As many of you know, I have dabbled at making guitars during the last twenty years of my working career. A somewhat serious amateur player in the 70's and 80's, I was interested in trying different guitars but there was little to choose from in the Central Canadian Prairies, especially back in those times. Still, I studied everything I could find about the renowned guitar makers of the time and I was particularly intrigued by what I'd read about the guitars made by a French artist, Robert Bouchet.
One day in 1981, I was browsing through Audrey's bookstore on Jasper Avenue when I came upon a book entitled "Classic Guitar Construction" by Irving Sloane. As I leafed through, I discovered that there was not only a well-explained approach to the mechanics of guitar making, but information regarding Bouchet's top design as well. I immediately bought the book, left the store and struck out for Sears to buy some tools.
Over the next 20 years I built about 30 guitars, studying new material on lutherie, adapting interesting construction innovations and refining my craftsmanship. Then, In the year 2000, I was able to negotiate early retirement from my 43-year banking career and I resolved to pursue guitar making somewhat more seriously.
I first learned of Greg Byers at the New Millennium Classical Guitar Publishing Co. web site. There I found an article where the author identified four luthiers that are, in his opinion, among the most talented and forward thinking makers of classical guitars. Three of these were making guitars that were quite innovative such as a combination of traditional fan bracing and carbon fiber lattice, a double top guitar with ports (sound holes) in the sides and a guitar with a perfectly round lower bout that incorporated a radial top brace design.
However, of Byers the author wrote "I wouldn't necessarily call Byers an innovator. I would classify him a great culminator. Except for his raised fretboard models, he produces an essentially traditional guitar in construction.They are just superior in their sound, evenness, playability and clarity. I consider Byers' a benchmark in a traditional guitar that has been tweaked and optimized for modern concert hall use. These guitars cover a room in the number of ways that a concert classical guitar should." Finally the article went on to point out that Byers' guitars were being played by many concert artists, to name a few - David Russell, David Tannenbaum and Kevin Gallagher.
It was only a few days after reading this article that I received an invitation from the American School of Lutherie in Healdsburg, California to attend a 6 day master class in classical guitar making. The class was for experienced luthiers and it was being taught by Greg Byers. I signed up immediately and, on a rainy day in November, I walked through the front door of the ASL. There would be only three students including myself.
Greg Byers is a modest and personable individual. His education includes a degree in architecture and a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. In 1979 while doing some ecology work in Puerto Rico he met an ancient luthier named Velasquez (no relation to the one you may know) whose hillside house was perched on stilts over an open-air workshop. He was backed up two years with orders for guitars and cuatros at $200 apiece. Greg left with the conviction that he would make one himself one day. A year later, back in Arizona he did just that and was encouraged to do more by a guitar teacher at the University of Arizona.
Byers then saw an opportunity to attend a master class by Jose Romanillos, the master luthier from England. Of Romanillos Greg says "Romanillos was (is!) wonderful. A deeply spiritual man, he showed me that lutherie is more than just gluing sticks together. Inspired by the greatness of both his artistry and spirit, I found my calling as a luthier. He gave me reason to think my life's work could touch the creative, the spiritual and the rational in equal measure. This is what I had been looking for." Greg also mentions having had a close association with John Gilbert, the very successful American luthier.
Greg sums up the process of making a guitar in this way. "Before I begin to build a guitar the possibilities are limitless. Every step along the way I make decisions which guide the final result in the direction of my imagination, and each step limits the possible outcomes further and further until only one remains." The weeklong class was to teach us about the decisions.
First we learned to decide whether to make the foundation for the guitar, (the sides and linings that join the top and back to the sides) rigid and solid. This will give the guitar more sustain. Traditional methods and materials used do not lead to this so, if that is the desired result, the sides can be made a little heavier and rigid laminated lining material could be used to join the top and back to the sides instead of the lighter traditional materials.
Next we learned about "target" resonances for the certain components of the guitar and then how to measure the density, stiffness, thickness of the raw top. Byers then showed us how to thickness the top in order to achieve a desired target resonance that relates to the density and stiffness.
After the top is thinned so as to reach the desired resonance the top braces are glued on. Here we learned that fan bracing could be focused to a desired point. A focal point at the 8th fret for example will tend to produce a darker tone and a more open sound than a focal point that is closer in. Focal points at the 10th or 12th frets will tend to produce a brighter sounding guitar.
Issues around back construction include its resonance and its contribution as part of the guitar's foundation. Variances include the thickness of the back and the size of its braces. We also learned that when the top is braced, its resonance changes and again when it is glued to the sides, and yet again when the back is glued on. There are target resonances for each of these phases and adjustments to be made in order to achieve them.
When the entire guitar bridge has been assembled but before the bridge is glued on, the "cavity" resonance is determined. This then drives the final decision, namely the weight of the bridge. A heavier bridge will bring the cavity resonance down, increase sustain and produce a richer, more refined tone. A lighter bridge may produce more volume. If the cavity resonance is already low enough, a lighter bridge may be the best choice.
The foregoing summarizes the "voicing" process. Needless to say, certain equipment is required in order to accurately measure resonances, weight in grams, thickness and so forth.
We had another very exciting learning regarding intonation. I won't go into great detail on the underlying physics, however, we did learn how to make adjustments that will greatly improve the accuracy of a guitar's intonation across the full range of playable notes.
Lastly, we learned about Greg's marquetry methods (purfling, bindings, rosette etc) and some things about his approach to french polishing. The author of the article that I referred to at the beginning of this writing had this to say about the appearance of Byers' guitars; "The physical beauty of his guitars is, to my tastes, transcendent."
Since returning from the master class in November, I have undertaken the construction of four new guitars in order to explore and internalize what I learned. The first, a prototype for this new series exceeded my expectations and was most certainly the best instrument I had built to that time. I generally use prototypes to experiment with different woods and other things. As usual some of these did not pan out and this guitar is not particularly attractive to look at. However, its loudness, separation between bass & treble and the balance across the strings and over the range of the fingerboard surprised me. The second has also been completed and it appears to be better than the prototype in all respects. The 3rd has just been completed and I will string it up in a day our two. The fourth will follow about a week later.
Based upon the results so far, I am extremely pleased with what I've learned from Greg Byers. I feel even more fortunate that I will continue to learn as he's invited me to include my results in some research that he is doing.
In closing I truly feel that I have learned to move from a focus that was limited to design and soundness of construction to a decision based guitar making approach that is certainly based upon sound designing principles but is followed by a series of decisions that take into account properties of the materials in each individual instrument in order to get the best result.
Greg Byers says it best and so I repeat... "Every step along the way I will make decisions which guide the final result in the direction of my imagination, and each step limits the possible outcomes further and further until only one remains."
- Mick Lazar