Sonic Sitka Q&A for 20 Grit Guitars

Luthier Facts :
Name: Steven Fragale
Location: New Jersey, USA

Status?: Currently Active
Note: (RIYL) Recommended If You Like

What attracted you to the Sonic Sitka Project?

At the A.S.I.A. conference this past June Denis Merrill gave a lecture on the 21st century guitar. This was my first experience in the luthier community and my first real lecture. I wasn’t sure what Sonic Sitka really was but I knew I wanted in. Denis’ energy was infectious and by the time his talk was over I was ready to build guitars with everything I had. I approached him several times at the conference but was continually shooed away (in the most pleasant way possible) while the big luthiers signed up and got their sonic materials. After I brought him a guitar I had built, he paid a little more attention. His eyes scrutinized every surface before his hands did the same. He began to play and listen to the instrument. I thought for sure he was just going to hand it right back and say something polite. With his eyes closed he played for 10 minutes. I was feeling judgement with every note anxiously awaiting a verbal reaction, some sort of hopefully constructive criticism. Finally after letting a few harmonics ring out he handed me the guitar and a sonic sitka top and said,”This is my favorite top, it’s yours if you can build a guitar for the Newport show.” I am honored to be a part of this project and can’t thank Denis enough for bringing in a freshman like myself into such a wonderful project and community.

Has this project changed/challenged your approach to guitar building?

I studied with a very talented luthier, Rich Lipscher, focusing specifically on archtops. Since that experience in Baltimore, I’ve been developing my skills on flat tops. Design is a critical element that I am always trying to push myself on. So when SSP (sonic sitka project) came my way I wanted to take everything I had learned and build the best instrument I possibly could. I wanted to make an instrument that was unique for this project with several elements being key. The headstock logo is done using sitka scraps from the top. The fretboard is a hybrid ebony/ rosewood piece. The sound hole was split into 3 ports with the same surface area of a traditional sound hole. The ebony rosettes are decorative but reflect the players right strumming hand. All parts were designed for the whole of the instrument both sonically and aesthetically.

Should people care about this project?

It shouldn’t be as high a priority as global warming, or over due rent but, for those interested and excited about the innovation of guitars this is going to set the standard for large scale collaborative efforts. Did I mention that I think it’s the coolest thing and that I haven’t stopped talking about it for the past year.

What are you learning from your participation in the Sonic Sitka Project?

I have had an opportunity to talk with some great luthiers and helpful people getting ready to exhibit at Newport. I’m learning things like have aprons for people to put on while playing your guitars so their shirt buttons don’t leave road rash on the back. I’m learning how to manage a small business, get an LLC, run a website, make contracts, get clients, etc… I’ve learned how to talk with popular artists about projects and how to pretend your up at 5 a.m. when a guitar player on the west coast calls you back after a gig. I’ve also learned that my grandmother Josephine is the best PR person for a company ever. She is the only 92 year old I know that has put a 20 grit guitar in the hands of Stevie Van Zandt. That was a great visit with Mommom! I thought I was years away from shows and sales but sonic sitka has made me step up my game and really get moving.

What do you hope to learn from looking at the data collected over the next couple of years?

I don’t know what to expect. That’s the part I’m exited about. As luthier’s we will hopefully see how variables effect the tone of an instrument over its lifespan. We all started with nearly the same top but between back, sides, fretboards, nuts, saddles, glues, finishes, and our own two hands (not to mention different body shapes) everything else is different. What are the relationships that make these guitars similar in tone and response and obviously different? How does the guitar change over time sonically? There are so many questions and I’m not familiar with the sonic testing process. I’m looking forward to seeing how they are tested and what initial results look like as an indicator for future testing. Most importantly, I’m excited to see how this experiment brings together a group of luthiers and how those relationships grow over time. (probably because I am a new guy and want to meet everyone.)

Do you anticipate collaborating more with other project participants on new designs or refinements?

I think collaboration is great and a great way for this industry or artform to grow and develop. I would love to work with more people to solve design ideas. It is going to be a big part of guitar growth. I am only one person with so much knowledge. If I bring 10 people in on a project, a product designer, computer engineer, a farmer, and a professional non-profit genious, among other random people,what is obtained? How can we as a team develop a guitar with so many different perspectives to achieve something truly unique? I can’t wait the more we work together the more we achieve.

How important do you think using “alternative” or “sustainable” woods is going to be within the next ten years?

Critical. Absolutley critical. Even right now not just in the future.

Pictures ©2009 Steven Fragale

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