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Classical Guitar Building

Monday, August 16, 2010
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This week was one to remember. I’d been looking forward to August 9 because I’d organized a guitar camp, of sorts. You might be thinking, “What? Bob held a guitar camp for his customers and he didn’t announce it so I could come?”

While I’d love to have you, this one was for myself, and my guitar makers. That’s because I needed to get schooled; it was the week to learn how to make a classical guitar.

Some eight years ago we worked on a classical guitar design project and didn’t do all that well. Our steel-string taproots had us all bound up. I needed a teacher back then, and I needed one now, and so I called on my friend and guitar maker, Pepe Romero.

You know the name Pepe Romero as being one of the world’s finest guitar players; which he is, let there be no doubt. But there’s two Pepe’s, the father/player and the son/builder. I’m going to refer to them as Pepe Jr, and Pepe Sr.

Pepe Jr, was born to the sound of a 1930’s Santos Hernandez guitar. By the time he was three, he was literally sitting on his dad’s lap while Pepe Sr gave guitar lessons, and he was called on to critique the student after the lesson! Can you imagine what fun that must have been? By the time he was nineteen he was in Spain, the birthplace of his father, and grandfather, studying classical guitar making. His grandfather is the legendary Celedonio Romero. Pepe’s taproot goes deep, pretty much to the well-spring of classical guitars.

If you’re new to this topic, I can offer you a full evening of romance, history, and music by directing you to Mr. Google, who will teach you all about this family of guitar players.

They are San Diegans, and have been for decades. Being neighbors, Pepe Jr. has always extended a standing invitation to me, to help me learn, when I was ready.

I was made ready two months ago while doing a GE Capital commercial. I showed up to do my part and the creative director decided that the commercial would be created around flamenco guitar sounds. This is where I met Marija Temo. Marija (pronounced like Maria) was the guitar player on the commercial.

Now think about this; I’m in a GE Capital commercial featuring Taylor Guitars, a steel string guitar company, and the music is flamenco guitars. Good thing I’m not a micro manager, because I might have stopped what turned out to be a beautiful, gorgeous, commercial with great music and message. And good thing Marija was flexible, because she picked up a hybrid Taylor nylon, which is not the kind of guitar for the music she plays, and made the best of it. For me, the best of it resulted in fanning the flame of my desire to learn to build classicals. Real classicals this time, so I picked up the phone and asked Pepe for help and he said “yes.” Thank you GE for being the catalyst.

We met, Pepe Jr and my team. We discussed what must be done on our end to get ready. He showed us his workboard, which in essence, is a piece of wood that he has painstakingly sculpted to his liking and builds his guitars upon. It contains the culmination of his experience over the years, when it comes to the geometry of his tops. He let us digitize it because that would be how we could reproduce it for our week of guitar building. Pepe was excited about that possibility; I mean, the idea of him being able to see his workboard in a digital format and for us to mill one on a machine to complete accuracy. We talked about the possibility of helping him with replacement workboards for his shop. We made tools for a month. You can imagine what we made, because I’m going to go about this in much the same manner as I make my guitars, and that manner is to perfect the making of the individual parts using our modern techniques. I’m not talking about sloppy machine parts, I’m talking about accurate machine parts. Things like a bridge, or a neck, or workboard.

I asked Pepe for a week of his time. He agreed. I invited another over-the-top incredible San Diego guitar builder to come spend the week with us. His name is Andy Powers, and he came for the entire week. I invited Marija Temo, who flew in from Washington D.C. I invited a dozen Taylor Guitars employees. We all showed up Monday morning with the intention of making six classical guitars that week, but we actually completed seven guitars. That’s because Andy brought a box of his wife’s incredible cookies. I don’t know if we’d have gotten so far without them.

Each day we made two identical guitars, one with traditional Spanish construction, and a sister guitar with an NT neck. We had to figure out how to put on a UV finish that was as thin as French polish. Pepe taught me the feel of a classical top, how it was graduated, how it feels, how it bends. He braced them and taught me the process. Each day he changed the bracing to a new pattern and style and made sure I felt it. I would stand around and bend and twist the top while we talked, like one of those stress balls you squeeze. I was trying to get my body and mind to learn the feel. A guitar top is, I found, a better than average stress ball. I felt great, with my hands on those pieces. It took me way back to the Irving Sloan book that I used to make my first guitar. I was sixteen, and that guitar was a 12-string steel string, but all the photos in the book were classicals. I just adapted the construction ideas.

None of us slept much that week. We all had thinkin’ on our brains. By Wednesday we heard our first guitar. I had a dinner party that night at my house where everyone came and enjoyed each other’s company. Pepe Sr came, excited to see the first fruits of our labor. After dinner we gathered, thirty of us, to hear Marija and Pepe Sr play the guitar. We felt proud. It was a simple guitar, whose bracing was much like the Santos guitar that Pepe heard on his birth day. Some think of this guitar as being like the bare essence of a classical guitar. I can see why, as it’s no hot-rod, but it has very pleasing notes. The players made it sound great.

Thursday we made much more progress, with guitars lining up to get bridges glued on. We heard our second guitar, the sister to the first one, but with a modern Taylor NT neck attachment. This guitar suggested that the neck attachment might make a difference in sound, but certainly doesn’t ruin the sound. They both sounded good, in fact, what they shared in common was probably 98% and what was different was, just, different. On some guitars I like the NT neck better. I think it might be the luck of the draw. I’ll learn more as I make more.

By Friday we had guitars to string up! It was clear that we’d have seven in total, with the eighth guitar having to wait till Monday. Actually the eighth guitar was really number five of the group, and numbers seven and eight were ready for strings. These two were just tossed in to try a couple different bracing patterns just for fun, and to make a couple with spruce tops.

By early afternoon we were listening to all the guitars. Pepe and I sat in the room together and talked about the tone. Pepe has a nice, easy-going attitude about these guitars. He likes to like a guitar. He’s not overly critical of the sound because, first, they sound great and he knows it, and second, he realizes that everyone has their own taste in guitars. He’s learned from being around it his whole life that different people bring out the good in different guitars. There was one in particular though that we both liked a lot. We played if for each other and had ourselves a little moment. It was nice.

He and I appreciated the two worlds coming together. A man who makes guitars all alone, and one who makes them with a team. A man who makes classicals in the Spanish tradition and one who makes American steel strings. A man who doesn’t have an inlay, a strap pin, or a pickup on his guitars and a man who has all that plus whatever else one might imagine. A man who makes twenty guitars a year and a man who makes twenty guitars every thirty minutes. We’d accomplished a lot that week. We both learned things about ourselves and about each other.

Andy was a big part of our week and we had a great time together. Seeing the two of them coalescing with my team of builders and tool-makers was satisfying.

We held a little recital and people from Taylor walked over. I talked about the guitars and told the group what we were up to. People wondered what I’m planning to do with all this, and the answer is that I don’t know. Maybe a classical will come out of Taylor sometime, and probably will, but I always start with a guitar that inspires me. I still have a lot to learn but I’m on a good path and can experiment on my own now.

Marija played, and Pepe Sr played, to a room full of Taylor Guitars staffers. I was proud to have them both there, so happy that they’d think enough of what we were doing to come and be a part. It was one of those inspirational moments that you love to experience. People began loading up and going home. Andy and Pepe drove off together since they live by each other, in Oceanside, and had been car pooling all week. There they went, my two guitar making buddies, each, nearly thirty years younger than me. It was like camp was over and we all had to say goodbye. Kinda bittersweet, ya know?

I learned a lot that week. I already know how to make a guitar so I didn’t have to learn basic skills of guitar making like someone going off to Spain to study classical guitar construction. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I have the basics down, if I do say so myself. I plan to make a classical guitar every week until I figure out my own style.

Later, when everyone had gone, my wife, Cindy, and I were sitting with Marija while she was quietly checking out the guitars. When she was finished I put a 12-fret Grand Concert in her lap, plugged the ES into a California Blond amplifier and encouraged her to play. She was scared. She’d never played a steel string before, or a guitar with a pickup. She thought it would tear up her hands and spit them into the sky. But she started in and she played it like she was born to play it, gaining confidence with every measure. It thrilled her to no end. It was effortless, and the sound was so big. Being a flamenco player she’s got a monster right hand and she knew what to do with it. I videoed it on my iphone. I’ll save that video.

It was a fitting end to the ultimate “You got your chocolate on my peanut butter” week.

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