Making It (Part 1)
Overwater's Chris May on Guitar Making
Chris May starts a new series on Guitar Making
I suppose it must be rather more than twenty years since I picked my way through the Dansette record-players and sliding teak doors of enormous television sets, to the musical instrument counter in my local branch of a well-known chain of department stores. Persuaded to part with four pounds eighteen and six, I received in return a small Russian-made acoustic guitar, a Chet Atkins plectrum, and a slightly chewed copy of Play In A Day by Bert Weedon. Needless to say, I didn't - in fact that publication caused some consternation at the time, as Our Bert didn't appear to know either Wonderful Land or any Chuck Berry licks!
It wasn't long, however, before I discovered rather more serious inadequacies amongst my purchases, and that 'socialist state luthiery' had its drawbacks! Although, as a musical instrument, that guitar had the edge on a previously owned 'Chad Valley' banjo, which was more suited to playing French cricket, the improvement was marginal. Anyway, it didn't have the image required by a budding Rock 'n' Roller, and no amount of goodwill and Brylcreem were going to make up for that.
Unfortunately, at that time Japan hadn't discovered the economic miracle, and even second-hand Hofners cost at least fifteen quid. When I failed to win the Burns guitar competition on the back of the cornflakes packet, there was only one avenue left open. After all, you could buy individual machine heads for half a crown each, a kid at school told me that pickups were only magnets and copper wire, and my Dad had plenty of wood. And the rest, as they say, is history!
So here I sit, some two decades later, at two a.m., with a bottle of Famous Grouse and a directive from Gary Cooper to string a thousand words together as a preface to a series of articles about building electric guitars, by the end of the month (which is tomorrow).
The aim of this series of jottings will be to act as an introduction to the craft of electric guitar making. I don't intend them to be either a definitive text on luthiery, or a step-by-step manual - more a general guide on how to approach the craft, with a few hints and some technical information thrown in for good measure.
I have long held the firm belief that there is no one right way to make guitars, and I think this is borne out by the incredible variety of materials and methods of construction employed by the makers of the world's top instruments. The craft of the guitar maker is neither art nor science, and yet - much like playing an instrument - it has elements of both. There are technical skills to be learned, and certain principles that have to be followed, but beyond this a great part is played by intuition and 'feel' for the instrument.
In Western culture the electric guitar is truly a folk instrument, and - although short when compared with its acoustic cousin - a tradition that bears witness to its astonishing versatility. The lack of such a tradition may explain why many instruments of Oriental origin, whilst achieving a degree of excellence from an engineering point of view, nevertheless lack imagination and can have an impersonal feel about them.
Guitars are put to many uses, most of them musical (oh yeah? - Ed.), so it would seem to follow that some degree of playing ability is a distinct advantage to a guitar maker. Although this is generally the case, I do know a couple of excellent makers who don't play at all. What is crucial is to understand elements of the techniques of playing, and the importance of the quality of an instrument's sound. I'm afraid that tonal quality is indeed as esoteric subject, ingrained with personal prejudices as it is, and certainly beyond my literary powers to explain, even if I fully understood it! However, at a later date I'll endeavour to outline some of the more predictable aspects of materials and constructional methods with respect to their effect on the tonal quality of an instrument. Suffice it to say at this point that the tonal response of any guitar, electric or acoustic, is derived from its natural resonance, and no amount of electronics, no matter how sophisticated, can do any more than enhance what is already there. And I speak as one who has spent much time and money chasing the holy grail of the 'chip' in the guitar!
However, don't panic! Although I've been at this game for long enough to realise I'll never know all the answers (or even all the questions, but that's getting a bit too philosophical), I hope that over the next few months I can guide some of you potential guitar makers away from a few blind alleys, and onto the path of righteousness!
Next month - Woods, and More!
Feature by Chris May
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