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On stage, Woodstock 2010.

On stage, Woodstock 2010.

You seem to be one of, if not the most, scientifically informed builders. Did you find that you needed to learn things from a scientific perspective to fully understand the full potential of the steel string guitar?

No.  I am, in fact, an essentially intuitive builder.  This doesn’t mean that I get messages from crystal balls or anything like that.  It just means the feel, heft, density, flex and tap-tones of my woods make sense to me.  But also my cortical brain has gotten connected to my somatic brain and I’ve been able to use some of the ‘scientific’ language to communicate information verbally that previously existed in only the wordless realm of  hands-on and ears-on impressions.  I mean, try to explain what it’s like to be right-handed; you won’t be able to until you find words for it.  Until then, you’re stuck with metaphor.

I never felt the need to master scientific perspectives in order to have a better relationship with, or understanding of, the guitar.  I felt the need to find language with which to articulate a craftsman’s reality in order to answer my students’ earnest questions.  Unless you’re studying Zen, for which words are entirely the wrong track to be on, a teacher needs a language.

The thing is, scientific jargon is discriminating, critical, cerebral, and ‘yes-no’.  But my guitar making is integrative, immediate, total, and somatic; it has to do with my sense of things.  These words merely mean that my work is, well, personal, in a way that technical language and linear thinking aren’t.  It’s as personal just as one’s dog is personal.  In fact, I can claim that I’ve gotten to know the guitar in the same way that one gets to know one’s dog over the years: one pays attention, one loves it, and one learns to notice the changes in its behaviors even when they are subtle.  I’ve done this ‘befriending’ with my hands, eyes and ears, through playing the guitar and making it and listening to it and thinking about it.  I have measured thicknesses and weights and kept records, but that’s not, strictly speaking, scientific; it’s common-sense.

The book Engineering the Guitar was published at about the same time mine was; as its title suggests, it’s a very engineering/physics perspective on lutherie and its pages are replete with jargon and the kind of complicated looking formulas that will make any

Coffee Bean Guitar

Coffee Bean Guitar

left-brained person’s heart beat faster.  But these are all unintelligible to me.   I  think that such language may make you seem very impressive at a cocktail party but I don’t see how you can learn to build a good guitar out of that approach.

Is it essential for modern builders to understand the principles of structural engineering?

It depends on what you mean by ‘understand’, but I don’t think so; at least not any more than knowing the few basic principles I’ve written about.  Any competent luthier will certainly have internalized a body of practical knowledge that will be consistent with any formal, scientific approach — even though he may lack the training, background, and language to sound formally educated in that discipline.  From my point of view a guitar maker needs to understand his tools and woods, period.  However, if he wants to be a teacher, that’s a different ball game.

In your DVD, Voicing the Guitar, when lecturing on the different ways guitar tops vibrate, you made brief mention of triploles. What are they, and how do they effect a guitars top in comparison to monopoles, cross dipoles, and long dipoles?

Graham Caldersmith, among others, has written some very informative articles about guitar vibration modes, for the Guild of American Luthiers.  He considers tripoles to be very important for good sound.  ‘Tripole’ is the word used to describe a mode of movement in which a string or membrane is vibrating in three sections of maximal activity, separated by two nodes (points of non-vibration).  It sort of looks like a stretched and elongated number “8” (or an infinity sign) but with three tummies/bulges rather than just two.  There are ways of bracing and constructing a guitar so that it has the freedom to move like that, while most guitar tops have a facility for vibrating mostly as a unit and also, simultaneously, in two halves that seesaw around a center line or center point.  As far as I know, tripoles have been studied in Spanish guitars top vibrations, but not so much in steel string guitar tops.

Tripole motion can happen across the grain (cross tripole), or diagonal to it (diagonal tripole) or along the grain (long tripole), and in various combinations of these. Each of them has a specific implication for the kind of sound that the listener hears, and each of these modes can be facilitated or inhibited by judicious calibration of the top and the placement and profiling of its bracing.  It doesn’t take much to shift this mode, either: a ridiculously small amount of wood removed from here or there, or left here or there, will do it.  The tricky thing, of course, is to facilitate one or two or all three of these modal orientations without inhibiting some other mode of motion.  With the rather limited energy budget that the average guitar has, whatever energy you channel into one mode will starve, or potentially starve, some other one.  You simply can’t have it all unless your top’s motions are amplified electronically.

The significance of the tripole in the Spanish guitar is that this instrument needs a specific mix of higher-frequency action than the steel string guitar does.  As modal motion gets more complex, it contains more high-frequency signal.  The monopole has the lowest pitch; the dipole has a higher pitch, the tripole has a higher pitch yet, and so on.  Going up this particular food chain, you might consider that there are also quadropoles, which are by definition the first harmonics of the dipoles (each half vibrating in its own halves); and there are then the pentapoles, in which the face vibrates in five sections with four nodes in between them; the pentapoles would be quite high frequency indeed.  And so on.  But no one has studied these yet.

Somogyi Gryphon

Somogyi Gryphon

To help all this make sense, I might give you a bit of background here.  Bear with me.  Or simply skip the next five paragraphs.  (I discuss these matters more fully in chapter 32 of The Responsive Guitar, by the way.)

THE BACKGROUND: There are significant structural differences between steel string and classic guitars.  They also are expected to have distinct and differently balanced ‘target’ sounds.  Steel string guitars want to produce a bright sound, not a bassey one, as a function of their basic construction and stringing.  The natural voice of the fan-fretted nylon strung classic guitar, on the other hand, is the opposite: the bass is normally stronger than the treble.  This is likewise a function of its basic design, construction and stringing.  The woods might all be the same; but the stringing, structure, and mechanical tensions these guitars operate under are hugely different.

Yet, these are not at all the desired target sounds for these instruments.  In any discussion about classic guitars it is essential to recognize that the ‘best’ instruments have treble notes that sound brilliant.  They not only stand up to the bass notes, but they have their own very clear identity: that’s the standard by which these guitars are judged.  ‘Best’ is here defined by the ‘romantic’ standard that Andres Segovia created, and which standard is still applied even to the newer classic guitars with thinner tops (about which there’s a lot to say but that’s outside the scope of this discussion).  When an experienced classic guitar player first puts his hands on any guitar that he’s never played before, his left hand immediately goes to the twelfth fret position and the first notes he plays will be the high ones; it’s the acid test, pretty much the first thing one does.  It’s sort of like stepping into a new racing car and immediately revving the engine to get a sense of its power.  In contrast, any steel string guitar player, when he picks up a guitar and strums a first chord on it, will have put his hand in first position.  Have you ever noticed these things?

And what is this brilliance in the classical guitar?  Well, listen to some of Segovia’s early recordings in which he plays slowly, expressively, and romantically.  He emphasizes some of the high notes in such a way that their smoothly accented ping becomes part of the romantic sensibility of the song. Those notes are very musical, and they sparkle.

On the other hand, in any discussion about the steel string guitar, the ‘best’ ones are those that have a full, good, solid, vigorous, punchy, present, and open low end response.  This is the realm of the monopole and the cross dipoles.  Historically, the quest for a strong bass response has been the main factor behind the creation of the larger steel string guitar bodies such as the dreadnoughts and the jumbos. Low-end response is important in the steel string guitar; but smaller soundboxes can’t give it easily.  (It is interesting to note that the Spanish guitar, in spite of having every opportunity to grow physically bigger along with its metal-strung cousin has — with only one technical exception — not done so.  That exception is the Mexican mariachi bands’ bass guitar, the guitarron.)

In the light of all this, the luthier’s challenges in making either one of these models of the guitar are directly opposite.  In the steel string guitar — to achieve a good target sound — the maker has to ‘build in’ a good bass response, which the instrument will normally lack.  In the nylon string guitar — to achieve a good target sound — the maker has to ‘build in’ a good treble response, which the instrument will otherwise lack.  “A good treble” is the realm of the tripole, the quadrapole, the pentapole, etc.

Finally, to get back to your original question: awareness of the ins and outs of the tripole is thought to be an important part of the skill set required to make a good nylon string guitar.   As far as I can make out, while the steel string guitar undoubtedly engages in tripole motion, this is less important for that instrument.

Parenthetically, the luthier may or may not have a cognitive understanding of these things; he may have only an intuitive one.  One interesting thing is that as consumers we are taught to evaluate the things that we buy on the basis of how understandably that thing’s good points are brought to our attention.  But a lot of perfectly adequate luthiers aren’t all that verbally articulate; they will be unable to ‘talk knowledgeably’ or ‘convince’ you that they know what they’re doing.  Intuitive knowledge is by definition difficult to communicate verbally.  Lutherie, lovemaking, Zen, and a bunch of other perfectly wonderful things share this quality. So when evaluating your next guitar purchase don’t get hung up on whether the maker knows about the tripole: listen to the guitar and

Somogyi Guitar and Sarod!

Somogyi Guitar and Sarod!

determine whether it has a voice that you can’t live without.

The cube rule — before watching your aforementioned DVD, I had not heard of it, yet the application of it seems to be essential knowledge — especially for those interested in variations to conventional bracing. Could you please explain, the cube rule for our readers, and how it has informed your opinion on structure?

The Cube Rule (it’s my wording; engineers call it different things) is a fundamental principle of physics and engineering.  It states that the load-bearing capacity of a  material such as a beam or joist is a cubed function of its height or thickness.  That is, a ceiling rafter one inch thick has a ‘stiffness’ of one (1 x 1 x 1); a floor joist that is two inches thick is eight times as stiff (2 x 2 x 2); a beam that is three inches thick is twenty-seven times as stiff as the first one (3 x 3 x 3); and so on.  What this geometric progression means is that relatively small increments of thickness can  translate to significant differences in stiffness.

The percentages/gross numbers are the same for every unit of measurement: that is, the same formulas and numbers work for inches, feet, centimeters, etc. And they work the same on the small scale of guitar parts, too.  What this means is that a thirty-second of an inch or two, or even less, maybe just a few thousandths of an inch too much or too little, one way or the other, can make a difference of stiffening or loosening a guitar top by as much as 100%.  You can really hear that; it’s certainly worth knowing about.  Especially when you can appreciate that you’ve unknowingly been making one guitar top up to two or three times as stiff as your last one, without knowing you’ve done so.  From the standpoint of the strings, that’s hugely significant.  Your guitars will of course sound very different from one to another, possibly without your having any clue as to how you’ve managed to do that.  And it’s all from adding or taking away very small amounts of wood.

An important corollary to the above is the connectedness of your structure.  If your braces are a little longer or shorter (even if they’re the same size), or are a little further from or closer to their neighboring braces, or possibly angled a bit differently, it makes just as much difference.

Are you a good guitarist, and what do you look for in a personal instrument?

I’m a great guitarist.  I play the flamenco guitar very well.  I’ve played this music for almost fifty years and from early on I managed to play expressively and lyrically, and with impressive rhythmic control and technical subtlety.  I improvise well.  My teachers discovered pretty early on that I’ve got a remarkable Natural Talent, because of which gift I hardly ever make mistakes or play a wrong note.  Most impressive of all, I play a lot of the very same notes and chords that really famous, great musicians play — and even record with!    I’m . . . . oh, sorry.   Wrong cue card.  I got a bunch of these cheap at a White House garage sale when the Bush people moved out. J

Well, I do love and play flamenco — somewhat of an irony in view of the fact that I’m so prominent in the world of steel string guitar making.  But I have been under flamenco’s thrall since high school.  I’m not a  great player but I’m pretty competent.  Most important, though, is that playing music simply makes me happy.  I actually made my living as a flamenco guitar player for a while — when I was young, skinny, had no responsibilities, and lived on close to nothing.

Somogyi Lute

Somogyi Lute

I came to the guitar in high school, during the huge popularity of the Kinston Trio.  They were at the forefront of the folk music movement (among white people, that is; but that’s another story) and all of us high school guys ran out and bough cheap Mexican guitars (this was in San Diego, only an hour from exotic Tijuana, where there were cheap guitars to be had; my first one cost $22), learned three chords, and started to belt out folk songs.  We’d found out that if we played the guitar and sang we could get girls to pay attention to us!  That was a pivotally significant learning experience.  It was also when I found out that I can’t sing.


But I liked the guitar and plunked on it a lot, and eventually I found my way to flamenco — in which the singing sounds so awful that I felt at home with it.  I got some Carlos Montoya and Sabicas records and I was really blown away: they were playing a whole lot more than three chords.  I’ve made myself a few flamenco guitars over the years and I have been sufficiently impressed by the work of luthier Eugene Clark that I’ve commissioned two flamenco guitars from him, which I own and will play forever.  Clark is legendary in flamenco circles.  He’s one of the earliest living American guitar makers, and a brilliant craftsman.  He lives in Tacoma, Washington.

As I said, it is an irony that I have become known as a steel string guitar maker, as it’s an instrument I don’t really play.  I tried making a living at making flamenco and classic guitars for some years early on, but I was on the early part of my own learning curve and that effort didn’t pan out.

However, all is not lost.  The fact is that knowledgeable musicians seek pretty much the same qualities of response in their guitars, regardless of how they’re strung.  These qualities are: overall sensitivity of response, a ‘great voice’, dynamic range, a certain warmth, a dynamic ability to keep up with the technical demands of the player’s right and left hands, plenty of head room, and vibrancy and liveness.  And ease of handling and playing, natch.

For my flamenco guitar playing I don’t look for a smooth, golden voice such as classic guitars are supposed to have.  I want something that sounds dry, almost harsh, with a metallic edge.  Sustain should be minimal.  A little string buzz adds to the spice, and the strings need to be low, close to the face so that I can make the tapping sounds that are part of that music. A good, rough flamenco guitar sound that carries well really pleases me.

Skull detail one.

Skull detail one.

Houses of fashion design, like Givenchy or Perry Ellis, have taken in the next generation of designers to carry on the brand name. Have you ever considered to continuance of Somogyi Guitars as a future enterprise, under the creative leadership of a younger builder?

No.  Well, yes, briefly.  But not really.  I think that when I go I should go.  The idea of becoming ‘Somogyi, Inc.’ is weird to me.

In any event, none of my apprentices have wound up making guitars that sound exactly like mine.  They make guitars that have the same qualities of openness and complexity that mine have . . . but they still manage to have a sound of their own.  So I’m not sure that anyone could meaningfully ‘carry on’ the work that I do.  I  mean, the label might say Somogyi but it would be someone else’s sound.

Skull detail two.

Skull detail two.

What is your method for determining the natural impedances inherent in your building materials and compensating for them?

First of all, all materials have some amount of natural impedance.  Interestingly, most luthiers have never heard of impedance, yet it is fundamental to the functioning of the soundbox.  I’ll quote myself from the Foreword to Making the Responsive Guitar and chapter 34 of The Responsive Guitar, in explaining this.

Impedance is a basic concept of physics and electrical engineering.  Any time  energy transfers (such as the one between strings and a soundbox) happen, impedance will be part of those processes.   Impedance can be defined as the mismatch of materials properties or capacities, such that an efficient transfer of energies or transformation of energies from one form to another and/or from one material to another is hampered or prevented.  Impedance occurs, for instance, when mechanical energy becomes electrical, magnetic, acoustic, or heat energy.  Friction, heat buildup, mechanical deformation, or just plain waste, dissipation, or loss of energy can be consequences of impedance.  Put in different words, they are all versions of a form of resistance or damping that is innate in materials. One thing to do, therefore, is to work with materials that have little inner damping.  Brazilian rosewood, wenge, padauk, and a lot of spruces, cedars, and redwoods are acoustically live.  Maple, oak, walnut, ash, koa, bubinga, teak, myrtle, African blackwood, zebrawood, etc. are less live and manage to damp vibrational movement to some significant extent — in spite of the fact that one can build perfectly adequate guitars with these.

A simple example of impedance is one that we might all have done in a high school physics class when we suspended a small weight from a rubber band and observed the motion of this weight as a function of our jerking the rubber band up and down at different speeds and with different amounts of vigor. We could move our hands up and down quickly and vigorously without moving the weight very much at all: it seemed like a total waste of energy and the weight might as well have been an anvil.  But we could move our hands up and down minimally at the right frequency, and the weight would bob up and down in tandem with our hand motions: this showed an efficient coupling as a function of a frequency-to-elasticity-and-mass relationship.  This is, on a different scale, exactly what a gymnast bouncing up and down on a trampoline is doing: he can leap higher and higher as he bounces in harmony with the trampoline’s elastic membrane; and he can stop his motions in a second by changing his body movements.  Same body mass, same trampoline, different impedance. On yet a different scale this is the same phenomenon observed in the behaviors of suspension bridges when, during military maneuvers, the bridges’ harmonic frequencies are matched by the footsteps of soldiers marching across them and the bridges start to shake.  Soldiers are supposed to not march across bridges in lock-step for this reason: in extreme cases they can bring the bridge down by simply exciting it at that particular frequency.  A fourth example might be that of firing a gun at a parked car: the bullet would probably go through the car or smash itself against the engine block, but the car wouldn’t move.  On the other hand, if you stood in front of the car (and it was parked on level ground, with its parking brake off) and you pushed with the same amount of energy that the bullet had but at a different velocity (and of course pushing in a greater than bullet-hole-sized area), you would move the car a few inches: impedances will have been matched (or nullified, depending on the wording one prefers).  The principle illustrated in these examples is that, in the right frequency/harmonic relationship, a small amount of energy can move a large mass — even when brute force fails to achieve the same result.

What does this have to do with the guitar?  Everything . . . and at every level.  Potential mismatches between the strings’ energies and the receptivity of the guitar’s various parts are easily resolved once the respective energy-receiving/exchanging capacities of these components are “lined up” with each other. When those conditions are met dramatic results/activity will result where there has been little or no impact before.  In other words, a well made guitar is amazingly and dramatically more responsive than an ordinary one.  It is possible to look at top-making and top-bracing in general as nothing other than an attempt to match the impedances of the materials

7 String Peghead

7 String Peghead

so as to allow/invite/bring about the most spectacularly easy and wholehearted cooperation possible between the strings and the guitar’s respective parts.

This formulation is likely to be somewhere between baffling and amusing to the novice guitar maker — particularly as (1) this is likely to be unfamiliar language, and (2) the language that often is used makes it sound as though one either needs a higher degree in physics to understand the concepts or (3) that there’s some kind of spiritual energy or Zen/metaphysical thing going on, instead of something that happens on any practical, real-world [albeit scientific] plane.  Also, (4) he or she has probably not yet had the chance to experience for themselves how dramatically different, positively explosive, a really intelligently built guitar’s tonal response can be — so they don’t yet have their own language to use.  But it is unproductive to worry about how “right” or “wrong” any of these formulations are.  I think that, mumbo-jumbo aside, guitar making is an art — but it is a real-world practical art in which knowing “the science” makes you a better artist.   Bottom line: don’t worry about the language; simply do the work, pay attention, learn from everything you do . . . and you’ll get better at it regardless of whether you believe you’re matching impedances, simply being a skilled woodworker, or speaking to the spirits of dead trees.  You will find that as you make the guitar lighter and lighter in construction, and its parts engage less and less in resisting and fighting each other and the strings, it will become better and better . . .

In question #9, above, you asked me whether I’d considered it important to learn technical language and concepts in order to further my lutherie work.  I didn’t.  What I did instead was to work away at it, accumulate a bunch of interesting learning experiences (one could uncharitably label these as ‘failures’), and possess a pretty large number of as-yet-undefined impressions.  Then, I stumbled onto the concept of Impedance and a bunch of stuff just fell into place for me: it gave me a name for something that I couldn’t have put my finger on previously . . . sort of like the silent, mysterious spook in old spy movies who wears a dark trench coat and hat and skulks around in the shadows stalking the hero: you know he’s there, but who is he and what is he doing? And why?  Being introduced to the concept of Impedance was a genuine lightbulb-going-on episode for me.

So, to get back to your question of “how do I determine the impedance of my woods and compensate for it”: I don’t do anything like that.  I start with the most live materials I can get my hands on — unless there’s a tonal reason for my doing otherwise.  (For instance, I once made a guitar for a professional songwriter; he returned it because it was too loud and drowned his singing out.  So I made him a quieter guitar that he was happy with.)

I think the real answer to your question is in my treatment of the voicing of the guitar, which is described at great length in chapters 18 and 19 of The Responsive Guitar.  This is: I remove wood from certain specific parts of the guitar top, in certain amounts.  I do this slowly and carefully, listening to the voice of the guitar change as I do this.  There comes a point when the guitar’s voice starts to open up.  It’s an unmistakable transformation.  Then I push the envelope a little more, until the guitar top literally makes a live, drumlike sound when I tap it even lightly: the top is, after all, a kind of drumhead — and you can get it to actually make a sound like one. To someone who has never experienced this it’s jawdroppingly dramatic.  But mostly, instead of ‘determining’ something, I’d say that my work is very much like stumbling around in a room that’s dark but that I know by feel and by ear — until I find the light switch.  Or, if you will, the volume switch.  This effort is spread out over two days of steadily inching forward.  I have some special chisels I do this




One of several things I studied at University was composition  — a topic which when approached formulaically, quickly lost its luster. In your guitar building classes, how do you encourage the creative thought process in a field that is experimental yet closely bound to physical rules?

Mostly, I teach the Principles that I’ve learned about over the years and try to get my students to apply them to the design of guitars.  I don’t teach ‘creative though’t in the sense that one might teach it in an art class, though.  Physics, acoustics, and a sense of the materials come first; pretty lines and inlays come second.

There are Principles and Rules that work to make a guitar sound really good, in the same sense that there are Principles and Rules to follow to make an airplane fly.  I haven’t studied such things formally the way an engineer might; instead, I’ve made a lot of guitars and noticed that they behaved in certain ways that seemed to be connected to specific work I’d done on them.  Then, I noticed that if  I changed something structurally the guitars’ sounds changed in predictable ways (and by the way, I didn’t do this all by myself; I got lots of feedback from musicians.  I couldn’t have done this without them).  I call these cause-and-effect phenomena ‘principles’ — which they are, even if others would have more formal names for them.  Which brings me to the question of acquiring a useful vocabulary, which I’ll address further below.

A lot of people such as airplane designers, chefs, and acrobats deal with experimental work that’s tied to physical rules.  Airplanes, automobiles, and guitars can all be designed in lots of ways and still do what they’re supposed to.  And they’ll work quite well so long as the designers, cooks, and acrobats stay within the applicable Rules of Physics, Energy, Dynamics, Materials, Air, Chemistry, and Engineering.  It’s just that luthiers have had no access to this level of education until recently; hence they’ve been working in the dark, mostly empirically and, in default of a better method, copying Martin guitars as well as each another.  And they’ve not had a way to talk about whatever they’ve learned; they’ve only had the most primitive practical vocabulary to work with.  (I’m using ‘vocabulary’ here to mean both the words and the concepts behind the words.)  Once you have a grasp of the underlying Principles and can formulate your thinking into cogent sentences — regardless of whether you call these principles the Cube Rule, the Third Law of Thermodynamics or, say, the Purple Thursday Principle — the sky’s the limit as far as artistic creativity, aesthetics, use of natural or space age materials, ergonomics, etc. are concerned.

Largely, I sort of think that my contribution will be to have helped cobble together a  verbal and conceptual vocabulary with which to talk about guitar making to both ourselves and with each other . . . a bit like taking an L.S.L (Lutherie as a Second Language) course.  I did not invent any of this, by the way: engineers and designers have known a lot of this stuff since the Wright brothers time.  I’ve just brought it to our network with more user-friendly language.  Well, o.k., I have contributed a few ideas and insights of my own, too.

Much has been made about the openness of French polish versus lacquer. Can you quantify the noticeable differences of each on otherwise identical tops?

One could.  I can’t: I don’t have the electronic equipment with which to do that kind of work.  I can tell you, though, that I can really tell the difference between the tap tone of a guitar back before the finish is applied, and the tap tone after.  You can, too.  It’s really obvious with lacquer, even to an untrained ear.

The importance of the finish is twofold.  First, its function is to protect the guitar’s woods agains the elements — not the player.  (It doesn’t hurt if the finish is beautiful, but that’s a commercial and aesthetic consideration, not an acoustic one.)  Second, to the extent that the finish is heavier than it really needs to be, it will hold the vibrating plates back from full motion and damp the instrument’s sound.  Finishes (lacquers, urethanes, etc.) are significantly heavier and denser than spruces, cedars, etc. are.  It doesn’t take many thousandths of an inch of finish thickness to kill off a lot of sound.

The virtue of a French polish is that it’s really thin.  Much more so than lacquers and urethanes.  This is better for sound.  It’s so thin that it can scratch easily; but it’s still better for sound.

Finally Ervin, do you have any additional thoughts that you would like to share with the readers of our blog?

Thank you.  This certainly sounds like my chance to get on my soap box and proclaim away.  Pardon me while I light up this doobie . . .    ;-p

First . . . uh . . . I’d like you all get my books and DVD, and to visit my website.

I think my guitars are interesting for no other reason that they’re the product of a certain amount of human intelligence applied in a new way to a very common material.  I’m smarter than some people; I’m dumber than others. Otherwise, I generally put my pants on one sleeve at a time.



I’ve cited a number of Guitar Making Principles in this interview, and I cite a few more in my books.  They represent the Basic Rules of working with wood.  But there is another interesting Principle that I would like to mention.  It’s from a different discipline entirely, but it has an application to lutherie.  I have in mind something that former California governor (and trained Jesuit) Jerry Brown said in a televised political debate some years ago: that as far as our society is concerned there is no Principle of Enoughness to contain all the striving, efforts and judgments we make, as a people and as a body politic.  I’d never heard anyone mention this thing before but it seemed like a shaft of light in the darkness. There really is no Principle of Enoughness at most levels of personal, social, business, or governmental life.  In our own ways, we all want to Increase Our Market Share — without any ultimate stopping point in sight for such effort.

I think that this very New-Agey-sounding principle can be a metaphor for guitar making.  It has as legitimate an application to lutherie as do the Cube Rule, the Monopole and Dipoles and Tripoles, Stiffness to Weight Ratios, Coupled Harmonic Oscillation, Structural vs. Monocoque engineering, the guitar-as-air-pump, Helmholtz resonances, the Law of Conservation of Energy, Impedance, Huygens devices, bracing (i.e., strategies for regulating vibrational modes), Young’s Modulus of Elasticity, and the behaviors of I-beams and engineered trusses — all of which are discussed in my books.  They all support the idea of ‘that’s enough; you can stop carving away now’.

(Oh, wow: The Jesuit’s Guide to Guitar Making!  . . . But I’m kidding about kidding: I think Enoughness is a profound principle in real life.)

Aside from that, and on a different level entirely, I find butterflies fascinating.  Bear with me a bit here.  They are GREAT design work!  Consider the humble butterfly’s life course.  The young larva emerges from the egg, which of course has previously been fertilized; and that’s a whole different discussion.  The larva then feeds, grows, survives, and becomes a  pupa, and then a caterpillar — which is basically a bigger, fatter larva that’s reached full puberty, except for the acne.  The caterpillar encases itself in a cocoon (ever wonder how those peanut-sized worms ever learn to do such a thing?  I mean, with humans, it takes agriculture, an entire viable culture of teaching, the complex social relations involved in learning, problem-solving, extracting dye from plants and dyeing the fibers, making looms, division of labor, skill and experience , etc. . . . to just weave a friggin’ blanket, for crying out loud!) . . . and a whole goddamn butterfly emerges from the cocoon, in due time.

Now, the butterfly is totally different than the caterpillar.  It’s more different anatomically than you are from your pet cat.  It has different internal organs, body shape, mouth, eyes, color-coded wings, legs, sexual organs, it doesn’t eat leaves any more, it flies, it swarms, it gives off pheromones . . . etc. etc. etc.   And get this: the caterpillar doesn’t ‘morph’ into the butterfly the way a seed ‘morphs’ into a tree — that is, through a process of serial steps of growth that you can observe, measure, and track.  THE CATERPILLAR BECOMES AN UNDIFFERENTIATED LIQUID INSIDE THE COCOON.   It just melts away!   And a whole new TOTALLY DIFFERENT CREATURE is formed from that . . . uh . . . soup.  Wow.  It’s like putting all the Legos back in the box and then making something completely different with them.  Now THAT’S reeeeeeallllllly cool.  I mean, it sort of puts a monopole to shame, you know.  Can you imagine the time and hassle that would be saved if your teenage kids just melted into a puddle and then came out as fully formed adults?  It is enough to make one weep with awe.  And no one has any real clue as to how this is done.

Likewise, consider the common spider.  You know, those icky things.  Spiders have no muscles. What!? you say.  Even bees and beetles and maggots have muscles!  How do spiders manage to get around?!  The answer is top-drawer-level design work, Watson.  You see, spiders’ legs are hollow and filled with fluid.  Spiders — the big ones and the small ones — move around through a system of carefully controlled and coordinated hydraulic pressures.  I mean, Dude, what a brilliantly great design idea!  And with these carefully articulated hydraulic pressures spiders can coordinate their eight legs to weave webs, catch food, etc.  Not only that, but their webs — material for which come out of glands in their abdomens — are sticky to everything except themselves!  And no one has any real clue as to how this is done.

Well sure, you say, it’s the DNA thing, obviously.  Everybody knows that.  Don’t you watch the Nature Channel?  Oh, yeah, right, totally.  And this might perhaps segue us into an appreciation of the fact that you and I, along with your first grade teacher, and the clerk who sold gum to the bully who made your life miserable in the fifth grade, and your sister-in-law’s ex-husband’s second cousin’s neighborhood librarian, and all the Ugandan building custodians who were hired last November, etc. . . . are each made up of one trillion cells . . . that are furthermore mindbogglingly specialized, and that started out as one measly single one.  That’s pretty cool too.  I mean, it sort of puts a monopole to shame, that does.

Know how much a trillion is?  Hah!  I betchayadon’t, as Sarah Palin might say.  If you were to read out loud the following sentence: “a thousand, plus another thousand, plus another thousand, plus another thousand, plus another thousand, plus another thousand, plus another thousand, plus another thousand, plus another thousand, plus another thousand, plus another thousand, plus another thousand. . . . . . “  etc., at a rate of two of these every second, it would take you sixty years to get to a trillion.  You couldn’t ever stop for lunch, dinner, sleep, bathroom breaks, or to admire my guitars, or even to scratch where you itch.  Not ever. Two thousand, every second, for sixty years!  All from one little germ cell!   Yep, I’m not gonna worry much about being well-regarded by that Bostonian in 2057 who never met me — and who furthermore might turn out to be a sonofabitch I wouldn’t even like.  If that guy has any sense he’ll be out worshipping butterflies and spiders. And maybe even Jerry Brown.

Of course, I do feel peeved that the guy might be making a bunch of money off my guitars, without his having ever made even one.  That sort of sucks. It is soooooooo unfair.

Any idea of whom I can complain to?  Anybody out there?  Hello? . . .

The Great Ervin Somogyi!

The Great Ervin Somogyi!


Special thanks to Robert Carrigan for the generous use of his Woodstock photos.

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