Note by Jeff Elliott and Cyndy Burton: Originally published in the now expired English guitar magazine Guitar International (August 1986), this interview was edited for inclusion in the Guild of American Luthiers' journal, American Lutherie #12, (1987) and republished in the GAL's Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume One (2000). (Reproduction of this article in any form - in whole or in part - without the expressed written consent of the Guild of American Luthiers is prohibited).
What follows is a twenty-plus-year- old snapshot in time. Our lives still revolve around the guitar and we are as committed as we were then, and overall, it stands up remarkably well. For a more up-to-date view, please read Jeff's Update at the end of the interview.
Jeff, tell me how you got started building guitars.
I have always loved the sound of the guitar, ever since I was sixteen and a friend taught me a few chords. My friend advanced until he required a better instrument, and I went with him to visit a handmaker's workshop. I was twenty then, and the sights, sounds, and smells of that workshop are with me still. I was hooked from the beginning. The lure of making the instrument whose sound held so much appeal for me proved irresistible, especially when I discovered that the best guitars were handmade. I started building at twenty-two, so for two years I watched for the opportunity and grappled with the decision. It's much more than an occupation for me, it's a way of life.
Could you tell us what your ambition had been before?
No! I was floundering; I had declared several different majors in college, and attended several colleges for that matter. At the time I met this handmaker, I was between schools and on my way to do a lifeguard stint in Florida. I've always had an interest in art and I used to draw a lot as a kid, but I hadn't any woodworking experience before I started working on guitars.
Did you apprentice?
Yes, with Richard Schneider, who was in Detroit, Michigan, at that time. It was theoretically a two-year program, but I stayed six years because the experience was good, I continued learning, and we had a good working relationship. I worked on my own commissions as well as helping Richard and doing repair work. I was paying off college expenses, so I appreciated the convenience of remaining in his shop. Here was a workshop that had everything; a teacher I liked working with, and plenty of work for each. After my apprenticeship I had a shop in Detroit for one and a half years, then I moved to Portland fourteen years ago. I was the first of many apprentices for Richard, and possibly stayed the longest. Richard is a special person and I'm still grateful for the opportunity he gave me.
Is he the one you learned the most from about craftsmanship?
Yes, and my methodology is largely from him, though I've evolved my own way of doing things over the years. It was a good foundation, and he gave me excellent standards.
A number of other living makers have influenced my work, including José Romanillos, David Rubio, Daniel Friederich, and Robert Bouchet. Of the past makers, Antonio de Torres and Hermann Hauser, Sr. are the two that really stand out for me. I also have great respect for Manuel Ramírez and Santos Hernández. When I look at a handmade instrument, I get something of a feel for the person or personality behind the chisel, so to speak. When I look these makers' works, I can see that they loved what they were doing.
Where do you find your woods? Is that something you would like to share with us?
Some are native to the Pacific Northwest, but I must order ebony, rosewoods, mahogany, Spanish cedar, and European spruce and maple from domestic and foreign suppliers. There are more suppliers of tools and materials for instrument making now than when I began, and I'm glad for that. Even so, I find it increasingly difficult to find top-quality woods. If you get to know the supplier, and they get to know your preferences, they can select something that is going to be closer to what you had in mind. I buy substantially more material than I want to put aside for myself, because I often end up rejecting the great majority of it. We've made over 1000 boomerangs over the last several years from guitar tops not suitable for instrument making. I'm concerned for the makers of the 21st century, frankly. I think most of the preferred tonewoods could be nearly extinct by then.
I was quite impressed when I saw your stockpile of wood a couple years ago and I wondered how one person can use such an enormous quantity of wood. Or should I say two people? At this point I'd like to ask you about your partnership with Cynthia Burton.
Cyndy and I met in 1979 at a Guild of American Luthiers convention in Boston and we found that we were interested in making very similar instruments. She visited my workshop a few months after we met and we kept in touch over new instruments through the following year. Not long afterward we decided that our common goals were strong enough for a partnership, which eventually encompassed our personal relationship. Ours is an unusual partnership, though. We prefer to build guitars independently and seldom collaborate.
Cyndy, what led you into guitar making?
Cyndy: Basically, I needed a better guitar to play. When I tried to make a guitar from a book, it really didn't work too well because I didn't know what I was doing. Then I found that there are people who actually teach this sort of thing. I ended up going from Ithaca, New York, to Stringfellow Guitars in Massachusetts and taking a very intensive, six-week course, making my first guitar with William Cumpiano. My intent was still just to have a better guitar to play. I went back to my job after that, but then I decided I really enjoyed making guitars, rather than editing, which is what I did before.
This is a field that we haven't seen many women in until now.
No, not many working independently as guitar makers, but I think women have always been active in certain aspects of the craft. Traditionally they were the French polishers and also did some of the finer decorative work, like rosette making; things that take a great deal of patience, attention to detail, and especially, time. Apparently, in the last century, makers did not usually do their own finishing. They took their instruments to French polishers, and many of these were women. I've done a lot of French polishing on guitars made by each of us.
Jeff: Cyndy has made it a serious pursuit. It's a real effort to learn French polishing, an art in itself. I know people who have been doing it for over twenty years and still say they haven't got it. French polish is problematical, but it is really the best and most correct finish for this kind of guitar.
Also, people must realize that French polish requires more attentiveness, more care, and perhaps even a preoccupation to make it last longer. That's the nature of the finish, but I'm certain it's worth it. You may as well accept that every several years it's going to require some touchup. However, French polish is much more forgiving for touchups, it's easier to blend in and to add to in small amounts.
Cyndy: You can put so little on a guitar, less than any other finish. Beyond a sufficient amount, any buildup of finish inhibits the sound of the instrument, and that's part of the problem with newer finishes because they are usually sprayed on.
For people who are concerned about pollutants in the environment, French polish is probably the least toxic of any finish. It smells good and the vapors are not very harmful if it was made with 190 proof drinking alcohol, which I use. In Oregon, you can buy it in liquor stores.
Would you care to give any figures on how long you season your woods?
Jeff: I prefer to season all my woods, especially the tops, a minimum of ten years before I build with them. I've got some old growth Western red cedar that we've both used with good results, some as old as a hundred years, some sixty years or more, and some really young at about twenty-five. I haven't noticed a great difference between ten and twenty years, and an even slower rate of change after that. I don't know where the point of diminishing returns is, where it makes no difference or decay begins to interfere. Several luthiers I've discussed this with feel the shortest "ideal" seasoning is ten to twenty years. I know that's not necessary for dimensional stability, just a few years will often do that. But I feel that as maturing continues and the resins oxidize, the wood will weigh less, yet it becomes harder and more resonant, which is a distinct advantage for a new guitar just finding its voice during the time of its greatest rate of development. I also think that same guitar may develop to a greater degree over its lifetime. I'm trusting my intuition here, too.
What kind of wood do you favor for the tops?
I've liked just about every kind of top wood that I've used, but for the kind of classic guitar I'm making now I prefer European spruce. We've also used Engelmann spruce with good success; it has gained a lot of acceptance in the last decade or so. Western red cedar produces good guitars, too. There are other domestic spruces and firs that have good potential. We have to explore alternatives because the traditional woods won't last forever. By the end of this century all the traditionally used tonewoods may be gone.
Isn't that dreadful! What sort of woods might take their place?
Well, European maple is pretty successful for classic guitars. And I've seen successful instruments made of cocobolo, padauk, purpleheart, and African blackwood.
Maple was certainly a traditional wood in the old days, before rosewood.
Yes, and fruitwoods were also used. However, these were smaller guitars, not expected to fill halls holding 1,000 to 3,000 people. The most successful guitar of the future might not fill that large a hall, and it might help if architects would lend an ear to the plucked instrument, so to speak. Louder guitars can and have been made, but it is usually at the expense of an inherent quality of appeal and flexibility in the character of the sound, especially in guitars with nonwood components in their tops. Of course, this is a personal judgement, but a crucial one. Loudness is one criterion, but not the most important. The point of it all is to have a musical experience, isn't it?
Right. Let me ask you about your design philosophy. Would you say there are radical elements in your guitars, or are they entirely based on older models?
They're based very faithfully on the Hauser, Sr. guitars of the mid-'30s through the '40s, when I think his best instruments were made. However, I think every maker experiments a little bit with the placement and dimensions of bars, kinds of woods, the flexibility, the stiffness, the strength, archings, that sort of thing. The differences are often very subtle. Cyndy and I depart more from the traditional visual aesthetic, taking more risks there. We each have our own head designs and rosettes, for example, and choice of material - the certain touch that's individual for each maker. But we often like to make rosettes from unusual woods, using their natural colors and patterns to replace the mosaic, or sometimes work a chip carving into the design.
I understand Julian Bream has been playing one of your guitars recently. Tell me, how did you and Julian happen to meet?
This goes back over ten years. I became interested in Hauser, Sr. instruments and I had the opportunity to study a few of them for several days. I drew up plans from my observations, then made instruments based on these plans and what I'd seen, heard, and felt. I decided then that to get feedback on what was needed to make my guitars better, I needed the best guitarist who played instruments of this nature. The person who owns the Hausers introduced me to Julian. We first met in Vancouver, BC in 1975. I had two instruments critiqued and I was quite encouraged by his observations.
He's not an easy man to please, nor is he reticent about his opinions.
He's very demanding, and he knows precisely what he wants. We've met several more times in the last ten years. In November 1985 I took two guitars to Vancouver and he decided to play one of them in his concert that night. It was very new; it had only been played about a half hour when we met. He took quite a risk, I think. I heard him play that instrument again four months later and it had developed remarkably, more so than I'd ever witnessed before. One of his great abilities is that he can listen to new instruments and perceive accurately how they are going to mature. He's very familiar with guitars, knows guitar making techniques and the important aspects of construction, and has a highly developed instinctual sense about what's right for them.
Would you say it would be difficult to make instruments of the highest caliber without in some way collaborating with a very fine player?
Yes. You don't know if you've made a really great instrument until it's in the hands of a great musician. Whether or not a builder plays well, or at all, he or she should be able to recognize the correct or appropriate sound, and in some way analyze this. A guitar sounds different when heard from out in front than it does from behind. And I think it helps if the maker can actually produce a good quality sound on the guitar. I believe it helps me.
Apart from Julian Bream, what other well-known guitarists are playing your instruments?
One I'm really proud of is Ralph Towner, who commissioned a cedar-top classic guitar that Cyndy and I made together. I think he's a great composer and performer whose music defies categorization. It's serious and contemporary. I've made a few guitars for Leo Kottke, and Burl Ives owns a cedar-top classic I made.
I know you've made steel string guitars, too. Do you regard that as something you have to do to earn a living, or as an interesting challenge in itself?
Classical guitar is my first love. I'll always hold it as the most important, and I would be happy if that was all I ever made. But I like certain steel string guitars. There has been an ever increasing need over the past decade or more for a finger-picking guitar for fine instrumental work. I've designed a steel string guitar that has a range, balance, and response character similar to a classical guitar but its core has a steel string sound. I tend to experiment more with the steel strings too, because their application is more varied. I'd someday like to make some baroque guitars, and perhaps some of the guitar's predecessors like the lute, vihuela, and cittern.
When you worked with Schneider, he did a lot of work influenced by Dr. Kasha. How did that affect your work?
When I began my work with Schneider, he was making traditional instruments. About two years into my apprenticeship, Dr. Kasha approached Schneider and several others to make his early designs. Schneider emerged as the maker who most represented this approach, and I helped to make the first twenty or so of these instruments. Early in my own work I made instruments using some of these principles, and I feel they were more successful in the steel strings than in the classics. I began to sense that the instruments I should be making for my own gratification should be based on the traditional design. I feel the traditional design will continue to develop, and perhaps some scientific principles could help that. Schneider, Kasha, and others have encouraged makers and players to get more potential out of the instrument.
The guitar's size, scale, and bracing are undergoing a number of changes. During the '60s and '70s, when there was an effort to make a concert guitar for the largest halls, it reached its largest proportions. Recently, the shorter 65CM scale and spruce tops are becoming more favored again. They record extremely well, and one thing more guitarists could realize is that, while volume for the large hall is necessary, it's the guitar's clarity that will permit the sound to reach the back rows. Volume without clarity just results in a distorted sound in the hall.
Would you complete your description of such an instrument?
Besides suiting the musician's personality, there are certain characteristics that should be present in the makeup of any concert-quality instrument. It should have enough power, volume, and projection for the large hall, a broad spectrum of dynamic responses, with a wide variety of colors, tones, and textures, and of course it must be very clear with good sustain, and be even and balanced throughout with good, clean separation string to string. But most importantly, it must have the quality of great appeal in its sound.
Would you say you are more intuitive or calculating in your work?
I try to balance my logical reasoning with my intuitive judgment, and to evaluate the result objectively. I've learned to trust my instincts, and I think I've developed a good sense of how to choose and treat a certain piece of wood for a particular purpose. Making instruments for individuals with particular purposes is a challenge I enjoy, and try to approach each one with a freshness founded on its basic concept, and my experiences. The trick is to strike a balance with all the desired responses, emphasizing the qualities and type of character I know that person prefers most.
How do you like the daily life of a luthier? Do you sort of revel in the smells and the sawdust and the chips and the band-aids?
The whole effort is a way of life. There are drawbacks like very long hours and very low wages, but given the pluses, I'd rather do this than anything else. The act itself is its own reward.
Cyndy: There are a lot of sensual aspects I enjoy, especially the smell of fresh shellac. We have a clean space we spend most of our time in, and we take great pains to have it that way. We keep the power tools and their noise and mess away in the basement.
Is there anything you would like to add on the subject of boomerangs or guitars?
Jeff: Yes. My boomerangs are guaranteed to come back; my guitars are guaranteed not to.
Update, August 2007
On a personal note, my friend and mentor Richard Schneider passed away unexpectedly on January 31st, 1997. The impact of Richard's life and his work continues to influence me and so many others that he shared his approach, his brilliance, and his life with. I am forever in his debt.
Website: The gallery section of my website (www.elliottguitars.com) has many photos of woods used, rosette designs, views of both my open harmonic bar and the traditional Torres/Hauser closed-bar designs, multipiece back and multistring guitars, as well as sideports, compound cutaways, 12-hole bridges, and fingerboard extensions. The steel string guitar section also features many of these options as well as some collaboration instruments. I am grateful to my son Jonah Elliott for designing my website and to my colleague Mike Doolin (www.doolinguitars.com) for his considerable Photoshop expertise.
Guitar Evolution: In general, my guitar making remains true to the Torres/Hauser design tradition at its heart. The guitars that have influenced my building most significantly remain Andrés Segovia's 1937 Hermann Hauser, Sr., Julian Bream's 1973 José Romanillos, and Pepe Romero's 1856 Antonio de Torres. Taken together, the sound of these guitars are at the core of a larger, more expanded sound in my head. My search for this sound has been ongoing, and in January 1990 I took the step of building the design that had been evolving for years in my imagination: a re-design of the open harmonic bar concept. So far this has come the closest to satisfying that sound in my mind's ear.
In recent years I have made several guitars with multipiece backs, as much an aesthetic choice as an effort to conserve materials, and by combining different woods, explore different subtle tonal results. Most recently I've made a few guitars with sideports. Although sideports increasingly have gained acceptance, they remain somewhat controversial. Sideports act as a kind of monitor for the player, and if discreet in size, do not change what the audience hears (or likely sees). When they are open, they raise the pitch of the guitar's body cavity, which can affect the overtone/harmonic responses that accompany the fundamental. I provide covers for the ports to compensate for any undesirable changes that may occur and to give the guitarist choice in different playing situations.
Another innovation I've used in recent years is a bridge with a 12-hole tieblock. This feature increases the downward angle of the string behind the saddle by eliminating the loop used in the traditional method of tying the string. On bridges with low saddles and string angles, this increased angle can ensure a cleaner, crisper sound. This same effect can be achieved on a traditional 6-hole tieblock by tying a knot on the end of the string, sliding a small bead or washer onto the string, then threading the string straight through the tieblock hole and securing normally onto the gear roller.
My steel string guitars have also evolved, and in 1986 I designed a hybrid X-and-fan top bracing design for a lightly made, lightly strung guitar for fingerstyle playing. This design has worked very well for 6 string guitars and both 10 and 20 string harp guitars. In addition to a compound cutaway in which the side is countersunk flush with the heel, I have designed a pinless bridge that anchors the ball ends of the strings on the bridge itself so that I can freely brace the top with the hybrid X and fan design. In 1996 I designed a removable fingerboard extension (up to 24 frets) that can be used in both classical and steel string guitars.
Since the 1986 interview, the continuum of experimentation with nonwood components like epoxy graphite now includes Kevlar/Nomex in "double top" guitars. To date my impression is that these synthetic materials have produced guitars with responses that are characteristically overly bright and penetrating, severely limiting or eliminating altogether that most important quality of allure. It seems that most often the tonal palette is all but eliminated as well, and offers little flexibility. For these reasons, I do not use these materials in my guitars.
Aesthetics/Design: I conceive each guitar individually for each of my clients. Natural woods, especially spalted woods, remain a popular choice for rosettes in place of the traditional mosaics, and chip carvings have also become a standard for me. I'm always looking for new materials and a fresh way to use them, and I strive to make each guitar aesthetically integrated. French polish is still a must.
Woods: The supply of traditional tonewoods is not yet exhausted, as I had feared back in the mid-`80s. However, in 1992, Braz. was placed on the CITES list of protected species, and Honduran mahogany is presently being considered for inclusion. Supplies continue to dwindle, even as "alternate" woods have come into use, primarily in production instruments, and a few hybrid species have been discovered. It is an ongoing concern, and we will eventually be using primarily plantation-grown timber of the traditional woods, which some makers believe are less well suited for our purposes, "alternate" woods, many of which in my view are better suited for steel string guitars than classical guitars, and composites of various man-made materials. We may eventually have to get used to a different sound, I think.
Teaching/consulting; Guitar restorations; Collaborations:
In 1997 Cyndy and I joined the faculty at the American School of Lutherie and taught short courses for several years, until the school's format changed. Since then we have continued to teach, consulting by the hour or day (see my website for more information). We have also contributed articles to American Lutherie magazine on the following topics: French polishing, the Hauser tradition, Shaping the sound, Harp guitars, Top replacement, Francisco González restoration, Antonio de Torres repair. Abstracts of the articles are available on the Guild of American Luthiers website (www.luth.org).
In the late 1990s I began performing restorations of historical instruments, most notably an 1869 Francisco González and an 1888 Antonio de Torres. I feel that an intimate understanding of these older masterpieces has informed and influenced my own work as much as the 1937 Hauser and 1973 Romanillos have. Nonetheless, these restorations occur only rarely, as they are very time consuming and my own building is my first priority.
Since the interview, Cyndy and I have continued our occasional collaborations on the same guitar. I have also collaborated with several other makers on various guitar projects: a 63CM scale classical guitar; an 8-string classical guitar with my compound cutaway; a 57CM scale classical harp guitar; and two 20-string steel string harp guitars. These guitars were constructed by my collaborators, giving me the opportunity to design a variety of instruments I hadn't the time to build myself, and experiencing this diversity has further deepened my understanding and influenced my work. (Learn more).