Thursday, May 01, 2008

I Wanna Red Spruce Top!!

Are you a guitar player? If so, are you an acoustic player, aka steel string, flat top, gut fiddle? If so, do you harbor a secret desire to own a Legendary Pre War Martin, (Hereinafter, LPWM)?

If you said “yes” to the first two questions, but “no” to the second, you’re lyin’… All guitarists have GAS, (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome), and all GAS sufferers want a LPWM.

Everybody who plays steel strings wants one. Why? Because they are The Legendary Pre-War Martins! Because they’re considered the pinnacle of flat top sound and tone. Because all the pros have them. Because there were only so many and they don’t make ‘em anymore. Because at least in theory, you can have one!
Have you ever played one? Ever heard one played live? Again, if we’re answering truthfully, the number of “Yes” answers just decreased exponentially from those in response to the first three questions I asked.
So, with these truths held to be self-evident, let us go forth into the world of reality and myth, and see where it leads. Oh, by the way – I am an Administrator of an instrument making website, a working musician, and a builder, repairer, and modifier of guitars: Does this mean that I am the end all to be all and my word is Law? Not even remotely, but I’m also not talking out of my shirt, OK? Onward…

Myth: All LPWMs sound incredible.
Reality: Some do, some don’t – All axes are created unequally, and no two sound or feel the same. Go to your local Guitar MegaMart and pick something cheap, like an entry level Fender acoustic. If they have 100 of them on the wall, here’s the reality bite for you: Two or three will sound exceptional, “As good as the real thing.” Thirty will suck. The rest will be OK entry level guitars. Why? ‘Cause that’s the way nature and serendipity work! Every piece of wood is unique. Every combination of woods is unique. Some will have it and keep it. Some will grow into it: Some will never be more than a 2 x 4 with strings – That’s reality.

Myth: The sound of the LPWMs is due to the extreme care and higher level of craftsmanship Martin Luthiers had back then; it’s a dying art.
Fact: As the ol’ song says, it ain’t necessarily so! Have you ever looked inside a LPWM? Or an old Gibson for that matter? They’re a mess! They look like Mrs. Smith’s 5th grade class put ‘em together with Lincoln logs and paste! Ok, that’s exaggerating a smidge, but not much – If and when you do look, you usually find unsanded or refined braces, rough wood, pretty decent tolerances; it ain’t anything like the inside of a BMW, trust me. LPWMs were great shapes, great proportion, good wood, and good, solid craftsmanship; they’re not magic, and they’re not totally unique. Martin started X bracing guitars in the 1850s. Gibson, to my knowledge, began doing so in the early 1930s. Now, everybody does.

Myth: The LPWMs “forward shifted X Brace” is the secret to their sound.
Fact: If it was so great a design development, how come they stopped doing it after a few years? Answer; Martin got some axes back with bowed bellies in the lower bout and attributed that to their having shifted the primary top X brace legs closer to the soundhole, so they stopped, (Although they started again when producing their vintage series stuff). Does shifting the X brace as described change the tone of the axe? You bet your sweet bippy it does! Is that the secret? Nope, it’s just different – Go back to those 100 guitars hangin’ on the wall – Does shifting the X brace change the stats on those? Nope, not one bit…

Myth: The old growth Brazilian Rosewood, (BRW) and Honduran Mahogany is the key to the LPWMs sound.
Fact: Wrong again, campers! Sure, those woods have sound attributes, and sure they’re wonderful, but I gotta ask again – Show of hands now; how many of you have played a BRW or old growth Mahogany axe? I thought so… BRW rings like a bell, feels like glass, and is very, very sexy, period. Old Growth Honduran Mahogany is dripping with warm, deep, syrupy mids and is drool worthy; these things are true, but: Ever heard of Antonio de Torrez Jurado? You classical players hanging out this long have, right? Torrez was a player and builder from Spain in the 19th Century, and is basically the Stradivarius of the classical axe. He had always stated that guitar sound came from the soundboard, and in 1862, to prove his point, he made an axe with paper mâché back and sides, and asked prominent players and listeners to compare it to a wood sides guitar, (Also his, of course), blindfolded, and declare which was which: They flunked. Get the picture? Sure, back and sides color the sound of a guitar; heck, everything on, near around the guitar colors its sound! Your ear and what you like or don’t colors the sound as much or more than any other factor, capice?

I’d love to build with Old Growth BRW, but I can’t afford $5,000 for a prime back and side set, and truth be told, neither can most of you. And you do know that BRW and Honduran Mahogany are CITES listed, right? (If you don’t know that, or what CITES is, get up right now, go Google it, read a bunch, come back and know in your heart that we can’t afford to treat the planet this way anymore, we have to move on material wise, and that all this is OK. Besides, there are plenty of alternative tonewoods that can and will sound every bit as good as those legendary standards. Ever heard an axe made with quarter sawn Sycamore? How about Canarywood? Osage Orange? Myrtle? Mango? Claro Walnut? No, none of the above????!?! Me and my pals around this wonderful world make axes out of those every day, and they rock, believe me – If you don’t, hit up Ken for a listen to one of his, and you’ll get the picture. I was having a tonewood email exchange with one of America’s Legendary Luthiers not long ago. He wishes to remain unnamed in this attribution, but trust me when I say that, if you’ve got GAS, you’ve heard his name many times and in many places, and you’ve coveted his amazing instruments. I asked about Canarywood; he answered, “The best sounding guitar I ever made was Canarywood, but nobody cared because they hadn’t heard of it.” Now that, friends and neighbors, is just plain goofy…

Myth: OK, then, Mr. No Fun; The Old Growth Adirondack Spruce tops, those are the secret to LPWMs!
Fact: Ummmm, not, sorry. My formal education is in Forestry, BTW, so I am especially not talking out of my hind end herein… Let me start by asking you this; what exactly is Adirondack Spruce? Google that exact question, and see what you get. You get a whole bunch of discussion thread and guitar maker’s sites, all claiming to know exactly what Adirondack Spruce is: And you know what? 99% of them are wrong… Ok, I hear you already; “99% of them are wrong, but you’re right, uh huh, Mr. God’s gift to Dendrology…” Yes, I repeat, they are wrong, and I am right; know why? ‘Cause they’re lookin’ to sell you something and I’m looking to educate you; there’s the difference. Still don’t believe me? Ok, try this; here is a link to the U. S. Forest Service’s Center for Wood Anatomy. Go there, click on North American Softwoods, and show me the Genus and Species that comprises Adirondack Spruce. What’s that? You say you can’t find it on that page? Really? Must be a typo, huh? What’s with that?!

OK, let’s go back to the wood sellers, guitar makers and chat forums and take a closer look... Ok, OK, here’s something, they use terms like “AKA Picea Rubens, Red Spruce,” and stuff like that – Aha!! So, Adirondack Spruce is really Red Spruce, Picea Rubens!! And if you look under Red Spruce on the USFS page, you see an AKA of Adirondack Spruce too; mystery solved, right?! Umm, not so fast… See the fact is, Adirondack Spruce, is like German Spruce, is Like Italian Spruce, OK. Have you heard of them as well? Go to those guitar makers and wood sellers and you’ll see that most of them carry or offer these two and that they are also fabulously expensive tonewood. But there’s trouble in paradise here, gang, and it’s this; all this titling is a marketing ply and nothing else. Got that? Read it again, and say it with me now; all this titling is a marketing ply and nothing else. Good, now let’s get on to learnin’ why that statement is true. Do you know where ‘German Spruce’ tops come from nowadays? The Balkans, mostly. Italian Spruce? Some from Italy, but mostly from the Carpathian range between Transylvania and Hungary, truth be told:

Wait, wait, if this is all true, you ask, why do they get to call it German or Italian? Answer: Why does Sears get to re-label LP appliances as Kenmore? Marketing, nothing more than marketing – You think Carpathian Spruce has as sexy a ring as German Spruce? Want to know what top wood the LPWMs really had on ‘em? OK, here you go then, I’ll let you in on the secret known to all those folks trying to sell you up scale tops for your next custom axe: Some of the LPWMs did have Red Spruce Tops; some had White Spruce Tops, (Picea Glauca), and in the day, might even have had Black Spruce tops, (Picea Mariana). There are roughly 30 species in North America that go by the genus Picea. Back in pre-WW II America, there were a lot more trees in the Adirondacks than there are today: And they used any and all of them for tops that they could, and with which they felt their quality and tone needs were being met. Don’t believe me, email Chris Martin – I bet he answers and I know he’ll second what I just said; I’ve heard him speak about it, personally. Here’s the fact on those axes: Anybody, and I mean anybody, that tells you they can look at a top on a guitar of any age and discern Black Spruce from White Spruce from Red Spruce from Englemann Spruce from Sitka Spruce from any other Spruce without seeing the bark and needles of the live tree is thoroughly, completely, 100% full of it. Those old saws about German Spruce being ‘golden hued,’ Sitka being ‘white’, and Adirondack having ‘distinct grain and coloration’ is generalization at its finest.

I have maybe 60 or 70 tops in my shop right now, cut and separated and stacked. Most of them came from one source, but not all; in fact, I have genuine Italian Spruce from the valley that Stradivari got his stuff from, as well as Carpathian stuff, American stuff, Canadian Stuff, all kindsa stuff – Neither I nor you nor anybody else could identify them with certainty or accuracy by site of those cut tops alone, period, and that’s the truth. Short of detailed genetic analysis, nobody can. So don’t buy the Adirondack myth – Tops from everywhere are wonderful. The right top for the right back and sides is what makes the magic – Remember those two or three out of a hundred, OK?

OK, so now I’ve gone and shot holes in all your comfortable LPWM myths, what are you left to do? Easy. Are you a serious player? Do you need a LPWM or just want one for investment and bragging rights? If you had one, would you play it out and about? Think the pros take theirs on tour; think again… The LPWMs, in all honesty, represented the last Golden Age of guitar building, when great shapes came together with good people and nice wood to generate some fantastic axes. Thank God it happened, and that we have the wherewithal and presence of mind to save some of them. That said, I want to let you in on a little secret. Ready?
This is the next Golden Age of guitar making. Right now: We’re in it, although y’all might not know it. Don’t feel bad, mind you; these Golden ages are kinda like recessions; you usually don’t know you’re having one until its well over. Back in ’39, workers weren’t sitting around at lunch whacking each other on the back for being part of a Golden Age, OK?

Right now, the enlightened makers, guys like Chris Martin, Bob Taylor; the middle sized guys, like Dana Borgeois, and the small shops, like Bill Cumpiano and Mike Millard, all these folks and thousands of others are making fantastic guitars that folks 50 years from now will be swooning over, guaranteed. Back in the 30’s, there were not thousands of cottage industry instrument makers cranking out guitars. There are now. By my reckoning, the last time that happened was in the 19th Century when things first bloomed for what we generally know of today as an acoustic guitar. And now, friends and countrymen, it’s time for the plug.

If you’re a player, and you feel in your heart that it’s time for that next axe, for the axe, the right one, the legendary one, the one that you’ll go to your grave hoping and praying the right person picks up and plays on after you; here’s what you need to do. Go Google guitar makers in your area. Go find one and meet them and talk with them. Chances are, you’re gonna walk into a cramped little shop somewhere, with sunlight filtering through dusty windows, the smell of fresh cut exotic wood heavy in the air, clamps and chisels strewn across benches, and here and there, there will be wood you’ve never heard of, amazing eye candy and parts of amazing guitars… You’ll start talking about what you play now, and how you play, and what your guitar dreams are. And at some point, the maker will come out of that glazed eye, drooly look they get when their describing their passion to a new player, and they’ll say, “Hey, what was I thinkin;’ you wanna play one?”

And you will, and you’ll be hooked, and that is the way it is meant to be.


David C. said...

Dear Mr. God’s gift to Dendrology,

Nice distillation of some very good information. Good to see you back bloggin' again, Eb.

E. M. Atwater said...

Thanks, Doc - I am tryin' to get back to it, honest!!

Anonymous said...

Hey E.M.--I'm Dan McCrimmon, ex of Frummox fame (?), Steve Fromholz's partner. I still write, perform and I build trad-style instruments. I have some 85-year-old doug fir which is making awesome instruments. Thanks for the nice treatise--let's bust up some myths in the New Golden Age.
Dan Mc

E. M. Atwater said...

Dan, how cool is this? I emailed you - What a thrill! Love your ol' band and you're building too?!