Andy Manson Guitars. | 2011 | Luthier Interview
TT: Hi Andy, thanks for taking the time for this interview. I have known you from the various wonderful guitars you’ve built and of course all those articles written about the mermaid guitar. Maybe we can start right at the beginning and ask how you got started with lutherie?
AM: I built my first instrument, more from necessity than interest, in 1967. It was a teardrop shaped body with a long neck and 30” scale. (01) I don’t remember what inspired the long scale, though I remember measuring strings to see how long I could make it. I think I hoped for a more strident sound with a long string. The body had plywood sides with oak top and back and an African mahogany neck with teak fingerboard. Not traditional, just what happened to be lying around in my Father’s garage. The thing could deliver a tune and I played it all over london, Paris, the cote d’azur and anywhere else I landed. Then there was a car crash, the guitar’s topsmashed in. I found a piece of walnut faced plywood in a skip, thought that looks nice, went home, fixed it up and then, …mmm…sounds different! Well I’m still wondering, though now I tend to use the traditional luthier’s materials, the classic tonewoods. I like to stay within established boundaries for structure and method. I’m more concerned with refinement than experimentation.
I wandered about for a bit doing the troubadour thing with that first instrument until, feeling the need for a rather more settled existence, I ended up at the London College of Furniture around 1970. Morley Pianos patronised a piano technicians course there…they let me come and do my own thing…they’d already, the previous year, done the same thing for Stephen Delft, now Simcha Delft, who was already experienced and gave me invaluable grounding, and guided me through a classic American style Dreadnought. I remember deep sawing by hand the one piece back from a mahogany table. The strutting I sawed from an old piano frame. I Got a client for that one before I’d even finished it. I felt pretty encouraged, you can imagine. And Ł60 seemed like a lot at the time. The guy was still playing it until quite recently.
I spent a lot of time in the Victoria and Albert museum gazing at the early instruments and pouring over ancient books in the library there. Seemed like a good idea to get a grip on the roots, and I made several lutes and baroque guitars. My own musical inclinations didn’t really sustain that avenue for long, but I value the experience immensely and later realised I’d unwittingly put in place what’s become a guiding principle…if in doubt refer to the classic. Then make it your own. (02) Actually it took a while for that to sink in. Being young and obviously knowing it all I had to make my mark. Some quite adventurous but not so successful guitars occurred. Then again, lots of learning, about what doesn’t work so well. Finally couldn’t really argue with C F Martin’s inspired strutting system as the basis for it all. By the same stroke, Spanish guitars I build not far removed from the Torres method. Mandolins…well of course Orville Gibson and LLoyd Loar pretty well sorted that one. I’m fairly convinced if I was to build electrics I wouldn’t want to look too far beyond Leo Fender (02a) and Les Paul.
The mid 70s landed me in the neighbourhood of John Paul Jones, who’s been my most prolific and varied client. Seventeen instruments I’ve built for him over the years. Ha, and here’s me going on about conservatism. The first two pieces were a collapsible guitar, goes in a brief case,(03) and a triple neck mandolin/12 string/6 string.(04) Well actually in both cases The X bracing occurs. The collapsible was at his request, for baggage handler avoidance. He still takes it back and forth to his holiday home. Needed a thorough service a while bck but works fine.
The triple neck seemed inevitable after attending a Zep gig and watching John swapping between three instruments, mid song, during their acoustic interlude. Went home and built it,(04a,04b) took it to show him….he goes wow, can’t wait to see Page’s reaction, I could gig it unannounced…hee hee…how much?
Skipped home feeling like a millionaire, with Ł400 in my pocket. The following year he wanted it glamourised, so ensued my first venture into inlays.
Also the Irish folk scene was starting to boom towards the late 70’s. Donal Lunny cottoned on to the bouzouki as a suitable addition. The long scale length of 670 mm is what appealed I think. It’s a lovely strident kind of sound. The round back Greek and Sicilian instruments available here were not only awkward to hold but also not reliable structurally being very cheaply made. It fell to UK and Irish guitar builders to build them with a flat back. Anyway, I got involved building some of those and flat back octave mandolins and citterns, which are similar but 5 courses and usually guitar scale length. Basically Martin style X bracing on a domed board…eighteen foot radius,(05) floating bridge.(06)
Works a treat. Donal was involved in a shop in Dublin which I supplied for a while. He’s inventive. The Blarge, which is a larger bodied bouzouki with an extra low B course, was his idea…I built the first one for him.(07) The tailpieces were always a problem. It was impossible to get anything that didn’t look and behave like it was made from a used baked bean can. That led me to firstly making my own from sheet brass, then getting some castings made. Matter of fact, the castings are manganese bronze. I prefer the brighter sound than regular brass sound. Stronger and tarnish less also. That later led me down a fascinating but costly route, experimenting with various interesting and useful but commercially unviable metal guitar accessories.
Mostly rather specialist and therefore of limited appeal. Quite a lot of work to do with slide playing…adjustable action nuts, a B bender for acoustics. Actually The Shubb Dobro capo was my work, albeit unrecognised,
so something of use happened. I’ve got an alternative system for dropping the low E to D up my sleeve. Might try to progress that. It certainly deals satisfactorily with a problem I experience. Seems to me the most useful inventive steps occur incidentally…necessity is the mother of invention. You know…you’re doing something and tolerating an unsatisfactory situation until either there’s a moment of inspiration, or you apply yourself to can’t bear this any longer there has to be a way… Anyway, the tailpieces have proved to be worth it for my own use. Pity to spoil the ship for a hap’orth of tar.
About this time I was also making batches of dulcimers, about eight at a time. No X bracing there. By around 1980 I was settled into the structural style I talked about earlier, but still a bit free with aesthetics. I deliberately set about building a Dreadnought to more closely emulate the American makers in appearance. Mike Oldfield fell for it and ditched his Martin for it.(08)All due respect Chris! That was a real boost, as you may imagine. I think I got it then that a defined style has two advantages. It’s one of those kind of constraining disciplines which actually creates a freedom…same as with the structural method. Don’t have to agonise continually over reinvention. Refinement, development and deep understanding will happen naturally through practice. Organic evolution.
The early part of my career I was gradually building up jigs and fixtures in the workshop and being fairly mechanised in a small way. There came a point where I realised I was drowning in equipment and the instruments were becoming a bit remote. Once I saw that, the reverse started. Cleared stuff away. Hand tools whenever possible. No moulds. Well I still use them for mandolin. It’s a complicated rim to assemble.(09) I like to be as close to the wood as possible. You can feel the sound emerging as you go. Configuration also. I’ve made it as simple as possible, minimal amount of separate parts, minimum glue. Apart from the mandolins I build them all upside down on a contoured board, Spanish style, neck and block integral.
Stays on the board until the back’s on.(10-18) Then the geometry is foolproof. I still cut a dovetail on the mandolins(19) Then there’s the detailing. Fewest possible purflings and bindings.(20) It seems to work better for me to find things out by trial and error rather than academic science and technology. I suppose I’m a “heart and hands” man. I value the luck that landed me in work that feels like a piece of refined theatre to play a part in. The whole process from forest and foundry to performance, and the focussed expertise of the various players is fascinating. Being the luthier person in the piece fulfills pretty much my needs for intellectual, physical, artistic, and spiritual absorption and expression, and as much social interaction as I can handle.
I’ve built about a thousand instruments, some sold to shops, some commissioned by correspondence and shipped, but a great many involve quite a focussed relationship with a person, even if fairly brief. I do like to have returning clients. The needs and expectations become clearer. I’ve had the pleasure of working with quite a few other luthiers. I shared a workshop with Jim Parsons for a couple of years. We were making lutes.
Then John Gorrett, another lute maker, for a bit, though by that time I’d had my epiphany around whether early music rocks…or not. John Brough also, he made some nice guitars.(21) Matthew Carter, still doing really nice work. There’s my brother Hugh, who makes nice, interesting electrics and basses.(22) We worked together for several years.
Simon Smidmore and Andy Petherick who are now Brook Guitars, worked with me for a few years. They have a great set up now. Nice guitars. Right now I’m working with Seth Baccus.(23) He’s my stepson. Used to manage Mansons Guitar Shop in Exeter. That’s my brother’s place. Seth’s building electrics. He’s very enthusiastic.
Great to have a bit of youthful vigour round the place, and his knowledge of the instrument and connection to the trade is vast, from his experience as retail manager. He’s certainly building some elegant guitars. Well…I’d have to kick him out otherwise. Suggest he get a proper job. Actually I do enjoy the symbiosis of the hierarchy. It’s nice to share what you’ve gained. I’ve not profited much materially, but he values what I do have to offer.
TT: And over the years you’ve built quite a number of kinds of instruments from flattop to archtops- is there anything you haven’t built?
AM: Errr…banjos. Better say no more of that for fear of offending someone. Otherwise, I think I’ve touched on most of the plucked fretted instruments in the contemporary scene. And no bowed instruments…wouldn’t want to go there as I’ve no clue how to operate a bow. My own work now mostly consists of flat tops, mandolins,(24,25) arch top guitars,(26,27) Maccaferri style swing guitars,(28,29) a few Spanish(30-33) and some bouzoukis and the like.(34,35) Occasionally I get a call for something a bit challenging…like Paul Garthwaite’s 21 string Spanish guitar, and his 14 string electric guitar/bass.(36-38) I don’t normally build electrics. That one was a joint effort. With Hugh’s design, I built it. John Paul Jones’ triple neck mandolin/octave mandolin/bass mandolin was quite a party.(39-41) My newest excitement is about an arch top guitar with back and sides like a flat top. So far it’s really promising. Has the focussed attack of the arch and the tone colour you get from the vibrational characteristics of the flat back. Great rhythm sound and plenty of edge for soloing. We recently moved from UK to Portugal.(42) It’s very calm here. People are kind. The weather’s great. There’s olives in the garden. Grapes on the vine. Inspiring. The future looks good.
TT: Are there more advantages to working in Portugal (other than the better life?)
AM: Well….is there a distinction to be made? The calm and peace is really the thing, and that comes from the environment generally. (42a) I was chatting with a guy in a music shop in Lisbon and came round to telling him we love it here and how friendly and kind and generally good natured the people are. He just smiled and shrugged and said …well it’s the weather. It’s a very different culture than what we’re used to, some of it’s difficult….like trying to resource stuff in an unfamiliar language or find alternatives to some things we take for granted. For example plywood for making workshop accessories, seems to be really hard to find. Junky second hand shops just don’t exist. Dealing with officialdom….the system here is more overloaded with paperwork, but people go out of their way to kindly help. It’s remarkable. So on balance the practicalities may work out the same….but the context is….calm. What I do in my workshop is naturally influenced by everything that touches me….it’s osmosis.(43) Leonardo da Vinci said if you want to be an artist, wander around the countryside from dawn til dusk with a sketch book, draw everything you see and ignore that people call you crazy….When I get stuck in some design task, best way to deal with it is go and walk in the lanes and drink in nature’s structures. The answers are all there. Don’t even need to be conscious about it. Just gazing is better than tarnishing it with internal smart ass rants. The osmosis 180 degrees flips in the workshop. I’m OCD obsessed with the visual arrangement of the workshop. The most comfortable place to be is in wild nature. I try to make the shop harmonious with that.(43a) It’s an interesting and subtle art in itself. Very personal, but at the same time universal. Improvised Feng Shui I suppose. And the landscape…takes my breath away.(44) And there’s space between people…only about ten million population. I think I’m trying to say all in all it’s an easy place to be the best of me….to do my best work….
TT: Practicalities wise- I suppose luthier supplies in Portugal are quite hard to come by?
AM:Well we came with most of what we need for a short while at least…we are looking into the whole question of supplies. Seth’s experience as shop manager is great, sources, contacts, hardware people……in particular we’re dealing with the FSC aspect of timber sourcing. I’ve been using a lot of old stock for years, but we’re going to need to replenish now…..it’s vital for all of us to use timber responsibly. Mainland Europe has a long standing tradition of luthery in some pretty intense areas….Spain, Germany, France, Italy…..and Alpine soundboards…well right through to Siberia…the spruce is a gift from the gods. There’s spruce cut in Switzerland, midwinter as usual, when the sap’s down, which is cut just before the moon is waned…..gravity’s the issue I suppose. Anyway, the tests prove it to be stiffer by a significant amount and have a kind of ready aged quality to the response. Really good maple grows in Europe, walnut, cypress, Cherry, yew. As for Portugal…I mean it’s not known for supplying materials, apart from Port wine and Eucalyptus pulp, and beautiful tiles, though there is a strong tradition of luthery. The Portuguese guitarra used for Fado is only made here as far as I can tell. There are quite a lot of hand makers and at least a couple of factories I’ve heard of so far….we’ve only been here since September, been a bit of a whirl getting settled into the workshop so it’s early days, but it seems to be quite active. There’s quite a variety of traditional instruments being made, the Spanish guitar is big here, and the contemporary scene is apparently emerging fairly recently out of euro pop into a more Anglo/American kind of vein….and there’s an interesting indie kind of thing happening, punky in a southern European kind of way. There’s a school of luthery also. I’m hoping to get to know the fraternity before too long….one of the joys of what we do is the willingness to share information. I’ve always taken great pleasure from that. The best part of attending shows is meeting other humans who know what the hell you’re talking about. Glue is not exactly everyone’s cup of tea. We’re ships in the night, and kindred spirits.
TT: and speaking of materials, I’ve seen you use many different materials for your guitars- what would be your favourite tonewoods?
AM: Oh it’s hard to say really….every part of the instrument performs a different function. You need a hard surface for the fingerboard, the soundboard needs to have a strong stiffness to weight ratio, as does the neck, for different reasons. Equally they need to have appropriate acoustic qualities. The back and sides must have a hard reflective surface, be strong and stiff enough to lightly contain the air and vibrate in a certain way to colour the tone. So the favourite wood for a particular guitar depends what the design calls for. One of my favourites for backs is English cherry. My personal guitar by choice would be cherry, European spruce, mahogany neck, rosewood fingerboard, rosewood bridge. My inclination is towards a very understated visual appearance…. simple bindings, straight grained wood… although I can’t resist the really dramatic maple for mandolins. As for the sound…well the opposite to understated, whatever that is…. For me the factors involved are feel, sound, appearance. In that order of importance. Playing guitar is essentially a sensual experience… it’s all about manipulation of strings and the subtle variations of tone and dynamics. The neck has to be comfortable and create no irk. This allows the clearest access to the potential music. Ear hand coordination… the sound…. well I’d rather feel like I have to hold it back than fight for more tone, volume…. I’ve noticed an increasing excitement about gorgeously exotic grain, which is often put forward as a measure of quality. In my opinion, the quality of materials, construction and stability should be the measure of quality. That’s not to say the instrument should lack beauty. On the contrary…it’s a tool, a means to create art. I love my Japanese chisels and saws…so elegant, well balanced…beautiful. Inspiring. Pure lines, trim to subtly enhance the wood but no more. Less is more. But then, that’s my personal taste. I’m aware that my role is to meet requirements… your vision is my concern, and there’s more than one way to skin a cat…or peel a potato if you’re a veggie… I do enjoy the contrast of a bit of free expression occasionally in an inlay project. That was a major drive in making the mermaid guitar….something biased towards fine art as a release valve for all that. I really do like finding obsolete furniture made of suitable material. Cuban mahogany, Indian rosewood, Brazilian rosewood, American black walnut… I’ve made great sounding guitars from wood that’s been patiently seasoning in sideboards and tables for over a hundred years. Rebirth is generally thought of as a positive experience…
TT: And what’s the most unusual woods you’ve worked with?
AM: I once built a guitar entirely from wood grown in England as an experiment. Should have known better really. The back and sides and neck were cherry. The top was black walnut, struts from some kind of conifer, fingerboard and bridge laburnum. It didn’t sound great in the usual sense, quite unresponsive actually. Laburnum I believe is a relative of Indian rosewood, being a legume. It doesn’t seem to have a ring to it like it’s purple brown cousin. Anyway a friend was pleased to have it to bash around for something to play. And I learned something. I guess there are parameters of sound within which people are accustomed to being comfortable, and there are woods which deliver. Even those using synthetics are striving to emulate the customary tonewoods. I used to always use spruce, same as for the tops, for back struts, until I realised There is enough in the waste from neck mahogany suitable for the job. It seems to give a better result for the back. Somehow a better reflective response. It’s a different issue from the top which wants to be springy and light. Rather it needs rigidity and stability and to be alive in a more controlled way. I think I mentioned earlier my first guitar built in ignorance was thoroughly unconventional, and I discovered accidentally that changing the top made a difference to the sound. Maybe the answer to your question should be oak for the top, later replaced with plywood. That was 1967. Well the world was open for experiment…..shouldn’t totally discredit oak…a client sent me a small piece of irish bog oak to inlay in the headstock of his bouzouki…it came from his ancestral home. TT: Do you stick to traditional methods of construction at all? The whole hide glue/ dovetail philosophy? AM: Wouldn’t really say traditional…primitive might be a better description. I mean we’re seeing a mixture of traditional and contemporary hi-tech….strobe tuners, dovetail joints, Helmholtz science, hot glue, cyanoacrylate, and so on. If tradition is being continually created as an ongoing thing, rather than a reference to some previous moment in history then I’m very happy to be in that adventure. The word tradition comes from the Latin tradere to hand over, things get passed on from age to age. What’s great about the modern ability to communicate so widely is the sharing of experience and discovery, worldwide, as it’s happening. The post modern era of luthery it could be said. I used to use hot glue exclusively, then along came the aliphatic resin glues. It’s certainly a much easier proposition, and I really can’t detect a negative result in the sound or structural integrity. I always used the dovetail joint method until just a few years ago. I have to admit to in my early work using a vertical grain neck block. I don’t know why….it took a while to figure out what was causing the ski jump in the fingerboard at the joint. I think the dovetail method is sound when well fitted. I just prefer the Spanish upside down way of doing it…..the neck continues through under the fingerboard right up to the soundhole. This maintains a stable line to the frets. No dips or bumps. The only down side is taking the neck off means serious dismantling. If a new neck was needed it could be dovetailed into the existing structure. Never had to do it yet, but I think it would be good as new. Just time consuming, so it’s fortunate that the structure including the soundboard structure is so stable. The inside of the heel curves forward to a slipper shape up to about the centre of the top bout, where the first back strut is. Structurally its probably a bit belt and braces, but it seems to create a good sonic connection to the back. I think it’s traditional. Hah, back to that. What is tradition? I think we work within a tradition which calls on the classic for benchmark and at the same time evolving and adding to the well of classic design and method. And it’s a symbiotic thing with musicians who frequently will ask for something untried and sometimes we have ideas for new possibilities, and most luthiers are guitar pickers one way or another.
TT: I’ve always had a concern about getting spanish heel guitars a neck reset- but it’s possible to do so?
AM: Well yes, in a word. It’s probably no more complicated all in all than removing a dovetailed neck. Usually the reason for a neck reset is that the action is too high for comfort and the bridge can’t or shouldn’t go any lower, or the bridge is too low to work the soundboard and the strings are too close to the soundboard for picking clearance…… or all of the above. With the slipper heel the back can be lifted off the sides from the heel down to about the widest part of the top bout and fixed back down with the neck pulled to the correct line. This naturally causes a slight distortion of the sides but the amount is minimal compared with the value of the result. Roughly speaking a slip of one millimetre at the heel will give about three to the bridge. If the neck block doesn’t continue up to the sound hole there’s a slight danger of that top bit of the finger board dipping away. Doesn’t usually happen, but if it does it’s not too much of a problem to lift the end of the fingerboard and glue in a tapered shim. There’s a bit of fiddling about with the back binding, but it’s certainly doable. I don’t ever relish doing that kind of work, what’s important to me is a stable structure in the first place. I suppose ultimately that’s the work. To make a structurally stable, tonally interesting and ergonomically suitable musical instrument. Robust enough for the beating it’ll probably get, yet light enough to respond sensitively and for the player to feel he or she can freely manipulate it.
TT: Are you building any “standard” models now? Maybe you could give us a run down of your line and what tonal characteristics we might expect from them?
AM: I have a few standard models in the sense that I could build a range, say for a catologue, of about thirty pieces, eleven flat tops, couple of arch tops, Spanish, Flamenco, swing, grande and petite bouche, mandolin family, F style and A style, Irish bouzouki, acoustic basses, and maybe a triple neck. Come to think of it, what a great commission that would be…Ha ha! I offer a range of sizes and styles to suit the most common needs. You can browse through the models on my website – www.andymanson.com First obvious thing is a congruent aesthetic. Also the neck shape and fingerboard profile are consistent. I like them to have plenty of volume, lots of sustain and plenty of tonal variation accessible. I’d rather be holding it back than struggling for a voice. I’m going to build a Portuguese guitarra. I’ve borrowed a Lisbon type to copy. The other type is the Coimbra model. They’re similar but quite deliberately different…..well that’s a whole new story to uncover. And I’m working alongside Seth, he’s in the process of crystalizing what he knows into a definable range. It’s interesting seeing him using his years of retail to define the essence of what’s required. He’s doubtless dealt with more musicians in a dozen years than I’ve ever met in over forty. I’m certainly learning a lot from him.
TT: I see would you say you have an overarcing tonal signature?
AM: Ah Terence I’ve been trying to dodge the dreaded question. How would you describe the tone of your guitars. When I’m building I’m focussed on how can I get the most out of the least. I don’t want anything that’s going to endanger it’s optimum performance. Loop the loop without the wings falling off, that’s what I want. So nothing that will lessen the volume, or diminish any part of the tonal spectrum. Put in a more positive way, I want the instrument to have a broad and even frequency response, the tone will depend on the technique of the player, just as much as note selection. What I’m trying to achieve is for the player to be able to access a wide variety of tones rather than just one sound and as much volume as possible That’s the aim. Of course the result tends to be a similar tonal bias in all my pieces, since my building technique is consistent. People have commented on the particular responsiveness of my instruments over the years. I can’t really define it. I don’t do scientific frequency analysis. Also I don’t do much in the way of repair work these days, so I don’t get to see many guitars other than what I make. Sounds a bit isolated, but I’ve always lived in the country deliberately to be able to focus on building, and for me it all started with building one for myself. I suppose I have to say I build them how I like them to sound. Thankfully enough other players like them too.
TT: I understand that many of your apprentices are now doing well- Brook, Elysian. I was wondering how you felt luthiery was progressing in the UK?
AM: UK luthiers. Progression. Definitely. Like everything else in our era of life on the planet it seems to be exponentially expanding. Forty years ago there were apparently only literally a handful of builders. John Bailey, Emil Grimshaw, Jim Burns, Clifford Essex….and I looked to Germany and saw Hofner, Sweden had Levin and there was Eko, Framus…..the American makers were really what showed the way. It was an occasional pleasure to come across a Martin or a Gibson. I always had a soft spot for the Harmony Sovereign. They’re rare survivors, a bit over light on the build. Of course I’m talking about the steel string guitar which was my main interest. There were quite a few Spanish guitar builders. But all in all it was less than small as an industry compared with Europe, Germany in particular, and America. I think the piano took over in England as the common instrument at the end of the nineteenth century. There was a bit of a heyday previously. I’m the proud and honoured custodian of a workable Panormo from 1840. The man was a true master. There is much in his work to emulate far as I’m concerned. Breathtaking less is more elegance….looks, structure, sound. Perfect. Well, anyway, luthery in the UK now. There’s so much. The stalwarts who were at it from a similar time as myself, such as Chris May, Chris Eccleshall, Stephan Sobell, John Le Voi, Roger Bucknell, are all still working, but now there are too many for me to quote. It’s very interesting working with Seth. He’s thirty, half my age. He’s completely fluent in the modern way of accessing information, namely the internet. He’s acquiring competence in a different way than we did. On top of that he’s walked into already pioneered territory. I think that’s typical of what’s currently happening. The materials and tools are thoroughly catalogued and easily available from Europe, USA and the East. The UK luthiers are doing fine I’d say. The work is definitely veering towards consistently good. I reckon we could say we’ve reclaimed a piece of history and brought it to contemporary life. I’d say the symbiotic relationship between the artist and artisan in the UK guitar world is thoroughly healthy. As for me, I suppose I still consider myself a UK luthier….
TT: Sorry Andy, being the dope I am, I forgot to ask you how you came up with the names for your guitars…. like magpie for instance?
AM: I just like the idea of a sort of poetic way of defining the model. A numbering system allows for a precise definition in a handy code. Shape, materials, trim, that kind of detail. I suppose it’s useful if you have a large inventory. Flying machines, well, ‘planes, and boats actually are very similar to guitars. Performance is critically dependent on design, construction and materials. There is a subtle balance with the environment. The guitar must be delicate enough to respond to the players control, and yet powerful enough to be able to dominate the air of the room. Birds are nature’s flying machines, and birds have lyrical names. I try and find the kind of bird which has some of the character of the model, size for instance, and the sound of the name also. I mean, lesser spotted woodpecker wouldn’t really work for me.
TT: Do you get many customers asking for specific tones as opposed to design features (like say, spruce/brazilian rosewood)?
AM: Oh well it’s always a fresh challenge to tune in to a new client. Sometimes they’ll have a very detailed list of features, dimensions like fingerboard camber, nut width and so on, and materials both in terms of appearance and tone. All very specific, sometimes well informed, and sometimes all a bit incompatible. Another approach is that they’ve seen my work, they like this or that, what would I recommend. Either way, I see the first step is to cut through the vagueries of the common language and find out what they really have in mind. Tone is so complicated, impossible really to reliably define. Part of it depends on the player’s technique, which will be in turn affected by the ergonomics and general sensual presence of the instrument. And hearing is personal and selective. I mean sometimes a person will say he wants that warm mahogany sound and when he gets it he’ll say oh yes that’s just the thing and I’m thinking actually that guitar sounded like a rosewood one to me before he got hold of it. Tone is so subjective, I’ve just learned a bit about what seems to work and what doesn’t. I work on the principle of trying to get as much of a connection with the client’s dream as I can and then try and give him more than he expected. Aim high. Anyway, there’s mahogany and there’s mahogany. Depends where from, which actual tree, which part of the tree, how old, seasoning. Well you know all about the moon spruce. Then again, what are you going to finish it with? That’s apart from all the other considerations like structural configuration, assembly conditions, adhesives and final voicing in the set up, nut and saddle material. Everything, every aspect affects tone. So specifying a guitar’s tone simply by the name of the wood doesn’t always get very close.
TT: Thanks for that Andy! Would you have anything to add before I ask one last question?
AM: Ah well maybe I could guitar talk you under the table Terence…on second thoughts maybe not. I love being a luthier. Making beautiful, useful things from wood with details of metal, mother of pearl…it’s a satisfying way to live a life. It involves thought, history, drawing, engineering, aesthetics, ergonomics, communication, hand work….very fulfilling and for me, spiritually inspiring. I love being part of the world of music in a contributing way and I get to meet some very nice people…all over the world, the people who supply materials and components, the musicians, the whole circus…awesome really.
TT: Ok then one last question- would you have an advice for a player looking to commission a custom instrument?
AM: I would say remember anything is possible. Idea is the precursor to manifestation. If you can visualise it, it can happen. If I really don’t think it will work I suggest the nearest thing to capture the essence of the idea. One thing I’ve experienced a few times is the request for a wider neck than is customary, usually either because the person has large hands, or is experiencing some difficulties with clarity in some of the fingering. Quite often they will return later…is it all possible to change the neck? Well usually it can be reshaped in situ, although if the bridge spacing also needs altering that makes it a bit more complicated. The point is, try and find existent examples of features that veer from the current norm. Try it and see if it’s really the thing. If you want it pink, find a pink one just to be sure. I will always give as much time as it takes to work through the specification process with the client. Then submit designs for approval. It’s all about clarifying the vision. This gives the purest result. That’s it really. Hey thanks for the chat Terence, it’s been interesting for me to consider your questions. Anytime you want to talk guitars I’m game. You should talk with Seth….he’s got plenty of ideas….and tales to tell.
Pictures courtesy of Andy Manson© individuals 2011
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