As I touched on in an earlier guitar talk things have changed greatly in the realm of guitar wood choices. Not so long ago, an instrument made with a non traditional wood (something other than Rosewood, Mahogany or Maple) on the back & sides of a guitar was a rare sight.
Thank goodness these days are behind us. In part because of the increasing difficulty in obtaining high quality traditional tonewoods (look at the Brazilian Rosewood situation) and also because of the re-education of both builders and the buying public alike as to the great variety of the non traditional woods that are waiting to be used.
First of all let me say right here that I have the greatest respect for and continue to use the long favoured tonewoods. However, I fully support this move to a more open-minded approach, provided the quality does not suffer. Not only do we as builders, get to work with new (for us) and diverse materials, but the guitar world can only be helped by this expansion of horizons. In a purely visual sense there is a vast untapped world of beautiful looking, and in many cases, perfectly suitable alternatives to the traditional wood choices. Let me give you a short guide to the non-traditional tonewoods that I have been working with lately.
This wood looks like Mahogany but is a little harder and has a finer grain. I started substituting Sapele for Mahogany because it was becoming difficult for me to obtain high quality traditional lumber. It has a striking shimmery ribbon grain and sounds great. I decided to call it Sapele/Mahogany because I got tired of explaining what Sapele was. I’ve noticed that Taylor does the same thing.
After finding some thirty year old quarter sawn Walnut I discovered two things. One, it looked beautiful and two it sounded beautiful as well, somewhat woody like Mahogany. Unfortunately I’ve run into a bias against Walnut and I find this regrettable. In the meantime I’ve got a good stock of this under appreciated tonewood.
This is not a traditional Rosewood choice and is rarely seen on guitars. I find this strange because after working with it for a few years, I find it exceptional in tone and quite beautiful. It shares some of the grain characteristics of Brazilian Rosewood, with which it is closely related. Unfortunately the stock that I’ve been using came from some logs I purchased a few years ago and the end is in sight. It’s another of the world’s elegant timbers.
These are, of course, just a few samples of the many possibilities open to us. All we need is an open mind.
From the first time I saw Bocote wood I was struck by it’s rich beauty. I find the colours both warm and brilliant. The contrast of the golden amber and the darker grain lines was beautifully striking.
Like many guitar makers, I am always on the lookout for beautiful or unique tonewoods. While visiting one of my favourite wood shops a while back I came across some stunning Flamed Granadillo. This wood was incredible with an amazing curly figure throughout combined with a contrasting figured white sapwood along the edge.
2 1/2 years ago Don Ross approached me asking if I would consider taking on a Harp Guitar project. Though my first inclination was to run as fast as I could in the opposite direction, I soon warmed up to the idea and was pretty excited about the challenge involved.
I've seen a lot of changes in the guitar making world since building my first instrument back in 1974. At that time there were no personal computers and the idea of a world wide web would have sounded not only amazing but the stuff of science fiction. When I started out there were only a handful of books on the subject and these were not easy to find. I did devour the few that I came across and this, besides meeting Jean Larrivee in 1975, was the extent of my access to established knowledge on the subject. I learned by studying quality instruments but mostly by trial and error.
I find myself building and promoting, or is that promoting and building more maple guitars recently. I’ve really come to love this wood in its many figured varieties. Flamed or curly maple, birdseye and quilted maple all have their own unique visual characteristics. It took me a long time to warm up to the idea of maple as a guitar wood, but now I really enjoy working with it. I guess in the early days, you could say I was a bit of a purist, using only Mahogany and Rosewood.
One of the attractions of guitar building for me is the ability to create a wide range of guitars starting with one basic model. Even small detail changes can greatly alter the character of an instrument. In this talk, I’d like to show you what I mean.
When I started building guitars in 1974, I assumed that, given a few years of experience, I’d pretty much figure out the secrets of guitar making. It didn’t take long to realize how naive this assumption was, but by then I was hooked and it was too late to turn back.
As with many other design features on my guitars, the soundhole inlay has gone through a series of transformations over the years.
My first few instruments had a simple ring of alternating dark & light wooden strips. This was simple to execute and served the purpose and my somewhat limited skills at the time.
When I built my first guitar in1974 which, incidentally, I still have, I was under no illusions as to the quality of the finished product. In fact, I used an old set of Kluson tuners salvaged from a Gibson I had owned, thinking that I wanted to improve my skills before spending hard earned money on new machine heads.