Fabrizio Alberico Guitars | Luthier Interview
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TT: Hi Fabrizio, thanks for taking the time to speak to us. I was wondering if we might start by asking you how you started out with guitars?
FA: I first picked up the guitar in University and immediately feel in love with the instrument. Several years later I moved to Vancouver and began writing and performing a bit, and around the same time I saw Don Ross and then Martin Simpson in concert, and my idea of acoustic guitar playing changed. I began teaching myself to play fingerstyle guitar, and bought a Larrivee as my first entry into the higher quality guitar world. Shortly after that, I received an Acoustic Guitar Magazine that featured a 10-page article on the making of an acoustic guitar in Jeff Traugott’s shop.
I was intrigued to say the least, and flew down to Santa Cruz to visit Jeff and ordered a guitar. People thought I was nuts to pay $3500 for one of Jeff’s guitars. I should have bought a dozen! After inhaling the shop dust and taking delivery of the guitar a year later, I decided I would look into learning how to build myself. I knew I had the peculiar blend of talents and aptitudes it would take to build guitars of the highest calibre.
I was eventually directed by Grit Laskin to contact Sergei deJonge, one of Larrivee’s first apprentices who had just started a course at his shop in Oshawa Ontario at the time. I can’t say enough good things about Sergei and his work. He was exactly the right teacher for me, and I built an outstanding guitar under his tutelage. I was officially bitten by the bug, took my vow of perpetual poverty, and became a full-time luthier in Vancouver upon returning to Vancouver in 1998.
TT: You’re best known for your fingerstyle guitars- would you like to let us in on your build philosophies and techniques?
FA:: I strive for balance above all else. And by that I mean balance from string to string and also up the fingerboard. I want even responsiveness, sustain, and volume from every note and every string. And the way I achieve that starts with the shapes and dimensions. You won’t see me building dreadnoughts for fingerstyle players, because the wide waist increases the vibrating area in front of the bridge, leading to higher amplitude and lower frequencies; that’s great for bluegrass, not so good for solo fingerstyle guitar. I do offer a Grand Auditorium model that has similar dimension to a dreadnought, but the waist is narrower and the overall shape is rounder, yielding a more balanced tone.
My Orchestra Model is slightly larger than a standard Martin OM, and quite a bit deeper (4 3/4″ at the lower bout) which truly provides the player with an Orchestral palette of sounds in a box, perfect for solo fingerstyle. I’ve also recently added a OO to my model lineup, for those who are more comfortable with a smaller guitar. And that personal comfort is not to be underestimated.
Ultimately a guitar is a vehicle to express the soul, and if the player is not comfortable, the music struggles to get out. So I encourage my clients to choose body styles based on their own physical size and comfort preferences. Then I ask them what kind of tone they’re looking for, and how they plan on playing it (with or without picks, long or short nails, acrylics, etc.), and it’s my job to create that sound from the body they choose.
Those considerations are then blended with wood choices, scale lengths, dimensions, aesthetic considerations, etc. until a design is established that makes sense. And then, the magic happens. And I truly believe there is more than just a little bit of mystery in this craft. When I took my course with Sergei, there were three others there at the same time, using woods from the same stash, under the tutelage of the same person, and we all came out with completely different guitars. Sergei encourages an intuitive approach to the craft, and I try to always remain open to that intuition.
Sometimes I find myself changing things for no apparent reason, and I allow myself to follow that muse. The results speak for themselves. I think my guitars are remarkably consistent, and it’s not from weighing, measuring and Chladni patterns. Science is now only just beginning to recognize that the left brain is not always right (ha!).
As far as techniques are concerned, I pretty much assemble them the way Larrivee would have in the late 60′s, having learned from Edgar Munch who was a classical builder. I borrow from the classical world liberally when it makes senses, and the steel-string world when it makes sense. I prepare the fingerboard and fret only after finishing and assembly for all my guitars, unlike many steel-string makers. Things always change a tiny bit after those steps, and although it’s perhaps more convenient to fret before finishing, it usually means at least some minor dressing of the frets after all is said and done.
I prefer to prepare the fretboard perfectly, planing it slightly differently for the treble vs. bass side, allowing a more even saddle protrusion all the way across, leading to an even break angle from the saddle to the bridge, which naturally leads to a more balanced tone. These kinds of considerations are built in to every part of the guitar, and so it has no choice but to come out balanced.
TT: I notice that your output includes many guitars from Cocobolo and European spruce- is there any particular reason? Maybe a tonal response or better balance?
FA: I like European spruce for many reasons. When it’s of the highest quality (which is all I use) it has everything anyone could ever ask for in a top wood. It has a high strength-to-weight ratio so it can be thinned without worry, it produces a strong fundamental tone with excellent separation across a wide frequency range, responds to both light and hard attack without breaking up, and produces upper partials that are heavenly, without taking away from the purity of the tone.
But I must stress that I could say the same things about good Engelmann, and good Sitka spruce as well. Engelmann often gets a bad rapp because of some sub-standard tops that come out of lower lattitudes and altitudes. Those tops tend to be on the softer side, leading to breakup under harder playing. But the Engelmann I use is from the Canadian Rockies, and is virtually undistinguishable from it European cousin.
And I live on the British Columbia Coast, where some exquisite Sitka spruce can be found. That wood is plentiful, and grows straight for the most part, so most of the world’s spruce that becomes guitars happens to be Sitka. And so by extension, most of the world’s less expensive guitars happen to be made with Sitka. And so it too often gets perceived by some as an inferior wood. Nothing can be further from the truth.
The highest quality Sitka is exceptional in many ways, yielding a complex tone, and making for a very versatile guitar. My own OM that I kept for 6 years until very recently had a Sitka top. But market forces being what they are, I cater to my customers’ desires, and most of them desire German Spruce because of its perceived value. And I really can’t fault them for it, so I happily build with it more than any other Spruce.
I started using Cocobolo fairly early in my career, because I came across some very high quality sets and liked the results both aesthetically and tonally. It has a beautiful rich colour that contrasts nicely with Sitka and mahogany, and often exhibits “spiderweb” figure similar to Brazilian Rosewood. It tends to be quite dense, and so makes for a little heavier guitar sometimes, but I try to thin it as much as possible without compromising the structural integrity.
The results tonally are excellent for fingerstyle players looking for emphasis of the upper mids and a clarity of sound. Recently I came across a Nicaraguan Cocobolo log that I resawed myself and got about 5 sets from. It’s unlike any cocobolo I’ve used so far, both aesthetically and tonally. I hope to find more of it somewhere! I also like to use Brazilian Rosewood for all the obvious reasons, and mahogany is also a personal favourite, with its easy, woody tone and volume.
TT: Do you feel the same woods work as well for classicals as steel strings?
FA: Generally, any wood combination will work, but classicals have a much lower string tension, opening up other possibilities for enhanced tonal response. I like to use Spanish Cedar for necks, for instance. It’s not as dense as Mahogany, and I’d be a little hesitant to use it on a steel-string, but on a classical it seems to warm up the lower mids without sacrificing crispness in the upper frequencies.
I haven’t used cedar for many steel-string tops, and when I have used it I’ve made sure it was at the high end of the stiffness spectrum so structural integrity wouldn’t be compromised. That’s much less of a concern for classicals, so for those seeking a warm tone cedar is the way to go. As far as backs and sides are concerned, just about any of the rosewood varieties are great for classicals, but I have so far shied away from using cocobolo.
I think for the most part it would just be too dense, and without the kind of string tension found in a steel-string, complexity and warmth of tone would be compromised. I would consider the Nicaraguan Cocobolo I have to be an exception to that rule, however. I find that the classical world is far more conservative that the steel-string world when it comes to both aesthetics and range of acceptable tone.
If it gets too far off what people are used to seeing and hearing, it just isn’t considered a serious classical guitar. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just the way things are. So given that most classical guitars throughout the ages have been made with European Spruce paired with Rosewood, that’s usually the way to go in my opinion.
TT: And how about finishes?
FA: I’ve tried just about everything out there in the seemingly never-ending quest to find the right one. Tonally, I haven’t found much difference in finishes that I’ve tried, with the possible exception of french polish on steel-strings, which seems to make the tone a little drier. Finishing is a skill that just seems to require a lot of trial and error, and experimentation. I’ve found that what works for one luthier doesn’t work for another in terms of both materials and techniques. So my bottom line is that if it goes on thin enough not to inhibit tone, thick enough to provide protection, and looks like a guitar finish, then it’s a good finish. And that last part is the key.
The standards for guitar finishes are higher than any other wood object, period. Somehow, over the years, the standards have evolved to the point where it needs to look more like a picture of wood rather than actual wood. And in the quest for that standard I started with Nitrocellulose lacquer for my steel-string. Although I achieved great results, I could never get past the fact that 75% of the stuff in the can was a nasty, toxic soup that ended up everywhere but on the guitar. And that’s not a matter of technique; that’s just what the solids content is for Nitro. The rest is made up of things like toluene and xylene, which are just plain bad for the entire planet. So I experimented with water-based lacquers in the late 90′s, and back then the quality was just not acceptable.
And then I started to use french polish, first on classicals and later on steel-strings. Shellac, when properly applied, makes for an excellent finish, and although it can be quite a bit more delicate than synthetic finishes, it has the benefit of being easily repairable. It has become the standard finish for classical guitars, of course, and it’s what I use for mine. I also tried it on a few steel-strings, but by and large it hasn’t gained acceptance in those circles, because it always gets compared to the standard hard-as-nails, “picture of wood” synthetic finishes.
One of the benefits of shellac is that it feels great, and so I used it on steel-string necks for a while, paired with a lacquer body. But in the last two years, I’ve been using a water-based lacquer that I’ve been totally happy with. I seal the guitar with a coat of epoxy to fill the pores and provide added srength, and apply the lacquer over it. Yes, it’s still slightly less durable that nitro or polyester (maybe 10% less) but in my experience, it’s all the protection anybody would ever need.
I recently made a guitar for Les Finnigan in Vancouver, a percussive fingerstyle player who hardly babies his guitar – check him out on YouTube. He plays year-round every day outside on Granville Island, through rain or shine, snow or heatwave. There is no better durability test than that,and a year later both the guitar and the finish have passed the test with flying colours. Having said all that, I’m sure I will continue to keep my eyes open for other alternatives. I hope to never get stuck thinking I have it all figured out.
TT: Thanks, Fabrizio. I also notice that you like those Alessi tuners….
FA: Yes, I like pretty much anything that’s handcrafted with care and attention to detail, and that extends to more than just guitar parts. Most of us have grown up in a world where expediency trumps quality and individuality. It’s not often that we have a personal relationship with, or at least know a little bit about, the person who made an object that we use on a regular basis. Have a look around your house or your workplace.
How may objects can you trace directly to one person that was responsible for making it? That was one of the most appealing parts of the acoustic guitar world for me right off the bat. And the relationships I continue to have with my clients, suppliers, retailers, and fellow luthiers is what keeps me building today. But I also must say that for utilitarian things like tuners and strings that are made of inert metals, extreme precision pays dividends, and often automation is a good thing. That’s why I also like Gotoh 510 tuners. They are impeccably manufactured and work beautifully.
TT: Does the height adjustment really help on those gotoh 510 deltas?
AG: Actually, I’ve never used the height adjustable ones. I suppose they would be good for replacement tuners, but I thickness my headstock just right to fit the standard Gotoh 510′s with the right number of string wraps.
TT: To change the subject completely, I know a lot of potential buyer worry about shipping. In your experience have you had many ‘injuries’ during shipping?
AG: I’ve had exactly zero incidents of damage or loss. Knock on wood!
TT: Okay, how about we move onto a little bit of discussion about scale lengths?
FA: My standard is 25.375″, which is in line with what most people are used to. There’s a school of thought that says you need a longer scale length (25 .625″ for example) for dropped tunings, but I haven’t found that to be the case with my guitars.
I did the math to confirm what my fingers and ears were telling me, and found that scale length has very little impact on string tension within the range of accepted “standard” scale lengths of around 25.5 inches. With medium gauge strings (0.013 to 0.056), overall tension is 186.9 lbs with a scale length of 25.375″. Bumping that up to 25.625″ only increases the tension to 190.6 lbs., which is less than a 2 percent difference.
Going the other way, decreasing the scale length to 25.0″ only decreases the tension to 181.4 lbs. So what matters more than absolute scale length is the location of the bridge on the body as a result of both the body and neck proportions. I drop my own OM down to CGCGCD quite regularly, and the tone remains full and present throughout the range, with no floppiness. Much of that has to do with bracing, of course.
I had some more fun with numbers when I sat down to design a Baritone guitar for the first time. All of the baritones I had played up to that point felt a little off to me. They all sounded lower of course, but there was something about the string to string balance that seemed off-kilter to my hands and ears. So I plugged in the numbers for an off-the-shelf set of baritone strings on various scale lengths in the baritone range (26.5″ to 29″) and compared the resulting tensions with a standard set of strings on a standard scale. .
The results confirmed that the tensions were nothing like a standard guitar. I have no idea how the manufacturers came up with those gauge selections, but I decided to design my baritone guitar around a 28.0″ scale, and provide custom string gauges to match the tactile and tonal string-to-string balance that feels comfortable to everyone used to playing a normal steel-string.
TT: Am I right in thinking that your baritones have higher string tensions overall compared to standard guitars?
FA: Yes, they have slightly higher overall string tensions when tuned down 5 half-steps (BEADF#B), but only about 6 pounds. This allows me to brace the guitar more lightly than typical Baritones, which results in more effortless production of low frequency sounds since the top is able to move at higher amplitudes more freely.
TT: That’s nice to hear! Maybe you could give us some advice on how to best place an order with a custom luthier? I am sure over the years many folks have been tempted to but are worried about about potential pitfalls, misunderstandings….
AG: Well, the good news is that thanks to the internet, the pitfalls and misunderstandings should be largely avoidable. And more importantly, the odds of getting just what you’re looking for have never been better. The first piece of advice I would give is to choose your luthier carefully. When I first started building in 1998, the internet was still in its infancy and it was relatively time-consuming and /or downright expensive to gather information about various luthiers and their instruments. But in the last decade of course, the “marketplace” for guitars became global in the blink of an eye as the Web offered instant access to just about every kind of guitar from every maker from every corner.
And that has been great for makers and buyers alike in many respects. It’s now possible to find pictures, sound clips, videos, specs, prices, and opinions instantly. So go ahead and surf. Find out everything you can about the guitars and their makers, starting of course with their website if they have one. Hopefully that will give you a pretty good idea of the kinds of instruments they build, and you’re bound to find someone out there whose aesthetic and aural sensibilities match yours.
If they’ve made instruments in the past that have looked, sounded, and played to your liking, chances are they can make you a guitar you will be thrilled with. I strongly suggest you allow them some creative license in choosing some of the aesthetic appointments, since we typically have a more refined eye for those details, and you should take advantage of that. Personally, I’ve derived the most pleasure from making guitars that the customer has given me a lot of creative license on, but other luthiers might be different in that respect. Ask them how this can be a gratifying project for them. I guarantee a better guitar for you from a happy luthier!
Every luthier is different in terms of how they best like to communicate, work out the specs, and keep you informed along the way, so I suggest asking them up front how that communication will look. Some will prefer getting all the details worked out well ahead of time over the phone and get it written down, signed off on, etc. Most will happily maintain some flexibility up to a point. And perhaps you can ask them what that point is. We do have to plan several months ahead to ensure we have all the components together in time for the start of construction.
Most of us are only too happy to discuss options with our customers and do everything we can to ensure the guitar you end up with is the one you’ve always dreamed of. But ultimately, we have to make a living at this, so it’s perhaps best to save up your questions for a time you’ve both agreed to have a discussion about the options. Several e-mails and phone calls a day is not cool. I know from experience.
And once those options are decided on, I always summarize everything on a work order / invoice that immediately gets sent to the customer summarizing what we’ve decided on, and what remains to be decided upon by what date. The delivery and payment dates are on there too, as are shipping arrangements. If your luthier doesn’t do that as a matter of course, perhaps you can ask them to, or even draft something up yourself. If it’s in writing, both parties should feel more comfortable about the process and the end result.
©2009 Terence Tan.
Pictures & MP3s courtesy of Fabrizio Alberico © individuals 2009
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