My favourite event of the year, right in the middle of my favourite city, surrounded by performances by some of the greatest musical artists in the world for the Montreal Jazz Festival. If there is a heaven for luthiers I think I caught a glimpse of it last weekend.
There were a few trends I spotted. First of all, luthiers are becoming even more adventurous in their designs. Take a look at this one by Tim and Mary McKnight (left) and one by Balazs Prohaszka (right):
Whether people are buying these radical creations is an unknown, but they sure draw attention to a table.
Another trend is the popularity of multi-scale instruments. Last time I attended the show it seemed like every guitar had suddenly grown an upper-bout soundport. This year it looks like everyone is taking a shot at the multi-scale concept; in particular there is a less extreme expression where the nut is perpendiculat to the strings, and bridges are only slanted to a modest degree.
While it is relatively straightforward to design a multi-scale electric guitar, acoustic instruments require a much bigger rethink. Here's Edward Klein's take on how to make it work:
What you can't see is his ingenious method for precisely adjusting intonation while retaining bone saddles. Many of the flat-top guitars this year sported massive, 1/4 inch thick saddles, supposedly to enhance the transfer of energy from string to bridge. Other luthiers are working the other direction: reducing mass at the bridge (and often everywhere else) to enhance the responsiveness of the guitar. Probably the most daring and successful believers in mass reduction is the amazing Ken Parker. Here are the two archtop guitars he brought to the show:
Each his archtops is a study in the perfect execution of radical ingenuity. You've really got to see his website if you want to learn more about them; there is too much innovation in these guitars to describe here. One thing I can say though, is that sonically they live up to the promise of their appearance. I was fortunate enough to play one for a few minutes, and it took my breath away with its incredible responsiveness. I spoke briefly with him afterwards and asked him about how he persuades notoriously conservative jazz guitarists to take the leap of faith to a modern design such as his. He said, quite simply, "make it sing." In other words, make the guitar sound and play so well that it's superiority is undeniable.
In a lot of ways my own approach to archtop guitars is similar to Ken's. Whereas he was determined to re-imagine the archtop, I pretty much just had to imagine it. There were no acoustic archtops in my world as I was building my first few instruments. I played a few clumsy, heavy Gibsons and Harmonys, and I figured that they were just clunkers; my own instruments would have to be much lighter and livelier, as I assumed "real" archtops must be. The best model I had for my first few guitars was a Viola da Gamba my father had made in university. It is very lightweight, with an arched spruce top, flat back, and a fingerboard raised quite high off the soundboard, so it has a shallow break angle over the bridge. My guitars "Honeydrop" and "Caramellow" built like this, and are thus quite good for fingerpicking on light strings. For some reason I stopped pursuing this goal of making light, responsive, purely acoustic archtops... after hearing Ken's amazing archtops I'm inspired to get back on that track.
Also worth pointing out were these fine folks: Marc Saumier, a Montreal luthier whose lovely creations are crafted entirely from locally cut timbers (including the hop-hornbeam fretboards!) pictured here. Note the thick saddle and slanted nut:
Josh House, is another young turk that makes some fine flattops; Fred Tellier, a not-so-young but very engaging and much under-rated flat-top maker; and finally Can Am lumber, from whom I bought a quebec red spruce soundboard blank and a superb flamed yellow birch back and side set.
Next year, I plan on exhibiting. I've got my work cut out for me to be able to keep company with these guys. To the Workshop!