Luthier speaks out!
Well, not really.
Kelcey Alonzo of www.guitarconnoisseur.com featured me in the latest online edition of the new, excellent and rather fancy magazine. It’s the “Innovators” edition which is nice.
So, read the article, it’s good, as are the images, supplied by myself, Dave Best and Seth Tinsley, and as a bonus I’ve included the original q&a between the writer and I in this post.
NK Forster Guitars speaks with guitarconnoisseur.com
GC: Can you talk us through the process from initial spark of inspiration to create a new model; to the design process; the development of a prototype and the final completed guitar?
Its great fun coming up with new models and new designs, its quite possibly my favourite part of the job.
Ideas come wether I like it or not, regardless of the timing being appropriate or not. Some ideas come about because of circumstances, or ideas arise yet I’ve no clue of what use they may be at the time, and yet other times, solutions come due to concerted effort, by directing my attention to an issue and examining it from different angles.
The trick is to know when to work with thoughts and ideas and when to put them to one side for later. I’m sure this is a situation familiar to many people, not just musicians and artists.
An example of circumstances providing inspiration was the economic melt down of 2007 – from it, the Model S was born, which became the basis of my simple undecorated “modern” style of building:pragmatism was the driving force behind it. Around that time I had someone cancel an order just a few weeks after placing it – his financial situation had changed for the worse and he could no longer commit to the instrument he’d ordered. Poor feller. This had never happened to me before and it came to me rather quickly to make a less expensive instrument. The challenge was simple:how could I strip down the design to just the bare bones without detracting from the sound or playability? So, I had to direct my attention to the whole design to see where the “fat” could be cut.
It became a really enjoyable challenge like a kind of puzzle…guitar Jenga! What could be taken away without it the whole thing collapsing, physically or aesthetically? Quite a lot as it turned out. This is an approach I’d encourage all makers to experiment with – it’s easy to get lost in all the latest ideas, all the fancy design features which can become a little gimmicky. Sometimes we get lost in the complicated stuff without having given due attention to the basics. We assume we understand them yet sometimes this isn’t the case. Much of what we consider a guitar to be, isn’t. It’s just “fluff” – superfluous.
Other times you just have to put ideas to one side and wait for the right time – my arch top design was an example of an idea that I kept coming back to – it took a few years to get to the current point where the design is pretty settled.
If you check out my blog you can trace the idea from it’s conception – the design was initially for a guitar with a totally flat top! It took several incarnations before I came up with “Charlie and Oscar” and all the other variations. A friend had suggested the design would suit archtop guitars better than flat top, but at the time I wasn’t listening, it took months before I “had the archtop idea myself!”
So the project that began with “what would a guitar with a totally flat soundboard sound like?” ended up answering a very different question – “How do you make an archtop with sustain and broad tonal colour?”
It’s proving a pretty popular design, yet some really struggle with it as the cantilevered long neck and wedged floating bridge seems to defy their understanding of engineering. Of course the best thing is for folk to try one out, then the “aaah!!” moment comes, and all the doubts go!
Despite this idea being “new” it’s not without pre-cursors:one feller noted that I’d re-invented Les Paul’s “the log” and just the other week I saw a picture of a guitar by a 1960’s Italian maker, Wandre, that had a cantilevered neck similar to my archtops, so I’m in good company it seems.
The freedom to experiment:it’s one of the many benefits to running a one man shop. With employees it wouldn’t be possible, I’d be too concerned about keeping them busy and paying the bills.
GC: You trained under the guidance of luthier Stefan Sobell from the age of seventeen – how valuable was this process in terms of building your own confidence and ‘voice’ – and how much did this working relationship influence your own work; belief in yourself and ability to take instruction – so much so it still influences you today?
Working for Stefan was a very challenging and worthwhile experience, and one that continues to influence my present.
Considering what a basic workshop (by todays standards) it was, we made a lot of fine instruments. Not only did he make good instruments he also knows how to run a business, and run it well. When Stefan started he was supporting his young family, and he was the bread winner. He had to get things done, get them right and get them out the door. And in those days his work wasn’t commanding the sort of money it is now. When I started with him in 1988 I think a Model 1 guitar was £820 or £880!
As for belief in myself – When I opened my own workshop it wasn’t as if I was trying to learn how to make guitars whilst trying to make a living at the same time – I already knew how to make fine guitars, I’d been making some of the most highly regarded instruments in the world. For years. Just no-one knew. Some folk who used to visit Stefan’s workshop though I just made the tea! So it was more more of an issue of letting people know that I was in business, that the quality was the same, just the design and approach was different. It didn’t take so long, word got around pretty quick and it didn’t take long for a waiting list to build up.
Taking instruction is an interesting topic – there are many ways to learn: a great bit of advice I heard years ago from a martial arts instructor was “If you have a question…ask yourself first before asking me” It’s very very good advice. And a very effective way to gain a little insight.
Much of what I learned from Stefan I learned through observation and asking questions of myself. He’s a guitar maker, not a guitar making teacher and whilst he’s extremely articulate, much of what he does can’t be articulated, it has to be learned through observation and repetition until it becomes experiential.
That said, it’s certainly important to ask questions of teachers, the right questions, but that “ask yourself first” rule should still apply. Sometimes we ask questions more out of wanting to appear intelligent or interested rather than out of a genuine curiosity. That’s the wrong motivation for asking question…more about how we want to be perceived rather than our wish to learn. Sometimes we ask questions because we want to understand everything straight away, but it simply isn’t possible. That’s where repetition comes in handy, it’s the repetition that makes certain things become clear in the mind, but then I suppose that’s not an option available to many.
Back to receiving instruction – as a young man I didn’t like being told what to do, and this caused a lot of problems between Stefan and I, looking back, he had a lot on his plate dealing with me. Still, I learned a great deal working for him but the learning hasn’t stopped, that’s for sure. Listening and observing really helps. Actually, in recent years I’ve earned to listen more, especially when I hear or read something that I actually don’t agree with or like.
One of the difficulties I’ve had in talking to other luthiers, amateur in particular, is that many current makers share a vocabulary – they share ideas and many seem to be reaching a sort of consensus about how instruments work. In my training and in the time I spent with Sobell, we never spoke of nodes and modes, it wasn’t something we concerned ourselves with, instead we spoke of structure and building in order to resist soundboard deformation. This is still pretty much how I tend to think about design which can be a challenge for those who want to learn about how I make. I talk in terms they may struggle to understand (and I don’t just mean my accent!), and of course, my work has never been “data driven” which is so popular amongst amateur makers. The desire for data (amongst amateur makers) is perfectly understandable but data alone won’t make a good guitar or a good guitar maker. It certainly means very little to customers and players.
Looking back at the first few years of my solo work the Sobell influence is very clear – I’d made a number of structural design changes that (at the time) I considered important but the guitars from the first few years still sound and look very “Sobell” to me, which is no bad thing of course, but it took a while to build on that sound which I found a little harsh at times – especially in the hands of players who weren’t so quick to adapt their right hand playing style to a different style of building. My intention was to soften things up without loosing any of that famous Sobell clarity, and seems to be how things have worked out.
GC: It sounds as though your devotion to yoga, meditation and in the past, Japanese martial arts – as well as voluntary work in Asia – has become significant to you outside of your guitar-building work. How much has this enabled you to develop focus and crucially, how much do you need to retain this clarity for your luthier work?
It’s been a gradual progression – much of that excess energy in my 20’s got channelled into both music and Aikido, but the more skilled you become at Aikido, the more terrifying it becomes! In the end the fear and of injury grew larger than my wish to keep practising…it’s a truly beautiful, elegant and subtle martial art, and very challenging.
Then in my early 30’s I found myself in a yoga class. Partly just to get out of the workshop (this was when I first began building under my own name and was putting in a lot of hours at the bench) and partly to sort out my aching back. I still practice, but not so diligently. I practice enough to allow me to sit in meditation without having to experience too much physical pain. I’d rather spend the time meditating.
Meditation has been part of my life since my mid 20’s but it wasn’t until 2010 that in Thailand I stumbled upon a type of reflective analytical meditation that really challenged my patterns of thought, intention and behaviour. Amongst other things, I began the slow process of looking at my motivation for working. I was shocked at how little thought I’d given it…. My work had brought a little bit of pleasure and contentment into the world for sure, but I decided it was time to do something which was more directly beneficial to people – to give my time and my skills as a volunteer.
It’s the perfect time to do it – I’ve a nice job, no boss, no debt, money in the bank, and for the first time in years I’m pretty free of major responsibility – my daughter is grown up and flown the nest, no employees, nothing… a perfect situation to spend a bit of time helping others. So for the last couple of years I’ve spent the winter time donating my woodwork skills mainly, but other stuff too. It’s nice, working and living in a team, in a different part of the world, doing something where these skills of mine can make a difference.
What it also means is I get to “step back from the canvas” which is so valuable. The internet allows me to still communicate with customers and deal with inquiries and I’ve a great network of friends in the trade who look after the occasional warranty set up or little repair that might arise.
The first time I headed east for winter I got a little worried that I’d loose interest in lutherie, that when I’d get back to the workshop I’d not want to be there, but the opposite was the case – ideas were pouring out! The main issue was keeping them in check and not getting too carried away.
It’s a way of working that really suits me – to miss the wet, cold, dark British winter, to spend a few weeks practicing yoga and doing voluntary work, traveling a bit and writing. Once back, the ideas pour out, and I limit the work to the stuff I actually want to do rather than the stuff I have to do. For now, it really works.
It’s a nice position to be in for sure, and one that comes from a feeling that (on one hand) each instrument could be my last, (and on the other) a certain confidence that I know how to do this work – that the woodwork is so conditioned in me, many aspects are automatic, yet still with the freedom to not necessarily know what direction the work will take next…
GC: Do you have any plans to bring your teaching skills to other parts of the world? Also, how much has travel and cross-cultural links had a direct impact upon your work? Do you prefer to work in isolation so as to retain your own authentic style; or do you like to achieve a multi-faceted style, incorporating elements from other cultures and influences?
In 2012 I got in touch with a project in a north west Thailand town. They were looking for artists to set up businesses training Burmese refugees – oh I was so excited! I went over to check out the situation but it just wasn’t workable – there was some wonderful timber (mainly mahogany) but when I investigated a into the timber’s origin, most of it was illegal – from Burma itself. As it turns out timber is one of the biggest financial props of the military regime there, so that, combined with many other practical and legal issues squashed that particular dream.
But yes, the idea of making great instruments and actually making a real difference to the lives of the workers, was (and is) one that really appeals to me.
That said, I also enjoy and appreciate working alone. Silence is good. I do get many requests from folk wanting to work as an apprentice but it’s unlikely to happen. That said, in the future I may offer “internships” like some makers do. Who knows?
Influences? They can take some time to filter through to my work. When I visited Japan in 2010 I was bowled over by the craftsmanship and design there – for me it simply is the most inspiring place in the world (aesthetically) but I can’t say that influence has made an appearance in my work yet. But it might, I love the work of modern Japanese luthiers – but developing decoration just seems to be the wrong direction for me….we’ll see…
GC: You have mentioned Italian luthier and classically trained musician, Mario Maccaferri, as an inspiration to your own work. He has clearly had many set- backs along the way, including an injury which caused him to cease his playing for some time. He found ways to continue on with his work, despite these set-backs – and became someone who developed innovative new techniques that future luthiers now model themselves on. How much can you relate to these hardships and what kind of highs and lows have you been faced with – and how has this contributed to your own sense of style and unique design?
I’d never thought about Maccaferri like that before, but you’re right. We all suffer some sort of hardship or other. This is simply one of life’s rules, wether you like it or not, wether you even acknowledge it or not…things will from time to time go wrong. It’s how we react to these issues that matter. The trick is not to add suffering to the suffering that is already present! Seems Mr Maccaferri had a decent grasp of that one.
It’s hard to say how hardships manifest in our work. Often its how we react to hardship. In my case it’s by taking a step back and trying to see things as they actually are rather than how I would prefer them to be. Trying to work out what is really going on. Accepting things, trying to understand them and working with where things are now, not getting lost in how I’d prefer them to be.
The greatest challenge in recent years I’ve had to face has been grief, with both parents passing away, both within a few years of one another and both still relatively young. But it’s a very valuable process to go through, to reflect and value the good qualities of those you’ve lost and to actually direct your energies to developing the same qualities yourself, that’s the best way to honour someone’s memory eh?
My parents were very kind, generous, simple people. No pretensions, just very straightforward, decent working class folk. My brother and I were very fortunate, and I know many others are not so lucky.
Back to the work:visually there is no “distractions”, no affectations, no shouting, no demanding, no attention seeking in my instruments. What you see is what you get. Tools to make music with. You could say that if I have a “style”, this is it.
Style can seem a very personal thing. Design can seem a very personal thing. But its always conditioned by the past and by external things – by what we’ve seen or experienced before, by the things we like, by the things we don’t, even by the things to which we’re indifferent.
Whilst my style of making feels very personal to me, if you take a broader view its actually very “British” design: compare my work to that of my peers, it’s really plain and functional. Then compare a 40’s or 50’s British motorbike to an American one – a 70’s British hi-fi amp to a Japanese one. Compare old British woodworking machines to modern European ones…it’s the same thing over and over – the British version is just the bare bones of what needs to be there – not “under engineered”, far from it… just very very simple, very well designed, very well made products, stripped down to the essentials and nothing else. Just pure functional design. Form following function. So in that respect you could say my work is actually quite traditional!
GC: Your book is a photo-essay project which allows people to join you on the guitar-building journey. How long did this book take to compile and do you have plans for anything similar – perhaps a film documentary – in the future?
Dave Best (who did the fantastic photography) came over every few weeks to the workshop for about two years. During that time I put the essays together. Then it all went to old school pal Ben Tibbs who designed the layout. The whole process took about three years but it was worth it! Hopefully the next one will be a little quicker. I wrote the text this year whilst in India. Every morning I’d write for a couple of hours prior to lunch. It was a very enjoyable process, trying to remember everything I do every day.
With a bit of luck I’ll get the photos taken soon and get the book out before too long – I really enjoy writing and plan to do more this year on my winter break.
GC: Do you aim to use tried-and-tested woods for certain elements of your guitars; or do you prefer to break the mould and go for timbers that aren’t necessarily ‘known’ to be particularly successful for certain features – yet, do you believe in innovation and pushing boundaries?
I’m pretty conservative when it comes to materials, I really understand spruce, redwood, maple, mahogany and rosewood, what there are capable of and what their limitations are, and I have really good timber stocks, so there simply isn’t really any need for me to go looking for more alternatives.
The innovation that interests me is design innovation. Playing with the internal architecture of instruments. My main interest is in experimenting with the soundboard’s physical shape itself – this subject is virtually ignored by the majority of makers. For most it’s a choice between one spherical former or another when deciding on a soundboard shape, and then playing around with bracing, thicknessing and materials to colour the sound, but this approach ignores what I feel is the most important factor – the actual physical shape you put the guitar top into. That’s what makes my work so different I guess. It means my work isn’t so conventional, and that limits my “mass-appeal”, but that’s ok – I’m not running a factory!
GC: Where do you source your timber from?
Currently – nowhere. I more or less stopped buying timber a few years ago – I have more than enough. More than I’ll ever use that’s for sure, but that’s never stopped me buying timber in the past!
That said I’m certainly not averse to the idea of alternative materials but am yet to try any serious experimentation.
GC: What is it about the Howe-Orme design of the Bouzouki that appeals to you?
I use it for guitars as well as guitar bouzouki’s. It’s such a logical, sensible and pragmatic design. Perhaps the most logical, sensible and pragmatic guitar design there has ever been. And they sound amazing!
As I mentioned before – the actual three dimensional shape of the top is a crucially important factor that is really overlooked by todays makers. The folk who came up with the Howe-Orme design thought about it seriously in the 1890’s!
Look at how the steel string guitar evolved you realise that the popular responses to all the structural issues that guitars struggle with have only been partially successful. Guitars still need neck resets because of weak soundboards and non adjustable necks. The Howe Orme design tackles the structural issues in a totally logical and successful manner. My own Howe Orme guitar is over 100 years old, yet the guitar plays and sound superb. It’s one of the best guitars I’ve ever played.
One interesting thing is that despite looking very unusual, the principles behind the Howe Orme design are very similar to the principles behind Sobell guitars – they share a lot of common ground. Blending the two and adding one or two ingredients of my own makes for what I feel to be the best possible design.
One tricky thing about my version of the design is that it requires a certain degree of sensitivity and high degree of concentration during the soundboard thicknessing stage. A regular guitar soundboard is around 3mm thick. My cylinder top soundboards can be down to 2mm. That’s thin for a steel string. But because of the shape structure they’re as strong if not stronger than a conventional soundboard.
When you’re working with tops this thin a small change in thickness makes a huge change in strength. Much more so than the difference between say 3mm and 2.8mm. So you have to be switched on – your attention undivided during this time. It helps to build a few at a time to compare. To thickness and flex, thickness and flex, to keep switching between tops to compare, flex and listen. It’s a fascinating process. You could go down the route of measuring, but I think I do fairly well by paying attention and feeling what’s going on.
GC: In today’s world of conflicting lifestyles and especially in the economic climate – what advice might you offer to anyone who is passionate about a career in guitar lutherie (or anything less than ‘conventional’ in fact) – and is struggling to keep true to their own intuition? How much have your family influences as well as other role-models been a positive guidance for you?
The best advice I could offer to someone who wants to make a living in Lutherie is to learn how to repair. There is no shortage of makers out there. Good makers at that. But there is a chronic shortage of good, reliable repairers. There is a good living to be made by those who are prepared to put the time and effort in.
Learn to repair, repair well, charge accordingly then start putting time aside for building – the public love repairers who build. I recently complied a list of well known luthiers who also used to repair – the list was enormous! Plus it’s a good way to get known, to get people through your door.
I’ll say it again….learn to repair!!!
The other thing is to be mindful of the position you put yourself in or find yourself in. I consider myself fortunate not to have debt at a time when it’s rampant, when it’s the norm, but that was also a decision. I’ve been fairly cautious financially, I’ve always lived modestly. I prefer it.
More advice? To quote Somoygi “It helps to marry well!” …so that’s where I went wrong…
GC: You offer a wide range of guitar models – and the chance to tailor make your own design. How important to you, is it to get to know your clients and their preferences? Do you have many loyal customers who come back to you time after time?
This year about 2/3 of my work is “repeat” business – instruments for people who own an NK Forster or two already – that’s nice, and yes I always listen to what they might want. They are usually pretty interested in what I have to say or suggest too.
A few years ago many of my customers came to me because they couldn’t afford a Sobell or didn’t want to wait in his list, but this just isn’t the case so much these days. People come to me because they like my work, not just because of how it sounds or pays but because of how I think about the work – maybe it accords with how they think and feel about things. This is an important dimension for customers – finding a maker with whom you “fit”. For most makers, our work often is the physical embodiment of the things we consider important, so the relationship between the maker and the customer goes beyond just “liking” the guitars.
GC: The Paper in Oil capacitor features on many of your archtop semi acoustic models – why does this work best for you and your clients?
Last year I worked pretty closely with John Gill of JXG guitars in Newcastle – John’s a very good guitar repairer and electric builder – he specialises in “relics” – amazing looking and sounding guitars. John was looking over one of my archtops which was already wired up – and he suggested we try an PiO capacitor. I’m pretty sceptical about that sort of thing but I’ve a lot of respect for John and I love John’s work, so asked him to “see what he could do” to improve it. We A/B’d from ceramic to PiO caps and the difference was astounding. So I quickly bought as many as I could find! It would be hard to describe the difference, as it’s like trying to describe a feeling. But the feeling was undeniable!
GC: Have you been inspired whilst meeting with other luthiers; or on your travels – to incorporate new features into your work? Are you constantly trying to find new ways of improving upon your work? Or are you more of the thinking that the traditional approaches are more dependable – rather than constantly seeking to get ahead of time and reject the older techniques? Do you believe, as in all hands-on trades such as the traditional building techniques (lime plastering etc); that with luthery, there are certain techniques that really should be retained and preserved?
I’ve met a number of makers on my last trip – we had a great time! I paid a visit to Steve Gilchrist, who is quite possibly the best mandolin maker around today, a very down to earth, articulate and amiable chap. He and I talked shop all afternoon – and a number of things he mentioned really got me thinking.
Likewise Trevor Gore and Gerard Gillet – two fantastic gentlemen both of whom make world class guitars. Trevor and Gerard put together an extremely thorough book a couple of years back which is fast becoming something of a “bible” for amateur makers. Trevor has come up with some of the most convincing “lutherie science” I’ve ever come across, and whilst my brain tends not to work in that manner, he really got me thinking about things from a different point of view which is always refreshing….time will tell what effect our meeting had.
Gerard is heaps of fun, he and I got on like a house on fire, he’s a great maker with an excellent team around him and is a wealth of knowledge and experience, and a very good man to talk to about the history of the Australian Lutherie scene which really is quite fascinating. Superb guitar makers all.
If I have to sum my approach up, these days it’s a lot more relaxed. There is a lot more openness in my approach than before. It comes from getting older perhaps. Yes, I’m always playing around with technique and method to try and produce work in a way which is more consistent or in ways that are less stressful, but woodwork is woodwork. It’s design, playability and most of all sound, that interest me and my customers the most.
Being taught woodwork by a man who was self taught (Stefan), kind of encouraged me learn traditional woodwork from books and from the “old school” technicians when I went to study design at university. As a result I’ve have a pretty good understanding of many different ways of cutting up and sticking together of bits of wood. I tend not to get too caught up in thinking one way is any better than another any more. No methods are sacred. Whatever route you take there are always obstacles to overcome, challenges to engage and compromises to be made.
This year for instance I’ve started joint tops the traditional way with rope and wedges. It’s really fun! And terribly elegant. This was after twenty odd years of using a sheet of chipboard and a bag of nails (check out my YouTube video if you don’t know what I mean) at the same time I’m really determined to keep on top of the sawdust situation, to make more shavings than sawdust, to tidy up after every single process, to avoid accumulated mess. This may sound trivial and irrelevant to a client but to me it’s all about staying “present`”. Keeping the day steady – not getting lost in the ups and downs of the day. Ending each day in the workshop knowing I’ve done my best, that the place is tidy and ready for me to return the next day to do it all again.
So, I’m trying to cultivate a way of working that is generally more methodical and not so hectic. That’s how I worked for years, but as I said, I’m getting a bit older…