Whatever you call the process, extracting the information from great guitars and taking advantage of that to build new ones is a very common practice. Some try to get the same aesthetics, some are looking to capture that 100-year-old sound and still others are more interested in learning about the processes used by the historical makers. Usually even those makers who are quick to state that they have developed their own models have studied the past masters or some particular guitar they have found to be excellent. The guitar has evolved so much that to ignore what we have collectively learned is unwise to say the least.
In my own case, the first guitar I copied was Antonio de Lorca from Málaga. The original was the earliest fan-braced instrument I had seen at the time and had a very high curve on the top. The owner had some very interesting guitars but this is the one that I chose to study. It captured my attention and the first copy I made proved interesting to some players. I went on to make quite a few and still offer it. In the meantime I was developing my own guitar and its sound using as a starting point the dimensions and bracing of a Hauser guitar. This model has since undergone changes in dimensions, bracing, and aesthetics.
My first experience with a great-sounding Torres (not all of them are) got me excited and I wanted to try to get that sound. Once again, total access to the instrument was very important to discovering all the details that made it great. There must be a lot of guitarists who feel the way I do about that sound as this has become my most popular model.
A lot of factors have to come together for that kind of success and that just didn’t happen with the next guitar that came my way. A 1900 Vicente Arias in perfect condition and very playable once again had me marvelling at the maker´s skill and good taste and making another copy. A large number of makers have asked me for details about this guitar but in general guitarists are not attracted to VIcente Arias the way they are Antonio de Torres.
I have never asked myself, “Which guitar should I copy if I want a commercial success?” but rather I do a restoration or hear a guitar and fall in love with it. Well the latest copy came out of an article I was asked to write about a guitar made by Santos Hernández. I started by writing the article (in which I include a complete drawing of the guitar) but once again due to the wonderful qualities of the guitar I was asked to make a replica. I just finished it and will soon be sending it to the client.
No videos or sound clips yet but I can tell you that this guitar breaks with what I usually do. The top and back linings are solid and not much wider than the purfling and the top is quite thin. In addition, the body is much deeper than my other guitars and all of this combines to create an instrument with a very low air resonance – below F. I also found the rosette particularily well-designed and showed it at different stages of completion in an earlier post.
Until now all of the historic guitars that I have studied give the impression of having been built face down and the back being the last element of the box to get glued on. This one still has me stymied. Very little in the way of indications of what the order of assembly was. Richard Bruné states that Santos used three different methods, “peones” face down and glueing the back on last, linings top and back and the back on last but he also used linings with the back glued on first and the top last with some of his guitars. This is no surprise as he was also a violin-maker. The typical clues (tool marks and glue drips) were mostly inconclusive. I made this one face down but the next one might be different.
I am sure I have written already about the use of the term workmanship here or on one of the guitar forums. Guitar connaisseurs speak of “impeccable workmanship”, often using the term to describe something that in reality is badly made but very busy or ambitious. I suppose it is understandable because these people know nothing about guitar-making. I do wish they would stop though. Good workmanship is the reflection of organized, conscientious effort which reflects an understanding of aesthetics and function. It is by no means about bling. Furthermore, despite the sensation of quality that good workmanship can transmit, it isn’t about perfection either. I took a few pictures yesterday just for illustration. None of these are perfect, one of them could even be considered to be too “busy” but there are elements of refinement in all of them. In the first photo the challenge is planning the job in such a way that the corners of the white veneers line up at all points along the “log” so that each corner on the tiles then lines up with the next and creates the desired effect. When placed side by side.
Sometimes on purflings I will stagger the joints of the two sides which confuses the observer as to where the joint is. Of course the joint is always placed off-centre as the eye goes automatically to the centre to look for it.
Making the herringbone strips come together both at the centreline and placing a MOP piece on the same line is challenging but the symmetry Torres used is very nice. Ideally it should look like the thin veneer (backbone) of the herringbone is continuous but joints in white wood meeting at endgrain are almost always visible.
This design obliges me to start glueing binding and purfling at the heel as Iast-minute fitting might go well or might go badly. I try to make a continuous circle using the bee-stings and the contour of the heel. On the original it is not quite so clear on the heel but the curve of the bee-stings certainly is.
This last one I took from a bit of a vertical angle so the perspective makes it look like it is wedge-shaped while it really isn’t. I saw this on another maker’s guitar and though I would try it. It is definitely more work than the using just the binding to frame the side the way we usually do.
I am building guitar for a guitarist who only uses gut strings. He has already told me that if the guitar doesn’t “work” with gut he doesn’t want it. I wouldn’t normally accept to do something like this but this sounded like a fun challenge. The truth is he usually only plays on historic instruments so I might learn that he doesn’t play this one much even if he finds it compatible with gut strings. This first photo shows a few of the changes I have made in this guitar with the intention that it sound better with gut strings. Torres didn’t scallop his braces but I did so on these. Torres linings had a triangular shape, even slightly convex in their profile. On these I made a concave face to reduce mass without losing any width because the purfling on this model is very wide and needs support. Other changes I made were to use very lightweight wood all round, a top as thin as I dared and to use less doming than the original. I had considered using spaced peones but I severely dislike the small spaces left in between that break up the evenness of the interior. I am also looking for a soft fretwire to use hoping that the strings will last longer. This photo shows something that I got from another guitarmaker when I was restoring a guitar from 1900. Intonation will also be an issue with the gut strings. I hope to do some experimentation to see if gut needs the same compensation as nylon.
Cordoba Guitar Festival This is probably the biggest and best guitar festival in the world.
I was lucky enough to be a small part of the festival when they paid hommage to Antonio de Torres and chose my Torres replica to be part of the exhibition in 2007. There were a number of Torres originals (more than ever assembled) and even more historical guitars from around Andalucia. Myself and two other makers were asked to present our Torres copies. This year I will be attending once again to present “The Granada School of Guitar-makers” on July 2. This will be a chance for the international attendees to have a look at the book and to buy it in Cordoba.
I finally finished the Vicente Arias copy! Since I wasn’t making this guitar for anyone in particular it kept getting pushed back by the guitars people had ordered. Here you have a video and some photos of it “in the white” The sound changes once it is varnished but it is a very slight and predictable change and the builders among you will hear the lack of varnish. Javier Riba, who will be opening the Cordoba Guitar Festival this year, came by and played a little Sor for us, study no. 12 op. 6. If you remember, he owns the original and let me do an extensive examination of it. When you make a copy you are usually trying for both an aesthetic and an acoustic match but the aesthetics are usually easier than the acoustics. In this case I was very pleased to hear Javier say that the feel of the guitar is very similar to the original and the sweetness of the tone is there too. The video was made with an audio recorder which also does video but it seems that for a really good audio take it needs to be quite close. Thanks to Toni Valls and Carlos Juan Busquiel for the advice on finding a recorder and on making the recording itself.