Gerald Sheppard. Sheppard Guitars. | 2009 | Luthier Interview
Gerald Sheppard is a Luthier who has made a name for himself building exquisite fingerstyle guitars with an emphasis on playability and detailing. His guitars are characterized by an elegant, understated aesthetics and a balanced, ringing tone. We caught up with Gerald recently to speak about his build philosophies.
TT: I was wondering if you might tell us a little about how you took up lutherie?
GS:I grew up playing music in the1950’s, first the harmonica, then the guitar. My father was a handyman and did all of our home maintenance. He taught me to use tools – we even rebuilt auto engines. I have a B.S. degree in Industrial Technology, and I worked much of my career in a professional engineering environment.
The combination of all of these gave me an understanding of mechanics. As a young man, I applied my dad’s do-it-yourself approach to my guitars and did set-ups, repairs and even refinished guitars. In the late 80’s I discovered guitar making via Irving Slone’s books. I started reading everything I could find and joined the Association for Stringed Instrument Artisans (ASIA) and The Guild of American Luthiers (GAL).
I then built a guitar kit from Ed McGlincy (who built Gordon Lightfoot’s guitar) who owned “The Kit Factory.” It turned out very well and I was hooked, so I built a second kit. I then built three guitars from scratch, which sold quickly. That’s when I bought a manufacturing business license. I initially did not understand the high-end guitar business and sold locally, trying to compete with Martin and Gibson. Acoustic Guitar magazine introduced me to the larger world of custom making.
I then attended an ASIA conference and submitted a guitar into the “critique forum” where I got much encouragement from the panel. As a fingerstyle player I was drawn to guitars made for that type of play and started focusing my business toward that client base. With the advice of Luthier John Greven, I placed a small ad in Acoustic Guitar and orders eventually came. It was tough at first. I was dedicated to making great guitars; but I had not developed client recognition and, more importantly, client confidence. That took time; and with all the great competition out there, it took discipline. It still does!!
TT: So you learned lutherie on your own?
GS: Yes, pretty much, with the help of books, and affiliation with the guilds. As you know, the guitar makers tend to share with one another. Truth is, after sixteen years I’m still learning. When I quit learning, I’ll quit making guitars and move on to something else. That’s why I prefer to do custom builds. My clients have great ideas. It’s always a creative venture to work with individuals. That creativity is refreshing and renewing!
TT: Would you mind letting us in on your build philosophies and preferences?
GS: I am a pretty conservative builder with a focus toward fingerstyle players. I have been a rather active guitar player for over forty years — nearly all has been acoustic fingerstyle. I play gigs that are sometimes long and grueling. As a result, I can empathize when a client tells me his/her ergonomic or playing issues. I also have an artistic eye and tend to prefer elegant aesthetics.
I prefer to work directly with clients and involve them in the process from the very beginning. I want to help create a great memory for my client that starts on the first day they call. The building project is part of the journey for them so that they have already had an exciting experience by the time they receive the guitar.
As a fingerstyle guitar builder, I focus on light designs built for light gauge strings (although medium gauge designs are available). I use only the best materials available, and my least expensive guitar is built to the same tonal specs as my most expensive one. I focus on volume, but clarity and balance of tone are key to a fingerstyle player.
Instruments with too much jingle-jangle, or with difficult-to-control dynamics, are a nightmare for a fingerstyle player who is trying to keep the melody above the harmony. Many disciplined players use the dynamic elements of volume change, muting, and even silence to build their songs. They need to be able to do this effortlessly so that the only thing they are thinking about is the emotion of the song – not trying to goose the gas or ride the brakes of an out-of-control instrument.
TT: So what you’re after is an instrument which responds but is easy to control?
GS: Yes, the ability to present a piece with full confidence that the instrument will be true to the way you want to express it is very important. Control is only one aspect of design which helps to optimize a player’s confidence.
Other key attributes are the aforementioned tonal aspects as well as the ability to negotiate the fingerboard. Regarding the fingerboard, some players believe that the lower the action, the better. I believe that action height must be based upon the players average attack and his/her approach to presenting music – especially the dynamic elements of volume change, as I mentioned before.
Designing guitar playability around ergonomic attributes and limitations has become a prominent issue for many of my clients. A person’s physical size, arm and finger lengths, finger girth, and issues with age are often discussed with my clients. These are just another example of the value of a custom approach, as opposed to the one-size-fits-all approach of cookie cutting.
TT: Not to mention a vast choice in tonewoods…
GS: Yes, with regard to tone and control of the instrument, I am somewhat biased toward rosewoods and spruces. The ebonies and Koa usually do a fine job as well, but have different tonal characteristics. I think Engelmann Spruce is under-rated; it works well for fingerstyle play, but my first choice for top wood is usually European Spruce.
TT: Could I ask you to outline the differences you hear when you build with European vs. other spruces?
GS: To keep it simple; generally speaking, European Spruces and Engelmann Spruce respond well to fingerstyle play. They provide a nice tonal balance and are responsive enough to react to most player’s fingers, or finger picks without breaking up when the player bears down for loud passages. You get a nice ability to finesse the soft passages but still get plenty of headroom for the louder passages.
Again, generally speaking, Adirondack and Sitka Spruce are better for people who play rather loudly, usually using picks because they are a little harder to open up but once you get them going they have a lot of headroom.
TT: How about back and sides woods?
GS: In general, I am a rosewood fan. For me, rosewoods offer the best tonal balance and prettiest tone from the get-go, that is, without having to compensate in the building process to get that tone.
I am a big fan of Brazilian Rosewood, but some wonderful rosewood alternatives are Cocobolo, African Blackwood, and Madagascar Rosewood. Ebonies such as Macassar, Asian, and Malaysian Blackwood are a great choice for those for those who like plenty of bass but a quicker decay.
TT: And alternative top woods? Cedar? Redwood?
GS: I mostly build for fingerstyle players which means I usually use Euro-spruce or sometimes Engelmann Spruce. Sometimes, if a player has a strong attack and or uses picks, I’ll suggest Adirondack or Sitka. It the player uses only the pads of his fingers or generally plays softly I recommend Cedar.
I prefer the European Spruces because I’ve found they impart a nice clear tone across the whole spectrum and have enough volume to project well in fingerstyle type play. There is a wealth of information on the internet about top woods and the uses they are best suited for so I’ll stop there.
TT: The internet is also full of stuff about soundports and bevels too….
GS: Yes, I’ve finally started using bevels and soundports myself. I waited for several years and watched the market to be sure they a trend rather than a fad. In that time I played many guitars that had both. Both have value, and both are certainly popular now. It seems to me a lot of “lore” (a nice way of saying bull) is surfacing about them – some even in marketing.
Regarding soundports, it’s a subjective matter, but I prefer a small port on in the lower bout. I can certainly tell that the soundport allows air to flow in and out of the guitar easier when it is played. I can hear an increase in sustain and a touch more volume from the guitar. Again, subjective, but the large soundports give me more “in my face” volume than I want, and if that energy is coming to me, it’s not going to my audience.
Regarding bevels, I think they are a great ergonomic tool. I play out from time to time and the bevels certainly make those two-set-gigs more comfortable. My bevels add almost no weight to the guitar. I’ve heard people say bevels reduce tone quality and sustain, I’ve even seen ads that say one kind of bevel hurts sound less than another. More lore as far as I’m concerned – I’ve never been able to hear a difference that I could attribute to the bevel on anyone’s guitars. Even if there were, for players who lay long gigs, they are a life saver.
TT: Can you give us your thoughts what a client should expect when starting a new relationship with luthier…
GS: First, of course, the luthier should be reputable, capable yet humble, and professional in his/her demeanor.
Secondly, the client should expect the luthier to be an impartial role as a consultant – to be able to impart knowledge to help a client make appropriate decisions. I’ve noticed an alarming trend by a few to depart from what may be best for the client and move to a “selling” posture.
For example, telling people that their design provides a better sound or more sustain when it is either not true or can’t be measured objectively. Another example is selling a client the wood the luthier has on his/her shelf rather than a better choice for the player’s needs. This is sometimes done by developing an artificial reputation of mystique about the wood.
I believe that, for the most part, corporately, as an industry, we must work together to prove ourselves worthy of the esteem this industry seems to hold. We demand very high prices for our product and our clients often place both their trust and money with us without question. We must continually raise the bar above “selling” and provide our clients with the best, unbiased, and unexaggerated points of view possible.
As a custom maker, it’s as important to empathize with a guitarist’s needs, whether it be from and ergonomic point of view or from a tone, or playability point of view; and then recommend the best approach to solve those problems as he/she knows it. If I were a player looking for find a luthier, I’d be looking for someone who could help me come to conclusions I need to ensure that I am well satisfied with the outcome.
Third, there should be great communication between the maker and the client. Phone calls are much better than emails for the most part. It’s not uncommon to spend hours hashing out a designing on the front end, if that’s what the client needs.
This should follow all through the building process as well. Progress reports should be expected by the client and seen by the luthier as an opportunity to enhance the experience of the client.
There are others of course but I believe these to be key.
TT: Thanks for taking the time to speak to us, Gerald. Before we go is there anything you would like to add?
GS: I appreciate this opportunity to speak directly to everyone, Terence – thanks for asking me to do it.
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