The three tenors
(First published in Guitarist magazine, issue #465)
I’m progressing through a very unique (for me) project this week: a trio of tenor guitars. All based on the Selmer-Maccaferri guitar design from the golden era of swing, these instruments are a period twist on the guitar we now closely associate with gypsy virtuoso Django Reinhardt. A smaller body size, 23 inch scale length and C-G-D-A tuning set these apart from their six-string counterparts, and as both a player and maker I’ve found myself in fairly new territory.
In line with my usual style of building though, I’m embellishing the original factory-made guitar designs with some modern appointments, namely arm bevels and a couple of side sound ports. Now that the rim assemblies and backs are prepped and completed, it’s time to turn my attention to the tone-defining soundboards.
Like the back, each soundboard is actually a set of two halves, cut out from the log adjacent to one another and glued together in a process known as ‘bookmatching’. Trees rarely grow large enough for a satisfactory single piece top, so the bookmatch effectively doubles a good quality cross-section, keeping more of the desirable straight-grained and limb-free growth to the middle of the soundboard. Undesirable areas like knots and twisty grain can be more easily avoided, and the symmetrical effect adds a bit of flair.
Despite coming from the same log, the soundboards I’m looking at are a varied selection, showing off the full range of growth patterns that a single tree is capable of. I have one clean set with beautifully straight grain, another top has some characterful dark wavy streaks running through it, and the third is exhibiting some promising ‘bearclaw’ patterns. The most traditional guitar of the trio is getting the straight-grained set. The second has some beautiful spider webbing in the back and sides, so that will get the streaky top to match. The third tenor is made from striped zebrano wood, which should look striking against the almost three-dimensional effect of the bearclaw top. When thicknessing tops I normally take the wood down to just shy of three millimetres thick and then carefully remove material in certain areas with a hand plane until everything is flexing in just the right way. Too thick and the extra stiffness inhibits vibration, suffocating the tone of the guitar. Too thin, and a guitar that may sound great to begin with will collapse over time becoming unplayable, or at best frustratingly unpredictable. Get the balance right and you can say you are making quality musical instruments.
Contrary to expectations, the thinnest top of the three (the streaky top) was easily the stiffest, and the thickest (the bearclaw top) was the most flexible. I tend to work with ‘feel’ at this point, because there are just way too many variables to say what is strictly right and wrong. So, I hand plane a little more material off the tops, aiming to achieve equal stiffness across all three, irrespective of the measured thickness. The result of this voicing process, I hope, is that each guitar ends up sounding to its full potential, with the wood from the back, sides and neck lending some character to make each guitar unique.
When people ask what makes a handmade guitar sound different, I think it’s this careful appraisal of each component that helps to elevate them above the rest. It’s fair to say that only hand builders can really afford to give this much time to each instrument, but in my opinion, lutherie is an art form that deserves great attention to detail. Once finished, they will be out of my hands and gracing stages around the world so I can only hope that - like their operatic counterparts - these three tenors will be a big hit.
(Note from Alex: The guitar is featured is currently for sale, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more info)
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