Sunday, 20 September 2009

Trip to the Luthiers

My trip to the luthier proved very beneficial, but not for the reason I went there.

Some background: I was quite sure that my new(ish) nylon string guitar had bad intonation. You could tune for open fret, but when you played a note it always sounded sharp. The harmonic didn't seem to match the 12th fret. I've always thought I had pretty bad pitch detection, so I lived with it, but increasingly it became more annoying, especially when I played from a capo. So, I lined up a local luthier to have a look at it.

The luthier is Paul Sheridan, who makes about 10 guitars a year, mostly for overseas buyers. Fantastic guitars, lets come back to that in a moment.

He slings my guitar up on his bench, and immediately begins checking - with ruler and magnifying glass to verify the frets are correctly spaced, and then with a tuner to check frequencies. I was suprised that he wasn't using a stroboscopic tuner, "Yeah I've always meant to buy one, and I've been through about four of these (Korg analogue needle variant) so I could have paid for one by now." Basically, the guitar was pretty good up to the 12th, it starts getting a little bit messy after there.

"If you've got a really good ear you'll hear it, but otherwise it's pretty good."

What? I've always thought my ear was really bad. "If you've been playing for a long while, your ear will improve, you might start to be able to hear the discrepancies." One thing I mentioned was that I do tend to pull on the strings when fretting, which he noticed while I was playing some stuff later on.  "You should watch that". Basically "no fault found", operator error ;)

While I was there I got him to show me some of his guitars. He builds them all out of Australian woods, and has moved to a "lattice brace" on the sound board, basically a grid pattern instead of the traditional fanned bracing. When I played his personal guitar, immediately it has so much sound and body, it was just beautiful. While he continued to work I must have spent 3/4 of an hour just playing it and enjoying it. He didn't seem to mind, we talked about the sounds (describing different sound qualities is as hard as describing the different tastes of red wine) - and talked about all sorts of other things.

Turns out he doesn't play the guitar much - but is starting to get back into it. He also seemed at a bit of a life-juncture; wasn't getting as much joy as he used to from his work. I had to remind him once or twice during our conversation "You're living the dream!"

He was intrigued with my playing style; well at least I thought he was, maybe he was just being polite ;) We talked about arranging fingerstyle songs, and the classical guitarists he builds guitars for, talked about guitars, and life in general.

He pulled out another guitar, one that he had built with a traditional fan braced soundboard.  I played it for a while then apologised profusely "I like this one better!"  I am a bit of a boring taditionalist, but what is comes down to is what sound you want.  I like a crisp brightness over mellow warmth.  Pauls lattice style gives that warmth - and huge volume and projection - whereas my little Japanese styled guitar is crisp and bright with low volume and projection, but the pickups and amplification make up for it, which is what I wanted to achieve.

I've come to realise that in the nylon guitar scene there seems to be two types, Japanese style and European style.  I know this is a gross over generalisation, but at a very simple level when you play a guitar it is either full of warmth and body (European style) or crisp and bright (Japanese style) or neither (look for another guitar ;))  Volume, projection, ease of play all come into it, but on purely a sound point of view there are the two basic characteristics, and you can't have both, they are opposite types of sounds.

So I wasted about two hours of Paul's time playing his wonderful guitars and talking his ear off (I love to talk about guitars and playing them, hence the reason this blog exists).  I came away with a bit of new clarity about what I should be expecting from a guitar, and the realisation that the "problems" with my guitar were actually problems with me.  Thanks Paul.

Even better was him walking me through the construciton of his guitars - all his milling and machining gear, how he forms each part, his use of carbon fibre (?!), his special humidity controlled room for drying and seasoning; basically all the hands on side of guitars.  Fantastic!  I must build myself a guitar or two at some stage in my life ;)

...and probably the biggest tip I got from Paul, when I asked him how I will know when I find the right guitar for me - "It's like falling in love with a woman, you'll just know."



  1. Interesting experience.

    Well since you started talking about guitars, let's go there (I can't talk about solar battery powered amps!).
    I currently have three guitars. One is an acoustic still-string guitar, but let's just leave it, I don't get near it anymore.
    The two others are therefore classical. One is from Argentina, that would probably make it European in style, I guess. I bought it on a trip there, it was made there. It's a good one, I can tell it's good, however sometimes I feel I like a crappy one, I can't explain why.

    The other one is either Japanese or Korean, I bought it in London where I live, second hand, extremely cheap, it's probably supposed to be a crappy guitar, so probably not representative of what you can get from there, but still I like it, also it has small body, so whenever I want to quickly grab a guitar, it's just easier to move it around in my small flat.

  2. STEEL-string guitar (not STILL, obviously)

  3. I reckon we could talk about guitars forever - everything from "does a cutaway change the tone" to how to make a rosette. I'm no expert, but as always, I have opinions ;)

    I have 6 guitars, two of which are junky cheapies that I keep in my other house so when I'm there I've always got something to play - one being a steely and the other a nylon. I have a bass guitar and an electric guitar, neither of which I play often. I have a nice steely which was the only one I played for 10 years, now I don't play it at all. The final one is my daily driver which is 99% of the time the one I play, a Japanese styled nylon.

    My first ever guitar was a 3/4 nylon Yamaha which I once lent to someone and I can't remember who it was so it is long gone. Bit of a shame for sentimental reasons, but I'm over it.

    In talking to other guitarists 6 guitars in 30 years of playing is pretty impressive - some guitarists in just 5 years may have accumulated 10. I guess I am persistent ;)

    I will still occasionally play guitars in shops, but I don't find guitars that "blow me away". My current daily player doesn't blow me away either, but I'm satisfied with it.


  4. 6 guitars in 30 years is not much indeed, in total I'm pretty sure I've had 6 guitars as well, but in less than 30 years (including one electric, sometimes I have to admit I wouldn't mind giving a go at electric again, just to see, although I'm pretty sure I would get bored very soon).