Entries in lutherie (52)


What every jam needs - David Cavins Tenor Guitar #19

A couple of years ago I reconnected with my college friend and luthier David Cavins, who is based in Columbia, Missouri. David builds beautiful guitars, and although I'm pretty much flush with 6-string acoustics, his tenor guitars piqued my interest. In particular, I wanted to expand my sonic palette while also challenge myself with new tunings beyond 6-string guitar, banjo, and the other instruments I've been fortunate to find across the years. I have a mandolin and although I'm a proficient rhythm player, playing breaks never quite clicked for me. I figured a tenor guitar would give me a comfortable way (as a guitar player) to get more familiar with mandolin-family tunings, while also adding some diversity to our weekly jams (so many guitar and banjo players!). So at the end of last year David started designing a tenor guitar for me.

I previously have posted about the design and build process (see the series of six posts here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6), which includes lots of pictures that David send me along the way. Essentially, we each blogged the process in parallel from our perspectives. To briefly review, David's tenors are inspired by a Gibson TG-0 rather than the Martin 0-18T popularized by the Kingston Trio. My guitar is 13" across the lower bout and 3.688" in depth at the endpin, with a scale length of 22.875" and nut width of 1.25". We settled on flamed sugar maple for the back, sides, and neck, with an adirondack spruce top. The binding and other decorative bits are primarily hormigo, and the fretboard and bridge are Honduran rosewood. This guitar has a couple of other unique features, including two subtle "wave " inlays around the perimeter of the back, the strikingly brilliant sunburst shading under the French polished finish, and David's newly-designed adjustable neck joint (see more details about the neck on David's site at the bottom of this page and mid-way down this page).

I received the tenor from David last week and am absolutely blown away by its beauty, and more importantly, by the tone of this instrument. Describing a guitar's tonal qualities is always difficult, especially when I haven't actually played any other tenors and thus don't have a reference point. So I'll just simply say that I can't imagine a tenor sounding any better than this one! At some point I'll try to get around to posting some sound clips, but for now you'll just have to enjoy these pictures.

A couple things I've learned from this process:

1) Working with a luthier on a custom built guitar is a very fun and satisfying experience.

2) David is an extremely talented craftsman, artist, and musician, in addition to being just about the nicest guy you'll ever meet (although I've know this last point since we first met in 1994). If you're looking for a tenor guitar, or auditorium, orchestra, or concert-sized guitar, working with David can't be beat. The balance of tradition, innovation, and responsible choices of sustainable materials in his instruments hits the spot for me, and the design of my tenor guitar is executed into a beautiful sounding, looking, and feeling instrument.

Click to read more ...


Cavins tenor guitar - Part 6: The shaded finish

This is Part 6 of my series chronicling design, construction, and eventual delivery of a tenor guitar built by David Cavins. See Parts 1234, and 5 of this series.

David just posted pictures of the sunburst finish he applied to the tenor guitar; check them out on his blog here. Whoa nelly, that's a fine looking guitar!

Although it's not shown in the pictures below, the bridge has been glued down, and next it will be time for the hardware and set up. It's getting close!


Cavins tenor guitar - Part 5: The closed box and carving the neck

This is Part 5 of my series chronicling design, construction, and eventual delivery of a tenor guitar built by David Cavins. See Parts 123, and 4 of this series.

David recently posted an update of the build on his website. Things are moving quickly, and soon it will be time for the finish to be applied! (see Part 6 for the sunburst finish)


Cavins tenor guitar - Part 4: Finish samples and other details

This is Part 4 of my series chronicling design, construction, and eventual delivery of a tenor guitar built by David Cavins. See Parts 12, and 3 of this series.

A couple of weeks ago, David sent me some samples of sugar maple, finished with subtly different shading, to get my feedback. All of these are beautiful, but I decided to go with the second from the left. This is going to be a stunning guitar!

In addition, we've been talking about neck size and profile, as well as the location of the adjustment bolt for the neck. David is using a system that allows the neck angle to easily be adjusted without removing the neck (and potentially that allows the angle to be adjusted while the strings are tuned to pitch). This bolt could be accessed via the neck block, through the interior of the guitar. But I've decided I want to show off this awesome design feature, and he is building this guitar with the access point at the heel of the neck, where the whole world (or at least people playing the guitar) can see it. With feature this cool, you have to show it off. See more about the neck joint on David's site.

See part 5 here.


Cavins tenor guitar - Part 3: Design and wood choices

This is Part 3 of my series chronicling design, construction, and eventual delivery of a tenor guitar built by David Cavins. See Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.

We're now a couple of months into the process, and we have finalized most of the design decisions. David has also started construction on the top and back, and is currently getting ready to dive into the neck. Here are the specs:

  • Top - Adirondack spruce
  • Back, sides, and neck - Flamed sugar maple
  • Fretboard and bridge - Honduran rosewood fretboard with pearl dot inlays, radiused; bridge TBD
  • Binding and accents - Hormigo center strip down the middle of the neck and back; hormigo and maple rosette
  • Headstock veneer - Honduran rosewood or hormigo, with a maple center wedge
  • Finish - Light sunburst top, body, and neck
  • Hardware - Banjo tuners

While there are still a few design decisions to make, the guitar is starting to come together. David has been documenting the build process on his blog (see here). Here are some pictures I pulled from his site:

The sugar maple back, getting ready to be joined.


The Adirondack spruce top with the rosette installed.


The top and back, with the rough bracing.


David put these samples together to show the accents. Understated, elegant, and classic.


This is a previous tenor guitar he built in 2012, with a light sunburst finish on a sugar maple body. David photoshopped the version on the right to show me what it would look like with a backstrip. Mine will be similar (with the backstrip), with a slightly darker full-body sunburst.

See Part 4 here.


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 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.


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 imagine doing it with anyone else but David.

See Part 2...


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 ...


Dana Bourgeois on tap-tuning and voice a top


Photo of the week - November 19, 2013

At the C.F. Martin factory in Nazareth, PA. Fuj1 X-Pro1 with 18mm lens @f/2.8. Processed with Snapseed on a Mac. See more (in black and white) here.


Santa Cruz Guitar Company virtual tour


Spruce, according to Collings


A window into Kevin Kopp's craft

I'm a big fan of the guitars that Kevin Kopp builds, and brace-shaping is one of the most interesting steps in guitar building, so this video really grabbed me.


Poaching in America

The other day I posted a video and commented on the illegal harvesting of rosewood in Madagascar. It looks like this sad disrespect for trees is happening closer to home as well. Sigh...



Guitars, religion, evidence, and beliefs

Beliefs about characteristics and generalizations of acoustic guitars, and their associated construction techniques and materials, seems to me to be a lot like religion. As an atheist this is weird for me to think about, but we (guitar players) make a lot of leaps of faith based on scant evidence (what we scientists call an "N of one"), what others have told us, and what makes "reasonable sense" to us as individuals. How much of what we believe, prefer, and hear in our instruments is based in tradition, expectations, superstition, illusory correlations, and what we read in books/magazines and on the internet?

Another interesting parallel between acoustic guitar players and religion, although somewhat of a sidenote to this discussion, is that we are inherently conservative; it takes a long time to get us guitar players to change the standards of what is perceived as "normal" or preferable. For example, I'm really interested in seeing how the necessary future use of sustainable "alternatives" tonewoods is embraced by players/consumers. While I love the idea of walnut and cherry guitars that are made from timbers locally and responsibly harvested, given the choice, I'd still take my tried-and-true Honduran mahogany!

I really have great respect and envy for those few folks who have played hundreds and thousand of vintage and new guitars, and for those who build instruments (i.e., and do "experiments" to learn about acoustic properties of materials and construction techniques); those people with lots of data to base their beliefs on. Unfortunately, that's not me (yet?).

Keeping these reservations in mind, here are my guitar beliefs; much like religion, they are based on a small sample size, what people I respect think, and what "makes reasonable sense" given my basic knowledge of physics and lutherie. Some of these beliefs are probably totally irrational, and like religion, we could get into endless and unwinnable debates about all of these points:*

*However, unlike religion, the below points could all be tested experimentally,
and I'd happily change my mind in the face of good evidence.

  • Lots of little things add up to a good sounding guitar. There are many "ingredients" that can be slightly changed, and these are the things that, in sum, create the unique tonal signatures of individual instruments and general characteristics of different acoustic guitar brands.
  • I believe that hide glue positively impacts the sound of a guitar compared to titebond or other commonly used adhesives, which have more "flex" to them.
  • I don't believe that, as a broad statement, lighter guitars sound better than heavier guitars (and I'm not talking about lightness of soundboard/bracing; that's another issue, and much less debatable). In terms if the thickness and stiffness of the sides/back of the instrument, I wonder if this impacts the projection of the sound outward versus feeling more vibrations as a player. I do, however, prefer the feeling of playing a light weight acoustic guitar, but that's probably more due to ergonomics.

Bourgeois neck (from pantheonguitars.com)

  • Bolt-on vs. dovetailed necks: I believe that both can be excellent sounding, but that the type of neck joint probably does impact the tonal qualities of a guitar (although I can't say how). I like Collings (bolt-on) and I like Martin (dovetail). But bolt-on does add a bit a weight. I love, in principle, the design of bolt-on necks that don't glue the fingerboard to the top of the guitar (i.e., Taylor's NT neck and similar designs used by Bourgeois, my friend David Cavins, and like we did at the Vermont Instruments School of Lutherie) due to the relative ease of maintenance. I'm sure it colors the sound somehow, and it certainly does impact the overall weight of the instrument.
  • Image source: fretnotguitarrepair.comWith the commercial success of Martin's "Authentic" series, which employs non-adjustable T-bar truss rods in many models (and non-adjustable ebony in others), there's been a renewed discussion in the relative merits of adjustable vs. non-adjustable truss rods. Like with neck joints, my guess is that there is a sonic difference, but this is one place I'd rather err on the side of modernity...I'll take adjustable over not if given the choice, especially if I'm buying a used guitar (like I tend to do).
  • I don't have enough personal experience with Brazilian rosewood to make statements about it's merits compared to Indian or other rosewoods. But I believe that the use of good Brazilian (i.e., quarter-sawn) is confounded with a lot of other variables that I do think are important (i.e., the use of hide glue, T-bar truss rods, age of the wood, and break-in time for vintage guitars). I'd love to spend some time with some guitar sporting various rosewoods that are otherwise as identical as possible.
  • I do believe that herringbone purfling (or other similar decorative details around the top, like pearl inlay) could have a small impact on the sound, due to the wider channel being routed into the top right where it's connecting to the sides (maybe more flex = a bit more bass? just thinking theoretically, here).

Herringbone Martin (image from folkwaysmusic.com...lots of nice guitars on their website!)

  • I have heard a similar argument about sunburst tops: that the extra pigment that is applied to certain areas ever-so-slightly changes the mass of the top in those areas, which changes the sound. This seems far-fetched to me. In my opinion, if you do want to make the claim that sunbursts sound different/better (and I'm not a all convinced about this claim, although I love a good sunburst), what makes more sense is thinking about the stack of cosmetically "flawed" wood that could not be used if not for the shaded top...That there's lots of great sounding wood to choose from if you ignore cosmetics, and sunbursts allow luthiers to pick tops based on tonal properties only without having to balance the look of the top in their selection.
  • I think there is probably significant overlap in the distribution of Sitka vs. Adirondack tops (i.e., normal curves that overlap), but that there are some characteristic differences between them on average. But that "different" does not globally mean "better."
  • I suspect that the labels of "European," "German," "Italian" etc. spruce that are used are not particularly useful, because they refer to where the wood came from, not a particular species. That's not to say they don't sound and look different that your typical Sitka top, but that it's not so clear, across makers, what the consistent tonal properties of these woods are.
  • In theory I like idea of Madagascar rosewood as an alternative to Brazilian, but I'm uncomfortable with it due to the socio-political and environmental concerns associated with its harvest (more about this topic here and here). For my own piece of mind, along with all the reasons to buy vintage, if I wanted a rosewood guitar, I'd pony up the dough and get a '50s-era D-28 or '45-55 000-21 or 000-28, and not one of the re-issues or custom models that many manufactures have rolled out recently.

  • That wood, as a material that is/was alive, continues to change both due to aging and playing (i.e., the "opening up" that players described is a function of at least two processes that impact the structure of the wood itself).
  • Related to the above point: I believe that part, but not all, of the "opening up" process is psychological-- that we become more familiar with the sound of a guitar over time, and that is perceived as more pleasing. Yes, remember that I'm a social psychologist, and that we call this the "mere exposure effect."
  • One of my biggest "turn-offs" are the pixelated pickguards that Martin used (still uses?) on some of their guitars, like my 2002 D-18GE. I've since replaced mine with a "tor-tis" Dalmatian pickguard, which is admittedly a non-traditional choice for an -18-style guitar.

Ick! (from http://www.acousticguitarforum.com/forums/showthread.php?t=266220)


Slope-shouldered goodness

I'm not lucky enough to have a John Walker guitar and this video isn't helping my GAS for one.


Bob Taylor on the future of (and our expectations for) ebony


Building a flamenco guitar: 299 hours in 3 minutes


Photo of the week - May 22, 2012

At the Martin guitar factory, in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Fuji X100 @ f/2. Converted with Nik Silver Efex Pro.


Photo of the week - May 15, 2012


At the Martin guitar factory, in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Fuji X100 @ f/2. Converted with Nik Silver Efex Pro.