I met Kathy at a UK meet organised by RMMGA members and was lucky enough to play one of Kathy Wingert’s guitars, even luckier to meet Kathy and pester her with a few questions after the meet. Kathy builds a particularly elegant guitar- in terms of aesthetics as well as tone and she deserves her place amongst the top luthiers of today.
TT – Kathy, it was great to meet you in Buxton, UK. How did was the whole experience for you?
It was nice meeting you too, Terence. I enjoyed meeting other RMMGA members, hearing fantastic players, and I never expected to have the chance to see the country side in the way that I did. Alan Marshall, who builds guitars under the name of Northworthy, was my host and splendid tour guide. The whole experience was more than I expected in every way, and I left feeling nothing but joy!
TT – Did you notice any difference in the construction of the European guitars?
I had the chance to play several of Alan’s fine guitars. I didn’t see enough other guitars to begin to notice trends or similarities. I felt that Alan’s guitars and his approach to building wa similar to any of the other steel string builders I know in that we have all taken freely from those that have gone before us and we approach body shapes and bracing in a way that reflects what we want to feel and see in a guitar. On Thursday evening before the gathering, Alan and I sat and passed our guitars back and forth. I am embarrassed to tell you that the most erudite discussion of the fine points of tone that we could come up with went something like this…. “Gee, they sure are different. I like them both. You do too? Good!”
TT – So a lot of it is based on the builder’s preference?
In terms of tone and body shape? Yes, I believe that builders look to achieve a sound that matches the sound they hear in their heads. Within the parameters of what is pleasing to me, I can tweak the tone based on my customer’s request, but it would be very hard for me to agree to build a guitar that I couldn’t hear as a pleasing combination or voice.
TT – A lot has been previously written about how elegant your guitars look; How would you describe your desired body shapes?
I appreciate the compliment. I have three shapes that are uniquely mine; I also have a modified dreadnought shape that is slightly feminised with an ever-so-slightly slimmer waist and softer shoulders. My Model E is probably my most refined shape. I started out looking for comfort and versatility. I wanted a body big enough to allow for some flatpicking and more aggressive playing than most grand concert sized guitars will support, but I wanted a guitar that would be comfortable to sit with. I was looking for a guitar that would be very much at home during a recording session or jam session or a song circle with no amplification at all. I wanted a guitar that could go from fingerstyle to rockin’ jam while still being a seriously good fingerstyle guitar with the articulation and presence so necessary for that style of play. Visually I would describe the E as long-waisted with a round bottom and narrow shoulders. The final outline of a guitars shape is not necessarily set in concrete. If I were to need to make new molds, as I will one day, I will make some micro changes to the outlines. I don’t think many would be able to tell, but I could tell and some of my mentors might notice if I asked them to look. I give credit to my former employer and master for helping me to see lines. It all boils down to two very simple concepts, (one) to see the shape of something you must look at the space outside of it, and (two) when you look at a shape, your eye should continue to move without stopping in any one place. If you find yourself stopping at a place in the design, something needs smoothing out.
TT – Your Mentors?
I should say “Mentor.” Jon Peterson has had the biggest influence on my building. The lutherie community is very open and on my list of friends includes my toughest competition, so in a sense all of my builder friends are also mentors to me. I never feel that my way is best or that I’m not open to someone else’s good influence. I’m certainly open to better ways to approach some of the drudge work!
TT – When did you first start building and what got you started?
Sometimes everything in your life is catching you up in a current and you’re not even sure when it started or how many little things contributed to it, and one day you’re just standing there knowing that this is the next big thing in your life. I have loved the guitar since I was a little girl. I was born in 1958 and my dad was into the folk movement of the early sixties. I remember being three or four years old and begging him to teach me how to use his hi-fi (if I hadn’t dated myself by giving my year of birth, that would have done it!) because it was so long to wait for him to get home from work. My favorite was Joan Baez, just a simple guitar and a beautiful soprano voice. One of the album covers had a picture of Ms. Baez sitting in a field holding a little Martin O. I loved that guitar.
What got me going was a trip to the library in 1995. By the end of the year I had landed my apprenticeship at the World of Strings learning from Jon Peterson and doing repairs. Jon was kind to give me acoustic guitar restorations that were very involved, and I found that I loved that kind of
TT – You mentioned drudge work.. Are you a proponent of using jigs and fixtures? I know several builders and players who feel strongly about this.
I use as many templates, fixtures and jigs as it is feasible to use in a one-at-a-time approach to building. I am not as tooled up as most of the builders I know, but critical things that need to be repeated on a regular basis I have fixtures for. I have routing fixtures for my headstock shape, my dovetail and mortise and my bridge shape. I have routing templates for my most common fingerboard dimensions. I also take advantage of templates for fret slot cutting.
There are some parts of guitar making that some find tedious and I find fulfilling. One of those areas is shaping a neck. As you may have noticed, my neck shape is compound curves in the heel and where the neck transitions into the headstock. I find great joy in sculpting the curves by hand, though I do hog off most of the material with routers and, well maybe I shouldn’t tell, but I use a chainsaw carver! I don’t have a standard neck size or shape, I shape and fit each neck to customer request. After the fingerboard dimensions are decided based on nut and saddle measurements, the fingerboard is made and then it is the template for the rest of the outline of the neck. When the neck is the proper width, I put the appropriate taper for the thickness of the neck. With three lines established, the rest is shaping.
TT – Yes, I noticed that the neck on your guitars tend to have a good grip but at the same time, freedom for the hand to shift and move. Very much like the necks on Martins of the late 20’s…
Just don’t forget that I don’t have a standard shape! The neck you played was made for a large man with large hands who wanted the neck that way. I’m glad you noticed that as large as it was, it did seem to feel good. I also have several fixtures for making a bridge, but the shape on top of the bridge is quiet work that I enjoy. My bridges are very similar, but they are not accurate copies from one to another.
My braces go on with the radius on the gluing surface and the appropriate height at the X and the correct thickness. They go on oversized and they get carved and tuned to each top.
There are quite a few pictures of my shop and tools on my website. I know it is a resource for newer builders and I need to update it with my current tools and jigs.
TT – Have you taken on an apprentice or have any plans to do so?
It is my great joy to have my daughter, Jimmi, working for me. I convinced her to come on board as my inlay department and she has surpassed anything I was capable of on her second job! We collaborate really well on the artwork, she has the skill to get it on paper, and I have good editing
instincts. It is a real joy to have her artistic abilities at my disposal.
Perhaps in the distant future when I have a larger workshop, I might consider taking on an apprentice, but there are so few parts of building that I would trust to another!
TT – Coming away from the building skills and techniques, I was wondering what your favoured woods are? I mean are you straight up and out a mahogany and rosewood builder? There’s a lot of alternative woods coming out like Koa, Walnut and Ziricote…..
I have a strong preference for rosewood. Rosewood of any stripe. Lately I have been favoring African blackwood over any other wood. I have built with Indian, cocobolo, Honduran, Cambodian, Madagascar and of course Brazilian rosewoods and I have loved them all. There are many other traditional and alternative woods that I have tried and each certainly has its place, but my personal prejudices run toward a rosewood sound. Customers who have ordered other woods, koa and mahogany and some others have been happy with the sounds, and I have been too. One of the more remarkable sounds came from Putumuju (also known as canary wood). The putumuju was very bright and juicy. Clear, crisp, punchy with very high partials. I liked it, but it seemed prone to cracking so I haven’t ventured to try it again.
©2008 Terence Tan.
Pictures courtesy of Kathy Wingert- ©2007. Used with permission.
MP3’s courtesy of Doug Young- ©2007. Used with permission.