Launching into what he calls his “California touchy-feely thing” (his shops are located in Healdsburg, California), Ribbecke begins to explain a bit of his thought process. “My whole acoustic paradigm is that guitars are energy machines. They convert energy from one form to another, but they’re not very efficient. When you hear a couple of piano strings vibrating against each other, they’re tuned to the same pitch, and you hear the texture that resolves because they are not able to stay perfectly in pitch with each other. You hear this beating that goes on, and we hear this as texture. I became aware that the shape of a guitar top creates an acoustic texture, and I understood very clearly that there was some real-time parameter about this. But I didn’t know how to deal with this concept that a carved-up part of a soundboard that is much more arched and much more stiff will actually excite air at a much higher frequency and much faster than something that’s flatter and more bass compliant, like a steel-string guitar.”

Ribbecke’s dissatisfaction with archtop guitars had to do with one of the things that makes them do what they were designed to do, which is cancel bass to create separation of course—the ability to hear complex close tones. “Like a minor 9,” says Ribbecke. “You can hear it in an archtop guitar because the top is not moving in the 1 kHz range—it’s much more articulate. It’s much easier to hear complex clusters of notes and chords. So you can play great jazz chords with very close harmonic tones. You can still hear each and every note in the chord. Archtops have great separation of course, but are nasal in their bass response because they’re carved up. Bass has a tendency to shake things in the 1 or 2 kHz range, which is where most of our information is.”

The steel-string guitar, he continues, “is very loud and very beautiful, but very hard to differentiate when someone is strumming, because the top is so much freer to move. It’s such a more expansive and dynamic distance that it can move. So it sort of overwhelms itself with information in the 1 to 2 kHz range, and it becomes very hard to differentiate every note in a chord.”

The Halfling Under a Microscope
Ribbecke’s Halfling is a beautiful hybrid with a flat top on the bass side, an archtop on the treble side, and an X-brace structure. Ribbecke explains that it’s as if “you took a Martin and sawed it in half, and glued the bass half to an archtop that’s similarly bisected. You’d have the treble side of the archtop and the bass side of the steel-string guitar.” The net result on the Halfling is that the bass side of the soundboard is more compliant and rich—able to reproduce the big bass and deeper, throatier sound—but the carved treble side allows the instrument to have a great separation of course and behave like an archtop.

“So the Halflings are really archtop guitars with an enhanced and developed mid and bass range—without phase cancellation.” Ribbecke reasoned that very few things in nature are truly symmetrical and began with the idea that “symmetry was the hobgoblin, the opium for the acoustic mind. But it really isn’t, both in nature and in the way our ears hear. It takes a lot more energy to make a bass note audible than it does a treble note, and if you look at the curve of human hearing, it’s also like that.”

Another asymmetrical appointment on the Halfling is its bass-side, upper-bout soundhole, which allows that side to be thinned more without weakening it by punching a hole in the middle. “It’s a nice aesthetic design,” Ribbecke continues, “and I’m not the first guy to think of it. I studied with Richard Snyder, who was phenomenal and had his on the other side of the soundboard, but I’ve stolen those ideas from everybody who came before me. The concept of the Halfling as a whole, as a piece of art, is to free the bass side of the soundboard to be more compliant and still have a instrument that’s truly an archtop in structure and design.”

The first Halfling was commissioned by Paul Szmanda, a player and collector of some extraordinary guitars. “Paul called me one day and he said, ‘What would you do if I gave you a chance to just build something that you think is going to be historically significant? No fetters on this commission. Make something you think will be a really great contribution to the state of the art of the guitar.’ That must have been 2002. That’s the one you’ll see all over the place, with the quilted mahogany. It’s on my website. It’s a pretty amazing instrument, visually. I’d been waiting for probably 15 years for somebody to say, ‘Can you make a modern embodiment of the Sound Bubble concept that now works because you know a lot more about what you’re doing than you did when you were an idiot 22-year-old?’”

But the Halfling is more than an archtop jazz guitar—it’s an instrument that can keep up with players who play steel-string one minute, then archtop, then electric guitar. “The modern guitar players we have today, these guys have studied. There’s so much information available on the ’net. We have a new breed of guitar player who plays standards, plays steel-string guitar, plays all these different literatures. The quality of the average guitar player is through the roof right now, compared to what it was 30 years ago. I don’t think this Halfling thing would have worked out were it 15 years ago, but now I think there’s a market for an instrument that will allow somebody to do cross-literatures.”

The Halfling Bass is another of Ribbecke’s innovations, and it was undertaken in collaboration with bassist Bobby Vega. “He speaks in a language that’s not like what we speak,” says Ribbecke with a touch of awe. “He talks about notes coming from here and here, and he points to different places. I couldn’t make him just another big bass that was supposed to be a guitar, so he waited seven years for this thing while I tried to figure out what to do to make this really special for him. Bobby and I worked very closely. He’s got an incredible bass—it’s archival—and we took the same dimensions on the Halfling bass, and we moved the tailpiece all over the place. I’ve never known anybody who can hear like him. I think I can hear pretty well, but he hears things I can’t even begin to hear. So we worked very closely on this bass until, as he would say, it ‘fired right’—until it had this dimension.”