That reminds me of some of the antique stores I have been in that carry nothing but hardware from the houses built between 1920 and 1940. Every piece – the plumbing fixtures, the registers, window hardware – everything has little artistic design elements like this. The craftsmanship is amazing.
I did a lot of artwork when I was a kid and I have a really strong art background. So when I came up with the designs for the decorative appointments I really tried to make everything work together, like a motif and development kind of thing. You see the same theme repeated in a lot of places on the guitar: stepped tailpiece, stepped fingerboard inlays, stepped truss rod cover, peghead inlay. To me, that’s just a good design and it gives things an overall kind of homogeneous look. And even though the guitar is pretty highly adorned, it doesn’t look gaudy.
Some people don’t have that artistic sense. They’ll stick this here, and they like this other design so they’ll overuse that for some other part of the guitar, and the parts don’t work together. It’s like wearing a striped shirt, a polka dot tie and checkered pants. The fact that I have spent quite a bit of time making sure all of the design elements work together I think gives the guitars their overall pleasing effect, visually.
The craftsmanship, the attention to detail and the consistency really separate your guitars from other archtops. For example, I’ve sold a lot of the new Gibsons lately and some of them are much nicer than other ones, especially with respect to how straight the neck is. Some of them you cannot get the neck to lay flat straight. How do you accomplish that?
I think Gibson is still using the old, bent, single type of truss rod. I made a choice to go with another type of rod a while back. Because the [new] rod basically works as a compression-type of rod, it works with the wood and neck to move it. Any inconsistencies in the neck will come out in the action of the rod. It’s an upside-down U-channel, open along the bottom with a rod in the middle of it. As you tighten up the nut – because there is less material under the rod than there is over it – the U-channel will make a nice, smooth arc. This works independently of the neck, and your chances are better for getting a smooth arc with this type of rod.
I think Martin is using this type of rod now; it’s actually not that new of a style – it has been around for a while. It’s the one choice I made that I think helps my guitars end up with a good neck.
I once had an archtop that, when you looked down the neck from the headstock, you could tell the headstock was twisted, and as you sighted down the neck, gradually the neck straightened out. Have you ever had a problem ending up with something like that?
I’ve seen that before and a lot of times it doesn’t affect the way they play. Some of them play fine. In fact, somebody actually produced a design where the whole neck was radically twisted to accommodate the position that your hand is naturally in as you go up and down the neck. Toward the nut it was angled a certain way and as it came up to the body the neck was more parallel. I can’t imagine how they did that! But a guitar with a headstock twist can actually play fine as long as the frets under each string form a straight line under that string.
A good guitar sounds good right away. But it will change as it’s played and as the lacquer dries out. I’ve had guitars come back after a couple years that I think have really opened up. You get some noticeable degree of improvement even within that short period of time.
I’ve never had an extreme problem like that with any of my guitars. When I make neck blanks I cut a bunch of blanks up, store them on the shelf for a while and let them do whatever they’re going to do. I have seen some develop a slight twist during that period. Before I use any blank I resurface it, so by that time hopefully it has done whatever movement it’s going to do.
How long do you store them?
Most blanks sit up there for a year or two before I use them. Even if I do glue up new blanks to use, they hang for a couple of months while I’m doing the bodies. So at minimum they’re going to sit around for a couple months and do whatever they do; when I’m ready to start the necks, it’s a couple months into the building process, so they get resurfaced again at that point. And I imagine they’re pretty stable by that point, because I’ve never had any problems with them.
Is the wood that you get already aged?
Yes, 90 percent of it. Rarely will you get wood from an instrument supplier that’s not dried enough – if they are a reputable supplier they’ll always tell you if it’s not dry. Most of the wood I get for neck stock is just from lumber suppliers – construction grade lumber – and most of that stuff is kiln dried.
You mentioned that you often go after a forties or fifties L-7 type of sound. Can a guitar be built with that sound from day one, or is that something that can only be acquired over 40 or 50 years? Does the guitar really change that much over that period of time?
The sound of the guitar changes dramatically within the first day or two when it’s strung up. That’s the initial settling in period when everything tightens up under string tension. Good guitars – you know they’re good at that point, within the first day or so. A good guitar sounds good right away. But it will change as it’s played and as the lacquer dries out. I’ve had guitars come back after a couple years that I think have really opened up. You get some noticeable degree of improvement even within that short period of time. But if you happen to build a guitar that’s a real dog – if it’s a dog when it’s new, it’s going to be an old dog when it’s old [laughs].