to examine examples of lutherie language to add to the statements already quoted previously. I’ve found the following more or less at random in my library of books and magazines. See if you can spot any differences:
Archtop: In the Summer 1995 issue of Guitarmaker luthier John Monteleone writes a moving and eloquent eulogy for the late Jimmy D’Aquisto, in which he remembers his friend and mentor: “ I can recall a valuable comment [D’Aquisto] made to me once when he said, ‘Don’t be in competition with other builders; you only need to compete with yourself.’ I couldn’t have said it better. Jimmy was also eager to share his knowledge with anyone who genuinely shared his interest. He unlocked this door to archtop guitar design and held it open for the rest of us to walk in and take a look around.”
Classical: Roy Courtnall’s Making Master Guitars quotes Jose Romanillos, who was for years personal luthier to Julian Bream, talking about his work: “Guitar making is a great thing to do. I find it very rewarding. I am now completing my research for another book, which is about the development of the Spanish guitar from the sixteenth century. It will cover the organization of the craft guilds, constructions, techniques, makers and so on, but I still have quite a lot more to do”. About French luthier Robert Bouchet, also reviewed in this book, Romanillos says: “Bouchet was a very clever man -- he made some beautiful instruments. He was inspired by Torres. If you want to know about Bouchet, the Paris Conservatoire has his book, it’s all hand-written, a fascinating document. He recorded everything about his guitars in it. For the best ones he went to the Spanish prototype. But his soundboards were very thin -- he had to put the large transverse bar beneath the bridge, or the soundboard would sag.”
Steel String: John Decker of Rainsong Guitars [Hawaii] is quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle of Saturday, April 13, 1996, from an address to the Materials Research Society: “This instrument is constructed of graphite and carbon fiber in an epoxy matrix. Since it contains no wood, it is impervious to water, heat and humidity. In fact I’ve played it in a rainstorm. It’s also much stronger than a wooden instrument. You don’t have to worry when you’re traveling”.
Classical: In the Summer 1995 issue of Guitarmaker, Colorado luthier Duane Waterman speaks of his guitar making: “Woodworking, measurement, sensitivity, consistency of each instrument -- all are important. I don’t care where you start; you have to work years to get that down, no matter what you’re doing. It takes years of dedicated work. I find people who walk into this business, or want to get into this business of musical-instrument making, even classical guitars making, and they are of an opinion that if they are just smart enough or talk to the right people they will find this shortcut to making finer instruments rather than just okay instruments. I’ve seen a lot of people go through this, and there is no short cut. There is only work. There is only experience. For the first few years you’re getting down those mechanical things. That is what I was able to get down with the steel-string guitars, so when I shifted over, I had all the construction-elements down in general, and I had my process under control.”
Steel String: David Bromberg, speaking about his music in the October 1990 issue of Acoustic Guitar: “For a while, when I first started playing solo, I was known as a hot guitar player. Every place I’d go, after the show these guys would come backstage and say they wanted to play music together -- but what they really wanted to do is gunfight with guitars. Guitar gunslingers: they wanted to show me their hot licks and they wanted to play them at me. They didn’t want to create music. That’s very anti my feelings about music. One of the best things I play is rests. I’m a really good rest player, and they’re very musical, the rests.”
Classical: Daniel Friedrich, quoted in Making Master Guitars, on his lutherie approach: “It is vital for me to work as long as possible with soundboards from the same tree -- each tree possesses very different mechanical and physical properties. I do not use soundboards for aesthetic reasons or because the wood is extremely regular and has close annual rings -- this has nothing to do with sonority. I begin by measuring the longitudinal flexibility, then the combined flexibility (transverse and longitudinal). I note the weight.”
 Steel String and Electric: Ren Ferguson of Gibson guitars, quoted in the October 1990 issue of Acoustic Guitar: “I think the people who build American industry, who knew so much and took such pride in what they did, were blue-collar workers. And we’re still blue-collar workers”.
Classical: Gila Eban, former student of Richard Schneider and builder of Kasha-style classic guitars, in a panel discussion written up in the Jan. 1991 issue of Acoustic Guitar: “[The people who play our instruments] don’t see us. A lot of classical guitarists are part of a cultural scene that has little or no respect for people who work with their hands. If you’re a university professor who dabbles in furniture refinishing or builds a guitar from a kit over the vacation, OK. But taking seriously people who work with their hands full-time, 40 to 80 hours a week, they really see themselves as above that.”
Classical: Kevin Aram, British classical guitar maker, responding to Gila in the same discussion: “That’s very true in England. I find it interesting that you should say that happens here because I have always put that down to the class system in England, where lutherie is considered a ‘trade’. Far better to be a schoolmaster in a third-rate . . . school than, heaven forbid, run the risk of getting one’s hands grubby . . . I agree with Gila -- I don’t think guitarists see us at all, only the finished guitar.”
Archtop: Jimmy D’Aquisto, interviewed in the December, 1980, Frets, on his guitar making approach: “The more mass added to the top, the more highs you get; the less mass, the lower the note. Airspace works the opposite: the more airspace, the lower the note; the less airspace, the higher the note. What I try to create is a circle in bracings so that the sound, instead of being carried out to the end of the guitar, the edges, has a way of returning back to the center. This creates a sustaining quality that most guitars don’t have.”
Classical: Christopher Parkening, on his approach to teaching the classical guitar, in the June, 1980 issue of Frets: “We concentrate first on technique -- sitting position, right- and left-hand position, filing of the nails, and the production of sound. After the student works up a piece to a certain level, we can really work on interpretation of the music. We also discuss recording techniques, performance and transcription. I try to make the student independent of myself because I feel, as does Segovia, that all great artists are really self-taught.”
One additional difference in these guitars, and the language that is unconsciously used around them, is the one of how they are named or expected to be named. All luthier-made Spanish guitars carry the names of their makers on their labels; such instruments are assumed to come out of a craftsman’s tradition which someone will want to take individual credit for, and they carry this personal stamp on their labels. To do otherwise is unthinkable. Factory made Spanish guitars usually have a brand name that sounds generically Spanish, and nobody minds that because they implicitly aren’t claiming any personal authorship. In distinct contrast, most steel string factory guitars are labeled by the [original] factory owner’s personal name (e.g., Gibson, Bourgeois, Taylor, Breedlove, Larrivee, Martin, Gallagher, etc.) without anyone necessarily assuming that any of these individuals actually lays hands on wood. Furthermore, many individual American steel string guitar makers, in labeling their guitars, seem to aspire to the cachet of being associated with a manufacturing tradition. Or, at least, they seem to prefer to identify their work with a brand name rather than to identify own names with their products.
A COMPARATIVE TYPOLOGY
What kinds of differences do these statements, as well as the facts and circumstances described above, bring before us? My take on them is as follows:
CLASSICAL GUITAR: STEEL STRING GUITAR:
Measurements usually thought of Measurements usually thought of and
and given in metric and given in inches and fractions
decimal measurements of inches
Links to the past; continuity Links to self, own independence
Discussion in specifics re: qualities More general designation and
and attributes description of qualities, attributes
Greater discrimination: works with more Less discrimination: works with facts detail; picky broadly; intuitive
Playing technique = control Technique = freedom
Learned appreciation for nuance, Less focus on nuance, subtlety
Subtlety of expression Broader stroke expression
Formal study, practice, repetition Less structured practice, inventiveness
Controlled passion Authentic, spontaneous excitement
Grammatically and syntactically correct Informal everyday speech;
speech patterns colloquial language
Reading is important in learning and Listening is important to learning and
understanding the music understanding the music
Sight-reading skills are critical to playing Sight-reading is mostly irrelevant
the music correctly to playing the music correctly
Academic research, publishing is valued Formal research, publishing is
Authority lies with the composer Authority lies with the musician & in the
& the mentor music
Musician interprets the composer’s music Musician performs the music
Radical departures from form, materials Radical departures may be o.k.
and tradition are suspect
Methodical, careful, disciplined Persistent, stick with it, do your best
Hierarchical mindset; caste system Self-reliant mindset; anarcho-
Values informed, trained independence Values self-reliant, self-found
A calling as much as a business A business as much as a calling
Greater adherence to principles More adherence to the practical
Principal frame of reference is white Principal frame of reference is blue collar culture collar culture
Association with the work of an individual Association with a brand name
Highest musical goal is to play the music Highest musical goal is to “be in the groove”
There’s a right way and a wrong way There’s a better way and a worse way
to play the music to play the music
Subordinate/abandon one’s uniqueness Express one’s individuality for the sake
for the sake of the music of the music
In the guitar, a sense of restrained In the guitar, a bit of flash is a
elegance and understatement is good nice plus
The guitar has to be made of rosewood The guitar should have strings on it
If accompanying song, choose and play If accompanying song, put on a capo to
in a key that matches the singer’s voice match the singer’s voice
Mostly Caucasian male activity Mostly white guys’ activity (except for
I want to close by repeating my disclaimer: I have described the making and cultures of steel string and classical guitars as I have known and observed them. There will be exceptions to everything I’ve said; yet I believe my statements to be essentially true. I hope I’ve managed to interest, educate, and not offend the reader -- or, failing in this, that I’ve managed to offend everyone equally.