Clearly, luthiery requires a diverse set of finely honed skills, but it also requires a deep aesthetic understanding. Do you consider yourself more of an artist or a craftsman?
I definitely consider myself a craftsman with a very strong artistic sense. I had always been fond of arts of all kinds — decorative, interpretive, pre-modern, impressionist, surrealistic. I am fond of many types of art. But I’m also very fond of many types of crafts, pottery, jewelry and knife making, and furniture. This is the world of my imagination.
When you’re starting to build a guitar and you’re trying to picture it in your visual mind, many artistic considerations come into play that go beyond crafting a fine sounding guitar. Different colors of wood, different colored shells, colored purflings, bindings and shapes, all become a pallet that is available to you to compose a beautiful looking instrument.
One must also realize ultimately you’re making a tool for a musician. No matter how beautiful or arty a guitar looks, if it doesn’t play well and sound great I don’t care how arty it is. I would much rather have a guitarist tell me, “I love the sound of the guitar”, rather than “the sound is OK but the inlays are great”. It’s really totally about the sound and playability.
Recently, flying back from a guitar festival I noticed one of the editors of a guitar magazine on the plane who had been at the show. We started talking, and he mentioned that he had played a lot of very expensive heavily inlaid guitars that didn’t play or sound very good. He said exactly what I was thinking from my own experiments at the festival. A lot of the guitars at the show were designed to be eye catching, but a lot of effort had not been put into making them play well. So the artistic side of guitar making is a field that one should embrace carefully, making sure the instrument sounds and plays well first. After that, as far as I’m concerned, anything goes.
Your recent work features 2, 3, even 4 side ports! Can you tell us about your recent fascination with ports, and how you integrate them into your designs?
The first guitar maker that I saw moving sound holes around was Richard Schneider, who started putting his top sound hole in the upper area of the guitar. He first moved it to the treble string side, and he explained to me the benefits of more soundboard.
At that time I also saw Boaz Elkayam — where he picked up on what Schneider was doing — and decided to move the sound hole off the top completely, and onto the side of the guitar right under the players chin. I got to hear one of the guitars built this way and it was impressive.
I really liked the side port right from the start. I also became aware of William “Grit” Laskin and Linda Manzer who also we’re using side sound ports. Through the Healdsburg Guitar Festival, I got to hear and play many guitars with side sound ports by excellent builders.
When an excellent commission came along, where the customer was asking about using a side sound port, I jumped at the chance. I put one small oval sound port in the upper bout and I really loved the way it sounded. The customer did too… a lot!
He ordered a second guitar using two side sound ports plus a regular top sound hole. We both loved the sound. It changes the entire sound of the guitar in a very profound way.
I recently finished a guitar for my web master David Bricker, where he suggested that we not put a sound hole in the top at all. So we put two rather large sound ports in the side. The guitar was remarkably loud. Figure that one out.
After some initial hesitancy on my part to try sound ports, I am now completely committed to using them on all my guitars. The overall impression is of a slightly more open, ringing quality. There are different explanations as to why ports work, but after over 10 years of playing and building guitars with them, there is no question in my mind that they improve my own guitars.
Some of my old customers have brought back their Keller guitars, and have me cut ports in the sides. The results have been consistently good, and everyone liked the improved tone. After 35 years of building guitars, sound ports have completely changed the way I think about what a guitar can sound like. Recently I saw a guitar by John Monteleone with three side sound ports. I loved it. They were on an arch top guitar.
After building hundreds of guitars, do you feel the need to change up your designs and procedures just to keep it interesting? Or is there greater satisfaction in further refining the execution of a well thought out design?