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more... GearBuilder ProfileOctober 2008Mark Campellone

To Make the Wood Sing

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Some builders just use pre-manufactured parts added on to their wood. It seems like you have really put a lot of thought into the geometry of your pickguard, the unique design of your bridge and the tailpiece – these parts are distinctly Campellone.
The pickguard is a similar silhouette to a Gibson pickguard – I just made it a little smaller and a little less rounded. The tailpiece is really considered a decorative feature, like some of the other parts of the guitar. When I started building you couldn’t buy anything except a 335-type trapeze tailpiece, and I used that on a couple of my first guitars because that was all that was available. If you wanted to use something different, you had to make something, and I was thinking, “the tailpiece is a design feature which should match the rest of the design features of the guitar.” I’m a wood worker, not a metal worker, although I used to make my own bridges out of brass when I was building solidbody instruments. So I have some metal work experience but not a lot of mill working tools. I had to come up with a design that was original, matched the other design features and still had a classic look. I spent a lot of time drawing tailpiece designs and finally refined it over the course of a couple years to the design that I have now.

So you’re only going to see this tailpiece on your guitars.
I hope so, because I’m having them made. Enough people have seen this on my guitar that they know it’s my design. The tailpiece is made out of brass stock, so I buy a 3’x8’ sheet of brass from a metal supplier; I take it to the sheet metal guys and have blanks cut – you can get two or three tailpieces out of every blank. They cut these squared blanks, and they go to another machinist who has a wire EDM – electrical discharge machine – which is basically a machine that cuts with a high voltage electronic pulse through a very thin wire. The blanks are stacked one on top of the other and then they are all cut in a stack on this machine where they are placed in a tub of water – they have to be submerged for the electricity to work. The tub of water moves on an X/Y axis and that’s how the shapes are cut. At this point, they’re still flat, so they have to go back to the sheet metal guys and have bends put in – the hook that holds the strings and the bend where the tailpiece fits to the rim. From there they go to the plater/polisher.

Are they nickel plated, then gold plated?
Yes, nickel then gold.

That’s the old Gibson way.
Yep. Then they go to a local craftsman and have the ebony appliqués made. A few guitars have been ordered with some abalone work inlaid in the appliqué, but that’s a custom feature. So it’s the metal supplier, the sheet metal guy, the machinist, the plater and the craftsman – five people are involved in the making of a tailpiece!

To Tap or Not to Tap

We asked Mark if he tap tunes his tops, and if he believes that it can produce a better guitar. He explains how tap tuning fits into his philosophy of building.

The big question is, do any two people really have the same definition of tap tuning? When I started building, archtop construction was just as much of a mystery to me as it was to anyone else. I was struggling to find out what tap tuning meant – there are some people who go with the definition that it means tuning the plates to a particular pitch and I’ve heard some people say, “tune the top to one pitch and the back to a certain interval away from that pitch.” I threw all that stuff out the window. I have owned a lot of good archtop guitars, and at that time I was madly pursuing any information about how you make a guitar sound good. At one time I owned 12 or 15 great sounding, vintage Gibson archtops – L-5s and L-7s – and I used to study them. No two sounded alike and no two were built the same. What I initially realized was that there is no one right way to build a good-sounding guitar. These guitars were all wildly different, in terms of their construction. Some of them were parallel braced, some of them were X-braced, some of them had really thick tops and some of them had thin tops, but they all sounded great. So, I abandoned the idea of tap tuning to a particular pitch – however, I do tap.

If you have two raw plates carved to the same dimensions, and you tap each of them, they’ll produce a pitch. The one that produces the higher pitch is the stiffer piece of wood, so I use that as a kind of measuring stick of the wood’s stiffness. The higher the pitch it produces, the stiffer it is. The stiffer it is, the thinner you can carve it – I’m just carving to a point of getting the top loose enough to respond. There’s a point of diminishing returns; if you carve it too thin, it won’t have enough wood to generate any kind of powerful sound. You need a certain amount of heaviness to it to get the power, but you want it to be loose enough to respond. If the top produces a fairly low pitch and it isn’t stiff, you’re going to want to leave it a little heavier to retain enough stiffness so it doesn’t get too boomy, too bassy. I use the tap/pitch technique to assess how stiff a piece of wood is and, using that assessment, to determine how thin I should make the top.
The Eastman archtops use a similar idea, in that the tailpiece is brass with a decorative ebony piece on top – only theirs is made to look like a Benedetto violin tailpiece. Unless you look closely you can’t tell there’s a metal piece under it.
One reason a lot of guys use actual wooden tailpieces is because, like myself, they’re not metal workers. So if you want an original metal tailpiece – where do you go? How do you do it?

It’s a complicated process.
Yes. I was fortunate that I knew the sheet metal guys – there used to be a big jewelry industry in Rhode Island and there are still a few plating houses around. But a lot of guys are using the wooden tailpieces, and it’s kind of trendy now to use a wooden one.

How does an all-wood tailpiece affect the tone of the guitar?
I don’t know. Obviously I am not a wooden tailpiece guy. Initially it kind of made sense to me, but I have to disagree with some of the experts on this. I don’t think it necessarily improves the tone of the guitar. I’ve heard many wooden tailpieces that vibrate in an undesirable way. The big thing for me was that I wanted to do stuff that looked traditional and I liked Gibson stuff because they all had metal tailpieces; I played too many old Gibsons with metal tailpieces where I thought, “there’s no way you could improve the sound of this guitar – it sounds great. What’s a wooden tailpiece going to do for this?”

Maybe it’s the brass?
I don’t know. Sometimes you do get a little bit of a metal harmonic or overtone, but I don’t find that objectionable! A great L-7 does the same thing and you don’t have a problem with that. To my ears, I don’t think a wooden tailpiece is necessarily a design improvement. The whole idea with a lot of the contemporary stuff is borrowing [from violin design]. Archtop guitar design is based on violin family instruments. And while they did borrow many design features from the violin family, that doesn’t mean that all the violin features apply to the guitar, because it’s a whole different instrument. It’s plucked instead of bowed, so there are some violin features that would actually be a detriment if applied to the guitar design.

Your three models span what price range?
The base prices are $4000, $5500 and $7000. It’s about a separation of $1500 between models.

Has the recession slowed you down at all? Are you concerned about that?
That’s maybe way out there on my radar screen. If I was dependent on a local economy I would be concerned, but my business is nationwide and worldwide. If the whole national economy tanks then the first thing that happens is people cut back on luxury items, but somewhere in the U.S. or the world there will always be people that have money to spend on luxury items! My guitars are still relatively affordable for the average person.

It seems to take a guitar about 30 years to take on the mantle of “vintage.” Where do you think your guitars will be in 30 years, as far as how collectors will look at them? And where will you be 30 years from now?
I’ll be 83! I’m not good with leisure time. I always feel like I have to be productive. So I imagine I’ll probably build as long as I’m able, although maybe not at the level I am building at now. I’m going to want to keep busy. I’d like to think that my guitars will acquire vintage status. Of course, as soon as I croak the more expensive they get! [laughs] I’m pretty confident they’ll attain a fairly noble status after I’m gone – why not? Especially since I won’t be making them any more!

Campellone Guitars
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