An interview with master luthier Norman Haight at his workshop in Scottsdale, Arizona
HaightGuitars.com March 25, 2010
What attracted you to the Sonic Sitka Project?
Free wood, chance for more exposure for my instruments. I’m looking forward to what will be learned from this project. I’m sure that we’ll see that individual building techniques make a major difference in the sound production of the tops. This is great because people will get a better understanding of the rich variety of sound production available to them through the existence of the over 600 independent luthiers in North America.
Has this project changed/challenged your approach to guitar building?
No. I felt that to be true to the project I should build as I always do. I thought that it was my building technique directly compared to the other great luthiers in the project that made the project so unique.
Should people care about this project?
Since nothing like this has ever been attempted before, builders and players should pay attention both to the near and long-term results. While this is hardly a scientifically controlled experiment I hope that there will be enough significant data to show trends from having fairly consistent top material distributed over different builders. As I said before, this will help players to realize the value in finding their local independent luthier to work with.
What are you learning from your participation in the Sonic Sitka Project?
I’m excited by the community that has grown through this project. I’ve been a member of GAL and ASIA for years, attending their conventions often, and this has only secured my belief that luthiers are a great bunch of people.
What do you hope to learn from looking at the data collected over the next couple of years?
I’m looking forward to learning how different forms of bracing affect the sound produced, along with thicknesses and cavity size.
Do you anticipate collaborating more with other project participants on new designs or refinements?
I haven’t thought much about that. With my time split between custom building and teaching guitar building classes, it’s hard to imagine I’d have the time to properly participate in more projects. If the project fits into my building schedule, as this one did, it would be fun to do another.
How important do you think using “alternative” or “sustainable” woods is going to be within the next ten years?
Alternative/sustainable woods are already a major part of my building. Long before it was popular I started experimenting with local trees such as walnut and maple. I’m building more with ziricote, which grows like a weed in areas like Belize, and it’s a great alternative for Brazilian rosewood. I’m hoping it becomes more popular for guitar building so the growers will start letting it get bigger before harvesting it. Another problem with rosewood, besides it’s becoming more difficult to obtain, is the allergens in it. So many people are allergic that I don’t use it at all when students are in the shop. The great woods of the past are just not practical and we need to get the average player educated about how wonderful these “new” woods are in guitars.
How do you see guitar building evolving in the 21st century?
I see the majority of guitar building going to mass production techniques as the technology to do so becomes more affordable and the every-day consumer continues to demand cheap product in preference to tone quality. Those of us who prefer to craft guitars instead will need to introduce technology into our processes in ways that don’t interfere with the personal touches we put into our instruments. For instance, tap tuning. The ability to correctly tune out individual tones so the richness of the entire spectrum is released from the wood remains a human skill. But we can use machines to copy and mass produce our blanks for kerfing, bindings, braces, bridges, necks, headstock, fretboards. Because the heavy-weights can do so much more in advertising most consumers still consider the factory instruments the best. So I see a continued movement away from hand-crafted guitars to mass produced factory guitars because from an average consumer point of view, there is no broad based appeal of an individually hand crafted instrument. That’s where a project like this comes into play. The publicity helps to draw the attention of people who are, or want to be, guitar aficionados to the advantages of seeking out and working with their local independent luthier. I think this means that the guitar will evolve down two completely separate paths, one for the mass produced inexpensive everyday guitar, and one for the hand crafted, beautiful look, sound and feel artisan produced guitar for the artisan player.
Do you believe that we are holding back the evolution of music?
Absolutely not, music is in the human spirit. Guitars are magical instruments because they are easy to transport and easy to play. Anyone can express themselves musically through a simple guitar (or even a ukulele). Handmade instruments have their own souls; there is no love in a factory instrument.
Should we be deconstructing old instruments for their valuable hardwoods and build new instruments that are completely original?
Not unless the instrument has no hope of being played again, and even then I would consider carefully the choice because of the historical value the instrument may hold. However, factory produced guitars and old furniture may be fair game.
Should player’s techniques and needs be the driving force behind design and innovation?
The advantage of building one guitar at a time is being able to consider the owner’s technique, physical needs and the sound qualities desired. However, the majority of consumers aren’t particular about these attributes, so ease of construction and durability may become the major driving force in design for the majority of guitars built in the future.
Do you think that luthiers need to keep making guitars based on well-established designs or should they expand the sonic possibilities of the instrument?
I believe you’ll find most luthiers are constantly seeking ways to improve on the tonal qualities of their instruments. I think that is the reason they went into the business in the first place; it certainly wasn’t to get rich quick.
Should players’ technique and needs be driving design and innovation or should luthiers simply strive for innovation?
As I said before, meeting the player’s needs is what makes this process interesting and challenging to me. I can’t see how this is separate from innovation. It was meeting the need to deal with rotator cuff injuries that led to the innovation of the slopped back, it was meeting the needs of the cigar-sized fingers of Segovia’s hands that led to the widening of the classical guitar neck, and it was the need to more accurately reproduce music that led from tied-gut frets to the hammered in metal frets of today. I think we’ve only scratched the surface of what can be innovated. I love the idea of the folding guitar innovated by Harry Leach at Voyage Guitar. (I built the first classical for them, which we decided didn’t work as well as the steel string.) I also like some of the other open frame innovations for travel guitars. With airlines continuously making it more difficult to travel with a guitar, it’s a good time to be inventing new types of travel guitars. With Skype and other internet capabilities, people from all around the world are able to play with each other – so ways to make that work easier/better will be found over time. Every need is an opportunity for innovation.
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