Mike Doolin | Luthier Inteview

Mike Doolin- Doolin guitars. | 2012 | Luthier Interview


Mike Doolin is considered to be one of the most individual and innovative builders today. We have managed to drag him away from his workbench and busy touring schedule to speak to us!


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©Terence Tan.

Pictures courtesy of Mike Doolin © individuals

Any infringement of copyright or errors is entirely unintentional- although we try very hard not to make them. Any guitars represented remain property of their current owners. Any issues should be address to: writers@guitarbench.com. We will attempt to resolve these issues quickly.


Chuck Moore- Moore Bettah Ukes | Luthier Inteview

Chuck Moore- Moore Bettah Ukes. | 2012 | Luthier Interview


Chuck Moore is currently regarded as one of the finest ukulele luthiers in the world. We have managed to drag him away from his workbench to speak to us!


This is a magazine exclusive feature- please enjoy it through our pdf viewer:



©Terence Tan.

Pictures courtesy of Chuck Moore © individuals

Any infringement of copyright or errors is entirely unintentional- although we try very hard not to make them. Any guitars represented remain property of their current owners. Any issues should be address to: writers@guitarbench.com. We will attempt to resolve these issues quickly.


David Wren- Wren Guitar Works. | Luthier Interview

David Wren – Wren Guitar Works. | 2012 | Luthier Interview


David Wren has always been referred to as Jean Larrivee’s best apprentice. For someone who counts Grit Laskin and Linda Manzer as fellow apprentices, that is high praise indeed, now he is building again, we have managed to drag him away from his workbench to speak to us!


This is a magazine exclusive feature- please enjoy it through our pdf viewer:



©Terence Tan.

Pictures courtesy of David Wren © individuals

Any infringement of copyright or errors is entirely unintentional- although we try very hard not to make them. Any guitars represented remain property of their current owners. Any issues should be address to: writers@guitarbench.com. We will attempt to resolve these issues quickly.


Daniel Roberts Guitars. Luthier Interview

Daniel Roberts Guitars. | 2011 | Luthier Interview


Daniel Roberts is best known for his work as production manager at Santa Cruz guitars. Taking inspiration from vintage instruments, Dan has been crafting superb Gibson inspired guitars. We are very fortunate to be able to drag Dan away from his workbench(s) to speak to us about his time at Gibson, Santa Cruz and his current work. 


We present and highly recommend viewing the pdf version of this article first as it contains the most up to date information and more photos.



-HTML Version Below-

MP3 feature:

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.


MP3 feature:

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?


Daniel Roberts Guitars. Luthier Interview. Carving a top

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.


Daniel Roberts guitars

(click for fullsize)

Daniel Roberts Guitars. Luthier Interview. Troubadour model
Daniel Roberts Guitars. Luthier Interview. Minstrel model #1
Daniel Roberts Guitars. Luthier Interview. Brazilian Rosewood Minstrel. Sunburst top.
Daniel Roberts Guitars. Luthier Interview. Brazilian Rosewood Minstrel. Brazilian Rosewood Back.

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…


Daniel Roberts Guitars. Luthier Interview. Bending sides

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?


-Daniel Roberts Guitars


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. Dan with a bent side


Daniel Roberts Guitars-Luthier Interview-Complete Photo Selection




©Terence Tan.

Pictures & MP3s courtesy of Dan Roberts © individuals


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Andy Manson Guitars. Luthier Interview

Andy Manson Guitars. | 2011 | Luthier Interview

Andy Manson Guitars. Luthier Interview. Custom Bluebird model headstock
Andy Manson Guitars. Luthier Interview. Custom Bluebird model headstock

Andy Manson is best known for his work with unusual instruments such as the Mermaid guitar or the triple neck mandolin. However, Andy’s passions run equally deep for simple guitars and his profound respect for his craft and materials has established his reputation as one of the UKs finest luthiers. We are very fortunate to be able to drag Andy away from his workbench(s) to speak to us about repair work and projects new.

Andy Manson Guitars. Luthier Interview. 01 My first guitar 1967
Andy Manson Guitars. Luthier Interview. 01 My first guitar 1967

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?

Manson guitars
(click for fullsize)
Referenced from numbers in text
For remainder of photos, please refer to the gallery at the end of the article

Andy Manson Guitars. Luthier Interview. 02 Based on Maccaferri.
02 Based on Maccaferri.
Andy Manson Guitars. Luthier Interview. 02a Ode to Leo
02a Ode to Leo
Andy Manson Guitars. Luthier Interview. 03 Collapsible guitar
03 Collapsible guitar
Andy Manson Guitars. Luthier Interview. 04 Triple neck
04 Triple neck
Andy Manson Guitars. Luthier Interview. 04a Triple neck building
04a Triple neck building
Andy Manson Guitars. Luthier Interview. 04b Triple neck 1974
04b Triple neck 1974
Andy Manson Guitars. Luthier Interview. 05 Bouzouki sound board
05 Bouzouki sound board
Andy Manson Guitars. Luthier Interview. 06
Andy Manson Guitars. Luthier Interview. 07 Blarge
07 Blarge
Andy Manson Guitars. Luthier Interview. 08 Mike Oldfield
08 Mike Oldfield
Andy Manson Guitars. Luthier Interview. 09 Mandolin rim
09 Mandolin rim
Andy Manson Guitars. Luthier Interview. 10 Slipper heel
10 Slipper heel
Andy Manson Guitars. Luthier Interview. 11 top bracing
11 top bracing
Andy Manson Guitars. Luthier Interview. 12 go bar deck
12 go bar deck
Andy Manson Guitars. Luthier Interview. 13 Bend sides
13 Bend sides
Andy Manson Guitars. Luthier Interview. 14 Sides fixed
14 Sides fixed

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.

©Terence Tan.
Pictures courtesy of Andy Manson
© individuals 2011

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