Michael Sanden Guitars. Luthier Interview

Michael Sanden Guitars | 2010 | Luthier Interview

Michael Sanden is a Gotheburg based Swedish luthier who trained under both celebrated steel string maker Bozo Padunavac and classical luthier Georg Bolin. His guitars have been getting more publicity through his design work for Tanglewood guitars and we are very lucky to steal a few moments to speak to Michael about his training and his partnership with Tanglewood.

TT: Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Michael. Maybe you could share with us how you started as a luthier and what inspired you to learn from Messers Padunavac and Brolin?

NB: Everything started with a book i bought in 1976 or 77, that was called “steelstring guitar construction and repair” by David Russel Young. On the cover was the most beautiful guitars with inlays and half finished guitar bodies. I read the book atleast 10 times but did not understand everthing. I also subscribed on an acoustic magazine called Frets. In each number the visited a guitarbuilder. I loved to read about it. In one number they visited Bozo Padunavac in San Diego. He had a guitarbuilding school and I wrote to him and enlisted for à class.  This was in March 1982. After just one week at Bozos place I knew that there was no turning back. When I came home to Sweden I started to build as soon as I could. In 1984 a guitarbuilding school was about to start up with then the well renowned guitarbuilder Georg Bolin. I had tried to get in contact with him before but he did not take on any students but now he did. I applied for a space and got in to my surprise. So I was one of the first to study with him. After two years class I got my journeyman certificate.  This was in 1986. Both these masters was very inspiring to learn from. To this day I think of them and use something the learned me every day.

SRB Model
(click for fullsize)
SRB with an abalone and mother of pearl inlay fretboard. Top sitka spruce, back and sides east-indian rosewood and flammed koa bindings.

TT: Could you tell us about your experience with Bozo?

MS: It is almost 30 years since I went to study with Bozo Padunavac. It was also one of the first time I was abroad, so going from Sweden to San Diego was a really big thing for me. When I arrived the morning we had agreed on at his workshop at University avenue, there was big signs on the building saying “for sale”. And we were supposed to start at nine oclock in the morning but there was no Bozo. At ten aclock he arrived, then I was almost on my way home again, his car ahd broke down and he was late for the first time in 30 years. Anyhow we started right away to build. Bozo did not have many machines, a bandsaw , a small sander and a router, thats al. He did most of his work with a small knife. After so many years of work with his knife his underarms was huge and he was incedible strong. His decoration on his guitars was quite over the top but this came from tradition from Jugoslavia. He had excapt his home country in 1959. Bozo was very good as a teacher and explained everything I wanted to know. Unfortunatly I desided to build a guitar with all this decoration on. So when I got home trying to build my second guitar I had almost forgot everything about building the actuall guitar. The only thing I remebered was how to do the inlays. I stayed at Bozos place for about 8 weeks and I buildt one six string guitar and a mandolin and got started on a 12 string. Because he was selling his building and was supposed to move to Arizona, and this was in 1982, the synterzisers was really big. No one wanted to buy an acoustic guitar. From what he said he was going to quit building as soon he has sold his house. I think he was 54 years old then and had started to get some health problems. I learned afterwards that he had moved to Arizona and did other kind of work, and for years I did not hear anything about him until tha “The blue guitar” book came. He had contibute with two guitars to the Schrine musseum. He was now living in Florida and apparantly building again. As far as I know he is still living and doing well.

TT: And with Brolin, I understand the inlays weren’t so important?

MS: No, this was directly the opposite. Georg did not like inlays or high gloss laquer. This came from his involvement with the Carl Malmsten school, which he was headmaster for 27 years. Georg was only into sound and keeping everything else as low key as possible. However more or less all his instrument was in german spruce top and Brazilian back and sides so I guess the beauty was in the material itself.

TT: With formal teaching in two differing schools, could you share with us your building philosophies?

MS: With these two schools of building I think I got to see two completly different type of builders. When I today have my guitarbuildingclasses, I try to tell atendens (if they have the interest to continue) to take another class from someone else. Just to get another apinion on building a guitar. They will sound like a guitar, but the way to get there could be completly different. So my philosophie is, learn as much as you can from exprienced luthiers and choose what works for you, both in the building process and sound.

TT: And how about now, how do you tend to build your guitars?

MS: Well to answer it simple is that I use a mix of both world. But I think when you work everyday with building guitars you find your way. Today for instens I use alot of vacuum when I glue for a more even presure. This was not available when I started. I also think that my building evolves every day. So to say I build the same as I did a year ago would not be true. I think I have found my way of building and that is what I teach when I have my classes. This is my truth.

TT: And what tonewoods do you prefer?

MS: I build mostly steelstring guitars and I like the sound of a really good sitka spruce top and East-indian rosewood back and sides. Because I use this combination so much I have got to know the woods so well and I know what sound I can get from it.

TT: No Brazilian rosewood? European spruce?

MS: Of course, Ihad the fortune to be able to buy some Brazlian rosewood from Georg when I worked with him. However all that is now gone and regarding the German spruce, I think my guitars sounds better with sitka spruce.

TT: and do you offer inlays like on the Bozos?

MS: I do offer inlay works, but maybe not as alaborate as Bozos. But I do abalone trim around the top and almost always a abalone rosette. I have done all kind of tree of life inlays on the fretboard. I usuallt go thru with the costumer what they want and try to create something unice every time.

TT: I see and do most of your customers come from Scandinavia or the EU?

MS: Yes and so it has been for a long time. Right now I have alot of orders for England. I think about half of all I build goes outsider Scandinavia.

JOM Model
(click for fullsize)
Short scale mandola. Swedish maple
German spruce
Magnolia inlay in mother of pearl and gold mother of pearl.

TT: Are there any patterns in the way people from different countries order guitars from you?

MS: The only pattern I can see is that the orders from Great Britian has gone up quite much. But that is because of my designwork with Tanglewood guitars. And thru them my name have been noticed. I have also because of this now two distributer in England. This is all new to me, not actually meet the customer who is going to own the guitar. One good thing with this that I can spend more time in the workshop building and less time selling the guitars. We have also just recently teamed up with a distributer in Italy.

TT: Wow maybe you could tell us more about your work with Tanglewood??

MS: Tanglewood approched me because they liked the looks and sounds of my guitars. They think my guitars looks very Scandinavian. They had for quite a long time looked after someone who could help them design a new line of more high end guitars. Normaly their guitars stops at 1000 eur. These guitars I have design for them start at 1000 eur and ends at around 1600 eur. The line concisits of three models and in two different kind of woods. The guitars are made in Asia under my supervision. When they are ready to ship the guitars they come first to England for check up. Every guitar is taken up out of the case and will be inspected by TAnglewood staff trained by me.

TT: And your name is attached to these guitars?

MS: Well, yes it is. The name of this series are quite long Tanglewood guitars masterdesign by Michael Sanden. The models name are TSR and TSM. The T stands for Tanglewood S for Sanden and the last letter is either Rosewoos or Mahogany refering to the back and side material.

TT: How do you find the quality of the work from Asia?

MS: It is getting better and better. They are very eager to learn and they learn fast. With the factories that Tanglewood use they have a very extended quality control. But you have to be on your toes to check and check. They make so many guitars in these factories so if something is not good enough and you discover that when two or three containers arrive you have a big problem on your hands. I have visited the factory we use for the guitars I have designed acouple of times and it is a fantastic operation they have. I have learned a lot just watching how they work or solve problems.

TT: Is it different designing your own instruments and those for Tanglewood?

MS: Yes I have designed three new shapes and different bracing pattern from wich I use. I wanted to keep my guitars as exclusive as possible, even if you can reconice a lot of features. But everything is just a little different.

TT: Were there any changed you made to the design because of the construction techniques available in the factory?ors?

MS: There is a limit to what the factory can do and you have to addapt to that. The set up cost for completly new mold and fixture would gigantic. So that is one of the resons that it took up to two years to get these guitars finished.

TT: So what would be the main differences between the Tanglewood TSR and TSM instruments and your own guitars?

MS: I would say everything. I voice my tops for instance. I sand and carve the top and braces on each guitar to get maximium of each guitar. All the wood I use is hand picked for each guitar to match each other in that particular instrument. If I have contact with the player who is going to own and play the guitar I can taylor made the guitar for him. If I build to a dealer I build the guitar to fit my needs and how I think the guitar should be. Also on my giutar you have a lot of options you can choose from, like the fan fret and the True temperament fretboards. With iór without cutaway on all models, extra inlay work and so on.

TT:  I see, thanks for that. Maybe before we go, I can ask you if you had any advice for anyone looking at ordering one of your instruments?

MS: The people who order à guitar from me usually have been playing for awhile and usually owns one or two good guitars already. For me it is important to listen to what they need. What can I help them with to be à better guitarplayer.

©Terence Tan.
Pictures & MP3s courtesy of Michael Sanden
© individuals 2010

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