The best of the best guitar builders

Top concert classical guitarists tend to attract the most attention and are best known to the CG fraternity, but top luthiers are seldom spotlighted.

Yet, it takes decades of research, experimentation, craftsmanship, and talent for a luthier to become the best of the best. And, each master grade instrument takes about 200 hours to produce. So, this article is about the top guitar builders rather than the top artists who play their instruments.

My wife has been trying to twist my arm to travel overseas with her, but travel doesn’t pluck my strings unless it’s for a specific reason. So, to try and get into the spirit of it, I wondered where I would I like to go if I could visit a luthier there. I built my own guitar in February 2015 and developed a great deal of respect for master luthiers. I know that I am unlikely to visit any renowned luthiers outside of my own country, but I thought I would compile a list of the top guitar builders still alive today.

Of course (you guessed it), who decides who the best of the best actually are? So, I scoured the classical guitar fora and websites to see which names came up most often as top of the pops. I then arranged them in order of dollar price obtained for their new instruments and then checked this against the guitars currently played by today’s greatest classical guitarists. (another rather subjective exercise that I attempted and wrote about some months ago. The top three will not come as a surprise to anyone, but the other four might.

  1. Matthias Dammann of Germany, the first to build multi-level top (double-top) guitars, and who’s instruments sell for around $35,000 each. David Russell plays a Dammann guitar.
  2. Gernot Wagner, also of Germany, who sells his guitars for about $33,000 each. Jason Vieaux favours his instruments.
  3. Greg Smallman, of Australia, who first developed the lattice bracing system and who’s instruments sell for about $25,000 each. John Williams now champions these guitars.
  4. Jim Redgate, also of Australia, who sells for around $14,000 an instrument. Ana Vidovic plays his guitars.
  5. Daryl Perry, of Canada sells his instruments for about $13,000 and is favoured by Marcin Dylla.
  6. Liam Romanillos, of England, works in consultation with his famous father Jose, and sells for around $12,000 per guitar. Julian Bream has long favoured Ramanillos guitars.
  7. Michael O’leary, of Ireland, sells for about $11,000  and is favoured by Sharon Isbin.

Even if you don’t read any further, it might be a good idea to pause and reflect on the contributions these dedicated Luthiers have made to the classical guitar world. However, for those who would like a little more detail, here are brief descriptions of the work of each luthier listed.

Matthias Dammann (62 years old)

The double-top (sandwich or multiple top) concept of guitar construction has an undisputed ‘inventor’: Matthias Dammann a man who together with Torres and Smallman took the classical guitar in new and exciting directions.

He created his first double top guitar in 1989 constructed with two thin Cedar tops sandwiching thin strips of cedar and then glued together under pressure.

By mid 1995, he began to experiment with ways to achieve more control over the weight and action of the soundboard. An acquaintance mentioned a material called Nomex, a very strong yet  light Kevlar based honeycomb that he then used to replace the strips of wood between the two tops.

Matthias continued his acoustic experiments during 2011 and 2012 and confirmed his theory that new core materials would bring significant refinements in the entire enterprise of guitar construction. His guitars set a new standard by which others still measure their composite tops because Matthias has captured a refined and complex voice and a responsive instrument capable of a dynamic range with great power and projection.

Matthias took up the classical guitar in his late teens and later went to study at the music academy in Frankfurt. Upon completing his studies, he became a lecturer for guitar, conducting experiments on his own guitars as he tried to get closer to what he believed was the ‘ideal’ sound. This combination of playing, teaching, and experimenting combined later to equip him as a master luthier. His major influencers were Daniel Friederich, Robert Ruck, Miguel Rodgriguez, and Antonio Torres,

In 1984 he left Frankfurt to set up a workshop in Eastern Bavaria, and there he devoted himself to creating guitars that he himself would love to listen to and play.  In 1988 he won the Grand Prix in the 1988 Paris/ORTF International Guitar Maker Competition.

Gernot Wagner (71 years old)

Gernot began making classical guitars, baroque and renaissance lutes, and vihuelas nearly forty years ago, but for the last thirty years he has focused solely on constructing concert classical guitars of the highest quality. In his early years as a luthier, Gernot became particularly interested in the scientific aspects of guitar making and this fascination with acoustic research has been an ongoing stimulus to his work ever since. However, visually, he has always taken his cue from the guitars of Daniel Friederich, which embody a clear, elegant, traditional aesthetic.

In 1989, he completed the famous ‘Instrumentenbauschule’ (musical instrument making school) in Mittenwald, Germany and was awarded the title, “Master Guitar Maker’. However, from the start, Gernot strove to create powerful, well balanced instruments with a wide dynamic range and a beautiful sound of great clarity and separation. In 1996, he discovered that he could get much closer to this ideal sound when he used an Aramide honeycomb material and used this to construct his first double top guitar.

Greg Smallman (71 years old)

Greg is known worldwide for his innovative guitar designs. Although, outwardly, his guitars are similar to a traditional Spanish classical guitar, they incorporate several innovative differences. For instance, the use of a high arched and carved back for the guitar considerably thicker and heavier than a conventional guitar. This back is made of Madagascar Rosewood, while the top is always made of Western Red Cedar. Also, the light weight of the top combined with Smallman’s unique system of bracing makes the guitar very responsive to input with a full rounded sound. The top of a Smallman guitar is braced using a “lattice” framework composed of balsa wood and carbon fibre.

Jim Redgate  (55 years old)

Jim makes both lattice braced and contemporary composite (double) top guitars, all known for their volume, tone, responsiveness, and playability.

Jim has been building for nearly 30 years in Adelaide Australia. His guitars are full of his own innovations and are unique instruments, creating a style and sound all their own. His solid top lattice braced guitars have the brace less, parabolic arched back and sides.This design reduces stress on the soundboard by transferring much of the string force to the body of the instrument, thus allowing the soundboard to move more freely. The tops are thicker than Smallman’s, but supported by a highly refined carbon fibre honeycomb/lattice braced system.

Daryl Perry (55 years old)

Daryl has been a full-time luthier since 1982. Early on in his career Jose Romanillos introduced him to the central ideas of the Torres-Hauser school and he has been working with, and refining, these ideas ever since. Daryl has received a number of awards for his work and has done historical and practical research in Europe and North America.

Liam Romanillos (53 years old)

Liam continues the fine tradition of Romanillos guitars through an ongoing collaboration with his father, Jose. These instruments have long been known for their haunting and romantic sound. Their rosettes are inspired by the Moorish arches in the Mezquita of Córdoba and are all made using natural coloured woods.

Michael O’Leary (about 55 years old)

Michael studied guitar building with Jose and Liam Romanillos, and embarked on a career as a full time luthier not long afterwards. He played guitar from an early age and his son Alec followed a career in classical guitar. Father and son were inspired to create a new style of concert guitar, an instrument built with the goal of bringing the volume demanded by today’s concert artists while retaining excellent tonal qualities.  In their guitars, lattice bracing meets fan bracing with wonderful results. They build them with a brace-less arched back and a combination bracing system that pairs carbon fibre lattice with traditional fan design. This produces guitars that are unusually powerful, but with a tonal character that is deep, rich, and traditional Spanish sounding.

The guitars that these seven masters of lutheri build all look remarkably similar… beautifully similar. Their differences lie mainly in their internal structures and soundboard composition and thickness. All of these ‘best of the best’ produce instruments that big-name guitarists treasure and all classical guitarists covert. Their waiting lists are several years long.

Celil Refik Kaya plays Paganini’s Caprice

Paganini’s Caprice in A, Opus 1 No. 5. on a 1930 Hermann Hauser I guitar in spruce and maple. Featured in Guitar Salon International’s Dec 19th blog. Celil plays this virtuoso piece with such speed and dexterity that it practically takes the breath away.

If you want to know more about Celil then HERE is an interview with him published in Six String Journal. You can also access his website HERE

Silent Night, Holy Night

 

Played by Rafael Scarfullery

Here is one version of the story of the birth of this famous Christmas carol, taken from allaboutromance.com

‘On Christmas Eve of 1818 the young priest of St. Nicholas parish church in Obendorf faced disaster. The organ had been incapacitated by mice. The chance of fixing the instrument before the evening service was nil. Father Joseph Mohr was not a man to just give up however. He pulled out a poem he had written several years before called “Stille Nacht”. Mohr took his poem to the schoolmaster and organist of a nearby town, Franz Xaver Gruber. He asked that Gruber write a melody to accompany the poem on guitar. In several hours, Gruber had the music done and the carol was played for the first time that night at the Christmas Eve service.

The song was not translated into English for another 50 years. Episcopalian bishop John Freeman Young published the English translation that is most frequently sung today in 1859. The writing of the song is unique enough but one other interesting factoid makes this carol special. In 1914, during the Christmas truce, the song was sung in French, English and German simultaneously. It was apparently the one song that all the soldiers on both sides knew’.

And HERE is Douglas Niedt’s arrangement and rendition of this historic piece of music. Douglas has also made other Christmas music available free on his site www.douglasniedt.com.

Be blessed this Christmas season

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Free Classical Guitar Music Scores – Update

In March 2018 I gave a short list of six sites that I have used to access music for the classical guitar. Here are a further two sites plus an additional Delcamp page.

Mutopia Project

393 free to download, modify, print, copy, distribute, perform, and record – all in the Public Domain or under Creative Commons licenses, in PDF, MIDI, and editable LilyPond file formats.

delcamp.net

Another page in the delcamp offering of free CG music in .pdf format. It also has an extensive list of works arranged in alphabetical order by composer.

Museopen.org

596 pieces of music, collections, primers, and books. By clicking on one of the five column headings you can sort by either Title, Composer, Form, Period, or Rating.

For those who missed the first list and want everything in one place, here I the sites previously provided:

www.classclef.com

This site lists over 4,600 pieces in .pdf format. There is no real difficulty grading system but it does list 1,173 pieces as ‘easy’. Some of the pieces have a difficulty indicator when you click on the actual selection; for instance, Tarrega’s Lagrima is marked ‘Grade 4 Late Intermediate’.

www.thisisclassicalguitar.com

Bradford Werner has provided a nice, but by no means comprehensive, selection of graded pieces. The added value of this site is that he provides video lessons for most of the pieces listed.

www.imslp.org

The Petrucci Music Library contains a huge database of public domain music for all instruments. It is not easy to browse this collection, but the search facilities are adequate if you are looking for a composer or a particular piece. For instance, a search for ‘Tarrega’ yields 51 pieces and a search for ‘Largrima’ yields no less than 7 available transcriptions. Unfortunately, there are no indications of playing difficulty. However, you could use www.guitarburst.com in conjunction with this site for most free guitar scores.

www.8notes.com

This site has over 600 scores, with basic difficulty level indicators, and an online synthesised audio/visual playback facility. However, it only allows a few views/downloads per every 24 hours unless you take out a paid subscription to the site

www.classical-guitar-school.com

A reasonably good range of free music scores as well as methods and collections, but this is the site of the Guitar School of Iceland and so the commercial sections contain a lot more material for which you will have to pay if you want to download them.

www.delcamp.net

This site is more than just a forum and contains sections of graded classical guitar music. The drawback is that you have to become an active member of the forum in order to access most of these collections. In addition, the choice of music tends more towards the Baroque than anything else.

The tone of a classical guitar

By Christopher Peppler

“The concept of tonewood is a hoax. Of the few things that we can do to a guitar and still call it a guitar, changing the wood it is made of will have the least impact upon the quality of the sound that it produces.”

Those are not my words, they were written by John Calkin in American Lutherie #69.  John built musical instruments professionally for nearly 40 years. From what I can gather, John has made mainly steel string guitars and classical guitars do have their own particular sound profiles, but his opinion should never the less be taken seriously.

Almost everything I have read elsewhere contradicts what John believes. Conventional wisdom holds that the wood chosen for the top is the ‘single overriding variable that determines the quality of tone of a finished instrument’.   Bradford Werner, a guitar player and teacher I respect, makes the following generalisations concerning Spruce versus Cedar guitar tops :

‘I find that spruce has a very direct sound with a golden bell-like sound. It is maybe a bit more clear, balanced, and sometimes has more sustain’ and ‘I find cedar guitars to be warmer, darker, and fuller sounding than spruce guitars’. Others describe the sound produced by spruce tops as pure and bold, while cedar tops produce harmonic and ringing tones’.

And of course, different guitarists and luthiers have opinions on the tonal qualities of the wood selected for back and sides. Rosewood is said to have a good bass response, maple has a clear treble response, and walnut produces a textured, earthy sound… and so on.

However, in the same article, Bradford quotes Marcus Dominelli posting on Delcamp Guitar forum that puts the matter into proper perspective. He writes;

 ‘It’s possible to generalize between spruce and cedar if you’re comparing them built in the same style, for example, fan braced cedar to fan braced spruce. But just don’t start comparing a spruce fan braced to cedar lattice, or a cedar double top!! I think it’s pretty well agreed upon that spruce tends to sound a bit crisper, with better separation and definition. Cedar tends to be warmer and darker in sound quality. But I’m continually told that in blind tests most people cannot tell them apart!! So I think we sometimes hear what we expect hear. In the end a good guitar is a good guitar, regardless of the woods used.’

So, if not just the wood, then what are the main contributors to classical guitar tone?

Obviously, the strings are the prime source of the sound that the instrument will ultimately produce. The quality and tension of the strings make a huge difference to tone; just change an old set for a quality new set to hear this. However, put that same set of new strings on a solid body guitar without amplification and the sound they make is pathetic.

A year ago, I undertook what I called my Beater Project. I bought a new $50 (RSA R700) classical guitar off the internet and then set about trying to make it sound like a $500 guitar. The idea was to modify but not remake. The top, back and sides were 3mm Basswood 3-ply; the saddle and nut were plastic, the soundboard was finished with a thick mixture of varnish and wood stain, and the strings were possibly the most inferior I had ever encountered.

I started by taking off the strings and then scrapping all the gunky varnish off the top and sanding it down. Then I applied a coat of polyurethane clear varnish and levelled all the frets. Next, I replaced the cheap plastic nut and saddle with bone, restrung with good medium tension strings and adjusted the action. A rosette I made from exotic wood veneers, a strip to decorate the bridge, and the job was done. The difference in tone? Huge! The point of this blow-by-blow account is to demonstrate the few things the average guitar owner can easily do to improve tone.

The folk at Graphtech obviously focus on the importance of strings in combination with nut and saddle. They write ‘The saddle allows appropriate frequencies to go from the string to the soundboard (to make tone) and stops others from going through easily (to make sustain). It’s the perfect mix of these two elements that create the sound we look for.’ However, they go on to point out that the soundboard has a lot to do with how the guitar sounds; ‘The soundboard’s ability and efficiency depend on its shape, thickness, mass distribution, and grain pattern – as well as the characteristics of the bridge and how the bracing on the underside is glued.’ They also acknowledge that the air in the body of the guitar is excited by the string vibrations transmitted through the top and influence both the volume and tone of the sound produced.

Now we are in the domain of guitar design and the skill of the luthier. Here are a few of the many considerations that a skilled guitar builder takes into account:

Choice of top wood – wood type and stiffness, evenness of grain, age, bracing, and finish (varnish, polyurethane, or French polish).

String scale length –  the length of string between nut and saddle has an influence on volume and tone.

Bridge and Saddle – the size of the bridge has a small influence on the tone and the nut material has a big influence.

Neck – the density of the neck wood and even the size and weight of the headstock can make a small difference to the tone.

Body – wood selection and thickness for back and sides makes a difference, as does solid wood versus laminates. In addition, the volume of air contained in the body (size of the soundbox) influences the volume and sometimes even tone. Even the inner surfaces of the body can affect sound production (shape, smoothness, glue residue).

So, in reality, it is the intricate construction and interaction of the various components that produce the tonal qualities of the instrument. Then add to that the way the guitar is played, the room in which it is played, plus the hearing imperfections of the player and audience and we have the final tone of the guitar. Oh, and then there is the matter of changing humidity, ageing wood, string fatigue and so on.

Bottom line: Good guitar makers produce guitars with good tone, sustain, and volume. Great luthiers produce guitars with exceptional sound qualities. But, I have only built one guitar from scratch and I am not even a particularly good player. However, like every classical guitar enthusiast I have encountered, I know what I like and I have a favourite guitar among several. Mine happens to be the one I made, and that probably says volumes about the subjectivity of it all.

 

Bach transcribed for the guitar

Here Australian guitarist Stephanie Jones plays the last movement of the BWV 1001 violin sonata by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). She is playing a  19th Century J.A Stauffer copy built by Jan Tuláček. The guitar is well suited to Bach music and the performer does a great job of making violin music work for the classical guitar.

I’ve Got a Good Thing Going With a Cheap Guitar

 

Article by guest contributor  Wayne Reed

A light-hearted anecdote that brings a smile but also has something to say about cheap versus expensive guitars, laminates versus solid wood builds, and what makes for a good guitar.

Like many players, I’ve longed for that ultimate guitar. I’ve spent time and money on my quest too – although, I’ve never gone (completely) crazy. Naturally, there’s a guitar for every room of my house, not forgetting the garden. Inevitably, I acquired one that is rather more expensive than the rest. She lives in her case, until there’s a special gig, a recording to do, or company I want to impress. She’s refined, articulate, projects well, everything I could wish her to be, and yet (how can I say this?) …she’s not ‘the one’.

I’ve been seeing someone else.

It started about three years ago. We met on Ebay. It was just an impulsive moment, I wanted to try something different. A bargain, £32, no questions asked. I took her home, sneaking guiltily past my long-suffering wife. Twenty-odd years my junior, a 70s model, oriental, Yamaha G-230 – so the label said. I had no great expectations. Frankly, her finish, tone or volume didn’t seem likely to blow me away either. But we carried on meeting anyway, sometimes in the lounge, or the garden, or the bathroom where the acoustics were best, and which is where our relationship grew.

I’ve met many guitars to make the heart beat faster, and seriously lighten the wallet too. Wonderful honeymoons they were – if a little short. It seems that after the initial euphoria of an expensive guitar there is often only one way to go: discovering the things you don’t like about your new partner. Yes she has a voice, one to reach the back of a hall, but that doesn’t mean all her notes are nice ones. Play a little too hard in a certain register, and she’ll squawk contemptuously back at you. And what of that pristine, French-polished, complexion? Where did all those fine nail lines come from? Did you come close to a full-blown Rasgueado in a moment of passion? You’ve only yourself to blame, she glares back, accusingly.

So, mine lives in her case, awaiting the joy of rediscovering the things I genuinely do like about her –which are many.

Meanwhile, my dalliances with the Korean-made Yamaha take up an increasing amount of time. Instead of disappointment, I delight in finding more good things. She doesn’t object if I handle her ‘insensitively’. There are no bad notes in her entire register, familiarity only reveals sweeter tones in hiding. Does her song reach the back of the room? I’ve no idea, but she reaches my ears, and I can always mic-up, if needs be.

But it hasn’t been all ‘hearts and flowers’. A few months back I admit I made the mistake of looking into her past, and production materials, on the Internet. Someone suggested she was of ‘laminated construction’. This news was deeply repellent to me. I could only think of ‘laminated construction’ as a posh term for plywood. It shouldn’t have mattered, but I couldn’t even look at her for a full week.

Eventually, I had to get over these preconceptions and prejudices, because I yearned to play her again. But I demanded a full internal examination. If G-230 (as I now affectionately called her) was my ‘plywood siren’, I meant to know her innermost secrets, the mechanics of her voice. My hand delved into the soundhole, way past the knuckle, almost to the elbow. What I found mystified and appalled me further. G-230 wasn’t even what I would regard as ‘traditional construction’. Where seven braces (a fan of reinforcing wooden pieces strengthening the vibrating top) might be judged the ‘norm’, there were only four.

Life is full of surprises. Clearly a good guitar does not have to be an overly sophisticated one. The design here is actually quite crude, but the workmanship is enduring and excellent. I know nothing of Yamaha’s more recent offerings but my experience of other makes strongly indicate that the modern factory guitar does not compare well with this thirty-odd year-old example. Technology, ‘progress’, doesn’t always equate with better. Production speed and profit, are the key words in today’s market. Don’t let the salesman bamboozle you. I’ve got a good thing going with a cheap guitar, and we really do make sweet music together.

How is this for a beautiful guitar?!

 

This is possibly one of the most famous classical guitars of all time, but it certainly is the ugliest. It is also unlikely that it has ever been used to produce classical music because this is ‘Trigger’, Willie Nelson’s much-loved guitar.

Why am I showing a picture of this guitar? Firstly, because sometimes my playing sounds so poor to my ears that I am convinced that my guitar must be as bad as Trigger.  Then I remind myself of the well-known adage that it is a poor workman who blames his tools. Secondly, because it symbolises how I sometimes see my site www.guitarsa.co.za

Let me explain. I started the classical guitar site about 18 months ago to serve beginner to intermediate classical guitarists. However, I really don’t have any way of knowing if it’s worth pursuing any longer. I suspect that it needs some rejuvenating – perhaps not as much as Trigger, but a face-lift and tummy-tuck never the less.

To rejuvenate the site I need some assistance and I am hoping that YOU may provide this, so, here is what I am asking of you:

  • Comment on this post with suggestions on how I can improve the usefulness of the site in general. I am more concerned with its utility than its visual appeal.
  • Let me know what topics you would like me to cover in the Journal section.
  • Better still, write an article for the Journal section or send me the link to an article, lesson, or video you think I should include.

Trigger looks like she should be put out of her misery but I really would like to extend the life of my ‘trigger’  for as long as I reasonably can … but I need some help to do this.

To be true to the title of this post, here is a picture of a really beautiful guitar – my imported handcrafted Yulong Gou double top that is eagerly waiting for a new owner.

 

Arthritis is a pain!

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Monkey Business Images/REX/Shutterstock (8619244a)

I stopped playing the guitar for many years because of arthritis in my left-hand fingers. I started to take daily vitamin and mineral supplements and about 3 years ago I was able to return to playing.

I don’t overdo it and usually play for only 30 minutes or less each day, but of late the pain has returned with a vengeance. Only my 1st and 4th fingers (left-hand index and pinkie) are affected. Both sometimes lock-up when I am playing and the pinkie is always swollen and stiff. I am treating the condition as best I can and I thought it might be helpful to share some of the ‘remedies’ I have read of or personally applied.

  • People on the various classical guitar fora recommend two external interventions:
    • Consult a medical specialist so that she can diagnose the condition and prescribe appropriately. I have not done this myself yet because of the high costs involved in specialist consultations and prescription medication, but I may well do so if I can’t alleviate the condition in other ways. I am taking an alkalising agent (base powder) regularly to get my body acid level down. I am hoping that this will ease the inflammation in the joints.
    • Consult an experienced guitar teacher to check your technique and the pressure you apply when playing. Again, I have not followed this advice because of the paucity of good classical guitar teachers in my area.
  • Every so often, I take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication, but I don’t want to do this too often because of the risk of damaging the stomach lining. I have found that externally applied anti-inflammatory gel is next to useless for joint pain.
  • Some folk recommend Curcumin (Tumeric) with Piperine (Black Pepper) as a herbal anti-inflammatory and I am currently experimenting with this.
  • A common piece of advice I have read is to practice for short periods but very regularly. I practice for only 30 minutes every day and so can’t cut down on this and still hope to make progress as a player.
  • Warming up the hands before playing is also something others recommend and I have found it very beneficial to soak my hands in very warm water for a couple of minutes just before I play.
  • Warm-up hand and finger exercises also help. If I attempt to play complex pieces before warming up with simple exercises (scales etc.) then I invariably pay the price within minutes.
  • One blogger I read suggested changing the guitar configuration – lower tension strings and lower action, or even using a guitar with a shorter string scale length.

There doesn’t seem to be any greater wisdom out there on offer for classical guitar-playing arthritis sufferers like me, so I hope that this little list of possibilities may help those who also find arthritis a pain.

Selecting a Guitar: Four Pertinent Questions By John M. Gilbert

I found this article on the Delcamp Classical Guitar Forum. The late John Gilbert was a well-known builder of classical guitars who then devoted his time to the production of his line of tuners, while his son William continued the Gilbert tradition of high quality concert guitars. Gilbert guitars have been used by David Russel, David Leisner, George Sakellariou, David Tanenbaum, Frederic Hand, Earl Klugh, Raphaella Smits, and many others.

His legacy lives on HERE  http://wgilbertguitars.com/john-gilbert-s-passing-away/ and HERE https://gilberttuners.com/

I have edited out some of the more technical details to make it more suitable for beginner to intermediate level guitarists.

“How do I choose a good guitar?” After years of hearing this query I decided,
several years ago, to write a brief outline of those things that are pertinent to the question. At the same time I decided that this guide could serve as a format for the lectures I give on this subject. I would like to share that outline with you now and then proceed to a more detailed discussion of some of the points it raises.

How to Select a Guitar

The four areas to look into are:
1. Sound
2. Action and feel
3. Condition and construction
4. Cost

The most important of these is Sound: That’s what the guitar is all about
…sound. There are several ways to check for sound:
a. Bring a good sounding guitar for comparison.
b. Bring along a friend with a good ear who can also play.
c. When testing guitars do it outdoors or if that isn’t possible, do it in the largest room you can find.

The important facets of overall sound quality are:
1. Timbre. (Quality of the individual tones.)
2. Balance. (Trebles must match bass.)
3. Separation. (The clarity with which individual tones can be distinguished in a
chord.)
4. Sustain. (The rate of decay of a tone after it is struck.)
5. Loudness.
6. Intonation.
Always remember that sound can rarely be greatly improved in a guitar without tremendous expense.

Action and Feel.

Action is the height of the strings above the fret and fingerboard. Feel pertains to those features that comprise the playability of a guitar other than the action, such as: neck size and shape; string length; string spacing and location from the edges of the fingerboard; body shape. Actions can usually be corrected at moderate expense. Other than reducing fingerboard width and neck size, little else can sensibly be done to change the feel.

Condition and Construction.

If the guitar is new, then examine it for clean construction inside the body and
carefully tap around the face and back to check for broken struts. Check for depressed or swollen face. See if the bridge is on tightly. Check the condition of the neck and frets. If the guitar is old, examine it for the above conditions plus cracks in the face, back, sides, neck-to-body joint, head-to-neck joint, purfling and centerjoint of the back. Also examine the tuning machines for worn gears or sloppy installation.

Cost.

Let the buyer beware! Know the seller! Ask about a guarantee. Shopmaround. Remember the most costly guitar isn’t always the best. Think about re-sale.

Sound

Loudness.  If you intend to give recitals and concerts in large halls, you had better be sure that the guitar you choose projects well. The best place to test for this is outdoors. If weather deters you, the second best method is to use an auditorium, gymnasium, or a church. Lacking all of the above, use the largest room you can find. When making this test and, for that matter, all test pertaining to sound, it helps to have a proven guitar along (or several) to use as a basis for comparison and, naturally, someone to play for you and to listen while you play. If you do not plan on concertizing or if you intend to amplify electronically, loudness is not the most important factor of sound to you, but all other sound qualities will be. So at this time, with guitar in hand, let us test for them.

Timbre  is purely subjective, so that what sounds great to me may not impress you at all. However, the instrument must have a tone quality that truly satisfies you, or you will not enjoy playing it no matter what other attributes it may have.

Balance. This I prefer to think of as mostly an objective test because if either the treble or bass end is weak, it will be very noticeable heard at a distance. Be sure to test for this by barring each fret from the first to the twelfth because some guitars have weaknesses more pronounced in certain areas of the fingerboard than others.

Separation (or clarity) is, to a great degree, a quality that goes untested by most players because it is such a difficult and elusive feature to listen for. When a guitar has loudness, good timbre and balance, it is hard to remind yourself to really listen to chords to see if you can hear individual tones (like a good barbershop quartet) or only a glob of sound.

Sustain. Some guitars have an even output of sound and will appear to have good sustain, whereas a guitar with a robust or popping initial output of sound will seem to have less sustain. Therefore, when comparing guitars set a metronome at some fast tempo and count the beats from pluck (or pick) to silence. Some interesting facts will emerge by trying this with different guitars. As to the amount of sustain, all tones on the guitar should have some, with the lowest tones having more than the higher tones.

Wake Up the Soundbox
One word of advice about testing guitars: be sure to play the instrument for at least ten minutes or more before testing in order to “wake up” the soundbox. This is particularly true for spruce-faced guitars. Cedar faces are less likely to require this.

Intonation is included as a branch of sound quality because if the guitar doesn’t play in tune it sounds bad. Fortunately, you can check for fretting accuracy and saddle and nut placement. If errors are found, they can be easily corrected by any competent repair person.

There are several ways to test for tonal accuracy. Let us start with one that many of you are familiar with. Play each string at the 12th fret. Then strike the 12th fret harmonic. These should be identical in pitch. If they are, it tells us only that the maker placed the saddle correctly. If all six strings play sharp, it tells us that the saddle wasn’t set back far enough. If all strings play flat, it tells us that the saddle is set too far back. The cure for either of these conditions is to have the saddle or nut reshaped or repositioned. Again, a repair person should be consulted. Keep in mind that faulty strings can also sound either sharp or flat, but never all six in the same direction. So you should be able to rule out the occasional bad string.

Action

Another important topic for discussion is the action of the guitars. It is possible to mechanically check to see if yours has a good one. Here is a simple and effective test.Depress the strings one at a time at the 1st fret without  sounding the note. Measure the height from the top of the 12th fret to the bottom of each string, using a steel ruler with .010” graduations.
The readings should be:
1st string, .100” to .115”
2nd string, .110” to .120”
3rd string, .120” to .130”
4th string, .125” to .135”
5th string, .130” to .140”
6th string, .135” to .145”

These readings are for classical guitars. The lower readings constitute a low action and the higher readings, a normal action. Anything higher would indicate a high action. Keep in mind that the required action height will vary for different players due to two things: one, the player’s attack style and two, how hard he /she plays the strings. Also, these readings do not take into account the fret condition or the straightness of the fingerboard.

Here is a John Gilbert guitar in action.