David Antony Reid Guitars. Luthier Interview

David Antony Reid Guitars. | 2010 | Luthier Interview

David Antony Reid is a London based luthier with a passion for perfection and flair for the unusual. His vault back guitars have been highly rated in the UK and even won the best acoustic guitar over 1000 sterling from Guitar Magazine. We are very fortunate to be able to drag David away from his workbench for this interview.

TT: Thank you for taking the time for this interview, David. Maybe you could share with us how you started as a luthier?

DAR: I actually started out of necessity.  I had always wanted to have a guitar and learn to play but could never afford one.  When a friend came over to me one evening with a few beers, – many years ago now – he brought a guitar as well; after a few drinks he didn’t care to drag the guitar back home with him, so asked if he could leave it with me.  So, the next day, while practicing what he’d taught me on it, I examined its construction and realised that I could probably make one if I had the certain machined parts which were obviously factory made.   The machine heads being the most obvious ones.

I took a load of measurements then went to my local guitar shop, ‘Bandwagon” in Perth, Scotland, not Australia!  There I asked if I could buy some machine heads, strings and fret wire.  The owner, Pete, happily obliged but asked what I was up to, I told him and he said he’d like to see it after I was done.

I set off to my local timber merchants and got some high grade oak veneered ply wood, some pine for braces and blocks, some oak for a fingerboard and a pot of wood glue.  They asked me there what I was doing too and after telling them, one old man said, “You’ll need something for the neck”.  I told him I had some timber for that, then he asked what I would carve it with; I told him, “A knife”.  “No, you’ll need a spoke shave”, the old man told me.  I didn’t even know what that was back then until he explained it.  He told me he had one he didn’t use and he’d stick it through my letterbox that evening if I gave him my address.  Sure enough, he did – and I still use it to this day!

So, with a scaffolding plank for the neck, the wood I’d bought, the machine heads and fret wire, some ceramic tiles for inlays, golf tees for bridge pins, some brass for a nut and saddle, some very basic hand tools and a ‘Black and Decker’ workmate, I set about destroying my newly fitted kitchen.  Just as well I wasn’t married!

When I finished a couple of weeks later, I took the worst guitar you’ve ever seen to the guitar shop where Pete laughed his arse off!  But, he said it worked right enough and encouraged me to make another with the proper woods, and to take “a lot” more time over it.  He also gave me some suppliers’ details and a bit of advice on what guitarists want.   Two years later after another instrument and a good few repairs I received an unconditional offer to join the second year of the guitar making course at ‘Anniesland’ college in Glasgow.  I did another two years at ‘London Guildhall’ after that.

TT: I hear of quite a few luthiers from London Guildhall- maybe you would tell us a little about that course and the one you undertook in Glasgow?

DAR: Yeah, there are quite a few makers coming out of London Guildhall every year, or London Metropolitan as I believe it is called now.  It is a much larger course than Anniesland, and they do up until degree level, where as Anniesland can only take you up to HNC level – well, that was the case 10 years ago at least, that may have changed now.

Both courses have their advantages and disadvantages.  Guildhall has incredible facilities and a broader range of luthiers teaching.  They also have great science lectures.  I learned far more about acoustics and material science there than I did at Anniesland.  Another advantage is that you are surrounded not only by guitar and violin makers, but double bass, viola, cello, woodwind and piano tuners, too.  You can have an input there that rivals the Glasgow course from a cultural point of view.

On the other hand, Anniesland has incredible instrument making lecturers, and had far greater time management between students, mainly because of smaller numbers. The teaching at Anniesland is first class.  Bill Kelday, a fantastic guitar luthier too, taught two days a week there; and Paul Hyland, a violin maker, was full time during my studies.  I would never have been the maker I am today had it not been for their teachings.  They are incredibly strict to the point that they shall have you re-do every part you make until you get it right; which was frustrating, but it honed your skills for sure!  I think a few students may have resented it at the time, but I’m sure they appreciate Paul and Bills efforts now.  They also had far more outings.  We went to many music related places, also concerts etc.  Also trips to supplier etc, often rounded off with a gathering at a pub somewhere!  One other great thing about Anniesland was that they give playing lessons.  I believe you can choose your instrument now but in my time there classical guitar and violin were compulsory.  I wasn’t so keen to learn the violin at the time but I’m really glad I did now.  Another string to my bow as they say!

Both courses were great, and very sociable; but If I was to chose one over the other, I have to say, it would be Anniesland. Newark College has a great guitar making school, too.  I actually did a one off lecture there myself back in December last year. I was impressed with the set up there.  Adrian Lucan, who I believe you know, lectures there.  And also one of my ex-classmates from Guildhall, James Lister, teaches there as well.  He is a classical guitar maker. All courses are worth considering for anyone interested in getting involved in lutherie in the UK.

TT: I see and where did you go after Guildhall?

DAR: After that I set up a workshop in Greenwich, London.  I have stayed in London ever since.  But I have had to move workshop seven times in ten years!  London is an extremely difficult place to make a business work.  The problem with commercial properties in a city like this is development.  All of the artists and crafts people get pushed out of the warehouses, etc.,  for luxury flats to be put in there place.  Or large property companies, one in particular which I’m sure I won’t be able to mention, have swallowed up all of the artists spaces in London and now charge a small fortune for the smallest of spaces!

I was very lucky in that one of my customers offered me a space he used to let, run by a very layed back landlady. It’s far more affordable and I share the space because it’s large.  I let out three of the spaces in my open plan studio, one to a painter, one to a sculptor, and the other to a great contemporary jazz band.  It’s a really nice eclectic environment to be in. I can also have a bang on the drums when  I need to take out any frustration, or play the piano when I want to chill out a bit.

Vaultback guitar
(click for fullsize)
A few of Davids vaultback guitars!

TT: Sounds like a great environment! I was wondering if you might share with us some of your construction philosophies? I am sure everyone is very curious about the vaultback model in particular.

DAR: For me the VaultBack makes perfect acoustic sense. There is a  very good reason why guitars are rounded in shape; it’s so the sound flows. It’s not just for comfort. So to make the back rounded is just an addition to this flow of sound waves. I feel that my VaultBacks are by far my best sounding guitars I make. But this isn’t just because of the rounded back. I feel strongly that it is also because of the blend of timbers used, too. I find that if you use a blend of tonewoods you get the best of both worlds. Not everyone would agree, and that’s fine; but I find it works for me, and I wouldn’t go to all that extra effort if I didn’t feel it worked – usually another 5-6 weeks work!

As well, subject to what most people initially think, they are much more robust than flat-backed guitars. Most who pick one up are afraid to touch it in the beginning, until I explain its construction. There is definitely no cause for alarm. They are ‘very’ strong.  Think of it as an egg shell, which is extremely strong considering its thickness. The VaultBacks also stand up to humidity change more due to the lack of braces running perpendicularly to the backs grain, which you do have on a flat backed guitar; hence the reason there are still plenty of renaissance period early guitars to be seen. Lets see if flat backs are still around in 400 years time!?

The down side, for some, is the added extra cost, of course.  But between the aesthetics, the tonal improvements and the extra durability, I still have a market for them, and sell all I make. I am actually currently making one for Guitar Gallery in Nashville, figured Spanish walnut and English cherry. They are my preferred instrument to make as they are far more challenging than a standard flat back, and I like to push myself.

TT: Mixing tonewoods is a very interesting concept- could you let us in your thoughts on this?

DAR: For me it‘s about  the different tonal characteristics of different tone woods, which is a much debated subject.  I find, and it’s only through my own extensive experimentation, that if I take two woods, one with a sharp attack, and one with a more rounded, softer tone, I get a more balanced final tone; which in union with my own bracing design, which also consists of a blend of timbers, then I get a more balanced full tonal spectrum.  Again, it is a much debated subject.  But it works for me, so I go to the extra effort for that reason.

TT: I see and which tonewoods do you perfer for various applications?

DAR: I’m loving paduk at the moment.  Some have likened it to Brazilian rosewood tonally.  It’s just so vibrant as well – until you expose it to too much UV light anyway.  You really have to watch that with it, it goes a muddy brown colour if you do expose it to too much sunlight.  I like to blend it with different maples.  As a rule I find that the more brittle woods have the sharp attack, and the softer cutting woods are more rounded.  In the current case, the walnut is the brittle one, and the cherry is the softer to the cut.  It’s hard to explain to anyone that hasn’t worked wood before, but when I say softer, it’s not that the wood is particularly “soft”, it’s the cutting feel I’m referring to, really.

It is a difficult one to explain, because, for example, flamed maple could seem very brittle to someone cutting it directly on the flame, but cut the other side and it will feel very different.  Ultimately, I guess, it has to be said that there is no substitute for a good feel and ear for your materials as a luthier.  You can read all the science in the world, and then apply it, but if you don’t have the feel, or ear, you won’t go very far towards a making a great sounding instrument

TT: Much has been made of tap tuning the top and I was wondering what you viewed as tap tuning and how you felt about it?

DAR: Tap tuning has to be one of “the” most debated of all lutherie subjects.  I personally do tap tone my tops and backs; and I know, from experience, what my body resonance shall end up being – which determines what the top and back notes need to be.

Most would argue that when you put all of these components together as a whole, the tap tones you sought are thrown out of the window.  I feel there is some truth in this: however, I feel that if you are aware of what happens with hindsight, then you know what notes to go for in order to work around this.  If you make the top and back to be at least a tone apart, then I find there is little chance of them actually becoming the same note when they are adjoined.  It is, after all, mainly about separating the notes so there is less chance of having one dominant note when the guitar is played. And as I mentioned, I know what to make my top and back because I know what my body note is going to be.  It all comes down to experience, really.

Some makers I know go for a particular body note to suit a particularly dominant key in the music to be played with a particular guitar.  I have done that in the past, but I don’t really want to make guitars that are restrictive in any way.  After all, instruments can change hands over the years!  And I think it defeats the purpose of the tap tones in the first place to put emphasis on that strongest of them all – the body note.

One of the issues I see with steel strung guitars is that classical players can view them as second rate, and only to be played by boys who never grew up .  That does not have to be the case, and shouldn’t be.
I feel that tap tones are just another addition, as well as the many other structural refinements I spend many more hours laboring over, towards a proper, high-end precision musical instrument.  Which is what people deserve to get if they are paying a lot of money.  I feel that the work should have gone into it.

Gent Model
(click for fullsize)
Parlor sized Cantilevered neck
Scale : 630mm/ 24.8″ Cedar Top
Back is figured ‘service’ Purpleheart rosette and bindings

TT: And how about finishes for your instruments?

DAR: Finishes for me is a really big one.  You either want an instrument to be an ornament; or you want it to be a working tool.   I do both finishes.  Gloss lacquer, polished to a pristine shine.  Or, I have my RealWood finish, which is a thinly applied matt nitro cellulose without any grain fillers.  There’s too much to explain here as to why I do this, but I have a big write up on the “Projects” page of my website, under the heading: FAQ.

In short, to achieve a perfect, flat sheen on a guitar, you need to fill the grain and build up enough layers of lacquer  to ride over any fine discrepancies in the wood.  Now, that might seem like a very fine tolerance; but in the “fine” musical instrument sense, it’s huge!  You only have to feel the difference in weight of an instrument after all of the gloss lacquer has been applied to realise the difference it’s going to make to the tone of the real wood.  The violin family of instruments don’t suffer sacrilege in this way, so why the guitar?  It’s mainly because most guitar players want an ornament. But just because it’s not shiny, it doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate the natural beauty of the RealWood!

A gloss lacquer does offer marginally more protection in the way of dinging the guitar etc; but for me, when it’s a working tool, I can live with that.  So the majority of my customers who buy a Realwood finished guitar are working musicians who notice the difference this kind of finish makes to the tone.  Or they’re just very careful in nature!

TT:Is there any difference in maintaining a realwood as compared to a gloss finish?

DAR: They are very different, yeah.  With the RealWood finish you can touch it up ridiculously easily.  So even if the guitar does get dinged I can fix it cheaply.  I can also offer a truly bespoke service of changing neck profiles etc, very easily, too.

To clean it you don’t polish it like a gloss finish, you just need two cloths.  One slightly damp one, and a bone dry one to wipe off straight after you use the wet one.  Some mild detergent could be used if necessary.  For excessive neck grim you can give it a light rub with some 0000 wire wool.  They are actually easier to look after than a gloss finished guitar, really.

TT: Very cool. Over the course of doing interviews quite a few luthiers feel that scale length is very important part of the guitar design- would you agree?

DAR: Absolutely. It’s the scale length, as well as the string gauge of course, that set’s the tension of the guitar – which affects the tone fundamentally. Therefore, I build my guitars to suit a certain string gauge, over a certain scale length. For example, the new model of guitar I’ve just started making has a short scale of 630mm, which I string with 11s for a very particular feel and tone. I have to take all of these things, as well as the structural design of the guitar, into consideration so I can be sure it will work as a fine musical instrument. It takes a lot more work that you’d think to produce an instrument that isn’t just another Martin copy.

If I make an instrument as a commission it’s very important that I know what gauge of strings the player intends to use so I can have it perform at it’s optimum with that particular gauge. A lot of people think you just need to change the setup of an acoustic if you change gauge, but there’s a lot more to it than that.

TT: Speaking of scale lengths and string guages, there’s a lot of talk going around about stainless steel frets….

DAR: I haven’t used it. I use the Japanese nickel-silver stuff. Which is the hardest wearing of the standard fret wires, and I’ve never felt the need to use anything else. I’m sure stainless steel would keep slightly better in a few ways, but it’ll also be harder to work. Which will be time consuming, and therefor off-putting to some luthiers.

I feel that if it’s what a customer wants though, then that’s what you provide.  I’m sure it wouldn’t end up putting too much time on the end result!

TT: I see. Is there one particular guitar or specifications that you are best known for, or at least what most of your customers order?

DAR: I’ve made all sorts over the years; tenor guitars, lap style guitars, classical guitars, electric guitars, parlor guitars, cantilevered neck guitars, side beveled guitars, OM and 000 size guitars, 12, 13, and 14 fret neck joint guitars; but I’d say I’m probably best known for my VaultBacks.

When I meet people they usually say, “Oh, you’re the guy that does those stripy backed guitars”!  It makes me laugh a little because when you look at them straight on, the back can look a bit like a football shirt, or a Brighton beach deck chair!  It’s not until you see them in the flesh that you really get it.  You don’t really see the three dimensions in a photo, and that’s what really makes them.

They are a little bit of a Marmite guitar, you either love them, or you don’t!  I do love them, and that’s why they’re my favorite to make.  But I’d say I’m best known for them because they are different and they stand out.  And I guess that is ultimately what I love about them, they are very different from your Martin copies, or Gibsons and Taylors.  And my customers who buy them are looking for that something very different.  It’s good to break the mould and not just be one of the crowd, I’m sure John Lennon used to preach that.  Wise man!

TT: I see and I was wondering if you had noticed any differences between the UK or European builders and the Americans? Having come through a fairly formal diploma system I am sure you have come into contact with many instruments from various countries?

DAR: Absolutely!  For me it seems like the Americans, after being the pioneers of the steel strung guitar, have evolved past what it started out to be: that is to say, the bespoke luthiers like myself, at least, have gone beyond what was set by the likes of Orville Gibson or Christian F Martin (even though Martin was a German).  There is huge room for development with the guitar.  It does not work well as an instrument in the classic form.  I feel it has far more potential as an instrument and I therefore follow the innovative Americans when it comes to the experimentation of contemporary guitar designs.  A large percentage of UK and European luthiers – more so in the UK – are far more conservative when it comes to guitar design.  Which I feel is a real shame.

But, that said, I also feel that there is a much larger market in the Americas for the exotic.  Which I don’t like.  They seem to have an obsession with the likes of fossilised mammoth tusk for saddles, or the most extravagant tonewoods that put indigenous tribal peoples, and many other animals and plant life, to the brink of extinction!  There is also a market for that here, undoubtably; but I see a far larger commerce for it there – and in Japan, too, actually!

I’m doing my best to stop using materials that are overly damaging to the planet and its life.  It has to be the way forward.

I spoke to someone only just two days ago whose  company made a guitar case for one of the biggest guitarists in the world – who I better not mention – out of crocodile skin.  It cost an absolute fortune.  I find that sort of thing outrageous.  But there will always be a market for exotic lutherie materials, the same as there is still a market for tiger parts out there.

Us luthiers need, desperately, to start showing players that there are alternatives that should, and can be used.  Of course there are tonal and structural qualities to a lot of these sought after materials.  But the indigenous materials we have around us in both continents have incredible potential.  And with these innovative designs I speak of, we can make them work to their full potential, too!  It’s the mentality of the players, and the luthiers, that needs to change.

TT: Would you find in Europe the acceptance of less well known domestic woods better?

DAR: Well, marginally, I guess. They tend to just use Indian rosewood as a safe bet, really. In France, Italy and Spain there is quite a large usage of Cypress and Walnut. But they aren’t particularly great examples to make – because there aren’t any, really! I know quite a few makers in the UK who are using Yew. Which I love, and am yet to use myself to be honest.  But I use a lot of apple, cherry, pear, service, maples and sycamores.

One of the troubles with the fruit woods, to be honest, is the girth of the trunks of these trees. The heart-wood in them doesn’t have much of a diameter, and therefore is difficult to saw in sizable quarter-sawn billets to be used for instrument making.  But, that’s where my VaultBacks come in.

The quarter sawn thing is a problem; yet, when exotic and desirable materials, such as Brazilian rosewood, – to use the best example – become scarce, makers, and players, all of a sudden become accepting of slab sawn Brazilian. I find this hilarious!  The same is also true for adirondak spruce. The grain in some of these tops used is about 5 grains to the inch: not the suggested 25! Yet they still sound great! The quarter sawing is for stability, of course, but the grains per inch stuff is just rubbish. The only benefits from tight grain are stability and stiffness. Which a good luthier can work around.

All materials are inconsistent in many different ways, even between boards cut from the same trunk.  You can not have a standard thickness of top, for example; it’s down to the skill of good luthiers to work with these materials to their full potential.

TT: And how would you characterise the tonal qualities of the various fruit woods you use?

DAR: That’s always the hardest one, putting those sounds into words that don’t even exist in the English language.  Bassyer, more-rounded.  They don’t have the attack of rosewoods or walnut.  But they are not worse; just different.  Like cedar is different to spruce.  Personally cedar is my favorite tonewood, but most would go for a spruce.  I believe that’s because cedar is bland in appearance, where spruce can display some beautiful figure.  Most people usually perk their ears up when something is pretty.  I hear guys playing heavily bearclawed spruce top guitars in Mairants and telling their mates, “Aww, listen to that, lovely isn’t it.”  And I can hear in the background that it is a very average sounding guitar.  It’s a shame, really.

As I mentioned before, I much prefer to blend the woods together to get an overall picture.  Fruit woods do work well on their own, but they mix very well in my opinion.

-DAR Guitars

TT: I have to say that the other vault back guitar of recent times I have seen is one of Hiscox’s (of the guitar case fame) early ones- out of strips of indian rosewood. But ironically he doesn’t make a case to fit them- how do you get cases for yours?

DAR: Actually, Hiscox do a case for Ovations; which I did use for the VaultBacks in the past, but they aren’t the greatest fit.  So custom Calton cases are what I use now.  Keith Calton is a very busy man these days though, so you have to order them six months before you need them.  I usually order two at a time though, so I’m a bit ahead of myself!

TT: I see I see. Thank you very much for taking the time to speak to us, David. Maybe before we go, would you have any advice for anyone who was thinking of a vaultback guitar- whether to buy or to build?

DAR: No problem Terence, good to chat; it’s been a while!  I think the one thing I’d say to potential buyers is to just try one for yourself.  I mentioned earlier that a lot of people are afraid they are going to damage it because they seem delicate; but they are seriously robust!  They are, in my opinion, my best sounding instruments, too.  They are a bit more expensive, yes; but you get a whole lot less of a guitar for your money from some of the other high end instruments out there – and they have half of the work put into them, too.

For anyone thinking of making one: patience!  They take a long time!!

©Terence Tan.
Pictures & MP3s courtesy of David Antony Reid
© individuals 2010

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