The making of a
The making of a
classical guitar rosettes handmade individually for each guitar
Photo galleries of custom orders and discontinued models
articles by Viktor
Just like other classical guitar makers around the world, I also frequently meet classical guitarists who are searching for louder instruments than the traditional fan strutting ones. Today, guitar makers worldwide are facing the fact that classical guitar construction can (and perhaps should) be developed further to keep up with the natural improvement of music, artistic interpretation and the expectation of the audience. Most of the new solutions are done to raise volume and sound projection, but also easier playability is a wish of today's guitarists. To achieve greater volume and sound projection, there are several solutions including the different types of lattice bracings. Other famous technique is double-top where Nomex is sandwiched between two boards of cedar or spruce.
In my opinion it is better not to say that one bracing is better than another, or the bracing made by X.Y. is the best or worst in the world, this would simply make no sense. There are so many good ways to reinforce a guitar's soundboard and to improve its sound, no matter how we name them.
We still experience - especially in Europe - that many classical guitarists have a negative prejudice against lattice braced classical guitars. Now this is an important thing to make clear that lattice bracing today doesn't mean anymore that it is made strictly from carbon fibre, balsa wood and epoxy glue. Also, today lattice guitar bodies are not all constructed in the same way.
For most of the guitarists still the beauty of the original Spanish/Classical guitar sound is the most important thing. For some reasons, I personally decided not to use carbon fibre, balsa wood, epoxy glue and similar materials in my bracings. Although there are really great guitars made with these materials, many guitarists still expect something different from a classical guitar's sound. With this attitude of trying to keep the beauty of the so called traditional sound, it's a great challenge to increase volume at the same time.
Originally, the standard wood for best soundboards for centuries was European spruce. But around the mid' 20th century Western red cedar form North America started to get more and more popular. Today, most guitarists and luthiers agree that a guitar with spruce top needs much more time to reach its maximum sound quality than a guitar with red cedar top. Our experience is that while red cedar blows its best sound into your ears almost immediately, spruce changes and improves its volume and tone from month-to-month, and usually needs at least 2-3 years to play in.
Still, for a number of guitarists the "spruce sound" feels more complex. For them it is worth to wait and play their spruce guitar patiently, particularly because a good spruce top guitar also sounds very nice and loud in the beginning. I think this question always remains a matter of subjective preference, but it is a fact that today in most countries red cedar guitars are more popular and easier to sell than spruce.
It is a trend today to build heavy concert classical guitars with double sides, thick backs and stiff necks. Some makers also stiffen the upper region of the soundboard, trying to keep the energy of the strings just around the bridge area. These can be great guitars with many advantages, but for me the opposite way works. I try to exploit the whole surface of the soundboard instead. To go further, I don't believe that only soundboard matters. The idea of focusing on the soundboard belly and trying to prevent other parts of the guitar to waste the energy of the resonating strings always reminds me of high-end loudspeaker construction. But don't forget that strings are not CD players already containing the true recorded sound of a good classical guitar. The final guitar sound will be produced by the guitar body itself (the resonating box and everything else that is connected with it). In my opinion, a relatively small and thin piece of spruce or cedar board hardly can contain all the frequencies and overtones needed for a really musical rich guitar sound.
So I take a lot of time and care to choose and prepare each part of the instrument from head to bottom and from back bars to linings as an important participant in the final sound texture. (Just like ingredients in a romantic Mediterranean dinner...) Many times when I had repaired or restored other guitars and made some work on the guitar body (like sanding, polishing, fretting, tapping, knocking, etc.) I listened to their sound (without strings of course) and most of the time I heard nothing interesting. But when I make similar "things" with my new lightly built harmonic lattice bracing guitars usually the guitar almost starts to sing. I seriously hear a beautiful chorus of harmonics.
Following the traditional Spanish construction method for all of my classical and flamenco guitars I use the tools and techniques of the old Spanish and European masters and build the guitar on a guitar building board called solera, until the back is glued in place. I bend the sides by hand, without machines. (I bend them dry, using no water...) I apply the Spanish neck joint technique and a double laminated head which both help to get maximum sustain and stability. Beside Antonio de Torres and his followers my work is also influenced by the art and instrument making craftsmanship of the Italian baroque era.
For concert guitar soundboards I prefer western red cedar, but for request I also use European spruce with similar results. For braces and transverse bars I keep old European spruce resting in my workshop for many years. The braces are not cut simply with a saw but split and planed by hand to get perfect wood grain direction and the best acoustic properties.
For classical guitar finish I use traditional French polish made from self blended shellac. This adds a beautiful aged look with an extremely friendly and intimate feel, and, most important, this thin natural finish lets the guitar resonate in the widest range of frequencies and overtones.
Guitarists often say that my concert guitars are very responsive for right hand position and they can get many different tones and moods out of the same instrument. I believe that this effect is due to the passionate and creative planning, the light construction and my careful selection of materials both inside and outside.
When it comes to small details and decorations I do not create strictly the same every time. Minor changes in inlays, rosettes, shapes and colours make all of my guitars individual.
It took me several years to collect and put together all the information and impression on this subject. I didn't want to simply copy a bracing of another maker, I had to do my own solution. Finally, in 2014, I felt the right inspiration and during weeks and months of research and planning I found my way to design a new lattice bracing guitar, which has, I believe, some new features not found in other guitars.
I call it "harmonic lattice bracing". This type of lattice bracing should not be confused with the famous Smallman bracing made from carbon fibre and balsa wood. They are really great guitars with revolutionary construction and sound, but that's another type of instrument for other purposes.
My harmonic lattice bracing is entirely made from old European spruce, split and planed by hand, same as used in fan strutting models. The structure lacks scientific and geometrical principles and is inspired by the wild and rocky coasts of the Mediterranean Sea and by the music itself. This impression resulted in a completely asymmetrical layout. The braces are not sawed 90 degree cross grain anywhere to pass over the other braces because they are joined in a new creative way. Different parts of the bracing (and of the whole soundboard) react for different frequency ranges, yet the whole soundboard belly starts to resonate immediately by the smallest touch of the fingers. With open-bottom transverse bars and a light transverse brace under the fretboard region, a circulation of resonances around the soundhole is likely to occur. So can I exploit better the upper region of the soundboard. This system is completed with a lightly built body and Spanish neck joint. The wood species and measurements for each part of the instrument are chosen to add the important "spices" to sound.
My lattice bracing guitars are very quick and responsive, and instead of a neutral, "boring-after-a-while" sound, new depths of different heart touching tones and colours can be awakened, with many harmonics and overtones, and a wide high-end range of frequencies. The traditional Spanish brilliance is also present if you play it that way. Changing the right hand position makes the same effective change in tone as on my fan strutting guitars.
The volume of the guitar is great, clearly louder than its fan strutting relatives. Probably not as loud as the best double-tops, but completed with the sound and versatility described above. It's interesting that the instrument reaches its maximum volume at medium plucking. So it is not necessary to "tear down" the strings to feel loud during performance and virtuoso playing becomes easier. For lyric pieces it can be played gently with a low voice, too.
I experience a fascinating effect in sustain with this type of guitar. The resonating soundboard can put energy back into the strings, and if you want to control so, the volume of a long note won't immediately fall from the moment of plucking, but can keep a longer sustain or increase even louder with a proper left hand vibrato. Trebles are also singing with excellent sustain.
On my modern classical guitars like modelo Formentor you will find the following elements: wooden lattice bracing, double sound portal, lightly radiused fingerboard, additional 20th fret, stainless steel frets, 12 hole bridge, compensated nut and saddle. I'm also working on the prototype of my elevated neck/fingerboard model. Beside the standard 650 mm scale length I offer a 635 mm short scale, too.
Sound portals, or simply soundports are holes on the sides of the guitar. They are useful on all types classical guitars. This solution is quite new and rare, and seems strange to many guitarists. Usually there is only one hole on the side of the player, but recently some makers started to build guitars with two holes on both sides of the guitar. The dimension and position of the holes are tried to be calculated so that they help best the central soundhole to transmit the resonance of the air from the inside of the guitar body to the outside.
The sound opens up even more and feels a bit wider and deeper in a room or in a hall. Soundports accompanied with lattice bracing are the most effective. The voice of the instrument reaches the audience from more directions, resulting in an exciting spacious feel. On the other hand, some guitarists can hear their playing better through the soundport.
Based on all the information I have about today's guitarmaking I can say that I am among the very first classical guitar makers building concert and flamenco guitars with an ergonomic radiused fingerboard. The main advantage of the fine curve across the guitar fretboard is that it accommodates much better to the natural shape of the fingers than a simple flat surface. The frets, together with the strings, nut and saddle follow the gentle curve of the ebony board accurately. Thus barre chords and complex harmonics are much easier to fret and hold, without struggle and buzz. The radius I apply is not as strong as for example on electric guitars and so it does not feel strange or uncomfortable for guitarists who have got used to play only on traditional classical guitars before.
Examining the guitars and lutes of the renaissance and baroque era we find that most of them were made with a simple flat fingerboard. The curved fingerboard remained a privilege of the bowed instruments like the gamba and violin families. On the 19th century romantic guitars the flat fingerboard was still common.
It happened first probably in the late 19th century USA that guitarmakers started to make radiused fretboards. This innovation became standard in the USA for steel string acoustic and jazz guitars as well as electric guitars in the 20th century.
When Antonio de Torres in Spain designed his revolutionary instrument which became later the standard for classical guitars, he still continued making flat fingerboards. It seems that it simply did not fell into anyone's mind among the followers of Torres and Ramirez to make and try out a radiused fingerboard. There are probably more reasons for this. Making a flat fingerboard was much easier than a radiused one, and perhaps in those terrible decades of civil and world wars Spanish and other European makers lacked many tools and information to design and make an accurate radiused fingerboard from these hard woods like ebony and rosewood. Besides, among European guitarmakers there was a stronger traditionalist attitude than among Americans. So European classical guitar making remained almost frozen in time until the end of the 20th century, just like the violin.
It might sound strange from a classical guitar maker but I have much experience in electric guitar making and have fretted or refretted more than 50 steel string acoustic, electric and jazz guitars altogether. So it was just a routine to me to transplant this technique to classical guitars. I made the first classical guitar equipped with a radiused fingerboard around 2012. I showed that guitar to some true classical guitarists, and they wondered how comfortable and ergonomic it was. Since then I have seen more times that guitarists didn't even know that the fretboard of my guitar was curved, just said that playing on my guitar was much more comfortable than on others they played before. In these situations I had to show them after trying out the guitar that it has a radiused fingerboard.
So at least here in Budapest there is an increasing number of traditional classical guitarists who would like to buy a classical guitar with radiused fingerboard or letting to modify their guitars with a refretting.
The standard for classical concert and flamenco guitars is a 19-fret fingerboard. For flamenco and most classical music it is enough, but there are a few classical guitar pieces that contain the note playable only on an additional 20th fret.
On the other hand, some contemporary guitar makers together with me are willing to give the opportunity for creative guitarists to compose new complex musical pieces using this extra note, too.
The extension of the fretboard above the soundhole is not large and does not really affect the sound of the guitar, especially with one or two soundports on the sides.
The standard fret material for all types of guitars around the world is an alloy made from brass, zinc and 12 or 18% nickel. This is often called nickel-silver fret. I don't know statistics but as I know at least 99% of the world's guitars are fretted with this standard nickel-silver material. Its advantage is that it is quite easy to work with and the fretting tools last quite long. But when an artist guitarist practices many hours a day and plays a lot in concerts, the frets wear in some years even under nylon and carbon string sets. When this occurs, the guitar can be refretted of course by a reliable luthier, but for a highly valuable and sensitive master guitar, especially with French polish and thin soundboard it is not really good to make refrets in each 4-5 years.
I was asked first by electric guitarists to look after if a harder fret material was available. Finally I found highest quality stainless steel fret material which is rare and used by only a few luthiers worldwide. I developed my technique with it for electric and steel string acoustic guitars first, and after getting a routine I started to use it on my self made classical guitars as well.
Stainless steel frets' disadvantage is that they are so extremely hard that the edges of my tools go out fast and sometimes even break. Not to mention my hands numbing and aching during fretwork. It takes a huge amount of time to carefully shape and polish all the frets and fret edges to a high shine. But once a stainless steel fretting job is finished, it is the perfect solution for a professional's expensive master guitar. The frets are so strongly inserted into the ebony fretboard that they cannot move at all and the strings leave no mark on the frets even after many years of playing. So it seems that this new solution will last for a lifetime.
My other idea on fretting was to use higher frets than standard on classical guitars. This allows players to hold the notes more easily, and so a lighter and faster left hand playing technique can be achieved, still without sharp notes.
12 hole bridges started to appear among master guitar makers all around the world in recent years. It is designed to increase string angle at the point where strings reach the saddle. In case of traditional 6 hole tie-blocks the strings are looped around and pulled up by themselves where they leave the holes of the tie-block toward the saddle. With 12 hole design this pull-up effect is removed and the pressure of the strings on the saddle is increased. This results more presence, more sustain, more clearance and a more even balance between strings.
It's also a great advantage that the D string with the thinnest and most fragile core is not pulled and cut by itself and the typical D string breakage is less likely to occur.
(But if you prefer to keep the traditional Spanish design with a 6 hole bridge, the Hannabach Durable D is a good solution.)
The standard scale length for my guitars is 635 mm, which is a shorter scale, but it is much comfortable for most guitarists and it does not affect string tension negatively at all. Of course you can order a guitar with the traditional 650 mm, too. I don't make 660 mm guitars.
Sometimes we can hear that intonation on classical guitars is not on the top, even in concerts and on some studio recordings. For me it is strange that in the world of electric guitars and steel string acoustics intonation problems are solved for at least 60 years. However a proper intonation research and an international solution bypassed classical guitars through about 140 years.
Today the method for setting the intonation for classical strings at both nut and saddle is linked with the name of world famous luthier Gregory Byers (byersguitars.com). He was kind to share his research and measurements on the pages of American Lutherie in 1996 and gave a good base for other luthiers to understand and solve this problem on their instruments.
It is important to decide which type of strings will be used on a classical guitar. The two main types are nylon and carbon. Today there are some highly advanced carbon string sets like Savarez Alliance Cantiga which need much less compensation than standard nylon strings and you can use them even without compensation for good results as well.
But in case of more traditional nylon strings like for example Augustine or the unique gut-like Aquila a quite demanding compensation of nut and saddle might be needed to play in tune. In fact, I experienced that for nylon Hannabachs and some other brands again a slightly different amount of modification is needed, and so on.
For my classical models I make two saddles with different string heights, a standard high saddle and a lower one. Both are included with the guitar for my customers.
A really well made classical master guitar has the highest quality of sound and superb playability. These features are essential for playing the guitar at a high artistic level, performing classical music or similar to hold the audience during a concert or guitar competition as well as in the studio.
These artistic abilities of a master guitar simply cannot be reached in mass production, in factories or manufactures. The heart touching sound can only be made by an artisan classical guitar maker, who has the gift and senses to shape the guitar by his hands in a way that will make the guitar itself a piece of art, and, at the same time, a tool for awakening another piece of art, a piece of music.
In addition, I think that handmade guitars made by luthiers are not only for professionals. A young talented guitarist can improve his or her playing much faster on a high quality instrument.