Gurian Gossip By David Johnson | Gurians and Their Skinny Necks
I love Gurians. I first saw two of them hanging on a guitar shop wall in Dobie Mall in Austin, Texas in 1981. They were next to the usual assortment of Gibsons, Martins, Epiphones, and the cheap imports of the day. The size 3 in particular looked a bit … different. Clean and simple, with that elegant bell-shaped lower bout. When I took it down and played it, I knew I had never, ever heard such an instrument before. It was love at first strum.
I was there because I had a brief – very brief – fling as a studio musician, and I knew that my own guitar wasn’t up to the recording session I had coming up the following day. I couldn’t afford the breathtaking price of the Gurian S3R I was playing (it cost as much as a Martin!), but perhaps the shop owner would let me rent it for a day? “That one’s not leaving the store unless someone buys it,” he said of the S3R. But when he saw my disappointment, he added, “that one, on the other hand, I guess I could let go for a day. You need to take real good care of it, though.” I hadn’t seen the S2R at first, but when I swung around and spotted the slightly smaller Gurian, I agreed before I even picked it up. Then I tried it out, and knew my recording session would be blessed.
Fast forward 23 years. I had given up on the music thing, gone to law school, married, and started a family, all the while clinging to a nice-looking but inferior import guitar. It was completely laminated – top, sides and back – with tuners that had to be adjusted after every song. It sounded decent for about the first half hour after changing the strings, then went steadily downhill from there. Well, I had a birthday coming up, and my wife asked why I had never gotten a better guitar, one that I would really enjoy and play all the time. The truth was, it just hadn’t occurred to me that I could now afford one. So with her consent to spend up to $XXXX, I went shopping. The first thing I thought about was the Gurians I had seen, years before.
I soon found Steve Spellman at The Guitar Shop on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, DC. It turns out that Steve used to sell Gurians, lots of Gurians, and he still had one tucked away that I might want to see. So I tried out an absolutely pristine D series Gurian JR, and for comparison, he brought out four or five other exceptional guitars, mostly hand-built or at least boutique.
I arrived ready and willing to buy the Gurian, but Steve was wise enough to have me test drive it next to other, comparable heavy-hitters (I won’t mention their names, except that on that day I seriously considered an extraordinary Everett). But aside from having the tone I remembered, I noticed the Gurian’s tonal neutrality from bass to treble and all the way up the fretboard, its incredible sustain, and its haunting overtones. I took the JR home.
The revelation that I could now afford a decent guitar broke something loose in my mind, to the dismay of my formerly indulgent wife. I believe its common name is GAS, guitar acquisition syndrome. I realized how fortunate I had been to find a pristine Gurian, since there were hardly any Gurians to be found anywhere, regardless of condition. So I turned to that great/awful source of vintage guitars, the one all shop owners warn the perils of – eBay.
Before long I had 3 Gurians: the JR I bought at The Guitar Shop, a wonderful A series S3R, and a splendid D series S2R. But something still wasn’t quite settled for me. It took several more years, a bunch more purchases and a number of trades before I came to the conclusion that I was on a mission. It turned out that few modern guitar players knew about Gurian guitars, even if they otherwise knew something of the quality difference available in high-end guitars. I felt a need to alert new guitarists to the existence of great vintage guitars, particularly Gurians. To do that, I first had to find old Gurians, typically under guest room beds or in the closets of people who were done with them. Then I had to fix them up and get newer players to try them out. (Fixing them up, though not always necessary, is another story. If you can’t bear the possibility of buying a vintage guitar with issues, buy a new guitar instead – or at least buy your vintage instrument from a reputable guitar store. Your ability to sleep well is worth something!)
As of this writing, my self-imposed mission has resulted in the purchase of 48 Gurians, all but 2 of which I’ve either sold, given away or traded. The first A series S3R I found remains my favorite. I gave a C series S2R to my youngest daughter, and I’m planning to give a D series S3R to my older daughter. (Shhh … don’t tell her. It’s a surprise.)
I’ve now owned, at one time or another, almost 1% of Gurian’s lifetime output – estimated at 5,000 guitars. I’ve owned Gurians in sizes 2, 3 and jumbo, a cutaway, and even a size 1. (Yes, Gurian built a size 1, essentially a parlor-sized guitar.) I’ve owned a couple of his classical guitars, and a flamenco. I’ve owned Gurians made of Brazilian rosewood, Indian rosewood, mahogany, cyprus (the flamenco), and koa. Having found new homes for 46 of these fine guitars, I’ve had lots of conversations with purchasers and potential purchasers. And I’d like to address, right up front, the only consistent complaint I hear about Gurians: many guitarists think that their necks are too narrow.
It’s preferable to select a guitar by blind comparison, trying out a wide range of instruments of different brands, sizes and styles without knowing the particulars. Choose what you like best that way, then learn the specifications of your choice(s), and double-check to see which elements really matter to you. After you’re in love with how a particular instrument plays and sounds, stick with those specifications, not the ones your friend likes and recommends. If you go shopping on the basis of some pre-determined set of specifications before you’ve tested them out yourself, all you’ll wind up doing is selecting between similar instruments, none of which might be optimal for you.
Remember, too, a good test comparison won’t be a one-time event. Your guitar needs and tastes may change over time. You may also find that you need more than one kind of acoustic guitar to complement all the kinds of music you play.
By approaching the selection of a guitar this way, some people find they like OM size guitars, and that dreadnoughts are too awkward to play (or vice-versa). Some people prefer the sound of mahogany over rosewood, or walnut over both. Some people insist on an Adirondack spruce top; some want cedar; others are fine with the excellent sound of the ubiquitous Sitka spruce top. And for purposes of the current discussion, people tend to zero in on what they like in a neck profile.
This kind of shopping is, and ought to be, fun. Why waste this opportunity by following a fad, the herd mentality, or received wisdom? But for every person who has really tried out different guitars, and knows what he prefers in terms of nut width, string spacing, scale length and neck profile, it seems there are three others who’ve relied on someone’s advice, without considering that their optimum guitar might be quite different. Does everyone in America need a 1-3/4″ nut, and a medium C neck profile?! Of course not. But you sure wouldn’t know it listening to the guitar chatter out there.
Gurian started building steel string guitars in 1968. That’s when acoustic guitars came back into vogue, after a brief but intense worldwide interest in electric guitars. Gurian decided to build most of his acoustic guitars with a 1-5/8″ nut, just a tad narrower than the then-most recent standard size,1-11/16″. Gurian apparently figured that the narrow neck would feel familiar to people who were used to playing electric guitars, especially the guitarists he most wanted to please – professionals. He wasn’t dogmatic on the topic; he was just building guitars that he thought made sense for the times. When he was asked to build a guitar with a wider nut, he did so. Paul Simon asked for one, and still proclaims it as his all-time favorite guitar. But I doubt Jackson Browne, Joan Baez, Stephen Stills, Bob Dylan, Richie Havens, ABBA, John Sebastian, Ezra Idlet and Jimmy Buffet all asked for wider, custom fretboards on their Gurians; if they had, he surely would have changed his standard specifications.
Customized Gurians are out there. I’ve seen steel string Gurian guitars with nut widths of 1-11/16″, 1-3/4″, and even 1-7/8″. I’ve also seen Gurians with nuts as narrow as 1-9/16″. Most, however, have nuts 1-5/8″ wide. Some people with big hands, or frankfurter fingers, or classical (s-t-r-e-t-c-h) training, can’t get comfortable with a narrower fretboard. That’s to be expected.
But sadly there are lots of folks out there who dismiss Gurians before even trying one. Some are people with small hands. Slender fingers. People used to playing electric guitar. Many of them have it in their heads that they have to seek out a guitar with a 1-3/4″ nut, or 1-11/16″ at the narrowest, because they heard that somewhere. These folks are robbing themselves not only of finding an instrument that may suit their playing needs better than what they think they want. They’re missing out on some real bargains in the tone department.
Gurian wasn’t the only guitar maker from his era making guitars with skinny necks. For example, most Mossmans in those days had 1-11/16″ nuts, but a few had 1-5/8″ nuts. Don’t pass them up, either.
One of the secrets of the fantastic Gurian sound could in fact be that the slightly narrower fingerboard reduces neck mass, much like the more expensive trick of slotting the headstock. But aside from tone, a key consideration for accepting the 1-5/8″ nut found on most Gurians is that at least one-half of the world’s population is made up of women, and they often have smaller hands than men. As more and more women become guitarists, one might wonder why on Earth, third planet from the Sun, they should look for a wider nut?
Responses to David’s Article:
Kevin Hall (read an interview with Kevin here):
“I’ve seen a good number of Gurians over the years and have never particularly associated them with any serious neck troubles due to that oddball joint. Well, the joint itself is straight-forward enough, it’s just the manner of fixing it in place which is screwy. The two tapered ebony pins inserted through the sides of the block are a reasonable way to secure the tenon in the mortise but it’s a nightmare for repair folks who haven’t heard about ’em before trying to pry the neck off for a reset.
Tapered pins are sound engineering practice in metal work of course, but not quite as sensible in woodwork, especially when the pins are made of a wood ( in this case ebony) which is known for a good bit of expansion and shrinkage under humidity fluctuations and they’re in a mahog. block. They’re almost impossible to spot when you’re working through the soundhole, even if you know they’re there. For an unitiated repair person they could cause serious trouble. Even if told it’s a pinned mortise and tenon joint, most folks would associate that with the vertical dowels under the fingerboard as recommended in the early Sloane books rather than Mikes’ novel take on the idea.
Mike Gurian was a jigs and fixtures nut with a good background in metal work, so it would have seemed like a good idea to him at the time. I was warned about the joint many years ago, before I’d had to reset any, by the late Bill Lewis. Bill was a good friend of Gurians’ and had a hand in some of his design ideas. While I never met Mike, Bill told me enough about him that I would have loved to have had the privilege.”
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