Balazs Prohaszka. Prohaszka Guitars. | 2009 | Luthier Interview
TT – Thanks for taking the time to speak to us. I was wondering how your start in the Hungarian school of lutherie prepared you for working in Bernd Etzler’s and the Lowden workshop? .
BP – I spent two years in the lutherie school. The education included: basic knowledge of history and structure of stringed musical instruments (guitar- , violin- and lute-family), graphic design and drawing, knowledge of acoustic physics (specified to musical instruments, other acoustic spaces and amplification), building and repair methods of musical instuments.
The training started with the process of mastering how to use all the woodworking tools, and it was only the next step to work with actual instruments. We spent most of the week in the workshop working with all sorts of musical instruments and confronting a very wide range of problems solvable with sophisticated repair methods. We treated separately the repair and the restoration.
Once a week we had our theory and drawing lessons. I will be always grateful to my master for his hardheadedness in the proper use of tools. We developed respect for craftsmanship, for the wood, for the sound. And we were always forced to achieve the highest quality in our work. Those were not easy years though… I stayed in my master’s workshop for a year after finishing the school working mostly with violin type of instruments.
Then I went to work to a double bass workshop providing the highest grade of restoration on very old double basses from all over Europe. Thanks to my school I haven’t had any problem to accommodate to the new working environment and facing the new challenges double-basses can pose. It was the same case getting to Lowden guitars where the only thing I had to learn was the production situation: to provide a consistently good quality in a given range of time.
Thanks to my well grounded training I had the chance to prove my abilities very quickly. Bow-making is a different matter though: it is meticulously precise what was not a surprise after working with violins but I have never felt I can use any creativity on this field. After all the school provided the tools how to build or repair any stringed musical instrument but it is up to anyone’s creativity and skills where can it develop, what extra can be added, what additional levels can be achieved.
TT – So how was it like working at Lowden?
BP – I got the experience at Lowden’s how to do a job quickly and properly. For example: Before that it took me a couple of hours to carve a neck. Nowadays it takes only half an hour after carving a few hundred of them. The quality even got better, nor I nor Lowden’s craftsmen would not compromise with the quality.
Maybe the most useful knowledge I gained how to maximise the use of basic woodworking machinery, how to make a jig for each job. Every luthier uses machinery then lets do it properly! Lowden later separated to Lowden and Avalon guitars.
I stayed at Avalon where I was able to use my creativity designing new range of guitars, new models, my inlaying skills to create intricate inlays. I worked in nearly all parts of the workshop and I learnt a lot from my excellent colleges who are all experts on their own field.
TT – Are there any highlights from your work at Avalon you might like to share with us?
BP – In 2005 I was responsible for the re-design a range of Zemaitis’s guitars for Kanda-Shokai in Japan produced by Avalon guitars. I was able to use only a few poor quality photos and develop intricate inlay techniques, delicate silver-work building the prototypes. In 2008 I designed an expensive range of guitars for another brand (Craftine guitars) built by Avalon again.
I also was designing many features on several Avalon models: different bevel models, rosettes (celtic rosette, the “green” rosette), even an inlayed oak leaf, all the custom inlays. I work in many areas of the workshop (it is rather a workshop than a factory): neckcarving, neckjoint, bracing, binding, finishing, all the inlay work, etc.
TT – How does all that inlay affect the sound?
BP – The answer: Inlays, unless they are used extensively in the top, do not have any significant effect on the sound. On the top the traditional inlay area is around the soundhole (rosette) what has its structural reinforcement rule in that weakened area but if we use inlays on the other parts of the top we might disrupt the even resonating surface and make the top to withstand less to the string tension.
Any other part on the guitar can be inlayed without any real effect on the sound although on the back and sides it would have structural issues again. We always have to consider that wood is not a stable material: it moves, shrinks… Therefore using any other material with different charasteristics can be risky. I even do not prefer inlays on the fingerboard as that part of the guitar definitely will require repair in the future and it can awkward with inlays. But it is all up to the customers… Inlays can lift the aesthetics of the guitar, make it more personal, unique, distinctive.
BP – I think we can achieve a satisfactory result using different types of wood. I do not agree with some stereotypes: like the cedar sound is “darker” than spruce, Brazilian rosewood always sounds fantastic, maple guitars sound bright. It is not only the wood what determines the sound: it is the composition of woods used, the construction, bracing, etc. I have my secret favourite for tops I would not like to reveal.
Otherwise I like the good old european spruce combined with Mexican woods: cocobolo or ziricote. These are really amazing woods: their grain structure, hardness, oil contents: always sound nice. But it depends on the requirements: musicians have their own choices. My other favourite is Latin-american mahogany ( honduran, cuban…) for back and sides: very rich, powerful sound with fantastic bass… Even the neck material has a big effect on the tone and sometimes mahogany is not the best choice… But sound is always very subjective. I try achieve the best result whatever timber I use.
TT – Would you like to describe to us how you think the various neck materials alter the tone?
BP – The neck material can improve the sustain and compensate some of the typical sound characteristics of certain tonewoods. I do not like maple as a neck material especially for maple guitars, I prefer mahogany for archtops, the sound is richer. It works to eliminate the “spongyness” of the maple. For softer woods I like to use hardwood necks. Walnut can produce surprising dark tones but it has to be properly reinforced for a steel-string.
I think fantastic sounding guitars with very quick response, long sustain, good balance could be built using harder coniferous species (some pine, larch) but it is difficult to find a market for such experiments so I stay on the beaten track at least in this matter.
Although you can find classical guitars built using spruce necks: try them! Mostly cheap guitars but they sound good. It is a very obscure thing to describe a sound: it is absolutely subjective and everyone judges it differently. Therefore I would not like to go there…
TT – Well I know of a couple of guys who use Port Orford Cedar for necks….
BP – I did not encounter that particular timber. It should work very well. I used cedar neck on classical guitar because of its weight and for fuller sound… I will check it out.
TT – I notice that your guitars are very individual- am I right in saying that you have few “standard” models- like how Martin has the d28 line?
BP – Well I tried to stick to a few standard models but somehow it does not want to happen. Luckily my customers always ask for new things, even shapes or it is me who is too adventorous. And whenever I start to make a “standard” guitar using one of my old shapes the final result is usually something absolutely new. What is the point to make the same all the time after all? The guitars are personalised, customised this way. Maybe my only standard model would be the more traditional archtop what I used to call LA model, as I had to make quite a few of them. But I gave up naming my shapes or styles as I have so many models now and more to come. Maybe in the future…
TT – So do you hand bend your sides and work as inspiration takes you?
BP – Yes, I hand bend my sides but I do not build my instruments freely. I prepare molds for all my shapes. Most of my guitars are completely designed before I start to build them. I am only struggling with the intended simple ones. I always try to find a way to put something interesting on them and often ideas come during the working process. And yes, work can be inspiring. I am not afraid to try new approaches even if it means a lot of extra work. In some cases I have a picture what I want to achieve but a few final details will be finalised when I sit with the actual piece of wood in my hand.
BP – Sometimes I change some details during the building process, I can do some changes on the bracing even if I feel it looks better than on the drawing.
It happened that I designed a new headstock instead of using an old design because it would suit better the guitar. On the “mickey mouse” guitar I could not resist to make the headstock “three dimensional” with the tuners sitting slightly tilted.
Occasionally I encounter some problems how to inlay something and it can lead to some changes in the inlay and then in other aspects too. (for example it happened with guitar with the celtic dog as I had to find a solution how to make the soundhole binding running around the inlay too…)
But small details can be changed if I find a nice piece of wood with the proper figure and colour and use it rather than what I originally imagined. (this is how the guitar with faces got a ziricote fingerboard, etc).
It was a real challenge to work out how to realise the soundhole on the guitar with that strange celtic style soundhole running into the fingerboard and the solutions came during the building. (I also designed a similar one for Avalon guitars)
Bindings can add to the appeareance of the guitar and it was a sudden idea to use different bindings on the back and the top on one my guitars… And the list could go on.
TT – What would you say the single luthier can offer the player that the bigger factories can’t- considering even Taylor have opened a custom shop?
BP – Bigger factories do not have a real flexibilty to adapt to individual needs regarding sound, playability, looks. It is possible to produce good quality guitars in a factory environment but I haven’t ever seen checking tap tones of braces picking the best bracing material… An individual luthier have a greater quality control, freedom, flexibilty. I believe a guitar will reflect the attitude used to build it and will be grateful if we approach it with care and attention.
TT – Thanks for speaking to us, I was wondering if there was anything you would like to add before we go?
BP – Well, I do not like to talk much about guitarmaking, I prefer to make them. I hope I could enlighten the my approach on this field and that I could bring some alternative views in this topic which is regarded highly traditionally what is far from me. “the only tradition in guitarmaking is inventiveness…”- but this is not my thought. Thank you for the opportunity.
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