Though known for his beautiful steel-string flattops, Michael Gurian began his career building classical guitars. This elegant 1973 Gurian sports Brazilian rosewood back and sides and reveals the luthier’s

Though known for his beautiful steel-string flattops, Michael Gurian began his career building classical guitars. This elegant 1973 Gurian sports Brazilian rosewood back and sides and reveals the luthier’s classical roots. Photo courtesy of Frank Ford and
While looking through guitar magazines recently, I was blown away by how many great luthiers are making fantastic guitars. I was also impressed with how many small companies are making guitars in Chinese factories that have the look of a handmade guitar from a lone luthier’s shop.

Acoustic-guitar styling has taken on a new look over the past two decades. There’s a modern look to the body shapes, with their soft shoulders and rounded bouts. The tops are white as can be, and rosettes have become more and more artistic. Plastic bindings have evolved into wood of all kinds, with purfling treatments that beautifully contrast with the body. Exotic woods from all over the world are used for the sides and backs, and fretboards are often clean and modern looking, with few inlays. In many ways, when it comes to binding treatment, rosettes, and blank fretboards, the steel-string guitar has taken on the aesthetics of the classical guitar.

Good luthiers are designing their own trade dress, using distinctive bridge shapes and peghead shapes. I see creativity coming out like never before. Even the guitars that are inspired by traditional instruments have a more elegant, refined look with their tops sitting proud in an arch that would not have appeared before our big World Wars. Guitar makers are figuring out a better design, and most of them are heading down a similar path—the path of sophistication.

It’s refreshing to me—not only the quantity of the makers, but the quality of their work. I’ll say our work, because I’m among those whose guitars display a more sophisticated design than guitars did five decades ago.

You can see the influence of computerization even in handmade guitars. Lasers and CNC machines have allowed inlay design to become more advanced. Many handbuilders buy parts from suppliers that use CNC machines, and some might use CAD programs to draw their designs.

Nevertheless, the current inlay trends reflect the influence of technology. It’s funny to think about, but it once was the computerized machines’ task to copy the old handmade designs, but now many handcrafters are copying the aesthetics introduced by people who use modern techniques.

When I started, there weren’t many people working alone, building guitars. The steel-string guitar companies that existed included Martin, Gibson, Guild, Larrivée, Gurian, Loprinzi, Mossman, and NBN, but some of those are no longer with us.

When I look at the nose-dive that acoustic guitars took after about 1979—when the disco craze hit the scene—I have to think that, even though Taylor was selling a lot of guitars, the industry was not so healthy.

There was no way for a would-be guitar maker to learn the craft, even as recently as the 1970s. There was but one book explaining how to do it, no place to buy supplies, and you had to make your own tools. I’ve always said that a good way to measure the health of an industry like guitar making is by gauging the tools, supplies, and know-how that exists within the industry.

When I started, people were buying a lot of guitars. But they came only from factories. There was no way for the individual maker to enter the market like there is today. As more and more tools, supplies, and knowledge spread, people were more easily able to get started making their first guitar, and many of them were incredible craftsmen.

When I look at the nosedive that acoustic guitars took after about 1979—when the disco craze hit the scene— I have to think that, even though Taylor was selling a lot of guitars, the industry was not so healthy. If it were healthy, then perhaps a new musical genre would not have harmed it so much. I’m not sure if I’m right, but our current guitar-market condition sure feels a

lot stronger to me this time. And I can’t help but notice that part of the reason I feel that way is because of how many people are involved in building and selling their own ideas.

Sure, many of these people you see advertising their guitars make only 10 or 15 guitars in a year, but I think their contribution goes a long way when you add it up. All together, they add up to hundreds or thousands of guitars. But more than that, their designs and ideas inspire the group as a whole. Even if you only look at their ads, those photos of guitars begin to alter your perception of what a guitar style should be, and that causes you to expect more from the factories you buy guitars from.

I think we’re living in a wonderful time to buy and play guitar. There are so many great choices. Vintage guitars and vintage-styled guitars are selling in record numbers, as are the newest designs. It all seems pretty healthy to me this time around.

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Bob Taylor shares moments of learning and inspiration

I’ve spent a good part of my life trying to improve guitars, trying to perfect certain aspects, and trying to build a personal experiential database of knowledge. It’s been rewarding to arrive at a point where there are things that I just out-and-out know about guitars. But, like so many things in life, I find that with each time I gain some equity in knowledge or feel like I fully understand some aspect about building the guitar, I also arrive at a crossroads in guitar making where I might not know which way to go. I also trip over good things, new sounds, or even new ways of solving a player’s problem I wouldn’t have perceived even one day before.

Acoustic aficionados love to hear of the meticulous research that leads to improvement, and, truly, much of what experienced luthiers have to offer from their life’s work is a result of simply staying on a goal for years—or even decades. All of us can cite examples of advances or innovations we’re proud of. I can toss my knowledge of how to dry wood properly into that category, and you’ve probably heard me talk about humidity control and noticed that I speak as an expert regarding those subjects. But there are many things I have learned and still do along the way that come just from being in the right place at the right time or being willing to make something different.

For example, when we dreamed up our 12-fret Grand Concert model, I never could have predicted how much I’d love its sound. So, if you talk to me today about these changes, I can give you a full explanation of why they sound or work that way. But beforehand, I truthfully would not have been able to predict them. Only after I’ve made the improvement am I able to suss out the exact, measurable details that caused it. Basically, you have to build it first to figure it out.

My friend Zac Brown plays a nylon-string guitar tuned down a half step to Eb. He had trouble for years because the strings were too loose. You can imagine how floppy nylons would be at that tension. Well, on the day I heard about it, I’d just released a baritone steel-string with a 27-inch scale length. If you had a 25.5-inch scale and asked me to put an extra fret behind the nut—almost like capoing down from the nut—that imaginary neck would be a 27-inch scale, more or less. So I made Zac a guitar with that baritone neck and he tunes it to Eb, but the tension is normal. We capoed him down and it worked like a champ—it has since sent a lot of cool ideas a-swirling around in my head. Probably none of them will match the success of the first simple idea.

I think it’s a lot like that when you play guitar, and I always like to relate what I’m doing with guitars to what you’re doing when you play guitar. You can practice, gig for years, play what you play to perfection, and then one night find a catalyst that causes what you already do to come together in a new way. I remember playing with a keyboard player once who unlocked some chord secrets for me that the guitar players I’d hung out with never could. He just explained a few things in a different way, and the light came on for me. It’s possible if I’d met him five years earlier, what he said would have gone over my head, but that day it all sunk in and helped a great deal.

I think we all have those experiences, and sometimes they turn into a new product, a new song, a new guitar solo, or even a whole new direction. I doubt they could happen for you or me if we didn’t have our head in the game and weren’t willing to give something new a try. And I find that the more I’m engaged in guitar making, the more often these wonderful, unexpected moments present themselves. Isn’t it the same with you? You play, you practice, you meet new people, you get nervous, you try out a new scale and play a new solo, and sometimes it all just comes together and becomes a bit better. With enough of that, one day it starts to look like you know what you’re doing—because you do!

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How a young Bob Taylor figured out how to dry spruce with as little shrinkage as possible

Guitar making is a mystery to many of us and embellished with lore. I once spoke to wood technologist Bruce Hoadley, author of Understanding Wood, and mentioned that we guitar builders think that as wood gets older the resins break down, thus causing a guitar to sound better and to maintain stability, to which he said, “That’s great. What resins are you talking about?” To which I answered, “Well, I don’t know.” I’m a dork.

He went on to say that he thinks it’s like chicken noodle soup, which people say makes them feel better when they’re sick, and it probably does, but let’s just go with the idea that it does, and not try to explain it because we don’t know what we’re talking about. So, he believes that older guitars sound better, but he cautioned me to be careful about saying why.

That was about the time I wanted to find out about spruce shrinking and if there was something I could do about it. So, I’m going to get all technical on you and tell you about some experiments I conducted about 15 years ago and how those led to my current techniques for drying wood.

Testing the Field
The scientific method is to have a hypothesis, to test it with an experiment, and then to accept the results of that experiment. That’s hard to do because often the results aren’t what we want to see and so we often are tempted to ignore them. But this was a dispassionate idea, which was to simply find out how much spruce shrinks after being dried, either naturally, or through a forced process (thus the title of this article).

Step one was to take a group of tops, air dried and kiln dried, equalize them to 47 percent relative humidity (RH), then cut and mill them to the exact thickness of my dreadnought model. They were then measured for width to the thousandth of an inch and weighed on a gram scale. Next step was to equalize them to 30 percent RH. “Equalizing” expresses the state where wood has absorbed or given off the necessary moisture to be even with the surrounding RH.

Next was to weigh and measure each piece. The results were that they lost between a 1/16" and 1/8" in width and lost significant weight due to water being removed from the lower humidity. An eighth of an inch is enough to crack some guitars, so what to do?

During this time, I also asked for the help of every guitar factory you can imagine. I asked them to send a top to me that was ready for bracing, seal it in layers of plastic wrap, and then overnight it to me. I measured and weighed each piece as soon as I opened the pack, and proceeded to equalize it to my factory, then measured again. By doing this I was able to compare the humidity levels of all the shops and factories around the U.S. at the time. Then I proceeded to find out if any of their drying methods worked better than those I had been using. They didn’t, and their spruce exhibited the same shrinkage factors. This sampling included 20-year-old tops and tops which were salt-water cured, a method we guitar makers have heard about that some people say Stradivarius employed. None of them performed better than the others.

Lessening the Shrinkage
To keep this article short enough to read, I’ll fast forward to the final drying method that I came upon. That is to heat the spruce to 200 degrees for 30 minutes, or in other words, bake it. I call it oven-roasted. I do know that the pitch in spruce will “set” at 180 degrees, but more than that, nearly every bit of water is driven out of the wood through this process. The next step is to re- equalize the spruce to 47 percent RH, which hydrates it back to “normal,” but at this point it is permanently smaller than it was before it was heated. Upon exposing these pieces of spruce to 30 percent RH, they now only shrank between 1/32" and 1/16"! That is half as much as before and enough to eliminate most of the cracking that might occur on a guitar that is dried due to exposure to low humidity.

I shared with the results with all the builders who contributed tops to the experiment. I immediately employed this method of drying and have done it ever since.

Did it help the sound? I can’t tell, but it didn’t hurt it. It certainly helped the shrinkage factor. Does it still shrink? Yes, but less than before. Point is, there was enough scientific method employed to come up with a drying method that proves to be better than air drying when it comes to the stability of the wood.

When it comes to the mechanical performance of a guitar, I think that an approach like this works very well. We use a similar method for designing the sound (making samples with small changes), but the results are much more subjective because it’s a value judgment in the end. I suppose we could use some kind of meter to tell us what the guitar sounds like, but that just makes me cringe, so I’m not signing up for that. I suppose that’s why guitar making is considered a blend of art and science.

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