Recently I read Guitar, An American Life by Tim Brookes – about his quest for a custom guitar to replace his damaged Fylde guitar. Guitar is a quiet, well researched story about a broad splash of guitar lore and the relationships between players and their instruments. Brookes’ book (say that three times fast) covers a storehouse of history, describes his collaboration with the builder and explores the guitar building process. As he waits for his new guitar to be built, he builds a chronicle of the guitar — from a peasant’s plaything to a serious instrument with a worldwide following, becoming THE American instrument. Of course, the raw materials — which wood species and adornments he selects for his guitar — become key decision points and fuel for the philosophical discussion throughout the book.
Early on in my reading, my curiosity about the Fylde guitar Brookes was replacing grew. Fyldes are very well respected — so much so that their high demand makes them practically impossible to acquire. Maybe that’s why I’d never heard of Fylde before. Check out Fylde for very interesting thoughts and strong opinions about guitars, as well as an interview with Roger Bucknall the owner, recorded for the NAMM archive.
Bucknall eschews the use of the term luthier (from the “French … one who makes lutes” … duh), as pretentious and unnecessary — a disingenuous attempt to sound superior. He prefers guitar maker as being more accurate and perhaps more honest. It’s no surprise that Bucknall has strong opinions about which woods make for good guitar building. He takes a pragmatic approach — what’s readily available, malleable, affordable and beautiful –while still being acoustically suitable. One look at his guitars and it’s plain to see he uses woods from around the world not typically associated with musical instrument production.
Back to the book … As Brookes weighs the pros and cons of various woods, his luthier explains that the species of wood used for the back and sides isn’t that important to the sound. (Well, that’s not exactly how the marketing folks in modern guitar factories explain it!) Ultimately, Brookes decides on Cherry wood for his dream guitar, which he had made by Rick Davis of Running Dog Guitars in Vermont.
All this got me thinking about tonewoods, and my desire to seek out some sort of rosewood guitar. I decided to talk to an expert. Enter George Leach, who has been building and teaching guitar making for over 25 years. He has instruments on display at the incomparable Musical Instrument Museum, and is about to publish a book on guitar making. I had a chance to talk to him and his partner at their shop — The Phoenix Guitar Company. He had just returned from exhibiting some of his work at the “by invitation only” Healdsburg Guitar Festival.
George Leach generously shared his time and knowledge, telling me that the sound board, or top, has the most effect on tone. To simplify his explanation, when it comes to the side and back woods, he says other things have more — way more — influence on a guitar’s overall tone. Things like scale length, body size and even strings make more of a difference in the guitar’s tone. The back and side wood, while influencing the sound somewhat, are most important for their beauty.
The more I learn, the more I’m beginning to rethink my all rosewood guitar idea. Not really. I still want to a rosewood guitar … but, I might be open to walnut… or cocobolo… It certainly deserves more thought. Meanwhile, the value of guitar practice does not require more thought. It requires more action. So off I go.