Four new guitars built for customers or by students left the shop this winter going to their new homes from California to Puerto Rico. Well, two of them still live in New Hampshire. Coinciding with the new season, three new students and I have started our journey together. In addition, I am building two guitars for customers who want specially designed, unique instruments that suit their musical styles. Below you will see a glimpse into these developments. Finally, I have for you a clip showing my first experiments with drop D tuning.
Graduations & Custom Builds
Two students finished their work with me this spring. It is bittersweet to see them go because we get to know and like each other after 200 hours, but both guitars came out well and both (former) students now have the skills and motivation to build more on their own. It’s rewarding to launch people on their guitar-building careers.
Eugenio hails from Puerto Rico but stayed here for a year in order to make his first guitar. He has now gone home where his plan is to spend his retirement making guitars. Working with him was a delight. It turns out, previous woodworking experience has little to do with guitar making ability. Eugenio had no woodworking experience. Yet his patient personality and his natural aptitude for hand tools let him build a lovely first guitar. The body is Honduran Mahogany. Because of this and, who knows, maybe because of the way the builder’s personality finds its way into the sound, his guitar is especially rich in high overtones and lends itself well to the South American music that Eugenio loves. We worked 6 hours a week and Eugenio finished in 9 months.
Bob is a retired high school shop teacher with tremendous power-tool skills. He travels extensively and takes the opportunity to scout out sources of tone wood. His guitar is Hawaiian Koa and Sitka Spruce with a 14 fret small jumbo body. Bob found these woods on his travels to the Big Island and to Alaska and brought them back to the shop in his hand luggage. Bob doesn’t play (yet) but I thoroughly tried out his guitar before he left. It has the overtones and fast attack characteristic of all the guitars that come out of here but also an impressive “big guitar” bass. Here’s hoping Bob seriously starts practicing. His guitar deserves to be played!
Besides graduating two students, I also delivered two guitars to patient customers who had waited the year it takes me to make them. Dennis gave me the opportunity for a first by asking me to build him a left handed guitar. It’s my new Venetian cutaway 12 fret 000. Turns out lefties have a lot fewer choices in the guitar stores so a custom built guitar may be an especially good option for them. Being right-handed, it was hard for me to test play it, but another student (John) has a friend (George) who is a very good left-handed player and he ran the guitar through its paces before it shipped.
Mark asked me to build a Venetian 12 fret 000 (right-handed) of New Hampshire Cherry and Italian Spruce. His brother-in-law Ralph asked me for the dimensions so he could have a custom stand made as a surprise for Mark when the guitar was ready. Here you see the guitar and stand on display in Mark’s living room. If you look closely you can see that the guitar has a split bridge which was fun to make and improves the intonation accuracy.
Robert, who I met at the Sunapee Crafts Fair in 2010, and his son-in-law Michael have started as students. Usually I only teach one student at a time but they wanted to learn as a duo so that’s what we are doing. Its working well. I remembered a lesson from my professor days – the best way to learn something is to have to teach it to others. So let’s say I teach Robert how to do a particular step – I then ask him to teach it to Michael (or vice versa) while I watch. Robert is a retired engineer and we have fascinating discussions about strength-of-materials issues. My approach is more intuitive but I’m learning a lot from a professional engineer However I drew the line when Robert suggested we shape the braces like I-beams! Son-in-law Michael, who is a musician, seems pleasantly amused by our interactions. Both Robert and Michael are making good progress.
Another new student, Alex, is a musician and takes naturally to a right-brain teaching approach. He is making rapid progress. We found for him another soundboard reclaimed from the 1800′s California redwood railroad trestle bridge. Unless remote student Dick sells me one of his, that’s it for the reclaimed redwood.
Rick, whom I met at guitar playing class, has given me a neat opportunity. He has a big, powerful style, often playing moody and dark arrangements of Celtic tunes. He has asked for a large and unusual guitar – a 12 fret jumbo with a profile reminiscent of the Gibson 185-200 family. That’s now designed and the jigs made. The shape is voluptuous, as you will see in future newsletters as the build progresses.
Luz Elena is a musical healer and highly accomplished musician. She’s asked for a guitar with a most unusual twist. Its to be a 12-fret 000 but with an optional saddle that produces, when she wants it, a sitar-like twang. She brought to the shop a tambura which sort of looks like a guitar except the body is not built. It’s a gourd, grown inside a mold that gives it the proper shape. Its extremely twangy, which is achieved by a wide, flat saddle. Years ago, when I built my first guitar and strung it up it twanged like a sitar, because I hadn’t yet rounded the saddle. The sound was cool but knowledgeable builder friends said “Oh no, you must eliminate that by rounding the saddle” which I did. But now, I get to make Luz Elena an optional saddle which she can use when she wants some twang.
Shop Notes – French Polishing and Insulation
Associate Gordon Greenway has mastered French Polishing – the time-consuming but visually gorgeous traditional method of finishing a guitar. It turns out, the difficult technique required is almost identical to spit-shining your boots which they teach in the military. So Gordon’s military experience is standing him in good stead. They would have him spit-shine his boots and then make him crawl through the mud and gravel so the boots would have to be shined again. Gordon is now restoring the finish on several well used guitars with visually breathtaking results.
On another note, we dropped the cathedral ceiling in the workshop and added a lot of insulation. Its quite cozy in the winter and the heating bill was down 25%! The air-conditioning and dehumidification should receive similar benefits.
I long resisted alternate tunings but found a song that cries out for one. Here it is on my cherry guitar.
If you can guess the name of the song and e-mail it to me I will draw the names from a hat and send the winner a new set of John Pierce guitar strings. When you write, any comments or suggestions you have about the newsletter would be gratefully received.
I’ve been really busy building and teaching in the shop. Come summer, there will be some musical activities. I’ve signed up for the WUMB acoustic music week where performance classes are run by professional performers and song writers, July 15 through 21 at Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire and I also will be conducting guitar making demos at the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen’s Fair at Lake Sunapee, NH on August 6, 8, 10, and 12. We’re also planning a barbecue and jam session for former and current students, customers, and their families in late spring, early summer.
© 2012, John Whiteside