Dream Guitars is happy to announce that we’ve embarked on a custom build with a luthier we’ve been following with interest for several years now, Mr. Stuart Day of Stuart Day Guitars. Stuart is known for both his archtops and his flattops, and his unique design features and inlay techniques. The SD1-VC he’s begun building for us will feature Cocobolo back and sides, a Sitka Spruce top, and a taste of Day’s latest aesthetic flair. We couldn’t resist the urge to chat with Stuart about what’s going on with him in life and lutherie these days, and we discovered some fascinating projects he’s recently embarked on, including building a permaculture farm! See below for our conversation with Stuart, and stay tuned for a separate blog post to chronicle the build process for our in-the-works SD-1VC. We’re grateful to finally start this project with Stuart; thanks so much!
1. Who are some of your favorite guitar players? Have you built instruments for any of them?
A perk of working with Tom Ribbecke for so many years was that I got to work with a lot of exceptional musicians. Including some Grammy winners. But the first time I built an instrument for an artist whose music I personally really enjoyed for a long time is happening right now. I’m building a semi-hollow carved top instrument, similar to a Gibson 335, for a guy named Mike Love. I guess you’d say he’s a reggae musician, although I think he’s much more than that. He is a one-of-a-kind talent in musicianship, arrangement, vocals, and guitar. It’s exciting building for him because he’s such an adventurous player that I know he will find every nook and cranny that my guitar can take him and then some. Other than Mike, I would really like to work with Kinloch Nelson, George Benson, and Julian Lage.
2. What builder(s) inspire you today?
So many. Michihiro Matsuda for his courage in pursuing his unique style. Jason Kostal and Michael Greenfield both for being examples of how to succeed in this craft, in business and in life. Bryan Galloup and Sam Guidry for their relentless work on understanding the physics of instruments and education. Michael Bashkin for having this immense knowledge and skill in the most humble and gentle personality. And all the young bright and über talented makers who keep me on my toes and inspire me to continue to better myself. Tyler Robbins, Tyler Wells, Maegen wells, Tom Sands, Ben Paldacci, Jeremy Jenkin, just to name a few. So many more…Everyone seems to bring something to the table that is admirable.
3. Please describe your goals in voicing an instrument. How did you first find your voice, and how do you continue to experiment?
Well, there are certainly some parallels but the answer to that question differs greatly depending on whether I’m talking about archtop guitars or flattop guitars. The two are extremely different in both the end tonal goal and also the approach. Having the privilege to be exposed to Tom Ribbecke and Ken Parker, as I’ve developed as a builder has allowed me to really understand how the archtop guitar can be so much more than so many people believe. So, in archtops I’m really trying to create truly exceptional acoustic instruments with a lot of the dynamic range, responsiveness, low and mid-range response and texture that you would expect from a truly great flattop, but with the precision, projection, focus, and separation of chorus that you would expect from an archtop.
That process is much more intuitively based. Lots of feeling and listening. On my flattops, I’m trying to achieve a piano-like balance and depth. I like instruments which have range, drama, and balance, but that do not sound too sterilized. I like a little throatiness in the mid range, and some texture and thickness in the trebles. I use a lot more science and data in my flattop builds to try to achieve some consistency and control. I think my flattop building approach and philosophy is really informed by my archtop building experience. So I’ve been told that my flattops tend to have very even and flat response rates up the fretboard which make many players feel they are very versatile. I had a musician from Spain borrow a 12-fret OM for some gigs he was playing on the east coast and he remarked when he returned it to me that he found himself playing a lot of Jazzy and Spanish kind of things that he normally would stay away from on his flattops. I thought that was interesting.
4. You have a distinct aesthetic that sets you apart from other builders. Could you describe your aesthetic approach, and how it has evolved over your career?
It’s been important for me from day one to establish a unique voice for myself both in tone and in aesthetic design. I have a background in fine art and design so I’ve always approached lutherie as a mixed media art form. It’s a craft that is impossible to excel at unless you are quite exceptional in skill and vision. Which means that your fellow luthiers all pose some pretty significant competition. It’s like an industry full of Michael Jordans. So I think differentiation is important. Earlier on I really just let myself go wild…I had a lot of fun pushing my hand skills to their limits, trying to bump up against that edge where I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to pull it off. As time has gone by, I’ve tried to pull things back a bit, take the ideas I felt that were really worth pursuing, try to perfect them and bring them down to a refined level. Occasionally giving myself an opportunity to do something fun and different like my faceted cutaway, which is my very challenging, slightly masochistic, version of a Florentine cutaway. My interest right now is in taking this great wealth of traditional techniques and methodology from generations of lutherie and furniture making and coupling it elegantly with a contemporary aesthetic and use of material and techniques. Hence my new rosette I’m making for my first instrument with Dream guitars. Using that contemporary offset vibe mixed with pretty traditional classical and steel string rosette elements.
To me, aesthetics are not just decoration. They’re a form of communication. We are communicating our values, ethics, skill level, creativity, etc. through our aesthetic design and execution. If people would like to hear more about my thoughts on this, I have a two video series on my YouTube channel discussing my thoughts in more detail. (http://www.stuartdayguitars.com/OnTheBench.asp)
5. I know you’ve started a permaculture farm, and you’re moving your shop out there soon. What changes would you like to implement to your shop arrangement and workflow in the new location?
Yeah, and I can’t wait to end the days of my long commute. The first few years of being on my own were pretty nuts. Shops, designs, tooling, jigs have all come and gone. I’ve been working on finding myself as a builder while at the same time trying to survive as a business owner and run a full service repair and restoration shop. It’s felt chaotic at times, and as I’ve experimented trying to find what it is I want to be building, it’s been difficult for me to hit my goals in terms of production. So, I think this next chapter will see things calming down a bit. I know what I want to build now, I have a few years of tooling and shop building under my belt, my wood supply has been steadily growing, as well as the health of my business. So, I think in terms of work flow and things I’m ready to start refining my process so I can hit my production goals more efficiently. I do everything by hand. Partly out choice and partly out of necessity. To make that efficient I really need to make sure I’ve designed my processes as well as I’ve designed my instruments. Now that I know I’m on my right path as far as my designs, I can start to do that.
6. While we’re on the subject, why permaculture? Do you have any plans to marry it with your guitar building?
Well, that’s a long discussion. Farming was not something I planned for myself. It sorts of came out of nowhere in life when my partner, Jade, and I moved to the farm that she grew up on. I just started looking around at my surroundings wondering what we could do with it all and I discovered permaculture and agro-ecology. The more I researched and learned the more I felt like it was a perfect fit for me. It offers me the opportunity for self-sufficiency, to contribute positively to my community, to work outside and be physical and to work positively towards a better environment.
Permaculture is essentially a farming style which tries to use evolutionary aspects of the local ecology to create food. You are facilitating a healthy ecology and thereby reducing the work load and input needed on your end. For reasons I haven’t been able to put my finger on yet, I feel like there is something about good permaculture which mirrors good lutherie. Maybe it’s the fact that a great guitar is essentially a perfectly balanced system. It’s my belief that a sustainable career in lutherie also requires a very healthy balance of work and life. So, in a way, good lutherie is a parallel to a healthy ecosystem.
Time will tell. We are still very early in the planning phase of all of this. We haven’t actually officially started the farming business yet. My first priority is obviously just getting my shop moved in March and getting back to work as soon as possible. But yes, the ultimate goal, which I think is possible with a good plan and time management, is to marry the two trades together so that they both strengthen each other. Both have their own inherent instabilities and I think it may be possible to merge them so that together they create a good stable income and career for people in trades like lutherie. I’m excited to see what this adventure brings. One of my goals is to start sourcing a lot of my own timber. We have a lot of maple, walnut, and cherry on the land. A lot of it comes down in storms and so there is a lot of possibility there for me to begin milling wood for furniture making and hopefully for a lot of instruments.
7. If you had not become a guitar maker, where do you think life would have led you?
I really have no clue. I’ve always been really into nature and animals, so I assume that if it weren’t for lutherie I would have gone in that direction. I was always pretty interested in marine biology. I was also pretty happy as a finish carpenter and high-end deck builder so who knows.
8. What music are you listening to right now?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Neil Young ever since he put his whole song library online for free.
I’ve also been pretty addicted to Kendrick Lamar’s new album DAMN. One of the best hip hop albums I’ve heard in a very long time.
9. Heaven forbid, your shop is going up in smoke. What’s the one tool you’d grab?
The fire extinguisher ;)
Stay tuned for the upcoming build thread to document Stuart’s process of building our SD1-VC!