Charles Sanzone | 2009 | Luthier Interview
CS – Yes, I went to the RV school in the fall of 1995. It was a great experience and was quite a different place back then. The curriculum at the time focused more on creativity and the individual maker, which is exactly what I had hoped for. Our steel strung flat tops were braced with an elegant modified Bouchet design (a five fan design with a flying “moustache” brace developed by the late John Roberts.) Wood rosettes, wood bindings, beautiful old-stock Honduras mahogany – these are great guitars. Also can’t say enough nice things about William Eaton, John Reuter, and Robert Mazzulla, who were the instructors at the time.
TT – Most folks would balk at the idea of using a fan bracing for steel strings…
CS – Fan bracing is an odd choice for the steel string guitar, especially when the braces were made from Cuban mahogany! In hindsight, bracing my very first guitar in this unorthodox way instilled the belief in me that there is no golden formula for achieving great tone. After all, “great tone” is a subjective term that can mean different things to different players.
To me, meeting the sonic (and aesthetic) expectations of the individual is what being an independent luthier is all about. As a matter of interest, these days I use a relatively traditional modified X pattern on steel-strung flat tops, a modified Hauser pattern on nylon strings, and either tone bars or an X-brace on arch top instruments.
TT – I count 2 distinct types of instruments there: steel/nylon/arch…. is your building split evenly between these?
CS – My most popular model is the Carmella (15 3/8″ or 39 cm lower bout) guitar, split evenly between flat top and arch top construction. I also make an electric hollowbody version of this shape, which people seem to enjoy. Otherwise, my current build list includes an F-5 mandolin and an H-5 mandola (matched pair in crazy birdseye maple), an archtop bouzouki of macassar ebony, a brazilian rosewood Carmella archtop guitar, an African blackwood Hauser plantilla nylon string, a crazy Carmella electric hollowbody w/ camignon (rare striped ebony) back/sides, a very sculptural electric solidbody influenced by mosrite, and two flat top Carmella steel string guitars, one with Brazilian rosewood and one with black walnut. Lots of irons on the fire, but it keeps things interesting!
TT – How is the Carmella constructed differently to say a flattop?
CS – The archtop has a 3″ side depth, while the flat top has a tapered side depth from 3 3/4″ to 4 1/2″ (compares well to an OM in tone quality and feel.) Occasionally I’ll make an archtop with a flat back, which allows for more bass response while still retaining the focus and quick response of a carved-top instrument.
TT – What’s your take on the various tonewoods for your intruments?
CS – I like European spruce for tops – for the overtone content, full bass response, and quick break-in time. I also enjoy the sound of Adirondack spruce for it’s power and clarity, although many people are not willing to wait for it’s tone to emerge. On flat top guitars, true rosewoods (genus dalbergia – specifically Brazilian rosewood and African blackwood) and true mahoganies (genus swietenia – Cuban and Honduran) are my preferences for the back/sides.
On arch top guitars and mandolins, it’s almost always European Maple (acer pseudoplatanus) but I do like birdseye maple (acer saccharum.) I was fortunate to have built over 200 bodies at Tippin in the late 1990s, which was the ultimate education on how different tonewoods respond. I’m proud of these guitars for their proven tone and reliability and thankful to Bill Tippin for the experience.
TT – How was it like working with Bill?
CS – Bill is a good friend and a talented luthier. As a maker, you need to do the same tasks repeatedly to get your chops down, just like playing music. Working for Tippin and the Music Emporium exposed me to the world of building and repairing the modern flat top X-braced steel string guitar – experience you can’t put a price on.
TT – So would you advise aspiring luthiers to get experience through doing repairs or through a lutherie school?
CS – That’s a good question. The major benefit of the Lutherie school route is the potential job placement and resume experience. Otherwise, I don’t see any reason why an intelligent person with decent hand skills wouldn’t be able to learn by assembling any of the various kits available. But the bottom line is that getting in with a good repair shop of builder is the best way to establish a reputation in this business.
TT – Do you have any thing interesting coming up you would like to share with us?
CS – Just finished a very nice guitar, a carmella fan-fret archtop model of old stock cello wood and trimmed w/ Brazilian rosewood. It sports a new invention of mine – the removable magnetic soundport (USPTO Patent pending) It is an elliptical panel with hidden magnets which affords the player the option to remove the port when desired.
Reasoning as follows: with side port, sound directs forward for performing; side port removed, sound projects up towards players’ ear. It came out really slick and is very 007 if I do say so myself. People have been really receptive to it. Other than that I’m about two months away from a Brazilian rosewood 00 fan-fret and an archtop bouzouki being done.
TT – Now you’ve done it Charles…..I have to ask: what is the low down on sound ports?
CS – The soundport is here to stay but it may not benefit every guitar. In the case of my last archtop, removing the port results in greater volume and a more balanced tone to the player. Since the archtop guitar is designed to project forward, redirecting the tone to the players’ ear makes a lot of sense. On the other hand, when I play my ’31 Gibson having a soundport is the furthest thing from my mind.
TT – And how about the fan-frets?
CS – I like the 25.5″/24.75″ fan pattern. The 3/4″ difference is so easy to get used to that some people don’t even notice it and the longer bass note is useful in open tunings. More importantly, this version of the fan fret concept doesn’t skew the bridge excessively, which allows for a more traditional approach to bracing the top. And of course it looks cool.
TT – How does any potential skew affect the bracing, Charles?
CS – Picture a normal x-brace – both the bass and treble wings of the bridge cross the x at the same point, about 2 inches away from the junction. The force of the string pull is distributed evenly to each side of the x-brace. In the attached photo of a recent red spruce/brazilian rosewood fan fret top of mine, note how the bridge plate is slightly angled down to the right, reflecting the apprx. 1/2″ skew of the bridge.
On close examination, you may also notice that the x-brace is also skewed – clockwise by about 5 degrees. These minor changes are made to provide the bridge with ample support from the braces below. As the fan increases, these changes must be accentuated to support the angle of the bridge above, effectively disturbing the balance of how the strings pull on the x-brace. Considering how delicate the balance of tone and longevity is on a high-end guitar, I feel a substantial change in design could be detrimental to the sound production and structural integrity of the instrument. This is why I prefer the “mild” fan pattern
TT – If you had to give just one piece of advice to an aspiring luthier, what would that be?
CS – Stay humble and never stop learning.
Links: Charles Sanzone. http://www.sanzoneguitarandmandolin.com/
©2008 Terence Tan.
Pictures courtesy of Charles Sanzone ©2009
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