John Kinnaird| 2009 | Luthier Interview
TT – John, thanks for taking the for this interview. I understand you came into lutherie through an informal apprenticeship?
JK – My brother and I both visited a shop of a local builder in Atlanta back in the 70’s. His name was Jay Rhyne and he was building some amazing guitars right there in a shop about the size of a small house. In fact, it was a small house that had become surrounded by commercial concerns.
We were so impressed that guitars could be built, out of factory, that were clearly better than the factory built guitars that we both decided to do it. Since that time, we both have been building, Steve in Texas, and myself in Georgia and then North Carolina. My “apprenticeship” was indeed informal. I had some mentors. I did spend some time with Jay who let me watch, and more importantly with a builder of classical guitars in Atlanta named Wade Lowe. They were both inspirational.
I got the book written by Overholtzer and memorized that, then D.R. Young, then others, all the while building those early instruments that let me know which of those influences I could incorporate and which not. Over the years I have payed attention to the details of other builders, learned from my mistakes and successes, and pretty much have arrived at my own style of construction.
TT – So you arrived at your style of building- could you let us in some of your build philosophies?
JK – Of course there are three conners in guitar construction: aesthetics, playability, and sound. The first is a matter of taste and occasionally whim. I frequently build to suit the taste of the customer, occasionally get to indulge my own taste, and infrequently go off on a tangent to satisfy some wild urge that needs expressing.
That’s all pretty pedestrian stuff that mainly needs only good craftsman like exectuion to keep standards high. Playability is the most mechanical of the trio and with diligence can be controlled nicely. Making a great sounding instrument is my main focus. There are several guiding principles that relate to making a good sound. I find that bracing patterns, as long as they incorporate acceptable engineering, matter little.
A builder can accomplish the same thing with Martin style bracing scheme, a double X bracing scheme, some kind of bracing pattern based on Richard Schneider’s schemes, or some blend of all of those. It matters little. What is important is central stiffness, low mass, flexable edges and sufficient strength to keep that taught ensemble of wire and wood together. At the present I have begun using a double X system. I think that style has good strength sharing brace lines.
In the past its use has been criticised because the guitars it was used in were over braced. If the braces on the double X are thinned properly it is easy to get the good central stiffness I am looking for (essential for the crisp articulate notes that I want) and the lightness that helps produce volume. In this bracing system, the edges of the lower bout of the top are thinned and the ends of the two x braces are thinned so that the entire perimeter of the top of the guitar is flexable and able to vibrate sympathetically to the bass notes.
So the bass notes of my guitars are not muddy. They are strong and have a snappy crispness that defines each note. Other than that, I think it is very important that the neck be as stiff as possible so that it absorbs little of the string’s energy in useless vibrations. I do use carbon fiber reinforcement in the neck and I also use a truss rod as a kind of concession to buyers that want some control over neck relief.
I do make a model of a guitar that has no truss rod, but has extra carbon fiber reinforcement. This neck is very stiff. I make this variant now for only a few clients who request it but used to make it regularly. Necks so reinforced have never needed adjustment (thankfully) and have been attached to very loud guitars. (I think that is not an accidental correlation) All the necks of my guitars bolt on. Even the fingerboard extension bolts down to the top. There is no sacrifice in sound with this system, and if the neck ever needs adjusting, and they all eventually do, it is very easily done.
TT – And how about tonewoods?
JK – I am willing to experiment with tonewoods. I find that some bodies with back and sides made of really punky stuff, sycamore for example, sound great. I am frequently surprised by the way guitars do not conform to conventional wisdom. I realize that there is a lot of tonewood mythology in the guitar community but I think that most of it is just that, a myth, born of a consumers desire to have some control in the outcome of the final product. In my estimation there are two classifications of back and side tonewoods.
I call them rosewood like and not rosewood like. In the former category I would lump all of the rosewoods, zircote, padouk, pink ivory, etc. etc. In the non-rosewoods I lump everything else. I would bet a months pay that in a blind test an experienced listener could not distinguish between the various woods within one of the groups. Top wood is a little different.
Each builder probably has certain topwoods that they like working with better than others. My brother really likes to work with Sitka. He can get some amazing sound out of a sitka top. I prefer to work with woods that are a little less dense. For really small guitars I think it is hard to beat Cedar tops. They are sensitive, and crisp and loud, responding well to fingerstyle. For flatpicking I like Lutz or Red Spruce of some brand of European Spruce.
TT – I’ve seen you use koa as a neckwood…
JK – I have also used walnut, padouk, curly ash, curly oak, goncolo alves, indian rosewood, maple, and of course mahogany. Basically that is an aesthetic decision. I want the neck wood to match what is going on in the body. Almost all my koa guitars have a koa neck, and one or two of my Brazilian rw guitars with koa trim also had a koa neck.
I want the neck to look like a logical extension of the decorating theme not an add on component. I have never had any problems with stability. That may be partly due to all the carbon fiber laminated into the neck, breaking up internal tensions in the harder woods that could potentially cause problems. I have had necks that I thought were too heavy. I don’t think I will make many more Indian rw or goncolo alves necks.
TT – How does the heavy neck affect the tone John?
JK – One of the prevailing guitar myths is that a lighter guitar will sound better than a heavy guitar. What I have noticed is that it is more about the weight distribution than the total weight of a guitar. Heavy necks actually enhance the sound of guitars. Some classical builders experimented with adding weight to the headstock of their guitar in an effor to coax more sound out of the instrument.
It worked, but the cost in playability was too great for serious preformers to tolerate. But, in general, anything you can do to direct the string energy toward the body of the guitar and away from the nut end of the neck will pay acoustic dividends, and than includes a heavy stiff neck. If you can make a neck that is both light and stiff then so much the better. That is why many builders now include carbon fiber laminates in their neck.. I suppose a solid carbon fiber neck would be great and I would not hesitate to try one on my guitars if I had a way to work with that material.
TT – How about double tops what’s your take on that?
JK – All the double tops I have seen look incredable. They have a smoothness and evenness of surface that makes the reflections from their finish perfectly undistorted. That said, I have not heard a double top that sounded as good as the best traditionally braced guitars, and I have played some excellent examples from some really fine makers. They remind me somewhat of graphite topped guitars. Surprisingly good, but not great. Luthiers have traditionally shunned a multiply top for tonal reaons. I am not convinced that making that middle ply of nomex rather than wood is an improvement, whatever the strength to weight advantages are thereby realized.
TT – Let’s move on your own models: what styles do you offer and could you just talk us through them?
JK – I offer 8 styles. At the larger end I offer a standard dreadnaught guitar and a 12 fret dreadnaught both of which are designed to appeal to the flatpickers in my area who really are not into boutique guitars. They just want a cannon that looks like it belongs in a bluegrass setting. In addition to those two, I also make three other traditional models, including an OM, a 000, and a 00, all in the “standard” size and shape.
Guitars shapes that have more of my own style influence include a slope shouldered Jumbo, that is similar but not identical to the old Gibson J-45, an “mini-jumbo” shape that has a large lower bout but a pinched waist and is rather curvy, a shape that I call the “west Coast” guitar that was influenced by the boutique instruments from that area, and my own 00 shape which was designed to look the way I thought the old Gibson L-00 should have looked. All these models are pictured on my website. My favorite guitars at the moment are the 12 fret dread and the Gibsonesque 00.
TT – Thanks John, are there any interesting projects you would like to share with us?
JK – At present I have become interested in open backed banjos and violins or I should say fiddles since these are being made in the same shop as a banjo. I have become fascinated by the rythms of clawhammar banjo music and have been taking lessons from a local musician. I have made three banjos for my personal use and may decide to make some for sale.
I seriously doubt that I will ever play the fiddle and am making them more for the dicipline of the exercise. There is an extraordinary amount of precise carving in fiddle making and I find that to be a pleasurable activity.
I have finally whittled down my guitar wait list to a managable size, (one of the benefits of retirement) and now can justify spending the time making guitars to my own specs. I am enjoying that. My next spec guitar will be a copy of a small old Martin with a Stauffer peghead. After that a vihuela with ribbed back and sides and a conical heel.
TT – Actually speaking of Banjos, would you mind giving us a bit of info on the different types of banjo- I understand there are the open and closed back as well as tenor, 5 string, 6 string……
JK – And fretless banjos and gourd banjos and wooden topped banjos, in fact, a whole host of minor banjos that a person could miss seeing and hearing though they spent their entire life in the company of string musicians.
The closed back banjos are the most strident, immediate, and loud of all the banjos. The resonator back reflects the sound from the top back out to the abused listening public’s ears. It is the loudest of the banjos and the favorite with bluegrass pickers. It can easily compete in volume with the fiddle. It is played with metallic picks on the fingers and usually a plastic pick on the thumb.
The basic playing pattern is a kind of roll that proceeds from the thumb on the 5th (and highest string) to the index and middle fingers playing the melody strings and a complementary note. All this is usually done very fast. I actually really enjoy that style of playing. A blue grass band without a banjo is missing an important piece. The open backed banjo is softer sounding.
Some examples actually have nylon strings, but most are strung with metal strings. There are several playing styles, most of which evolved long before the bluegrass roll. The style that I am most familiar with is called clawhammer or sometimes frailing. (there is actually a little difference between clawhammer and frailing but I don’t know what it is) Clawhammer is a very syncopated beat using the index finger and the thumb pretty much exclusively. The thumb usually plays the high fifth string (drone) but occasionally drops down and hits some melodic strings as well.
I personally am really hooked on the sound of an open back banjo played in this style. It sounds great with the fiddle and is the preferred style when playing “old time” music. Its interesting that the open back banjo, an instrument with African origins, is now used in the US along with the fiddle to play so many tunes of Celtic origins, but it is a great and natural combination and to me sounds better than say the fiddle and an accordian or the fiddle and some of the other more traditional Celtic instruments.
TT – Say I remember that banjo with the Craig Lavin inlay… how was it working with Craig?
JK – Working with Craig is great! He is a true artist, not just an inlay technician, and can take an idea and create something special that goes above and beyond the original concept. I have never been disappointed with Craig’s work, and am frequently amazed.
TT – Sorry John, I forgot to ask you about finishes, because I know you’ve tried a few?
JK – I have personally used nitro lacquer and two water based lacquers. I like the nitro reasonably well, though it does have a nasty habit of crazing if not applied thin enough, and it takes for ever to really cure. The water born lacquers always seemed to have a bluish cast when viewed in sunlight which I found unacceptable. I now farm my finish work out to a pro.
Tony Ferguson does all my body finish work, (I still do the necks in nitro) and he uses a catalyzed urethane. His finishes are perfect. I will readily admit that he does better finish work than I do and he is set up to handle the toxicity of the process, which I am not. He can lay the thickness of the top down at 4 mils, thin enough to not inhibit the sound of the top. What is interesting to me is that the catalyzed urethane will shrink over a period of a few weeks after I recieve the guitar, revealing the reeding in the top wood which I think is a really desirable trait. I have never admired mirror perfect tops. Back and sides can be mirror perfect, and Tony gets them that way, but the top should show the reeding stripes of the grain lines.
TT – And reeding an indication of a thin finish?
JK – Yes. It is hard to keep the reeding from occurring naturaly in a conifer top because there is such a difference between the hardness of summer and spring wood that sanding even with blocked sandpaper will not make the top perfectly flat. There will be peaks and valleys like a plowed field that will telegraph through a thin finish. I like to accentuate that look by scraping the top as a the final finish prep. Scraping compresses the softer spring wood and cuts the harder summer wood and when you are done there are slight troughs at the harder grain lines. (I picked that up from a violing maker whose work I admire)
TT – Wow- are there any other violin making techniques you use?
JK – That is about it. Unless you consider shading of the guitar neck as coming from the fiddle making community. Most of my necks are shaded darker near the heel and near the peghead and are lighter near the center of the shaft. That is one reason I do my own neck finishing. I like to match tints and hue to complement the body if in fact the neck is of a different wood.
TT – Great stuff. Thanks for speaking to us again. Before we end if I could ask you one last question: If you had advise an aspiring luthier to invest in something for his building, what would that be?
JK – You can do it with a good plane, a few sharp chisels and a scraper. Maybe a bandsaw. And cam clamps, you need lots of those.
Links: John Kinnaird.. http://www.kinnairdguitars.com/Home.html
©2008 Terence Tan.
Pictures courtesy of John Kinnaird ©2009
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