APPROACH to MAKING
By the time I started guitar making almost 25 years ago, I was in my early thirties and had already learned a number of other arts and crafts, which gave me plenty of confidence to tackle the crafting aspect of luthier work . My own inclination was towards the traditional spanish guitar and that is what I set out to make. In 1993 I began by studying the guitars of Antonio de Torres to gain insight into the fundamentals of traditional spanish guitar-making - from then on, the experience of making itself became my teacher. I found that my guitars improved steadily from batch to batch as I experimented, and I learned to trust my instincts more and more. I continue to work in this way, always adjusting and refining. I am more instinctive than scientific in approach, although I do make notes about various things, particularly the pitches (tap tones) of the front and back during construction and afterwards - this has been very useful for subsequent fine-tuning.
In this process of experiential learning, the input from guitarists has been very important, helping me to identify and be aware of the qualities necessary in a fine guitar, and gradually, as a result, I have further developed my own critical listening ability. To improve something you have to be aware of what is lacking. Once you're aware, you can try and build in the necessary change. Just how you do that is a combination of experience and instinct.
I began with Julian Bream's playing very much in mind - a sound that could be coloured in all sorts of ways, yet remain clear and focused in all registers and at the extremes of dynamic range, and above all, sound musical. When I make a guitar I like to conceive a clear idea of the sound I want to create, not as a series of descriptive words, but to actually try and hear the sound in my head as far as possible, to imagine the various parts of the guitar vibrating, and to bear this in mind during the making process. This habit of keeping the sound concept in mind whilst making keeps the work fresh and enables me to tailor a guitar to an individual. I am always seeking to improve on what I've done before, just because it is natural to do so. Trying to make "the perfect guitar" is not a concept that I find particularly useful, since there are many kinds of guitar, and as many varying tastes - but trying to embody the best musical qualities in a guitar at any given time, for a particular set of circumstances, materials, players' requirements, is stimulating and challenging. There are a whole range of different tonal possibilities to explore in a traditional guitar, which no single instrument can provide, and consequently it is necessary to experiment to discover some of them.
As well as sounding and looking good, to be excellent, the guitar needs to be technically good from the player's perspective - such things as neck profile, string spacing, string action height and especially string feel, are the things which deliver ease of playing, so I give a lot of attention to these matters. Musicality is something that is felt or perceived , and not quantified. A musical player can do wonderful things with a poor instrument, but if the instrument responds very musically as well, that is a better combination! Certain observable qualities can be recognised as being important for musicality e.g. good dynamic range, a wide tone colour palette, a quick response, good tone and balance, good focus/separation ( i.e. each note having a good fundamental) resulting in clarity, projection, evenness, playability and volume. None of which of themselves can provide musicality, but which need to be present. And let's not forget beauty, character and charm, the less definable aspects which lend a guitar its individuality and which communicate with the player and the listener. I have increased the power and projection of my guitars considerably over the years, but this was never my primary concern and so it has not been done at the expense of beauty of sound, or sacrificing balance. On the contrary, both balance and evenness have been improved and the tone is richer, notably in the bass and middle registers.
In addition to making fan-braced guitars which spring from the spanish tradition, I also build designs that evolve from traditions in other parts of 19th century europe. The X-braced design by the Roudhloff brothers, who were trained by their father in France and then set up shop in London, inspired me to investigate further, and it has borne fruit in quite a number of guitars, small, medium and large, which have proved its suitability as a design both for classical and "cross-over" guitars ( for flamenco guitars with their low string height at the bridge, you can't beat the spanish fan-braced pattern ). I've also built a couple of cross-over guitars using a pattern with long parallel bars which bears similarities to the work of the famous french 19th century maker Etienne Laprevotte and also to a guitar by Roudhloff which I worked on recently. The principle of the two types, X-brace and long-bar is similar in that they both attain a longer vibrating length in the top, increasing the working area and thus lowering the body resonance and enabling the whole top to be more firmly supported than a fan-braced one for the same resulting body frequency. All the designs have their strong points – the X-brace and long-bar patterns produce robust guitars with very good sustain and great immediacy, however, you can't beat the spanish fan-braced design for tone colour range. Which you would prefer depends on what kind of player you are.