Thursday, August 30, 2007
American Lutherie Interview
Interview with Kenny Hill by Cyndy Burton, for American Lutherie Magazine, Summer 2006.
The night I'm talking to Kenny Hill at the 2006 GAL Convention in Tacoma the many-faceted Kenny had played the Bach Toccata Adagio and Fugue in C on the magnificent organ in Lagerquist Hall. How was it that you decided to treat us to a demonstration on the organ?
What an opportunity! I've played since I was about ten. My dad taught me and I did a little child-prodigy year, when I was ten or eleven years old.
On a church organ?
Yeah; in a Baptist Church. My Dad was real involved in church, and he made us kids be real involved for our growing-up time. But it wasn’t until I was in college, the year and a half that I spent in college, I got all excited about pipe organ. Before that, I learned guitar and played songs, Dylan and other stuff. But then I heard the pipe organ and heard the music of Bach. Especially Bach. I thought, "I can really understand that. I can relate to that.'' It led to a tremendous amount of work but I figured, that's what you had to do.
I was born and raised in California, but I was in Portland, OR going to school when I was seventeen years old. I dropped out of college after a year and a half, got drafted and undrafted, drafted again, refused, got indicted, and then I went around and around with the draft system. It was really horrible. But I had the keys to St. Mark's church, and every night I would sneak off and play. I didn't have money; I didn't have a job; I didn't have anything. But I would sneak off and play the organ for three or four hours in the church. But, of course, that's a crazy lifestyle. It was so introverted; it was neurotic.
I was doing some guitar repairs at the time. A friend of mine, Jay, owned Canyon Guitar Shop on upper West Burnside, near where the stadium is now. It was the first guitar shop I'd ever seen. It sold Martins and Gibsons, and Chris Brandt was the repairman there. Chris and I were friends back then, both in our early 20s. I slept on Jay's couch when I went home, and the rest of the time I slept on the floor of the church when I was practicing the organ.
But Chris, he was a kind of restless soul himself. One day he left for lunch and...
He never came back? (laughing)
That's exactly what happened. He'd been grumbling a little bit about something. I don't remember if it was about his own life or about the way the business was run. A couple of days later he still hadn't come back, and Jay said to me, “You don't have a job. You could do this.'' So I started making nuts and saddles and doing fret jobs and stuff like that. And that's exactly how I got into working on instruments.
Finally the draft stuff was resolved, and it was an incredible relief. The release of obligation was so great, and other things dovetailed to make me ready to hit the gypsy trail. I stopped playing organ completely. I was 24, and ready for something. I went back to California and started playing guitar, especially Bach. That, and my own music I was writing, was all I wanted to play. I didn't approach it as a course of study on the guitar. I just thought, "I'm going to do whatever I damn well please.''
I went to Santa Barbara and set up my own little guitar repair company with about $50. I'd buy one tool and I'd do a repair with that tool, then I'd buy another tool for the next job, and so on until I built up a cute little repair shop with a few instruments for sale. At the same time, I continued to play classical guitar, especially Bach preludes and cello suites. I didn't want a teacher, because I figured it would mess up the purity of my artistic selfness. (laughs) Ridiculous, but that’s how I thought. I look at somebody who thinks that now and I say, "Just come back in twenty years and talk to me again.''
Gradually through guitar repairs I wandered into guitar making. A local person had bought materials and tools to make a guitar but along the way he abandoned the project and I was able to buy those things cheap. I finished his abandoned classical guitar, it sounded sweet, and I was off.
I worked at that for quite some time, then moved up to Santa Cruz, near where I was born and raised, and built up my own business there. In 1978 I wound up getting a really cool grant from the Arts Council of California to just do my own work building guitars. All I had to do is send reports in every quarter and a final report at the end of the year. This was a nice boost.
I got more and more into playing, too and started teaching guitar at the University of California. That took me away from building, because I saw performing and playing as being a higher career. You know, building, you got your hands dirty. I had passed on some of the skills to other people and I thought, "Well, that was a phase I went through,'' and I'm going to be a player. That worked for a while, but everybody who is a player knows it's an even worse career path than guitar making! You could do weddings, occasional concerts, and mostly teach.
Eventually I just kind of got sick of the struggle. And I actually ended up playing rock and roll and punk music. I played bass and at pretty high volumes, too. But it was serious party lifestyle, and I pushed the limits, but I don't regret going through that phase. I don't want anybody to know all the stories, because it was crazy. It was really wild, and Santa Cruz was a wild town.
I didn't do any building in the '80s, but I did continue to play classical guitar, even though I was an auto mechanic and I had a car repair shop.
Talk about getting your hands dirty!
That was my Dad's real trade, and I picked it up as a kid. I needed work, because as the party wrapped up, all of a sudden I started having a family — four kids in all. Mechanics was a way to get into a cash flow, really quick.
You know, it's interesting, when I was working as a young guitar maker, I thought of it as some kind of towering art. Which it is. But I saw it as something that was like some summit that was unattainable, and you had to do so much and everything had to be so precious, and you had to strive for this level of perfection that...
You had it on a pedestal.
Yes, but it was a tortured pedestal. When I worked as a mechanic, I had to work on the clock, by the flat rate book. The book tells you it's supposed to take 2.3 hours to change a water pump and that's what you're going to get paid for, whether it takes you 6 hours or 1. You learn this goal orientation. A particular job starts to take on a manageable scope. And so that was a good lesson, and, of course, having four kids to feed also gives you a different perspective on the value of your work and the importance of your time.
I came back to guitar making after the earthquake of 1989. I almost got buried under an enormous landslide, and it kind of shook up my priorities. I’d suffered enough as a mechanic, and the earthquake left no doubt that life is too short to spend at miserable work, and my thoughts turned back to guitar making. I thought, "There's got to be a way to do this as a real job.'' I adopted a flat-rate book approach. OK, a top's going to take 7 hours; and frets will take 2, a neck's going to take 5, and so on. It's a journeyman kind of attitude towards guitar making.
Just like most skills, there are two ways to approach it. One is through very careful planning and very thoughtful and precise thinking; and the other is just to do it a lot. I'm the do-it-a-lot kind of guy. I find that my plans are usually not worth very much, because reality often seems to have a bigger force of will. So I plan as much as I think is necessary to get started on something, and then I think about it while I'm working, while I'm moving, instead of doing all the thinking first.
I had thought it took a month to build a guitar, and I said, "No it doesn't; it takes a week.'' Why did I think it took a month? I would just mark down the hours it took to do things, and say "Well, maybe I was a little sloppy there.'' So it gave me more of an attitude adjustment, balancing speed with accuracy, and I also thought, "I don't know everything there is to know about making guitars; in fact, I don't know nothing about making guitars. So I just got to get busy and work. Just churn through them.'' That gave me a sense of fluency. It's just like learning to speak another language. When I learned to speak Spanish, I jumped in, paid close attention, and over time it worked out.
Same with the organ: you asked how I came to play the organ in Lagerquist? A couple of years ago I stumbled into the opportunity to buy an organ for my home. I hadn't really played organ for thirty two years. My office manager Larry encouraged me. He said, "How many chances do you get to do something that potent? In ten years, you're going to be too old to relearn that stuff!'' So I said, "OK, I'll try it.'' It has nothing to do with anything else I'm doing except it's a way to enter into a deep immersion into the heart of a great master, J.S. Bach. It's a very cleansing bath.
There's a huge amount of momentum that goes with playing an enormous organ like that. It's really exciting, but you don't dare get too excited or you'll forget and lose control of what you are doing. You have to stay cool. But if you’re too cool how are you going to experience that joy? You're going to get it in reflection rather than in the moment. Sometimes the big thrills are in rehearsals. I mean ultimately the preparation for something is as important as an event, maybe more so. An event is just a tiny amount of time, compared to the preparation.
No matter what you're doing, whether you're building guitars, playing the organ, playing guitar, building a house, or whatever, the preparation is where you occupy most of the time. And the event, whether it's a concert or an instrument, once it's done, you're done. So you can't just enjoy the instrument; you've got to enjoy getting there. You've got to enjoy the process.
Not only enjoy it, but do it in an efficient way?
Efficiency enables you to continue. I think about that with the old Spanish builders and I think about it with the music of Bach that I was playing the other day. In each case, yes, they were artists, but just as importantly, they were workers. One of the great things about playing the organ is that you're playing Bach's own instrument. That's what he did every day. So at that organ bench, I’m doing what he did, not just what he imagined for an orchestra or for a choir or for some other instrumentalist. In the music of Bach, one of the great things: he's a craftsman. He's just doing his job, and he does it at such a lofty level. But he's getting it over with. He writes a piece, does another piece, and so on. He must know that what he's doing is really great, but it's not like he's lingering over it exactly. He's not tortured over it; it just goes. Playing the organ, that's one of the great things to experience. Playing Villa Lobos on the guitar is kind of equivalent.
Those old Spanish guitar makers who we revere so much today were not working for generations down the road. They were making a living, and they're not obsessed over every single thing, even though you can see obsession in some of the instruments. They put incredible amounts of labor in, especially when you consider the tooling they had. They had a different attitude towards getting something done. The people who we emulate the most, they were just really just making their daily bread.
That's what I try to do, get the job done and keep going. For me, most of the pinnacles of accomplishment and quality are accidents. It's usually not when I'm really trying that the very best things happen. I get all tensed up or something. Often, the best things that happen are surprises. For me it's been about continuing to keep working. And I have four kids to support, so I couldn't really be too vain about what my endeavor was. It had to become a business, because otherwise, what, we sell off the kids? (laughter) I have to ask myself, "How do I make a living at this?'' It's always about making the best instrument with what I've got to work with, but I don't always know what that means. It's just keeping a forward motion.
The guitar is a wonderful thing, and it's affected most minutes of my adult life. But what is so amazing is that it comes from the resources of the whole world: the materials, the designs, the movers and shakers, the people are all over the world. We live with this kind of focusing that comes into the instrument and to our work of building it. Then when the instrument is completed, it goes right back out into the world. In a sense, we go back out again, because we can't just sell it in Felton, California or Portland, Oregon. Our market has to be the whole world for us to even survive, because it's such a niche field. So it becomes the lifestyle that goes along with it. It becomes this group of aromas and flavors and sounds and sights and personal relationships that is really a convergence of a grand view of the whole world. In my particular situation it's kind of exaggerated because I've done so much globe trotting as a result of it.
I know that before you started globe trotting, which we'll talk more about shortly, you ventured into the world of the California high-security prison system. I'd love to hear how that came about.
I was working as a guitar teacher in the prison system through a program called Arts in Corrections. After I'd been there a while, they came us artist/teachers and said, "You guys are kind of seasoned teachers here in the prison system. We want you to kick it up a notch.'' That meant going and applying for a three-year California Arts Council Grant, which was better funding, a more solid program, and farther reaching. By that time, I was getting burned out on the guitar teaching, and, even though I wasn't actively doing much guitar making at the time, I was doing a little bit. I came up with the idea of teaching guitar building instead of guitar playing. It was a more interesting project for me to propose. But it's one thing to be doing it in a junior college and quite another to be doing it in a maximum security prison. It gets more complex in terms of not only how you fund it, but also how you administer it, how you control the tools, and how you convince the powers that be.
I had to learn all this stuff that my mother never taught me, working in prison. (laughter) We did a good job. There were people who said, "This will never happen. You'll never do it.'' But I had a good kind of boss, Jack Bowers, and he was a very aware and enlightened administrator.. He told me what to say to convince people with different interests, like the security force in the prison, for example. Those guys are hard core. They don't mind telling you, "No!'' in no uncertain terms. We had to finesse it and figure out how to agree with their terms and work within them.
How did you organize it?
I would be there maybe one day or two days a week, and I'd leave. But they'd still be there. So I'd give them assignments of what to do while I was gone. And that was the first time that I started to say, "Hey, many hands can do many things.'' For example, that was the first time I made rosettes. I made one and said, "Here; you guys do this,'' and it was perfect for prison.
You were learning right along with them.
Yes. You learn a lot when you teach, and especially in that situation I learned what it was like to send a bunch of people off to do different jobs.
Each one wasn't building his own guitar?
At first we'd parted out the work. Someone would make a bunch of back braces. Someone else would glue up a bunch of neck blanks. It was just a way to keep things going.
After they made a bunch of parts did they each make their own guitars?
Every different thing happened, every possible permutation over the period of a few years. Some people really took to it, and some people really wanted to just be team members. Some people didn't want to share a thing because they thought their work was so much better than somebody else's. In a situation like that, you're dealing with some pretty extreme personalities; I just learned to work with what was there and to go in the direction that seemed most sensible under whatever circumstances there were.
We structured the program so that the first instruments made were donated to certain charity organizations. That was stipulated in part of the funding; it was part of the rationale of doing something this touchy-feely in prison. It was both a kind of therapy and rehabilitation, and it was also community service.
One of the first guys I taught became a very well respected and well known violin maker, and he is outside, has a family now, and a successful violin business. Another couple of the released guys are building instruments on the side in their own shops. They have other jobs; one's in construction, and one does auto body work. One is making Baroque guitars. You do fifteen years to life, and then you're out and making Baroque guitars. (laughter) So that's enough evidence to convince me that what we did was a good thing, and if it was still going on, it would still be a good, cost-effective thing. But politics being what they are, things change; and so it's not happening any more. I think all the traces of what I did have been removed from the prison system.
As my grants were running out, I worked out a new proposal to make it a permanent part of the prison system. But there was one stinky little person in Sacramento who would not sign off on it, probably because it wasn't her idea. Stupid. But as fate would dictate, it was about that time I met Jose Romanillos in Paracho, Mexico where he was teaching a class.
I went down there on pretexts as a journalist for Acoustic Guitar magazine. I wound up spontaneously giving a concert for the group. That was really a thrill, playing in front of Romanillos and his wife, with them in the front row, although it made me nervous. That's when I got connected into Paracho. As a journalist, of course, I was welcomed with open arms. Later when I went down to work, it got a lot more complicated, and I spent eight years commuting between Mexico and California. I continued building by myself in my California shop while teaching or refining or whatever you want to call it, the workers in Mexico, who were under my direction, and building a business out of that. It was very exciting because of the cultural immersion; I considered it to be an honor, a rare opportunity to be able to implicate myself into a completely other cultural milieu. I was learning from them and bringing some resources to Mexico that weren't there before. I was also creating a wider sphere of influence, because the instruments were relatively affordable and they were pretty darn good for their prices.
Were there problems, other than the constant commute? The guitars were shipped to you in California from Paracho, right?
Yes; we checked them out in California before they were sold. I was having to learn a lot about business on an international scale. And culturally, as a foreigner entering into an old village environment, doing basically a 19th century trade, I had to learn and unlearn things I never imagined. But ultimately the biggest battle was trying to control the humidity, the weather, mother nature. I was having to deal with issues that seemed to be beyond the control of the people and equipment that I was working with, and so it became very expensive, because I tried to prevent problems from reaching my customers. It became cost prohibitive.
How many of those Paracho-made Kenny Hill guitars are out there?
Probably about a thousand, something like that. But the number with difficulties that have been out in the world is very small, because we really did work hard to make sure that what I shipped out of my shop in California was the best that we could do. I hear from people all the time who are still happy with the guitar they bought five, six, seven years ago, and some are coming back to buy something else.
It was almost an accident that led me in that direction. It's not like it was part of some sort of grand master plan. I saw it as an opportunity not only in relation to the guitar but in relation to just...life. To be able to really participate in another way of living is something that everybody needs; it's broadened me so much personally.
Now I have some of the guys who worked for me in Paracho working for me in California. I did the numbers and decided I might as well have these guys working here and pay them California wages. It'll come out the same, but maybe it will be more controlled.
As a result of doing that work and having that experience of working overseas, I started getting invited by other companies to do stuff like that, and that's how I got into China. There were promises of being able to make some real money, (which were not exactly correct), and there was the opportunity to be able to see what's happening in a very important place in the world and to be a part of that.
Are the guitars made in China for the US market, Europe, or where?
The market is here and Europe, too. So far about three or four hundred total have been imported to the US in the New World line, not that many. I began there with a model based on a later model Torres. I started with the biggest Torres I could find described in the Romanillos book. It was the right place to start, to work through the logic of the instrument. The workers there were all very good violin builders already. The tooling techniques were no problem, but learning the parameters of design and some of the building techniques were new to them.
I also have a German partner now who has investments in a guitar factory in China. It's a more commercial factory, capable of producing a lot more guitars, for example, a student model with a solid top and laminated back and sides, like the Spanish stuff, equivalent to some of the Spanish factories. We are also making some high quality all solid instruments. If I can find the right distributor, I'd be more than happy to try to make that work. I think there's a good market for them.
Do you actually inspect the end product? And are you responsible for warranty work and that kind of thing?
Yes; for the New World line. Anything that's in my name, and the guitars that are imported to the US are still under my control. And certainly, if my name is on it anywhere, I have seen and played every instrument. I have the same people working on some of them who are working on $8000 guitars. Sometimes it's not necessarily a very efficient way to do business. But for the small scale that I'm at, it's necessary. I'm trying to find out how to adapt to this.
What is being built in your California shop now? And what is your role?
We've got two basic ranges of stuff that we're building here. One is the Master Series, copies of Hauser Sr., Fleta, Torres, Panormo, Rodriguez, Ruck (with his permission and licensing), and now a Reyes flamenco, based on drawings done recently by Tom Blackshear. All of these historical models have been wonderful to study, research, and come up with each model. We can put those guitars in the hands of people for relatively reasonable prices of $3000 to $5000 now, for a guitar that would be $30,000 to $200,000, if you had the original. It's not the original, obviously, but we try to make them in the spirit of the original. It's interesting because they are all so different.
In addition to those, we build my Signature Model, which is my design top to bottom. I am involved in all those, but I don't do every step of the way now. If there's something new to do, that's what I get to do. I decide what's next and work on whatever's new, and I'm just in the shop with everybody else working away and keeping an eye on what everybody's doing. These guys have been with me for a long time, and they're far better than I am or than I'll ever be with the use of a chisel, knife, scraper, and plane. Of course, that's all they do. They don't answer the phone, sign the checks, or go to trade shows. They do the work and I'm really grateful for their skill level; it's stunning. And it's just so casual; they sharpen a knife like you tie your shoes.
And about how many are there?
Besides myself, there are two guys who take it all the way through. There's one guy who feeds them parts in varying stages but he is also the French polish maven, and he's an absolute genius at French polishing. He's also training somebody right now. Then there's a guy who does setups and repairs. That's five people working on the actual instruments. Everybody is good and everybody gets along real well. Three languages, Spanish, English, and Chinese all being spoken in the shop. It's funny because the Spanish speakers really don't speak English and the Chinese speaker doesn't speak English.
Also, my son is doing shipping and receiving and wood management and storage. He's starting to learn the biz, and he’s learning to make instruments. He's eighteen and recently graduated from high school. My daughter works with me in the office, and even my 13 year old is putting in some hours after school. I love having the kids work with us, but I’m reluctant to plant too many expectations that way, because I want them to do what's right for them, not what's right for me. And so I'm just watching, not banking my future on them, and enjoying them while I can.
You wear many hats. In addition to overseeing your crew in Felton, which includes one of your kids, you're head of R&D, developing new models, trying them out, and jetting out to China to run a factory or two. Oh, and you perform on classical guitar and occasionally organ, and teach guitar making, too. How do you manage all this?
Coffee in the morning, and no TV. I used to build twelve hours a day. Now, it's a juggling operation. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I panicked at a certain point because I realized I was having a really hard time finishing things. I'd get all excited about something and I'd bite off more than I could chew, and I'd get all enthused and then it wouldn't come out as good as I expected, or it was too big for me and I'd put it aside. And I'd go, "Oh, I'm terrible. I can't finish anything! I can't focus! I'm not...'' And I later learned that "Well, all those things are sort of true, but this is the psychological makeup I've been given,'' and it's really hard for a person to change who he is. So this is who I am, and how am I going to deal with this? And I ultimately found that yes, I'll go forward and I'll work on something and I'll get distracted and go off to the side. But then I discovered that I can get distracted right back into it later. That was a huge relief to me. Just because I set something aside, doesn't mean it's gone forever. I can come back to it with a renewed sense of vision and a cleaner sense of priority. Yes; I'm skipping from rock to rock sometimes, but the general direction is forward and downstream; there's never a dull moment. I can create joy from a great many mediums, but I can also create problems in a great many mediums.
(laughing) So some days it probably looks like the glass is half empty and other days it's half full.
It's always a wild ride. I'm never bored, but sometimes I think, "Oh God, I just can't handle it. There's too much here. Somebody please help me.''
In the shop, I bring the complete perspective and try to bring context to everything that's going on, whether it's getting a buzz out of a third string, deciding if we're going to pay this much for Brazilian rosewood, or is this maple ready to bend, or trying to negotiate a purchase order with a new Chinese company. I've got to be everywhere at all times. Every once in awhile I think about going back to making one or two guitars a month in a two or three car garage with one other worker who helps with finish. This would be possible. But it would be kind of disappointing to revert to that at this stage, even though I can make nice guitars and I can finally get decent money for them. And there's something about the way it evolved that I feel is helping to shape the society of the guitar, not just me as a person. Because we've been able to do the work on a somewhat grander scale, it has affected more people and given people opportunities to play guitar who otherwise wouldn’t have. They're very happy about it and grateful for it. All of this work has contributed to the momentum of the guitar world, for what it's worth. Of course, probably toe nail polish is a bigger industry than classical guitars, but we’re all just doing what we know how.
Don't you think as we get older that there're more and more little things that pull us in different ways and probably our abilities to actually deal with them are not getting greater...
(laughter) Yeah; if you're not willing to give some things up then you just keep piling up interests. It's kind of like the clothes in your closet. You liked that shirt. You haven't worn it for three years but you still keep it. And you know, people, lifestyle issues, hobbies, affections, and so on accumulate in the same way. And like you say, our strength and stamina maybe gets lower. Still, there’s something else at work too. Sometimes when I'm doing something with my sons, they say, "It's not fair; you've got geezer wisdom.'' They recognize that sometimes as you get older, because you change your priorities, you can pick the most vulnerable spot in an obstacle. So you may not be able to jump over the highest point in it but you're better at identifying what the lowest point is and getting over that one. And that works out to a certain extent, but eventually we're all going to croak no matter what, so all of our work is doomed. We are all skulls in this world. Every once in awhile I'll look at a picture of a pile of skulls or an excavation someplace, and then I'll look around and look at all the people and see them the same way. You know, we're tumbling off the great wheel just like ants that come to the end of a stick.
Torres is the best touchstone for me. He was a brilliant artist, and at the same time he was just schlepping. He was just making a living. I'm sure Stradivarius was just making a living. He may have been a dandy and a very vain person and very proud of his work, but for him to have been thinking, "I'm making this for those people three or four hundred years from now who are playing in the New York Philharmonic,''...Oh yeah, right! I actually have very little patience for people who talk that way about their work. I think, "God, snap to! We're alive now. This is what we've got to work for; we're not building the future. The future will take care of itself!'' Of course I don't think that way about the planet; it's a different point of view when we're looking at the ecology and the quality of life for our children. But in terms of my own work, building for some as yet unborn generation, that seems really delusional. I'd just rather say, "Man, I'm building for the guy who's walking in the door; who's going to be playing in the cafe down the street; who's playing because his girlfriend loves the way it sounds; or who's entering a competition and trying his darn best to become the next John Williams or whatever.''
At the 2004 GAL Convention you spoke in detail about the various models, the Master Series, being built in your California shop (See AL#87). Since then, you mentioned developing a Reyes model based on GAL Plan #53 by Tom Blackshear.
Yes, Tom really encouraged me to do it. It is a new model, a traditional flamenco, and I'm very pleased with it and it was a lot of fun to develop. I've built four of them, and I'll probably build another three or four before I pass it on to someone else in the shop. I have to make it and find out what I think are the peculiarities, then I move on and let someone else in the shop make them.
Is that how your Signature Model came about, and is it still evolving?
No; not really. Well, maybe. I did a lot of them evolving toward where it is today, but for the moment it is stable. I'm so happy with the way it is now and the way that people are hearing it. It's a double-top with an elevated fingerboard, laminated sides, soundports, and the top is made flat with an arch in the bridge (like the Hauser model). It's these elements that I've recombined. It's taking a bunch of stuff from a bunch of different guitars and throwing them together. None of it's new; none of it's original. It's taken about ten instruments to get it to the point where I say, "Well, I don't think I see anything else to change.'' So far, anyway. It's really exciting to me, because the guitar sounds beautiful, and it's got a lot of umph.
I'm seeing these Signature instruments being played by real hot players, really powerful, young players generally. I got tired of chasing the big names. It's really kind of a humiliating experience, and it usually doesn't produce anything either. At best, it produces a very temporary result. But young players, that's where it's really at. And I love to see young players pick up an instrument and just really play.
I continue to play a lot, too. Usually I test out new guitars and guitars I'm developing in very intimate and personal venues, which have all the demands that any concert situation has. Of course, most people don't play on stage; they play in their living rooms. They might play in a coffee house someplace. I think it's really necessary to realize that there's not one sole purpose or highest purpose for a guitar, and there's not one perfect guitar. There is no such thing anymore than there's a perfect sunrise; there's just another one. They're all perfect, you know. There's some you like more than others, that's all.
Can you say more about how you zeroed in on each of the features of the Signature guitars?
As you know, the soundports came from the Ruck model, something that Robert Ruck designed for my company to produce. I see no downside to them, but people are skeptical, so I like to demonstrate. I often will drill them in the presence of witnesses, such as, a new owner. It’s dramatic. A few years ago, for example, I did it in front of an audience at a guitar festival in Fresno on one of my Signature instruments. People always say, "Well, doesn't it just make it louder for the player?'' as if there's something wrong with that! But it's not just that, so I prove it for them. It's really easy to see. If you sit down there and I play a guitar here and then I drill a hole in it, it takes less than a minute, and I play it, you'll hear it. There is no dispute.
How did you arrive at the size?
The range between Bob's and mine is a good one. I have gone bigger and felt that I was getting nothing more, but I was getting nervous about the amount of open space there, and so I scaled back a little bit. I've tried it with one hole and I've tried it with two. I've tried it with one big and one small; with one in the treble side only, and one in the bass side. I decided that I'm getting optimum performance with two of that size.
I'm greedy for sound. I'm more than happy to accept all that I can get. However, the results you get might depend on the size of the body. If you're working with a small bodied guitar and use large ports, maybe it will wolf out a little bit, but my general feeling is that it improves both the bass and the treble, improves the sustain, improves the volume, and there's something like an aging effect. It's almost like taking a brand new guitar and making it five years old, just with a couple of passes with the drill. It's as if it enriches and fills in the spaces between in the clarity without muddying it. But like I say, it depends on the guitar. If it's a cedar top guitar you get more of that; if it's a spruce top, you get more of that.
I've made about one hundred double-tops. That's another thing I just don't see any down side to. For the first few, I just replaced tops on existing instruments, so I had an A, B test. I started to learn what is the qualifying sound results that come from this. It is an increased sensitivity to dynamic changes in terms of both volume and color. Those two dynamics are like an X,Y grid on the graphing of phrasing in musicality. How you shape a line, how you shape a musical idea with color, modulating those two things, that's what a classical guitarist does with his or her right hand. You can go from dark to light with very sweet simple changes in your right hand technique. You can go from soft to loud to soft with easily managed right-hand pressure changes. It's so exciting. And at the same time, it keeps the beauty through quiet and through loud. You can play as loud as you want and it won't break up.
I generally use both woods, cedar and spruce, one inside and one outside. Whichever one you put out is the one that gives the dominant quality to the sound. Those two pieces of wood are just one millimeter separated, and if you change positions on them, it completely alters the way the guitar responds.
Are you using spruce for bracing?
Yes. I'm doing a fairly conventional bracing system, seven-bar fan with a diagonal, kind of like Rodr¡guez. What I'm trying to do is pull the steroids out of the double-top and keep the romance in the guitar by bracing it very traditionally.
The other thing that I've done recently is develop an elevated fingerboard, which many other people have done, but I've done it my own way. I think it enhances the attack and the sustain. And I'm laminating sides now. I had to put an extra taper to the body with the elevated fingerboard, so it compensates for the extra height that's at the 12th fret. I feel that laminating the sides like Ram¡rez and Friederich creates a kind of stability that's good for the sound.
All of it is just in service to the sound. Sometimes people ask, "Why do you do this?'' "What's the scientific reason for this?'' That's like asking, "What's the scientific reason for breathing?'' Oxygen, carbon dioxide, sure, but really it’s life. If pressed I will try to come up with an objective reason for doing things in the guitar, but really, it’s because it sounds good. That's all. You try it; it works; move on. That's science for me. I suppose my favorite guitar besides my Signature is my copy of the 1856 Torres. It has a sweet, little body, a nice thin spruce top, a lovely, perfect little fan, and the guitar sounds like...it gives you a whole world of sound. No tricks. So I've got one model that's a bag of tricks and one model that's no tricks, and yet, when Torres did that in 1856, or whenever he actually codified those elements, it was a bag of tricks. He was just cherry picking design elements from the guitar building ambience that was around him in Europe in the 19th century and assembling them into one new little cocktail, and it worked perfectly.
I don't mean to compare myself with Torres, but I think it's fun to have been in a position to select elements just on instinct from a bunch of different building styles that I'm surrounded by and put them all together and be happy with the results.
You're a very pragmatic builder. Want to talk about some of your failures? Maybe you can save somebody some effort.
(laughs) Oh, failure builds character. The only way I learn is from my mistakes. When I first started, I built everything too heavy. I was trying to mimic Ram¡rez for awhile so I built this stupid high neck angle and made the guitars too hard to play. This was one of the simple lessons I had to learn. A guitar should play really easily. The idea that it should play hard is a macho attitude that, thank God, has pretty much left the field, although a few people still hold onto it. Playing guitar should not automatically give you tendonitis and make you feel pain. Also, just getting the neck profile and the neck thickness exactly right improves the playability so much. And although there are personal tastes in this that I won't try to argue with, some of the famous builders make necks that don't match the sound of their instruments.
I also think that the neck is part of the overall balance and the overall tension of the whole instrument, so that the way you profile the neck, the way you carve the heel, these will affect the sound and sense of the instrument. They affect the playability, and they affect the way the overall instrument responds. I just don't buy the idea that you've got to make the neck a rigid and inert thing so that it doesn't steal sound from the body. I think of the guitar as being much more like an archery bow that is stretched from one end to the other, and the dynamics of vibration stretch through the entire instrument. That's what I look for: a wonderful balance and flow of tension. That's not the same tension in every place in the instrument, but a balance of tensions. I love that! It's like you build it and you stretch it with the strings, and then it's just as if you're putting wind in the sails.
The elevated fingerboard is one of the things that allowed it to happen for me. I did it not because of the playability issue, although I appreciate that, but because I was trying to somewhat subtly change the angle of pull that the strings exert over the soundboard. If you look at a Humphrey, you'll see it's really high, so it's almost pulling up on it like a harp at a very strong angle. I chose not to go that far. I go somewhere in-between, and it creates a different dynamic in the way the soundboard moves, and I like that. You change the air in the body by tapering the body a little bit more, about 12MM or 13MM instead of the usual 5MM.
What's next for you?
I ask myself that everyday. How do I keep the quality up? How do I keep my employees happy and well organized? How do I keep my customers in good shape? What do I want to do? How will I make enough money to still be here six months from now? What do I want to be doing in five or ten years? I'm fifty-eight years old. How long am I going to want to keep doing this? We saw Manuel Velazquez working after so many years, and he was just as focused on the characteristics of the instruments as he's ever been. It was just a fantastic thing to see. I want to remain involved in just that way, but do I want the stresses of running a business? That's the bridge I have to cross right now.
I don't have a brilliant new design that's supposed to revolutionize guitar making, but I am quite happy with my Signature Model. I have not played a guitar that excites me more. Of course, I've got a huge vested interest, so I'm hardly an objective observer. But if it excites me so much and then when I see other people play and get all jacked up about it too, I think maybe this is not just a vanity project. Maybe I'm on to something here. And if I'm on to something, I want it to have legs. I'm selling instruments in Europe, Japan, and, of course, the US that are being reviewed and doing very well. The people who have bought them have kept them and are taking them on the road and really putting them to work in high profile situations.
These days what I'm trying to say is, "Can I focus on the high end stuff?'' I've built market share by having a real broad market by comparison to a lot of American classical builders. Now I want to build closer to the high end, get more money, do less work. That's a good plan! That’s a lifestyle decision. I don't know how much more experience I really need. I’ve worked hard and long and cheap. Now I need to reap some of the payback from that. It's about time, I think. It's what I'm hoping for.
Is there any advice you have for people just starting out?
Yes; I think it's threefold. First, find out what's gone before. Don't skip that. Find out. Then when you're ready, try your own thing. But please be sure what you are doing is actually an improvement and not making things worse. Secondly, on a very practical level, just become fluent. Learn to work fast. Accurately, carefully, but don't dawdle, because that's the way that you get perspective, through experience, not through contemplation. And lastly, learn how to sharpen tools. I'm still not very good at that.