On Quality and Workmanship
There are things one should expect to see, hear, and find on an expensive new guitar
There are things one should expect to see,
hear, and find on an expensive new guitar
(vintage guitars are subject to different standards)
that won’t be found on cheaper instruments.
This month, I’d like to share my own
abbreviated list of expectations.
• A premium guitar should display impeccably clean workmanship. “Workmanship” here implies handwork, not machine work. That means smooth, ripple-free surfaces that speak of good wood preparation, a lack of visible file or sandpaper marks, and crisp joints, seams, and edges. The finish should be mirror-smooth and free of tiny scratches. If you’re considering buying something, I recommend spending a good 10 minutes carefully looking it over—use a magnifying glass, if necessary.
• The guitar should feature all-wood construction and appointments. This comes automatically on classical guitars, but steel-string guitars—even expensive ones—frequently feature plastic bindings, purfling, tuner buttons, etc. The market has long since accepted this, but wood is better. Solid wood soundboxes are best. Plywood or laminated woods (even though these materials might look good) are characteristic of cheaply made instruments.
• It should have mitered purfling joints. (A mitered joint is like what’s used in picture-frame corners.) Every angled juncture of line elements should be a mitered joint, not a butted one.
• If tone is your focus, then straight-grained body woods are more desirable than highly figured and wavy ones. The straighter the grain, the more stable and predictable are the soundbox’s vibrational properties.
• A certain amount of customizing is a plus. It’s not unreasonable to expect some original inlay work, such as beautiful shop-made rosettes, but some guitars are so ornamented they stop being instruments and become artwork that uses guitar-shaped wood as a canvas. Such guitars belong in art galleries, not music stores.
• It should have delicate elements, such as small-profile heels. The typical neck-heel curve has a 4" diameter, achieved by the front roller of a belt sander. Smaller heel curves require more work and are ergonomic—they let the left hand get closer to the upper frets.
• The strings should be evenly spaced. You’d be surprised at how many guitars are sloppy in this regard.
• The guitar should feature rounded, not beveled, fret ends. Rounded ends provide more playing area than beveled frets.
• If the guitar is a cutaway model, the cutaway should blend seamlessly into the neck and heel, without the “corners” that many guitars offer. Seamlessness of construction is always a clue that something is better made.
• Heel caps are best if they are an extension of the arched surface of the back, rather than being a stepped point of discontinuity. This goes to the fact that, traditionally, the best guitars are made with necks that are firmly part of the guitar body. Lately, guitars with bolt-on necks have been making inroads into high-priced guitar territory, but traditionalists consider this to be second-tier level construction.
• It should be intelligently voiced. Most buyers don’t know what to look for, but a guitar’s responsiveness is the proof of its voicing. If the guitar’s sound surprises and pleases you, you’re holding a well-voiced instrument.
• It should sport extensive handwork at every stage and level of the instrument. Production facilities make money in direct proportion to how much time they can save at each step. One should expect to see handmade rosettes rather than commercially bought ones, as well as tasteful touches such as wrap-around fretboard bindings and heel cap inlays.
• It should have a thin finish. These are more work-intensive to apply and buff out, but make a louder and more responsive guitar than would be possible with “standard” finishes. The difference in tap tone between a naked guitar top or back, and one that is covered (and damped) by a standard finish, is shockingly obvious the first time you hear it.
• Instrument playability should be remarkably easy. This will have to do with the correct set and relief of the neck and an optimal height of the strings above the frets. Steel-string guitars should have about 2/32" clearance between the 12th fret and the 1st string, and 3.5/32" clearance between the 12th fret and the 6th string. For classical guitars, these numbers can be increased by 1/32". When these things are done correctly, a guitar plays cleanly, easily, and without string buzzes.
• On the bridge, the saddle should hold the strings about 1/2" above the guitar’s face on both steel- and nylon-string instruments. In either case, the saddle should protrude above the bridge itself by at least 1/16", but not more than 1/8".
• It should play in tune. Most guitars, especially steel-string instruments, don’t play perfectly in tune, but you should expect an expensive guitar to not have this problem, either from string-to-string across the fretboard, nor up and down the fretboard at any and all positions.
• The guitar’s center-of-balance is a positive design feature. If you’re going to play a guitar while seated, its mass needs to be well distributed on either side of the waist. You want it to rest comfortably in your lap without you having to expend any effort to hold or balance it.
• It should have superior design. The lines, proportions, and curves will all be deliberately considered and matched to the guitar’s other lines, proportions, and curves. The aesthetic will be pleasing to look at and one won’t tire of it quickly. As simple as this sounds, anything that has a classic, timeless look is based in years of thought and experience.
• Finally, an expensive guitar should have a sound that’ll knock your socks off. People describe the best guitars with such words as “piano-like,” “full,” “rich,” clear,” “sweet,” “warm,” “powerful,” and “evenly responsive.” Your guitar should be described like this as well.
A professional luthier since the early ’70s, Ervin Somogyi is one of the world’s most respected acoustic-guitar builders. To learn more about him or his guitars, visit esomogyi.com.