Yes, guitar strings will make or break your instrument’s playability and sound.
Do you prefer an instrument that’s easy to play?
The lighter a string’s tension, the easier it is to press to the instrument’s neck or fret. The tradeoff is lower volume, and thus not too good for the campfire bluegrass session. If you’re on the quiet couch playing for your sweet thing or if it’s just you and Jesus….light tension strings might be your best guitar strings. This article will discuss briefly how to choose the best guitar strings. Then you’ll be ready for the perfect setup.
Do you prefer a louder instrument?
Higher tension generally gives an instrument more initial punch, but the duration or sustain may diminish with these strings. So, if you are at the campfire trying to keep up with the other shredders, a higher tension set might be the best guitar strings in that case. Also, not all guitars are made to withstand the high amount of pressure these will put on the neck. No truss rod? Stay away from high tension. Over time, a neck will bow because of high tension.
Do’s and dont’s
Can I Use Acoustic or Electric Strings on a Classical Guitar?
No. Classical strings have a lighter tension than acoustic or electric guitar strings. Using acoustic or electric strings on a classical guitar could damage your instrument.
Can I Use Classical Strings on an Acoustic or Electric Guitar?
No. Classical strings don’t have enough tension to move the face of an acoustic guitar, so they’d produce very little sound. Electric guitars only pick up sound from strings with significant metal content.
How do I pick the best guitar strings for myself?
You must experiment to find your personal “best guitar strings.” There is no one-size-fits-all easy answer to one of the most relevant questions a guitar player has in the beginning.
Sound and playability are the two biggest factors in choosing. There’s simply no substitute for trying as many different strings as possible. Ultimately, experimenting is the best way to find the ideal strings for your needs. Luckily, the good folks at StringByMail.com have a resourceful best guitar strings rabbit hole for you to dive into.
Mark Speer of Khruangbin is the best guitarist you’ve never heard of.! He is a musical magician living and playing in our own time. He has a sound and style all his own. No guitarist in the world is doing what he is doing.
Canarywood fretboard with Bird’s eye maple sides gives this guitar its name, The Bird. It also has a sweet song it will sing and will charm anyone within an earshot. It’s in full spring plumage to attract a mate.
The guitarist of Khruangbin is too humble for the accolades I’m about to give him. Sorry, dude.
Mark Speer of Khruangbin is the best guitarist you’ve never heard of.! He is a musical magician living and playing in our own time. He has a sound and style all his own. No guitarist in the world is doing what he is doing. There are surely some incorporating multiple styles of playing into their overall sound. But, not like this guy! Is there a guitarist you know who incorporates Vietnamese opera vocal stylings or Ethiopian folk instrument technique into their sound. No, you don’t because there is nobody.
If you surf the Tube at all discovering new music, you will have undoubtedly come across at least one Khruangbin thumbnail, even if it flew under the radar of your fleeting attention. If you haven’t, trust me when I proclaim that someone in your circle has. These guys are simply one of the best bands in the world right now. Oh, so you’ve heard of them? What’s the guitarists’ name? Hmm?
Hart’s Guitars hereby announces its first annual Unheard of, Uncanny, Unearthly Guitarist of the year award! The winner is Mark Speer of Khruangbin. I make custom out of the ordinary nylon string guitars. But maybe some day soon I will get into building electric guitars. If I do, I will most certainly, as a matter of first order, design and make a custom Mark Speer tribute model from my premium collection of Brazilian Rosewood (and maybe a little birdseye maple).
If you’ve somehow never heard of Khruangbin, you have a treasure trove of discovery awaiting you! That’s not just for guitarists, mind you. The music they create is a pastiche of so much that is good in music. Musical traditions from around the globe come out in their sound. Mark Speer on guitar, Laura Lee on bass, and DJ Johnson on drums are Khruangbin.
How can one describe Mark Speer’s guitar playing style? At times, there’s a hint of disco guitar drenched with soupy wet pentatonic goodness. But in a flash, it will dry up a bit into an ethereal jazzy chord melody accompaniment for their sparse yet perfect vocals. The thing about this band is that they never try to do too much.
They have finesse. Their sound conjures up so many different musical styles without ever going completely into any particular one. They make it seem so effortless, as if they were born to do exactly what they do. Like an autonomic process requiring no thought, Khruangbin seems to stir their melodious melting pot as easily as the rest of us breathe.
Mark Speer’s musical influences
I was first drawn to Khruangbin when I would often feel the African guitar influence in Mark Speer’s style. There is not simply one African guitar style by any means. But, the first time I began listening to African music, such as Ali Farka Toure or Fela Kuti, I heard the distinct approach to a guitar’s role and function in the wider context of a band. But I also heard other things in Khruangbin’s sound I did not recognize. Let’s take a quick peek at some of the musicians and world music traditions which Mark Speer brings to Khruangbin’s sound.
At times, Mark Speer recreates sounds he finds in folkloric music you’ll never hear in your lifetime without actively searching for it. One of those is vọng cổ. I personally had a high opinion of my own world music knowledge and tastes. Mark Speer has introduced me to so many new sounds. The guitar of the vọng cổ style has very deep scalloped frets, enabling the musician to bend the notes, creating a sound that would otherwise require a tremolo for any musician to even approximate.
African guitar players are the world’s best guitarists. Period. Go ahead, say something! You don’t want to fight me on this, brah. I could never be a journalist because when I really love something I cannot be objective. This IS an opinion piece, remind you. But seriously, if you have not explored African music, there is another treasure trove awaiting you. One of my favs is Orchestre Baobab. Make a Pandora station based on them and let your mind be blown by all the related bands you’ll hear and all the guitar playing will leave you dumbstruck. This guy, Franco Luambo, is no exception and a big influence named by Mark Speer.
The krar: an Ethiopan musical instrument
How I cheated to write this article….
There’s a great Youtube video in which the cool cats of Khruangbin describe their musical influences. I watched it at least three times. Because I love this band so much, I thought it would be cool to give a bit of elaboration on some of the influences Mark Speer mentions. I’d be simply a thief to not point the reader to this video because it’s where I got all my pertinent information. They speak to their music much more eloquently than I ever could. Here you go, kids! Drink it in.
Guitarists who give me goosebumps
Mark Speer’s guitar has given me goosebumps more than once. Back in the day…….the first musician who seriously put a spell on me was The Edge. He made colossal soundscapes on U2’s amazing Live Under A Blood Red Sky. It’s still my favourite live album…. of all time! It affected my musical taste and playing style for life. It was the cassette tape soundtrack of my 1971 sky blue Volkswagen Bug all through high school, my 1970 4-speed Camaro in Freshman year of college, in my beautiful FIAT Spyder convertible the rest of the way through college, and in my old, rustic, cool Dodge Dart in grad school. I went through so many changes, became a new person and morphed into new political, intellectual, and social identities. But I never outgrew Live Under A Blood Red Sky.
It never failed to give me goosebumps. As soon as I could afford it with my new fellowship stipend, I got an effects pedal with chorus, distortion, and (most importantly) delay to create my own sound. Much like what Mark Speer does now, I added a dash of everything else I’d heard that grabbed me by the soul: Jimi Hendrix and Robert Smith (The Cure) most notably but among many others.
The timelessness of Mark Speer’s guitar playing.
Khruangbin’s music has some serious staying power. There’s nothing cliché or gimmicky about them and I can see how their entire discography will have a long shelf-life. In fact, there will be a whole generation of guitarists that points back to this guy, Mark Speer, as the one musician who put a spell on them, who had the biggest influence on their sound, and who encouraged them to explore world music. It’s been a long time since I had a genuine guitar hero, one that captured my imagination the way Mark Speer does. Thanks, man! Let me make a guitar for you some day!?!
Public school teacher dropout turned luthier and artist. I want to make guitars I’ve never seen or heard anywhere, ever before, for the curator of the uncommon! I could never find my dream guitar, so I decided to make it and now I want to make yours.
Join the waiting list to have your own custom nylon string guitar built by me!*
Prices start at $3500 and vary depending on wood selection.*
*Currently a 4-month waiting period for your guitar’s delivery.
I can make your guitar at standard scale or shorter for smaller hands/easier playability.
*Current wood choices include:
Backs and sides: Brazilian Rosewood, Mahogany, Bird’s Eye Maple, Black Walnut, Padauk, and more
Soundboards: European Spruce, Western Red Cedar both dried for minimum 50 years. Mahogany! (We’ve made many Mahogany top guitars and Love-Love-Love them! They have a deeper, punchy low end, mellow sound. Great for finding an unheard of sound in the studio).
Fretboards: Brazilian Rosewood, Ebony, Macassar Ebony, Maple, Bird’s Eye Maple, Indian Rosewood, Padauk, Black Walnut, Bolivian Rosewood, Canary Wood
All-mahogany guitars have an incomparable sound. Mahogany has been used in instruments for quite some time. Normally, it is used for backs, sides, and necks on guitars. I’ve only seen five or six all-mahogany guitars in my life and four of them are ones that I’ve made right here, at Hart’s Guitars. I love the tone of mahogany and the bass-y well-roundedness of those instruments. I have three guitars I cherish and adore….. and every single one of them is an all-mahogany guitar.
All-mahogany guitars, distinctiveness, and more.
We can’t produce entry-level, budget guitars.
I really never plan to make guitars anyone can buy in a big box music store. Factories churn out instruments so easily that there are literally millions of guitars in stores right now that are: pretty, decently playable, and cheap. So, if you’re shopping for a first time guitar but somehow landed on my website, I’m sorry to say the economical cards are stacked against me. I just won’t have anything to offer you.
If you need a first-timer guitar, just Google search or go to any Guitar Center with $300 and you’ll find one to be satisfied with. Most likely that price is including a case or a gig bag. You might even go home with some change in your pocket! I cannot compete with that. Indeed I would lose myself on a fool’s errand quickly if I even try to make a budget factory guitar clone. I have none of the tooling, infrastructure, or skilled labor they have. I’m stuck with making hand-made, single-edition artisan instruments with old-fashioned hand tools.
Hart’s Guitars sells artstruments.
What sort of guitars do I make? The only kind of guitar I will ever make is the one that has no equal anywhere else in the world. My passion is making single-production, 100% unique, inimitable art-struments. This is not meant to come across as high-brow, cocky exceptionalism even though I can see how it could if read out of context from my entire blog writing content. There’s a simple explanation for why I created this term to describe Hart’s Guitars products.
My ideal client is the discriminating buyer seeking something undeniably special to add to their most cherished possessions. If you’re looking for a truly unique guitar for yourself, a special someone, or to add to your impeccable collection, then I may have something available for you. If I don’t currently have something you want but you can tell my style is right for you, I am open to doing custom builds specifically for your needs (as long as your needs don’t include replicating a factory guitar that’s already been done).
On to the topic at hand
This particular guitar (number 015) is perhaps the pure embodiment of my building philosophy. It is the intersection of art and science. Under the hood, traditional building techniques are the strong motor and chasis of this machine. The exterior form is shaped asymmetrically using the Golden ratio as much/wherever as possible. It’s a design I’ve created myself using straight edge, compass, and french curve templates. I’m obviously a fan of Victorian voluptuous design. This guitar will cuddle with you.
Back, top, sides: Mahogany
Binding: flaming Maple
This guitar has a clear, warm, and full tone. It’s malleable to many playing styles and thus suitable for singer-songwriters, couch to porch guitarists, jazz musicians, and classical players wanting a non-traditional classical (nylon string) guitar. Let’s dive in a little….
The loudest guitars are steel-string dreadnoughts with spruce tops and those are the best if you’re going down to the campfire kegger hootenanny to play with 17 other pickers (who also have loud spruce-top dreadnoughts or banjos which are even louder). This guitar has been adorned with all mahogany and nylon strings, giving the instrument a completely unique tone and use case, well-suited for use by solo players/singers or with smaller numbers of more finessed playing. Of course, you can have a pickup installed later and then it could be suitable for playing loudly at your first MerleFest or Bonaroo performance.
This guitar has lovely, balanced sustain, meaning that the decay time for a given note or chord held is lengthy. I attribute this to the thicker than normal mahogany top plate and taller bracing underneath.
Sometimes instruments will produce more volume at different fret ranges on the neck or sometimes one or two open strings might produce louder volumes even when these notes are given the same force when played. This guitar has a decidedly even output all up and down the fretboard and with all open notes as well. This is because of the thick top and tall bracing that also produce the sustain mentioned above.
Does an instrument produce more output in the bass, in the treble, the bass and treble, midrange only, or is there a broad tonal balance? Some of my favorite guitars that I’ve made have a lot of emphasis in the bass range. That’s because, personally, I do love a heavy bass tone because I like to play jazz chords while using my thumb to mimic walking notes a bass player might play. While this guitar does produce a very nice bass range, it is not stronger than the other ranges. This one has a demonstrably even distribution making it great for singing strummers and finger-pick blues and jazz players alike: appropriate lows, even mids, and crisp highs.
I acquired this wood from Carlton McClendon’s Rare Woods and Veneers right here in Atlanta. If you’ve never been, you owe it to yourself to check them out if you have any need for top-shelf wood for your home or woodworking projects. Plan on staying a couple of hours! You will.
Kasha-style bracing? what the…..?
Underneath the soundboard, I have used a bracing style invented by Dr. Michael Kasha in the 1970s. Here is a link to this unusual approach at soundboard bracing. There are very, very few guitars around with this style of bracing because it adds a lot of extra time to the process. But, it produces an evenness in the soundboard and an overall unique quality, adding one more detail to this instrument which makes it rare. I’ve attached a “deep dive” .pdf at the end of this article for anyone wanting more info on classical guitar bracing styles.
For this instrument, I decided to make a guitar in the style of an 1840s Martin. In those days, there was a lady named Madame de Goni who toured around the United States playing music on a guitar that would have been the size and shape of the instrument I present very proudly to the world today. Thus, I’ve developed a tendency to refer to it as the DeGoni guitar (or the Madame de Goni guitar).
Soundboard – Western red cedar drying for over 50 years.
Fretboard – Brazilian rosewood drying for over 100 years..
Sides – Brazilian rosewood from the same stock.
Back – Brazilian rosewood ” ” ” “.
Binding – flaming maple
Rosette – traditional Spanish rosette encircled by numerous rings of various species.
The vision of this guitar began forming back in the spring of this year (2021). I purchased a beautiful book, Inventing the American Guitar, to add to my ever-growing library of luthier and woodworking related reference materials. I’m particularly fond of the craftsmanship of earlier times and this book has a plethora of images demonstrating instruments that are nothing less than works of art and what some might justifiably call lutherie porn. Nearly two-thirds of the way into the chronological display of how the modern guitar evolved from the romantic era Spanish-American guitar, there is an entire chapter dedicated to the story of Madame DeGoni. I fell in love immediately and months later I’m happy to present the guitar I might have made for the touring charmer if I had be asked to do so.
C.F. Martin made a special guitar for Madame De Goni and it was not the typical Spanish fan-bracing soundboard but a prototype for what would turn into the famous (and some say revolutionary) x-bracing soundboard reinforcement which was codified by the 1850s and is used to this very day!
The famed poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow attended a house concert in Boston, Massachusettes in 1842. In two different letters he wrote days later it is obvious that the lady from Spain charmed his auditory as well as his visual tickle spots:
There is a sweet Spanish woman here, playing the guitar, La Señora de Gony,-delicious.” –La Señora de Gony, whose guitar delights me more, perhaps because it awakens sweet remembrances of early youth and Spain;-perhaps because a woman plays it, and the devil is in it.
I really made the best attempt I could to make this guitar feel and look like it was snatched up during a time travel drive by of the 1840s. I went so far as to give the finish the appearance of an antique guitar that had been retouched and refinished through the years. I really had a lot of fun with this one.
This De Goni tribute is made by simply the best wood possible. I’m pretty sure I could not be any more fortunate than I currently am with the wood I have at my disposal. For the soundboard, classical guitars are overwhelmingly made using either spruce or western red cedar. In the spring of this year, I acquired a collection of wood that has me set up with the finest tonewood which I can use to make guitars for the rest of my life, most likely. A local luthier named Wade Lowe passed away earlier in the year and I was indeed a fortunate soul, one of the few chosen to view his immaculate collection of wood his family was selling that he built for himself as a luthier and woodworker.
For sale now at Village Music in downtown Avondale Estates in Decatur, Georgia.
I recently had the pleasure of getting to know Whitney Lowe and of being invited to the workshop of Wade Lowe, his father and an Atlanta based luthier since the 1970s. Wade was nothing short of a Renaissance man. Before becoming a luthier, his primary wage-earning wisdom, from what I’ve been able to uncover, was that of a machinist, something that actually had intrigued me. He knew machine tools, how to make them, using lathes, other milling machines, and grinders to produce precision metal parts. Although he may have produced large quantities of a given part during his time on the job, precision machinists often produce small specialty batches and even one-of-a-kind, single production specialty parts. From the feel of ingenuity abundant throughout the workshop, I’m sure when the company needed a crucial, complex part for an important process, they sent the task to Wade Lowe. He not only learned it and made a living, but he brought this particular art into his home with an amazing machinist lathe placed right there in the workshop. I’ve never seen such a complex piece of equipment in someone’s personal space before, but rather only in the manufacturing jobs I’ve had myself.
In the second half of his life, Wade found lutherie and it was second nature to him, as if some genetic switch in his DNA was triggered to the “ON” position. He quickly became a master builder. I’ve read many accounts in the bios of other luthiers whoo credit Wade as being one of the most important figures in their development in the art of lutherie. On his website’s main page, John Kinnaird writes, “Along the way I was fortunate to make the acquaintance of Wade Lowe. Wade owned a guitar shop in Decatur Georgia where he did repairs and made custom classical guitars and violins. He became a mentor and showed me what it meant to be a craftsman.”
He put together an amazing hermit-style workshop in the basement of his Decatur, GA home through his years in lutherie. When I first stepped into this unforgettable space, I literally wanted to hit the pause button on the control panel of our space-time continuum and then, with great care, pick up and inspect every single esoteric tool and jig, smell and feel all the Spruce and Western red Cedar boards that had been curing for decades. I wanted to tap them while attentive with my ear up close to listen for the sweet sound of sustained vibration luthiers want to hear when they’re searching for and considering tone wood for instruments they plan to build. If the wood is usable, there’s a special sorta ding! when it’s tapped the right way. This “ding” indicates is that you’re holding a piece that will be a good (or great) component of an instrument. I also wanted to hold, tap, and listen to all the instruments hanging around the place. But, I knew I had only about 45 min because another person was coming soon for their appointment to look through the shop. This was early on in what turned out to be a three-week day to day estate sale for Whitney, who had left his home and Academy of Clinical Massage in Bend, Oregon to come to town for this gargantuan task, which also included the sale of the home itself..
I had allowed myself a budget of $250 for that first visit, which was a lot of money to me at the time (and still is, currently). This money I had alloted myself was Covid-19 era poverty money that I raided from special reserves in a special bank account which had suffered many attacks in my previous two and a half years of lutherie studies and investments trying to start a new living myself in the field. There was just way too much to look through and I could only go on what my eyes caught by skimming through and endless reserve of chisels, hand planes, clamps, wood, guitar tops that’d already been “thicknessed” (luthiers know what I mean), etc. My time was up before I could be too sure of anything more than I’d simply grabbed a few quality things. One of those things was a drum sander Wade had made himself. I also was able to find some lovely Spruce and Western Red Cedar that had been drying at least 50 years and some chisels.
There was one room in the back corner of the workshop. It was full of exceptional species of wood when it comes to instrument making. There was Brazilian Rosewood, Bird’s Eye Maple, Mahogany galore, Walnut, Cherry, Sitka Spruce and so forth. It was the special reserve, Wade’s best. Serious inquiries only and it was being sold as an entire lot, not to be picked through. I did not even dare set one foot into that room because it was absolutely out of the question. No, Sir! Don’t even think about it! I got home with my goodies from my visit to his shop. I knew I had to make a 2nd visit. There were so many things that intrigued me. The next day, I contacted Whitney and made a plan to go back and dig again. I thought another $250 of special reserve funds was justified because I would never be in such a place again with this chance to acquire some really amazing tools and wood. But, NOT the special room. No way! I was going to stay out of there.
Wade had always been building things since he was a little kid. He had a background in machine design and transferred a lot of that background into learning how to construct instruments. He was always fascinated with music and had thought he might try to learn how to play some, but was more drawn to building instruments than playing them. At the time when he started learning how to build instruments there weren’t many teachers around and of course there was no Internet and no widespread dissemination of information. He got some books and had some early teachers that taught him specific things, but a lot of it was trial and error experimentation on his part. This is the best way to learn, in my opinion, but it does make for some emotional highs and lows, moving from courage with respect to the future back to despair, sometimes many times a day. His very first instrument was a balalaika that he built based on a picture from a record album. According to the family, a friend of his currently has this instrument.
I was able to get several personal facts about Wade from Whitney that paint a bit more detail to his life portrait. In his young years, his favorite musician was Benny Goodman. As he got older his musical taste got quite eclectic, Whitney said, but added, “we had a lot of good times in the late 60s and 70s singing songs from Creedence Clearwater Revival and he really liked them all away through his life.” He was really good at design and three dimensional renderings of things. Whitney recalls that “he was somewhat interested in art and he and I took an art class together one time which we had a lot of fun with but it’s not something he ever pursued much.” Outside of lutherie, he did have some daydreams about doing other things like building a boat. He always was interested in some kind of new and interesting challenge that would pose challenges or difficulties for him, something different and unique. A pity that there are only so many hours in a day!
Of all the instruments he made, his very favorite one was a Brazilian Rosewood violin. That was really sort of a tradition breaker and something he was really proud of. It was a marvelous instrument. Definitely a kindred spirit, he was, as I find it difficult to stay within the boundaries of traditional tone woods for classical guitars.
Whitney also reminisced that he had “so many memories of his marvelous workshop space. I used to go down there when I was a little kid and simply watch him work and create magical creations. Through the years it was always impressive to see what he was working on a new ways that he was finding to do things. More than anything he simply enjoyed the process of building things and also the end product of knowing that he would make people happy by what he was doing. Clearly he lived for the joy of making other people happy.”
Fortunately for me, Whitney gave me the chance to come shop in his family’s home when he found my website online and could see that I was local. On my third visit to the shop, I had the courage to inquire about the price of the lot of wood. I had already decided I was going to make an offer because it was unclear up to that point if there were any serious candidates. Still, I had no idea how much they were looking to get for that special room of sterling tone wood. Regardless, I had given it a lot of thought and knew very well just how much I could afford to spend without putting myself into a precarious spot economically speaking. When Whitney told me the price, I thought I might faint because it was something I could pull off. I pretended to think about it, “do some numbers” and get back to Whitney but I knew in my heart there was no chance I’d let this opportunity slip away. Later that day, I began hauling that treasure home.
Wade left behind a collection of wood that is hard to describe without consulting a thesaurus. Phenomenal, unparalleled, exceptional? I just don’t know which word to go with. Every piece of wood was labelled, dated, and kept in a humidity range that fine woods both deserve and need. If I am able to continue do this for many years to come, I will not run out of world-class pieces of wood that Wade had been caring for over the course of decades. Some of the Brazilian Rosewood pieces were cut “pre-1939” as one of the labelings indicate.Od all the Spruce and Western Red Cedar I acquired, there is none that hasn’t been curing since the 1970s. I could never have imagined I’d be having the opportunity to even look at such a refined collection and I certainly cannot believe, still, that I was able to buy it and bring it home. I
I made many trips to Wade’s shop, to load up my car to bring the things home I’d bought. Eventually, I was shown a picture of him from an article in a quarterly publication from the Guild of American Luthiers. Immediately I was struck by the feeling that I knew Wade. I’m almost positive I knew him, I just cannot remember from where. It may take me years to remember when and how I met him, but I’m sure it was in that hazy, forgotten time before I found lutherie. Until then, I’m gonna do my best to bring these pieces of wood together, shape them into instruments I hope would make him happy.
Friends of Wade who could not make it to his shop during the estate sale for an opportunity to buy some of his chisels, feel free to contact me and I will give any to you I can part with as a gift. I’d like to pass along a bit of the generosity extended to me by the family during my visits doing business with them.
Using the same techniques as the ones employed in building classical guitars, Hart’s Guitars is excited to introduce its debut Classikulele!
I’ve dabbled in ukulele playing before when I bought one for $50 fresh off a beach trip, wanting my life to have a little bit more tropical je ne sais quois. There was a songbook as well, Crazy Jim’s Ukulele Songbook, or something to that effect. I learned a song called Chasing Rainbows and it was a lot of fun to play and probably the first jazz-standard feeling song I ever learned. Typical as with most obsessive impulsive hobbies, the ukulele ends up collecting dust and I later loaned it out with the book to a girlfriend and then never saw it again.
Since beginning the study of lutherie, I’ve wanted to build many types of instruments (like the Oud, for example) and on top of that list or near so has been the uke. After finishing up with a recent student and with a few days of downtime to recover from a Guitar Building Intensive, I decided to build one.
I got online to order some plans. Then, I thought. Do I need any plans? I don’t need any plans! So, as with my first guitar build, 001, I decided to simply design my own. I did not need to spend $30 on any plans from the Guild of American Luthiers! So, I sketched my idea for this classikulele in the morning of Thursday, July 2nd and started working on it. A week later I was finished except for the frets, which were somewhere in the USPS backlog.
Do you wanna build your own ukulele? Hart’s Guitars will be offering workshops soon. In the meantime, there is a book you must have if you’re seriously contemplating the idea of taking the plunge into the world of building a ukulele. Here is my book review of The Uke Book Illustrated: Design and Build the World’s Coolest Ukulele. I have to contain myself from a tendency to overhype things I love. But, this book is the sh!+! Let me explain….
Sarah Greenbaum is an artist. John Weissenrieder is a luthier. His shop is in the historic part of Florence, Italy! Sarah went to spend time with John, to observe him working, and paint illustrations of all the steps of the process and over cappuccinos they collaborated in this way to make the coolest book of lutherie you’ll ever see. Don’t be fooled by the picture book feel of the cover because this little tome is full of incredible information including: how to make jigs and tools of various sorts, Pythagorean math as a way to create the perfectly radiused arch in the instrument’s cross struts, and how to flush fret endings to the fingerboard and give them a 60° bevel, what!!?. There are paintings, watercolour paintings, that illustrate these things!
I’ve owned this book for nearly two years. I’ve consulted it often as it is an invaluable resource of information and inspiration for guitar builders. I loved it from the moment I opened it. It was only a couple of weeks ago when I decided to build a ukulele that I decided to read everything in the book, beginning on the cover, reacquainting myself with the author’s and illustrator’s name, and then flipping over and starting with the introduction to the book and that’s when I learned something that cemented a perpetual top 5 spot in my favourites for this little textbook.
Before The Uke Book Illustrated was finished, John Weissenreider passed away from pancreatic cancer. In 2015 he received the diagnosis. At the time, he and Sarah Greenbaum were a year and a half into the project. From the moment of his diagnosis until his passing, Sarah Greenbaum writes that he spent countless hours devoted to this book, “making sure there were no gaps left unfilled.” He wanted to pass on to the world, through this book, all of his knowledge. This is the sort of learning one gets through apprenticeships. This book is his legacy, a key into seeing the beauty and details in the handmade. I imagine they were more than collaborators while they worked together on this. The art of watercolour and the secret teachings of lutherie come together. Who new. Even if you have no inclination to get into the world of lutherie, this is a book you could fall in love with.
My first ukulele build.
Thanks for stopping by to read my post.
Coming soon, an article about my experience building Guitar 012….a little bit of tragedy but with a happy ending?
Before there was ever a website, an operational classroom of guitar lutherie, or a logo, there was only an idea to make a guitar I’d never seen or heard anywhere before. I was after something that I struggled to described: a timeless guitar, nylon string but not strictly classical, big-bodied, voluptuousness that you’d want to curl up with and never let go of. A delight to touch, to see, to hold and to hear. It would be perfect for jazz (especially bossa nova and latino jazz), blues, classical, flamenco, Americana, country, jazz country, and maybe even for styles not yet known. I wanted it to be a piece of art. I wanted it to be the one I’d never let go of. I wanted it to be my Trigger.
I never was able to find that guitar but one day the sky opened up and lit an unmistakable path so I could find that guitar. That was about two years ago almost to this very day. Despite having worked as a carpenter, having learned to and made numerous West African drums called sangban, kenkeni, and dununba, it had never occurred to me to try to learn to build a guitar. I thought lutherie (the art of making stringed instruments) was something you were born into, like people are born into wine-making families, farming families, investment firm families. It was for other people who were not me.
Two years ago I was on a short drive from Athens, GA to Lexington to visit friends I had not seen in over a decade. There was a store in the turn-of-the-century brick downtown of Lexington that had a window display of some of the most interesting guitars I’d ever seen. I was on summer vacation as a public school teacher with money in pocket and always open to getting a cool guitar so I pulled into the parking space in front of that store and went in. The showroom was cool. It was perfectly small, cozy, warm and inviting. It was full of the coolest guitars I’d ever seen. Turns out, dude in the store, a guy my age, was the owner of the store and he made all those guitars himself. They were unique in shape, size, and build. I played a few of them and instantly wanted to drop a lot of money into his cash register.
This is the good part. After a few minutes of playing and chatting, he asked me if I wanted to see his shop. We walked through a curtain door into a room that opened up to three, four, or a thousand times the space that was in the showroom. In a space of one second:
I saw a room full of guitar necks in different stages of development.
I feasted my eyes on all sort of old-fashioned woodworking tools: hand-planes, chisels, clamps, you name it
I saw guitar bodies, sides, tops, backs.
I knew I was going to leave teaching and that I was going to make guitars.
Yes, that all happened quickly. Things didn’t start rolling immediately, it took at least two hours for me to get back home to Atlanta, get on Amazon, and buy Guitar Making Tradition and Technology (but I had to be cool and pay triple the price to have the original 1st edition hardback). Then, it took another 5 minutes or so to find a guitar building workshop to attend, one that aligned perfectly with my fall break at school.
But, where to set up shop at home? By the grace of God, I had a full, unfinished basement under my 1200 square foot upstairs living space. Not only was it completely unused space but the basement also has a very clean concrete floor and no moisture problems, at all, which had actually been the tipping point when I decided to buy the house.
I found inspiration in this nook. I wanted to transform it. It would become something special and that would be the kickoff project for the transformation I was about to undergo. I bought a Japanese pull-saw, some framing 2x6s, and found a stash of old wood I’d been hauling from place to place each time I moved for the last 5-10 years. After a couple of days, the nook was something new. I still have not found a perfect use for it, but it has filled many roles.
The learning curve is quite an elliptically exponential and seemingly never-ending trudge through hard decision$ to make concerning purcha$ing the necessary tool$ and then learning how to use those tools. Millions of videos on how to: use the tools, sharpen the tools, calibrate the tools, fix the tools, but nothing on how to slam the tools on the floor or throw them across the room when they won’t do what you want them to do.
Highlights from the first bend in the learning curve.
Along the way, I lost a very special friend, soul mate, son, brother, BFF, homie and once in a lifetime sorta pet. I probably might have finished the guitar in 6 months, but the emotional high of becoming a luthier was crushed to bits with the rest of me. Binah will always live inside this guitar. He was there with me through the beginning and all the way up til this moment: As soon as I got to this point, attaching the sides to the top, I put the guitar down and headed out for Thanksgiving. It was the last time I ever saw my little man alive.
There’s no way I can ever tell the story of my first steps into guitar-making without placing this footnote where it belongs. I’ll never forget Binah.
I didn’t have a blog when I finished this guitar, so it never had its own article. Out of all the ones I’ve built so far, it’s definitely the one that deserves it the most. In celebration of two years on this journey, I can think of no better way than to hit the publish button then go grab a spot on the couch with this beauty until it’s bedtime.
I began this making this guitar alongside a student building his in February. Then a pandemic came. We focused on finishing his. To say the least, it has been a very strange gap between my last post and what I have to share today, which is a small gigantic milestone. I want to celebrate the fact that I’ve made 10 guitars.
But, aside from this being a trivial matter considering the moment we find ourselves in, there just really isn’t any reason why the number ten should be any more meaningful than 9. In fact, in some regards, the number 9 is a sacred number (in the Bible and also in other major religious texts and traditions). But, I digress. Let’s get to the pics, shall we.
Hart’s Guitars Ltd Co is back in full swing. Don from Brunswick is coming next week to stay here at The Bamboozle and build a guitar using plans based on an 1864 model of Antonio de Torres, an unrivaled and revolutionary figure in the world of 19th century classical guitar luthiers.
When I get a new set of plans…I trace all the parts, transfer the trace paper to the pieces of wood, cut and sand to shape.
Then I need to make a monstrosity of a jig to bend the sides.
The guitar is from a set of plans for an 1867 Francisco Gonzalez and he had a much more flamboyant rosette and binding style than most guitars we see today. My intent to make this one in his style really got off to a slow, then ugly start. I almost threw the soundboard away.
A while back I asked people to vote for the fingerboard to be used. It was a very contested result, split down the middle between choices B and D. So, I threw the results out the window and went with the canary wood, E.
This has been a fun one to play and it sounds really distinct. I’m still letting it “settle in” which is a phenomenon that takes place over a few weeks and longer wherein the instrument plays and sounds a little better with every passing day as you make micro adjustments. It will be available for sale with all of the others, except 001 of course, in the coming days on a newly designed store page, with prices and photo montage videos with audio of the instrument being played.
This instrument sounds amazing. I am ready to sell it with no hesitation for $1795. This is quite a bargain for anyone who knows what hand-crafted guitars go for usually or have seen websites that sell independent-luthier handcrafted classicals. I will personally deliver within a 2 hr radius of Atlanta, GA for gas money and lunch. Honestly, I hate the thought of my instrument sitting in a place where it’s not cherished. If you have buyer’s remorse, there’s a no questions asked 30-day 100% money back guarantee. After that, a lifetime guarantee on anything other than normal wear and tear.
Only days after we began our journey together, it became clear that Corvid-19 was no longer a warning but a guarantee. Billy and I decided we’d continue to do the class. I had some hand sanitizer and we kept our 1 Joey Ramone distance 90% of the time. Last night he took this beautiful instrument to show to his wife and kids: a Spruce top with Limba back and sides and a Brazilian Rosewood fretboard. The guitar was built from plans from the Guild of American Luthiers of an 1869 Francisco Gonzalez classic.
I can’t believe we made this. Thank you so much for this amazing experience.
A bit of a recap on our work together
Over the course of the first week, Billy and I accomplished a TON of items on the list to make his guitar. Then, I had to go home to Greenville, SC to take my mom to the doctor and spend a couple of days up there. When I returned, I fell ill for several days (not with Covid-19) and only days before the Coronavirus became an inevitability. After some delay, we were able to get back to work. Seeing the near future clearly in front of us and the disruption to modern life that was shaping up, we decided to just be casual with our approach, in no hurry. I advertise my guitar building intensive as a 7-day course. That flew out the window and we added to our projects the process of French-polishing our instruments. So, this also added a but more time to the process.
As we worked, we realized there was a lot of common ground in our life experiences. Days flew by quickly. Billy said he’d picked up so many skills that would be useful in his daily life and other projects. That is such a gratifying thing to hear as it’s what has been my wish all along from the beginning, when this hole business was just a daydream.
With the soundboard voicing, we really took our time and did things right. Those tonebars are very important in determining the character of a guitar’s sound. Some have said they could listen to a classical guitar played while blindfolded and name the luthier who built it. Billy and I decided to take an online course together on guitar top voicing.