Adrian Lucas | 2008 | Luthier Interview | “Radial Guitars”
TT – Adrian, thanks for chatting with us. The first Lucas guitar I ever played was a radial guitar which is not your normal guitar- would you tell us a little more about your construction and philosophy behind the design?
AL – My radial design grew out of the idea of having the guitar’s bridge at the centre of a circular lower bout so that the distance to the edges is equal. This creates a diaphragm that is somewhat like a speaker. To avoid having this circle interrupted by the soundhole, I placed two small soundholes, who’s combined area equalled a traditional single hole, either side of the fingerboard in the upper bout.
The bracing radiates out from the circle’s centre towards the edges like spokes in a wheel. As the braces thus become further apart the soundboard graduates from stiffest in the bridge area to most compliant around the edges. The upper bout containing the soundhole is stiffly braced so that it was pretty much isolated from the ‘diaphragm’.This construction creates a simple air pump which is very efficient and quite directional, throwing out a beam of sound forwards. The soundhole on the bass side allows the player to get a snapshot of the out-front sound rather like a side port.
TT – So how would you describe the effects of a soundport vs. the soundhole on the bass side?
AL – Well, a soundport in the side gives the player a more direct shot of the out-front sound. As far as the sound in front of the guitar is concerned I’m not sure there is much in it.
TT – I see, in addition, you build more traditionally X braced guitars, could you tell us a little more about how you think these 2 bracing styles affect the way the guitar plays and sounds?
AL – Yes, I’m mostly building X-braced guitars these days. The radial-braced soundboard resonates as a simple diaphragm and has a strong fundamental, whereas the X-brace is rather more complex and divides the soundboard more into pockets producing a sound richer in overtones that people are more used to hearing. I recently encountered a couple of radial guitars that I’d built some years ago and was surprised how good they sounded. They are a little like an archtop sound with a strident treble but they also have a mellowness behind that. Rajan Spolia has one of my radials and loves it for Indian style music.
My X-braced designs do owe something to what I learnt from building radials however. They have roundish lower bouts, which I think is a more efficient shape than Martin’s squarish flat-bottomed shapes. Also I’ve always used tapered bracing, which is tallest in the centre and most flexible at the edges, rather than the more common scalloped bracing. I’ve never quite understood the logic of scalloped braces.
TT – Also, all your instruments I have played are French Polished, do you think this has a bearing on their tone.
AL – Well, I started out building classical guitars and learnt french polishing as the traditional finish for these instruments. I love the look and feel of french polish and it enhances the appearance of wood like nothing else but I am aware of its fragility. I have recently been using lacquer finishes on steel string guitars and have concluded that they can sound as good as an FP guitar. In fact it seems that lacquer imparts a little more discipline to the soundboard, which is great for a larger guitar. I can get the best of both worlds by applying a thin layer of french polish over the lacquer for a nicer feel.
TT – By lacquer, you mean nitro or an oil based?
AL – I’ve been using an acid catalyst lacquer. I was alerted to this by a very well known English classical guitar maker and figured that if he considered it good enough for his guitars it should suit steel string instruments too.
TT – I have noticed all of your instruments are very light and responsive, is this something that you aim for?
AL -I think this is a natural consequence of coming to steel string guitar making from a foundation in classical guitar where lightness and responsiveness are essential. I began making small bodied steel strings that were 0 and 00 size and these designs translated easily from classical guitar, but when I began building larger instruments I built a little on the light side to start with and I had to move towards a little more stiffness in the tops to keep them under control.
Coming at it from this direction I was able to find the point at which the stiffness was just enough for the guitar to work without having unnecessary weight. Responsiveness is everything in a guitar: the player has to be able to feel the guitar responding to every nuance that he/she puts into it so that there’s no obstacle to the flow of the music.
TT – By building them light and responsive do you think they are more prone to damping by the body?
AL – I am careful to retain stiffness in the top and bracing, and the focus of the sound can certainly be lost if the top is allowed to become too flexible. I’ve recently been experimenting with drilling holes in the main braces to reduce weight without compromising their integrity. I came to guitar building from an architectural background and I see braced tops as being akin to floors supported by beams.
If you look at the technology of structural beams most of the work is done by the top and bottom of the beam which handle respectively compression and tension. The bit in the middle is there to hold these together and in steel beams you find the ‘I’ beam construction often has holes in the vertical flange.
I was inspired to try this when talking to Kevin Ryan recently: he’s doing something similar, cutting holes by laser in his braces. This is my low-tech take on that.
TT – Adrian how do you think an ibeam tonebars can affect the sound?
AL -Do you mean making the braces as I beams? Well, I think in theory they would work, but you wouldn’t have the option of shaping them once they’re glued to the soundboard so there’s really no scope for adjusting them.
Or did you mean my braces with holes drilled in them? These reduce the weight of the soundboard/bracing without reducing the stiffness and so there is a bit more power and a faster attack to the notes.
TT – Both really…. do you think that power and attack cannot sometimes co-exist with a large overtone content?
AL – Oh, certainly. I’m not against a large overtone content, but there comes a point, as the top becomes more flexible, when the focus of treble is lost and strong wolf notes appear if there’s not enough stiffness – you might call it boominess. I’m aiming for that fine balance point where there is a richness to the overtones but there is a crisp focused edge to the sound.
TT – I know a lot of luthiers who scallop to aim for a certain tap tone or chladni pattern…
AL -Well, I think you can do this with tapered bracing too by removing wood judiciously.
TT – And how about your view about the various back and sides woods? I remember a few spectacular cherry and walnut guitars from you…
AL -I’ve been exploring some temperate woods for back and sides. As well as the walnut and cherry you mention I’ve used steamed pear and yew. Apart from the steamed pear I’ve been sourcing these pretty locally from the English midlands so they have a pretty low carbon footprint. These woods are somewhat less dense than rosewoods and have densities more akin to mahogany.
With this sort of density you tend to get a warm lively sound that has an intimate aspect to it. Yew is an amazing wood that I’ve just started working with recently. It’s technically a softwood in that the tree is evergreen but it’s hard and springy and so far the guitars I’ve built with it have a very lively bouncy sound. These woods that are local to where I live were used extensively for tonewoods in the renaissance for lutes and the like before tropical woods became available.
I am also a fan of the rosewoods of course. They give rise to a more extrovert bold guitar. I’m keen to find substitutes for Brazilian because of it’s rarity, high price and problems with certification and the recognition of this. I’ve found Madagascar and Amazon rosewoods to be particularly good tonewise and they can both be very beautiful. I’m keen to try Osage Orange which is often referred to as having characteristics very similar to Brazilian rosewood.
Another of my favorite tonewoods which deserves a mention is Tasmanian blackwood. I’ve made several guitars with this for back and sides and it has an almost rosewoody quality despite being somewhat less dense. In a blind test with three of my guitars of identical design, one Tas blackwood and two Indian rosewood, in which a friend played the guitars, the blackwood one sounded darker and more ‘rosewoody’ than the two rosewoods.
TT – And how about top woods?
AL – Well, the usual suspects. Sitka is a great wood for steel strings and is hard to beat. I like European spruce for its body but I find Sitka has a bit more zing. Redwood is interesting in that it has some of the qualities of cedar – a light fast attack – but with some of the body of spruce.
My latest foray has been to use some 80-year old Douglas fir that came from the rails of panel doors. I’ve been using this material for bracing and felt I had to try it for tops as it is nicely quartered and has a fine close grain. It works very well and makes a lively guitar.
TT – Thanks Adrian, how about a quick rundown of your the models & wait times??
AL -The main steel string models I’m making at the moment are the Pavilion and the Arbour. The Pavilion is a small jumbo with a 400mm lower bout width and a fairly compact upper bout. The Arbour is exactly the same shape but smaller with a lower bout width of 380mm and a shallower body, equating roughly to the size of a Martin OM.
I also do a similar sized guitar called the Rufus which is like the Arbour but has a lower waist. I designed this for someone who wanted a 12 fret guitar and the lower waist pushes the neck a bit further out when it’s played on the knee.
The latest Pavilion I’ve made with a wedge body like Linda Manzer’s design and I was pleased with that. Not only does it have the ergonomic advantage of slimming down the bass side of the body, but it also tilts the soundboard/fretboard slightly upwards which means the player can better see what he/she is doing and possibly gets a little more sound
I also make a baritone version of the Pavilion using the same body shape. As the neck still joins the body at the 14th fret this puts the bridge into the widest part of the lower bout and its relationship to the body is a bit like that on a 12 fret guitar.
I don’t know if you’re interested in my classical models but I make two – one a traditional shape which is based on the plantilla of Santos Hernandez and so I call it the Santos model, and the other a radial shape where the lower bout is circular with the bridge at its centre. The bracing on both models is the same and is a combination of fan and radial.
At the moment the wait time is around four to five months..
AJ Lucas Guitars http://www.lucasguitars.co.uk/
Adrian also maintains a fantastic myspace page: www.myspace.com/ajlucasluthier .
©2008 Terence Tan.
Pictures courtesy of Adrian Lucas ©2007-8.
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