Terry Whipple. Whipple Creek Guitars. | 2009 | Luthier Interview
TT – Thanks for taking the time to speak to us, Terry. I was wondering if you would share with us how you got started in lutherie?
TW – To make a long story short, I’ve always had my hands on wood since I was a kid. Like everyone else, when you start playing you begin to attempt your own setups and repairs as well as adventurous friends’ instruments. This was about 30 years ago.
About 15 years ago I lost fingertips on two fingers of my left hand. It took a while to find a guitar that was actually made left handed. When I did, I wasn’t happy with it and thought, I can do better than this. I met Chris Rothrock who was very generous with his time and knowledge in building. Turns out I had a little bit of a gift. It wasn’t until I met Robert Bowlin that my luthier career and skills really took off, but that’s a story in itself.
TT – I know you’re known for building bluegrass dreads, but I gather your other model is a 000?
TW – While I have built several different body styles, I like OOOs for their size, which is very comfortable, the scale length and the tonal difference than dreads. My OOOs are a little deeper at the tail, giving it a little more bass and a fuller sound. I also have a new model I made for and designed with a lot of input by Robert. It’s shape is like a Small Jumbo, but in between a OOO and Small Jumbo in dimensions. Small JumbOOO anyone?
What I like about the size is it works with any scale length and will take either a 14 fret neck or a 12 fret neck without that stretched out look. I spent a lot of time mathmatically designing it. I call it the Maybelle after a song on Robert’s CD, and seemed appropriate. I’ll try anything once and some things twice.
TT – Maybe this might be a good time to ask about your build philosophies?
TW – I build with the awareness of the inherent quality and property of the wood, meaning no matter what species is used, my goal is a stiffness/responsiveness balance for my sound. That’s what makes the world go ’round in the world of building. Every builder has their own idea of that ratio, so there is a wonderful variety of great instruments out there.
Probably 75% of my building is that focus, another 20% is how it feels in your hands, and the rest is appearance and finish. I don’t want to make wall hangings, but I’m not a slob either. I want my guitars to get out of the house. I am always refining and experimenting. I am never satified. I’m never bored either.
TT – To achieve the tone you are looking for which woods do you favor?
TW – Without starting a firestorm here, and there’s enough of that over at UMGF, my personal preference is Adirondack for the top and all bracing. I just like the stiffness and the way it deflects in my hands. Absolutely nothing wrong with other spruces and I’ve used them, it’s just Adi has been good to me.
I like real German spruce and I have a good supplier for that, but I have a hard time convincing people it’s a great tonewood, which it is. I like rosewoods for back and sides, even though I just had two orders for mahogany dreads. So to me, actually, it’s not so much the wood as it is how I shape my braces, their placement, thickness of top and back, etc. lots of variables. I will say regardless of the wood, my guitars all project well and are balanced top to bottom.
TT – So for Rosewoods, is your preference for Brazilian or the denser Dalbergias?
TW – I don’t have a particular preference. Like any species of wood it can vary a good deal from piece to piece. I’ve had Brazilian in my hands that was not as good as Indian or Honduran when tapped, but then I’ve had that mystical Brazilian in my hands that’s worth every dime and then some. I feel like I do alright with any of the rosewoods and there are so many I’ll never get the luxury of building with simply because of time. It’s all good.
TW – Like everything I do, it’s an ongoing learning process. I went from a waterbase that turned blue that was junk, to nitro and now my preferred finish is KTM 9 on the body and headplate with a rubbed oil based finish on the neck.
As an option I also do a french polish on the top. I know of more than one person sent to the emergency room for respiratory issues using nitro even with a respirator and it can do nasty things with your nervous system over time. I’ve rolled the dice long enough and I want to able to keep breathing my good ol’ country air.
TT – How does KTM stand up to French Polish over time? I thought that French is easier to touch up, but more delicate…
TW – KTM is durable and buffs out glossy. French polish is pretty delicate and you can hardly breath on it without leaving a mark, but tonally it appears better. It’s ok for the top, but I think a little fragile for an all surface finish, though people do use it that way. Definitely not for your Pete Townsend clients.
I know it may seem a little overkill to have three finishes, but it’s not that complicated. I’m perfectly happy with just the oiled neck and sprayed body and see no reason to change. The french polish is just an option for the top and something a classical builder I know does and suggested.
TW – It gives the neck a natural feel and is smoother when your hand slides up and down the neck. Ask any of the electric guitar players. It’s oil-urethane, and is wiped on in several coats penetrating instead of just laying on the surface like a clear finish.
TT – There’s a definite move towards hot hide glue for many vintage luthiers… have you been using it too?
TW – Absolutely. I first used it on repairs for older instruments and after gaining confidence I now use it on all the bracing, the bridge and the neck/body assembly. That’s where I feel it’s most beneficial. I have done guitars with it elsewhere, but the places I feel benefited most are the ones mentioned.
I had a good talk with Randy Lucas about this subject and it confirmed to me what I have been doing. If the old timers had access to the modern glues we now have, I’m sure they would do the same, and maybe a few would have thrown the glue pots out the window. I credit Robert Bowlin for influencing me to use it. He’s right, as usual.
TT – Looks like Robert’s been a source of encouragement and inspiration…
TW – It would take another interview to do Robert justice. He has frequently brought over many vintage guitars to compare and repair. This has allowed me to not only develop an ear to the true vintage sound, but obtain meticulous measurements.
His ability to define and describe subtle differences in tone and touch between several instruments at a time is astounding. I recently had the privelage of being in Robert’s presence while he rated 36, count em’, 36 pre-war Martins at a collectors home whose name and place I swore not to devulge. There was also an attempt to trick him switching guitars. Didn’t happen, couldn’t happen.
To say it was a life changing event is an understatement. I pay strict attention when he makes suggestions to improve tone or playability. For instance I didn’t pay too much attention before to the fretwork past the 14TH. I mean, how many people can and do play above there routinely without a cutaway. Robert would say “You’ve got a little buzz up here on the E at 17th fret” and I would just look at him. I pay attention to those areas and as a result my setups are getting better. Lots of little things like that. Robert has been around and knows a lot of people, always played vintage (still does) and I feel honored he wanted me to build him his first new guitar. It won’t be the last I’m sure.
TT – Do you think it’s wise for anyone looking to take up lutherie to look at and repair vintage guitars?
TW – To look at, play and get an ear for vintage sound for sure, but you should have a good long background in wood properties, glues, clamping, finishes and repair before even attempting anything vintage. When people are first starting out and ask me that question I always advise them to find cheap, broken guitars and take them apart. Completely.
I bought stuff on ebay at one time, repaired it and put it back for sale and sometimes you can find nice older guitars that can be resurrected and need the use of hide glue. Really good repair guys are few and you can make a decent living just doing that, especially during a recession.
I still repair, but I can cherry pick the ones I want now and I’m not above referring it to someone else if I’m not comfortable with it. Restoration is an art. Frank Ford at frets.com is a great site for repair. It’s saved my butt more than once.
TT – Thanks for that Terry. Before we go, I was wondering if you had any advice for folks thinking of taking up lutherie?
TW – Don’t be afraid to screw up. You learn a lot by mistakes, especially the costly ones. That’s why I strongly suggest taking stuff apart and putting it back together before building, to gain confidence and skill.
Like my buddy Chris used to say ” If you mess up, don’t worry about it, we’ll fix it.” Indeed. I purchased a guitar plan over thirty years ago right after high school and I still have it, laminated and hanging in my shop to remind me of the time lost before I finally got around to doing what’s in my heart and soul. Don’t make that mistake. Get after it.
©2009 Terence Tan.
Pictures courtesy of Terry Whipple ©2009
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