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Tag Archive for: Vicki Genfan

Recently Doug Young dropped by Dream Guitars and taught this great 3 part guitar lesson on arranging Amazing Grace for fingerstyle guitar. To follow along with the tablature, please click here.

From Doug’s website:

Doug Young is a fingerstyle instrumental guitarist based in the San Francisco South Bay area. An active perfomer in the local acoustic guitar scene, Doug hosts a monthly guitar showcase that has featured performers like Dorian Michael, Thomas Leeb, Steve Baughman, Teja Gerken, and many more. So far, Doug has released one CD, Laurel Mill, featuring his solo guitar playing, compositions and arrangements. Mel Bay has published his best-selling instructional book: “Understanding DADGAD: For Fingerstyle Guitar.” He is a Contributing Editor for Acoustic Guitar Magazine, and has also been published in Fingerstyle Guitar Magazine. In his role at Acoustic Guitar, Doug has written numerous instructional articles, gear reviews, and interviewed many of today’s top guitarists including Tommy Emmanuel, Sergio Assad, Andy McKee, Laurence Juber and Pierre Bensusan.

To learn more about Doug, his gig schedule, and his array of reviews and quality products, click here.





Kathy Wingert is an artist that has complete control of her medium. I met her for the first time at the most recent guitar festival in Ft. Lauderdale, at the Hard Rock. Her displays are hugely popular at guitar shows — the lines of her instruments are so elegant, the voices of her guitars are so original, the inlay work is beautiful and so…non derivative.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for Kathy’s skills. She is an exceptional luthier, and consistently builds instruments with supreme voices.

First a little biography please. How long have you been a builder? With whom, if anyone, did you study or do repairs? Please tell me about your “ah-ha” moment when you realized luthiery was to be your chosen path.

A tiny little seed got planted during a trip to a guitar shop, the World of Strings.  One of the employees showed me a billet of Indian rosewood and proudly proclaimed that he was going to learn to build a guitar.  I was very curious about where and how that got done, and he said he would be learning from his boss, Jon Peterson.

My ah-ha came during a moment of soul searching, which I happened to be doing in the library.  I was ready for a new chapter and a new direction, the kids had gotten old enough for me to start thinking that way, and I was wide open to new ideas.  As luck would have it there was a book on guitar making in my library.  (I wish I could say which book it was, I haven’t seen it since.)

Though I knew instantly and deeply that I could be good at guitar making, I also knew it would take a little time to find my path.  I was on the cusp of the internet, and back in those days, kids, you had to leave your house to get information.  I read my way through five libraries and had collected quite a few books, including books about sharpening chisels and the amazing number of ways a router could be used, but I hadn’t found in print the book that made it all make sense.  I really don’t know how long the discovery process went on, but one morning I woke up and I understood how to build a guitar, not from a plan, but from a design of my own.

The next hurdle was finding materials.  A kind employee of a woodworking store told me about a guitar making class at a community college, and after I had been in the class for two months, the instructor told me that Jon Peterson at the World of Strings was looking for someone.  I took in some necks I had carved and an electric drop top that I had completed and got hired in 1995.

Has being a woman, in a field largely dominated by men, been advantageous or disadvantageous in anyway?

It was annoying as heck in the busy repair shop.  If I went to the counter they’d just ask for the “repair guy.”  I think being a woman kept my client list a little leaner than some builders with whom I feel I am well matched, but time has sorted a lot of that out.  I do know that I have had more than my share of wonderful customers with whom I have enjoyed every part of the journey.

On your website, you mention that you are in love with your job, and how deeply you enjoy the creative aspects of being a builder. Can you tell me more about that emotional connection, and how it relates to building guitars for clients, who may have different preferences than your own?

The answer to that probably relates pretty closely to the issue of being a woman in a male dominated business.  I think many times the people I work with are just open to letting me do what I do.  I can tell you for sure guys have let me build some pretty frilly guitars for them while pretending it was my idea!

Look, I’m very invested in what I do, and I am emotionally connected, but I’m also 100 percent pro.  There is almost always a middle ground, and I can catch the vision even if a client’s tastes are different from mine.

Working with your daughter Jimmi must certainly add to the love and meaningfulness of designing and constructing your instruments. How does that collaboration work?  How much free reign do you allow her to incorporate her own ideas?

Jimmi just continues to get better and better busier and busier, so I’m loving what’s going out the door to other builders, and I stare meaningfully in her direction hoping she will have time for me again one day!

Jimmi works with me much the same way as she works with any builder.  A lot of the time she works directly with the client and then construction issues are sorted out with the builder.  When we’re working on one of mine we have the advantage of passing materials back and forth, but she works it out really well by mail too.

When someone calls you to commission a guitar, how does the communication process work? How do you discover what type of guitar to build for a client that has difficulty articulating how they’d like the

instrument to be voiced?

Sometimes it’s a matter of discovering how much a potential buyer might know about the subject of tone and wood differences.  If it’s an experienced collector I ask a few questions about what they like and/or don’t like about guitars that they’ve owned.  I always look for that little area of common experience and we work from there.  If it’s a less experienced guitarist or guitar buyer, I look for the same thing, but perhaps instead of talking about whether they like the punch of sitka or the twinkle of koa, I might ask a lot of questions about voices of singers or instruments in an orchestra.  The point, for me, is to find out whether they are looking for a guitar like mine.  Occasionally I have suggested other builders when I’ve felt there would be a better match up.

Speaking of voicing, please take me through the process of voicing a guitar with a contemporary sound, and how that differs from voicing a guitar that is more traditional.

I don’t know if I’m qualified to answer that one.  My work has been toward a sound that I wanted to hear, and I have learned through hard lessons what takes me away from that.  I have all the same anecdotal information about what makes a prewar Martin sound like they do, but I have never pursued that sound.

You have mentioned using a signal generator and Chladni patterns in voicing your guitars? Could you describe what Chladni patterns are and how you use them to help in the process?

When you play a harmonic on a string, you have divided it in segments, but the reason it physically works is because at the mathematical division of the octave or fifth or whatever, there is a nodal point on the string that allows it to vibrate freely around a still point when the conditions are right (meaning when the string is struck and your finger is on that node).  At those naturally occurring places, there is no displacement. When a guitar top is excited with vibrations, there are also nodal points and in those areas of little to no displacement, the glitter piles up.

The arrangement of the glitter patterns at a given frequency range indicates the efficiency of the top, or more instructively, the non-appearance of a pattern at a target frequency means I have work to do.

Chladni patterns are not a recipe for a great guitar, they are an indication of what you just did.  Hopefully, if you stumble on a great recipe, you can do it again.

I am not an expert on Chladni patterns or any other science approach to lutherie, so my use of glitter testing is merely a way to double check that I’m on the right track.  The range of frequency at which I get certain patterns are what I’m interested in, and the rest I do the old fashioned way.

The first Kathy Wingert guitar that I had the pleasure of playing had back and sides of blackwood. It immediately became my favorite tone wood, even passing Brazilian Rosewood as my tone wood of choice. Please tell me about working with blackwood, how you view its tonal characteristics, and when you would recommend it over Brazilian.

I love AB, but I’ve come to hear it very differently from Brazilian, and for a long time I wouldn’t have said that.  What I like and what I hear in the heavy woods, AB and cocobolo is a weightiness and sustain in the mids.  If you try to hold me to a blindfold A/B test, I’ll be happy to tell you that I learned a long time ago it’s darned hard to do!  I believe that 90% of tonewood choice has to do with the feedback the player gets and has very very little effect on the listener 15 feet away, at least not if there is any other noise in the room.

How important are trade shows and guitar festivals for bringing in new clients and expanding the growth of your business?

I think the trade shows and festivals are enormously important for custom lutherie as a whole.  I know I personally benefit from doing them, though many times it is long after the show.  I always see or hear something the kicks my fanny.  I also believe it’s really important for the community as a whole to show up, present well, and let people know that we are accountable to a larger community.  As a community, professional luthiers have built a lot of trust.  We have buyers who write checks for a deposit on something they aren’t going to see for years.  That’s huge.

You seem very environmentally aware. How can the traditions of luthiery evolve to embrace a new “greener” philosophy?

I might be wrong, but I think small builders working on a few instruments are remarkably green.  We waste as little as possible and most of us don’t do a lot clothes or shoe shopping for this career.  Many of us commute only a few steps from the house to the shop.

I am going to guess that the nastiest thing we do is over use abrasives.  I love working with planes and drawknives, but I have power tools and it just goes faster.  If I were to grab for that knife, the dust collector could stay quiet.

As for the protection of exotic hardwoods, it’s important to care, and it’s important to stop asking for woods that are in trouble from places that are over harvested.  The highest and best use of precious exotic woods is in fine instruments, and some of the controls that are in place should go a long way toward stopping the indiscriminate use of fine woods on not so fine factory instruments, or as flooring or lawn furniture.  It’s also important to understand that the trees won’t be protected if they have no commercial value, so it is important as a community that we fight for the woods that we need.  For those who are somewhat new to the subject, please re-read that last line!

Please tell me about your fascination with Harp Guitars?

That was a case of a customer wanting something I didn’t really want to do.  In fact, I refused for more than a year.  But the customer was a friend and he has patience, so he wore me down.  After I built one and had a minute or two to try to play one, I was interested in building more, if only for my own use.   I haven’t been able to hang on to one long enough to learn much, and what I do work out on one is easily forgotten, but harp guitars aren’t meant to make guitar playing harder, they are meant to make it easier once you get a toe hold.  The jumping off place is a lot more difficult on harp guitar, and I’m still there.

Some of your larger harp guitars have sycamore back and sides. Why sycamore? Tonally, what does this wood offer?

Some of my harp guitars are sycamore because I had it!  Harp guitar sets are hard to come by and I thought it would look cool.  It was very successful for harp guitar because it didn’t add a lot of clutter to the bass.  The bass was clear and strong, but not ringy.  The first thing you have to learn is to find the sub basses on a harp guitar, the second thing you have to do is shut them up.  I haven’t built a standard six out of sycamore, so my experience with it is limited to the outcome of those two harp guitars.

When I play your guitars, I am always impressed with the strength of the treble frequencies all the way up the neck, and how well balanced they are with the lows and mids. What is the secret to building an acoustic guitar that has such strong treble fundamentals?

Thank you!  Again, I can only tell you that my recipe has been added to over time.  I tease that it used to take me 120 hours to build a guitar and now I’m pretty sure it takes me twice that long.  There are all the added steps that I have acquired over the years.

I think one of the big secrets in guitar building, and one that gets talked about very little has to do with how well the neck tunes to the body.  I’m really lucky that my steel string headstock seems to be about the right size and weight.  I have nodal points that fall pretty much where I need them to be, and that little extra adds to consistency up the neck – or so my violin making mentor taught me.

In the next 5-10 years, what do you envision for Wingert Guitars? Will there be a continuing evolution in your designs? Will you branch off in new directions?

I have been working on something old rather than something new.  I love classical guitar and I have started taking time to pursue that.  I’ve built some passable classicals and have sold them at fair prices for their abilities, but I am ready to take commissions on classical guitars now for the right buyers.  By the time this goes to print, I will probably have had time to prototype the last couple of things I want to iron out.

I’ve learned over the last couple of years that I really enjoy teaching, but my personal evolution isn’t complete yet.  So much of what I do is intuitive or ingrained, it is hard for me to break it down for someone else, so in the next few years, I would like to get better at that kind of communication.  I think it might be so appealing because it is at a completely different pace from the daily madness of wearing all the hats.   To explain the steps to someone else simply requires taking a deep breath, and that’s kinda nice.

Finally Kathy, do you have any additional thoughts that you’d like to share with our readers, i.e., thoughts about guitars, information about you, thoughts about creativity, life lessons… anything?

Well, all of your readers need a Wingert guitar because they know lots of songs, will entice your creative muse to show up,  and will even improve your singing voice in just 14 days!

My great thanks to Kathy for her participation in this interview. Dream Guitars is proud to carry her uniquely voiced one of a kind creations.


Steven Dembroski






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:


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.


Click here to read part 2.

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

Here Al demonstrates his radical new extended technique to Tony McManus.

Here Al demonstrates his radical new extended playing technique to Tony McManus. (Not recommended for beginners!)

Since 1991, Warren Wilson College has hosted The Swannanoa Gathering. For those who haven’t heard of it before, The Swannanoa Gathering is a series of week-long workshops , where attendees can learn about  and participate in a multitude of different folk arts.

Of course our favorite part of the Gathering is Guitar Week — which this year runs from July 25 through the 31st. Boasting an incredible staff of world class musicians and teachers, Guitar Week has something for every eager acoustic guitarist.

Our very own Al Petteway, who is the coordinator of Guitar Week, is doing an exciting series of classes called “Standard Tuning As An Open Tuning”. His classes are always very fun and extremely informative. Al Petteway also selects the rest of Swannanoa’s  instructors to ensure that the quality of instruction is at the highest possible level.

Tony McMannus doing what he does best.

Tony McManus doing what he does best.

Other notable luminaries lending there talents include the incredible Tony McManus, Vicki Genfan, Adam Rafferty, and Robin Bullock. They offer everything from courses on Celtic Flatpicking, to Acoustic Guitar: Percussive & Rhythmic Techniques. Truly something for everyone.

Dream Guitars will be there in full force too — showing off, what else, the best guitars in the world! We welcome everyone to come and visit us, and play the amazing creations we showing off.

We love to get out of the shop and rub elbows with our fellow musicians — to be part of the community, and to help foster guitar awareness whenever we can.  I hope to see you there.  It’s going to be a great time!