Jim Worland Guitars. | 2010 | Luthier Interview
TT: Thanks for taking the time to speak to us, Jim. I know you’ve been building guitars for some time now, would you like to share with us your journey in lutherie?
JW: I have been playing guitar since I was a kid, mainly fingerstyle and classical but I was unhappy with the steel string guitars available for fingerstyle. I wanted something custom, a smaller body with a wider neck like a classical but for steel strings.
In 1991, with my background in engineering and woodworking I decided a custom guitar would make a challenging project, so I got a book at the library and started building. That crudely made guitar was a revelation in how much better a handmade guitar could play and sound versus a modern factory guitar.
I made some more acoustic guitars and eventually my hobby got out of control and I started Worland Guitars in 1997 as a full time luthier and have been building custom guitars ever since.
From custom made acoustic guitars I have branched out into more interesting designs such as harp guitars, electric guitars, folk instruments and guitars which are a combination of various elements. I also teach guitar building and repair and have several young proteges who are continuing the traditions into the next generation.
What I enjoy most is collaborating with adventurous artists to design and build a custom instrument that will provide them with the tools for furthering their musical pursuits.
TT: So would be fair to say that you are a self taught luthier?
JW: Yes, I am largely self taught although I am active in lutherie organizations like the Guild of American Luthiers which is a great resource for learning about instrument construction. In retrospect it would have been nice to have formal training but there were not as many opportunities back then as there are now.
Doing repairs on guitars is the best way to learn what works and what doesn’t. Applying that knowledge to building new instruments helps to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past so the new guitars will last well into the future. Every repair I do is a great education.
TT: Could you share with us your build philosophies? Do you build mostly fingerstyle guitars?
JW: I build all sorts of custom instruments mainly in the guitar family. I have made everything from Renaissance lutes to electric basses, even guitar effects pedals. I’ll make whatever a customer wants. I particularily like to build something unusual, epsecially multi-stringed instruments like harp guitars. Like I say, I enjoy collaborating with customers who want something unique.
TT: And what challenges do the multi-strings pose compared to standard 6 strings?
JW: There is no standard harp guitar design so they involve a lot more design work. Every customer wants something unique; a different number of strings, different string layout, different tunings, so i have to work out all of the physics of string lengths and gauges and then design a nice fluid shape around that.
Some harp guitars have 500 pounds of string tension, about 3 times that of a 6 string, so they must be built to withstand the extra stress while still having a nice, open and balanced sound.
Then there is the issue of ergonomics. All of those strings have to be accessible to the player, easy to tune and the instrument has to be balanced and easy to hold.
Every time I build a harp guitar I am designing an entirely new instrument from a blank sheet of paper and there are many construction challenges along the way. I have to cut my own woods since no wood suppliers carry woods big enough for a harp guitar. Perhaps the biggest challenge is fitting so many tuning machines together in a small space and keeping them accessible for easy tuning.
TT: With your harp guitars there are a few terms which I would like to ask about: super treble & sympathetic strings….
JW: Most harp guitars have sub bass strings for adding deep bass notes. To further extend the rage some players like to add high notes as well, so a bank of short thin strings called super trebles is added to the treble side of the body. There are usually 8 strings tuned diatonically for one octave although I have also used 12 strings for 1-1/2 octaves.
Sympathetic strings are most commonly heard on the Indian sitar. They run through a hollow neck and vibrate sympathetically with the notes being played making a buzzing drone sound. On a sympathetic string guitar the neck is hollow with up to 12 strings running through it and buzzing on a jawari bridge inside the guitar giving it an exotic sound. Luthier Fred Carlson pioneered the sympathetic string guitar, and I used a similar concept on a harp guitar that included sub bass and super treble strings for a total of 32 strings!
TT: With so many strings, ergonomics would come into play surely?
JW: Yes, ergonomics is the main consideration in design since the instrument must be easy to hold and to play. With so many strings and tuning machines harp guitars are inherently difficult to tune so the tuners must be easily accessible to the player. If the harp guitar is too bulky or top heavy it is difficult to hold so the weight balance is important.
TT: And does your wood selection for harp guitars differ from standard steel strings?
JW: The wood selection only differs in that harp guitars require much larger pieces of wood. No one sells wood in harp guitar sets like they do for regular guitars so I either have the wood cut special or I buy it in large planks and saw it up myself.
With so much tension on the top, a very strong wood like Sitka spruce is typically used although i have used Englemann spruce and cedar in special cases. Like any guitar, it’s how the wood it thicknessed and braced that determines the sound.
TT: And how about your favoured tonewoods in general?
JW: I use all sorts of woods, whatever a customer may need to achieve a particular tone or look. I suppose if I had to pick a favorite I would say black walnut because of the wonderful aroma it creates in my workshop as I work with it! Although rosewood and cedar smell great too!
Acoustically any wood can sound great if it’s treated in the appropriate way. I have gotten into the habit of tapping on every piece of wood I find to hear how it rings. Some of the rosewoods like Indonesian and Honduran rosewood ring just like Brazilian at a fraction of the price.
TT: So do you mix and match the tonewoods to achieve a tone or do you aim to optimize the materials at hand?
JW: It’s a combination of both. When a customer is looking for a particular tone I will recommend certain woods and then work with those woods to move the sound in a particular direction. For example to get a bright sound I will use spruce and keep the top a little stiffer. For a more mellow tone I may use cedar and and make the top less stiff.
The back has less effect on tone but still contributes to the bass and the overall projection. As I have gained experience I have found that using a stiffer top and and a thinner back produces a much better tone than the other way around.
On harp guitars, since there is such a huge range of tones across the top, I make the bass side looser and the treble side stiffer. This helps to bring out the bass notes and keeps the trebles nice and crisp.
TT: Any favourite combinations?
JW: For my style of playing I like cedar since I have a rather light fingerstyle technique and cedar is more responsive to a light touch. I also like the sound of Port Orford cedar which is stiffer and has a brighter tone.
For back and sides koa is really beautiful and has a wonderful tone. The combination of mahogany and cedar makes for a very light responsive guitar.
TT: How about the more exotic woods like Brazilian Rosewood and Redwood?
JW: There are many other rosewoods that are similar in tone to Brazilian that are much less expensive and are not endangered species. Honduran and Indonesian rosewood are two that I have used which have many of the same acoustic properties at a fraction of the cost. Brazilian rosewood has a mythology surrounding it which, while well deserved, I don’t believe justifies the monetary or enviromental costs.
I have used redwood which is similar to cedar in tone but darker in color. I personally like the tone and the look of redwood. I have used many different woods, from Adirondack to ziricote. They all make great sounding guitars. The guitar’s tone has as much to do with how the wood is thicknessed and braced as it does with the actual species. The species of wood is just one the of many variables in a guitar’s design.
TT: Thank you for that. Recently there has been some discussion over your Prairie Models and how reasonable the costs are on those…
JW: I wanted to make a guitar model that has the high quality of a luthier built guitar yet at an affordable price. I use all of the same quality woods and bracing as all my custom guitars but I keep the cosmetics simple to keep the labor to a minimum.
They have a very nice tone. If fact I prefer the tone of these guitars, very bell-like and responsive. But they are a tough sale. While some people really like the simple look, most people ording a custom guitar want something fancy with a glossy finish.
As an added bonus I keep them in stock so I can ship them right away, no waiting.
TT: That brings me nicely on to finishing- are the glossly finishes thicker than matt? Also which kinds do you use?
JW: I use lacquer finishes and I always keep them as thin as possible. The gloss finishes are thicker since they need to be buffed out. Satin finishes can be thinner which improves the tone and still provides plenty of protection for the wood. Still, most people prefer the gloss finishes for that more premium look.
TT: There has also been a lot of discussion about nut and saddle materials with the fossilised ivories being bandied as a tonal improvement over cow bone….
JW: I have found fossilized ivory to be softer than bone. A lot depends on the particular piece since it is much less consistent that bone. Most customers choose it for the look. I would have to do an A-B test to see how it affects tone which i have never done. Worth looking into though.
TT: Great stuff- thanks for taking the time again, Jim. Before we go would you have any advice for folks looking to start a career in lutherie? And would have anything do add?
JW: It’s difficult to make a good living at lutherie. In addition to making guitars you also have to able to market and sell them and there is more and more competition everyday. I always encourage people to learn how to make and repair instruments partly because it makes them better musicians when they understand how their instruments work. But making a full time living at it is something else altogether.
Lutherie is something you have to do for the love of the craft. I enjoy it because it combines physics, engineering, hand craft and artistic creativity, all to make a tool for a musician’s muse. Once I finish with my work on an instrument it begins its life producing music and enjoyment for people which is the whole point, really.
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