More trivia: What’s wrong with this picture?
As guitarists, we pick up an amazing
amount of specialized knowledge about
our instruments, technique, equipment,
and, of course, music itself. But there’s
always more to learn, right? If you ever find
yourself in need of some guitar trivia—perhaps on a long van ride home from a
weekend gig—here are some nuggets you
can trot out when you need to perk up a
conversation or keep the driver awake.
For example, all woodworkers know
what a kerf is—it’s the space made by the
path of a saw blade through a piece of material
that is being cut. Most people don’t
realize that kerfs are the only known things
in the universe that get bigger and bigger
until they disappear. Think about it: Other
things only get smaller until they disappear.
This is exactly the kind of trivial fact that
will, if used properly, make you a sure success
on your next date. Or at least entertain
the driver for those last 50 miles.
Lutherie is the work of luthiers: It’s the
making of stringed musical instruments.
Lutherie derives from the French luthier,
meaning lute-maker, obviously from before
the time that guitars were being made.
While luthier originally meant a maker
of stringed instruments—and specifically
fretted stringed instruments (as opposed
to harps, violins, and pianos)—it has more
lately come to be used to designate pretty
much any kind of musical instrument
maker, including wind instruments, harpsichords,
It is from the Mongols, acknowledged
as the world’s finest horsemen, that so
much equine imagery has come into use
when talking about stringed instruments.
The head, neck, body, and saddle are terms
first used by the Mongols to describe those
parts of the instrument. As the world’s finest
archers (think bows), the Mongols were
also responsible for the violin family as we
Padouk is a beautiful red hardwood
that’s sometimes used in guitar making.
Its proper name is Andaman padouk, as it
grows only on the Andaman Islands that
lie halfway between India and Malaysia in
the Indian Ocean. Padouk is, in fact, the
islands’ only resource of any commercial
interest. Years ago, when England had a
worldwide empire, the British established
a penal colony on these sweltering tropical
islands, whose sole work was the logging
and harvesting of this special wood.
Commercial logging of padouk is no longer
done with convict labor, but it’s hard for
me to see a plank of this lovely material
without thinking of the poor creatures who
were once forced to sweat out their lives
in cutting it. Also, it makes me think that
other woods we use probably have interesting
stories behind them, too. Something
to think about in today’s world of resource
conservation and global trade.
And speaking of wood: Hardwoods and
softwoods are not named because they are
actually hard or soft. Taxonomists have
labeled them according to the shapes of
their leaves. Softwoods are, by definition,
trees that have long, thin leaves; hardwoods
are identified by their broad, flat leaves.
The fir that your flooring may be made of,
a material that can stand up to many years
of use, is a softwood. On the other hand,
balsa wood is a hardwood.
Balsa wood, which some luthiers use for
bracing, is a South American tropical hardwood
named for its use and not its discoverer
nor its Latin name. Balsa, in Spanish,
means raft. Raft-wood is simply the tree
that people made rafts out of since the time
they first noticed that it wasn’t all that good
Guitar makers work with woods from
all over the world—it’s one of nature’s most
plentiful resources. England, however, has
rather little of it: It is, in fact, Europe’s only
wood-importing country. England used to
be mostly covered by forests (remember
Sherwood Forest and Robin Hood?), but
from the 17th century on, its forests were
systematically cut down to serve the needs
of the Industrial Revolution—which that
country gave birth to.
For one thing, raw wood was needed
to construct England’s growing cities, and
also to build ships for navies of war, commerce,
trade, and exploration. Second,
huge amounts of coal and firewood were
needed to stoke the furnaces of the growing
iron and glass-working industries. As
the ground was dug up and trees were
cut down, the forests began to disappear.
Simultaneously, English landowners found
that raising sheep on their lands to supply
the textile industry’s ravenous need for wool
was more profitable than having peasant
farmers on it, so they further cut their lands
bare to make pastures for sheep and thereby
displaced the traditionally rural peasant
population into the cities, where it could
provide the labor pool for the Industrial
The upshot of such deforestation
was that the English soil became rapidly
denuded of its natural protective cover, and
erosion on a ferocious scale became, for the
first time, a fact of life. Floods and flooding
in towns became common events—so
much so that drowned domestic animals
were often found lying on the ground after
a storm had passed. This has given us the
phrase about a downpour so intense that it
rained cats and dogs.
A computerized survey of medical
records has shown that 69 percent of piano
players suffer back pain. That’s bad. But not
as bad as the 73 percent of the harpists who
hurt similarly. You’re better off as a guitarist,
according to the same survey: Only 33
percent of us voice that complaint.
Good luck on your next date or road trip!
With any luck it will produce an anecdote
or odd bit of knowledge worth writing
down. And if you know other guitar-related
trivia to add to this list, I’d love to hear it.
has been a professional luthier since the early 1970s and is one of the world’s most
respected acoustic-guitar builders and
rosette designers. To learn more about
Somogyi, his instruments, or his rosette and
inlay artwork, visit esomogyi.com