As Zen Buddhism teaches, that which calls attention to itself diverts attention from its essence. Within the world of guitar design, this concept is often super- ceded by ornamentation. A musical instrument with well designed lines and planes will stand on it's own with understated visual elegance that speaks of the beauty of its purpose. I do not believe that pearl has ever made for a better sounding instrument.
I am not opposed to tasteful detailing, but the primary function of a guitar needs to be its ability to produce sound that is musical in nature.
I prefer instruments that maintain tonal production as the guiding principle of their design, and am not terribly interested in instruments that are overly ornate.
Longevity is also an important factor of instrument design. As the quality of modern factory instruments declines in the interest of efficiency, so goes the perceived value of the guitar. However, an instrument that is designed with appropriate bracing and is built by hand, with aged wood in a well-controlled environment, will often outlive its owner. Such an instrument must be thought of as an investment, if not an heirloom. George Nakashima referred to this as "...an unseen morality." This perspective has never been more true.
I feel that it is important here to touch on the use of materials as an element of design. We are clearly in need of a paradigm shift in the way that we relate to the natural world. As a worker of wood I feel a deep respect for our standing forests. Many of the trees that produce the material that I use have lived lives much longer than my own. This is a daunting realization, one which I try to reconcile by knowing that their spirit can live on in my work and in the music that is made with instruments I've crafted, long after I pass. I feel a deep moral obligation as the steward of the second life of these trees to honor, with my designs and with my craftsmanship, the lives that they have lived.
The politics of scarcity help to create a perception that the rarest wood on earth is the most sought after. It is our job as builders to steer our clients in making informed decisions about material selection that is both appropriate and responsible. There are many "alternative" tone woods on the market today from across the globe. We must incorporate alternatives tone woods into our design vocabulary. In doing so we must also learn as much as we can about the origin of new materials and the methods that were used in their harvest.
I am committed to using as much wood as is possible that has been certified by The Forest Stewardship Council. The FSC’s mission is to promote and enhance well-managed forests through credible certification that is environmentally responsible, socially acceptable, and economically viable. The FSC standards represent the world’s strongest system for guiding forest management toward sustainable outcomes.
A wood shaving will tell me about the state of the tool that produced it, but also about the manner in which I have used the tool.
Assuming that the material being planed is flat to begin with, a well sharpened and true hand plane will produce a shaving that is the length of the stroke that produced it. Such a shaving should be an even thickness throughout its length. I occasionally measure a shaving's thickness with a digital caliper. My goal in doing this is to check for constancy. These shavings are often only .001 of an inch. It is more common for me to slide a shaving through my fingers and view its transparency in front of a light. If I 'm not satisfied with what I have either measured or seen I immediately blame the tool, usually with language that spirals downward.
After addressing the tool's edge, I am often forced to turn my attention to another component in the equation - myself. Although this is harder, it can be more rewarding than the experience of sharpening a beloved tool. True craftsmanship demands self awareness and self discipline from moment to moment. The building of a fine instrument requires a sustained attention to all of the tangible variables inherent in the process. Realizing that I am one of those variables has been one of my most resonant lessons. In the shop I have to let go of whatever may hinder my ability to do my best work. Each pass of the tool is a little personal test, one that requires me to accept and to resolve even the smallest of issues as they arise. It is a little like therapy when "What did that shaving look like?" translates into "How are you doing, right now? Are you focused on what you are doing?"
Townes Van Zandt said, "I don't think you can ever do your best. Doing your best is a process of trying to do your best." Thank you Townes, if for nothing else, for trying!
The shavings that affect me the most are produced by a chisel as I taper the ends of braces. These shavings exhibit an evenly spaced series of fractures that create a lovely spiraling curl. I pay attention to each of these as they are produced. They let me know whether or not the angle of my chisel is consistent with it's previous pass. They also remind me that life's most beautiful gifts often come in the form of small things. These spiraling shavings illustrate to me that my work is, in some mystical way, guided by the structural and physical laws of the universe. The spiral is one of the natural fundamental determinants of the form and structure of living organisms. Botanically, spirals are often defined as whorls. I just love this word, "whorls" - almost worlds; and such a beautiful sounding word for the shavings that are created on my workbench. Whorls...
Before I dare touch these materials with a file I perform a little ritual. I click the saddle blank against the nut blank and vice versa. This process of listening and reflecting prepares me for the fitting, the shaping and the polishing of the nut and saddle.
I make a good long contemplative study of the sounds produced. I listen for density and for tonal qualities. I compare the sounds to other materials available to the modern builder: cow bone, select alloys, composites, fossilized Walrus jawbone, ect... I listen because the nut and saddle material dramatically affect an instruments timbre, tonality, volume, sustain and musicality. I listen also because there is a narrative that travels within an object, an audible history.
You see, a materials sound tells something of a story, and I believe that my instruments allow their story to be told in song.
When I am done fitting and shaping a Wooly Mammoth nut and saddle I collect the dust created in the process.
I brush this dust into a small box.
Then, on a windy day, I walk to the back of our field, among the living things that sustain us.
I cast the dust into the wind;
and I always say,
"Go with the wind now, and be Wooly..."
To me, the bracing of a soundboard is a study in sādhanā, which literally means spiritual exertion towards an intended goal.
Sādhana is a repeated practice, discipline or action performed with observation and reflection in the pursuit of perfect execution.
A sādhaka, or practitioner, is one who skillfully applies mind, intelligence and experience in action.
If allowed, the bracing and voicing of a guitar is a meditative process. It requires awareness of, and sensitivity to, the overall tonal effect of each brace, as a component of a plate. Each handplane pass, as the braces are carved, will directly affect the stiffness and weight of the top. The placement, thickness, height and shape of each brace is treated with intent and care in order to optimize their acoustical properties.
Recently I have been using "fossilized" Wooly Mammoth ivory for my nuts & saddles. This material is usually dated somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 years old. Some perspectives on time make this material seem ancient.
In fact,this means that the Mammoth ivory that I use is mineralized and not yet fossilized.
All organic matter hardens as it becomes fossilized, and although I often wish for it to be older, and even harder, I simply adore Mammoth ivory.
It works beautifully under a file, and I love the way that it sounds in a finished instrument. I am often moved to use this material, part of a once living thing, now extinct. It's daunting to consider the lives of these Mammoth creatures;
the landscape of their time,
silent but for the sound of the wind,
the sound of time itself.
The role of the designer is to exemplify that which he or she perceives as beautiful, while reconciling the inherent conflict between the requirements of economy and permanence. Some designers strive to find rules to guide their practice; others break the rules, placing primary value on the spirit of creativity.
I am a traditionalist, and I have been influenced by luthiers from the classical, arch-top, and steel string schools. I believe that tonally superior instruments are more often the products of refinement than they are of individual imagination.
I am very much a proponent of the theory that elements in design should be reduced to the essential. Although not a minimalist, I believe that good design excludes the unnecessary. I feel that ornamentation should be used to visually highlight flow within form, and is only appropriate when it lends to cohesion.
Tusk & Bone
Guitar building is meticulous work and a clean workbench is essential. Every step of the process however, creates its own mess - either shavings, chips or dust. As a result of this my shop goes back and forth between meticulous and chaotic several times a day.
I work for a period of time, and I examine the shavings as they are cast off of the tools. Then I brush them off the workbench, sweep them up from the floor and move on to the next step in the process. Although they are a nuisance, it is important to study these little artifacts and to maintain awareness of the lessons that can be learned from having done so.
This work is very quiet, and I asess my work constantly by listening. I pay close attention to the aesthetic quality of the shavings that my tools produce. I listen to the sound that the plane makes as we work together to bring out the sounds inherent in wood.
At some point I had this realization: The way of the luthier is to become a part of the story that the materials have to tell. The wood is singing; the luthier is to be part of the wood's song.
I have a note on my wall that I wrote many years ago.
When bracing a guitar
listen for the songs that the soundboard will sing,
and reflect on the stories learned from the songs of soundboards passed...
Zen and the Art of Bracing