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Guitar Guru – Should luthiers try to improve on vintage design?

April 12, 2016
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Dana Bourgeois contributes the monthly Guitar Guru column to Acoustic Guitar Magazine. If you a question you’d like Dana to address in an upcoming article, please submit it to info@bourgeoisguitars.com.

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Is It Right to Experiment? Of time machines, voodoo, and sacrifices to the guitar gods BY DANA BOURGEOIS

Q:What do you feel are the “right” areas to try to improve upon the classic styles? What areas of design must remain true to vintage originals in order to preserve integrity, and what areas have wiggle room for experimentation? On a more personal note, do you still feel challenged by celebrating vintage guitars? Alex Brumel – Jersey City New Jersey

A: Prior to the Second World War, American guitar manufacturers developed a variety of astonishingly beautiful and sonically successful acoustic guitars. These instruments figured prominently in the popular music of the day, unquestionably enriching the genres of country, blues, jazz, old-timey, early bluegrass, and a variety of other musical styles.

Immediately following the war, guitar development focused mainly on the electric guitar, which quickly became a category unto itself. However, the acoustic guitar not only stuck around, but gained popularity as the folk revival of the early ’60s introduced youthful “boomers” to earlier musical styles. During this period, prewar guitars began to achieve iconic status among boomers, in good part because folkies favored authentic instruments. Feeling little demand for acoustic innovation, manufacturers responded accordingly—throughout the remainder of the decade and for years to come, most acoustic guitars largely resembled their prewar predecessors.

Slowly, things began to change as popular music hybridized into countless subcategories in the late ’60s, and individual luthiers appeared on the scene in significant numbers in the ’70s and ’80s. The decidedly non-traditional Ovation guitar, followed by the introduction of exotic and alternative woods, bracing and structural innovations, asymmetrical design, contemporary inlay and decoration, fan frets, acoustic amplification, and other innovations, opened worlds of new possibilities for guitarists. Luthiers James Olson, Richard Schneider, Ervin Somogyi, Linda Manzer, Grit Laskin, Stefan Sobel, and Ralph Novack come quickly to mind as notable acoustic and aesthetic innovators, though many others deserve to share credit for finally coaxing the acoustic guitar out of the depression era.

I’ve always believed that the most important aspect of a guitar is what it can sound like in the hands of an accomplished player. In my Darwinian view, the “right” areas to experiment with classic design are any that expand musical options for players. By my definition, experimentation in the “wrong” areas takes care of itself by dying out. How cool is it that guitarists are now able to choose between vintage originals, vintage clones, vintage/contemporary hybrids, a wide variety of truly innovative contemporary designs, and everything in between?

If you love music, the only answer is: very cool.

I contribute to the acoustic salad bar in the area of vintage/contemporary hybrids. If a new, exact copy of a vintage guitar could sound exactly like an 80-year-old one, my job would certainly be less challenging. For me, the “right” areas of experimentation would include anything that makes a new guitar sound more authentic sooner than it otherwise might. To this end, I’ve experimented with materials, bracing, structural features, wood curing, finishes, construction techniques, time machines, voodoo, and sacrifices to the guitar gods.

All right, scratch those last three, but you get the idea. In the end, making a new guitar sound 80 years old is an impossible task. So, yes, I am still awed and challenged by the vintage classics. But I also tip my hat to the innovators. To come up with something truly new and different, especially if it gains favor with players, is at least equally challenging.