Nick Benjamin Guitars. | 2010 | Luthier Interview
TT: Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Nick. Maybe you could share with us how you started as a luthier and if you felt your background in engineering design helped you in your endeavors?
NB: I’m always happy to talk guitars!
In my teens I was forever designing things – strange bicycles, mountaineering equipment etc – I loved things that had a function and a resulting beauty of form and when I started playing the guitar, aged about 15, the object immediately fascinated me. One day I went to the local library to see if I could find any books on guitars and stumbled upon Irving Sloane’s ‘Classical Guitar Construction’ – if it had been out on loan that day my life may have turned out very differently!
My life as a full time luthier followed several years and several (fairly roughly built in my spare time) guitars later. When I finished school I went straight on to university where I studied ‘Engineering Design and Appropriate Technology’ but when I finished I thought I didn’t really want to be an ‘engineer’ – or rather I wanted to perhaps design and make stuff rather than just be a small part of a process. At that stage I hadn’t really considered that guitar making might even be a possible ‘career’ but I bumped in to Stephen Hill (ace Classical and Flamenco builder) who had helped me bend the sides of an earlier attempt and saw that he did seem to be making a living building guitars (I learnt more of the financial realities for myself later!)
Stephen was offering Spanish guitar making lessons but I wanted to try and make a steel string acoustic guitar so he pointed me towards Jeff Chapman who I then made my first acoustic guitar with over the weekends of the next year. When that guitar was finished I then went on to make a flamenco guitar with Stephen and ended up renting a bench in his workshop and getting started on my own.
My (academic) study of engineering design has certainly helped me greatly. Whilst I don’t do much actual calculation or scientific analysis of my designs the general concepts I learnt of what shape structures need to be to be strong and light, and ideas about resonance, materials and so on are in my head every day as I try to move my craft forward. It really helps to have a good spatial imagination to be a guitar maker and I suppose I am essentially a ‘design engineer’ who designs, builds and markets a product from start to finish!
NB: My first experience of playing the guitar was a couple of years of Classical lessons. I enjoyed playing Classical music to some extent and progressed to Villa Lobos preludes which I enjoyed a lot but I wasn’t listening to Classical guitar music much and a cheap electric guitar I bought from one of my friends started to take precedence over the Classical guitar quite quickly! Later I also started playing steel strung instruments in preference to my nylon strung Classical guitar – I found the brilliant and sustaining tone appealed to me far more and suited the types of music I was in to.
I had looked at some books on steel string acoustic guitar making as well as Irving Sloane’s Classical book but they all seemed to involve lots of scary looking power tools which I didn’t have access to so I ended up making two Classical instruments from that book and then an electric guitar of my own design before I made the first Acoustic and then Flamenco guitars with some proper tuition.
It was perhaps chance that led me to making Classical instruments first but, in hindsight, I would highly recommend starting with a true Spanish style guitar as a first instrument. The beautifully elegant simplicity of the face down on a board with integral neck Spanish construction method is ideal for a beginner with few specialist tools.
I think my Classical playing background has certainly led me to produce steel string acoustic guitars which respond well to finger-style playing. I have always played steel string guitar using my nails and so my designs have moved forward to (I hope) guitars which are sensitive and dynamic for finger-stylists.
TT: Speaking of necks, I understand you were offering a bolt on neck but moved to a butt jointed system- what made you change?
NB: The neck attachment system I usually use at the moment is still a bolt on joint – with both styles only the finger-board ‘tongue’ which overlaps the body is glued – the heel is secured to the body through the neck block via two bolts. My original style used a mortise and tenon joint (a tongue going into a slot) with two ‘barrel nuts’ mounted into the tenon. The tenon serves to increase the size of the heel and also locate the neck via its tight fit with the mortise. My current system uses the square section truss-rod which extends into the body as a locator and two screwed in inserts which go straight into the heel with no joint into the neck block (other than the truss-rod slot). Both systems work well but the butt joint style makes the crucial neck alignment much more reliably achievable – there are less intersecting parts trying to bind with one another – so it was a purely pragmatic choice. I can hear no tonal difference between the two styles.
My choice of neck joint perhaps sums up my guitar making ethos – it’s not what you do but how you do it. In other words: claiming one system or style of construction to be superior to another is often very misleading – the quality of execution of whichever system you use is far more important than which system you choose.
Every style of construction (throughout the whole guitar) has its pros and cons and you can make almost any system work if you use your experience and common sense to balance up the individual elements. Different styles of building produce different tonal textures and colorations – some people will like one style, others another – like music. The sound and feel of a guitar is good or bad purely on a personal taste level – assuming that is that the essentials are right such as stability, longevity, intonation, playability and so on. I make guitars in a style that I like to play and fortunately enough other people seem to like them too to keep me reasonable busy!
TT: I see that philosophy in your top bracing- 3 different types I count on the website! Could you share with us the differences between them and maybe let us know if you prefer one type over another given a specific top wood or top wood quality?
NB: I generally vary my style of building far less these days – I have found that the weighting of the struts is far more important than the style of layout in terms of the perceived tone and feel of a guitar. What I mean by this is how fine the struts are or rather how flexible they are is more important than the general layout or pattern and even whether you choose to take a central scallop from the main struts or use a strut that tapers gradually from the centre of the soundboard to the edges. You can make a soundboard with wide square struts and then deeply scallop the centres and still end up with a far less vibrant tone than one which has high but fine struts. Getting the profile or cross section of the strutting right is the most powerful tonal tool in my experience.
When using finer struts the quality of materials is very crucial and this is the huge advantage that an individual maker has over mass producers – when you only need small amounts of timber you can be very picky about which piece you use. I carefully select the best wedges of spruce I can find and then I cut them into rough bracing size pieces. I then handle each piece feeling its density and flexing it which allows me to assign each piece to be used for a particular job; X-brace, tone-bar, back-strut etc.
To answer your question more directly: on the vast majority of my guitars I now use struts which taper gradually from a central high point and then have short scallops (scoops) at their ends. The height of the strut gives me the control I want and the careful carving of their cross section allows me to get the responsiveness I am looking for. In smaller guitars I often use a central scallop on the main struts to open up the response in the lower end somewhat. I sometimes vary the angle of the struts for different top wood species but because I carve the struts for each guitar very individually using tap toning to judge the optimal weighting of the struts I can usually get the response I want from different top woods by using that method to compensate for different wood properties. Dana Bourgeois’ articles describe this ‘voicing’ process very well.
TT: And which tonewoods do you tend to favour?
NB: I tend to refer to all woods used in guitar construction as ‘tonewoods’ because every part makes a difference to the tone to some extent, but to take the normal meaning of the word: in general, I feel that wood quality is far more important than species for soundboards. Two pieces of wood of the same species can sound very different if their properties are different, such as density, stiffness along or across the grain etc. I am happy to use all sorts of woods for soundboards if I can get them with the properties I want. I have used Sitka, Alpine, Adirondack, Englemann and Lutz spruces and also Western Red cedar and redwood, all with good success.
At the moment I have some exceptional Sitka spruce in good quantities and for me it produces very reliably good and versatile sounding instruments especially when teamed with Indian rosewood or mahogany back and sides (although I like it with pretty much all woods). The balance of harmonics to fundamental in the tone of the notes from Sitka is very good to my taste.
Probably my second most popular top wood is Adirondack spruce – I quite often team it with the denser back and side woods, such as Cocobolo rosewood, where it’s woody sweet tone helps balance the deep and bright tone of most dense back and side woods.
Other spruces I use quite frequently are Lutz and Alpine. Lutz is a hybrid of Sitka and ‘White spruce’, it is essentially very similar to Sitka but with a paler colour – I have a few beautiful pieces so it’s a nice occasional alternative to Sitka for someone who likes that tone but wants something less run of the mill. Alpine spruce produces a very clear and precise tone, especially in a new guitar – it can be one of my favourite spruces for a very refined tone suited to complex finger-style playing – I used it with deep fat sounding Cocobolo rosewood for my recent hundredth guitar where it added a real extra sparkling dimension to the tone.
Cedar and redwood can be very similar in both look and tone, although some examples of redwood are much stiffer and denser which can give some extra headroom and presence. Both add a big extra layer of harmonic complexity to the tone of a guitar and also a very quick response to the notes which works very well for some finger-style players who love the great responsiveness and added tonal interest.
TT: How about bracing? Do you usually use the same spruce to brace? How about cedar and redwood?
NB: With strutting it is again all about the physical properties. It needs to be strong primarily which implies the wood must have a good continuous grain structure. My first tutor, Jeff Chapman, often used Douglas fir for his strutting which works very well and I used it for quite a few guitars early on. Now I use Sitka spruce almost exclusively because it has the properties I want and is usually very consistent. I have used Adirondack and Alpine spruce for strutting but consistency is a problem because the trees are generally small and therefore often have twisting grain or weak areas. I would not use cedar or redwood for top struts because they are usually much weaker (but lighter in density) this is fine for a soundboard which can be left a little thicker but the whole way the strutting worked would have to change to compensate – just making the struts bigger would probably not work well. Cedar or redwood may, however, be a great choice for use with carbon fibre laminations – something to try in the future!
TT: Thanks for that. Now comes the dreaded finish question- it must be a constant search for something which is tough, but easy to repair, looks good and is acoustically transparent….
NB: I don’t know a single guitar maker who enjoys the finishing process! It is the part of the job which can make or break the look and feel of a guitar and making guitars in small numbers, with therefore limited possibilities for the expensive finishing facilities of bigger shops or factories, puts you in a difficult spot. For years I resisted using sprayed on finishes – I just couldn’t afford, at that stage, to set up a proper spray room and the thought of the noxious chemicals involved really didn’t thrill me at all. So I tried pretty much every possible hand applied finish known to man (or rather – guitar making man) and after several years of struggle still never really found a satisfactory result.
French polish is often argued to be the best sounding finish but it is so easily marked – you just have to look at it in the wrong way – that it is really not practical for steel-string guitars which may have a plectrum waved in their direction at some stage or be played somewhere else other than a refined concert hall. I have also tried various oiled finishes and brushed on varnishes, etc, etc, but none worked reliably or were tough enough to stay looking good for any length of time.
Thus I finally bit the bullet and invested in a spray system: using my parents’ garage initially and then renting a local joiner’s spray room and finally fitting out my own facility about a year ago on a nearby farm. I use a specialist guitar nitro-cellulose lacquer which can have a matting agent added for satin finishes or be buffed up to a very high gloss. I think it finally gives me the best balance of all the properties you listed and, possibly most importantly, does it reliably.
TT: I see, so if you had a signature set of specifications, what would they be?
NB: Pretty much every guitar I make is slightly different because they are almost all made to order but most of them include, wooden edgings with a bound soundhole and no rings or rosette, Macassar or black ebony fingerboard, head-facing and bridge, extra hard Evo fret-wire, Mahogany neck with bolted attachment, two carbon fibre neck rods plus an adjustable truss rod, Gotoh 510 machine-heads with ebony buttons and a satin or gloss cellulose finish.
My core models are probably Cocobolo rosewood and spruce Jumbo, Indian rosewood with spruce or cedar Midi-Jumbo, and mahogany and spruce JOM (Jumbo Orchestra Model).
The nature of custom building (which is where I seem to have found myself) is such that there is always some detail or other (or often many) that will be different on each guitar!
TT: Your scoop cutaway is a bit unusual, I remember seeing something similar on an old Uchida guitar- and thought they worked beautifully (Micky being George Lowden’s shop manager back in the day).
NB: I would be very interested to see that design – the only other cutaways I have seen which are somewhat like mine (including one of Micky’s) are much more of a shallow bevel which is part of the binding rather than the deep cutaway I do which is formed from a bent piece of wood (similar to an extra section of side). I’m sure that someone else has at some stage had the same idea and with the current explosion of wacky features in the lutherie scene there are many related designs out there.
I have tried to make my scoop design very functional and simple rather than it being ‘guitar sculpture’. I do admire makers such as Matsuda and Uchida but for me form follows function and making deliberately complex guitars as visually artistic objects is not my personal pathway. I think that artistic judgement is most important in the sound of the guitar.
TT: Would you say that you design guitars to suit each player?
NB: To some extent, yes. I always try to get as much information as possible about what the player does and what they want the guitar to do – hearing someone play a couple of different guitars can often be the best way to see what might be needed. I then try to advise them on the body size and woods that I think will work best for them and when we have those choices made I then also bear in mind how they play whilst I am building the guitar – do they tune low or are they always in standard tuning – will they strum or play finger-style? All of these types of things will help me judge how tightly to build the guitar which is probably the most important aspect in getting different types of response as well as varying the ratio of soundboard thickness to strutting weight.
I do effectively redesign every time I build a custom ordered guitar – getting the strutting layout right for the bridge position for different scale lengths and even choosing how deep the body will be as well as the more obvious neck size and shape and string spacing. Ultimately, all my guitars are based on the style I have developed over my making career and unless someone asks for something radically different the changes I make for each player are fairly subtle but can make a big difference to the perceived response and function.
TT: There seems to be a few schools of thought: to manipulate the tonewoods and construction to achieve a tonal target, or to maximise the potential inherent to the tonewoods… would you say that you use a combination of the 2 in your instruments?
NB: Each piece of wood has its own inherent properties that you can’t do anything about but you can choose the right bit of wood for the job and you can use any given piece in many different ways. I would always want to go with the way a bit of wood is likely to work rather than try and make it submit to my will.
It is very like the ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate – many new parents think that if they follow all the ‘rules’ of parenting then their offspring will be the next prime minister but the little angels often have other ideas and a more flexible and subtle approach is required! You can, of course, choose or reject bits of wood: which is generally frowned upon where children are concerned!
TT: Just moving away from the finer points of construction a little – do you have the opportunity to do much repair work?
NB: I used to do a lot of repair and set-up work when I first tried to make a go of making guitars for a living and I learnt a great deal from looking at many guitars – good and bad! I still do quite a bit of pickup fitting but there was a certain point where I decided to give up general repairs. I had a reasonable number of orders at that stage and I felt it was getting hard to concentrate on both areas of making and repairing. The two are quite different in the way you need to apply yourself mentally and I find it quite difficult to switch from one to another. I used to do a whole day of repairs or a whole day of making but that became difficult to justify when more orders started to come in. I was fortunate that I could pass on many of my repairs customers to my good friend Richard Osborne: a fellow Lewes guitar (and mandolin) maker.
TT: From your experiences with American and European instruments, I was wondering if you have noticed any consistent differences between the European and American instruments?
NB: Unless you are talking Spanish classical and flamenco verses American steel string guitars then not consistent differences, no. I think the main differences in successful designs in each continent can be attributed to different populations playing different musical styles. The modern Martin style and its derivatives are essentially designed to work well for more traditional American playing styles which were indeed formed and invented on these instruments originally.
Many of the more successful earlier European designs still in production were developed in relative isolation from North American instruments and often have more unusual features and internal structures which can give them a unique tone. The most successful European designed guitars have often found themselves new musical niches; often amongst European fingerstyle players who frequently have a Classical playing background and in traditional European folk music or their modern forms such as ‘Celtic’ music.
Now there is so much information available and such a varied range of musical styles played all over the world that both continents produce a very broad range of instrument styles. With my making I look to take the solidity and focus of the modern Martin school and combine it with the harmonically richer and more sensitive European style (if there is such a thing) perhaps exemplified by George Lowden’s designs.
My designs have also evolved alongside the ever growing and improving amplification systems for acoustic guitars – I look for a very even tone which translates into a very balanced and stable amplified sound. Unlike previous generations I am never asked for a guitar which is as loud as possible so it can be heard at the back of a folk club but nearly all my guitars will have some sort of pickup system fitted. This is perhaps the modern guitar: not European or American and used in new environments to the original designs.
TT: So would you say that the widespread availability of good quality pickup and amplification systems have changed the way builders approach constructing their instruments?
NB: Historically, yes certainly. For example, if you look at the last century of the Martin company: in the ‘pre-war era’ the guitars were lightly built and used in quite low volume situations – no loud drumming or electric instruments; as music got louder into the fifties players started to use much higher tension strings to try and be heard and therefore Martin had to dramatically beef-up the construction of their guitars; for the next few decades the acoustic guitar perhaps became more of a stage prop, only really used effectively in the studio, live most players had to strum as loud as they could into a microphone; then came a new thing – the ‘electro-acoustic’ guitar – different to the older ‘semi-acoustics’ in that a pickup which theoretically gave an ‘acoustic’ sound was used rather than a magnetic pickup: this perhaps allowed the full acoustic guitar to go back to being what it was, thankfully.
In the last decade or so, finally, the less than satisfactory ‘acoustic’ tone of earlier electro-acoustic pickups has developed to a point where you might be happy to put a system into a decent acoustic guitar – in other words, one that sounds nice unamplified and isn’t just built to use on stage. I think most hand builders tend to build in a style that they and their customers like in an acoustic sense and then find pickups to suit and in many ways this is how I work. What I have certainly done though is make choices in the evolution of my designs that will work for both sides of use (as well as recording, which is another huge issue).
Pretty much all my customers want an acoustic guitar which will also sound good amplified and this is also my order of priorities. An even tone with nice rich overtones sounds great playing at home or recording in the studio and, if you get the balance of resonances right, can also work very well amplified.
Strong resonances on particular notes may be more or less unnoticed acoustically but as soon as you put a mic in front of a guitar in the studio or put in a resonant pickup system all those variations in response are dramatically exaggerated. I’m not saying my guitars have no variation in response over their full frequency range – they would sound deeply boring if they didn’t – but what I have tried to do is make a guitar which vibrates in such a way that these variations are much less dramatic than most guitars.
In the future I am planning to offer some guitars which are deliberately less broad and even in tone than my general style – for instance my deep piano-like jumbos do not lend themselves to earthy blues playing and I would like to make what might be referred to as a ‘blues model’ more suited to blues and jazz or more up-front acoustic styles. It would be a guitar with less sustain and loads of mid-range, possibly with some sort of tailpiece but flat topped…..when I’ve got time!
TT: So if you were asked to build a guitar say, solely for live playing, would you approach that in a different way than another say, for solely amplified?
NB: When a customer describes what they want a guitar for I certainly make recommendations in terms of wood combinations and body size in relation to the intended use but it is never a simple black and white choice. It is more subtle than ‘this works for this and this works for that’ and also people’s choices are almost always not just about practicality – music isn’t a practical thing, after all?
TT: So there are definitely trade offs when designing something for amplification vs. acoustic?
NB: With steel string guitars I wouldn’t say so particularly – it’s more that you need to think about what happens when you use a particular type of pickup in a guitar with a certain type of tone. For instance, internal microphones often work much better inside a mahogany (or similar) back and side guitar where there are less reflections and reverberations going on. I’m referring more to that type of choice rather than choosing to make a ‘traditional’ electro-acoustic which has a deliberately subdued acoustic tone. I would almost go as far as saying that the better the acoustic tone of a steel string guitar then the better the potential amplified tone can be (if you get the right system and set it up right).
Making nylon string guitars which amplify well is another matter however, and does require some reasonably large compromise. This is essentially because the relatively poor efficiency of lower tension nylon strings requires a much lighter build of guitar to achieve a loud and dynamic acoustic tone and this makes for guitars which usually don’t have a very stable tone amplified.
TT: And I know you have built guitars for folks like Newton Faulker and Tomas Leeb. How have your experiences been building for celebrity guitarists?
NB: I first built a guitar for Newton when he was still a student of Eric Roche’s so there wasn’t quite the pressure that I might feel if he came to me now! I look at making guitars for really good guitarists (famous or not) as a challenge which I (mostly) relish. Often the difficulty with making something for such players is that they already have a guitar or set up which they are very used to and making a replacement is not necessarily an easy task.
I think my outlook in the future will be to always make something which is fully within my normal tried and tested range of design and tone and hope that they will find new possibilities with an instrument which is different to what they are used to rather than trying to do my version of what they already have.
TT: Thanks for explaining that, Nick. I think it’s time for the controversial tap tuning question. A few luthiers like William Cumpiano have asserted that tap tuning isn’t that useful a tool, but there’s been a lot of confusion over what exactly is tap tuning! Maybe I could get your opinion on what constitutes tap tuning and how effective or useful you think it is?
NB: You are right about the confusion! There are basically two ideas which the term applies to.
The first comes from academic ideas about violins where it has been asserted that the great makers tuned particular parts of their instruments to particular resonant frequencies – in fact some claimed to find twelve distinct pitches in an instrument – one for each note of the chromatic scale. This idea of tuning to particular notes by tapping the unattached soundboard or back whilst adjusting the strutting has been largely discounted.
The widely used and very useful other meaning of tap tuning (or toning) is more ‘fine tuning’ rather than tuning to a certain pitch. I follow a method similar to that described by Dana Bourgeois and one also used by most makers I have met to some extent. The soundboard or back is generally held at certain nodal points (still points in between the main resonant wave patterns) and then tapped with the knuckle and the resulting sound listened to. This can be done at several points in the construction process: when thicknessing a top or back prior to strutting or when adjusting the strutting, in both cases to compensate for the woods’ individual properties.
The purpose of this is to compare the tone of the vibrating wood to that of previous pieces. As you gradually thin or lighten up a top or back the type of sound it makes when vibrating changes quite dramatically and you can use this to judge when you have reached the point you want to be at stiffness-wise. It is not a trick and relies completely on having done the same thing to many soundboards or backs in the past and knowing how those completed guitars then sounded.
I also do a final ‘tap toning’ adjustment to the soundboard after the guitar body is completed where I try to judge if the soundboard needs to be thinned slightly to reach the point I’m after.
If you strike the top or back in a way that you might play a tabla drum you can hear all the main resonant frequencies and determine the patterns of vibration by tapping in different places and this is the way I have sought to try to understand things such as wolf-notes and thereby adjust my designs to have an even response as I referred to earlier.
The process of tap toning can be very subtle and many people just can’t hear the differences. I always use this process so I don’t know how I would get on without it – I’m sure good guitars can be made without it but it would be much harder to get the tonal consistency unless some other method of judging and comparing is used. I think it would make me more like a factory if I didn’t use this method: where if the basic design is good and the materials are good then most of the guitars will be ok, some will be duds and occasionally one will be fantastic. I’m hoping to make them all fantastic!
TT: So it’s more of an intuitive/ experience sort of an affair?
NB: I’m not sure if I would use the word intuition but experience certainly, and learning from it. If you don’t pay close attention to what has gone into making each instrument you will always be in the dark when it comes to the next. Being lucky in getting results you like early on via good teaching or good fortune also puts you in with a headstart!
TT: I notice that your guitars retain clean lines and an elegant aesthetic- is that intentional?
NB: Over the years I have gradually simplified the decoration of my guitars away from my earlier influences which included Spanish guitars with their often complex wooden inlays and I now try to keep everything very clean and purposeful. I hope that this allows the shapes and lines of the guitars and also the beauty of the materials to shine through, just as you suggest.
TT: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak to us, Nick. Maybe before we part, I could ask you if you anything to add or to say to our readers?
NB: Just a thank you to everyone who has trusted me to make them a guitar so far – I hope you are enjoying playing them as much as I enjoyed making them – and thanks for the questions Terence – I hope my answers will be interesting to you and the visitors to your website – remember there are as many ways of looking at guitar making as there are guitar makers!
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