Visiting a local luthier and sampling the flavors of fresh-off-the-workbench acoustics
Last month, we talked about the differences and pros and cons of factory-made guitars versus handmade guitars, and quite coincidentally, within a couple days of completing that column, I was invited by one of the local luthiers here in Iowa to come and see a new group of ten guitars he had just completed.
David Flammang has been building guitars for around 27 years now, quietly, in Greene, IA. I reviewed one of Flammang’s guitars grand concert guitars in the March 2010 issue, which just about knocked my socks off.
There are two themes in this batch of ten: guitars firmly rooted in the Golden Age Martin/Gibson tradition, and guitars built with Flammang’s own vision. The traditional style guitars are remarkably right—the dreadnoughts boom just the way those old Martins do, and the L-style guitars bark and snap just like the old Gibsons, but each seems to have something more going on at the same time, and that’s the magic of the luthier’s art.
David Flammang surrounded by his new creations
The Grand Tour
There’s something amazing about being the first person ever to strum a chord on a guitar. I’m struggling mightily to come up with something I can say it’s like, and there is just nothing like it. If you have done it, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, you owe it to yourself to do so as soon as humanly possible.
Some of the guitars on Flammang’s wall had been strung up within moments of my arrival. I fell instantly in love with the koa and German “Moon” spruce grand concert, and it was a delight to see Flammang’s eyes light up when he heard it for the first time. Koa, to my ear, offers such a smooth base to the tone, never muddy or brittle, always sweet and right how it needs to be. This guitar was rich and clear and highly playable. Flammang’s GC shape is extremely comfortable to hold, balancing body depth for outstanding tone with a wonderful “wearability” and lightness that will let you enjoy that tone for hours. The neck is a comfortable 1 3/4", and the action is impeccable.
LEFT: P30 all Honduran mahogany, 24.9" scale; MIDDLE: GC50 Sitka/Indian rosewood, 25.4 scale–Olson inspired top bracing; RIGHT: GC40 German "Moon" spruce/curly Koa, 25.4 scale–Olson inspired top bracing
Another highlight was a dreadnought inspired by a Roy Smeck model from Gibson. Flammang’s instinct for capturing the best of the vintage vibe and combining it with his own vision is perfectly showcased here. This guitar sings like an angel, with just enough of a vintage voice to anchor it in tradition, and yet there’s the kind of round, full tone that our twenty-first century ears have become accustomed to, too.
LEFT: J35 Red spruce/Honduran mahogany, 24.56 scale, 3-tone bar–vintage Gibson J35 inspired; MIDDLE: EL35 13-fret Red spruce/Honduran mahogany, 24.56 scale–vintage Gibson L1 inspired; RIGHT: RS30 Red spruce/Honduran mahogany, 24.75 scale–vintage Gibson Smeck inspired.
The 13-fret sunburst guitar below barks like a hound dog, and rings like a bell. The dreadnought is a powerhouse, loud and easily able to chew it’s way through any bluegrass jam session. Once again, I have to admit, I love the OM and GC models most of all. This little Red spruce OM baby has a wonderfully clear and shimmering tone.
LEFT: L35 13-fret Red spruce/ Honduran mahogany, 24.75 scale–vintage Gibson L00 inspired; MIDDLE: J35 Red spruce/Honduran mahogany, 24.75 scale, two tone bar–vintage Gibson J35 inspired; RIGHT: OM30 Red spruce/Honduran mahogany, 25.4 scale–vintage Martin OM18 inspired
Flammang has also turned his attention to nylon-string guitars, and these two have a lovely, chocolatey richness, but Flammang is not yet satisfied with the tone he’s getting, and will continue to work in his patient, painstaking way, to follow his inner ears until he gets it just right. The dreadnought below is another stunning vintage-inspired powerhouse. Bluegrass guitarist and singer Dede Wyland has an old Martin D18 that sounds so much like this one it almost brought tears to my eyes.
LEFT: D30 Red spruce/Honduran mahogany, 25.4 scale–vintage Martin D18 inspired; MIDDLE: CL60 Carpathian spruce/Brazilian rosewood, 650mm scale–classical; RIGHT: CL48 German spruce/lacewood, 660mm scale–classical
The Point of it All
The point is, the more we educate our ears and our hands to the tones available to us, the better choices we will make as we accumulate guitars to help us translate the sounds we hear inside to the sounds we offer to the world. Developing relationships with local luthiers gives us a chance to learn more about how these magical instruments are made, and when you become utterly smitten with something wonderful, you end up supporting the local economy, too. Don’t worry, guitars are no less magical to me for having seen the tools and machines that makes them possible. The art and magic of lutherie is alive and well, and living in Greene, Iowa.
Check out more of Flammang’s work at flammangguitars.com