“Most precise…exacting…perfect….unwavering quality” We hear a lot of words and phrases like that used when being referred to what makers make don’t we? Whether those words or true and honest or not is a subject for another article, but what we very rarely hear discussed is the giant pile of work, of borderline junk it takes to get a guitar to a level worthy of writing home about.
I of course can only speak for myself. Making resonator guitars did not come naturally or easily. In fact almost everyday there would come a moment that was trying to disprove my ambition. Some silly mistake, some towering challenge that would stare me in the face with a questioning gaze and ask, “….maybe this isn’t for you.” I’ll save you the childhood background, but this patronizing statement could have been a motto of mine. The proof of this was a development of a kind of blind flailing of effort reflex. I learned it being the runt in football, I applied it to music, and because it is my go-to coping mechanism, to making resonator guitars.
I worked at Huss and Dalton Guitars for two or three years, and that allowed me a great avenue for making a ‘pile of work’- 500 or so necks, thousands of braces, binding/sanding/gluing hundreds of bodies. Hundreds of sets of wood and neck blanks. When I got the inspiration for making resonator guitars the most valuable knowledge in my hands came in the form of that blind flailing of effort. I could climb the towering challenge by making a pile of work. There was so much unknown, and so much that could not be known ahead of time. Precision? Sure I could be precise in my work, but precision also indicates a focused knowledge and direction. I couldn’t rely on making one perfect body, because I didn’t know if it would work. I had to make 10 perfect-as-I-could-make-them-in-the-time-allowed guitars because I had to see the whole picture repeatedly.
I think when beginning luthiers-be it in their garage or at a luthier school- misleads themselves by tiptoeing along in pursuit of perfection at the expense of making a pile of work. The highest possible craftsmanship is of course a goal. I put that in bold so those just waiting to get to my e-mail address so they can chew me out for aspiring to make crappy guitars sees more of my broad perspective. Bob Taylor said “Quantity is equally as important as quality.” In life the biggest situations require balance-two things that are correct in the correct proportions- and guitar making is no different. “Equally important as” In a situation where you have both those things, now you are really learning. Making 2.5 guitars in a 8 month class is not enough. When you are learning you need repetition of the steps- fret guitar, remove, repeat; carve neck check, throw away, repeat- but you also need to get the big picture, repeatedly. So much of making guitars is the flow between the 1,000 little steps. You can’t improve that if you are putting a guitar together every two months.
Are you holding yourself back by holding perfection as the only ticket to learning? What could you learn if for a time you just did as much work as you could?
Sounds funny, right? Especially when making resonator guitars. Isn’t it all measuring to 1/32 of an inch? Well, it used to be. Measuring, marking with the sharpest pencil you can find, hoping the ruler doesn’t move and you don’t notice it. Suddenly half of the skill of making guitars is measuring between little lines correctly.
So I came up with the short saying (there are many more) “Never Measure”. If you dont have to measure while making a guitar you can spend more time actually making guitars, and not fixing measuring mistakes. How is that done?
The biggest way is through the types of jigs and fixtures I build. If I make a template that has locating pins on either end perfectly on center, I only have to measure perfectly once. From then on I can use a template to drill holes, which now can be used on all my other jigs. Now I spend all my time making guitars and not playing with rulers. And its always perfect. It goes right along with another heuristic of mine: “Make a system.” If it’s work that is repeated there is a system that can be made to do it. It frees up my work and work power to be aware of how its working, how I can make a better part or how it fits into the whole of making instruments. If my nose is constantly in my work- meaning I’m looking only at the pieces – I’m missing opportunities. Those opportunities could be for better work, new ideas, or just plain having more fun making resonator guitars.
For the time being there’s still six inch rulers all over the place here, but “Never Measure” keeps improving the processes.
Charley Hicks’ three Mules. Charley is the man, and recorded every one of Charley Patton’s songs on youtube. I’ll start you off with this one: https://youtu.be/QGvXbSd0Muw
Steel resonator guitars versus brass resonators. The final showdown! …right?
Not quite. Although the difference between brass and steel is quite noticeable I dont want to give the impression that they are entirely difference beasts. You can hear for yourself here. I think as soon as there are two options people want to jump in and be on a team. Team Strat vs Team Les Paul. Team humbucker vs Team Single Coil. Small body versus Large bodies.
I think the most important part of the discussion is something I tell every potential customer. It’s chocolate or vanilla. If you went to someone’s house and they asked, “Would you like some ice cream?” and you accepted and they brought out some chocolate ice cream you would probably never think “Hey I wonder if they have some raspberry peanut butter swirl in there, that’s what I really want!” You would just eat it and think it was awesome. But if your hosts came out and gave you 5 different choices, you would him and haw, try to ask for just a little of all of them, or eat your scoop and I wonder if you really should have went for the cheesecake. You would think we would be different with a large purchase like an instrument, but we aren’t. We are much worse. There’s a lot of time and money on the line so we want it to be just right. Just. Right.
I cant tell you it will be just right. Exactly what you have going in your head. I can steer the boat. What I can tell you is that the guitar will be unique and wonderful, and if you are open to it, teach you things about tone. That’s what makes guitars fun. You can play a flying G chord on one guitar and hear something different than if you play it on another. But you have to listen with an open ear. Take the experience and instrument for what it is and it will teach you unexpected things, it will make your picture bigger. Dig a bit. Try to bend your new resonator guitar, or any guitar, to your hidden dream tone and you’ll spend your time chasing and not playing.
With all that out of the way there are some basic differences I can tell you between brass and steel resonator guitars. Sound is vibration. What things are made out of affects how it vibrates and therefore what they sound like when played. Brass is a softer material than steel and it’s make up is markedly different. Because of these qualities brass is a bit warmer. It has a certain roundness to the sound- an ‘oh’ instead of an ‘ah’. It’s a bit quieter, and when you really dig in it doesnt get ‘thwacky’ as quick.
Steel – now I’m speaking to how I build steel resonators, and the steel that I use-has a certain readiness to play. it’s a large drum head that’s tuned a bit tighter and ready to put out whatever you put into it. The bass is still all there, its just more focused. Hear a difference between long scale guitars and short scale? Even though they are both the same scale, brass guitars have a quality that I hear in short scale guitars and steel has a quality I hear in long scale guitars.
They both share quality in sound too. It’s not night and day. I’ve built and played around 160 Mule resonator guitars at this point. Sometimes when one is being tuned up I think “that’s a great sounding brass guitar” and its steel. Same with the tone configurations. After reorienting a bit and listening some more I hear those things again but sometimes, off the cuff, it’s hard to tell.
So be at peace. Your steel versus brass decision is not one to regret for the rest of your days. If you like the way one looks a whole lot, go for it. You can be wrong. Chocolate and vanilla.
When the motivation to make a steel resonator guitar dropped in from above I had never cut a piece of metal, nor attached one piece of metal to another by means of tapping and threading, soldering, welding or the like. That was a big realm of experimentation. I breathed a sigh of relief, however, when it came time to carve the resonator guitar neck. When I was at Huss and Dalton guitars I carved the necks with Jeff Huss. I’d say I carved around 400 necks while I was there.
Although it was much like ‘riding a bike’ it was also much like re learning to ride a bike as things can be going smooth and then you get to a stop light that changes and you ungracefully fall over in front of people waiting for a green. It had been about five years since my time at H & D, and my first neck was shaped well but was much too thick. I thought I liked thicker necks but that one was overkill.
And so I began again.
It certainly didn’t take long to get the feel back. A neck is a relatively complex shape, one because there are so many variations U/C/V, asymmetrical versions of them all and angles that affected fairly dramatically by the height of the neck. Notice how I didn’t say thickness. I’ve heard it said that people ‘buy horsepower but feel torque’ and it’s similar with guitar necks. People think they are buying ‘thickness’ thinking it means only the height of the neck, when really thickness involves the shoulders of the neck even more than you would think.
Unless a guitar is pretty darn thick, in most cases the inside of your hand never really grips the back of the neck. Try it, squeeze the palm of your hard against the neck of the guitar, it’s fairly uncomfortable. And if it is touching its not really the height that may affect how your fingers can reach the frets, its the resulting shoulder that makes your fingers curl alllll the way around. Make that neck into a sharper V and you would notice it but not complain. What does in fact touch the neck most of the time is the base of your fingers and your thumb. They contact the neck in what I call the shoulder part of the guitar neck. This gives you the most important feedback from your hand about the shape of the neck. Of course the neck has to be a certain height and have a certain shape to get those shoulders where they are in a pleasing geometric fashion.
So I spend a lot of time on the area from the bottom of the binding to about a half inch above that. That’s most likely where your fingers and thumb will end up, so I want to make it right.
After the neck has been rough set to that particular guitar and glued up it goes to the shaper. I had a custom shaper head made that is pretty gnarly. This will take the square blank to a rough round shape. I use a spoke shave next because it cuts quickly and cleanly, and is easy to keep consistently from one end to the other. Sometimes on hand carved necks you’ll see a dip in the middle. That has to do with the stoke being naturally stronger in the middle than at either end. I keep the facets I’m carving along the length even by putting extra time in on the ends. The heel easily takes as much time as the whole neck does. It’s such a complex curve, the way it curves up and out and comes to a point at the corner of the L. End grain is involved so extra time is spent sanding out those inevitable marks.
I use a Auriou rasp next to get the final shape, an Iwasuki file to clean of those marks and then orbital sand to 120, and then 220 grit. Wet the grain, let it dry then sand again. The rough work is done, then it’s time to stain and put finish on them.
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