Larry Robinson. Inlay Artist Interview.

Larry Robinson | 2009 | Inlay Artist Interview

Larry Robinson Inlays

Larry Robinson is one of the top inlay artists in the world. From Martin limited editions to custom Wingert and Ryan guitars, Larry has been asked to inlay almost everything from angels to art nouveau. His book, The Art of Inlay is a must read for anyone interested in the subject. I caught up with him recently to chat about his experiences and his current project.

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Larry Robinson Nouveau fingerboard inlayTT – Thanks for taking the time to speak to us, Larry. I’ve always wondered how you got started in the inlay business?

LR – I had been building guitars for over three years when I moved to California and started working at the Alembic Guitar Company.  One day in my first week there I accidentally drilled right through two expensive basses while installing pickup height adjustment screws. My boss, Rick Turner, looked at the holes and said, “Just put an inlay over it”.  He showed me the basics, and I’ve been doing inlays ever since.


TT – Speaking of inlaying electrics, I know many folks who won’t inlay the top and backs of acoustics- what’s your take on that?

LR – I  don’t inlay into the tops, mostly because it will negatively affect the tone.  Inlay materials are more dense than spruce or redwood, and have a dampening effect.  Also, spruce and other topwoods are notoriously difficult to rout the inlay cavities cleanly due to the difference between the hard winter grain and the soft summer grain.

I know there are plenty of people who think an inlay anywhere on a guitar is sacrilege, partly due to the perceived aesthetics of the instrument itself and partly in the belief that the tone will be compromised.  Putting aside the fact that I make my living inlaying guitars, I believe that inlays in the fingerboard and peghead are probably not going to change anything in the inherent qualities of the tone.

Inlays in the back and/or sides could alter things somewhat, depending on how much material is actually involved.  Keeping in mind that you can build two identical instruments from the same billets of wood and not be able to make them sound the same, there will always be someone who thinks a particular guitar sounds great and someone else will think it’s terrible, whether it is inlaid or not.  I’ve done many inlay jobs on existing guitars and none of my customers have ever said that it sounds any different afterward.


TT – Which part of the guitar would you recommend a beginner try first? Or maybe a bit of scrap?

LR- My first two inlays went into two expensive instruments.  I’m sure if I saw them now I wouldn’t want anyone to know I did them.  It’s better for a beginner to use a flat piece of dark wood, which tends to hide routing mistakes.  If everything goes as planned, then the piece can be used as a box lid, or a peghead veneer or made into jewelry somehow.  People should realize that it’s all practice, no matter how long they’ve been doing inlay, and it’s never going to be perfect as long as they keep trying to do better work.


Larry Robinson Celtic Knot  fingerboard inlay Larry Robinson Celtic Knot  fingerboard inlay

TT – Well, speaking of practice– I’ve noticed more and more intricate work coming from your workshop, is that relatively speaking, relative to your skills and experience? Also, which subjects are the most challenging? Celtic Knots?

LR – Well, I’m trying to keep it interesting, both for myself and my customers.  I try something new on many of the pieces, especially the large projects.  If I wanted to do the same thing over and over I’d get a CNC machine. The most challenging inlays are sometimes the simplest ones.  With a complex inlay the viewer’s eye is taking in details from many areas at once, but with a simple inlay any flaws are readily apparent. Geometric shapes have to be accurate, as does lettering, which we see in perfect layout many times every day.  If one letter of an inlay is set in a half degree off relative to the rest of them, the viewers’ eyes notice it immediately. This is not to say that the complicated inlays are problem free.  They obviously take longer to execute, but the amount of attention paid to each step of the process is what makes or breaks the finished piece..


TT – So it’s fair to say that the inlay is very much the sum of it’s parts?

LR – The best ones are more than the sum of their parts, just like the best music or architecture or any artistic endeavor.  It also has to do with what the viewer brings to the table.


TT – Larry would you mind bringing us through some of your favourite inlays?

LR – Usually it’s the larger projects that I have been able to exercise more autonomy over, so several of those stick in my mind as having been fun to do and more personally rewarding when they were finished.


Larry Robinson Arabic Calligraphy fingerboard inlay

I think one of the finest inlays I made so far was the fingerboard that was originally intended for the Martin Peacock guitar, their #750,000 (pictured above). I had a design that incorporated lots of Arabic calligraphy, as the guitar, in my mind at least, was supposed to be a tip of the hat to the Middle Eastern origins of the guitar we know today.  In the end all the calligraphy was taken out of the design and other elements were substituted, but I really liked the first fingerboard, so I made it anyway and kept it at my shop.

The design is a fancy latticework of shell with 18k gold Arabic calligraphy overlaid down the length of the board. Reading from right to left, it translates, “Music is a spell which casts its glow across the Universe.”  Hamza el Din, the late Nubian oud master inked the calligraphy I used to cut the gold shapes.  It sold within weeks of completion to a customer who still won’t put it on a guitar because he’s afraid he won’t like the guitar as much as he likes the inlay.


Larry Robinson & SCGC 00 Nouveau Tribute Larry Robinson & SCGC 00 Nouveau Tribute

Another project that I think works well in conjunction with the guitar is my 00 Nouveau tribute (pictured above).  All the elements came together in a pleasing way, there’s plenty of the guitar’s own personality showing through, and it’s an incredible sounding instrument.


Larry Robinson Martin 1,000,000 guitar
Larry Robinson Martin 1,000,000 guitar Larry Robinson Martin 1,000,000 guitar

Martin’s millionth guitar is also on my list of favorites, partially from a logistics point of view.  In a span of two years I managed to finish the most heavily decorated icon they had ever asked me for, and still kept my other customers happy.  I also got to develop several techniques that had been on my mind for some time, like the sculpted soundhole screen and jewels that were above the surface of the finish.


Larry Robinson China Guitar Larry Robinson China Guitar

The China guitar, which is really a midi controller, since it has no magnetic pickups, just a synth pickup, was the first guitar I really treated as a canvas for inlay artwork with a unified theme.  It was also the first project I decided to bring another artist into, Lampo Leong, who painted the brush and ink landscape on the flamed maple top.


Larry Robinson Lindisfarne project

Currently there are two guitars in progress which will likely be favorites of mine.  Chris Martin commissioned me to make a Psychedelia themed inlay for the January NAMM show.  This particular art style really allowed me some freedom to design something that I hope captures the spirit of that time. The other guitar is a lot more formal in aspect.

Kevin Ryan is building me a holly back and sides guitar which is going to be inlaid with a full sized page from the Lindisfarne Gospels on the back, and other elements from the same illuminated manuscript on the fingerboard, rosette and peghead.  There’s no finish date for that one yet, but progress reports can be found on my website.

Resources: 1. Martin 1,000,000 Project: here.
2. SCGC Nouveau guitar Project here.
3. China guitar Project here.
4. Lindisfarne Ryan Project here.

TT – How about letting us in on the Lindisfarne project? That looks like it’s going to a great inlay!

LR – Well, most of the information about it is already on the blog on my website, so feel free to cut and paste any of that information, but I will say that it’s the most challenging inlay I’ve taken on to date.  It’s extraordinarily amazing imagery that was originally produced 1400 years ago under harsh conditions and without much in the way of tools to make it easier to do.  What made Eadfrith the monk able to produce such a monumental artwork?  Desire and time.  My reasons for reproducing one of his manuscript pages have as much to do with my admiration for Eadfrith as for the beauty of his artwork.

Larry Robinson Anniversay fingerboard inlay

Larry Robinson

©Terence Tan.
Pictures courtesy of Larry Robinson ©.

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