THE DREAM GUITARS BLOG

AN INTERVIEW WITH ERVIN SOMOGYI — part 1

Ervin Somogyi is not your average person. When speaking with him, or when reading the things he has written, it is immediately obvious that he is keenly insightful, full of equal parts of knowledge and good humor — both a scientist and an artist. He is a lovely man with uncommon patience, and sincerity.

Viewed from any direction, Ervin’s career is the template of success. His list of achievements is unrivaled. He is an innovator, educator, creative thinker, author, artist, lecturer and inspiration to myriad builders who have followed his lead.

If there was a Mt. Rushmore of luthiers, you would certainly see the face of Somogyi chiseled out of stone, staring down on the throngs of guitar enthusiasts who view his work as the quintessential representation of the modern Renaissance of steel string guitar.

The following is an interview recently conducted with Mr. Somogyi. It was my extreme honor that he agreed to share his thoughts with me. Thank you Ervin.

Ervin Somogyi

Ervin Somogyi

Yours is a prolific, celebrated career. You have received recognition from the guitar world, and you are highly respected by your associates and peers. As one of the cornerstones of what is often called a new renaissance in instrument making, what are your thoughts on the future of lutherie as an art and as a lucrative career?

I wrote a four-part series on the future of lutherie (at least, as I see it) for Fingerstyle magazine back in 2001.  I don’t know that I want to repeat all that, but the gist of it is that ‘real’ lutherie (in the sense that I understand that word) will probably survive between the cracks of mainstream commercial culture — which is certain to do its best to standardize, efficient-ize, productive-ize, and roboticize the life out of it.  All in the service of progress, of course.  Factories like the Taylor facility are already doing pioneering work in that.  Sorry if sound negative, but I gave a lot of reasons for my thinking so in those articles, and none of the reasons have changed.

There are two main reasons for this.  The first of these is the sorry state of the manual arts in this culture: people use their hands less and less to accomplish things these days.  The second is the primitive state of lutherie education.

When I was young a lot of kids, teenagers, and even adults puttered, futzed, tinkered, whittled, played with clay and plaster, built models, and fixed things . . . much more than people do now.  At least, as far as I’m aware.  Does any of you remember hobby shops, the Revell model kits, fixing up old jalopies (or even newer cars), erector sets, tiddly-winks, ships in bottles, woodburning kits, balsa-wood gliders, paint-by-number pictures, or even making playhouses out of cardboard boxes, or any other long-term-attention-span-engaging activity?  Today, most productive work is driven by the need for speed, efficiency, and profit and the element of human judgment is dumbed down through steady reliance on the latest jig, accessory, tool, or set of time-motion guidelines that do a lot of the work for us.  Entertainment is provided not by ourselves but by electronic devices and use of computers in a myriad ways.  Oh, and there’s television too.  This is a costly trade-off, and it ain’t exactly progress as far as I can see.

On the other hand, making guitars isn’t likely to produce lucrative careers under any circumstances, hand skills or not, unless one knows what he’s doing.  I won’t beat the existing guitar schools up for doing the best they can, but their efforts don’t extend past a beginner’s level education in making-and-assembling-guitar-parts.  This education lasts as little as ten days to as much as several months; it’s a great starter kit, but necessarily cannot be more than that.  In comparison, there are respected schools of furniture making that turn out competent journeymen craftsmen and which put their students through several years of training — which includes design, proportion, a variety of woodworking techniques, history, joinery, and finishing.  The better violin-making schools have a four-year curriculum!  A large part of the problem is that many people simply don’t know that there’s any more to making a guitar than its merely being a more complicated woodworking project than, say, making movie sets.  You know: looking good but nothing substantial behind the façade.  I think you can appreciate that just learning to put a guitar together — with very little actual joinery (sand-flat-apply-glue-and-then-clamp is not a difficult skill to master) or tone-making savvy going on — is not going to provide a realistic foundation for any kind of success.  A hobby, maybe; but not an income.

And even with a competent education, lutherie is a tough gig.  You only need about a hundred brain cells and minimal knowledge of the history of the world to get an appreciation for this.

I do think that you should make guitars — and/or art — if you find that you cannot be happy if you do not do so.  At least until you determine that you need to go into something else.  Otherwise, lutherie really isn’t for everyone.  There’ s too much romance in it, for one thing, but one soon finds out that it really is a bunch of hard work.  The upside is that one can get some genuine peace of mind and satisfaction on this planet, throughout most of a lifetime, if one goes into this work with genuine love and curiosity.  The smartest alternative plan is to approach guitar making as a business; you can support yourself doing the work like that.  It ain’t quite the same as being an artist, but it’s better in some ways: it produces paychecks, not to mention happier mates.

Mr. Somogyi

Mr. Somogyi

Your two volume master-work of “The Responsive Guitar” and “Making the Responsive Guitar” is destined to become the standard by which all future written works on the subject of lutherie are judged. Did you feel obligated to capture your method and philosophy for the benefit future generations?

“Obligation” is the wrong word, I think. Luthiers are rather obsessive in many ways.  While this may be problematic in the realms of addictions or living a self-actualized life, it’s a real plus in lutherie — not to also mention in other things like brain surgery, parachute packing, and chess — because being ridiculously careful produces better results.   But mainly it never occurred to me to write a book that only told 3/4 of the story.  It never occurred to me to edit out things that were arguably minor but still pertinent, or to not include plenty of photographs (there are almost 1,000 photos and images), or to not have the nicest hard binding and cover art that I could manage, etc.  The books are no different from my approach to making any of my guitars.  I mean, in Japan they don’t call me a crass act for nothing, you know.

I am not resolved, either, as to how much I’ve written my books for Future Generations.  I did, obviously, do it in part for that reason.  I also did it for my own selfish reasons that have nothing to do with those readers.  I like to write.  (I don’t think I did it for the money: there’s money in writing only if there are descriptions and  pictures of naked people; but I’ve written a damn textbook: how exciting is that?)  Furthermore, I’m approaching 70 and have had triple bypass heart surgery.  It’s a truism that I can’t take my knowledge with me and some of it just might be useful to someone.  I  mean, most of my life is nicely  behind me . . . and I can appreciate a nice behind when I see it, I’ll tell you.   God knows, I would have given a lot for any guidance such as my books contain, many years ago when I was stumbling around in the dark wasting untold hours on guitars that I now can appreciate had no chance of sounding good.

I’ve had my successes, failures and insights and have written my books in a way that more or less ‘tells it like I see it’, but without insisting that others take my path.  I’ve already gotten criticism for not having written my books the way others thought I should have, or because I’ve presented the information in a way that isn’t what people have been used to.  Some readers just don’t get my perspective: they want right-and-wrong answers or simply want to be spoon-fed ‘the quick, easy recipe for making great guitars’  without having to do any thinking.  To these, I say: hmph; grow up.  To the others, who do understand that a given sentence or paragraph in my writings might have taken me fifteen guitars worth of work spread out over six years to figure out, I say: you’re welcome; and pass some information on to someone else who is in need, when you can.

I can also say that I’m not sure I would have written these books had I suspected just how much work it was going to take.  It took eight years and the writing, editing, cross-referencing, correspondence, photographing, fact-checking, re-writing, etc. came to dominate my life.  Not to mention out-of-pocket expenses for everything.  By quite reasonable reckoning I would have been much better off simply making guitars and creating a cash flow.  Warning: don’t do this at home, folks.  Leave it to the professionals.  And think twice before criticizing someone else’s major projects.

Andamento Guitar

Andamento Guitar

Many of your apprentices have gone on to become well known, in demand builders themselves — Michi Matsuda, Hiro Ebata, Mario Beauregard, etc. That makes you an extremely successful teacher as well. Please tell me about your teaching style, and explain what special insights you bring to the equation when working with young builders?

Ummmm . . . I guess I could say several thing about this.  First of all,  I happen to like teaching and I want to do a good job of it like everything else I do.  Second of all, it’s hard work and it certainly doesn’t pay well.  Teaching is a really bad business model: it takes too long and too much attention and energy.  There’s absolutely no truth to the rumor that Donald Trump made his millions by teaching.  And it’s not always a successful pursuit — at least if you do it the way I’ve done it, which is to make it a full-immersion experience, as opposed to doing it every day from, say, ten to five.  It’s not unlike my approach to writing my books: I have a desire to be thorough.

I never set out to teach ‘future masters’ — although I’m glad that some of my apprentices will go on to make their own significant and unique contributions.  I teach because I like sharing my hard-earned information with people who appreciate its value, and I like seeing their eyes light up with ‘ah-hah!’ moments. There’s nothing casual about my teaching; it takes a real commitment for me to take anyone on.  Also, for a long, long time I didn’t make enough money to pay anyone with anything except knowledge and experience; so I agreed to train people in exchange for help in the shop.

I am aware that my more successful students and apprentices are talented in this work.  But while it’s tempting to think that my success as a teacher is the fruit of a magically successful teaching style, I think it’s largely because I teach something genuinely useful.  Remember, in my answer to your earlier question about the future of lutherie, I cited the primitive state of teaching that is available.  Well, I simply give a real, honest, and comprehensive grounding in the work — just as you’d get in any institution of higher learning, technical or vocational school, or professional school that takes several years to go through.  That a better education produces better craftsmen shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Choosing whom to take on as an apprentice has been a  difficult learning experience: I’ve made some really bad choices.  And also some lucky ones. By now, motivation and sincerity are not the first things I’ve learned to look for: everybody claims to have those.  Instead, I look for (1) ability to commit to the learning curve and stay focused (which includes the ability to subordinate one’s self to authority in the interests of learning a skill), and (2) capacity for independence of thought within the learning situation.  I also (3) try to get a sense of their learning style: not everyone learns the same way by any means.

Finally, because my apprentices are typically half my age or less, (4) I try to get a sense of how these young men will negotiate — their own and my — power and authority.  There is always a sizeable power imbalance, at least at first: I have all the power and authority and they have none.  The best indicator of how they are likely to behave in the face of the inevitable stresses (a completely new environment, learning tricky new procedures, making mistakes, deadlines, discipline, etc.) is to take a close look at what kind of a relationship these young men have with their own fathers.  This is critical.  It is is particularly acute in a work setting in which there is a lot of one-on-one interaction and there’s an age imbalance in addition to the power imbalance. All the excitement, interest and learning aside, the thing is hardly free of stress. And, incidentally, it is a significant stressor for them to eventually learn that they can make better guitars (the very thing they have come to me for!): it upsets their status quo and forces them to renegotiate the power imbalance — and they sometimes do this in very inappropriate ways.

Andamento Guitar

Andamento Guitar

All in all, the fact is that the same way these young men have learned to get along with their most significant, older, same-sex authority figure (yes: it’s their dads every time) is how they’ll behave in the shop.  I can rely on this absolutely.  If they got along with their fathers (or father surrogates), we’ll get along.  If they were afraid of their fathers, or abused, or abandoned, they’ll be terrified of me.  If their fathers were authoritarian, they’ll resent me regardless of how I actually behave — and they’ll bully newer people in my shop who are lower on the totem pole than they are.  It happens.  If they’ve learned to survive by seeking approval, they’ll be obsequious and charming rather than productive or independently curious — and they won’t stop seeking approval from me regardless of how much approval I do give them.  If they’ve learned to ‘get away’ with stuff, or be spacey, defensive, or defiant, etc. in order to get their way, they’ll want to keep on doing that.  Whether they’ve been supported, respected, or disrespected they’ll expect those things from me — and behave in ways guaranteed to elicit such responses.

Are these bad people?  No, they’re merely young and not fully formed, and they don’t know any different way to be.  They bring their predilections into the workplace every time and act them out without being aware that they are doing so.  The pisser is that problematic attitudes sometimes don’t make a public appearance for several months because people can be on their best behavior for quite a long time.  But it cannot last — so it’s a smart idea to have a several-months-long probation period.  On the plus side, if these young men have learned to communicate their needs and negotiate power and responsibility reasonably openly, they’ll do so with me from pretty early on.  And so on.

Anyway, one of the first things I have to do is to explore this territory, to get a sense of whether there are any landmines, and whether or how they can be avoided.  The fact is, an important part of an apprenticeship is that taking someone on means taking on their early life, and no amount of patient lutherie training is going to make the slightest dent in non-lutherie processes which have only one resolution: growing up.  And that’s not quite the same gig as making guitars.  And every candidate is of course unique.  And outside of all that are the necessary evaluations for focus, motivation, problem-solving ability, patience, craftsmanship, style of taking information in, business-vs-artistic orientation, and basic what’s-it-like-to-be-with-them-all-day-long considerations such as personal hygiene, ability to communicate, sense of humor, ability to understand instructions and priorities, argumentativeness, being accident-prone or not, etc. etc. etc.

I’ve trained a few people whom I really hated working with; we got off to a good start but were at each other at the end.  They’re no one whose names appear anywhere in this interview, by the way. The whole thing is a tricky balancing act. Otherwise, my teaching style is fairly relaxed and informal.  I lecture, I discuss, I recommend reading something, and we discuss more.  I’m more interested in educating than instructing.  These are different things.  Education comes from the Latin ‘educare’, whose prefix ‘e’ means ‘out of’.  Educate means ‘to bring out’.   Instruction is the opposite.  The prefix ‘in’ means just that: one puts something into place — like a fact or a technique.

More specifically, my approach is a mix of direct transference of information (through conversation or lectures) and Socratic dialogue.  I ask a lot of questions about what my students think of this or that, and why.  But I ask those questions mostly about things that I have already given out information about.  My attitude in these discussions is pretty much: “I know that you have enough information to figure some of this out — because I’ve given it to you.  So, use your brain and let me know what you think about the matter we’re discussing.”  The Socratic method brings some people in my classes up short; they will have learned to be comfortable with receiving knowledge passively, and not so much with being asked to participate in critical thinking.  Sometimes I’ll say these things out loud.  And, sooner or later, these guys begin to think, to look at things from new angles, and to have their own ideas.  The surprise of having an idea come out of the collision between raw experiential data and a newly learned rule or principle is exciting, I have to say.  Once they experience that, they’re hooked.

Finally, I think the purpose of an education is to enable one to discriminate between the essential and the superficial.  There are lots of superficial, meaningless, and unimportant data, phenomena, and lore in guitar making — as there are in any endeavor.  There are also things that are gateways, and pivotal.  I help my students see which is which.

Ervin at Woodstock 2010

Ervin at Woodstock 2010

Certainly some of your most ambitious builds are destined to become integral parts of future museum exhibits, and retrospectives on this period in lutherie. How do you think history will remember Ervin Somogyi and his instruments?

It’s likely that my guitars and I will be remembered well, although I don’t know whether this will be in a major way or as a footnote.  I am flattered by the prospect of being well-thought of in the future, to have my work in books and museums, and so on.  It’s also a somewhat irrational aspiration for anyone to have, I think.  It is very much in keeping with the Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism, in which one’s life is fixed with a grip of iron on the future, not the present or the past.  The older I get, though, the less sense it makes to me to place weight on what kind of impression I might make on people I’ll never meet.  I mean, of course I’d like people in the future to think well of me; but I cannot really understand why I’d go out of my way to care about that.  The older I get, the less real “the future” is for me.  I mean, let’s face it: I have less and less of that ahead of me.  The people and things I care about are right here and now.

So my answer to your question is not simple.  As I said, I don’t really know how history will remember me.  Anyone who has an awareness of the vagaries of life and society will have noticed that prominent people often sink without a trace surprisingly quickly, unworthy people rise to the top despite all evidence of incompetence or lack of worth, and every now and then someone completely forgotten (or even initially unknown) is resurrected as a significant enough figure in this or that realm to compete with whoever had been the top dog up ‘til then.  My reputation will be somewhere in that mix, I’m sure.  Roman emperors and conquering generals, as they paraded in their triumphal parades through the city in their gilded chariots, were accompanied by a slave whose job it was to whisper to them: “fame is fleeting . . . fame is fleeting . . .  fame is fleeting . . . “

There’s even a joke about that kind of thing.  A vacationer, traveling through Scotland, stops at one of those picturesque, rustic inns up in the Highlands one afternoon.  He goes in, sits down at the bar, and in a few minutes begins to chat with the Scotsman sitting on the next stool over.  As luck would have it the Scotsman is a pretty taciturn dude and conversation is rather an uphill slog.  Then , when the traveler asks the Scotsman’s name, the man pauses a long time, turns, and points out through one of the tavern’s windows and says, bitterly: “do ye see that stone fence out in th’ field over there?  It’s half a mile long.  I built it.  I dug and carried every stone.  I mixed the mortar.  I built that wall straight as an arrow, true and plumb, over hill and dale.  It’s a grand wall, one o’ the best around.  But do they call me MacTavish the wall builder?  Nay!” . . . .    Even more dourly, he goes on.  “And do ye see tha’ brick house over there?  That great big one?  I built it!  I built the walls straight up and true, brick by brick; thirty feet high it is, and fifty feet long.  But do they call me MacTavish the house maker?   Och, Naay! “. . . . .   He goes on, his frown deepening.  “And do ye see that jetty over there, at the water’s edge?  I built that!  I built it with m’ own two hands, put in the pilings, cut the wood, mixed the cement.  I built it straight as an arrow, three hundred yards right out into the water.  And strong!  It’s stood up to storm after storm!  But do they call me MacTavish the jetty builder??”  Naayy, he says, . . . . . . . . .  “But fuck ONE goat . . .  “

So you see, it can be tricky.

The fearless luthier, keeping the streets of Oakland safe from Unresponsive Guitars!

The fearless luthier, keeping the streets of Oakland safe from Unresponsive Guitars!

Second of all — even though this is very undiplomatic of me to say — I’m don’t anticipate giving much of a hoot one way or the other once I’m dead — with apologies to those of you who believe in reincarnation.  While I do value the opinions of my friends and others whom I think well of, the prospect of being well-though-of by, say, a Bostonian of the year 2057 doesn’t do much more for me than the idea of being well thought of by the citizenry of, say, present-day Cazpizapa. (It’s a small town in Peru, where I spent two years in the Peace Corps.  It’s doubtful that anyone reading this has ever heard of it.)

Finally, this being a Capitalist society and all, it does sort of chap my hide that dealers and collectors are going to make a whole hell of a lot more money off my work, after I’m dead, than I ever did while I was alive and trying to pay my bills.  You know what I mean?

Let’s examine a hypothetical situation. A customer calls you, and wants an OM sized body. They fingerpick primarily but also want an instrument with lots of headroom for the times they break out a plectrum. The guitar needs to have plenty of bass, articulate low end, and strong trebles all the way up the neck. They are convinced that they want Brazilian back and sides, but ambivalent about the top wood. What do you suggest? And why?

Well, anyone who has read my books will be able to begin to formulate a good answer to this.  I can’t take as much time and space here as it would take to tell the whole story, but I’ll give you an outlined version of my approach:

AREA OF CONCERN RELEVANT FACTORS

OM: The customer is the boss

Fingerpick: This has implications for the use of the right and left hands, and hence the width and contouring of the neck.  I’d take a look at his present guitar and offer to duplicate the neck, or, if it’s not quite right for him, change the neck so that it works better for him.

Headroom: As I explain in The Responsive Guitar, this has to do with openness/bass capacity, even though that sounds simplistic in sound-byte form. We’d also have to discuss optimal string action, and perhaps including some extra different-height saddles.

Plenty of Bass: As I describe in The Responsive Guitar, this has to do with the dynamics and design of both the top and the back: plate thickness, bracing, profiling, tapering, etc. — all in the service of a strong monopole motion of the top. The main thing is to not overbuild, which most luthiers manage to still do. String gauges should be discussed. Air mass comes into play too; so perhaps the client might opt for a larger bodied guitar.

Articulate low end: I’d send it to a private school.  Just kidding.  An ‘articulate’ low end actually has to do with (1) the calibration of the acoustic gradient of the top with respect to monopole response (see chapter 18 of The Responsive Guitar), and (2) building with some of the more vitreous woods.  It’s all just the tiniest bit technical.

Strong trebles & power all the way up the neck: Repeat of the above: careful voicing and calibration of the top plate. Also, engineering of the neck and head block that it’s anchored into. This too is just the tiniest bit technical.  Finally, it’s important to not sand the perimeter of the face too thin; you’ll lose the treble if you do.

Brazilian rosewood?: Why not?  It’s traditional, on the expensive side, acoustically live, and a good investment.  We could discuss straight-grain vs. figured, old-growth vs. stumpwood, etc.

Top wood?: The choices are several.  I devote a whole chapter in The Responsive Guitar to the tonal implications of each.

Anything else?: Well, we’d talk about string gauge, shape and size of neck, ornamentation, string spacing at both nut and bridge ends, action, electronics, tuners, solid vs. slotted peghead, rosette design, basic warmth vs. crystalinity of tone, size of frets, a cutaway, projection, sustain, recordability, balance, and possible other customization — such as an perhaps an espresso spigot on the bass side or a listener’s-side airbag.  J

What are your thoughts on fan frets?

They’re not parallel with one another.

Right: I’m being silly.  If you are asking for the rationale behind fanned frets, it is this: having the bass strings be longer than the treble strings serves the needs of musicians who like to play in open tunings, especially ones in which the bass strings are tuned way down.  Normally, if you de-tune your bass strings on a regular guitar enough you run the risk of having a very muddy low end, or losing it entirely.  What fanned fret arrangements offer is the strategy of starting out at greater initial string tension (at standard tuning), and arriving at a workable string tension when the string is loosened enough to give you your target bass note.  Integrity and frequency of sound have everything to do with string mass and tension, and lengthening the bass strings allows low-frequency response that has a strong enough envelope/presence that it can keep up with the guitar’s other, higher notes.

Otherwise, fanned frets are a more ergonomic arrangement than parallel frets are.  If you stick your barre-ing finger out and move your hand away from your body and back in again you’ll notice that your finger makes an arc as it moves: that’s the same arc that fanned frets present to the hand.  It’s surprisingly comfortable.  It actually takes more muscular effort for the hand to keep the finger locked into a parallel track as it moves up and down the guitar neck.

While many builders discuss the role that a guitar’s top plays in the tone of an instrument, you are one of the few that has explained the back’s function, and the way it responds to incoming energy. Could you please explain your thought on the contribution the guitar’s back makes to the tonal equation, and how variations affect the overall response and volume of the guitar?

Oh, goody: at last, an easy question.  ‘-)

Actually, I may be the only builder to delve into the dynamics of the back, in print.  Who else does so?  I’d start by directing readers to chapter 14 of The Responsive Guitar, which lays out all my thinking on this subtle and complicated matter.  But for purposes of this discussion I think I can provide a simplified answer that’ll be a clever amalgam of half-truths, plausible fictions, wishful thinking, evasions, and outright lies.  Well, I’m kidding about most of these.  Sseriously, though, I’ll be quoting myself extensively from that same chapter 14.  But first, I’d suggest the readers skip down to question 15, about impedance, and read my comments and then come back to this discussion.  Impedance has a lot to do with the guitar back and one should know something about this to understand what I’ll be saying.

Let’s start with the proposition that the guitar back does something besides keep the dust out of the soundbox.  The back is, in reality, an important secondary vibrating plate which works in tandem with the face.  You can easily tell that the back makes a contribution to tone: next time you’re playing your guitar, hold it in the air horizontally by the neck, with one hand, and tap lightly on the bridge with the other.  You’ll get a woody/musical sound as the top thrums to your finger-tap.  Then lower the guitar down until its back rests on your thigh, and tap in the same way on the same spot.  You’ll get a very different sound: it will be muted and damped.  Lift the guitar off your thigh, tap again, and the former live, open sound will return.  In good, sensitive and responsive guitars this difference in tap-response is clear, obvious and even dramatic; in cheap, less sensitive ones it’s not likely to be.  What’s changed is that the back, which was damped when the guitar lay on your thigh, is now free to make its contribution.  The back, obviously, does something audible and, therefore, important: and it does it in response to and in tandem with the activity of both the face and the air mass in between.

This leads to a discussion about the proper construction of the back.  Should one make it so massively solid and heavy that it is inert?  Or so light and gossamer that it practically isn’t there?  Or something in between? And then, how would any one of these structure affect the sound of the guitar?

The answer lies in how these different plates manage incoming energy.  Backs that are so massive as to be inert act as acoustic reflectors, much like the acoustic baffles that are sometimes placed behind guitarists on stage, or the hard facades of buildings that bounce sound away and make echoes.  These reflectors function to redirect back toward the audience sound waves that are otherwise traveling away from it, and thereby increase the amount of sound listeners can hear.  On the other hand, guitars with backs that are sensitive enough to respond to the musical energies of the soundbox will act in concert with the vibrating face in a different dynamic: rather than acting as reflectors, these backs act as diffusers. This has to do with the way in which a guitar projects its sounds, as well as the characteristics of the sounds that are so projected.

We are at an interesting fork in our inquiry, in yet another way.  Obviously, a guitar with a non-vibrating face is of no interest to anyone except possibly a pickup manufacturer or an interior decorator; but some steel string guitars have purposely (or at least functionally) non-vibrating backs and others have active ones, and no one thinks either one of these guitars to be better or worse simply because of this one factor.  Consider: bluegrass flatpicked guitars are held/played on a strap, so that the backs are more or less damped out against the players’ tummies.  As I said, inert backs like that will function as reflectors — at least to the degree that the backs are damped out and thus prevented from being active.  On the other hand, fingerpicking guitars are played in a sitting position that usually allows the back to have its full motion; such backs — if they are not too massive — will tend to act as diffusers.  Far from either one being a failure, these instruments are being used successfully in different ways. And, technically, there’s no reason a fingerpicking guitar can’t be played in bluegrass style, and vice-versa. So, the strictures about the function of the guitar back will be partially dependent on how a given instrument is to be used, not how it was built.

Since the back is usually made of a dense, heavy wood one of the main functions of an active back is to act as a flywheel that catches and stores the top’s energy and feeds it back into the system so as to keep the acoustic activity going.  Just as the weight in the physics experiment that’s mentioned in question 15, once started, will want to keep going even if the motion of the hand stops, the back’s/flywheel’s mass makes it slow to start and slow to stop, and this very quality will enable it “tap the rolling hoop” of the face.  Tops and backs moving with another in this way function as coupled harmonic oscillators . I repeat: this entire dynamic is undermined if the back is so overbuilt as to be functionally  inert, or if it is prevented from vibrational motion by contact with the player’s body, or if it’s made out of a relatively lightweight wood that lacks vitreousness.

Getting back to the primary dynamic of the back — that it obviously does something audible and therefore presumably important, and that it does it in response to and in tandem with the activity of both the face and the air mass in between — means that the thoughtful guitar maker must sooner or later come to grips with the question of what, exactly, should the proper relationship of structure, mass and fundamental frequency of face to that of back, to be?   Popular wisdom is that the back should have a higher tap tone than the top by one or two or three semitones.  Other wisdom holds that the back should have a higher resonance than the top by either two or seven semitones.  This is partially because the back is a denser material than the top and will naturally have a higher tone, and partially because empirical experience has shown this relationship to be valid. But opinions are not unanimous on this, and there’s wide disagreement about everything else concerning the back: thickness, bracing, etc.  For instance, the later Kasha model guitars’ backs are made of redwood and lightly braced so that they have a much lower pitch than the faces.  Presumably, the two-or-seven semitone mismatch from the face in this opposite direction would have the virtue of coupling the top and back plates in a mirror-image-to-the-normal relationship.  But I’m guessing; no one has explained the specific logic or rationale for low-pitched backs to me satisfactorily.  The backs of most commercially made steel string guitars are remarkably alike in construction.  Ovation guitar backs have no tap tone at all.  Torres, Smallman, Hopf, Fox, Martin, Sobell, etc. guitar backs (among others) are heavy; Ruck’s, Monch’s, Carlson’s, Elliott’s and mine (among others) are not. I cannot tell you in a few sentences which approach is “right”; whatever the back does only happens in relationship to the face and its construction, and this relationship has to serve the intended range of sound of the instrument.  It should be paid particular attention to in the cases of open-tuning guitars, in which the tonal range is purposely extended over that of normal guitars.  This may all be a wee bit more technical than you were really curious to know about, by the way, but it’s part of the package.

Finally, the tap-tone pitch of the back is not exclusively a function of how thick it is, nor the specific shaping of its braces, nor where the braces are placed.  It is also largely a function of (1) choice of wood, (2) the volume of the air mass contained inside the instrument and (3) how the back is coupled and connected to surrounding structure.  A larger air mass will contribute to a lower sound.  A reasonably light, delicate back will be more responsive than the chunky backs that one finds on average guitars.  Finally, relatively lightweight woods that have low vitreousness (such as most maples, mahoganies, walnuts and koas) will have a lower tap tone — but a fuzzier, less clearly defined one — than denser and more “live” woods like wenge, padauk and many rosewoods.

Sorry to be so long-winded; it’s just that I have a lot to say about some things.

With Vicki Genfan, on stage -- Woodstock 2010.

With Vicki Genfan, on stage -- Woodstock 2010.

When I am playing with a pick, guitars with narrower diffusion sound more appropriate to me — but when I fingerpick softly, guitars with wider diffusion seem much more appropriate.  How much control does the luthier have over directional projection, and how do you control it?

Hmmmmm.  We’d have to start with what you mean by “more appropriate to me”; that could get us into an interesting discussion all by itself.  I assume, from your question, that you think ‘appropriate’ and ‘directional projection’ are related.  I don’t know how to respond to that.  But let’s go on to the question of the luthier’s control over directional projection.

Let’s start with tapping on a guitar’s face while the back is free to be active, or is damped out — as when the guitar is lying on a couch or sitting in its case, as discussed in the previous question.  The sound of the first will be very different from the sound of the second.  What you’re hearing is the contribution of the back to the tonal mix.

When we tap on a guitar with the back removed from the tonal equation we’re listening to the volume, brittleness, ping, thumpiness, brightness, etc. of the tap itself.  With the undamped back we’ll be hearing the duration of tone as well as specific fundamental frequency.  Tapping on the combination of a well-matched top and back will — even on a guitar box without strings — produce a response that has an echo-like sustain, much like the sustained sound of a shout in a cavern or an acoustically live room. This echo lasts about a second; it is the response of a top and a back that are playing ping-pong with sound energy, batting the air between them back and forth, and serially activating each other.  Once heard, and especially when compared with sound in a “dead” chamber, this quality of liveness is unmistakable.  A “well-matched top and back”, however, aren’t simply two plates that are tuned to such synchronous frequencies.  They do this, it is true; but at least as important is the fact that these plates are constructed to be the most lightly put together things that one can manage.

So: heavy and inert vs. delicately constructed and active.  With these two examples you can grasp the quintessential difference in soundbox architecture that distinguishes a reflector from a diffuser.

END OF PART ONE

Click here to read part 2.

Special thanks to Robert Carrigan for providing photos from the Woodstock Guitar Show.

1 Comment

  • opnamestudio says:

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