As we musicians develop our
competencies on our instrument, we also increase our demands upon it. As a
result, when we move into the marketplace, we find ourselves trying to discern
between a fair instrument and a fine one. I believe there are five primary areas
by which we should evaluate the quality of an instrument. They are tone, intonation,
playability, durability, and aesthetics. Each of these
areas is addressed by the larger manufacturers; but in order to sell to a broad
range of buyers, they must make trade-offs on the design of their models. Most
guitars are "one size fits all" designs. Size, gender and personal
preference of the guitarist are handled from a general point of view.
I build to meet the specific
needs (and wants) of my customers. Some guitarists want tone and do not care how
an instrument looks. Others enjoy the aesthetics as well. Smaller framed men and
women sometimes need instruments that they can reach around when they are
sitting in their favorite chair writing songs. Some folks have small hands;
others have large ones. Some instruments will be on the road in constant
physical and environmental stress; others will be kept in a case in perfect
conditions and played only in the safest of settings. All of these situations
affect how we need to strike the balance between tone, intonation, playability,
durability and aesthetics. Whether you are looking for your "dream
guitar" or just one that meets your needs, here are some areas to consider:
Quality And Choice of Materials
Hand-built guitars are often
referred to as ultra-high quality instruments. There are many quality
mass-produced guitars, but mass production does not allow instruments to be
built with the quality and care that is possible when building an instrument by
hand. An excellent way to inspect a guitar for durability and craftsmanship is
to view the things that are hard to see. Use a mirror and a light to inspect the
inside of a guitar. If the workmanship is clean and neat inside, it's more
likely that the builder sets an excellent standard to work by.
Individuals or very small groups
of people who are considered luthiers in the truest sense of the word know their
craft thoroughly. This includes the development and use of hand tools and an
understanding of the physical and sonic properties of the materials they use.
Luthiers incorporate this knowledge into each unit. They see each guitar as a
group of related components. Each part is chosen with consideration of its
impact upon tone, intonation, playability, durability and aesthetics. Assembly
line workers build mass-produced instruments. The loyalty, love and care for
each unit is often non-existent. It's just a job.
Expect all woods on a
handcrafted instrument to be quarter sawn AAA or Select Grade solid woods
unless otherwise requested by the customer. (Most quality mass-produced
guitars are built from A and AA grade woods.) Expect all wood parts to be
quarter sawn with very little grain run-out. The grain is usually expected to
be very straight and fairly tight on the top, back and sides.
Top, sides and back should be
well book-matched during assembly. The next time you are in an instrument
shop, look at the accuracy with which the backs and sides are book-matched (or
mismatched) on the nicer instruments. Look at where the sides meet the heel of
the neck, and notice how well the grain on the sides line up with one another.
While this is mostly an aesthetic quality, it is indicative of the level of
attention to detail you can expect from the builder. This is often fairly well
done on mass-produced guitars, but it should be an expectation for a
Expect all other woods to be
"woods of choice" depending upon the job the guitar part does. The
fingerboard and bridge should be a fine grade of ebony. Many manufacturers use
rosewood and nato for fingerboards. With a few exceptions, these woods are
inferior to ebony because they are softer and, with use, will tend to rut out
under the strings of most frequently played frets.
The wood of choice for necks is
mahogany. It should be well quartered (quarter sawn) and clear of defects,
with straight grain that does not run out along the length of the neck. Some
other woods, such as cherry and maple, work very well for necks but they are
more "woods of convenience."
Several varieties of woods will
work well for bracing. Sitka Spruce, Engelmann Spruce, and Adirondack Spruce
(my choice) are three excellent varieties, depending upon the desired sound.
For maximum strength, you should expect the braces to be clear of
imperfections and perfectly quarter-sawn. This is an extremely important point
that a conscientious luthier should always follow. To reduce run-out, good
brace wood is split off the billet into small pieces rather than cut. As a
result, the length edge of the brace will follow the grain and eliminate
run-out. Many builders of mass-produced instruments violate this rule because
they know that most buyers never look into a sound hole before they purchase
While rosettes, binding and
purfling have the important function of reducing the likelihood of the tops
and backs splitting, aesthetics seems to be their most important role. Wood
binding and purfling is preferred by most guitarists for its beauty. Plastic
does not show damage easily, and it is easier to install and repair.
Nevertheless, if a customer wants wood purfling or binding, it is very
difficult to find on a manufactured guitar. Many musicians want no plastic
whatsoever on their instruments, and luthiers should be only glad to oblige.
This is usually an area of
weakness for luthiers and a strength for manufacturers. Nevertheless, a luthier
who builds with consistency can produce the finest instruments in the world.
Consistency (or inconsistency) manifests itself in several areas:
- the final outcome of the
instrument (tone, and playability, durability)
- the "look" of
- the type and quality of
- overall craftsmanship and
attention to detail
- processes used to make the
An experienced eye and ear can
detect the first four. Only time will tell us if the instrument is durable. The
last item, processes used to make the instrument, cannot be seen by the
customer. Process consistency is achieved by documenting procedures. As a
result, the builder uses the exact same process for making each part of the
instrument every time. When a better way to do a procedure is discovered, the
change is documented and instituted. This is the most
important aspect of consistency because it determines the outcome of all
the others and results in extremely high value for the customer.
Flexibility, Responsiveness and
the Human Element
Most mass producers of quality
instruments have custom shops. They are fairly flexible and often do a wonderful
job, but they usually draw tight boundaries around what they offer in the way of
custom appointments and materials. Their custom work is very expensive and can
take a very long time to have done.
Whenever I discuss my instruments
with a new customer, one of the first things I try to do is understand his/her
relationship with the instrument. Guitarists often have intimate relationships
with their instruments. Perhaps it's because we can caress it, or because it
expresses itself so well, or because it's there when we are lonely and need to
Another thing I like to discuss
is how the customer uses the instrument. How often does he/she play? Does he/she
usually play in a group setting or alone? Will the instrument be used on stage?
If so, how will it be amplified? Does he/she play on stage often? What style of
music will be played on the instrument? Will it primarily be played with a
pick(s) or with the fingers? Will the guitarist sing while playing? How long has
he/she been playing? What level of accomplishment has he/she reached? I ask
about the instrument he/she is playing now. What are its strengths and
weaknesses? I assume that tone is important, but is aesthetics fairly important
By asking these questions, I get
to know my customer and his/her specific needs, wants, likes and dislikes. The
hand-builder will try just about anything the customer can conjure up unless
experience tells him/her that it’s simply a bad idea. Then he/she will usually
work with the customer to turn a bad idea into a good one! This kind of
flexibility charges the creative ingenuity that allows the customer to have a
part in being a builder of the instrument.
As you consider your next guitar,
you’ll find that most of the instruments in stores look very similar. Most of
us have a paradigm about how a guitar should look and sound based upon what we’ve
seen in the past. If you look at hand-built instruments, you will find a variety
of designs that break all the rules. Some you will like, and some you will not.
You will also learn a lot, and you will definitely have a much broader point of
view about the instrument.
© 1997 by Sheppard Guitars™