Monday
Oct272014

Cavins tenor guitar - Part 2: Sonic representations of wasabi, grapefruit, and orange

This is Part 2 of my series chronicling design, construction, and eventual delivery of a tenor guitar built by David Cavins. See Part 1 here.

As David and I begin discussing this project, he asks me think about what I want it to sound like. But rather than only sticking to the standard lexicon that guitar geeks use (e.g., “warm,” “dry,” “woody”, “lush”, etc.), he encourages me to come up with some other descriptive works to translate the sound in my head into other modes. Here’s a some snippet of the email I wrote, trying to capture these sounds:

"Spicy, but like wasabi, rather than jalapeños...there's heat, but it decays quickly so that the flavor of each string can shine.

Another flavor that might be a good descriptor is grapefruit: refreshing, some edge to it, with a shade of sweetness. Not as light or sweet as lemonade; more personality than orange juice.

Translating sound to color, I'm thinking orange. But not electric or neon orange, but instead the vibrant, organic orange of leaves changing color in the fall."

Amazingly, this description makes sense to him. He also has me write about other guitars that I’ve played and liked/disliked, so that we can get on the same page about how we hear and describe acoustic instruments. I tell him about my new Collings D1A, what I like about D-18s, what I dislike about a particular guitar that a friend of mine owns, and I try to describe my playing style and goals.

With this information in mind, we schedule a phone call. Although we spend part of that 90 minutes catching up, most is spent talking guitars. It's a joy to hear David's familiar voice after all of these years, and to be able to tap into his experiences with different design philosophies, construction techniques, and tonewoods is amazing. I learn how David approached the first guitars he designed, building them in pairs with everything the same (or as close as possible) except for one parameter that he’d change. As a scientist, I appreciate this process, and as a guitar geek (and builder of one instrument), I know enough to be dangerous. I learn about the “live back” that he builds...that he doesn’t just want the back to reflect the vibrations that the top produces, but that the back itself can generate sound.

David and I have similar values when it comes to the sociopolitical and environmental issues surrounding wood. He aims to source as much of his tonewood locally as possible, and avoids endangered, or questionably harvested, woods. I’m on board with this 100%. I think that generally the acoustic guitar market is so focused on particular tonewoods that it has ignored (a) the excellent sustainable materials available right in our own backyards (figuratively and literally) and (b) the luthier has a huge part in putting his/her stamp on the tonal signature of the instrument with the design and construction choices that are made and implemented.

We decide to go with Appalachian (“red”) spruce for the top, and sugar maple for the back and sides. David is fortunate to have a top supplier of these materials near him in Missouri, and these are domestic woods that both will have the tonal properties that we are aiming for as well as being responsible environmental choices.

A Cavins tenor guitar in sugar maple; from cavinsguitars.com.

To date, David has build about 30 guitars, although some are unnumbered, so mine will be serial #19. He has built a couple of tenors previously, with a recent one also being red spruce and sugar maple. Now that we have the basic framework in place (e.g., the tonal goals and main woods selected), the next step will be some of the cosmetic choices...Stay tuned for Part 3.

Monday
Oct202014

Cavins tenor guitar - Part 1: What has 4 strings and reconnects me with David Cavins?

image from sprucetreemusic.comWhat’s next, when you have several 6-string guitars, a 12-string, a banjo, a mandolin, a ukulele, and a dobro? A tenor guitar, that’s what!

A tenor guitar is an instrument that was popular nearly 100 years ago (read more here). It’s essentially a 4-string, short-scale guitar, although it’s often tuned to CGDA (low to high), like a viola/mandola, or to GDAE (low to high) like an octave mandolin, but, of course, with four instead of eight strings. Admittedly, I’m brand new to the tenor world, but I’m intrigued and think there’s a lot of fun to be had playing one.

Why would one want a tenor guitar? For variety, of course! Chords will sound different, rhythm playing will be punchier, and you'll approach melodies differently than when playing a standard 6-string guitar. It’s good for my brain to figure out how to maneuver around different fretboards, and it will provide a new sound when playing with other people.

The usual suspects (i.e., Martin and Gibson on the high end, and lots of budget brands) built tenors back in the day, and a few contemporary builders (e.g., Collings) are doing them now. But since a tenor is totally new to me, and I don’t have any preconceptions of what one is supposed to be like, I figured it was time to venture away from factory instruments and work with a luthier on a custom build.

I met David Cavins just over 20 years ago, when we moved into the same dorm at Grinnell College. For the next two years, until I graduated, we ran in the same circles, playing music together, and cooking hot-as-can-be midwest-inspired Mexican food (potato and corn enchildas...yum!). David had an enthusiasm for everything he did, with an approach that always struck a balance between the analytical/scientific and artistic/aesthetic. He was (and is) one of the most thoughtful, open, and genuine people I've ever met, and he introduced me to Americana music, which has stayed with me to this day. However, once I went off to grad school and got immersed in my studies and subsequent career we lost touch, although I thought of him often.

In December of 2011 we reconnected, after David found my blog about the guitar building class I took at Vermont Instruments School of Lutherie. I was excited to be back in touch with him, and was especially thrilled to learn that he also had developed an interest in guitar building. However, while I'm a chroinc dabbler in things, David goes all in, and he was in the midst of setting up shop and developing his line of Cavins Guitars.

For the next few years we’d shoot email or tweets back and forth whenever we saw interesting articles about guitar building. But about a month ago, as I was thinking about tenor guitars, I asked David if he’d be willing to build one for me, and he agreed. What will follow over the next couple of months is a series of posts that will chronicle the build, from my end. This is going to be a fun project, and I can’t imaging doing it with anyone else but David.

See Part 2...

Tuesday
Oct072014

Photo of the week - October 7, 2014

Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles, at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia. Fuji X-E1 with 56mm lens at f/1.2.

Tuesday
Sep302014

Photo of the week - September 30, 2014

Sam Bush at World Cafe Live at the Queen in Wilmington. Fuji X-E1 with 56mm lens at f/1.2. See more photos from this show here.

Friday
Sep052014

This looks interesting!

Saturday
Aug232014

Thank you Mr. Collings, you made this D1A for me

A recent sampling of eight of Collings dreadnoughts, which culminated in the purchase of a D1A with a sunburst finish, has me reflecting on my attraction to Collings guitars. I have had the good fortune to own serveral Collings across the years, moving from an OM2HA to OM1SB to D1VSB to Baby 2H to CJMhASB, and now to a D1ASB (yes, I know this is a lot of acronyms, but the Collings naming/numbering system is actually pretty logical and informative when you get the hang of it). Although I have been going through a Martin phase over the last few years (see here, here, and here), I consistently have liked (and usually loved) just about every Collings guitars I've had the opportunity to play.

 

Click to read more ...

Tuesday
Aug192014

Photo of the week - August 19, 2014

Tuesday
Aug192014

40 reasons to drive 9 hours to try 8 Collings guitars

Having just turned the corner on 40, I decided that I could splurge for a new guitar. I love D-18-style guitars (i.e., mahogany and spruce dreadnoughts), and wanted something with even more cut and volume than a Martin D-18 (which I have and love; it's a classic bluegrass, folk, and singer-songwriter guitar). I dig Collings guitars, so I quicky honed in on a Collings D1A. In the past I had a D1VSB (i.e., vintage neck and sunburst top) that I traded for another Collings some years back, so I had a pretty good idea that this was the direction I wanted to go.

It's not as simple as just running down to a local shop and getting a D1A (especially since Acoustic Roots closed several years ago); there are lots of different options that one can get on top of the standard adirondack spruce and mahogany configuration:

  • standard sitka bracing vs. adirondack bracing
  • neck profile and corresponding string spacing at the saddle: 1-11/16", 1-23/32", 1-3/4" standard, vintage now, and vintage necks
  • standard vs. varnish finish
  • standard bracing or sans tongue brace
  • sunburst or natural finish
  • standard or vintage/cut-through saddle
  • other cosmetic bits like bound fretboards and pegheads, back strips, etc.

Rather than ordering online, I decided I had to get my hands and ears on guitars with these various options for a purchase of this magnitude. Luckily, a top Collings dealer is within driving distance, so I decided to take a road trip to Acoustic Music works in Pittsburgh. They have about 200 Collings in stock, and a great variety of different D1A configurations.

Click to read more ...

Sunday
Aug172014

Dear sound guy: I will scowl at you if you don't put enough volume on my guitar

Some friends and I got on stage at the Old Fiddlers' Picnic at Hibernia park last week. In all of the pictures, I'm making this face. The sound guy wasn't putting enough volume on my guitar, which I apparently wasn't happy about.

Here's the proof that he didin't have my mic turned up enough (my break starts at about 45 seconds into this clip); I'm not making it up.

Here we are with our purple "participant" ribbons.

Tuesday
Aug122014

Photo of the week - August 12, 2014

Tuesday
Aug052014

Photo of the week - August 5, 2014

The Remarkables; New Zealand near Queenstown. Fuji X-Pro1 with 55-200mm lens @ 200mm, f/7.1.

Tuesday
Jul292014

Photo of the week - July 29, 2014

New Zealand, near Waimangu Volcanic Valley Park on Okaro Rd. Fuji X-Pro1 with 10-24mm lens @ 10mm, f/18.

Tuesday
Jul222014

Photo of the week - July 22, 2014

Jagged, our guide when hiking the Franz Josef glacier in New Zealand. Fuji X-E1 with 10-24mm lens @ f/10 and 24mm.

Sunday
Jul202014

New Zealand and Australia in 27 days

I recently returned from an extended trip to New Zealand and Australia (read more about packing for this trip here). The trip was anchored on an academic conference in Melbourne, but if you're going to go all that way, you might as well go big or go home. In case you're planning a similar trip, here's my itinerary...

Click to read more ...

Tuesday
Jul152014

Photo of the week - July 15, 2014

In Sydney, Australia. Fuji X-E1 with 10-24mm lens @ f/10, 24mm. Processed with Snapseed.

Tuesday
Jul082014

Photo of the week - July 8, 2014

Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Fuji X-Pro1 with 10-24mm lens, @ f/13, 10mm. Processed in Snapseed.

Tuesday
Jul012014

Photo of the week - July 1, 2014

The Kenneth Brian Band, June 10, 2014. Fuji X-E1 with 56mm lens @f/1.2, 1/480.

Tuesday
Jun242014

Photo of the week - June 24, 2014

A view of Philadelphia, looking south. Fuji X-Pro1 with 10-24mm lens, @ f/4, 10mm.

Thursday
Jun192014

One (plus one) bag travel

As I head out to my conference in Australia, with a stop in New Zealand on the way, I've been planning for how to pack for the trek. Some caveats as a starting point:

  • Although part of my trip involves attending an academic conference, I tend to dress at the causal end of the spectrum for these sorts of things (maybe even outside the range of what is normative). No suits, ties, shiny leather shoes, etc.
  • There will be lots of walking and exploring in the cities, as well as some hiking in the countryside. Much more on the activewear side of things rather than anything formal.
  • I tend to be low maintenance when it comes to toiletries, and am perfectly fine using whatever is found in the hotel. And I don't mind being scruffy and going without shaving for a few weeks.
  • Admittedly, there's likely going to be more photography gear than most would bring. In particular, a second body is a total luxery. But I'd be crushed if I had a problem with my camera and didn't have a backup on a trip like this. And it's not like I'll be carrying two DSLRs...
  • I need to have a pack for day trips with my photo gear and small messenger bag for the conference and walking around Sydney and Melbourne.

I've been reading about "one bag travel," where the goal is to fit everything into a carry-on bag. Given that I'm an avid photographer, I know there's no way I can do this, unless half of the bag is camera gear. Even though I travel with the small(ish) Fuji X-sytem which is lighter than the Nikon DSLR I used to travel with, it's still more gear than most "one-baggers" would carry. Couple that with a (small) laptop and iPad, I know one bag isn't going to happen. But if I could get to "MLC" (maximum legal carry-on; ~40 liters) bag plus a small bag or backpack (i.e., "personal item" on the plane), I'd be going much lighter than the 90+ liter Gregory Whitney backpack I previously traveled with. So here's the plan...

Click to read more ...

Tuesday
Jun172014

Photo of the week - June 17, 2014