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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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:

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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

 

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Giving it a first try in the workshop…

 

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… with some satisfaction, it seems.

 

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Over a year ago, I wrote a post on this blog speculating that one reason why more men played the guitar than women was simply the dimensions of the instrument. It’s not that women aren’t attracted to the guitar; lots start to play it. But the trouble is that as they get better and the music gets more interesting, the stretches that they must make with their left hand become uncomfortably long, if not physically impossible, unless they have a unusually wide finger span.

No one seemed very interested in this theory (I don’t think I received a single comment) but, even so, I thought it would be worth making a smaller guitar with a shorter scale length, a narrower fingerboard and closer string spacing as an experiment. You can see photographs of the instrument here. It has been played by lots of guitarists both professional and amateur, both men and women. Most of them said they liked it and nobody complained that it made too small a sound, although a few of the men found that their fingers were too cramped at the nut end of the fingerboard.

And it did persuade someone to commission a similar instrument, shown below. It too, is a loose copy of a Hauser guitar. The soundboard is spruce and the back and ribs are of Madagascan rosewood (Dalbergia baronii). The bindings and bridge are of Rio rosewood and the rosette and headstock veneer are of English yew. The scale length is 630 mm; the width at the nut is 48mm; and the string spacing at the bridge is 56mm. I’m pleased both with how it looks and how it sounds and I hope its new owner will be too.


The zebrano guitar has now been collected by its new owner, Dave Crispin. He played it for a while before taking it away, and allowed me to capture a few minutes on a pocket recorder. The recording isn’t very good, I’m afraid, because the microphone is positioned much too far away from the instrument, but Dave has promised to come back for another session after he has had a chance to get used to  his new guitar and when I have worked out a better recording system. In the meantime, here’s a taste of the sound it makes.

Either click on the blue labels to download them to your own media player, or simply start the audio player in the bar.

Dave trying out his guitar for the first time

Dave improvising on the new guitar – with a bit of help from Jamie in the background

A while ago, a friend bought himself a lap steel guitar – the sort with a hollow neck, square in section – but became frustrated because he couldn’t find a capo that would fit it. He couldn’t use the usual type of capo, of course, because the hollow neck of the guitar was too thick and too fragile to allow the clamp to work and because the strings were too high over the fingerboard. So I made him this device, which is easy to fit and adjust and works well.

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In case anyone else has a similar problem, I thought it might be worth explaining how it’s made. You’ll need a scrap of hardwood roughly 2.5 x 1 x 3/8 inches in size; a piece of bone or ebony to make the inverted nut; some cork or leather to damp the strings on the headstock side of the capo; a 2.5 inch length of round bar in brass or steel of 1/4 inch diameter; a short length of threaded rod of 1/8 inch diameter; and a small piece of wood or metal or plastic to make a knob with which to turn the threaded rod. You’ll also require a matching tap to cut a thread in the hole of the brass bar.

The photographs below should make the construction clear, so I’m not going to give details. If you have any queries, please email me at info@finelystrung.com. The only thing to watch out for is that the threaded rod that pulls the bar against the underside of the strings shouldn’t be too long or it may damage the fingerboard.

To fit the capo, loosen the screw holding the metal bar – but not so far that the bar becomes detached. Hold the capo with its long axis parallel to the strings and insert the bar between the two middle strings. Then rotate both the capo and the bar through 90 degrees, making sure that the nut side of the capo is orientated to face the bridge. Slide the capo to the desired position and screw it up just tightly enough to produce a clear sound from all the strings.

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A report from the UK last year complained that gender stereotyping influenced children’s choices about which musical instruments they took up. Girls get to play harps and flutes, while boys prefer trumpets and drums. I don’t know whether this is really right or that, even if it were, it would be a very terrible thing, but it certainly is true that more boys than girls play guitars. And while this might be gender politics, I can’t help wondering if the dimensions of the guitar have something to do with it too. The body of a concert guitar can be too big for many women to hold comfortably and I suspect that the usual measurements for the string spacing and fingerboard size are optimised for a male rather than a female hand.

I thought that it might be interesting to make a guitar with a slightly smaller body size than usual and combine it with a shorter scale length and narrower fingerboard. The idea is to make an instrument that a woman will find easy and responsive to play without compromising either the quality or the volume of the sound it produces.

The water-mark figure in this walnut is attractive but delicate and I think that it might work well for the back of a smaller guitar:

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The front will be cedar and I’ve inlaid a rosette of spalted beech. I’ve carried the same theme through to the headstock veneer.

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So far in this blog, I’ve been writing about how instruments are made and showing photographs of what they look like. But what matters most, certainly to players and listeners but to makers too, is what they sound like. The trouble is that it’s not easy to make recordings that do justice either to player or instrument. Having made that excuse, I’m going to try. So here, as a first step, are three short pieces played by Fiona Harrison on this cedar top guitar that I’ve written about before. Click on the labels to hear them.

Piece 1

Piece 2

Piece 3

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