Tag Archives: blues

How to Get Perfect Intonation on your Guitar

18 Oct

We were getting to the final stages of building this guitar – putting in the frets and making the bridge.

Once again we got onto the subject of perfection – the quest for it and its unnatainability.

I met a friend I hadn’t seen for a while the other day and asked him how he’s doing. ‘I’m doing the best I can. How ’bout you?’ he replied. ‘Bout the same’, I said.

Back to the subject of guitars, my student was getting concerned that his guitar won’t work properly. What if the frets aren’t perfectly aligned? What if they’re not where they’re supposed to be? What if the bridge is too far back, or forward? How do you know what the right angle is for the saddle?

Strangely enough (especially for a world famous guitar maker!) I’ve never really given these questions too much thought. Obviously, the same thoughts cross my mind when I’m making a guitar. As I mark out the fret positions I know that if I get it wrong the notes will be in the wrong places which will make the guitar almost impossible to play in tune. If the bridge is in the wrong position all the notes will be out. So I try to get it right. I calculate the fret positions to the nearest 1000th of a mm. Then using a steel ruler and a sharpened spike I mark their position on the ebony as best as I can. The thing is, my steel ruler can measure gradations of 1mm. My eye can focus on the space between one millimeter line and the next, and my hand can guide the sharpened spike to the closest estimation of the right position.  For instance, the first fret should be placed 36.482 mm from the nut. Even if my spike was sharpened to a point a few atoms across, my eye would not be able to differentiate between  one thousandth of a mil and the next, besides which, my hand would be shaking too much to mark it that accurately. That’s not a judgement on my poor eyesight or the amount of coffee I drink. Some things are humanly possible, some aren’t. So what do I do? I take a close look and then put the spike into the wood just a little to the left of what looks like halfway between 36mm and 37mm.

Sure, if I had some microscopic, digital, laser-guided computer controlled cutting machinery in my little workshop, I could probably do a bit better on accuracy there. Then again, it wouldn’t  really be a hand made guitar if I used that sort of thing. Well, maybe it could be, in a sort of modern sense – but that’s not really where I’m at anyway. I prefer to make guitars the old fashioned way.

The point is this: The guitar is not a perfect machine. It is a fine balance is between a wide variety of compromises. You will have to tune your guitar. Learn how to use your ears. Those digital tuners are unhelpful. Even if your guitar is a state of the art, carbon-fibre, computer-guided, laser-machined, robot-finished, high precision sound-box with NASA technology graphite strings etc… you will still have to tune it. As far as I know, there has never been a perfect machine. If there ever has been, I’m fairly sure it wasn’t a guitar. Possibly a bicycle. Even a formula 1 racing car needs it’s engine tuned every so often.

Here is a little story about three guitar makers I know and a well known musician. I’ll call them by their initials in order to avoid libel. C, K and O are the guitar makers, J is the musician. C is the most famous of the three luthiers. His guitars sell for around $30,000 and he seems to have a long waiting list. I say ‘he seems to’ because as well as being a very fine luthier, he’s also an excellent salesman (which is also an ancient craft, not to be underestimated).  His workshop is very large, well lit, clean and equipped with the finest hand tools, the latest technological innovations in power tools and an shiny Italian coffee making machine. His guitars are built using excellent, rare timbers as well as modern materials. He has developed a style of bracing his guitars that is so new and innovative that he is considered to be a guru of guitar technology.

One day, J decided to buy a guitar from C. Being a somewhat well known musician, he was able to jump the waiting list as well as get a sizeable discount on the $30,000 price tag on his guitar. He played the guitar for about a year, but try as he might, he could not get it to play in tune when he was performing under hot spotlights, changing from playing in E minor to playing in D. This had never bothered him before, with his old guitar – he would retune in between songs without even thinking about it – but somehow it irked him with the new guitar. He repeatedly took the guitar back to C to remedy the problem, but C repeatedly refused to touch it, saying that the guitar was perfect – the problem was with J, the player. After a year J sold the guitar (to a collector, for $60,000. After it had been owned by him it was ‘collectable’) and reverted to his old guitar.

Some time later, still (as always) on the lookout for a new guitar he went to K. K is well known for making the most flawless guitars possible. They are simple and traditional and extremely neat. Before becoming a luthier he spent many years designing components for the electronics industry. Let us say that precision is his talent. ‘Unlike some guitars’, he says ‘ my guitars do not impose themselves on the player. They are like a blank canvas waiting to be filled.’

When J collected his new guitar from K, he was immediately impressed by the clarity of the sound, as well as the neatness and orderliness of K’s small, clean workshop. He was pleased at how the guitar stayed in tune, even under testing conditions, but it somehow left him feeling empty and alone in a way his old guitar somehow didn’t. When, after a year of playing K’s guitar, he found himself with song-writer’s block, he sold it (to a music professor who was extremely pleased with it) and reverted back to his old guitar.

Later that year, by chance, J came across O. O is a fairly unknown luthier who specialises in accurate reproductions of historical instruments as well as carrying out detailed research into all manner of areas relating to musical instrument making. At the time he was living and working in a small attic room above a butcher’s shop in a little known English market town. He lived with his wife and two small children. His ‘workshop’ was a chaotic mess consisting of several unfinished instruments strung up on a rope across the window, Japanese waterstones and handmade  plane blades piles up next to the sink along with the washing up. Jars of varnish on shelves next to jars of jam. His workbench was also the kitchen table. What I remember about the place was the distinctive smell of dirty nappies and animal  glue. And the amazing guitars strewn about the place.

At the time when J met him, O had just finished building a perfect reproduction of an original Torres guitar that he’d been able to measure, map the soundboard thickness and bracing and examine the construction and materials. It had taken about a year and a half to make and was probably the most exact reproduction  of a Torres guitar ever made. J was not really a connoisseur of Spanish guitars, being more of a song and dance man, but when he played on that guitar he was (in his own words) ‘blown away’. At the first note he played, he felt the guitar come to life and his whole being was consumed with the need to make music there and then.

He stayed there for six hours, being unable to put the guitar down and would have stayed longer had O’s youngest child not accidentally drank a cup of oil-varnish and had to be rushed to emergency. J contacted O the next day saying  that he was willing to pay whatever price O asked for the guitar. O named a ridiculously low price and told J to come back in a month when he’d finished varnishing it.

One month later J came knocking on O’s door (O’s phone had been disconnected) only to find that the guitar had been broken beyond repair when the rope holding it had slipped and the guitar had fallen out of the window onto the pavement below.

J went on to write a song about that guitar (substituting the word ‘guitar’ for ‘woman’ and giving her a name) which, for a time was often played on the radio and MTV. This brought him enough money to buy any guitar he wanted, but as far as I know he’s still playing the same old guitar.



If it looks like it’ll fly – it should make a good guitar

11 Sep

Today I was helping my student guitar maker with the thicknessing and bracing of the soundboard.

kitten building a flamenco guitar

This is my student guitar maker – 2 month old kitten ‘Tickles’ building her first flamenco guitar

The thicknessing took a while to go from about 4mm to a fairly even 2.2mm. A greater distance than it sounds, believe me. About 4 hours careful and thoughtful planing, measuring, tapping, listening, flexing, considering….

Considering all the various implications of each woodshaving removed (this is, let us remember, his first guitar) and how it will effect the tone, the feel, nay! the very soul of the guitar. We got to talking about Mary Shelly. It occurred to me how similar is guitar making to the (well intentioned but ultimately doomed) work of Dr Frankenstein. Breathing life into something that is dead. In that borderline region between chaos and order, the luthier takes some pieces of dry, dead wood – gives them shape and form, brings them to life – creates something with a living soul. Sort of.

‘Well I hope it doesn’t turn out to be a monster’, says my literal and logical student.

Although, from what I can remember of that story, Dr F’s creation became a monster because of the inhumanity of the people he met. But that’s another story. No sense in taking an analogy too far.

One last pass with my trusty and ever sharp Lie Nielson low angle block plane with cryogenically freeze-tempered high carbon steel blade (is this starting to sound like Victorian era science fiction?) and suddenly the soundboard is there. How do I know? I lift it from the table and let go and it hangs in the air momentarily before gently gliding down, like a feather. It has become almost weightless. I flex it in my hands and it bends easily but then springs back. I hold it to my ear and tap it and it resonates with a deep ring, almost too low for the ear to hear.

Someone once asked the great guitar maker Antonio de Torres what his secret was, to which he replied (something along the lines of): There is no secret – it is here, between my thumb and forefinger. What he meant by that and whether or not he had a secret and whether it had anything even to do with guitars – will remain forever a mystery. Like his guitars, which were numbered according to whether they were built in his first or second epoch – so are our days. Numbered.

Antonio de Torres. 1817 – 1892

‘OK, that’s it – quick let’s glue  the braces on.’ The humidity has just dropped from 95% where it was in the morning to 60%. It’ll probably stay there for about 4 hours before it starts to rise again in the afternoon so there’s no time for standing around philosophising and self congratulating. If the guitar’s assembled when it’s too damp it’s quite likely to crack when it gets dry. Take what lessons you will from what I have to say, but always keep one eye on the hygrometer if you don’t want your guitars to implode.

Four hours later, just as the humidity is on the rise again, the last brace is glued on. Now it really looks ready to fly. We take a step back to admire the sleek lines of symmetrically and extremely well placed fan-struts that adorn the underside of the soundboard. It looks like Concorde about to take its maiden flight. Or the Space Shuttle about to go into orbit for the first time. Now is the time for self congratulation and philosophising.

Final shaping of the harmonic bars

‘It looks good.’ says my student, who is sparing with his words but quite a perfectionist when it comes to his work.

‘Yes it does’, I agree. ‘It looks like it could fly.’ And then it occurs to me to say, ‘If it looks like it could fly, then it should make a good guitar.’ And so is the wisdom of guitar making passed on.

There are three types of guitar maker, I have discovered:

The first type are the perfectionists. They strive for perfection and will not admit any fault into their guitars.

The second type are not perfectionists but they are creative, imaginative, intuitive and artistic.

The third type are perfectionists who are also creative, imaginative, intuitive and artistic.

The third type make the best guitars, of course – but the first and second types can also make some pretty good ones. It takes all sorts. Yes it does.

g weigert handmade guitars

25 Aug

This is my new site dedicated to everything to do with guitars that I couldn’t manage put on my old site.

If you’re interested in learning how to build a guitar, you should read my ‘how to build a guitar’ pages that I’ve started writing.

Alternatively you could come and enjoy a guitar making course with me, Gideon Weigert, here in Hararit – in the delightful and tranquil hilltop Galilean village not far from Nazareth, Acco, the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean – where I live and work.

You can see more pictures of my guitars at www.gwguitars.com as well as of our charming guesthouse where you can stay, whether you’re coming especially to learn guitar making – or just for a holiday.

Please feel free to write comments. I’d like to hear from you and welcome any suggestions


this is where my blog begins

25 Aug

OK, here is my latest attempt to keep up to date with the exciting, fangled, new world of the internet. Ha! Not so new any more, but fangled nonetheless. (My computer tells me fangled isn’t a real word. Does it know more than me? Probably.)

Here’s the story so far (abbreviated and containing only what is relevant to this post):

Sometime about 1995 I became aware that something called the Internet had come into being. It looked exciting, a bit scary and full of undreamed of possibilities. Intuiting that it must in some way herald the End of The World, I promptly packed my bag and disapirated for the rest of the millenium.

It was about this time that anyone with any sense were going about learning the necessary skills to become computer programmers, web designers, multi-media internet entrepreneurs and hackers. Meanwhile, I was learning to play the fiddle – badly. In this brave new world, after all, when all the power stations have shut down, the supermarkets have been ransacked and the petrol pumps have run dry – people would always want music to cheer them up, or drown their sorrows. Wouldn’t they?

The Y2K (year two thousand, you may remember it) came and went with no sudden meltdown. OK, I thought, It’s about time I got myself a vocation. Well obviously I wasn’t going to be chained to a desk and a computer screen like all these other unfortunate suckers (some of them actually quite rich by now). I had to do something with my hands, with my brain, with music, with wood. Something authentic and real. Something where I could be my own boss. Something where I could wear scruffy clothes and not have to shave everyday. Something to show all these technoheads ‘look, this is the way things have been done for centuries, the past is the future, let’s not forget our roots, let’s bring back the old ways….’ etc.

And so it was that I took the fateful step and became a luthier – a guitar maker. Of all things. Naturally.

And so now, as a luthier, with my trusty wooden toolbox and my secret knowledge of the mysteries of luthiery, passed down from generation to generation of traditional craftsmen, I would be able to travel the world making beautiful and unusual musical instruments of my own imaginings – out of the bits of wood thrown out by wasteful consumer society.  Or so I thought.

The first problem is that you actually need quite a lot of tools. Not loads, but enough to require a small, organised workshop to make it practical. Then there’s the wood. Though you can make a guitar out of almost any wood – there are some that are more suitable than others. So you end up collecting it and hoarding it – bits of old furniture, pianos, table legs – but also searching out the finest Alpine Spruce, figured Maple, Rosewood, Ebony – unusual bits of wood for decoration. Before you know it you’ve got stacks of wood everywhere, logs quartered out in the yard to season for years to come – and you know every piece and where it came from and you don’t throw anything away – not even the smallest offcut, because you know it’ll come in useful for something.

But that’s all by the by, so to speak. Things rarely turn out how you’d expect, in any walk of life. The main problem is after you’ve made a few lovely, traditionally handcrafted guitars – how, in this high speed, overpopulated modern world of mass production and image branding, do you let the right people know about these two or three really amazing, unique guitars? Of course – the Internet! You need a website.

Of course, by now all those sensible folks who have been developing websites for the last ten years charge a small fortune for the service, which is something that quite naturally I do not have. And so while they’re sitting on the beach in Bali or Thailand, sipping coctails and doing a spot of website design, I’m going to my local library (in those days there were still books) and taking out a volume on HTML for beginners.

About a month later I’ve built my very own website www.gwguitars.com with its very own catchy domain name www.gwguitars.com

It doesn’t look like much and doesn’t really work properly, but it serves me well for a few years, until it all starts to fall apart and I’ve forgotten how to do HTML, which nobody uses any more anyway. These days it’s all moving pictures, animated buttons, facebook, twitter, ipods, ipads – I don’t know what. You can see I’m finding it hard to keep track of all these advances. I only moved from tapes to CDs about 6 months ago – now I find nobody uses CDs any more either.

So I said to my friend, who’s something of a somebody on the WWW ,”What can I do to increase my internet visibilty?” (I figured that’s how these people talk).

“Simple”, he said. “It’s all about content.”

“Oh I see”, I said, not really seeing. “Content.”

“Yes, content. And SEO. Lots of content and high SEO. That’s what it’s all about.”

“OK, how do I do that then?”

“Go on wordpress and write a blog”, he said. At least I think that’s what he said. So that’s what I did. And this is it.