composition position

I stopped playing in popular music bands a few years ago because I felt a bit board and jaded with playing rock and pop music. I felt I was just turning into the grumpy old musical snob I knew I had always been. But when I think more about it, I realise that my falling out of love with popular music and turning to classical listening and playing, coupled with a little ‘advanced technique’ jazz performance, happened when I took a six month sortie into the world of electronic and experimental music in college.

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“Celebration fanfare to the quick death of Computer music”

The composition pictured above was a marker for my rejection of the concepts and ideas that underpin computer music. I studied in college three specific pioneers of these genre, Karl Heinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis and Curtis Roads. I have no problem with acknowledging these people as highly skilled and knowledgeable composers in their field. But it’s the field I have the problem with.

Rejecting computer music

My composition above is an obvious aping of the Mark Applebaum style of written score. I like the idea of the score being a work of art in and of itself, that gives a performer free reign, and encourages imaginative interpretation. So it’s not that I am against innovation, change and experimentation in music composition or performance, I just feel that fundamental skills in playing techniques and insight and thought about ALL aspects of music composition, ( harmony, structure, tempo…etc etc), get conveniently ignored by the computer music world. Yes, there can be beauty in the elegance of a computer program and the math and propositional logic that underpins it, but that beauty is only apparent to computer programmers, and the concepts behind a computer program don’t make noise. If the noises that these programs and ideas lead to have no harmonic, rhythmic or dynamic interest………are they worth anything as music?

Whats this got to do with popular music?

So why would a study of computer music put me off popular music? Well it has to do with the ALL Pervasive nature of computers in the composition and production and performance of modern music. Have you ever stopped to consider how every aspect of popular music has been shaped by computers for the last fifty years? “Well that’s just utilising technologies to do things better or more efficiently”, I hear you say. But computers have changed the way we think of and what we expect music to be. I never hear the rhythm of a composition being given to melodic instruments to hold in modern music, rhythm never changes throughout a modern popular composition, only the layering of ‘off beat’ percussive sounds changes the texture in the rhythm, the technology dictates that the rhythm, or should I say ‘beat’ is always the bedrock of the music, leaving no scope for it to just be implicit in the melodic or harmonic aspects of the composition, (if there are any). It makes the idea of varying tempo very difficult to approach if an electronically driven pulse is holding a composition together, so people just don’t.

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Stay with our Pointless Suffering

The software in use at most modern music performances such as Ableton are all marketed with the notion that they provide endless ways to create and perform, but I think that’s just a “Marketing Lie”. The very nature of this type of software is to push music performance and composition into only one approach, which is the looping and layering of repeating beat patterns. Melodic lines are slaved to the pulse set by these percussive loops, there is no chance for nuance and expressive variation between performances and they give the idea that this is really the only good way to produce music. They are in fact utterly myopic and restrictive in their nature and the music produced using them is one dimensional and banal.

Music is more than timbre

You get electric guitar fanatics constantly blabbing on YouTube and chat rooms about the perfect tone and how the right combination of effects pedals can achieve the perfect sound. These people seem only ever concerned with a ‘holy grail’ of the perfect nuanced timbre. I never hear anyone talking about melody, harmony, modulation, techniques for phrasing and playing interesting chord inversions or substitutions, they just bang on about timbre. It is the same with computer music freaks. Everyone just talks about the quality of sounds and waxes lyrical about the amazing sub bass tones they can get with their latest Moog synth. I think the simple reason for this is that they have no opinion or thought for much else, because the music format they have an interest in is so lacking in substance or breadth, there is nothing else to talk about other than the ‘Quality’ of the sounds made.

Traditional Notation isn’t getting off lightly either

I am not a traditionalist snob, however. I like innovation and new approaches and I am not against the use of computers in music outright. I have many problems with people who cling on to pointless notions about more traditional music theory. The composition below is a rant at daft notions people hold concerning music ‘rules’.

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“Ode to the slow painful death of Music Theorists”

I feel that people seem to mistake the map for the territory when it comes to music notation. Even strict ‘traditional’ notation is an imprecise language, meant to be open to interpretation and expression. People who annoy me the most are those musicians who insist “well, music is just math really”. I can’t express how irritated that commonly quoted aphorism makes me feel. Let me just point out, that mathematics is an exacting and precise method of using logical propositions to test and prove theorems, expressed with symbols that have very clearly defined and agreed meanings. It is a field intimately related to number systems and arithmetic, which share the utilisation of symbols, (in this case numbers), that mean only ONE thing. Now, reflect on music notations such as a tied triplet in a bar of 4/4 time. Yes, music does use vague arithmetic sounding language with its ‘quarter’ notes and and numbered time signatures, but what does dividing a quarter note into 3 eighth notes actually mean in a mathematical sense? I will tell you, i doesn’t mean anything. Go get a calculator and divide a quarter, (0.25) by 3. Then let me know how long you plan to play each of the notes of that triplet for. Music is most definately Not Math.

Does compound time actually exist?

A little playful thought I like to throw out to other musicians is the seemingly bonkers notion that 3/4 time and 6/8 time are the same thing at different speeds. The howls of annoyance I get from people with this are priceless. They roll their eyes in patronising derision and explain to me how I havn’t understood the concept of compound time. Having done this for a few years now, I notice a common theme in peoples responses. They talk about the notion that 6/8 time has a completely different ‘feel’ or pulse to it compared to 3/4 time. Then they ramble into the vague notions of it being about the math of odd numbers. They are caught up in notions they haven’t really thought through. They are parroting what they were taught in music theory class and just learnt the notions verbatum, never questioning if these concepts made any sense. It is another case of mistaking the map for the territory. Whatever you might feel about 6/8 time, it is essentially two groupings of three notes in each bar. My point is that this grouping is just a convention of music writing. I imagine it stems from the composer phrasing the melodic lines in such a way that they feel 6 eighth notes per bar is the most handy. With the traditional Irish Jig, the pulse of the music is two ‘pulses’ of three per bar. Well, I am simply pointing out, that 1,2,3   1,2,3  1,2,3  1,2,3 1,2,3 is just the counting of a waltz. Yes I know that the melodic phrasing might be different between a waltz and an Irish jig, I am a musician, I can hear they are different music, I am simply suggesting that the notation itself doesn’t tell you any meaningful difference. You know it through your experience of hearing those two types of music and knowing, culturally that they are played at differing paces. I understand the two time signatures indicate a different approach, but it is in the melodic phrasing and speed that they differ, not in the rhythm. 1,2,3  1,2,3 1,2,3, is just that, at any speed. (This argument only really works in relation to waltz and jig, both, incidently, social dance music forms).

The point of the argument is just to show that notation is vague and open to interpretation and meaning. You really could very easily re write a Vienese waltz into ‘jig time’ and it would still work musically, and still be recognisable as the same piece. Though why anyone would want to bother doing anything with a Vienses waltz is beyond me!

Next instalment on this new section will be about my approach to composition, what influences me and what I feel makes good music. I include below some links to some of my favourite pieces of innovative music composition. Mostly guitar based, but not all.

 

 

 

Slow down & get the sequence right

Have written nothing for a week or two because I have been solving construction problems with the mandolin build. I didn’t make a form for the instrument because I felt it would be small enough to do an ‘open’ construction. I ended up having to make an ‘internal form, to brace the sides against, (see pic right). IMG_9177 However, that did work well, so I now have a top and sides and neck glued together. The small nature of the mandolin caught me off guard a little and has presented it’s own set of problems, mostly revolving around needing to use/purchase smaller tools, (I have really big hands). I have also been filming the construction process, which I have never done before, as I find it upsets my work flow and concentration. You have to keep repositioning a camera and make sure it is recording, then finding a new angle….it’s all a bit distracting. That’s why I don’t publish on YouTube regularly enough to have any success there. It’s too much hassle for so little return. I have been convinced by a friend however, that it might be worth having a short video advertising Clareguitar and showing the work….so…that will be on youTube soon.

I have also had some interest in my ‘past life’ as a stone sculptor. I have a website for that called ‘Stone Mad’ but have done very little with it for over a year as I had no new stone works and the sculpting activity had died away. The last commission for a sculpture was this one,  over two years ago. The new interest has made me revamp the site a little and was another reason the luthier work slowed down this last couple of weeks.

As the Mandolin is coming together well, my mind has also been vaguely turning to thoughts of the two Classical/Flamenco guitars I plan to build next. I have realised that I need to commit to a design and build method before building the solera, which is what I have started on while waiting for glue ups to dry on the mandolin. here is the design IMG_9181I have come up with for the neck, or a side elevation at least. A little conservative, but I am trying to bring the work to the next level, regarding quality and finish, so doing tried and tested builds before creating problems for myself with unconventional approaches seemed wise. The construction method will be open, i.e. I don’t plan to use a form. I will use a fairly standard bracing pattern on the sound board, with quality, rather than design innovation being the focus. The brace pattern along with the neck and head stock design can be seen below.

So sequencing and slowing down to fit in all the work seems to be the order of the day. The sides are now on the mandolin, I have some good footage for the video and a design and build method is decided for the next project. IMG_9175The mandolin will be finished by next week, I think, so the next rambling monologue will be about that. I plan to make a video of that if it sounds o.k. , though I have been told by better builders than me that I should leave a new build sit around for a few months before I string it and set it up for playing…..slow down???

Actually, I lied, I plan the next blog to be a bit of a departure from the current build diary format. I wanted to branch out into a discussion on my approach to composition, what it means and what makes good music, from my perspective. I hope to ruffle some feathers, but as only about ten people read this blog regularly, I doubt that will happen!

 

 

And that’s how it sounds

I couldn’t wait for the guitar to settle in….had to make a video showing off the sound….which is, well let me reflect…

Tone.

I was worried that the unconventional/experimental sound board design might just kill the tone, or collapse altogether, due to the weird bracing pattern. It is a little brittle in the top end, but I am surprised at the power of the bass. The mids are a little scooped out but I am happy that it has a fairly full sound.

Amplitude.

The guitar is very loud. I thought the relatively high bridge might kill the volume but it seems robust, compared to other guitars I own.

Play-ability.

The action is very low, without any fret buzz and the ‘C’ profile neck suits me, though I can carve any shape neck for any customer who wants something different. This is only a 20 fret guitar. The 14th fret lies at the neck/body joint, so there is plenty of room to manouvre.

Final reflections on the build.

This started out as an experiment in sound board design and a protest against bindings. I caved on the bindings, and am glad I did. Even if the ‘technical’ reasons for them seem dubious to me, I have to admit, simple bindings in a contrasting wood do ‘frame’ the piece well. I chose a back angle on the neck, to allow for a smooth run onto the arched sound board, but didn’t plan well enough and ended up having to raise the finger board away from the top, because flattening the top right up to the sound hole would have destroyed the lines of the guitar, and made the sound hole look funny…..So thats why most arch tops have ‘F’ holes!

For me though, the most important thing has been to prove that you don’t need “at least 16 growth rings per inch in the sound board wood”, to make an instrument with a good resonant tone. This sound board is a piece of spalted maple that it was hard to define any growth rings in apart form on the end grain. Have a listen for yourselves. All thoughts and comments welcome.

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Tail Pieces

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Ta..DAAA!, its finished. Well, apart from the intonation adjustments and refinements to the set up, but it plays fine, sounds….er, not bad. I will post a video on you tube maybe in the next week or so, of me playing the thing,  once its has settled into tension a bit more.

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The tail piece held me up at the end. I have a beach wood with padauk inlay on the guitar now. I originally made an ebony tail piece that was smaller than the second one. That was my mistake, I didn’t realise that however perfect and tight the joint you make in two pieced of wood, they won’t hold together if they are too small for the tension placed on them.DSC_0040 On first stringing up, I pulled the guitar up to full tension and the original tailpiece just blew apart. Hence the new one. I wanted some way to tie the beach wood of the new tail piece in with the rest of the guitars aesthetic, so I went with the padauk inlay, to match the sides. I had run out of ebony because I also designed a new bridge. The first one I made worked fine, I was just worried it wasn’t wide enough to distribute the string load well. Steel strung guitars have over 100ibs of tension on them and a floating bridge that is too narrow is at risk of just puncturing the sound board.

The sound board seems robust but has sagged about two millimeters. The guitar sound is fine and there are no signs of cracks or over tension in the top, so I think my bracing was adequate..if a little unconventional for an arch top. I had half expected a significant sag and built that into the design of the bridge. The action on initial set up is at 3.5mm at the 12th fret, pretty good for an acoustic. No fret buzz anywhere which astounded me…must be getting better at fretting. Now it’s time to move on to the next project….after a bit of a break for other music performance activities.

Below is a little pictorial journey through the build…

 

 

Elegant bridges

The project finally looks like a guitar. We have come from closing the box, putting on the bindings and fixing the neck to fretting the finger board and beginning to make a bridge and tail piece, all in one week.

My first finger board radius attempt went well. I used an 18″ radius block, started with 80grit, went to 120grit then put a finish on by hand with 240 then 400 grit. The ebony looks like glass. I also made the decision on the nature of the bridge. I had a clear idea of the height the strings were going to be at the bridge and realised a fixed bridge would not have been feasible. I planned the guitar to have a back angle on the neck but I had calculated a less acute angle because I didn’t know how much of an arch I would get into the sound board.IMG_9116 I also didn’t take into account the sound hole: I couldn’t flatten the sound board all the way up to the sound hole for fitting the finger board, because that would destroy the inlay around the hole. This was no matter As I was committed to a floating bridge and saddle, so I put a, hopefully, elegant curve in the underside of the raised finger board after the 16th fret. Giving it an ‘arch top’ style. Putting the frets on the last four positions was tricky. I wedged cardboard beneath the finger board and sound board to stop me hammering the end of the ebony off when I fitted the frets. All went perfectly as can be seen in the photos. With the neck fitted and fretted and the initial shaping completed on the back of the neck, I turned my attention to designing a bridge. IMG_9114I have fashioned one prototype, but haven’t fitted the saddle yet. I feel it looks a little ‘clunky’ at the moment and I want to do some refinements to the design, to make it look like it belongs on the guitar.

I am glad I have had to go with the floating bridge because it makes intonation adjustments easier and also makes  redesigning of the bridge and re installation of improvements easier. The tail piece is also under construction.  It is proving the most difficult aspect of the bridge assembly. This is because I cannot decide weather to make a tail piece with a right angle that is fixed on the tail of the guitar or one that is simply attached to the front. I am leaning toward one attached to the tail block through the front of the guitar. The question then is, do I screw it in, so it can be replaced, or do I use dowels and glue it in place? It will look prettier, but make replacement a pain. Whatever I decide, it is looking like it will be an attractive enough instrument. My mind is turning to sound now. How will it sound? Next blog will be on the finish and set up and a little bit about how I like to shape necks.

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Note the tail piece (left) just sitting unfinished and undecided….

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Finger board raised on the last four frets

 

In a Bind about Tools

Here in Ireland, a common insult to someone you might be describing as a little bit inept, or daft, is to refer to them as a ‘Tool”. “Ah, Jaysus, that fella is a complete tool”. It’s a common reverse meaning found in many Irish insults. The person, unlike a tool, is in fact totally useless at whatever it is they might be trying to do.

But, yes, I agree, some tools are useless. Some very expensive tools are very useless. I ranted recently in a blog about a Veritas honing guide, that nearly ruined my plane blades. I noticed the problem just in time. But it got me thinking about what makes a good tool, and I am talking about those plastic and metal implements you have in your workshop to make things with, not that neighbor who keeps borrowing things from you and returning them broken.

I have recently been using a couple of very unconventional tools in the shop. They are two stone sculptures left lying around my house from the days when I was a full time sculptor. They came to mind in a moment of panic when I discovered that the clamping system I had divised for gluing on the tone bars and support struts wasn’t going to work, and the glue was curing fast!. I needed a flat bottomed heavy weight and these did the trick perfectly. IMG_9093One is ‘Carrara’ white marble and the other abstract piece is “blue’ limestone from Paulstown in Kilkenny. They were a good way to test the strength of the sound board and back too. They both weigh about 10kg ( thats 22 lbs for any North Americans watching). So, two new tools for the shop that cost me nothing…well, the stone was bought too many years ago to feel like it cost anything.

The other weird weight I have started using is this old anaesthetic vaporisor. I am an Operating room nurse when I don’t have enough money to do Luthery, and this was an old unit that was being chucked out. It is a great weight because it comes apart into three pieces of roughly equal weight. So I now have implements from all my various careers in the workshop!

I have, in recent weeks, spent a really large amount of money on specialised tools, because sometimes there is no way to accomplish a task properly without them. The two success stories were the ‘Binding/Perfling channel cutter, or Gramil‘ from LMI and also the ‘Rosette channel/ sound hole cutter‘ from the same company. I caved and decided to do bindings after all. I felt it was better to do something before dismissing it completely. I don’t use power tools, so I can’t route a binding channel.IMG_9097 Hence the purchase of the LMI tool and about an hour with a chisel. It all went well. I chose wooden bindings, these are ebony to match the finger board and perfling around the sound hole, which you can see were also came out well, thanks to the good tools. The simple ‘rosette’ around the sound hole was a classic example of thinking you are doing something simple, that turns out to be far harder than approaching the task in a more conventional way. I thought I would avoid the complex marquetry involved in the normal type of rosette, and do a really simple ring of ebony, to keep with my liking for an understated style. What did I learn….don’t make a rosette channel narrower than any chisel you own, or for that matter narrower than any tool in the shop!

I spent a very anxious three hours cutting the waste material from the channel, with a chisel and a craft knife, held at an angle. But it was worth the effort. I like the simple style…..even if it is more work….because you didn’t have the right tools!

Also this week I have started on the Mandolin project. Cutting the sound holes and preparing the sound board and the wood for the neck.

So what have I learnt this week….?

Really cheap tools can be great tools, really expensive tools can be great tools, but equally, really cheap tools can be crap and really expensive tools can be crap too! What is more important is the experience of knowing what might be good, what might just do and what really will not work. Oh yeah, and I learnt that every time I pick up a tool and start working wood to become part of a musical instrument, I get more and more addicted to it. Below is a pictorial story of what else we accomplished during the week.

 

 

More wood = More ideas

 

New ideas

This was a week of burgeoning design ideas, project planning and finally getting round to bending the sides of the acoustic build….AND making a back and sound board for the mandolin, which will be the next build. IMG_9035Plus I took a little detour into researching the world of period instruments, and ended up designing a ‘lira da Braccio’. That is a project that will give me a chance to try many new wood working techniques. I had some serious issues with a Luthier supply company in England, who shall remain nameless, that failed to post tools to me in a timely fashion. When they did arrive the tools were of poor or average quality. This little spat distracted me from the present build. I have to admit, I unconsciously used the issue to prevaricate and put off the moment when I had to bite the bullet and start bending the sides.

New Skills

Well, I am hardly skilled at using the bending iron yet, but things pretty much went to plan. I did my little circle of binding to get some practice with the hot iron last week, then moved up to a larger piece of ‘scrap’ paduk, to get used to bending thicker pieces and learn a bit about the properties of the particular wood I am using on the sides of this guitar

 

Then I build a platform to go around the bending iron, so I would have a flat surface to work on. The bending was grand, but paduk is a ‘brittle’ wood, and seems to split easily. I just managed to spot a slit in the edge of one side before it ran too far. I was able to just cut across the sliver of wood and arrest the progression of the split. IMG_9023I had given myself about 4mm of scrap wood on the open side for fitting of the top, so the split stayed in the scrap section. (See left).

Today I finished fixing the kerflings to the joint, (see below), and am about ready to go back to the neck and start shaping the heal and dove tail tenon for fitting. The sound board is stalled. I bought a new tool from LMI, in the U.S., who are a great supplier of Luthiery tools. It is a jig for cutting sound holes and sound hole perflings channels.

 

I had made my own tools, but when I used it on a practice piece of wood, I discovered it just wasn’t as accurate as I would like, so now I have to wait another few days for the right tool to arrive in the post. Next blog will be all about cutting the sound hole and perfling channels…..thought this blog would be about that…..!

Mandolin project

These last few pictures are of the sound board and back I made for the mandolin. The top is larch.img_9032.jpg It is really strong and very flexible and has a good even close grain. I feel sure I will get a good sound board from it. It is about 4mm thich now that I joined it and planed it flat. You can see the join line due to the different wood colours from the two, non book matched pieces. The join itself is flawless…even though I say so myself. No harm in being proud of work that goes well, I say. The cedar I used for the back is a beautiful piece of wood. The two bits I used for this back were, again, two non book matched pieces, and I think they lined up really nicely . I love the red/orange/chocolate tinges through the grain. I have plenty more of this stuff, that is book img_9033.jpgmatched for other projects. I was tempted to use it for sound boards because it looks so good, but maybe for a more experimental project. The grain isn’t particularly dense or even. It might work well on a semi-acoustic guitar, maybe. Either way, the wood I bough is shaping up to be very useable and good looking. I have about ten new projects in my head, and the shop is full of tools for accomplishing most tasks and luthiery now; Onwards! Does it ever end!

 

 

Wood ya look at dat!

All go today. The wood was “hung sawed and quartered”. Giving me more stock than I know what to do with….but we have dreams….dreams about all types of guitars.

My wood supplier, Tim, came up trumps with the cuts he made. Walking you through what we have……First the Elm, (right).

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Elm sawed to 10mm thick, for acoustic backs and electric tops.

This was a really big slab with the most amazing close grain pattern. One end will be used for electric guitar tops and acoustic backs for a couple of bouzoukis I have in the pipe line, and another of the arch top style we are currently constructing. Below is one of the examples of the book matched pieces I will be using for the curve in the grain pattern. The other end is almost perfectly quarter sawn so I might try one set as a sound board experiment from the end. I could get two guitar back or tops from each piece of this stuff. IMG_8988Obviously I will be cutting away the knot at the center…or maybe not. This is only the start of the pile I bought from Tim. I got some lovely Larch and spalted maple, along with some square billets of beech and some beautiful cedar, which I will try and get some sound boards out of, (all pictured below). The grain is close and even…if not quite as dense as the text books say is necessary. All in all, along with a couple of planks of close grained maple cut as neck blanks, it was a great days wood buying. This stock is added to some high end cedar sound boards and mahogany and paduk backs and sides I purchased recently. I have stacked them carefully for future projects. I have some more straightforward, standard guitar projects for those, when I find some appropriate neck material. I would like some cedar for the necks of those two guitars, one I plan to be a flamenco and one a steel strung. ( see below ).

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Top four are two cedar sound boards. Next two Mahogany back and bottom two Paduk back. Sides of same materials are stacked behind.

Below you can see the Larch and cedar stacked on top of the Elm, with MDF guitar body stencils for spacers……I ran out of sticks for spacing. Middle pick is the spalted beech and the lovely coloured cedar is on the right.

But this was not all! No, the bending iron arrived from England, so I had to give it a try. With the current build I am thinking about the sound hole decoration. I don’t want a fancy rosette….mainly because I am not that interested in marquetry, but also my honest taste leans toward simplicity. I plan to just go for a couple of plain rings in the same material as the bindings, Ebony. Yes, I am going to do binding after all…more on that in future posts. I bent a fairly good circle from some of the binding material, and might bend one more to thicken the circle. Next blog will be all about sound hole inlaying and practice on the iron, in preparation for bending the sides.

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Yeah! it came. Have to build a platform for it now.

Below are some shots of my first wood bending endeavor. Below that again are some shots of the fine joinery work I have had the satisfaction of obsessing over, during the last week.

 

Brace yourself, Bridget.

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Who Knows best? (The fake news of Luthery)

There is a serious problem for new builders of stringed instruments when looking for good advice and direction. It seems to me that while there is a dirth of information on the “how” of guitar building, there is much less clarity in what is ‘correct’ concerning the “why”.
This is a problem, because if for example I want to know why Spruce or Cedar are the only two woods recommended regularly for use in making soundboards, the reasons generally given are because they have the best weight/strength/flexibility ratio. Yet, Tom Bills, in his book “The art of Lutherie” advises “quit thinking about the differences between German and Sitka spruce, because really, the string doesn’t care”.  imagesHe also points out that there are so many variations between any two pieces of wood from the same species that, “ideas about one wood species or another don’t line up much of the time anyway”.
Now, compare that to Mcleod and Welford in their book The CLASSICAL GUITAR (DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION). In this text the authors state, ” Timber of less than 15 rings per inch should not be used for a fine guitar”. Yet Roger Siminoff in THE LUTHIERS HANDBOOK, states that grain no less than 10 rings per inch is the standard to aim at for soundboards….and in GUITAR MAKING, TRADITION AND TECHNOLOGY by Cumpiano and Natalson, it is suggested that “evenness and straightness of grain are generally matters of personal preference”.
So immediately, when the new builder goes looking for info on the ‘what’ and ‘why’, they are faced with a myriad of contradictory claims and assertions about what the best wood might be, what one might be looking for in the wood, and what categorically won’t work in terms of wood choice.
The nub of the problem might be that the ultimate goal all makers at least claim to be aiming for is good tone. The experience of a wood’s tone is completely subjective. Different makers and players prize different tones, and different ears in different circumstances and cultures experience tone …….well…..differently. So knowing what you are at least aiming for is one thing, finding out what might be the best materials and construction techniques to attain that sound is another matter altogether. What we are aiming for, surely, is a piece of wood that resonates in a coherent and distinct way for as long as possible, regardless of what that tone is.

Brace yourself, Bridget.

This little rant started to form in my mind when I began to think about the bracing of the guitar I am currently building, (pics above and below). I have repaired the sound boards of a few acoustic instruments and am familiar with various bracing patterns and some of the basic theories around why they were developed. I chose to make an ‘arch top’ acoustic guitar for my first full build, mainly out of bloody mindedness, but also as a challenge and experiment. I was keen to try as many important techniques of building as I could include in one instrument. This is because I am a strong believer in innovation above tradition. There are plenty of good Luthiers out there building the same ole nylon and steel string designs….I have no intention of adding to that. Fancy perflings and clever inlays on the finger board are not guitar design innovations, in my book.
Once I start thinking deeply about the ‘why’ of bracing and reading some of the reasons behind different patterns, I find I start to question the ‘engineering logic’ behind some of them. As an example, many books and online builders talk about the string energy from the bridge being ‘transferred’ evenly across the sound board by a fanned pattern of bracing. While that sounds like a reasonable idea at first glance, it starts to look dubious when you analyse it more deeply. Ask yourself the question, based on basic engineering and physics principles you probably learnt in school, “Why would strips of wood on the back of a flat surface transfer energy coming from a block of wood, (the bridge) stuck to the other side of that surface”. images-5I am not questioning that some of the energy of the moving strings is transferred through the fanned braces on the underside of the sound board, I just wonder that surely most of the energy goes directly across the top surface of the sound board from the bridge….because that’s what the bridge is glued to. Also, reflect on this in light of the knowledge that many builders use assymetrical bracing for the reason that they believe it is important for good ‘tone’ that the sound board doesn’t resonate evenly. Go figure.
Before you dismiss me, consider this statement from Cumpiano and Natelson.
” ...the study of guitar acoustics currently seems to be of little direct technical use to the practicing Luthier. For example, we can learn from acoustics that a guitar is not an “amplifier” of the string signal, that the soundboard is not the sole sound generator, that the guitar cannot be subdivided into bass and treble halves, that the neck is not acoustically innactive, that sound does not ‘radiate’ in waves from the bridge or travel down the braces….”
So why all the ideas about stiffer braces on the treble side when we know the soundboard is not divided into vibrations related directly to the treble or bass strings? When we know the sound board “vibrates”, or more correctly “flexes” assymetrically, why do we entertain ideas of the braces enhancing certain frequencies when placed in certain configurations? It all has the whiff of ” its always been done that way” about it, with some dubious constructional, engineering sounding babble used to explain the tradition.

If the braces placed on the underside of the sound board are there, in the first instance, to reinforce a very thin piece of wood that is going to have up to 80 pounds of pressure on it, (either pushing or pulling), at rest, do we need to consider any more than that? If many different brace patterns are used by many different makers, all claiming their method ‘enhances’ the sound best, had we not better take it all with a pinch of salt and go back to first principles?

Sound Board “Tuning”…or is it “voicing?”

A great online source for practical tips on guitar building, from an experienced builder, is O’Brien Guitars’ YouTube channel and their “Tips du Jour” videos. While these are obviously mainly adverts for tools sold by the online provider LMI (Luthiers Mercantile International), that O’Brien guitars seems associated with, they are a great resource of straightforward explanations of tried and tested methods for being successful at certain aspects of guitar building. I was intrigued to see on their video regarding ‘voicing the sound board’ that the Luthier, Robert O’Brien stated something to the effect “I’m not going to voice the sound board, it is what it is. I am going to try and make it more responsive”. Put up against all the ‘babble and gobbledigook’ I have been reading recently about “voicing” or “tuning” the sound board, it came like a breath of honest, straightforward, fresh air. I have watched videos online with very renowned builders stating you have to get a variety of tones across the sound board when tap tuning it, so as not to have a ‘dominant’ frequency. I have also heard equally renowned builders state the idea that you can tune the sound board, preferably to one of the less important tones of the 440 Hz concert ‘A’. On reflection, it strikes me that what you surely want is a good resonance across the soundboard, but more importantly, what has to be born in mind is the fact you are ‘tap tuning/voicing” the sound board before you have glued it to the rest of the body, or put tensioned strings on it, or stuck another big block of wood on its top, called the bridge. It seems to me that anyone who has convinced themselves that shaving small slithers of wood off a brace is going to ‘tune’ a sound board, before they have glued it to the rest of the body and before they have stuck on the bridge, is delusional. That is why when I hear a builder talking in practical terms, focusing on what the desired, realistic goals for the wood are, i.e. “we want to make it resonate the best we can”, then I listen to them. I am not dismissing the idea that ‘voicing’ a sound board is a very skilled art, it obviously takes years of experience to get good at it.

I am however saying that learning techniques and gaining experience that allows me to thin braces down to a point where they are still strong enough to do their job and thin enough to let the sound board resonate to it’s best potential, is something I would like to do. That is going to take time and many builds, I’m sure. Sifting through the babble and baseless assertions about guitar building and the acoustic nature of woods and construction designs, so I can find useful, practical advice, is going to be even more of a challenge!

Final thoughts on Braces and Sound Boards.

Apparently, Jazz style arch top guitars often have their sound boards thinned even finer close to the edge and then go thicker again where they attach to the sides. My understanding is that the reasoning behind this is due to the nature of floating bridges. These types of bridges found on arch top instruments, generally push the string energy down into the sound board, with most of the sound boards movement being a pumping back and forth. The thinner wood around the edge facilitates more back and forth movement. Trouble is, the commonest bracing pattern on arch tops is apparently a big cross brace. By that principle most of the braces in that configuration are across the thicker part of the sound board, (the central part), which is moving less than the thinner outer section, that has almost no bracing across it. So where is the engineering logic in that? If the braces are there to strengthen then they are on the stronger part and if the thinner part has almost no bracing but theoretically is moving more……why have bracing at all? On top of that I see some luthiers putting just two, independent longitudinal braces on arch tops……none of it really makes much sense. If you like the tone of the final instrument, then I suppose any bracing pattern that doesn’t hinder the acoustic nature of the guitar can be argued to be a good one.
It is from this stand point that I chose to use an assymetrical fanned bracing configuration for my arch top acoustic.

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lining up the braces for gluing and shaping. Need to cut sound hole first, though.

The choice is justified by the fact that the sound board is not a traditional arch top design, or a traditional wood for that matter. In general looks the body is based on the arch top guitars by Stephan Sobel. These are evenly arched across the whole guitar width. I don’t know what brace pattern he uses, but I do know that I am putting on a fixed bridge to this guitar, not a floating bridge with a tailpiece. The reason is that the whole thing is an experiment in unusual woods, unusual designs and the breaking of convention and I can find nothing to say you cant do things this way. In profile the bracing is 5mm by 5mm and the supporting cross braces are 10mm by 7mm at their thickest. I have ‘voiced’ the sound board, to the best of my ability. It is a bit dead sounding in places but has a pleasant/coherent ring across the lower bout and around the sound hole. The top was thinned as much as I dared and the bracing was meticulously executed in its fitting to the soundboard. It is the best and finest woodwork I have ever attempted…….weather it all ends up sounding any good…..well, we will have to see.

Here is the build so far

Bibliography:

THE ART OF LUTHERIE  T. Bills 2014 Mel Bay.

THE CLASSICAL GUITAR Mcleod & Welford 1971 Dryad

THE LUTHIERS HAND BOOK. R Siminoff 1980

GUITAR MAKING, TRADITION AND TECHNOLOGY Cumpiano and Natalson,

 
Online resources I find useful:

O’Brien Guitars on you Tube

PabloRequena

Stephen Raphael Marchione

Crimson Custom Guitars

 

note:  Brace yourself, Bridget?  In Ireland there is the joke that Irish foreplay consists of the husband shouting out to his wife, “Brace yourself, Bridget, I’m on my way up the stairs”.

Shaping up

Took a trip to a really good local wood supplier this week. Tim refurbishes industrial wood working machinery, lathes, thicknessers, jointer/planers, that type of thing. He also fells trees and has a massive stock of really interesting high quality hardwoods. I have previously bought Ash, Elm and Beech and Maple and Cedar from him. On this visit I was looking for some close grained Cedar to get some sound boards out of. I also wanted to source some interestingly figured woods for backs and sides, and on top of that, look into what he had by way of dense, even grained stock that I could use for neck blanks.

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Pulling apart the stacks with a fork lift so I can scramble around looking for the good stuff

I’m lucky to have stumbled on Tim’s warehouse, because he also has the facilities for cutting the lumber down to my specs. It’s almost the case that there is too much choice, but Tim seems to have a really good memory for what types and quality of wood are in each of the many stacks. Also, my experience and knowledge of many varieties is limited so Tim is an invaluable help when it come to letting me know what would be possible with each selection of lumber.

The reason I am buying more wood, is mainly because I am running out. I have started building the arch top acoustic and will have very little stock left afterwards. The back and soundboard of that build are now shaped and I am trying to decide how to brace them. I was really pleased with how the planing went. I had good fun shaping the ‘bell’ in each piece, and I got to use the fine, curved bottomed, violin plane for the first time.

The process was a little nerve racking as I managed to get down to about 2.5mm thickness on the sound board, which made me constantly paranoid about putting a hole in the material as I worked. Using this unconventional piece of wood as a sound board is very much an experiment, but I have been talking to a good few Luthiers on line and in the locality, and they all say that while the standards like sitka spruce and cedar are the preferred woods for sound boards, due to their strength and flexibility, much of the stuff said about tonal quality in woods is very notional and many good sounding instruments come from unconventional materials, so……I’m gonna keep going.

The wood I finally selected form Tim was varied in colour but all heavy, close, clean and straight grained Elm, Cedar and Maple. I should have about twelve book matched electric guitar tops from beautifully figured Elm. Also about sixteen book matched very clean and even grained cedar sound boards, along with some spalted beech for electric body blanks and about ten to fifteen neck blanks from some very nice Maple Tim dug out for me. Here is the pile of lumber, uncut. I hope by this time next week I can publish a picture of the stuff cut down, ready to put into my stock.

For now I will carry on researching the best way to brace this guitar build and measure and cut the fret slots in the finger board. Just have to hope those tools I ordered arrive soon, or the project will grind to a halt again.