Honduras Rosewood Acoustic
Mother of Pearl, Old Growth Spruce,
Ebony, Padauk Trim. 1983
Honduras Rosewood Back Detail
African Padauk Binding
and Back Inlay 1983
We were cutting several hundred Honduras rosewood logs in The Sawmill for The Musser Company, a division of Ludwig Drums that manufactures high-end marimbas. The logs were only about a foot in diameter, which is typical for the species, but one of the logs was uncharacteristically large. I decided to resaw a large billet into a bookmatched flitch for instrument sets. The wood had a beautiful salmon color and since it made great xylophone bars, I figured it would be tonally ideal for guitars.
I started the guitar during the filming of the ABC television special. It didn’t take long for a calamity of errors to intercede in my project. The humidity was way out of balance in my basement shop and a small crack started to creep up along the bottom of the back. I masked it by wet sanding it with superglue and proceeded to glue up the rim. I had planned to trim the guitar with red African padauk, but the thin strips had wild grain that split while I was applying them to the tight curvature of the waist.
While all of this was transpiring, my friend David Nichols of Custom Pearl Inlay was hard at work creating the extraordinary inlay for my special guitar. His parts arrived like medicine and everything seemed to go smoothly until I had completed the lacquering. To my horror, a long crack began to open up below the bridge. In a panic, I laid in a thin splint of spruce and relacquered the top, but the repair showed like a scar on the face of a young woman.
There were other problems too innumerable to outline here. Each of these provided an opportunity to add ornamentation to hide the errors, in fact I came to believe that the decor of guitars was originally conceived to hide poorly crafted seams.
In spite of these calamities, the guitar bellowed like an inebriated Pavarotti. In due time, I engaged Tim Teel to relacquer the body and neck with a padauk-tinted lacquer to try to hide the more obvious incongruities, but I know they’re there and now so do you. Most instruments have flaws that add or detract, and in the process they take on character just like people do. And just like people, the incongruities are masked beneath the layers and hidden behind the seams. Oh, but how they sing!
8-String Acoustic (doubled-basses)
African black ebony back & sides.
Black lacquered top and neck. 1982
8-String Acoustic (rear view)
African black ebony back.
Zig-zag back inlay. 1982
Black in the Saddle Again
While Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder were singing Ebony and Ivory, I was immersed in the basement of the Church of Art with a pile of noxious sawdust and the smell of freshly-sawn water buffalo horn. Somehow I had managed to find a set of African black ebony large enough to make a full size instrument. There wasn’t much precedent for such an item given that ebony is unstable and subject to cracking, but I had tapped it around enough to hear its tonal attributes and I forged haphazardly ahead.
The theme didn’t start out to be entirely black, but it ended up there. Every time it rained, water seeped down the walls and lay in puddles around the edges of the shop. And as usual, the excess humidity caused my stockade of precious wood to swell. When everything dried out, that’s when the problems would occur. The top seam of the ebony guitar was another casualty, but I persevered, glued it back together and sanded the ridges flush. Black lacquer then became a necessity and to complement the overwhelming darkness, I sought out a piece of black water buffalo horn to use for the nut.
Designed for open tuning, two extra strings were added to the bass notes to accentuate the rhythm. A pregnant bridge with more of David Nichols’ elegant inlays accommodated the extra strings. When it was all done, John Sebastian happened to be visiting. After me, he was the first person to play this guitar and he liked it well enough that while watching me struggle to record a new answering machine message, he offered his experience and assistance:
“Hi, this is John Sebastian. Dick Boak isn’t here right now, but if you leave your name and number he might let you play his really beautiful new ebony 8-string guitar.”
That it were so easy. After the first season, the seams started to creak and the pores expelled their incompatible resins up through the surface of the lacquer. The following November when the temperature dropped, the clear topcoat of lacquer had already begun to yellow and the back began to shrink, pulling the neck into an angle that rendered it tenuous at best.
That’s the risk you take when you experiment. The guitar has recovered somewhat, but not enough to justify my lack of judgement. Let it be.
Spruce Goose (face view)
Sitka spruce, ebony, mahogany. 1990
Spruce Goose (rear view)
Sitka spruce, ebony, mahogany. 1990
There has long been a direct relationship between the select cuts of spruce used for the strong but lightweight wooden ribs of (now vintage) aircraft versus the similarly vertical-grained bookmatches of spruce prized for guitar soundboards. For decades, spruce for musical instruments could best be found in special stacks designated as aircraft grade.
It’s likely that Howard Hughes had a profound impact upon the spruce trade in the Pacific Northwest during his day. Many of his planes specified spruce ribbing, including the gigantic, notorious and ultimately doomed Spruce Goose that neared completion as World War Two came to an end.
While managing Woodworker’s Dream, I occasionally received calls from archtop guitar and dulcimer makers that respectively required thicker and longer cuts of quartersawn spruce. Accordingly, I ordered a thousand board feet of “aircraft quality” Sitka spruce from a vendor in Washington State and while unloading the truckload, there were several planks that were particularly special. I saved them.
In my second year of teaching the acoustic guitarmaking course at Peter’s Valley in northwestern New Jersey, I had arranged for enough assistance that it was possible for me to personally construct an instrument in the midst of the chaos. The first “Spruce Goose” guitar emerged with Sitka spruce top, back and sides and a mahogany neck. The guitar was understandably extremely light in weight, akin to a potato chip, and the resulting tone was very vibrant, breathy, crisp and clear.
The odd byproduct was that the tone could be muted by holding the back of the guitar tight to the chest. People at Martin were intrigued enough to allow me to initiate two additional prototypes. These were made with spruce necks and headplates as well as bodies and braces, but the real appeal of doing an edition involved using the catchy “Spruce Goose” name. This was expected to be quite a legal hurdle.
Nearly fifteen years later, a third round of prototypes confirmed all that I had discovered in the first two, but like Howard who was no doubt rolling over in his grave, it seemed unlikely that my spruce geese would ever fly in any significant way.
Jay Black 9-string
During work time, I became so tremendously immersed in drafting guitar parts that in the evenings, in my own shop, I would put what I had learned to the test by delving into what I considered experimental instrument making. It wasn’t long before a local guitar enthusiast named Jay Black joined me in my basement as an apprentice of sorts. We put together a batch of guitars, some with extra strings and some with unique or odd tonewood combinations. Jay became very proficient with lacquering, no thanks to me, and soon his career took of. He worked in the highly esteemed repair shop of Roger Sadowsky in New York City, then became a key member of the Fender Custom Shop team, and now he builds a line of custom electric guitars exclusively for a client in Japan. Find out more about Jay at: jwblackguitars.com
“Church Of Art” 00 12-fret 1982
Striped Macassar ebony,
old growth spruce, Mother of Pearl
So I was left to my own devices. Fascinated by the tonal effect of variable sizes, shapes, and materials, and given my unprecedented access to nearly fifty exotic wood species at the Martin Sawmill, I began to test the viability of a wide assortment of beautiful tonewoods, in particular the harder species that were appropriate for the reflective surfaces of the back and sides. These experiments were often met with less than successful results, since the alternating humidity and dryness in my string of shops was always out of my control, plus the woods that appealed to me were often the unstable ones.
In particular, I became enamored with the tonal possibilities of ebony and had bought a then rare bookmatch, wide enough to make a 00 12-fret sized instrument. David Nichols agreed to help me with a “Church Of Art” inspired inlay plus a three-stranded infinity logo that bore particular meaning for me. The guitar was spectacular in spite of my tendency to overset the neck angle and I included it at a local exhibit with my drawings. I learned the hard way that internally lit display cases can cook guitars dry to the bone. That poor instrument imploded.
Nonetheless, I forged on to complete a surprising array of handcrafted instruments, many of which are shown in the pictoral gallery of guitars that follows. Generally I wasn’t concerned with selling my guitars, because I would invariably grow quite attached to each one. I did enjoy playing them, limited though I was in musicianship. Furthermore, I certainly didn’t want to jeopardize my position at Martin by giving the impression that I was interested in competing in the company’s broader marketplace. My collection of personal instruments began to grow and so did my comprehension of exactly what makes a guitar tick.
I spread my efforts equally between acoustic and electric instruments, going off on tangents wherever possible. In keeping with the idea that all individualized components should be optimized and coherent in design, I rarely would allow the use of plastic or metal where there was the potential for a purer fabrication in wood.