For most of the last thirty-odd years of instrument building, I’ve used European spruce for building instrument soundboards. If you can’t make a good sounding guitar with decent European spruce, you have to ask yourself what you’re doing wrong. Having used spruce from all over Europe I’ve come to the conclusion that I really like light spruce. Regardless of which part of the Alps it comes from. Different makers have differing views about spruce. Most want it to be as stiff as possible, and light. I’ve found if the top is too stiff, the guitar won’t sing. Too weak and it’ll collapse regardless of how you support it. So I don’t buy my spruce through the post – every few years I visit dealers in Italy and Germany and sorted through thousands of soundboards to select spruce and cedar tops. My current stock will last for many years to come.
Recently I started experimenting with other top woods and have found that some are also useful for those who don’t feel they want to wait five years or so for a guitar to truly “open.” Both Western red cedar and torrefied sitka are good options here. Torrefied sitka is a superb wood for guitar tops – the torrification process reduces the wood mass significantly. Usually, I find sitka too heavy and dead sounding despite being popular with luthiers. Torrification makes this wood much more useful to me. Cedar is a particularly good option for 8, 10 or 12 string instruments where the many-layered harmonics of European spruce can clutter the sound.
For my most affordable work, I use cedrela – an unusual wood that has the appearance of mahogany. It possesses sonic qualities not unlike old mahogany guitars or newer Western red cedar ones. It has a “raw” sound I really like. It is robust enough not to need binding and has an open sound quality that would take a mahogany soundboard thirty years to attain.
For bouzouki and cittern you can choose between European spruce and Western red cedar – these were the stock choices when I worked for Stefan Sobell, but I also offer redwood which, if you get the right piece is a truly magnificent top wood for bouzouki and cittern – it has a raw open sound I really like.
Back and sides
For many years Indian rosewood was my “goto” timber. A few years ago Indian rosewood became listed and then delisted as a restricted timber. The writing was on the wall – I started to look for alternatives to rosewood.
A change in my thinking had occurred a few years prior to this – that the back and sides don’t add to the quality of sound – rather they subtract from the quality of sound in differing ways. So the reason I loved the sound of Brazilian rosewood so much wasn’t because of the magical qualities the timber had – rather it detracted less than any other material from the sound the top was making. This was after attending a course with Australian/English luthier Trevor Gore. I realised that what I wanted to hear was the sounboard, with as little energy “wicked” away into the sides as possible. This way of thinking was the opposite of how I’d thought about instrument making until then.
Around this time I also began experiments with side mass and its effect on tone. Through this, many of the sonic qualities I loved about the best rosewoods could be achieved my manipulating side mass and stiffness. By doing so you can reduce the back and sides’ effect from the sonic equation. It also meant that a guitar with mahogany or maple sides was no longer (acoustically) the poor cousin of a rosewood guitar. What you now hear is the sound of spruce, of cedar or torrefied sitka regardless of what the back and sides are made from.
My first experiments resulted in very heavy guitars, with blocks of brass bolted to guitar sides, then machining the sides from a solid block of a manmade material – the guitars sounded great but clashed with customers’ expectations. The guitars were just too heavy to be popular.
I’ve now reached a stage where the guitars are only a little heavier than a conventional guitar (because of the laminated sides) yet what you hear is the sound of the soundboard. The guitars are louder than before, more responsive and more than equal to the work I’ve done using the finest of rosewoods.
So my standard work now features sober mahogany back and sides, but many other timbers are available – stunning wenge, pommele bubinga, quilted sapele, Indian rosewood, Bolivian rosewood, Victorian blackwood, flame jarrah, birdseye maple, figured ziricote. And no timbers that can fall foul of current CITES regulations.
So many options – Once again, its all about mass and stiffness when it comes to necks. I’m rather partial to Fiji mahogany and New Guinea rosewood (Asian padauk) and for those who want the very best, 1908 vintage Cuban mahogany.
Over the years I’ve made many types of rosette. Often I prefer a simple rosette of black and white purfling lines. Though there are so many options – slant check, crows foot, herringbone, wood rings. And recently I’ve started to use beautiful dyed maple burl.
Fretboard and bridge
I still use ebony for fretboards – this wonderful timber exudes quality and class. It features on most of my instruments. But there are other options – I also use bog oak – which is almost indistinguishable from good ebony yet is more stable. Royal blackwood is another new option too – which is the commercial name for torrefied purpleheart – another serious option – black, stiff, stable and beautiful to look at.
It was working with Rocklite fretboards that I realised it would be the perfect material for bridges – stable and inert, nice to look at but most importantly, lighter than ebony. My guitar bridges are now made from Rocklite or ebony depending on what I feel is suitable for that instrument.
My binding is made from Rocklite along with fibre and wood veneer purfling lines of black and white. But, if you’d like a fancier furfling, that is an option.
Head veneer and backstrap
These days most of my head veneers are rocklite or ebony – dark and sober to match the binding. Backstraps are the same. The backstrap is an idea I took from seeing a really nice old snooker cue – though it turned out banjo makers in the 20s and 30s had got there first. The backstrap not only looks nice, but is the best insurance policy you can get against headstocks breaking off.
Frets, nut and saddle
The nut and saddle are hand polished bone.
All my instruments feature hand polished Evo Gold frets. which is harder than nickel silver. Usually my instruments feature a zero fret. This sets a perfect string action and insures better intonation. Saddles are compensated for equal temperament.
For those who like their soft smooth feel, semi hemispherical fret ends are an option.
Having tried most tuners on the market, I use the best. Tuners with proven longevity and excellent performance. My guitars, mandolin and bouzouki family instruments all come with Gold Gotoh 510 tuners, with gold buttons. Session King tenor guitars come with brass Gotoh banjo tuners with ivoroid buttons. Electric guitars are fitted with chrome Gotoh 510 tuners.
There are fancier and more expensive tuners on the market. if I thought they were better, I’d be using them.
I install K&K pickups on request.
There are many pickups on the market. Why is the K&K my goto choice?
Let us be honest about pickups – they NEVER sound like your instrument, despite what pickup makers say. So it’s never a question of which sounds the most realistic. They all sound artificial. So there are two questions to ask – Which artificial sound do I like best? Or given they all sound a bit odd, which amplified sound do I dislike the least? Second, which pickup does the least harm to the acoustic sound? No point in paying for a good instrument then putting something soft and squashy under the bridge or saddle that damages the acoustic sound.
Here is where the K&K shines. No, it doesn’t sound like your instrument “only louder.” But then, no pickup does. But it does have a sound I find pleasant. Mixed well it can sound impressive. And more importantly, it makes no audible difference to the acoustic sound. That is a big bonus.
I prefer the simple to the complex. The least number of links in the chain the better. I’ve some pals who do have a great stage sound, but they carry a suitcase full of junk with them to achieve it. The K&K doesn’t need a preamp, and works well with a DI box. No batteries. Just plug in and play.
Hence I go for the K&K for most instruments, though if you wish to blend a pickup with a mic or magnetic pickup, I’d suggest the DTAR wavelength by Seymour Duncan. Which is the best of a bad lot as far as undersaddle pickups go.
Other pickups can be fitted at your request, but these are my recommendations. And I’ve tried ’em all.