Kevin Muiderman | 2009 | Luthier Interview
TT – Thanks for taking the time to speak to us, Kevin. I know your work from the double top guitars- would you mind letting us in on how you became a luthier and how you began to focus on double tops?
KM – Thanks, Terence. It is always fun to talk about guitars. Growing up, I loved building things from wood (furniture, sculpture, (nun-chucks)) and loved playing acoustic guitar. As a teenager, I moved to Holland Michigan where Del Langejans still makes guitars. I admired his instruments, and wished to understand why the guitars he made by hand sounded so much better than the factory made instruments of the same shape and same woods. After watching Del make guitars, I felt that guitar making might be the perfect blend of my two loves–woodworking and guitar music.
But soon schooling and work took me away from thoughts of guitar making. Fast forward 15 years later, busy with work and family but never having lost the dream of luthiery, I decided to go to Leeds Guitar Makers School in Northampton, MA to learn to make steel string and classical guitars. That was 13 years ago, and I’ve been pretty much building every day since. After making my first guitar, however, I had a moment of disillusionment that led me to the exploration of alternative building techniques.
I realized that I could easily work all my life but never come up with a guitar that would hold a candle to all of the great guitars being made in the world by all of the amazing traditional builders. So I looked the world over to see if anybody was doing anything different and if they were having success.
Those explorations led me to the use of composite materials. Especially in the classical world, it seemed as though folks like Smallman and Humphrey were making extraordinary instruments using stuff like graphite and Kevlar. I thought I’d dive in and give some of those materials a try and see if I could make my guitars sound better.
TT – So Kevin, how much more work goes into producing a double top vs. traditionally braced top?
KM – In my hands, a double top is about 10 times more work than a traditional top. All of the layers have to be built seperately and dimensioned to the thousandth of an inch. The regions where the top will meet the sides bridge and fingerboard all have to be reinforced in tedious and time consuming ways. And once the layers are assembled the top has to be thicknessed without sanding through the outer skins, which I still do every now and again–after which I whip the ruined top against the wall where it makes a satisfying crunch. It takes many days of work.
TT – What would you say the advantages of your system is over traditional designs?
KM – I guess there are three main advantages that make it worth my while to make double top and composite lattice braced guitars. The first is consistency. By measuring the dimensions and deflections of each component to the thousandth of an inch and the 10th of a gram, I can pretty much make, say, 10 guitars of the same materials sound just the same. By corollary, I’ve also learned how to alter tonal ranges which allows me to customize per the request of a given player. I could never quite get that level of control with traditional tops and carved bracing. I know there are those builders who can. But I could not.
Second, the ultra light tops have massive dynamic range. With a top and bracing system 50% lighter than with traditional construction, the energy of a stroked string has less mass to move. The result is more movement of the top and thus more volume for a given energy. A player then has more musical range and can produce the desired sound with greater ease. Again, I am not able to reproduce this sort of volume with traditional construction methods.
The third advantage for me is consistency along and across the fingerboard. If a composite top is built correctly, the player finds that all ranges are equally represented from the first to the 6th string and from the first fret to the 20th. When I build with traditional designs I find I have to some degree sacrifice one range for the another.
TT – And with the double tops, are you obliged to use the same material or have you done some experimenting?
KM – I have done lots of experimenting, and experimentation is on going. The designs I am using today are different than they were 5 years ago, and I suspect they will be different 5 years from now.
TT – So have you tried something like a spruce/cedar combination?
KM – Yes, I’ve done a few spruce/cedar combos. It seems to me that there is a subtle coloration of sound when various woods are used. As you might imagine, the sound is somewhere between a typical warm cedar sound and a typical bright spruce sound. Overall, however, type of top wood seems to matter less with a double top than with a solid wood top as might be expected as the skins on a double top really make up only a fraction of the top’s structure
TT – Which are your preferred top woods?
KM – I have no real preference, actually. The guitars I make are all, these days, built for a particular player with particular tonal requests. Therefore the top wood is usually determined by the needs of the player. In the end I’ve not used a wood or wood combination that simply didn’t sound good. Double tops are mercifully versitile.
TT – What’s your take on back and sides woods? Do they play a greater role in colouring in sound in double topped guitars?
KM – Back and side woods seem to have slightly less influence in my double tops than they do in my standard topped guitars. That is, there is certainly subtle coloration of the sound, but it seems the structure of the ultra dynamic tops largely determines the tonal qualities of the double top guitar. That said, for a given player, I still use all the tools I have to push the tone toward the one best befitting that player including using wood like Brazilian to try to get the most sparkle in the overtones for a particular fingerstylist or woods like mahogany for, say, a more traditional flatpicker.
TT – Are there any other unusual aspects of your builds you would like to let us in on? Like the “wave”?
KM – Ah yes. The Wave. The great thing about these tops is that they can be molded during their lamination to any shape. So when I was making the guitar for the great Martin Simpson, he requested a little more comfort where his right arm crossed the body of the guitar.
To keep the same tonal qualities, I knew I had to keep exactly the same internal volume of the body of the guitar, so I wanted to avoid the Ryan sort of solution which slightly decreases the surface of the top and the internal volume of the guitar. Cumpiano and Manzer had both tipped the top of guitars to make the guitar essentially wedge shaped. In fact Manzer copyrighted the term “Wedge” I believe.
So to increase player comfort for the right arm, I increased the height of the down side of the body while decreasing the height of the side of the body where the arm rests. Eventually, taking advantage of the aforementioned flexibility of the top, I ended up contouring the lower bout end of the guitar only while leaving the rest the same. The result is a very comfortable, very cool but unconventional contour. Thus the “Wave.”
KM – I am building them similarly, actually. Except that all of the structural elements in the classical are lighter to accommodate the lighter tensions of nylon strings. My building with composite materials actually started by studying and working to reproduce Smallman’s classical guitar work.
I then took what I learned from his composite lattice principles and transposed them to steel string construction. I continued experimenting (the tests for the first year and a half didn’t sound so good), adapted the bracing pattern, and finally added the double top. I am finally now taking what I learned from developing the double top, composite, wood/graphite, lattice braced steel string and transposing it back to classical construction with satisfying results.
TT – So do you use a Spanish heel for both classical and acoustics?
KM – Actually I usually use a Spanish heel for classical and a standard block with dove tail for steel string. No particular reason or preference except that I try not to change too many things in a design so that my variables don’t get out of control. I tend to change just one thing at a time, and I’ve not yet gotten around to testing different shaped or differently weighted blocks or even different materials.
Having said that, I just finished putting together a classical with a dovetail neck joint. I was impatient to get the guitar started, and my neck wood order was delayed. So I went ahead and assembled the body and built the neck once the wood arrived. Seems fine to me.
KM – Speaking with the vast experience of 1 classical made with a dovetail, I don’t hear any acoustic difference, and structurally the dovetail is certainly sound. And my classical prototypes all have bolt on necks for easy disassembly, and they sound just like the final spanish heel product as well. My sense is that the spanish heel is part of the tradition of classical guitar making but isn’t necessary for making a good one. But again, I’ve not yet taken the time to test it.
TT – Any interesting projects coming up you’d like to share with us?
KM – I am working on lots of new things right now including a double top mandolin and a little “O” guitar. I’m also in the prototype stages of a “crossover” guitar. The crossover is a request from a fingerstyle player for a heavy strung, slightly larger body nylon string guitar.
She wants a bolder nylon string sound with more punch and sustain than a traditional classical. The light weight, versatile double top seems to me a logical place to begin. It will likely have a fairly long scale, perhaps 655 or 660 to increase the string tension, and will likely be built around composite strings. I’m mighty interested to see where it will land.
TT – Would you have any words of advice for aspiring luthiers?
KM – Take the time to build dis-assemble-able prototypes, and by changing one variable at a time, figure out for yourself what really makes a difference in the sound and structure of a guitar. It will lead you in surprising and exciting directions
TT – Thanks for your time Kevin!
KM – Thank you, Terence. It was great fun!
©2008 Terence Tan.
Pictures courtesy of Kevin Muiderman ©2009
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