Thursday, January 26, 2012

Chapter Two: The Archtop

Gluing the Sitka Spruce top
Well, here we are again. I'm not sure who is the bigger glutton for punishment here: me for building another guitar or you for continuing to read my blog. But here we are, so I might as well get on with it.

This project has been brewing for quite a while now, since sometime last year when I and several classmates decided to build an archtop. Actually, we first decided it would be a good idea to build a mandolin and we were very excited about that. I couldn't wait. I figured it would be a good motivation to learn to play more than a few chords badly and, besides, I would never be able to afford to buy a good mandolin, so here was my chance. Then someone said, "you know, there's really not much difference between a mandolin and an archtop guitar." Well, that was the end of that. It was then that we decided that a couple of us would make mandolins and a couple would make archtop guitars since, as Ted pointed out, the process is very much the same. So my class from last year is intact, and we've added a couple of people, Will and Rob. More on them later.

So for those avid readers of my blog who aren't familiar with guitar types, two of the most prominent are flat tops and archtops. Flat tops are the most common these days, and include dreadnoughts like the one I just finished making, but also classical guitars, and many other shapes and sizes. The main thing of course, is that the top of the instrument is flat. (Or, as you may recall from one of my first posts, almost flat, since there's actually a slight radius on it). An archtop, on the other hand has - you guessed it - an arched top, which is made by actually carving an arched shape out of a fairly thick piece of wood as opposed to simply using a relatively thin, flat piece as you would with a flat top.

Some would say archtops are much more difficult to make (and the prices you pay for good archtops, which often get well over $10,000 for even a decent professional model, bear that out), but others would differ with that opinion. In any event, the process is very different.

In the end, the main difference between flat tops and archtops aside from their construction is the way they're used. To make a big generalization, these days flat tops are generally used for bluegrass, country, folk, rock - most popular music, in fact. On the other hand, most jazz players use archtops and a jazz club is where you will most often find them, although they're also used by blues players and many others. It's certainly not uncommon to find one in a rock band. There's much more history to it, of course.

So we have two classes under our belts now and we've made good progress already. Our tops have been planed to the proper thickness and the two book-matched parts glued together; the backs have been chosen; and several other preparatory steps are behind us. We'll be bending sides in the next week or two, so we're moving right along.

I'm excited about the wood and some special plans for my new guitar, but I'll save that one for next time. Until then...

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Flat Top: Epilogue

I sat down to write this post at least five or six times over the past few months, but I'm glad I didn't. I don't recall which would have been the high points or the low ones on the roller coaster of joy and sorrow, but I'm certain that I've finally achieved the proper balance, or at least as close to that point as I'm likely to get anytime soon.

And since, as you'll soon learn, I'm about to subject you to another dozen months or so of my lutherial blather (no, it's not a word, but I don't care), I'll try to give you the short version of the story.

The first point I'd like to make is one pertaining to the process of making a guitar: That is that on the day I called my guitar finished (November 22, 2011), I was definitely not finished.  In retrospect I realize that everyone who has ever built a guitar knows this. It boils down to the simple reality that the wood in a recently completed guitar is still coming to terms with what it has become. It takes a little time to get used to the notion. As a result, it moves and swells and contorts in all kinds of crazy ways, which makes adjusting it a bear. On top of that, as many years as I've been playing the guitar I had no idea how important the setup of the instrument was. I didn't realize that a small adjustment of the bridge here and a minute adjustment of the neck there can change the guitar from an absolute dud to a masterpiece....and, unfortunately, vice versa.

Suffice it to say I experienced several rounds of both. And I won't go into how frustrating that was. Just know that it would take me a while to find the words to describe it.

And then, of course, just when it's perfect, the unthinkable happens. Your bridge begins to come off. It's not fun. It's very, very depressing. First you can deny it. Then you can convince yourself it's just going to come up a little and it can be glued back down. Finally you admit what should have been obvious. It's coming up and there's nothing to stop it.

But then a very funny thing happened. I quickly realized that I, John Harris, built a guitar. If I can build a guitar, how difficult can it be to make what is basically a pretty simple repair? So I did. With a little advice from Ted, I heated it up so the glue would soften, then used a kitchen spatula to carefully work it off of the top. Then I cleaned it up, made some slight adjustments to its shape, and glued that sucker back on. The whole process took a couple of hours. And now it's good as new. Relief!

That was a few days before New Years, so I've been living with it for almost a month now, and with a little time to get away from it all, here's what I have to say about my guitar, using as much objectivity as I can muster: I love my guitar. I love playing my guitar and I can honestly say it would serve me extremely well if it was the only guitar I could ever play again. Is it the best guitar I've ever played? No, it's not. Does it have the potential to be? Well, I think that would be a real stretch, but knowing what I know now, I do believe it can be better. There are more adjustments required and, as most people know, almost all guitars improve dramatically in the first years after they're built. So the bottom line is that I built a guitar that is far better than I ever could have imagined. It's not perfect, but it's good enough that I feel compelled to do it again.

So, with that, I end the first chapter of my guitar building adventure and begin the second. See you in chapter two!