Kris Barnett Guitars. | 2010 | Luthier Interview
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TT: Thank you for taking the time to speak to us, Kris. To start off, I was wondering if you could maybe relate to us how you got started in lutherie?
KB: Lutherie was a very natural and almost certain progression for me. I have played guitar since I was a child and it is the one hobby that has endured for all of these years. The guitar has always intrigued me. The sound is very alluring and almost enchanting. It is weird because I always knew I was going to build at least one guitar in my life, but I never dreamed it would be my life’s work or that I would embark at such an early age.
I had it in my head that I was going to build my first guitar in retirement, after my career as a mental health therapist came to an end. I have always enjoyed building things, taking stuff apart, working with my hands, and I have always been very inquisitive about how and why things work the way they do. My first building experience was at a short seminar in which a very well known luthier quickly went over some processes he uses for his own guitars.
This was definitely the motivation I needed to get things moving. I practiced building for several years part time and have moved to full time for the past 2 years or so. I have never worked in a guitar shop and have never really done repairs. I am completely self taught which definitely has its pros and cons. I had to reinvent the wheel many times I’m sure, but I learned a lot through the process of trial and error and was very free to find my own way.
I am sure the process would have been much smoother if I had previous woodworking experience or if someone could have shown me techniques that I was having problems with early on. It was definitely very challenging at first, as can be attested by my earlier instruments, but I am improving on each and every instrument and constantly experimenting with new ideas.
TT: I have to say that I noticed a few unusual construction techniques you use- especially for nylon strings… maybe you could let us in on your build philosophies and comment on the tailpieces and sound ports….
KB: My main focus for the instruments is to have a very strong voice, but they must remain lyrical and maintain the nuances generally associated with a great concert-level guitar. I am not solely interested in volume, but it’s nice that lattice bracing gives me a head start as far as projection is concerned. I am able to focus on more intimate details of the voice, such as evenness, dynamics, sustain, etc. since the bracing naturally gives me ample volume from the start. It is interesting to see a lot of builders trying to get more volume from there instruments and this sometimes minimizes the importance of other aspects of their instruments. I use ideas that make sense to me intuitively and from a physical perspective.
If the idea does not turn out in practice, I will try something else. I am very careful to only change one thing at a time when I build a new instrument so I can monitor what effect it is having on the tone and sound of the instrument. If something works well, I will continue with it on the next guitar, but maybe change something else to see what happens. With the exception of two instruments produced for a duet, I have never made two identical instruments. I am always changing something..
The tailpiece made a lot of sense from a physics standpoint and I have never heard of a classical guitar with this type of setup. The weight of the bridge can be reduced significantly because I do not need a large gluing surface since the pulling force on the soundboard is greatly reduced. The soundboard has less mass and can therefore vibrate more efficiently. The result is a more immediate sound and a more robust tone. I am not sure what the physics say should happen with the tailpiece, but these are my own observations. I maintain the traditional break angle of the strings so it still sounds like a classical guitar.
The soundports are very good for monitoring what is being played. It basically allows the soundwaves to be directed more at the player. Lower frequencies travel more efficiently in air so the further it has to travel the more bass heavy it will sound. Having the soundport located close to the ear allows the player to hear the higher frequencies more easily and hear the nuances of the music. I have not built a guitar without soundports for the past 3 years or so. Customers are generally sold on it as soon as they are able to hear the difference for themselves.
I use a lot of newer ideas in my guitars, all of which have a great impact on the sound and/or playability. I have a lot of information about other aspects of the instruments on my website explaining the processes and ideas behind the concepts. I would never build a guitar using a concept that I didn’t agree with 100% or couldn’t see, feel, or hear the result for myself. I like trying to reinvent ideas and challenging myself with new concepts. Some things I try work unexpectedly well and some don’t. There is a bit of mystery involved to be quite honest. Sometimes rationality and reality are two completely different things. That is why I love getting more experience. I can rely less on physics and science and more on my own intuition. It is a great thing to not have to weigh things anymore and get stiffness to weight ratios. I am getting closer to the point where I can just tell how to treat a particular soundboard to get it to react the way I want.
TT: But your choice of tonewoods is quite “traditional” from what I have seen so far… is that intentional?
KB: Wood selection is really important to me and becoming increasingly so as time goes on. I have been doing a lot of research on some of the historic builders and getting ideas from their instruments and trying to understand their building philosophy. It seems so simple but I think for a while I was getting too caught up in the next new thing and largely overlooking tradition. I am interested to see where this takes me in the future. So many things are happening now with composite tops, double tops, double backs, triple backs, lattice, carbon fiber, etc. and many of the ideas are contradictory to what used to be held as true. I guess each builder must find his or her own way because science, intellect, and theory is not a substitute for experience. As the saying goes, “that works in practice, but will it work in theory”.
Some builders rely so much on their design that the wood selection becomes secondary, like having a very thin soundboard that loses the sonic quality of that particular type of wood because it is so thin, or using very non-musical woods for the bracing like balsa. I was using balsa for a while, but when I actually took weight measurements the difference between spruce bracing and balsa/graphite was negligible. Granted the graphite is stiffer, but I think that amount of strength is overkill for my design.
It really stopped making sense because I realized I was basically gluing sponges to the bottom of the soundboard. I think that using spruce and/or cedar for bracing really brings out richness in the sound that was absent with the balsa design. I always thought my balsa/graphite guitars were good, but there was something missing from the sound. The newer design has definitely put the guitars into a better realm. But, these are just my opinions and observations and do not necessarily carry over for other people or other builders. There are many different ways to obtain great results I suppose.
I mainly use cedar and spruce for the soundboards, but I am fairly sure that Redwood and Port Orford Cedar are in my future at some point. I have heard really good things about these woods but haven’t had the opportunity to try them yet. About 80% of my guitars are cedar, which have some very sprucey characteristics that a lot of customers enjoy. I have actually been working on some new bracing ideas using Phi as a starting point. It is still somewhat lattice braced, but more like overlapping fan bracing. All of the dimensions are based on the Golden Ratio, like spacing between the struts, strut length, angles, etc.
This really made sense to me as almost everything in nature is based on this ratio, the way that trees grow, our musical scales, harmonic overtones, etc. Stradivarius used this proportion a lot, as did many great architects, sculptors, painters, stock investors, and even doctors. The guitars have been very well received so far and I think this is going to be the direction I pursue indefinitely. I have only made three guitars with this design but they were very special instruments indeed.
TT: And how about the neck and back and sides woods?
KB: I have always used Spanish cedar for my necks because it is a bit lighter than Mahogany which is helpful because of the added weight of the truss rod. The back and sides are usually Brazilian rosewood, but I can really use any type of wood that is available in veneer form. For example, I am building a stunning macassar ebony guitar now for a customer. It has some very striking features and will likely be a very interesting guitar. Since it is a pressed back I can use very highly figured wood without worrying about longevity issues. It is nice using the arched back and laminated sides because I never have to worry about splitting or checking. When everything is assembled the back and sides are nearly indestructible.
I thought for sure that the laminating process would take some of the tonal qualities of the wood out of the equation, but it seems this is being discredited. I can hear a distinct difference in the tone of the back when it is glued up. The macassar ebony is the same design as the Brazilian backs, but the tone is much lower with a strong fundamental. The Brazilian backs have a very strong bell like quality, and Indian rosewood is somewhere in between the two. It is always interesting for people to hear such a wonderful sound from a laminated back. It has a lot to do with the glue used and the methods of construction.
My idea is to get the back and sides as stiff as possible. The sides maintain the motion of the soundboard and the back to reflect sound waves efficiently from the top. The doming on the back is functioning like a parabolic reflector which will send the waves in a different direction than where they originated from thus eliminating wave interference which will make for a much more even tone. It also helps a lot with projection and volume.
TT: When you talk about laminating the backs how do you go about it?
KB: I have been experimenting recently with how that backs are made. I have been altering the number of layers to see how this affects the tone, using different types of woods for the interior, and using different brands of adhesives. I will use anywhere from 4 to 7 layers, depending on what type of sound I am trying to get from the guitar. The laminates are stacked on top of one another with a very strong two-part glue that is formulated specifically for structural lamination. This reduces veneer creep and distortion that would be caused using other types of glues. These layers are placed in a mold that has a very pronounced compound arch. The whole assembly is then placed in a vacuum which uses atmospheric pressure to press the substrates into the shape of the mold. It is left in the press for at least 8-10 hours.
The whole process is much more labor intensive and difficult than using a traditional solid back. Working with veneers is difficult because they are so fragile and getting everything lined up properly while in the mold presents its own set of difficulties. Then there is actually making the mold, finding the right vacuum press, researching different adhesives, and figuring out a process that will yield satisfactory results. Despite the increase in time, energy, and money, I really don’t think I will ever go back to solid woods though. The results are too rewarding.
TT: So there’s no lattice work between the layers?
KB: Not yet. It is something I have thought about, but have not tried. The laminate process keeps the back and sides pretty stiff. My guitars are somewhat heavy, but nowhere near some of the other lattice guitars. I think the main advantage of the lattice system is to decrease weight and maintain rigidity. I am not so concerned with weight on the back because it is not moving like the soundboard. If I were to try something like this I would probably use Nomex and layer it similar to a double top. I have read some interesting things about nomex and its tendency to break down under certain circumstances so this may not ever happen. I guess it is a good thought experiment though.
TT: I see! Maybe it’s time to talk about finishes?
KB: Yeah… I have tried a lot of different things, primarily because I have not been entirely happy with any one of them until recently. I think my days of experimenting with finishes are finally over! That is a really great thing to be able to say. Finishing is an art in itself and can be very finicky and challenging. It makes sense that a lot of luthiers are commissioning their work to professional finishers because the process can be so labor intensive and frustrating. I have used many different types of varnishes, oils, shellac, laquer, urethane, qualasole, and have used them in different combinations on different parts of the guitar. I think it is safe to say that until recently I have not used the same finishing methods on any two guitars.
I really used to like using urethane because it is very resilient and easy to care for, but as I worked with other finishes I realized it was a little too glossy and looked a bit out of place. There were certain things I liked about different finishes, but all of them seemed to have some negative qualities which would deter me from using it in the future. My newest method has been used on about 5 guitars now and everyone who has seen it absolutely loves it, including myself. I first use a type of epoxy to fill the pores and seal the wood. After that has settled I french polish the entire guitar, with the exception of the neck which is oiled, until I have built up a good base. I then spray 2-3 really thin coats of satin nitrocellulose lacquer over top. After that has cured properly I will then go over it with 0000 steel wool to eliminate any remaining sheen. The finish is extremely thin and has a very organic appearance.
I really prefer the look of these new instruments over their shiny counterparts, even if it is entirely french polished. I used to use this same process, but use a high gloss urethane instead of lacquer. The results were okay, but urethane is naturally very thick and does not evaporate or shrink like lacquer. Urethane cures by chemical reaction so what you spray on is exactly what will remain. Lacquer cures by solvent evaporation so it will actually get thinner as time passes. It is possible to get urethane very thin, but it is very difficult to get perfect. I recently posted new photos of a recent guitar on my website. I have been doing a lot of research, as I normally do, and it looks like these types of “hybrid” finishes are becoming more commonplace. I think it is a very good alternative to french polishing, both acoustically and aesthetically.
TT: but with the hybrid finishes, would repairs be more challenging than say a straight french polish?
KB: Not necessarily. If I used urethane the repairs would be much more difficult because urethane does not amalgamate like shellac and lacquer. It is also nice that lacquer and shellac are very comfortable with one another so you don’t get any adhesion issues. Repairs can be done just like if you were repairing a guitar finished with only lacquer.
TT: How about something which folks don’t tend to talk a lot about: scale lengths?
KB: Scale length is really important. My typical instrument has a 653mm string length with compensated nut and saddle. A shorter scale means less tension is needed to bring the guitar to concert pitch which can have adverse effects on the instrument’s sound. It is possible to offset this a bit during the building process, but not entirely. Some guitars will be affected more by changes in scale length than others for whatever reasons. I feel like there are a lot of ways to make a guitar easier to play for someone rather than changing the scale length, like reduced neck thickness, neck width, neck profile, string spacing, etc.
Working with the builder directly is very beneficial because you have the opportunity to discuss issues that were problematic with previous instruments and really find out what the customer is looking for in the guitar, sonically, visually, and mechanically. After talking with the customer about the pros and cons of a shorter scale they almost always opt for the standard scale and are very pleased with the results. I really like using 660 scales because of the tonal benefits, but it is fairly rare that I get an order for a longer scale.
TT: I see I see. Well in terms of the board strokes of building philosophy I was wondering if you felt that materials should be modified and molded with a specific tonal goal in mind or whether these materials should be optimised to produce their own inherent tonal characteristics?
KB: Very good question Terence. I think a great builder will have a strong design, high quality materials, and the knowledge to combine the two in the best way possible. If any of these are missing the guitar will probably not stand out in a crowd. On one end of the spectrum there are those that rely largely on the design itself, modifying materials that were not originally intended for ‘music’ necessarily and changing the more traditional materials so that they basically lose their inherent tonal qualities.
On the other end there are those that use a very traditional design that has been used countless times before and use their skills, knowledge, and materials to make that particular design have its own unique voice and really optimize the tonal characteristics of the materials. Each method has its own challenges and benefits.
There is no consummate sound because everyone has their own preferences so it makes sense that there are so many different designs and philosophies that attract different players. I have changed my ideas about what I am trying to achieve several times in the past and each time a new design and new materials were sought out to bring that goal to fruition. I will naturally use materials that I feel bring out the tonal characteristics I am looking for while constantly modifying them until the best result is achieved.
TT: Thanks so much for speaking to us Kris, maybe before we go, I can ask you if you had any advice for players looking to order a custom guitar?
KB: Thanks so much for the opportunity to rant and I apologize for my sometimes long winded responses!
It is a very competitive market right now so finding an outstanding instrument for a fair price should not prove too difficult. With that being said, having so many options may prove to be somewhat overwhelming. I would definitely do the research and make sure the builder has good references and is easy to work with. I have seen a lot of builders (mainly in other countries) building guitars outside an environmentally controlled shop and using really inferior woods that will surely crack over time. They may look and sound good at first, but you are asking for trouble in the long run. It is also really important to play a few of the builder’s instruments because each will be different, sometimes drastically, and this way you can more easily relate what it is about each guitar that you liked to the luthier. Ordering a new instrument can be intense and overwhelming because there are so many options and there are some luthiers who are great at building instruments, but not so good with customer service.
A good luthier to work with will be someone that is able to walk you through the steps and make the process much easier to ensure you are happy in the end. I try to build strong connections with my customers so they are not hesitant to ask questions or feel like they are being too inquisitive. I think most people know pretty quickly when they find a guitar and builder that resonates with them. If the relationship seems off for any reason, I would be hesitant to continue with the order.
Thanks again Terence, I thoroughly enjoyed your questions and talking with you about guitars. If there are any questions, comments, observations, or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me directly.
©2010 Terence Tan.
Pictures & MP3s courtesy of Kris Barnett © individuals 2009
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