These are the people in our neighborhood

Our friendly neighbors at Sköna Advertising put together a series of video vignettes focusing on Potrero Hill based businesses. SF Guitarworks was highlighted.

They also posted some kind words on their blog, which we took the liberty of reposting here…

Clapton, customers and culture. Our visit with Geoff.

Have you ever passed that brick wall, garage door, cool building, interesting structure, or guitar with wings on your way to work and thought…”I wonder what’s behind that wall?”. Well we did too, and yes; a guitar with wings is in the window of a building we pass frequently. So one day I just knocked.

Lo and behold it was the home of a world renown of super-guitar craftsman Geoff Luttrell and his rockstar (literally sometimes) shop  SF Guitarworks. In our new series of vignettes we will now be featuring his shop as one of the places we love. Unique and local mixed with a little artisanship and definitely some craftsmanship, it sits on Potrero street hidden among the hustle and bustle with a tiny store front.  What was interesting to us is we thought going in for the interview and shoot this morning we would grab some pretty good pictures, a nice interview, and some nifty name dropping, but what we found was that there was so much more than meets the eye.

Geoff’s business runs on fixing, crafting, shaping and molding guitars sure, but he is also has a tireless work ethic, a great marketing sensibility, and thrives on a world where his relationships and reputation are more important to him than cranking out inferior work, and quantity of product . It’s interesting that in a small shop, in a micro environment, he has perfected all the service points that the big dog companies that surround him are constantly chasing. In the world of social media he thrives, in the land of word-of-mouth he is king. Company culture? Absolutely. Brand loyalty? He’s got it. Retention and return? No problem. Work / life balance? He’s pretty darn close.

As we savor our challenges as an agency and learn from each meeting in San Francisco, Silicon valley and beyond, these buzz-words and terms are thrown around with regularity. I find it very interesting however, that a small guitar shop on a busy street in San Francisco has almost got “it” figured out. From Clapton to craftsmanship, from patrons to Page and from brand recognition to The Black Keys, we covered alot of ground today.

Knock on that door of that store or shop when curiosity grabs you someday, you never know what surprises await. Thanks for a great morning Geoff, if more large corporations adopted your philosophies, things would rock.

Stay tuned…get it ? Stay tuned.

Reso-rection Finale…

In our last post, we had finished truing the cone well on this old resonator, and had it strung up for James to inspect.  He decided he liked it, and went ahead with the work to make it playable.  Here’s what we did – [singlepic id=1381 w=320 h=450 float=]

The neck was severely bowed and the brass frets were tiny and worn out.  James decided that he liked the aesthetic of the brass, and he wanted to stick with the small size “mandolin” wire.  He would be using the guitar for all types of playing, including fretted and slide, so the action needed to be comfortable, which meant sorting out the neck.  To remove the bow, as the neck had no truss-rod, I first did a heat-press.  This involves heating the neck, clamping it into a slight backbow then allowing it to cool.  When it gets warm, the glue joint between the fingerboard and the neck shaft softens and slips, allowing the neck to move into a new, more correct shape. As it cools, the glue re-hardens and the neck stays where you put it.  It’s a great technique, and I’ve used it to save many, many necks.

After the heat-press, I pulled the frets and loaded the guitar into the Plek, which created some severe visual tension.  Something old, something new…  The scan showed that the neck had straightened a good deal, but the fingerboard was still uneven and needed a good deal of wood removed to become true.  Luckily the fingerboard and neck were both thick, so I planed it true and put it back on the bench.  A cool thing about the Plek – the guitar had a slightly underset neck, so I was able to measure the thickness of the fingerboard, and then program the Plek to take an exact amount extra off the nut end of the fingerboard, creating a mini neck reset and helping to lower the action.  You can’t save a really bad guitar this way, but it will make a big difference if you are already in the ballpark.

The fingerboard dots were all blown out, so I replaced those, dremeled the fret slots and readied the frets for installation.  We chose to use Evo Gold mandolin wire to approximate the look of the brass frets, and the tang and barbs were a good deal thicker than the fret slots.  I used the StewMac Fret Barber to trim the barbs down to the correct size for the slots, cut the individual frets to length and then hammered and glued them in.  I usually use a pressing caul, but this board had a very slight radius, and careful hammering is not a problem if everything fits well.  After beveling the fret ends, it was back to the Plek for the final fret dress.  The scan showed that the fretwork was so good that it would have played fine without leveling, but I like things to be perfect, so I leveled and polished the frets.  There was a bit of chip repair to do on the board, and then the final setup was very smooth.

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James came in to play it and was floored by the transformation.  There was a load of mojo inside this old junker just waiting to come out, it just needed someone to take notice, and James was just the guy.  James was the first to see what was in this old guitar and now, when he plays it, everyone does.

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I love it when cool old guitars roll in, and not many are as cool or old as this one.  When James brought it in, he was not sure how committed he was to the project, but he suspected there was a really cool guitar in there somewhere, and every great journey begins with a vision. It was unplayable with terribly high action and tiny frets, and also had some severe acoustic rattling.  I think it may have been burned, just for added mojo you know.  We decided to dive in to see if it could be saved.  Let the games begin…

The first thing I did was disassemble it completely for inspection. In my role as a professional luthier, this is the most important part of the job.  This is not the time to worry about money, hurt feelings or my opinion of the instrument or owner. The only task is to accurately assess and then communicate the information to the owner so they can make an informed choice about the path forward.

I found poor quality fingerboard “repairs,” as the tongue had been removed and shimmed due to a strange sag in the top, leaving a jagged gap where the 14th fret slot had been.  There were various cracks and de-laminations, but the neck and neck/body joint were sound, as were the tail-block, tuners, nut and all the metal hardware.  Unfortunately the cone was absolutely trashed, and was the cause of the rattling.  There’s more to that story coming up.  I found that the cause of the sagging top was a loose soundboard support under the tongue.  The prior repairman had apparently not bothered to look inside, and had chosen to cut the tongue loose and just put shims under it.  Some people just shouldn’t be allowed to play with tools…

[singlepic id=1376 w=320 h=240 float=left]I re-glued the loose soundboard support, which solidified and leveled the top, re-glued the tongue and ordered a replacement National cone.  When the cone came in it would barely fit in the well.  The well was ovalized and the bearing surface at the bottom was wildly out of true.  It turns out that was compounding the cone rattle I mentioned earlier.  To correct these issues I made an MDF template the diameter of the cone and attached it to the top with double-stick tape.  Then, using my trusty Festool OF 1400 router and a 3/4″ top bearing bit, I trued the circumference of the well.  As I began to skim the bearing surface, I found a couple of low spots that I filled with veneer.  This allowed me to true the bottom while taking as little wood as possible.  After the truing, the cone dropped right in and seated perfectly.

I strung it up and did a rough action adjustment, finding the action still high and the fingerboard and fretwork needing help, but it sounded great!  James came in to check it out and really liked the tone.  He took the risk to get it this far and was happy, so we proceeded with the rest of the job…  Stay tuned.

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Brace Yourself


[singlepic id=1328 w=320 h=240 float=left]Over the last year I have become increasingly interested in the classical guitar. The sound, the construction and the tradition combine to make the essence of the guitar in both lutherie and performance. A fine classical guitar, in the hands of a master, has an inspiring range of tone and timbre, and is, to me, the most expressive stringed instrument. Since I will never be a great player, I decided that I could be a great builder and began my first classical build earlier this year.

I have been using the book and DVD series by John Bogdanovich, which has been very useful. He uses a modified fan bracing with open harmonic bars, which has its roots in the Torres tradition. When completed, I have no doubt that this will be a fine instrument, but as I continued the build and research, I realized that I was stepping over some fundamental designs that make up the great guitars.

The original Torres design, which was later used by Hermann Hauser and others, is the root structure of the modern classical guitar tree. I had seen this design when visiting Jeff Elliott’s shop in Portland last year and was immediately taken by the minimalist beauty of the structure that makes the guitar’s soundboard.

[singlepic id=1341 w=320 h=240 float=right]When I learned that Jeff was offering a workshop teaching his interpretation of the Torres design and top voicing, with French polishing being taught by his partner Cyndy Burton, I had to sign up. Jeff has been building classical guitars since the mid-’60s and must be considered a master of the craft. His work is unassailable, and his depth of understanding, gained over 37 years of building the same basic design, is beyond impressive.

Attending the workshop allowed me to watch Jeff fully brace a top, from initial layout to the cutting and tapering of the braces, then through glue up and clamping techniques, and also allowed for plenty of Q&A around sound and design. Interspersed through the top building were the French polishing sessions, taught by his partner Cyndy Burton, a French polishing expert and a fine guitar builder in her own right. French polish takes time, but Cyndy demystified it and my first attempt on my own guitar looks nice.

You can see from the pictures the work environment Jeff and Cyndy have created. The shop is in the dining room, which is well lit and quite serene. Jeff doesn’t use power tools upstairs, with the exception of the vacuum press, so it’s nice and quiet.

Although I learned a great deal about the craft of classical guitar building, what made the most impact on me was the depth of knowledge Jeff displayed. Jeff has been refining his craft, within a specific discipline, for over 46 years. I’m sure he’s good at other things, but in his guitar building I saw a picture of someone absolutely committed to their life’s work, still able to find the beauty and reward in the uncompromising pursuit of perfection. I learned so much from Jeff and Cyndy, and if I never built another guitar, I’d be better off for having met them.

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Tonika soviet guitar

In the late 60’s Russians decided they wanted in on building electric guitars, and the Tonika is one of the earliest models.  It was more out of necessity than anything else because behind the iron curtain all you could get were Russian goods. There weren’t Les Pauls or Strats at the local music store. By looking at the shapes of these instruments you might wonder if they had ever even seen an electric guitar in person. Many of the design flaws might make you wonder if they even knew what a guitar was supposed to do at all!

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When we got this in it was a mess. The action was sky high, the fretboard was wonky and the bridge was in the wrong place so there was no way to properly intonate the guitar.  There’s no truss rod and the neck is just one big solid piece of Russian timber.  We leveled the board in our Plek to get the proper relief curve and radius. This Tonika now has a level fret board, new frets, a properly placed intonatable bridge and some other little improvements here and there. It may be the best playing cold war era soviet guitar out there.

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