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building a guitar the timber

by: terry buddell
What is the great secret of how Martins, Gibsons, Taylors, Fenders, Gretsch’s and the like, sound so classy? The answers should be clear really. They are made cleanly and beautifully from very good soundwood and the best materials and always are finished off to look so shiny and squeaky clean in the store. However, some of these legendary guitars dont always play and sound quite like their price tag would lead you to believe, I have discovered. Why is it that some guitars are definitely better than others from the same stable?The answer is not easy to come by, I believe. As a boatbuilder, I really do believe that some guitars suffer from ‘trapped in humidity” when they are manufactured in the first place. This can have a couple of negative effects right from the getgo. I firmly believe that there is a ‘magic figure’ of humidity in every different kind of wood that good guitars are made of. As there are many, its clear to see that not all would have been sprayed or shellacked at the exact moment that the timber’s moisture content was at its premium condition.This is a large factor, I’m sure.

Take for example, a guitar that I once owned. It was a very old (1970′s maybe earlier) twelve string Guild. The sound was astonishing. It was as light as a feather and when it behaved itself was an amazing guitar. It would sing, it was loud and it sounded so good. Other days ,when I took it from it’s case it wouldn’t tune. it was dull it would NOT stay tuned for one minute and it sounded cheap and nasty, like a real el cheapo guitar. I tried to play it on a few gigs but gave up in frustration and started to leave it under the bed, in it’s case just like the guy I bought it from, the previous owner. He admitted that was why it was never used, he couldn’t trust it. In the end I sold it, and wasn’t sorry to see it go. That was about fifteen years ago and it is only now that I do regret selling it. The guitar was originally owned by the legendary Long John Baldry and was played on “Let the Heartaches begin” The guy I bought it from was Paul King ex-Mungo Jerry, so it had a great history and would be a real collector’s item now.

The whole point is here, is that I think, but I can’t prove it, that it suffered from excessive humidity when it was built. The moisture was sealed in or never dried out all in the first place. This is no slur on Guild who make some of the finest guitars in the world , but that one was a definite ‘monday morning guitar’ It happens, right? As the temperature varied, the soundboard would move excessively putting it out of kilter.

I’ll bet that some of you out there have some really top name guitars that sound not so hot? right? One other reason I think that some guitars sound so bad is that they are sprayed too heavily with these ‘plasticky laquers’ that, in my humble opinion, kill the sound totally. It is no coincidence that spirit based finished guitars sound so bright is that they are not being ‘suppressed’ by a heavy coating of laquer on top…soundboards are supposed to resonate, right?

One good decision when I made the Weissenborn was that I used ‘Shellac’ or ‘French polish’ as it is called. I am tickled to say that it sings, like a lark and the sustain is boggling! Maybe I guessed right!

After all it would take a gaggle of sound analysts with a whole truckload of audio gear to prove it…To show how difficult it is to pin down, it is a known fact that hundreds of makers and players have tried to copy the exact sound of an original Stradivarius violin, but they simply can’t… and they dont know why!

When you build your guitar, take a few chances and THINK about it… it’s only a few pieces of timber, and it is supposed to be fun, right?

About the Author
Terry Buddell, a freelance writer, has built a weissenborn acoustic slide guitar from Australian Maple and has also written a book! Both the book and a sound clip of the guitar can be viewed om www.buildaweissenborn.com