Skip navigation

Category Archives: guitars

This guitar, a Recording King Tricone Resonator, came into the workshop with a problem.  It’s owner, guitar virtuoso Roland Chadwick, wanted to use an open C# tuning  (C#,G#, C#, F, G#, C#) but couldn’t get it to play in tune. A web search rapidly revealed that these guitars are notorious for giving trouble with open tunings. There are probably several reasons including the high action at the nut and coupling of certain notes with strong body resonances, but another cause seems to be too little compensation at the bridge.  With an open C# tuning, this results in the two lower strings sounding more than 20 cents sharp at the 12th fret.

 

 

 

At one time, a replacement bridge was made which allowed the compensation of each string to be individually adjusted. (You can see it here.)  It looks an excellent design but unfortunately, it’s no longer obtainable. What to do instead?

I decided to follow a similar route but to get there by modifying the existing bridge rather than  making a new one.  I simply glued small pieces of ebony onto it and reshaped the string slots  to provide a few millimetres of compensation for the 2nd, 5th and 6th strings. I say simply but, although the idea is straightforward, it’s a bit tricky in practice because the shape of the bridge and existing saddle makes it hard to clamp the small lumps of ebony in place while the glue cures. I solved the problem by making a cast of the opposite side of the bridge from car body filler – a technique that I’ve described in detail in the Tools and Jigs section of this website.

Below are a few photographs of the modified bridge and the guitar with its top off while final adjustments were being made.

 

 

 

 

 

I didn’t succeed in getting it to play perfectly in tune over the whole length of the fingerboard, but the intonation is a lot better and I think that Roland will now be able to play it without making his audience’s ears bleed.

It’s always a pleasure to hear what one’s instruments are doing and I recently caught up with this small steel-string guitar that I made nearly 5 years ago for Poppy Smallwood. Based on a Martin OO model with 12 frets to neck, it’s made of English walnut and has a sitka spruce soundboard.

 

 

 

(More photographs here, if you want to know about its construction.)

 

Poppy has been playing the guitar in all sorts of places, making a reputation for herself as a singer and songwriter. Here she is performing one of her own songs for BalconyTV against the background of St Petersburg.

 

 

 

You can hear several more of her songs on Soundcloud.

 

This charming little guitar came into the workshop recently. The tightly arched back had come away from the linings in a couple of places at the edges of the upper bout and needed re-gluing. I also made a new saddle to replace the existing poorly-fitting piece of plastic and fitted a set of new strings. Otherwise, the guitar was in remarkably good condition for its age.

 
p1060324-edit
 

The label inside the guitar attributes it to Adolf Kessler junior of Markneukirchen, where it was probably made in the last part of the 19th century.

The Musical Instrument Museum in Markneukirchen has an on-line forum where I discovered that Adolf Kessler had founded a mail order business there in 1886, selling guitars and violins. I guess Kessler was a business man who marketed instruments made by some of the many craftsmen working in the town at the time. There’s a short BBC film about Markneukirchen and its 400 year history as a centre of musical instrument manufacture here.

 
p1060332
 

The rosette is made from decorative shapes of mother of pearl set into mastic.

 
p1060336
 

The ribs and back are of plain wood, perhaps maple, with a painted faux grain pattern under the varnish.

 
p1060329
 

The ebonised bridge is neatly carved into fleurs de lys at the ends, although the bass side has sustained some damage.

 
p1060335
 

The headstock carries Stauffer style tuning machines.

 
p1060326
 

Altogether an attractive little instrument – and I’m pleased to think that it is ready to make music again.

It’s easy to understand why professional guitar players choose to play large powerful instruments. They need to be confident that they can fill a concert hall with sound.

But why do amateur players so often select instruments with the same characteristics? After all, they are mostly playing for their own pleasure, and mostly in their own homes. When they do play for others, the audience is usually small and loudness is rarely an issue.

I’ve often wondered whether they might do better to choose a smaller instrument with a shorter scale length. The loss of volume would be slight and probably more than compensated for by sweetness of tone. The shorter scale length would make fewer demands on the left hand and flatter their technique. For players with a smaller hand span, a shorter scale can extend their repertoire, bringing pieces with extreme stretches within reach. And, of course, small instruments have the advantages of being lighter to carry and taking up less room when put away.

I’ve written about smaller instruments before but, apart from a single request from a client who wanted an instrument with a scale length of 630mm instead of the usual 650mm, never got much in the way of a response. Recently however, my patience was rewarded and I was delighted to be asked to make a small guitar. There are a few photographs of it below.

 

DSC_9358-Edit

DSC_9382

 

It’s much smaller than modern concert guitars with a body length of 425mm and a width across the lower bout of 283mm.(Typical figures for a concert guitar would be 490mm and 380mm.) It’s based on an instrument made by Antonio de Torres in 1888 for which workshop drawings are available in Roy Courtnall’s book Making Master Guitars. The soundboard is spruce and I used some old Brazilian mahogany with a striking fiddleback figure for the back and ribs. It’s finished with French polish.

 

It was commissioned by Gill Robinson, a professional artist and keen amateur guitarist, who was looking for an instrument that was light and easy to handle. Here she is trying it out.

 

DSC_9398-Edit

 

Although I copied the shape and size and bracing pattern of the original guitar, I wasn’t trying to make a replica and I felt free to modify some details. The headstock is slotted to allow modern tuning machines, while Torres’ instrument used tapered wooden pegs. The scale length is slightly longer than the 604mm of the original at 613.5mm. This isn’t as arbitrary as it may seem, because 613.5mm gives the same open string length as a 650mm guitar with a capo at the first fret. I also used a 12 hole tie block for the bridge. Photographs of some of these details below:

 

DSC_9360

 

DSC_9390

 

DSC_9385

 

DSC_9365

 

DSC_9369

 

Steel string guitars often carry scratch plates or rather anti-scratch plates to protect the soundboard being damaged by vigorous strumming. These plates are usually made of plastic sheet. Although  they do the job well enough, I’ve always recoiled from the idea of sticking plastic on top of a beautiful piece of spruce. Why not make one from an off-cut of the wood used for the back of the instrument? Here’s one of  walnut on a guitar that I made last year.

 

DSC_7102

 

But guitarists who like to play percussive finger-style want scratch plates for an entirely different reason – not to protect the soundboard from inadvertent damage but as an extra facility to increase the number of different sounds they can get out of the instrument. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, try these YouTube links to Mike Dawes and Thomas Leeb.

A couple of weeks ago, Darcey O’Mara, a talented young guitarist from Brighton, brought me two guitars that needed adjusting and setting up.  She also asked me to make scratch pads for  them.

After a bit of experimentation with different sizes and different textures, we reckoned that a combination of smooth and grooved surfaces offered the most potential. Here’s a maple pad fitted to Darcey’s cedar topped Lowden guitar.

 

DSC_8851

 

And here’s something similar in mahogany for her Takamine cut-away.

 

P1030859

 

Giving it a first try in the workshop…

 

DSC_8877

 

… with some satisfaction, it seems.

 

DSC_8879

It was said, by none other than Keith Richards himself, that his discovery of open G guitar tuning was a revelation. (See here for more.) He certainly had a lot of successes with it including Honky Tonk Woman, Brown Sugar, Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, to name but a few.

Richards usually took the bottom E string off a six string guitar and then tuned the remaining strings to GDGBD. But a guitar player from New Zealand, Tim Cundy, who also plays with open G tuning, thought that he’d like to have an instrument especially designed for this tuning and asked me to make him one.

Here it is: about the size of a Martin OO, with a cutaway and 12 frets to the body. It’s made in English walnut with a Sitka spruce soundboard. The rosette is spalted beech and the headstock veneer is spalted applewood. It’s bound with pearwood and the purflings are ebony.

DSC_7115

DSC_7169

DSC_7100

DSC_7102

DSC_7106

I’ve been a fan of Roland Chadwick’s music since hearing a performance of his trio for classical guitar, Letter from LA, a few years ago. So I was delighted when he contacted me about a guitar that needed some attention.

It was a fine instrument too – a cedar top classical guitar made by an Australian guitar maker, Simon Marty, in 1988. Quite apart from being 25 years old, it had worked hard for its living and the thin cedar top had developed some nasty cracks in the widest part of the lower bout. Some of the internal braces had come unglued too, and the guitar was more or less unplayable. To make matters worse, someone had tried to repair the cracks with superglue.

This is what it looked like after I had scraped away most of the superglue.

DSC_6804

With a hand through the soundhole, I could feel that the cracked part of the soundboard had become detached from a long transverse bar running across the instrument under the bridge. This explained the multiple little dowels, which were a previous attempt to fix the problem. The only thing to do was cut out the damaged wood and replace it.

DSC_6822

I also needed to replace some missing braces and re-glue several that were beginning to come unstuck. The difficulty here was that the braces, constructed out of balsa wood and carbon fibre, were very thin and it was almost impossible to position conventional clamps accurately enough to hold them in place without distortion. In the end, I solved the problem by making a few spring-loaded miniature go-bars. Wedged between the back of the guitar and the top of the brace, they kept everything in place while the glue cured.

DSC_6955

DSC_6957

 

After re-polishing, it was ready to perform again. All well worth the trouble because, despite its age, it’s an excellent guitar which produces a big warm sound.

 

DSC_6834

It’s always nice to hear from people for whom you’ve made instruments, and I was delighted when Dave Crispin got in touch recently. I made him a classical guitar five years ago, (see here for photographs) and he sent me a recording in which he uses it to play Paul McCartney’s Blackbird.

Lars Hedelius-Strikkertsen is a Danish guitarist, who plays a 19th century guitar and specialises in the music of that time. Here he is playing a piece by Fernando Sor.

 

 

If you go to his website, you’ll see that he sometimes takes the trouble to dress the part when he gives concerts. Not surprisingly, in view of this attention to authentic period detail, he didn’t like the idea of using an anachronistic metal contraption as a capo d’astro and asked me to make him a cejilla.

 

DSC_1861

DSC_1856

 

I’ve written about these devices before so I won’t repeat myself. But the commission reminded me of what delightful instruments these early romantic guitars are. Anyone interested in finding out more about them might like to take a a look at this excellent online gallery.

A few years ago, I made one of these guitars, which is now owned by the artist, Gill Robinson. The instrument that I copied was made by Louis Panormo around 1840, and it’s now in the Edinburgh University Collection of Historic Musical Instruments.

 

DSC_0002

 

There’s a photograph of my guitar above, and a video of Rob MacKillop playing the original instrument below.

 

On a grey day earlier this week, I took some photographs of a recently completed steel string guitar just before handing it over to its new owner.

It’s based on a Martin OO model using plans drawn by the French guitar maker, Christophe Grellier.

 

 

I’d made a cutaway version of this guitar a couple of years ago (photographs here) but, this time, I modified the design to have the neck meet the body at the 12th rather than the 14th fret. This means moving the bridge about 30mm down the soundboard and narrowing the angle between the two arms of the X brace slightly.

 

 

The back and ribs of the guitar are made of English walnut and it has a Sitka spruce soundboard. The bindings, bridge and heel-cap are Rio rosewood and the rosette is spalted beech.

 

 

Click on any of the thumbnails below for a larger image.

Players of stringed instruments, particularly fretted stringed instruments, have been using capos to raise pitch and change key for a very long time. Some early English guittars, like one below, made in London in 1760¹, actually had holes drilled through the fingerboard and neck to allow a capo to be held in place with a screw and wing-nut.

 

 

Recently, I’ve been experimenting with another type of capo with a long history – the cejilla. Nowadays, they’re mainly used by flamenco guitarists, but a friend, who plays a copy of a nineteenth century guitar, thought that it would be nicer to have a capo that was plausibly of the same period as her instrument instead of a modern metal anachronism.

My first attempt to make one worked well enough as far as stopping the strings was concerned. But it looked clumsy because the peg head was too large. Worse, at least from the player’s point of view, the sharp corners were uncomfortable for the left hand.

 

 

So for the second one, I substituted a smaller peg from a half-size violin and softened the edges of the cejilla with a tapering chamfer. It looks better, I think, and I hope it will be more comfortable to use.

 

 

Cejillas aren’t difficult to make as long as you have a peg shaver and a matching tapered reamer available, and a bit of practice in persuading tuning pegs to turn smoothly in a tapered hole. This is everyday stuff for violin makers but guitar makers who fit worm and wheel tuning machines may not have the necessary kit. Mind you, since a pencil and an elastic band will do much the same thing, they may think cejillas are too much fuss anyway.

 

 

Anybody interested in the history of capos and the diverse and ingenious mechanisms that have been invented to provide what’s really just a moveable nut will enjoy the online Capo museum which has a wonderful collection (237 different designs).

 

As usual, click on the thumbnails for a more detailed view.

 

Footnotes

1. The early English guittar is in the collection of historic musical instruments at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

The crypt is the oldest part of Winchester cathedral, dating from the 11th century. In a pleasing contrast, it contains something entirely modern – a mysterious life-size statue of a man standing upright, looking down at a pool of water held in his cupped hands and contemplating the reflections he sees there. The sculptor, Antony Gormley, created it from a plaster cast of his own body. After the cast had hardened, it was strengthened with glass fibre and covered in sheet lead. He talks about the technique here.

I’m grateful to Winchester-based photographer Joe Low (www.joelow.com), for letting me use the image below. He took this spectacular photograph of the statue in the winter when the crypt was flooded.

 

 

My friend Gill Robinson, a professional artist (and enthusiastic amateur guitarist) who also lives and works in Winchester, incorporated a witty allusion to Gormley’s statue when she designed a guitar label for me at the end of last year.

 

 

And for clients who might prefer something more traditional, she produced a scraperboard drawing of the west front of the cathedral.

 

 

Here’s one of Gill’s luminous landscapes – a watercolour of Welsh mountains. More of her work, including portraits of guitarists Mark Eden and Christopher Stell can be seen here.

 

Although many people prefer guitars made of dark coloured wood, lighter colours can make good looking instruments too. The back and ribs of this one are in satinwood (Chloroxylon swietenia), a dense hardwood from Sri Lanka rarely available nowadays but which in Georgian times was widely used as a veneer in furniture making. It’s hard, brittle and difficult to work with hand tools but it bends fairly easily and, because it doesn’t contain large pores, finishes well with French polish. As its name suggests, satinwood is strongly reflective and when polished takes on a shimmering, almost iridescent, quality (sometimes called chatoyance) that’s impossible to capture in a photograph.

The rosette and bridge decoration are burr ash and the bindings are Rio rosewood. The soundboard is European spruce.

As usual, click on the thumbnails for a larger view.

I had intended my previous post to be the last on the V joint. But, as I’ve just completed a guitar using the one that I made for the photographs, the series can end in a rather more satisfactory way by showing how it turned out on an actual instrument.

 

 
Here’s a close-up to show any sceptics that the small extra piece of wood glued on to the male part of the V really is invisible in the finished joint – scroll down to the last couple of photographs in this post if you can’t remember what I’m talking about.

 

Moving on from my previous post about marking out a V joint, it’s time to cut and trim it to shape.

First, I saw out the V in the headstock, keeping close to the lines but being careful not to saw past them. I try to be brave in sawing up to the line at the narrow end of the V because that’s the hardest part to clean up later.

Next, I stop to put a fresh edge on the chisel that I’m going to use. When it will slice through tissue paper, I reckon that it’s sharp enough.

I clean up the V, paring from both sides towards the middle. Final cuts are carried out with the chisel resting in the knife line that marked out the joint. A small square is useful to check that the sides of the V are flat. The most difficult part of the joint is the apex of the V but a slicing cut with the corner of the chisel will remove the last bit of waste.

Here’s the female part of the V joint in the headstock finished. It shouldn’t be necessary to touch it again.

Now I cut the male part of the joint on the neck, starting with the angled shoulders. I chisel out a ramp for the saw in the usual way…

… and then saw down to the V, keeping clear of the lines.

I mark the starting point of the cuts for the sides of the V on the endgrain…

… place the neck in a vise, tilting it so that the cut will be vertical, and …

saw off the sides of the V with a tenon saw.

I mark and keep the pieces that I’ve just sawn off. They’ll be useful later.

Now I clean up the V and its shoulders with a chisel, paring in from both sides as I did for the headstock.

Here it is almost finished.

The neck and headstock are now tested for fit. Below is the view from the fingerboard side of the neck.

And here’s the view from the back of the neck.

As you can see, there’s a problem at the apex of the V, where a shadow shows that the neck isn’t quite deep enough to fill up the whole of the female part of the joint in the headstock. (My stock of mahogany for necks is planed up at a thickness of 25mm which means that I always run into this difficulty.)

The solution is to add a little extra depth at the apex of the V. This is where the offcuts that I saved come in handy. I prepare a small piece from one of these…

and glue it on, taking care that the direction of the grain in the extra piece is orientated in the same way as the grain of the neck.

When the glue is fully hard…

… it’s sawn roughly to shape…

… and trimmed with a chisel. This addition will be invisible in the completed joint.

The last step is to make sure that everything fits to perfection before glueing up. I’ll discuss how to do that in the next post.

Click on any of the thumbnails below for larger pictures.

%d bloggers like this: