Buck Curran. Curran Guitars. | 2009 | Luthier Interview
TT – Hi Buck, thanks for taking the time out from your busy schedule to speak to us. I was wondering if I might ask how you got into lutherie?
BC – When I was a young boy growing up in Hazel Park, Michigan, my father bought a classical guitar and had a private tutor come to our house. The guitar became an endless fascination and inspiration from that point forward. Prior to that I was mostly drawn to singing, and would do it all the time…singing along with records by Fleetwood Mac, The Beach Boys, and The Beatles.
My parents had a great record collection that really fueled my musical interest. I especially loved one particular record of Bach pieces performed by John Williams. I remember listening to that record over and over, reveling in the music being magically conjured with one guitar. It was so incredibly beautiful to my young ears. Eventually my father gave up trying to learn how to play and the guitar went under his bed for a while, but I always knew it was there and eventually he let me use it.
Even back then I could spend a long time just plucking notes and letting them ring out. When I got my first tape player I would spend a lot of time recording these sounds and analyzing the quality and sustain of the notes. My other great passion was drawing, something I started at a very young age. By the time I turned 13 we were now living in Ohio, and I was drawing very technical, blueprint style designs of spaceships that I would dream up. When I turned 15 and started taking guitar lessons, I met a few boys my age who also played guitar. Soon everything began to revolve around these new friends and music, and I stopped drawing spaceships and started drawing and designing guitars. While I was attending high school the guitar really became my primary focus and after graduation I joined the U.S. Navy to get money to go the Guitar Institute of Technology in California.
However, during the last year of my service I decided that I didn’t need a special school to teach me how to be a creative guitarist, and figured the best place to expand my knowledge about the guitar was in the real world, so I stayed in Virginia Beach and pursued my musical career in that area. Only a few months out of the service I landed a job at a well know Instrument shop and Folklore center in Norfolk, Virginia called Ramblin’ Conrads. The same store where I had recently bought my first nice acoustic guitar, a new Martin HD-28.
It was at Ramblin’ Conrads that I got a hands on education about all forms of folk music…including songs of the British Isles and old-timey banjo music from the Appalachian mountains, all of which made a deep impact on me. Aside from being an instrument shop, Ramblin’ Conrads was also a venue which hosted weekly performances by touring musicians such as Ed Gerhard, The Battlefield Band, and Martin Simpson. Eventually, I went on to manage Ramblin’ Conrads and run sound for many of the shows. The real turning point for me was in 1991 when we got a store promo copy of Martin Simpson’s record ‘Leaves of Life’, which quickly became my favorite record.
That same year Martin Simpson came to play at Conrads and he brought with him a brand new guitar made by English luthier Stefan Sobell; seeing that first Sobell really floored me. After the show, I got an intimate look at the guitar…who’s voice Martin described as a “Choir of Angels”. The guitar also had a really unique body shape that I thought was incredibly beautiful.
After seeing that guitar, I put my HD-28 up for sale and after it sold, I sent a deposit to Sobell. I’d say that was a pivotal time in my life; working at Ramblin’ Conrads, meeting Martin Simpson, and being around so many great guitars. From that point forward, I thought seriously about building an acoustic guitar, and spent a lot of time educating myself. I did build an electric guitar while I was at Conrad’s, but it wasn’t until a year after I moved to Maine (December 2000) that I started to build my own acoustic guitar. At one point I even went to Pantheon guitars and talked with Dana Bourgeois and bought some brace wood from him. In the summer of 2002 I went to work for Bourgeois at Pantheon guitars, and soon after I started to really focus on making my Butterfly design become a reality!
TT – And how your time at Dana’s place?
BC – Being at Dana’s shop for over 7 years was a very positive experience and it allowed me the opportunity to improve my guitar making skills by working with craftsmen like Cary Clements, and John Slobod. I came to Dana’s shop with a very specific idea of what a guitar’s voice should be (which is quite different from Dana or John Slobod) and that has not altered since those early experiences with the Sobell guitar, and the sound of a Custard & Kistler guitar I first heard on ‘Leaves of Life’. I actually have the original cedar top from that very same guitar. It was damaged from mishandling at an airport, and Ithaca, NY based luthier Eric Aceto who helped build the guitar, replaced the top and gave me the original plate.
The most important experience I gained in Dana’s shop was being around some of the world’s best tone woods: Red Spruce, European, Sitka, and Carpathian Spruces, Brazilian, Madagascar, and Indian Rosewoods, South American and African Mahoganies…as well as many other exotic hardwoods. Of all the top woods I’ve worked with, Red Spruce has become my favorite. It adds clarity, power, and tonal complexity…making for truly unique and elegant sounding guitars.
TT – so Red for tops- how about back and sides?
BC – To achieve the sound I’m after the back must be thin, the wood must have good density and a nice reflective quality. Over the years I’ve heard people say that they like mahogany for it’s drier tone, but I think that comes more from the mahogany (or any species of wood for that matter) being light in weight. I’ve heard a great many mahogany back and side sets that had great density and a glassy or metallic tap tone, yet the finished guitar ended up sounding closer to a rosewood instrument. In the past I even chose a set of very responsive but light weight set of Brazilian Rosewood for an OM. The finished guitar was loud and dry, and though a nice sounding guitar, it was definitely not my preferred sound. Some of my favorite sets of back and sides have been well quartered Indian Rosewood with distinctive blood red to fiery orange streaks running along the grain. This Indian Rosewood, having just the right density and perfect reflective (reverby) tap tone, sounds very similar to the best Madagascar Rosewood.
In this regard I’d say my goal is to build more of a ‘Classical style’ steel string guitar whereas someone like John Slobod or Dana Bourgeois are trying to make ‘Flamenco style’ guitars…that is to say guitars that are light in weight, with quick response, and strong fundamental tones. The way a bluegrass guitar player needs it to sound…like a machine gun. I’m more interested in a guitar with a strong fundamental, but equal to that it must have great sustain, and gorgeous overtones. Michi Matsuda wrote a great article for Acoustic Guitar magazine a few years ago, in which he spoke of the differences between the Western and the Eastern aesthetics in music. The articles main point describes how in the East, overtones and microtones are just as important as the fundamental tones. I appreciate both, but tend to prefer the Eastern mindset.
TT – So you’re generally aiming for a more complex tone and harmonic structure? Is that reflected in your music?
BC – Absolutely! My goal is to build guitars for myself…instruments that can respond to all of my demands as a player and artist. Quite a bit of the music I compose is a response to complex tonal voices that arise through improvisation. Overtones and dissonant notes that harmonize or clash with each other propel my imagination and continually inspire!
TT – What inspiration do you take from Sobell and Bourgeois?
BC – I’m very much inspired by the lines, curves, and unique shapes of Sobell’s guitars as well as the complexity of tone. Regarding Dana’s guitars I love the attention to detail and catalyzed finish. I’ve had all my guitars finished at Pantheon guitars because I’m incredibly satisfied with the look and durability, and the way the finish affects the sound. The hardness of the finish definitely adds to the overall clarity in the voice of the guitar. All these things really help inspire my work!
TT – Ah, with regards to Finish, how you find the varnish finishes?
BC – Varnish finishes take a lot more time to harden so it takes longer to get the results I’m after. We have finished some guitars at Pantheon with Varnish, though they came out far too yellow in color for my tastes. I also don’t perceive an improvement in the sound between varnished guitars and my guitars which have catalyzed polyurethane finishes. My friend Laurent Brondel has great success with his varnish finishes and he gets a very elegant and organic look with it on his guitars. As for myself, at this point in my life, I don’t have much of an interest in it.
TT – We heard about your aesthetic and tonal influences- maybe you could give us an insight into the structural concepts behind your guitars?
BC – There has always been a lot of theories about bracing, but my interest in bracing is ‘Secondary’. The function of bracing should be one of strength yet flexibility, and the back braces and back plate thickness is very important to the way the guitar moves air…in turn having a great influence on whether a guitar has a tight or loose sound. So, to my mind the ‘First’ important ingredient and vitality to the voice of a guitar is the quality of the plates (top and back). I think everybody is in agreement that well quartered tops are ‘Key’ to a superior steel string.
For myself, voicing the guitar is about getting that top thickness to be just right…not too thick and no too thin. Past feeling/flexing the top for strength, this is where having a good musical ear comes in handy. When I tap an unbraced plate I can hear the musicality of it, the sustain and the shade of it’s voice…it’s darkness or brightness, and in turn I make the decision on whether or not this is a top that suits the kind of guitar I’m after.
Another thing to think about is that the side structure (or rim) is an important bracing structure itself. I believe that making a strong rim is important to the sound and longevity of the instrument (though I think it is important to make sure the rim is not too heavy). My experience comes from believing in the importance of history and ‘really’ listening to what other guitar makers have learned and from playing a great many world-class guitars over the last 20 years…and of course the invaluable experience of helping build thousands of incredible guitars at Pantheon. In the end however I feel that life is short and anything goes and people should have fun and experiment.
One of my favorite guitar voices on record is the Custard & Kistler guitar I mentioned earlier. The guitar, made by Dan Hoffman (with assistance from Eric Aceto) has an 18″ wide cedar top with experimental radial bracing. Martin Simpson used this guitar beautifully on his instrumental recording ‘Leaves of Life’. On those recordings, Martin skillfully controls the dynamics of that guitar, yet really lets the guitar sing out and you can hear it’s rich and complex voice. Another interesting and beautiful sounding guitar (that I wrote about for the July 2005 issue of Acoustic Guitar Magazine) is a guitar built by Ken duBourg which became Michael Hedges’ first hand-built guitar. Ken’s idea was to build a steel string acoustic that had the look and bracing of a classical, yet the size and power of a dreadnought.
TT – So am I right in saying that you believe in maximizing the individual characteristics of individual woods?
BC – Definitely…interpreting and choosing the wood, and making decisions on what to do with it based on what kind of guitar I am visualizing! Of course the humbling fact is that wood can always surprise.
BC – I’ve found that each species of spruce tends to yield similar tonal qualities, but my experience is that the tonal qualities of hard woods used for the back and sides, are not necessarily the same within the same species. Again it depends on the density and tapping voice of the chosen set of wood. I’ve heard many sets of very dense mahogany that sound more like rosewood in the finished guitars (great clarity, and lots of that ‘reverby’ character to it). My way of looking at tone woods for back and sides is that they are sound reflectors and greatly influence the tonal shade of the guitar.
To my ears Spruces within their own families (Red Spruce, Sitka, European) are more predictable. I’ve never heard Red Spruce that sounds like Sitka, but Red Spruce from many different regions seem to have the same character. Again, having worked with Dana Bourgeois for over 7 years, I’ve heard thousands of sets of Red Spruce and I think it’s a truly amazing wood and prefer it for my own instruments. In the end however, there are too many variables with wood and sound, and just when you think you’ve got something pegged…you can be surprised.
TT – In your experience is there much of difference between the best Indian and best Brazilian?
BC – I feel Indian Rosewood and Brazilian are Apples and Oranges. I’ve tapped hundreds of Brazilian sets and played a great many Brazilian guitars over the past 20 years and I can’t say that Brazilian is superior to the best Indian. Though it is hard to get away from the fact that there are some really gorgeous looking sets of Brazilian!
However, I have definitely played a few Brazilian guitars over the years that sounded truly amazing! Though, in the case of those guitars, I don’t think it was the backs alone that made the difference, but everything that was used which resulted in their elegant and enigmatic qualities. I feel the sets of Indian Rosewood that I’ve used in my guitars (the kind with the blood red streaks) are just as unique and amazing sounding as the best Brazilian.
For my preferences the absolute best sounding Brazilian sets were always well quartered, straight grained, with good weight, and great tap tone. I’ve been less impressed with Brazilian ‘Stump’ wood, though it sure can look stunning!
TT – Here’s a question I’ve also been pondering- figured vs. non figured mahogany? I expect you handled a bunch of either right? Any truly discernable consistent tonal difference?
BC – There are so many variances in the Mahogany I’ve seen over the years, but it’s all pretty amazing tone wood. Again, the tonal differences I see comes down to the density and weight of the back and side set. If it’s a dense set, regardless of whether it’s straight grained or figured, it always seems to approach the qualities of rosewood. The lighter weight mahoganies, whether straight or figured tends to give you that drier traditional ‘Mahogany’ sound.
TT – Recently, there’s been some talk about how bridges and scale lengths can alter the tone of a guitar….
BC – Scale length alters tone, but string tension and string size are definitely key factors also. I spend a lot of time playing guitar on a 25.5 scale length guitar, but I have the strings tuned down to CGCGCD and it more closely approximates the sound of a short scale guitar in standard tuning. When you have strings tuned to standard and a longer scale length, the tone sounds more strident (to my ears) and there is more of dominant ‘fundamental’ voice to the guitar. To my mind this is not a bad thing, but just ‘Is’ and can be very useful to attain a certain musical aesthetic.
With shorter scale instruments there is more overtone content surrounding the fundamental, but less ability to cut through the mix if playing as part of an ensemble…definitely not ideal if you are playing Bluegrass for example. In my opinion shorter scale guitars are great for solo fingerstyle guitar playing and amazing for accompaniment if you are a singer.
Obviously over the years, Eric Schoenberg and Dana Bourgeois have made a case for long scale OM’s and how they are perfect for fingerstyle guitar playing, but I think that is a very particular aesthetic. What’s most important is how the guitar feels to You and how attracted you are to it’s particular voice. No one should ever get caught up in the mindset that they should ‘only’ play a certain guitar because someone else says they should.
I think bridges are more of a mystery, though I have owned and made guitars with a lot of different bridge shapes and it almost always seems that the smaller the bridge (or the less mass you have) the better the bass response. These things however are subtle and may not really communicate themselves to a large degree in the sound of a guitar. Waist sizes on guitar shapes are a huge factor in the sound, and are a very overlooked part of the guitar. All my guitars have pinched waists; an important feature that I learned from Sobell’s guitars.
With the tighter waist you have more mid-range response and the guitar starts to move towards that Dobro sound. I am really attracted to this sound! In the end though it is the Player that is the biggest factor in tone. Touch and attack can vary greatly, and putting three different people on the same guitar will yield very different results.
BC – I have personally never used an Ivory bridge for one of my guitars, but I’ve had experience with a few that were made at Pantheon Guitars and by a couple of other makers. Ivory definitely works as an alternate material for bridges and it’s sharp looking, but I have not been able to discern whether or not it really makes for tonal improvement. I will say I’ve certainly never heard a bad sounding guitar with an Ivory bridge.
TT – Thanks, Buck- are there any new exciting projects you would like to share with us?
BC – I’m slowly starting the first of a batch of guitars…it’s a Butterfly in Red Spruce and more of that ‘Red’ Indian Rosewood. I’m going to alter the bracing just slightly for this one, so it will be nice to see if I perceive a difference.
Over the next two years I plan on building four ‘Very Special’ guitars to my own specs that I’ll offer for sale. I have also been planning for a couple of years now to build a guitar similar to Michael Hedges’ DuBourg guitar. That guitar has fan bracing like a Torres guitar. I’m not sure when I’ll tackle it however, as I’m in no hurry (and maybe I’ll be lucky enough to visit the actual guitar in California in the next year or two). I like to ‘Realize’ guitars in my head for a long time before I make them become a reality. The cool thing about that guitar is that I got a rough tracing off the original from the gentleman who is taking care of Michael’s estate. Unfortunately the tracing in the upper bout ended up being really choppy and broken, so I couldn’t perfectly reproduce the lines of the original. It was incredibly difficult to communicate with him through email, so I ended up having to draw my own lines in certain areas. It looks a little different but will be close enough for my purposes. I’m not interested in making exact copies anyway. Each instrument must be it’s own unique entity.
I’ve also curated and produced ‘We are all one, In the Sun’: A tribute to Robbie Basho; a compilation that includes artists Steffen Basho Junghans, Glenn Jones, Meg Baird, Helena Espvall, Fern Knight, Arborea, Rahim Alhaj, and Cian Nugent. I also spend a large portion of my time playing music with my wife Shanti as the duo Arborea. Our third CD ‘House of Sticks’ was released this year and we did a session for the BBC in London this past May.
I have to say that performing and recording has brought invaluable knowledge to understanding the guitar, and greatly informs how I approach my own instruments! Thanks so very much for inviting me to talk about guitar making!
Pictures courtesy of Buck Curran unless stated ©2009
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