TT: Thanks for taking the time to speak to us again, Nigel. It was a real the last time around. Let’s focus on Celtic instruments this time- you did your apprenticeship with Stefan Sobell who builds instruments which are in the minds of many guitarists and mandolin players well suited to celtic style playing- would you agree with this?
NF: Without a doubt, the majority of our customers played Celtic music. Not all, but the majority. For many years it was the Cittern and Bouzouki part of the business which was the largest, but in the early 90’s with the help of Martin Simpson, we began to build a lot more guitars.
These days my business is about 60/40 – guitars/Bouzouki family, and around 80/20 Celtic/non Celtic focused customers.
TT: What characteristics do you feel Celtic players look for and find in your guitars and bouzoukis?
NF: All manner of things – sound is the main one. What I produce does not sound American, it sounds very British. I read years ago that instruments sound like where they come from, and I have to agree – Matin sounds American, Lowden sounds Irish, Ramirez sounds Spanish, Hauser speaks spanish but with a German accent! So let’s say my guitars sound British but with a Geordie accent!
The sound my stuff tends to have is a rare mix-clarity And warmth, two factors with usually cancel each other out, but having the two can useful for Celtic music where individual voices can be lost in a session or on stage.
Another aspect is understanding the set ups that Celtic music demands. Most Celtic style guitar players go for a wider nut and string spacing to allow for both solo fingerstlye and percussive pick playing, while bouzouki players have a higher than normal action coupled with a slightly different approach to neck relief to allow them to play with power in noisy sessions. Most Celtic players use a capo too, so this must be taken into consideration during the set up.
I always ask what the main tuning is the player will use. DADGAD requires a slightly sweetened compensation, as players tend to use a limited number of chord shapes and utilise the capo a lot – we can get really good fifths and thirds as apposed to equal temperament (which has decent fifths and poor thirds), but if a player changes tunings all the time I go for perfect equal temperament. It’s the only compromise.
I think aesthetics come into it too. Now I’m not a fan of all that Celtic knot stuff on my instruments, I find it all a bit kitch and can cheapen the look of things, but my work has a simplicity to it that seems to suits the music.
The Bouzouki and Guitar Bouzouki market is a funny one. The general standard of stuff out there is pretty low in comparison to the guitar market, and for decades the top of the range has been Sobell, so I was very lucky to have cut my teeth making them. It took me some time to come up with something DIFFERENT. So I’ve experimented with materials, arching of the tops, thicknessing and bracing and for the time being I’m pretty settled on my current designs. The treble is broad and full and the bass dark, and they tend to be rather loud, which is no bad thing.
TT: And is there a certain tonewood combinations which is better suited to Celtic styles? And would this be the same for guitars as the bozoukis?
NF: Hard to say really. Folk love to think there is a magic combination of timbers but the reality is the design is the biggest factor – the shape of the soundboard, the thickness and the bracing. After that it is possible to achieve tonal variations by using different timbers. I depends what folk want, but really the pecking order for timbers is pretty much the same as any other type of steel string instrument. No, it is the design which is crucial – understanding what is to be done and how to do it.
My current range seems to be taking two forms these days, the work which is a development of what I did with Sobell and the stuff I’ve been working on for a while which is based on my development of the old Howe Orme design. There is quite a bit in common between the two approaches, and a few differences too. Both ways of working suit Celtic music very well.
TT: Thanks Nigel, before we finish maybe you could give any celtic players out there a bit of advice if they’re shopping around for an instrument to suit and if you were design your ultimate Celtic guitar and bouzouki, what would they be like?
NF: This is where talking to a maker comes in handy to pin down exacty want you want. By understanding how someone plays, what tunings they use and what situations the instrument will be used in it is possible to come up with the ideal combination for that person.
But what would I have? Well, perhaps two guitars – one for gigs and recording and another for sessions. A hump top (the Howe Orme inpired design) Model S for sessions, as they are loud guitars. Perhaps with laminated braces for that extra growl, a short scale combined with a slightly higher action to make it easy to play percussivly without buzz and to soften the bass. Materials?Indian Rosewood and Italian Spruce, or maybe Osage Orange and Italian Spruce, either way I would want it to be an instrument I was happy to take to the pub. First class, but not so valuable I couldn’t relax.
The other one would be a top of the range job. A 12 fret cutaway Rio and German Spruce Model C with full binding, laminated braces, Gotoh 510’s, and perhaps a 660mm scale so the bass notes were as clear as a bell when using dropped tunings. The set up would be low for fingerpicking and intonated for DADGAD. The perfect recording guitar. And one for the CD cover!
The perfect Bouzouki? A Redwood top with Camatillo or Cocobolo or Panamanian Rosewood sides, with short scale and a set up for session playing. Redwood makes a SUPERB ‘zouk. I’ll have to try it on a guitar soon. I’ve plenty of it.
The main advice I would give folk is to try and work out exactly what they want. Then discuss it with the maker to see what they can come up with. It’s not uncommon for folk to want everything in one instrument – a one they can play hard in noisy sessions, that they can then easily fingerpick, that sound like Rio but costs the same as Indian, and many of these things just aint possible. So it’s a matter of discussion to work out the best compromise for them. I really enjoy that part – working out what folk want, and negotiating between the ideal and the possible.
©2009 Terence Tan.
Alberico guitars courtesy of Nigel Forster © individuals 2010
Old Celtic Cross by Petr Kratochvil
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