Brace Yourself

BY GEOFF LUTTRELL

[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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