Grant Batson. Batson Guitars. | 2009 | Luthier Interview
TT – Could you let us in on how you teamed up with your Brother to build guitars?
GB – In the mid 90’s, Cory and I both worked for a custom millwork company in Nashville making furniture and cabinets. We often stayed after hours to work on our pet projects, as there was an almost unlimited supply of scrap wood material that the employees were allowed to use for themselves. I had recently sold my ’67 Mustang to buy a hand-made Lowden guitar and Cory had just had his guitar stolen.
Cory had some serious envy of my new guitar and had no money to buy a decent guitar. He’s a pretty sharp guy, so standing in the midst of dozens of power tools and large piles of wood, it didn’t take him long to figure out that he should just make his own. He bought a book and got started. I was fascinated and would get involved from time to time and sometimes just hang around working on my own projects just so I could monitor his progress. Through the years, I continued to get more and more involved on the design end of things, from the logos, headstock and bridge shapes, etc.
TT – So Cory and yourself are predominantly self taught?
GB – In terms of not having an actual live person/mentor who instructs and assists throughout the process, yes. But I would say that we have had many teachers. Since we didn’t invent the guitar, I would have to say that we learned a great deal from a great many sources. Cory started off by reading a book called “Guitarmaking: Tradition and Technology”. It was his bible throughout theyears and is still sitting out on a workbench in our shop as a reference. Cory is also an insatiable researcher. He has spent countless hours reading about what other builders have done and how. To this day, he continues to learn of new theories and philosophies and then test them out. He generally ends up coming up with many of his own.
TT – I understand a lot of your designs are unique- could you take us through a few of them?
GB – We are basically doing four things to our guitars that not generally found in traditional acoustic guitar design. But, our bracing is really only thing about our guitars that is completely unique to us. The other things we are doing have been done before and some for centuries. When we began to “re-think” our design and construction, we had, essentially, one goal in mind: Allow the soundboard to do its job better.
Cory started his musical journey on a set of drums and still categorizes himself, musically, as a drummer. He began to think of the guitar box as a drum and the soundboard as the “skin” or membrane. He thought that if we cut a hole in the center of his snare drum and then glued a heavy weight to the surface, the tone would not be very friendly to the ear. So, originally, the idea was that we could get rid of the things that hindered the tone from emanating off of the soundboard. So, getting back to your original question, we have cantilevered the fretboard, transferred the string tension to the “box” by incorporating a tailpiece, moved the soundhole to the “box” to regain that prime real estate on the top, and we created a lighter, more flexible, yet strong, bracing system.
TT – What’s the philosophy behind the bracing system? Can you let us in on some specifics?
GB – Pretty simple, really. We wanted something that that would be strong and yet flexible, too. We started thinking about bridge design and then remembered an old car-port our father built in Texas when we were young. With high winds that would often rip through the flat country-side, and desiring a large spanned opening, he took some 4″ steel pipe and welded a 3/4″ sucker rod to the ends.
He bowed it open and welded spacers intermitently throughout the length. It spanned 30′ and, as kids, we would get up on that tin roof (when dad wasn’t around, of course) and jump on it like a trampoline. That thing still stands. We started out using the same concept. It’s evolved a little since the first prototypes, but essentially the concept is the same. We wanted it lighter and more flexible, but with great strength.
TT – And as a result do you guys prefer certain tonewoods to enhance this design?
GB – Ervin Somoygi once noted (to paraphrase) that the perfect guitar would be constructed in a way that it would be on the verge of falling apart. This idea stays with us when we build with each selected tonewood. With our latest design we were hoping to allow the tonewoods to more freely pronounce their own voices. This would be in contrast to a guitar whose structural make-up was so over-stated that it’s contribution to the sound could be heard throughout a guitar line up.
To accomplish this, we want our “box” (back & sides) to be as rigid as possible, and our “top” to move as much as possible. The goal is to get the absolute best out of each set of tonewoods, no matter which ones are chosen. Having said that, we, of course, have our preferences, but those are essentially based upon the tastes of our own ears. I will say, though, that Oregon Myrtle, Cocobolo, East Indian Rosewood and Ziricote have all been universally popular with those who have played or purchased them.
TT – I notice that you have a unique truss bracing system- I was wondering if that was confined to the top or does it go on the back too? This of course leads to the question: how much can the back contribute to the tone? Some folks believe it can be a secondary soundboard and use another topwood for the back….
GB – Theories are as numerous as political or religious views and most of them, in like fashion, have good credence and a group who can shoot holes in them. Our bracing has been one of our favorite things to play with. We have tried lots of construction techniques, designs and materials. The back certainly contributes to the tone. With our bracing experimentation, we have noticed small differences and large differences, and some have been with respect to tone, while others have affected sustain and volume.
We have also used the truss bracing on the back, but more recently have been making them solid. To keep in line with our drum analogy, the stiffer, stronger and denser the “box” or “drum”, the more “reflection” of the soundwaves will be in the “tone membrane” (the guitar top). We have noticed a significant difference in volume, as well as sustain, by making the box more rigid and the top more flexible.
So, now we’re simply playing with different variations of top bracing, which are dependent upon the choice of top wood. Simply put, we believe the top needs to move and the “box” needs to stay. We’ve never tried a “top wood” on a back, yet, but that might certainly be interesting.
TT – How does the soundport fit into your drum philosophy?
GB – Like any drum, the box needs an “air portal”. Without this, the box is a vacuum, and thus, no movement of the top transpires. Like on a drum, we’ve place the hole in a place other than the “tone membrane”.
TT – and does it increase the feedback to the player or are the effects more complex than that?
GB – There are definite sound waves escaping the hole and the player is given a front row seat for them. Its a nice playing experience. Feedback, in terms of the “Larsen effect” are actually diminished with this design, when in an amplified setting. In fact, that is one of the things that many travelling guitarists love about our guitars. The “true tone” is emanating from the board in the direction of the audience, which is what we wanted, but the sounds that the player is getting right in the face are, while perhaps a complex variety of overtones, very pleasing and a nice change from having to stick your head over the guitar to hear what’s going on.
TT – So your guitars are primarily aimed at jobbing fingerstyle players?
GB – Not at all. The point is that this new design is bringing out the best in the guitar, no matter what style you play and for whom. I brought up the gigging fingerstyle player as an example, as the demands they place on a guitar are often higher than others.
TT – How would you say the tone differs from a solid back to a truss back bracing?
GB – I would describe it as more “open”. Its funny how adjectives mean different things to people when trying to describe a sound. I guess by “open,” I mean more pronounced… like the tone has been in a zip-lock bag and you finally took it out.
TT – Are there any interesting projects you would like to share with us?
GB – There is always something new with Cory around. He gets bored easily, so we have to give the monkey a new toy. That’s probably the reason we acquiesce to virtually every request of our clients.
We are soon rolling out a few new models, which include the Batson Classico ( a nylon stringed, classical guitar, with our own twist), the Batson Crossover (a combination between the Classico and the Steel-String Batson guitar) and the SJ (a very traditional acoustic – soundhole in the middle and all that jazz).
Under the radar are some personal projects of Cory’s. He’s begun building a weissenborn for himself, and also will soon be building a very special electric guitar for one of our best clients, who won’t stop begging. On my plate is a personal guitar that has a new hybrid bracing style. Should be interesting. I’ll be finishing it up this week.
TT – hanks guys for speaking to us. Before I let you go, I was wondering if you had any advice for folks looking towards their first custom ordered guitar?
GB – A guitar purchase, particularly, a custom build, is such a personal and sometimes even emotional thing. I am often asked by friends and family to help find a guitar to fit their teenager or a beginner. I usually go with them to a couple of guitar shops and begin by picking up bunch of guitars with varying body sizes and neck widths and shapes. In a short period we can narrow down to what feels good to them.
From there, its all about what they hear and see, and if they like it or not. This is, of course, rudimentary, but this is where I always start. With so many wonderful builders and so many great woods and other options, a custom order can be overwhelming. From parlours to jumbos, narrow to wide nut widths, 6 to 12 or even 7 strings, “fanned frets,” Koa to Tasmanian Tiger Myrtle… you name it.
There is always something for everyone. My main bit of advice would be to really do your homework and determine who you are as a player, what types of guitars fit you and what things you really enjoy and feel comfortable to your individual style and body make-up. From there, one needs to know what tones are most pleasing to their ear and last, but not least, what catches their eye… what do they find beautiful in a guitar…
That’s where we start. If you take a look at our options list, it can be overwhelming, but we walk through the entire process with each of our clients to partner with them in what will turn out to be their ultimate dream guitar. It’s been a pleasure, Terrance. Thanks for taking an interest in what we’re doing. Feel free to drop us a line anytime. Cheers!
©2009 Terence Tan.
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