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Working out of a oneman workshop in Woodstock, New York, Harvey Citron has been a respected member of the boutique luthier community for close to 40 years. Though best known for his hollowbody basses, Citron’s distinctively handcrafted instruments include solidbody basses, as well as a variety of guitars and baritones that have drawn the attention of artists across the genre spectrum, from Steve Swallow to John Sebastian to Doug Wimbish, among others.
With a background as both a guitarist and an architect, Citron is able to draw on his passion for both music and design when creating his absolutely unique offering of instruments. Aesthetically unique, yes. But he is also part of a very small group of guitar craftsmen with expertise in making their own pickups, and he winds, voices, and positions each one to complement the individual instrument. A true innovator, Citron’s distinctive, piezo-loaded and intonation-adjustable wooden bridge defines the combination of science and art.
Citron got his start as a luthier in 1974. Co-founding a partnership with Joe Veillette the following year, Veillette-Citron had an eight-year run during which a few hundred handcrafted guitars were produced. But eventually, Citron felt like a factory worker in his own business, putting in too many hours just to pay the bills. A desire to return to designing his instruments led him to set up shop as an independent luthier.
Premier Guitar recently caught up with Citron as he prepared to exhibit at the 2012 Montreal Guitar Show. Here he discusses his background and building philosophies, gives insights into modern lutherie trends, and even shares his thoughts on building a traditional acoustic guitar.
As a working musician and
former architect, which of the
two was the biggest inspiration
for your getting into
It’s actually very hard to separate the two. I grew up being interested in tools, working with my hands, building things since I was very little, playing guitar by age 11, and loving music completely. I attended Brooklyn Technical High School where I studied drafting and engineering, and then studied architectural design at City College School of Architecture. I was incredibly frustrated as I started out working as an architect, since I was not really doing anything more than producing working drawings of others’ designs. I was very young, but had a fire burning inside to create. I was creating through my music—and my furniture and interior design—but not through my job. Then the opportunity came to build a guitar. Because of all my years drafting and studying design, I knew I could look at a guitar, understand how it was built, and could actually build it! I could explore to my heart’s content. So what better avenue for a musician and a designer? I was able to meld these two areas of creativity that I loved.
Built for renowned jazz bassist Steve Swallow, Harvey Citron’s AE5 Swallow bass is an acoustic/electric 5-string with a 36" scale length using Honduras mahogany for the body and neck, spruce for the top, and rosewood for the fretboard and bridge.
Which has had the biggest
influence on your work?
Again, it’s very hard to say which has been the larger influence. As a designer, I have always been seeking out what hasn’t been done yet, or to solve a problem. Each of my instrument models sets about creating something new sonically and/ or physically—they are not just pretty boutique instruments. Because I am a designer, I can play with woods, construction, electronics, and shapes. Because I am a musician, I can use those elements to explore new tone.
What were your formative
influences insofar as guitarists,
bands, and instruments?
I started playing guitar in the 1950s at a very early age and was listening to people like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. But I only had an acoustic guitar at the time. We were poor and my mom bought the cheapest Martin you could buy—a 00-17 with a mahogany top and no binding. I did everything with that guitar and amplified it with a DeArmond pickup and an Ampeg Rocket amplifier. Even later on, I was using that same guitar for soul music. Developing my own style back then, I was pretty much a rhythm guitar player for a long time, but later on became a lead player, too.
Eventually you began building
basses as well. Was your
attraction to the rhythm side
of playing part of the reason
I just love instruments and playing. Building basses for me was always part of the deal from the beginning somehow. Veillette-Citron’s first prototypes were a 6-string neckthrough electric guitar and 4-string neck-through electric bass. Our first batch of instruments was also mixed, and I’m sure we built more basses than guitars over the years our company existed from 1975 to 1983. With the exception of Alembic, bass design had not really been explored that extensively in the mid-’70s. While in process of building our first two prototypes in 1974, I visited the Alembic woodworking shop in Cotati, California. It was a mind blower. I was enamored of their work, and followed their lead somewhat in construction at Veillette-Citron. I have always noticed that bassists are a little more open to new sounds, and are already hi-fidelity minded. So many guitarists are looking for the sound that a hero of theirs made some time ago, and they are under the illusion that it if they have the same equipment, they can recreate that tone. I never had the desire to build what has been made before. It also seemed like there were more orders for basses.
Citron’s intonation-adjustable rosewood bridge on the AE4 Swallow features bone saddles and six EMG under-saddle piezos.
Why is that?
It’s always been my impression that there are far fewer bassists than guitarists. Therefore, the chances of a bassist working are much higher than that of a guitarist. And the quality of the bassist doesn’t even have to be as good necessarily, because you need them and there aren’t that many around. [Laughs.]
Can you tell us about your
pickups and how you got
started making them? Was
it a matter of wanting to be
involved in all components
of building? Was it out of
necessity or just an interest in
Pickup making and guitar making came about simultaneously for me. I knew some pretty serious players in the guitar electronics field way back, found out how to wire a guitar, and then how to build pickups. It was very exciting to build a pickup. The person who taught me how to build them was Sal Palazolla, who worked with Bill Lawrence making pickups downstairs in Danny Armstrong’s shop on LaGuardia Place in New York City. This was in 1974. The first guitar I built had some pretty strange pickups, and people started asking me to modify their guitars with my pickups and different switching arrangements. Veillette-Citron started building prototypes in late 1975 and those instruments included my humbucking pickups. We liked the idea of having a part in virtually every piece of the instrument, from making our own pickups to the bridge hardware and strap pins. Though when I started Citron Guitars and Basses in 1994, I had no desire to build my own pickups, except for one very unique single-coil that I began to make for some models. As time went on, I felt that my pickups would make my instruments more unique, so I currently build several kinds of single-coil guitar pickups, guitar humbuckers, bass humbuckers, and J-bass-style pickups. They are extremely popular and are, in fact, used in other luthier’s instruments.