Episode 1.3 Getting Schooled
All of these projects to date had issues.
I could look at anyone of the instruments I had built thus far and say to myself – “ohhhh, yeah, perhaps squint and turn that a bit so you don’t have to see problems a - z.”
Don’t get me wrong - I was proud of the accomplishments they each represented (each instrument taught me something new and important) but I was also aware of just how much I needed to improve on.
While I was beginning to have a deeper understanding of how things went together… I needed to do more than learn from DVDs and online instructional videos. So, I finally got around to signing up for a luthier class...
My wife and I moved up to Massachusetts to the lovely town of Great Barrington in 2018, and it was just a little over an hour south of North Adams where Nick Lenski runs the Berkshire Stringed Instruments school of Lutherie. As I mentioned in a previous post one of my biggest challenges was gaining a greater degree of patience. I needed to work on focusing and crafting until I was absolutely satisfied, rather than accept a ‘good enough’ status in order to move on to another stage of the process. Nick is a VERY good instructor, and I should know as I have been teaching media production and media history for more than 20 years. Nick is not only a truly gifted craftsman, but a patient teacher who never seems to get ruffled. He greets any simple mishap in the process with happy optimism, helping guide his students to ways of overcoming their issues and calmly correcting problems. In fact Nick likes to say that a craftsman is not so much someone who never makes mistakes as much as someone who can make a mistake and fix it. He not only likes to explain the ins and outs of his crafting, he also can easily recognize when he’s over explaining... in a nut shell, Nick keeps folks engaged.
I really can’t recommend this educator more highly.
Anyway, I signed up for an acoustic guitar course with Nick late summer of 2020. Due to the Covid issue he only worked with one or two students at a time, and I benefitted from this arrangement tremendously. We observed masking protocols and were attentive to giving each other loads of space in his large shop. Nick guided my hand at building a lovely guitar…This guitar has neck, back, and sides made of mahogany and a cedar top with spalted maple Rosette, tail strip, headstock face, and 12th fret marker. The fret board also has maple and purpleheart position markers on the top edge. Nick did the satin finish work, and the guitar is quite impressive. This Roeboy! 1 was built as a gift to my son-in-law, Mauro Para.
I was so pleased with Nick’s Acoustic Guitar class that I returned for an archtop class as soon as he could fit me into his schedule. This was far more challenging of a project, and he and I spent three weeks together carving, shaping, and building our guitars. I should have mentioned that when Nick conducts a class, he builds a similar guitar side by side with his student(s). In this way he can demonstrate without completely taking over a student’s build and provide that student with an optimal hands-on crafting experience. I love a big guitar, and Nick leans toward a smaller instrument, so our designs were pretty different but it was an extraordinary lesson and I produced an amazing guitar that I play out constantly with my band.
This project was far more planned out than my first acoustic build with Nick. Weeks in advance of the class I did a deep dive research into two very important historical pieces. Charlie Christian's Gibson ES-150, and Maybelle Carter's Gibson L-5 (pictured).
My L5-37 would be designed along the lines of Carter's pre-war Gibson but incorporate some of the concepts behind the 150.
The bracing on the original Lloyd Loar designed arch top guitars was parallel under the face rather than the x-bracing common in modern arch tops and acoustic guitars. In addition, the lower bout is damn near enormous at 17”.
I built this guitar out of lovely flame maple (back and sides), Adirondack spruce (top), ribbon sapele (neck & back center strips), and padauk (fretboard center strip) that I bought from my Pals at Days Hardwood in Freeport Maine. The rest of the neck was made from Maple that I harvested from an old 1909 Steinway I adopted but which was deemed unrepairable by my local piano technicians. I also made all of the bracing for the guitar from that piano’s cedar sound board braces. The nut would be made from an ebony piano key, and I found a lovely ebony board on-line which I used for the fretboard. I designed this guitar with aspects of several of my other favorite old jazz box designs. The headstock is reminiscent of a 1930s Epiphone 'Broadway' with its off set ‘parted hair’ design. The pickguard is modelled after the one's found on the 40's era Art Deco D’Angelico 'New Yorker.' I designed a fish shaped headstock emblem and cut the pieces using a laser cutter, and I burned the ‘Roeboy!’ logo into the padauk headstock plate before filling burned-spot-letters in with ebony dust from the fretboard. I brought the fish shape down onto the guitar as ‘f’(ish) holes and Nick and I played around with placement until he dialed them a bit clockwise off center and we both sat back and agreed the placement was reminiscent of goldfish in a goldfish bowl. This placement also allows for primary projection around the players arm in a way many archtops do not allow. I played with a few different saddles on this guitar (metal was blisteringly bright, even only as a saddle element) before settling on a sandalwood and ebony assembly.
I played this guitar for about a year before deciding to add a Lollar Charlie Christian pickup, bumblebee capacitor and 250k pots with chicken head knobs. The guitar, with itsBenson Flatwound strings is too dark as an acoustic, but positively wails as an electric.
It is Very vintage in its sound.