THE MAKING OF A GUITAR
- Paul Colbert follows a dream. - ( One Two Testing - issue
May 1985 ©)
image for larger view
Tony Zemaitis always pretended to leave the room.
In August 1984. Robin Willow approached luthier David Bourne.
having been appraised of his name by other players on Robin's
folk circuit. Each player will have different reasons for deciding
on a custom instrument instead of a production model. Robin had
two main criteria - (11 as a classical guitar player needing to
increase volume and brightness at gigs. he wanted to change to
a steel-string without losing the familiarity of a classical feel
and balance, and (21 having based his set round a specially written
trilogy styled on Anne McCaffrey's 'Dragonslayer' books. he wanted
an acoustic with a shape and decoration that would accommodate
Whenever someone came calling. asking him to build a guitar.
the canny luthier would hand them an example instrument. excuse
himself from the lounge on some pretext. then spy through the
crack in the doorway to watch how the would-be customer played.
It was the only way you could get a real idea of their technique
and what type of guitar would suit them. he said. Stand in the
same room and they'd 'perform'. attempting to play to the rules.
You'd be building to a pose.
Having a guitar custom built can be a worrying time. Apart from
the fear that you may genuinely not like the finished instrument
(but still be stuck with the bill). there's that feeling of
performance. of putting your views and desires on guitar construction
forward to an expert in the way you put your songs forward to
These anxieties are unfounded. nurse. and to demonstrate that
custom construction need not be a path peppered with tranquilisers.
we followed the history of one guitar. one player and one builder.
The question of retaining the balance was solved surprisingly
easily. David Bourne showed him a finished acoustic which borrowed
from the Gibson Explorer shape-elongated top left and bottom right
as you studied the guitar face on.As well as looking fairly. -
- er - - . dragonish. it balances on Robin's left knee. like all
properly brought up classical six strings should do.
They'd rework the headstock and neck after discussions. but the
next immediate step was the selection of wood. Question: are you
prepared to wait perhaps two or three years before your guitar
matures to fullness or do you want it to be operating a its best
as soon as possible? Naturally the late developer is still going
to sound excellent from the off. and the fast learner will have
some growing to do. But in years to come (many). it will be the
second example that first starts to loosen and lose its tone.
Contrary to popular belief not ALL guitars get better as every
Robin decided on the slow developer. and David Bourne pulled out
a piece of 50-year- old mahogany from under his mattress which
had been waiting for a special occasion. Its age would ensure
the acoustic matured at a leisurely pace, but would be less susceptible
to temperature changes. (Tip picked up along the way: when taking
your guitar from a cold dry world into a hot damp gig. leave it
locked in its case for at least 20 minutes. Let the case absorb
the fierce temperature change and filter it down to the guitar.
. much better than hoisting the instrument out of its box and
leaving it to stand.
Though the table is the most important section in forming the
tone. Robin and David decided on using the mahogany for sides
and back as well - consistency. Plans were drawn for the neck.
based on what Robin liked about his existing Tirada. on other
finished acoustics David still had in stock. and on what was needed
to bring the tenets of steel string action and classical width
together. bearing in mind that Robin wanted a guitar largely for
fingerpicking but not out to lunch when a strum was required.
With the sketches made. Robin left to return a few weeks later
to gauge the first stage in development. Note: a craftsman worth
his salt may not want you permanently hunched over his shoulder.
but shouldn't have objections about checking the progress. With
the' back shaped. the rims on, and the headstock a vague lump,
the neck was pronounced as proceeding in a rightwardly direction,
even without frets. Now it was decoration time. David and Robin
collaborated over the headstock. swapping drawings. the latter
going for a claw-like profile in keeping with the dragon motif.
the former hunting for balance. symmetry and somewhere to put
the gold Schaller machines.
The brass inlay was trickier. The original acoustic Robin had
tried had included a side soundhole (an extra soundhole near the
waist on the top rim) part filled by a filigree of brass shaped
like an eagle. A dragon version was the obvious alternative and
much cross referencing of library books and illustrations ensued-David
Bourne not entirely convinced of the practicality of such a design.
Eventually a satisfactory reptile was located. though it did involve
forward thinking at the lacquer stage. Some of the brass lines
were so fine that the lacquer had to be built up, thicker than
usual. lest it crack too easily.
How about a flight of dragons across the neck as dot markers?
Nope, here David put down the foot-over the top. he judged. and
you'd regret it later. They opted for simple. hexagonal outlines
of brass. and were satisfied.
Another fitting took place before the final! inlays were completed.
This was the stage when touches such as the teardrop-style saddle.
Barcus Berry pickup and jack socket concealed in the base strap
button were finalised, again from reference to other examples
of Bourne guitars and Robin's preferences formed over the years.
The Barcus Berry was David Bourne's recommendation. having tried
various pickups in other acoustics he'd built and knowing the
BB to work best with them.
The resulting tone. in Robin Willow's words, shows a full bass
end. but is surprisingly mellow considering the volume and sustain
the guitar produces. He needed power in the bass. but the trilogy
he'd written relied on a clear and strong middle range. not dominated
by the bottom notes. The Bourne supplied it.
By bouncing ideas back and forth. Bourne and Willow had arrived
at an instrument which was both individual in looks and tailored
in tone for the latter. and which gave the chance to use a favourite
piece of wood in a challenging design for the former. It was begun
in September '84 and finished in early February '85... cost. £650.
And no one got an ulcer.
( pg 70, ONE TWO TESTING - Paul Colbert ©)