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Handmade Guitars in Spain

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Gibson L1 Front

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I enjoy making light, playable, small bodied, steel strung acoustic guitars. The guitars which particularly inspire me are those from the 1920s and 1930s which were made in the United States. These instruments also inspired a generation of early players to create a variety of music including Blues and Country Blues. Many great Country Blues Guitar players like Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Willie Johnson and Robert Johnson played such guitars. The magical sounds they made from their instruments amazed me and I was intrigued to find out more about the guitars they played. I loved the sound which Robert Johnson seems to get out of his guitar. It was very responsive and had a wonderful tone. I found out that in one of the few photographs of him he was actually holding a Gibson L1 flat top. It intrigued me that he chose this model. Clearly he was a great player and had a marvellous musical ear.

When I came across an original 1929 Gibson L1 - it sounded amazing and unlike any other guitar I had ever played. At first I thought it must sound so good because it is a vintage instrument, over 80 years old, which made it sound so good. Then I realised that the guitar Robert Johnson recorded with was obviously only a few years old so why did it sound so good even back then? I set out to find out why they sounded so good and this set me on a guitar making career. I thought that it must be because either the materials used were good or that the method of construction was masterful. The woods used were in fact not that rare or expensive at that time. Mahogany back and sides and Adirondack Spruce tops. What seemed to make it sound so good was more to do with the way it was constructed.

As an experiment, I created an exact replica from my original. I used the same woods, the same size, the same scale length, the same bracing. It sounded amazing, if anything better than the vintage instrument the tone of which had become slightly more mellow. So this is the story of how I started guitar building, as a player in search of a better sounding guitar. I have made many guitars since and my customers tell me the guitars feel very light to hold, comfortable to play and sound amazing. This was my personal inspiration for guitar making and is why I continue to build guitars. Please take a look at a few photographs of some guitars which I have built and listen to some of te audio samples to get an idea of how they sound.



Gibson L1 1929 Replica - Sold

Gibson L1 Headstock

I made this exact replica of an original 1929 Gibson L1 using African Mahogany for the back and sides as the original instrument has. Unlike the "Gibson Reissues" it has the exact same shape (rounder lower bout to - improve the acoustic resonance) and a very short scale length - 24 1/4" which reduces the string tension facilitating playability and making it easier to bend notes.

I use a mother of pearl maker's tag with "The Evans" in the same script which Gibson used in the 1920s. It is a very lightly built instrument made from very thin tone woods and braces. It is precisely this that gives this guitar its characteristic tone. The L0/L1 design was created by Lloyd Loar whose genius came up with a wonderful design which is well worthy of emulation. He was a well known player himself and he even went back to study acousics in later life in order better understand the forces which make acoustic instruments work.

It is also interesting that the Gibson "factory" at this time was in fact a couple of rows of benches at which the Guitar Makers actually made the instruments effectively by hand. My original guitar still has inside the hand drawn pencil marks where the maker marked out the centre lines of the neck and tail blocks. In effect these models sounded so good because the were actually being hand made. The guys who made them also apparently spoke with local players and were guided by them on what they wanted from the guitars. This seems to have been Tone, Loudness, Comfortability to play, Balance and Responsiveness, Many of today's players want much the same thing which is why they choose a hand made guitar over a factory made one. There is no comparison.






Robert Johnson Photo

Robert Johnson playing a Gibson L1 guitar circa 1929

Robert Johnson was a phemonenal blues guitar player and singer but more than that he was someone who took the very best of what his contemporaries had and brought it together and improved it. Apparently he had a fantastic ear for music and could reproduce at will any music which he heard off the radio or live in performance. This is evident as if the breadth of his influences. The great Son House had taught him some guitar but famously said there was nothing else he could teach Robert after hearing him play a short time later. However, you can hear the influence of Son House's incredibly powerful playing of a number of Robert Johnsons tracks including "Preaching Blues (up jumped the Devil)".

Robert Johnsons playing itself is very powerful and even though it is possible to trace influences such as Son House, Skip James, Lonnie Johnson, Leroy Carr, Kokomo Arnold (clearly the source for both "Sweet Home Chicago" and "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom") as well as Peetie Wheatstraw to name a few it is also clear that he made the music his own. He did not simply copy other artists.

Well he also used his great ear for music to choose his instrument and which instrument did he choose? A Gibson L1 which was far from the cheapest instrument available. He is shown seated below and playing this guitar. Note the almost circular lower bout and the saddle position half way across it. If you have not hear his recording take a listen now on the audio page of this site.



Jeff Buckley playing a Gibson L1

It is not just seminal Blues Guitarist like Robert Johnson who have chosen this sought after model. Jeff Buckley (Jeffrey Scott Buckley - November 17, 1966 – May 29, 1997) also had one as can been seen in the moody photo below. He may well have first played his version of the famous Leonard Cohen song "Hallelujah", who knows. What we do know is that he played and liked the guitar.

Jeff Buckley with a Gibson L1

Handmade

Why a "handmade" guitar?

Most guitarist do not start playing on a handmade guitar, however, many end up by playing one. Why? Simply because they are better than a factory made instrument. Players reach a certain point in their playing when their musical ear has been trained sufficiently to notice the difference. Their fingers also tell them that one guitar is simply easier to play than another. Their ears will tell them that a handmade guitar simply sounds much better than a factory made guitar. If you've ever found yourself somewhere where you are asked to play a tune on the guitar standing in the corner, and is the cheapest most unplayable instrument you have ever seen, you will know that whatever you do you will not be able to get a decent tune out of it. All guitars are not the same. The difference between a handmade guitar and a factory guitar is sadly whilst the former is made up to a standard, the latter is made down to a prices.

Like a handmade suit, a handmade guitar can be made to your size and specification. Not everyone has the same body or hand size. Not everyone plays in the same position or style. Everything about the way you play will affect the final sound you produce, especially the instrument you play. In effect it is your voice and hence should be uniquely suited to you. That is why you should have a handmade guitar.

Why I started to make guitars?

I have played guitar most of my life and like many players I have always been searching for that illusive perfect guitar. The one which once picked up would be almost impossible to put down. Many players share this obsession. They fill their houses with guitars and yet are still not quite satisfied! This is actually what first attracted me to guitar making. I have had the pleasure of playing many good and a few great acoustic guitars and these have been my inspiration. I was really impressed with some of the early Gibson and Martin parlour guitars and I began to wonder why they sounded so good? Was it their age or were they built better in some way, and if so how? I decided to try to find out and by deconstructing and building guitars in the same way to the same specs.

What makes guitars sound better?

This is a difficult but important question. There are many factors which influence the tone of a guitar. Most players assume that it is all down the woods used. Whilst different tonewoods do have different tone characterists, I believe construction methods play a very important role in the final tone of a guitar. I compared new factory built replicas to the original models and noticed the differences were significant. Firstly the early guitars were generally much lighter and smaller. Some weighed almost half the weight of new factory made models. I compared how they were built. The tops, back and sides were much thinner. The necks were also slimmer. They were mostly 12 frets to the body whereas most new guitars were 14 frets to the body. This means the neck is heavier compared to the body and the 12th fret is no longer located in the acoustically idea place. I have found that it is possible to create accurate replicas of these rare beauties which sound just as good, if not better. These guitars are light to hold, have ample volume and are well balanced tone.

Why are "handmade" guitars so much easier to play?

Most players agree that the more time they spend playing the better they sound. The more 'playable' your instrument the longer you will be able to and want to play it. There are a number of factors which affect the playability of an instrument:-

1. the 'action' of the strings (i.e. the height the strings are above the frets).
2. how easy the guitar is to tune and how well it keeps in tune.

The target string action depends to some extent on the personal taste of the player and how they play their instrument but in order to keep in tune a guitars action must be reasonably low otherwise the act of fretting a note will sharpen the fretted note causing unwanted disonnance with other unfretted notes. If action id too high or uneven across the strings the guitar will not play well or sound good when played. generally the action should be set as low as possible without causing unwanted vibrations.

Compound Fretboard Radius

What does this mean to the player? Well a fixed or constant radius fingerboard results in inconsistencies in string height across the fingerboard. This means that the string 'action' will be right at one fret. Further down or up the fingerboard the string height will be either too high or low. This will result in a lack of playability. Some strings will be in better tune and easier to fret than others. Usually the middle strings (3 and 4) will have slightly lower action further up the fingerboard and the 'outer' strings (1 and 6) will have slightly higher action. This means in the guitar not playing in tune across all the strings whatever the player does. The chords will not sound as "sweet" as they should. Vintage guitars were usually made with a 'compound' radius fretboard. factory made guitars, even high end ones, are almost always made with a fixed radius fingerboard. This is principally because it is too time consuming/expensive for factories to machine the correct radius along the fingerboard. Instead the make the entire fingerboard to the same radius. This will never be correct because the gaps between the strings at the nut is much less than the gap at the saddle. This 'splaying out' of the string necessitates compound radius fingerboards. I strongly suggest that all players play a guitar with a compound radius fingerboard to compare it to virtually any factory made guitar with a fixed radius fingerboard. You will definitely notice the difference and only reluctantly go back to a fixed radius fingerboard.




Note: Gibson is a registered trademark of the Gibson Guitar Company now based in Nashville, Tennessee in the USA. This website has no connection with this company.