Daniel Roberts Guitars. | 2011 | Luthier Interview
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Dan Roberts Guitars: Out There.
Composed and Played by Denny Earnest on Minstrel model.[audio:http://www.guitarbench.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/out-there.mp3]
TT: Thanks for taking the time for this interview Dan. You were in the Timber industry before joining Flatiron- how was that transition from a more macro scale to micro purflings etc?
DR: I started in the timber industry after I had already done a fair bit of woodworking and studied sculpture and painting in college, so at the time I started, it was a way to make a living… when you study fine arts and English Literature in college, there aren’t companies clamoring on your doorstep trying to hire you when you finish school. I loved the raw physical aspects of the timber industry. I sawed some forest service road right of way and did a few environmentally sensitive salvage sales etc. where I felt that my concerns for environmental issues allowed me to do a better more responsible job of protecting the environment while still harvesting wood. It gave me a strong sense of accomplishment as well as learning literally every aspect of wood. In between my own sales, I just worked as a faller for logging companies. Eventually, In order to get health insurance and have a known salary, I moved from the forest to the mill and became a molder planerman as well as a licensed scaler. A scaler has to be able to identify all species of trees and determines how many board feet can be sawn out of a log, what diseases or rot it has, how far that rot extends into the tree, how much twist it has and how that will affect the yield and quality of the wood sawn from that log etc. Though it seems light years from fine woodworking and even further from lutherie, I always had the ability to believe that what I was learning was of value and that it would make me a more rounded woodworker. Also as a planerman I learned how to fabricate machines and wood handling machinery, grind pattern knives, and learned how to sharpen planer knives etc. I continued to work in my own woodworking shop on my own time.
All that knowledge has proven tremendously relevant to the world of guitarmaking. Today, LMI, Stewart MacDonald Guitarshop Supply, and others manufacturer a dizzying array of guitarmaking tools, It has become a small but interesting and lucrative industry in itself, but when I started building instruments with Flatiron, Gibson, and finally at Santa Cruz Guitar Company, you had to build your own tools. You couldn’t buy them. If you wanted a rosette cutter to fit a certain rosette shape and size you had to get some tool steel, and make a cutter. If you wanted a side bender you had to build one. I built much of the tooling and jigs in the Santa Cruz Guitar Company shop, and had been involved to some degree at Gibson as well though they had a whole machine shop at that time. Ren Ferguson did most of the tooling design and I had to often fine tune them to give us the proper dimensions etc, for instance in the Shaper room when I was running the shaper room and doing all the neck carving. I found that my time as a planerman gave me huge advantages in these areas.
Run-out in spruce and cedar top wood is a huge issue and it can be a difficult concept to understand if you’ve not dealt with softwoods out in the forest or at a mill where it is initially cut up. Splitting spruce before sawing it and then squaring up a cant so that the sets will come out perfectly quartersawn with as little run-out as possible is a complicated aspect of lutherie. It is possible to just buy tops, but to really establish a relationship with your wood brokers, to harvest wood yourself, or to be able to really be discriminate about the aspects of wood that determine its tonal qualities is not an easy thing and most tonewoods are harvested and graded with primarily cosmetics in mind. A lot of quality judgement is based on how close the spruce looks to a cosmetic standard that has little or nothing to do with the tonal qualities of the wood. My years spent in the forest and in the timber industry in general prepared me in ways I never could have foreseen for my career in Instrument making. Even sawing or shearing the smallest purflings or carving a brace with a chisel comes to me easily because of my intimate understanding of the nature of wood. My nature is well suited to the micro scale but sometimes after long hours of concentration on micro details, I just want to go out and start a chainsaw and do some tree work or build a rack in the shop just for balance!
TT: Maybe you could share with us your learning experiences with the old Flatiron crew and then with the Santa Cruz guitar company?
DR: When I started with Flatiron, I was building banjos. I was responsible for making pots and resonators for both Gibson and Flatiron banjos. I was still involved with banjos when Gibson, who by then owned Flatiron, built the new acoustic facility in Bozeman. Within a few weeks of moving into the new facility, The guitar plant lost the guy in charge of the shaper room and doing all the shaping and carving of all the necks for guitars as well as banjos. I was called in and asked whether my experiences as a woodworker and planerman had prepared me for such a position. This position was at the time one of the more skilled and dangerous jobs in the shop. I felt it was a perfect fit and was really excited about the chance to move into such a key position. I ran the shaper room for another 6 months or so before I was asked to be head of the neck department and soon after that I was made production manager of the rear plant, meaning I was in charge of about 45 people and my duties ranged from overseeing all departments from re-saw, to white wood delivery of assembled and sanded instruments into finish.
I bought every book I could find on fretted instruments, that was not a very long list, and devoured them. When I began at Flatiron I immediately recognized that this was the passion of my life. Cabinets, furniture, none of the other woodworking I had done was as gratifying to me. I saw a huge potential here in the new acoustic facility and I asked questions of and worked with Ren Ferguson as much as I possibly could, asked repair questions of the few working luthiers there. Flatiron and then Gibson only had a few luthiers who actually had all the knowledge from repair to all aspects of building. All my questions and interest were probably a real pain to Ren at the time, but before long with all the new growth, they needed more people who had an overview and understanding of the big picture and my passion for what I hoped would be my career had motivated me to learn as much as possible in as short a time as possible. I was very busy but got to work with Ren on tooling, jigs, safety improvements and other issues in the shaper dept. and later I was peripherally involved with Ren on old model re-issues and such.
One thing I realized early on was that ultimately the direction I wanted to go in my lutherie career would not be possible at Gibson. It had been wonderfully gratifying in many ways working there but ultimately I would have to leave to fulfill my personal dreams.
I called Santa Cruz Guitar Company while still at Gibson and asked about possible employment. They were at the time just preparing to make some changes. Jeff Traugott was still working there but was planning to leave and Richard was looking for someone who had the lutherie chops to build nearly fulltime as a luthier, but who could also move SCGC toward a larger production level without losing any quality. One thing he was very interested in was my tooling abilities. He asked me to come down for a week and rebuild their old molds etc to show him what I could do. By then I’d given my notice at Gibson so I jumped at the opportunity.
I drove down to SCGC and built guitar molds we discussed possibilities and Richard decided I was a good fit for the direction he wanted to move.
While I was at SCGC I made all of the shaper jigs that would be used for neck processes and essentially set up a new process for building necks as well as just becoming production manager and setting up an organized way of following guitar flow so that consistent production would be possible. The struggle for me was that SCGC was truly a custom shop so when you are doing so many custom instruments accountability is difficult to quantify. Each guitar takes a different amount of time in each area as it moves through and that can make flow very difficult when you are trying to hold a group of luthiers to a given number of guitars each week. When I first arrived we were trying to consistently build 1 per day. Within about 6 years we were building about 3 per day. Not only was that a challenge for my organizational skills but we were constantly doing design within the shop. I often did design of new instruments over the years but it wasn’t uncommon for us to do design on the fly as a model might be ordered with an advanced X brace rather than the standard placement or a 12, 13, or 14 fret neck joint change etc. We would readily change scale or anything else and had to be able to know what those changes would do tonally, how to adjust bracing, and how to adjust voicing to accomplish the desired effect.
Also while I was at SCGC Richard gave me a drawing of the 16” archtop guitar he wanted to build and I had to modify a carving machine, and then develop a system for building 16 and 17” carved archtops. It soon became clear archtops didn’t fit well in the production line because they were so different, so I ended up building the archtops , especially after I moved back to Montana to do repair and archtops out of my own shop.
I never had the time to really concentrate on archtop building however, because I came back on as production manager just a couple years after moving back home. In the end we did about 20 archtops I think and my son in law who was doing repair for SCGC here in Montana in my shop built the last one.
I also ended up designing extended range instruments while at SCGC as a result of my work with Kevin Kastning. Kevin is an amazing musician and composer. Kevin and I worked together to design and build an extended range baritone, a 12 string extended range baritone, and finally as I was leaving SCGC, an alto 12 string guitar.
Kevin’s compositions had taken him increasingly in the direction of needing more and more extended range in his guitars, and had conceived of the need for what we would eventually dub a contraguitar already when the alto 12 string was built. Since leaving SCGC, I have continued my collaborations with Kevin and I have built him a 14 string contraguitar which was featured in an article on Kevin in the Holiday issue of Guitarplayer. This guitar spans the bass, baritone, and part of the alto range and has become Kevin’s primary instrument. He has a second contraguitar commissioned to built later in the year and Sandor Szabo, a musical partner of Kevin’s plans to commission an extended range instrument as well.
Being production manager of SCGC from MT really meant having an on-site foreman and then being responsible for numbers, as well as personnel, tooling, production methodology, and new model design. As you can imagine I traveled a lot and was pulled in a lot of different directions. I also designed a number of SCGC’s art guitars for the collector market. All in all I can’t imagine a job that could have been more demanding or offered more opportunity.
Dan Roberts Guitars: Stranger
Played by Denny Earnest on Troubadour model.[audio:http://www.guitarbench.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/stranger.mp3]
TT: And now you’re out on your own….
DR: Yes I am… What fun! People used to ask me why I wasn’t building my own guitars and what I would do differently in terms of design if I was building them myself… and my response was generally that for me it was about the process and love of building guitars. My motivation was never to see my name on the headstock, but rather it was about my passion for building fine acoustic instruments. Truth is that as I looked around, there were no companies that were as open to building any and all manner of guitars and nothing was too custom, so I was challenged and stuck around feeling that I would learn more about design etc. by seeing hundreds of my designs built every year and that was intensely gratifying. As for what I would do differently the one thing that has become incredibly illuminating is realizing how my designs at SCGC were very much designed and built within the SCGC paradigm and systems. When I would design an instrument many things were a given. Thickness of brace stock. types of wood used for brace stock, angle of X brace, thicknesses of plate and voicing style etc. was all pretty much a given, which had a huge effect on the overall voice, feel, and playability of the instrument.
I didn’t realize how quickly my own voice would manifest itself when I left. What I didn’t want to do was to just put a little twist on SCGC designs. Maybe partly for this reason my first model was a shape that I always thought was a great shape and had never been fully developed or exploited. Gibson introduced the LG-2 in 1942 but quickly started making the changes that took it out of its glory… so some of these early LG-2s are fabulous instruments but they never got the kind of glory and love they would have gotten had they been introduced in the early 30’s like the L-00. The prototype went to a couple who travel and play music across the U.S. Their repertoire is amazing, from rags to blues, folk to country, they do it all. They are known as “The Gypsy Carpenters”. They came to me needing a good guitar that would stand up to the ravages of the road and while I was at it… could it be sort of vintage?” They don’t have a big name and are generally just out there traveling and playing for the love of both and that is why I built them the Minstrel and named it such. I felt that everyone seemed to be building an L-00 knockoff and I felt that the LG had the potential to be as good or even better. I designed the Minstrel with the body of an early 40’s LG-2 and the neck of a 30’s L-00. Wide string spacing at the bridge or modern spacing. I had guys wanting L-00 style instruments and talked them into giving the Minstrel a try instead. It just took off! The evening of the day that I had put photos on Facebook of the finished prototype, I had 4 more orders by midnight!
I had watched many of my friends and colleagues go off on their own and do really custom work with a huge price tag and I respected what they were doing but it wasn’t what I wanted for myself. I loved the proletariat aspects of the Gibson line. I wanted to build guitars for musicians and I wanted musicians to be able to afford them. I knew it wouldn’t be easy to build guitars in that price range by myself but I thought it was a concept worth trying. It has been very successful. A minstrel starts in the $3000.00 range and is built with Adirondack spruce top, adirondack bracing, 30’s Gibson style bracing etc, and built with hot hide glue. I introduced the use of Hide glue at SCGC and decided that I wanted those advantages and wanted to really master aspects of using hide glue that have been lost. Most companies only glue the neck, bridge, and top bracing on with hide glue. I have developed my abilities and techniques to allow me to use it throughout the instrument. Many of the tips and techniques I use come from research I’ve done into the violin, classical, and even aeronautics traditions. So rather than only using hide glue on the most expensive instruments or charging tremendous amounts for it I use it on every guitar and gain the benefits across the board. Especially, you get confidence in it by using it a lot and you learn quickly that way.
My signature voice is what really has delighted me! When people pick up a Roberts, one of the first comments usually is in reference to clarity or how clear the notes are. The Adirondack tops and bracing, in my hands generally yields a very round full tone, but with very organized even overtone support yielding a warm full tone characterized by clarity and power.
I am also intensely proud of my extended range instruments. As I mentioned before, I work with an artist endorser named Kevin Kastning. Kevin is a brilliant composer and improviser in the Jazz/modern classical genres and is always pushing the limits in his playing and composition of what is possible on existing guitar family instruments. Kevin and I were already involved in developing the contraguitar when I left SCGC, but it was so far outside of the normal design parameters that it became clear it would never get built at SCGC and we still had design considerations that would have to be worked out as we went. After I had launched my company, Kevin approached me and asked me to work with him again in order to bring the Contraguitar to fruition. I did and as I mentioned before it has become Kevin’s primary instrument. We already have another in the lineup as well. The Contraguitar has 14 strings running from bass through baritone registers and into even the alto guitar range. To have been able to get such powerful dynamic voice throughout that immense range is truly an accomplishment. Though it covers the bass register, what is interesting is that the voice has different needs than a bass because he is using it primarily melodically and Kevin uses harmonics a lot so the voice needs to be different than for a primarily rhythm bass. His music and use of the contra is truly groundbreaking and its fun to be part of something like that. Barry Cleveland just featured him and the Contraguitar in the Holiday issue of Guitarplayer.
So, I have the Musician Series, my proletariat guitars aimed at working musicians, which for the time being is made up of the Minstrel and the Troubadour. (a really interesting concept with a real vintage Gibson flair) Then I have my custom shop where I work intimately with a player to understand his or her tonal, ergonomic, and playability needs and create that elusive voice and playability he or she has been hearing deep in their creative consciousness. Finally I do the same at an even deeper creative level creating extended range instruments for those whose needs can’t be fulfilled by instruments which already exist.
TT: So would it be fair to say that your Musician series is really a synthesis of your experience in production guitars and personal touch whereas the custom shop is more a individual handcrafted affair?
DR: Yes Terence. The musician series offers basic models with all the best materials, usually vintage inspired, for a price seldom encountered in an independent luthier built guitar. they have all of the sought after extras, hot hide glue construction, Adirondack, or Carpathian Spruce tops included in the price, and years of designing and building guitars that allow me to offer vintage and modern option packages designed to fit the largest number of players needs. The options list is limited though. The idea is to offer a truly premium luthier-built guitar for a price a working musician can afford. Key to that is offering options that are relevant to a large number of players and eliminating the need for a lengthy consultation, which can be very time consuming.
Consultation is at the core of the Roberts custom guitar experience. We go through a complex and enjoyable process of discovering the players tonal preferences, needs in terms of top dynamics responsiveness, playing styles, size and types of venues commonly played or that this instrument is intended for etc. There will be a discovery process, a design process, and finally I will build the guitar to fit the player needs and preferences perfectly. Both approaches are a result of so many years of designing standard models as well as helping customers design the perfect guitar, and then having been the repair and service guy, getting to see where those processes were sometimes failing. Having had that kind of immediate feedback for all those years gives me the ability to sometimes foresee possible issues or misunderstandings and guarantee a happy successful result. My artist endorsers have all worked with many other guitar companies and the thing that seems to really surprise them is that we really are able to get the design and building right… first time. Even when it represents an unusual or previously unbuilt instrument.
TT: I guess it’s time for the dreaded construction questions- what are your choice tonewoods?
DR: As far as the musician series, I offer mahogany, and un-flamed maple at the basic price. Then I have a beautiful and large stash of stunningly flamed Eastern Red Maple, some flamed mahogany, quilted mahogany, I have many Rosewoods available, I like Cocobolo a lot and use it regularly. I have a couple sets of Ziricote I also have some nice sets of German maple both archtop and flattop sets. For tops I have German tops I’ve had for close to 20 years, I have a few years worth of Adirondack tops even if I were to build exclusively with it, and the same with Carpathian Spruce, northern Italian Alpine Spruce, Sitka Spruce, Larch, Western Red Cedar. I use Carpathian and Adirondack the most. I always brace with Adirondack spruce unless cloning certain old historical guitars that used Sitka for bracing such as Martins. There is controversy as to whether Martin used Sitka or Red Spruce for bracing even back when they were using Red (Adirondack) Spruce for tops, I’m willing to go with Sitka or other choices for bracing but I feel that Red Spruce bracing generally sounds the best.
TT: Larch is a bit of unusual topwood…
DR: Yes it is. western Montana and Idaho have a lot of big larch trees growing in a fairly harsh climate that in Spruce species contributes to a good tone wood. Larch is a deciduous conifer that grows right alongside Western Red Cedar and Spruce. Larch has been prized by yacht builders. It is slightly heavier than spruce or cedar and quite stiff for its weight when cut to the same size and thickness as other top woods. It has similar characteristics to Adirondack spruce though it’s stiffness to weight ratio isn’t equal to Adirondack, but is better than some other conifers and similar softwood species. As Spruce and other great top wood supplies become compromised, it will become increasingly important to be aware of other woods with similar characteristics.
(click for fullsize)
TT: And it’s tonal qualities?
DR: Well, I feel the jury is still out to some degree as I’ve not heard a lot of guitars made with it but in general good headroom not terribly responsive to a light touch but good focus, and fairly bright. I haven’t built with any of the Larch out of the tree I have this wood from yet so it may end up quite a treasure, it sure has a great tap tone! I look forward to building a variety of guitars and sizes to help with a better overall understanding of the wood as an alternative but I’ve got so many other spectacular top woods that are proven most of the time they opt for proven woods.
For instance, I just got some old Sitka finished aclimating in the shop that is already 40 years old. It came from a logging bridge built on Vancouver Island in 1970. It was torn down in 2010 and what was still sound has been split out and it is just amazing, Stiff, crystalline tone! I love being able to offer such amazing woods! I haven’t built with any of the Larch out of the tree I have this wood from yet so that may end up being a treasure too, it sure has a great tap tone! (repeated!)
TT: I couldn’t help but notice that Cedar and Redwood didn’t make your list…
DR: Actually I just double checked and Western Red Cedar is on the list right at the end. Redwood is not. I don’t want to be in a position of dissing Redwood, it can be a very good tonewood, but given the limited supplies of Redwood, I feel that tonally it tends to be between cedar and Spruce. It has a bit more headroom than cedar, and is slightly more responsive than Spruce to a light touch. I have a fair bit of really awesome Cedar. When I first moved to Santa Cruz to work for SCGC I went up to South San Francisco one Saturday and went through over 10,000 tops and picked a selection of the best of those.. I still have some left.
I recently heard that Bill Collings will no longer use cedar and has actually had a bridge tear a hole in a cedar top. In all the years I’ve done repair I’ve never seen anything like that, but what I have seen is the top layer peel off. The bridge lifts and it just keeps going. By the time I get it the bridge is mostly off and there is a gauzy thin layer of wood that has cleaved loose from the top. No glue failure whatsoever. I’ve seen this not once but probably a half dozen times. So, it has never turned out to be a catastrophic situation, each time I just re-glued the bridge and it held. I suspect that the use of a good hot hide glue would result in more penetration and could stop that occurrence. All of the tops I’ve seen do this were glued with titebond. Overall my experience with Cedar has been that it is a delicate sensitive wood. That isn’t a judgement in terms of good or bad but before I’ll sell Cedar as the best top for a client, I want to see his or her playing style. If they have a light attack and are very sensitive players where a very fast attack is of benefit, if dynamic range isn’t critical, then cedar may be the perfect choice.
I have seen arguments that Lowden and others treatment of cedar is such that they do have good dynamic range. I won’t argue with that. What I will say is that in any situation where I would feel I had to use a thicker stiffer top for my use of Cedar, to give more headroom or build a more versatile guitar, my inclination would be to use Spruce instead. I really want to stress that I’ve seen so many arguments about what this wood or that wood will bring to the table, or how this wood or that wood will sound etc., sometimes it can get down right contentious. I saw a person on a forum the other day just really upset, almost taking it personally, that a particular company refused to use Cedar. I think the reason there is so much discussion of woods and what they bring to the table is because factories make the argument often that voicing (used as a verb here) makes no difference to tone and that it is a ridiculous waste of time. The reality is that a factory will have a recipe in terms of quantifiable variables. They will take a top to a certain thickness and braces are fully carved on CNC or shapers or molders ahead of time and then glued on in vacuum so that there is no interactive process left between the builder and the wood being fabricated into a guitar. The builder isn’t sensing anything from the wood, nor reacting to the sensitivity he/she has developed for instruments. This recipe, applied consistently across the board creates some absolutely great guitars, and lots of mediocre guitars, and some pretty poor guitars. If you want to buy a factory guitar just don’t order one, buy one you have played and you will be happy with the result. If they use Cedar, or Adirondack, or Koa within this recipe without modification, each wood tends to having certain tonal characteristics.
What I would like to make clear is that when you take a wood out of that recipe, out of that non-feedback system, all woods become more versatile. When a luthier who has spent his or her entire lifetime building these wonderful instruments puts hands to wood, magical things happen. I don’t have dimensions set in stone. Every step of the process involves feedback, I will take a top to 3.0mm and then start flexing it and tapping it to listen to its tonal characteristics. I differentially thin both the treble and bass sides before even bracing it. I feel the difference between the longitudinal stiffness and the stiffness across the grain. In a top that is very stiff longitudinally but softer across the grain, I will differentially sand it differently, taking less thickness from the bass and treble sides. Typically the center of a top will end up the thickest and the treble side will be a bit thinner and the bass side even thinner yet. Often varying by as much as.4 mm between the center and bass edge, That would be on a very stiff piece across the grain, it might end up only .1 or .2mm differential on a softer piece. Every bit of information is taken into consideration intuitively and responded to. For a piece of Spruce that is particularly stiff longitudinally, once the box is built I sand especially on the butt end of the top, I begin by listening to the area where the tone bars are tucked into the rim, if that area sounds dead and thumpy sometimes I can bring it up to the same tonal response as the rest of the rim just by removing a tiny bit of material with a sander along the rear perimeter of the top. Sometimes it is mind blowing how little it can take to tune a top to the point where there is a tremendous change in tonal response. I never make decisions based on thicknesses or a recipe. Scientists say that the human brain is still by far more powerful than the fastest, most powerful super computer. Studies have shown that we as a species have become extremely exclusive of what we focus our attention and consciousness on but we are capable of and are always taking in information from thousands of sources we aren’t even aware of consciously, so I try to get out of the way when I am working. I know that all the information I have absorbed over the last 25 years is stored and available for my use in voicing every top and what I need to do is trust that, and get my ego out of the way. By joyously engaging in the process of voicing a top I am letting the greatest super computer handle and make decisions regarding variables that are too complex to be controlled or understood scientifically. The only reason I can talk in terms of dimensions at all is that after I’ve voiced a top I occasionally take out the calipers and make a mental map of what I’ve done. The final perimeter sanding is something that is done entirely by tonal response and deflection to pressure.
It is the system, sensitivity and techniques, or recipe in the case of a factory, of the builder that has far more overall effect on tone than all of the wood choices in the world. Whatever wood choices are made, A Martin sounds like a Martin, a Taylor sounds like a Taylor, more than Koa sounds like Koa and Adirondack sounds like Adirondack. While there are some rules of thumb in terms of wood choices, each set of rules must be recognized to mostly be relevant only within the confines of that builder’s system of building. Taking those rules of thumb out of that building system and applying it to guitars across the board understandably creates disagreement and a lot of wasted words spent in arguments where nobody is right.
I have my wood biases and they aren’t right they are just the biases I use in my system of building. Within that system they are relevant until the constant evolution I am involved in makes them irrelevant or offers me even more versatility by virtue of my increased sensitivity as a builder.
Within Daniel Roberts Stringworks, a Cedar top makes a wonderful sensitive and responsive fingerstyle guitar.
TT: So it is! I stand corrected. Ok so onto back and sides woods- Brazilian rosewood or Indian? More and more folks are convinced Gibson actually used Indian for some of prewar period…
DR: Laughing! As we all know the minute you start arguing what or when Gibson did anything you are most likely wrong, and right. There were no rules it seems, only likelihoods. They did seem to use Indian RW earlier than Martin, but most of the stuff we did RW re-issues from when I was at Gibson were definitely Brazilian. The fingerboards are almost always Brazilian on the old Gibsons. As for my preferences, I prefer Brazilian, however Indian Rosewood will make some fabulous guitars. God knows I heard a slew of great ones at SCGC. I do mostly mahogany and maple on my historic line but have done a few Brazilian ones and they have been truly stellar guitars. I like Cocobolo a lot. I am expecting a good supply of other alternative Rosewoods too. Indian is of course the old Standby and is still available in very good quality though I don’t use large amounts of it myself.
TT: Interesting that you should say Brazilian or Ebony fingerboards- it is more to do with durability and workability than actual tone?
DR: Well, ebony is known to have a damping effect. I think bridges affect tone far more than a fingerboard which I would say is mostly an issue of durability, but the bridge species can affect the tone a lot. Workability is good on any of these materials, and isn’t an issue for me. It is fairly commonplace for me to use an Ebony fretboard for durability and a RW bridge for tonal reasons. Of course when you are talking tone each little detail perhaps only affects overall tone by what?? 1 percent or less? It’s impossible to know, but if theoretically each little detail like hot hide glue, through saddle, dovetail, thin nitrocellulose finish, etc. etc. etc. represents even a miniscule improvement, combined with the effect of such larger more important techniques such as hand tuned / voiced tops, the overall effect can be amazingly significant.
TT: I see and how about bridgeplates? Maple is pretty standard and rosewood rightfully derided but how about the alternatives like say locust which I believe John Arnold likes…
DR: Well Terence, on this one I just defer to the great old classics. Most of the old venerable classics used maple bridge plates. We are now looking for alternative tonewoods to Brazilian Rosewood because of it’s endangered status extreme regulation, but guitarmakers wouldn’t be looking for a substitute if there was plenty. Good quality Maple is one of those resources that is not endangered so I see no reason to argue with success there!
That area is so critical I feel and I have enough Maple in my shop today with perfect density, stiffness, and grain orientation for bridgeplates to build thousands of guitars. Maple is really a wonderful resource for guitar makers. In this country, we have a tendency to think of Maple as a thin bright edgy tonewood becasue of the way it was used by some of the large factories. There is nothing wrong with what they did but we are really selling Maple short to feel that it has to sound like that. Many of my clients know of the history of wonderful Maple instruments made by Gibson especially during WWII, and so there has been a lot of interest in Maple. Every instrument I’ve made with it has been warm and wonderful, with great clarity, focused but strong bass and sparkling but round full mids and treble registers. It is a wonderful wood and we have plentitude of high quality Maple available. In Europe Maple is held in high esteem as a wood for classical guitars and of course the Violin world has embraced Maple almost exclusively, from European Maple to the domestics, violin family builders have loved Maple for centuries. I think you will see more and more of the best instruments made from maple increasingly as many of the exotics become more endangered and heavily regulated.
TT: Actually a lot of non-exotics do well in guitars right? Like cherry, walnut, birch?
DR: Walnut can be a very good tonewood, but the key is using enough of it to know where it works well, what thicknesses are appropriate etc. SOmetimes on large guitars I felt that the Walnut was almost a little muddy, but of course knowing that adjustments can be made in the voicing of the top and it always seemed to work beautifully in the smaller body guitars. One of the best little Style 1’s I ever heard was a Walnut back and sides and cedar top version.
Cherry can be good too, I’ve not heard a birch guitar but I’m quite certain it could be very good in the right combination and paired with an appropriately voiced top.
TT: Thanks for a very informative interview. I was wondering before we let you go if you had anything to add, perhaps on your next project?
DR: Thanks Terence, I am currently working on a pair of 1943 Buddy Holly J-45 replicas for The Buddy Holly Guitar Foundation, and I am building Kevin Kastning a second Roberts KK 14 string Contraguitar , I also will be building a Roberts 12 string fretless baritone (28.5″ scale) for Hungarian guitarist and composer Sandor Szabo, and I have another order for a Minstrel octave mandolin, besides my backlog of more standard traditional based instruments. Thanks for your interest in my instruments! This interview has been a pleasure!
Daniel Roberts Guitars-Luthier Interview-Complete Photo Selection
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