If you’re looking for a true show piece, you can get your own slice of Somogyi history from The North American Guitar. This 1978 Somogyi DC#1 is effectively a brand new guitar having gone through a complete restoration with the master himself. Here Ervin talks us through this incredible piece...
Ervin Somogyi DC#1
This guitar, D.C. #1, was made in 1978. It is one of the very first steel string guitars I ever made. This was before I’d designed any guitar models of my own, and it is a replica of the canonical steel string guitar of its day: the Martin Dreadnought. This is, in fact, the first Dreadnought Cutaway guitar that I ever made and it was made at a time when I’d not yet begun to assign numbers to my instruments. It’s undoubtedly one of the first ten or twelve instruments I ever made, and most of the others would have been nylon string guitars (see note #1, further below).
This guitar’s topwood is Sitka spruce. The back and sides and bridge are Brazilian rosewood. The neck and head are Honduran mahogany. The fretboard is ebony with maple binding. The guitar’s bindings are rosewood. Other than a clear pickguard there is no plastic in or on this guitar at all.
D.C. #1 was bought by a man who was a musician and who used it for many years. He had stopped playing it quite some time ago and had put it in storage; there, it had warped because of dampness combined with the tension of strings that had not been slackened. He offered the instrument back to me in somewhat poor overall condition. Actually, it was in really poor overall condition. At least one other store had not even been willing to make him any offer at all on it; the instrument looked unsellable. But I bought it back from him.
And over the next months I completely reworked, remodeled, and renovated it. As you’ll see from the list below, the only completely original part left is the label.
- The original finish was lacquer. It was worn. I stripped it off the guitar and sanded out wear marks and scratches in the wood that had were there from years of use.
- The instrument came with some physical damage (cracks) and loose braces; these were all corrected. That repair work is invisible.
- The guitar had had holes drilled into it to install an endpin jack and side volume control knobs. These holes were filled, fixed, and eliminated.
- The neck was originally on the large and clunky side. I re-shaped and re-profiled it so as to make it more comfortable to play for today’s guitarists. This work also included re-shaping the heel, which had also been somewhat large and clunky, and streamlining the neck at both ends so that its contours flowed more seamlessly into the heel and peghead.
- I made and installed a new heelcap. The old one was a bit clunky and misaligned.
- The peghead had originally been somewhat amateurishly shaped. It had also, over time, been dinged and damaged. I reconstructed the peghead and installed a new peghead veneer with an inlaid ebony cap piece.
- I cleaned up the frets and fretwork.
- I made a new saddle, and a laminated nut with even string spacings (the former were not 100% evenly spaced). Both nut and saddle are made of bone.
- I re-shaped the bridge. My aesthetic has improved over time and the original bridge didn’t look like a high-class bridge. I also did a proper intonation compensation on the new saddle, so that the guitar plays more in tune than it did before
- I completely re-voiced this guitar, inside and out (see note #2 below).
- I installed a completely new rosette (see note #3, below).
- I’d mentioned that this guitar had also been left in storage in a damp environment for a long time. Therefore, in addition to the guitar’s various other problems, and because some of the braces had come loose, the face had developed a serious warp. I addressed that through the larger opening created by the rosette-ectomy just mentioned, and that allowed me sufficient manoeuvring room . . . and also allowed me to do more comprehensive internal voicing work.
- I re-set the action so as to make the guitar easier to play.
- I refinished the entire instrument, in French polish; the original finish was lacquer and I stripped and sanded it off entirely (see note #4 below).
- The tuners are new gold Schallers with ebony buttons.
- I put on a new clear pickguard, and made a wooden truss rod cover cap.
- This guitar is new, despite the date on its label. It looks new and sounds like my new guitars. I had been both charmed and embarrassed by how amateurish my work was in those days. But, as I said, this instrument has been re-worked from the ground up and the only completely original part left, truthfully, is the label.
- Because of this history (including the history described in note #1 below, this instrument is, in addition to being a very good new guitar, a bona fide collector’s item.
Note #1: The Carmel Classic Guitar Festival of 1977
When I began making my first guitar in 1970 I was more or less a hippie—that is, a bearded (but clean-smelling) young man who was living outside of mainstream culture. I embarked on that first project casually; as far as I knew it was going to be a hobby-project to tide me over until I got “a real job”. I didn’t know any American guitar makers in those days; I had not even heard of anyone outside of Spain or Germany to be making guitars by hand. Still, I’d spend a summer in Spain and hung out around some of the guitar shops in Granada; and later, when I went to grad school in the late 60s, I met a man who had built a guitar with the help of Irving Sloane’s pioneering book Classic Guitar Making.
I was impressed; having been a student much more than anything else in my young life I’d not produced much of anything other than stuff written on paper: lecture notes, essays, reports, and test results—but this fellow had made a real object! A real guitar made an impression, in spite of the fact that doing this kind of woodworking was an odd way indeed to spend one’s time in those days; no one in my family had ever puttered with hobbies, done woodwork in the basement, welded, built models from kits, made furniture, or anything like that. Eventually, I built my first guitar—a classic guitar—using Sloane’s seminal book. I think all of us young American guitar makers used that book to get off the ground. And speaking of American guitar makers, I might mention the curious historical fact that of the handful of guitar makers who were working in California in the early 1970s, half were from some other country. American lutherie culture was in its very early stages.
I opened up a small guitar repair shop in 1971. One year later I took over retiring guitar maker Denis Grace’s larger shop, and for a long time made my living principally by doing all kinds of guitar repairs. It’s amazing that I survived, because I had no training, no experience, no knowledge, few tools, no teachers, no work discipline, no professional standards, and marginal skills. Still, I survived, and made a few guitars each year. Because I played flamenco, I was making mostly Spanish (classic and flamenco) guitars, as well as a few lutes and dulcimers. I had made a few steel string instruments but, not knowing any better, I was merely making big Spanish guitars. I felt more or less pleased to think of myself as a luthier; I think the romance of it kept me going.
It most certainly wasn’t the income; I remember that I grossed $1,800 the first year and $2,500 the second (I had a part-time job teaching, on the side, to help me pay my bills). But I didn’t really face up to how inadequate and amateurish my work was until 1977.
In that year I was invited to display my guitars at The Carmel Classic Guitar Festival, as one of seven luthier exhibitors. I’d been building guitars for five or six years by then and felt happy to be invited to show my work. I can tell you that while my parents could not begin to fathom what I was doing making guitars when I could have had such a promising career doing something reasonable, my friends had been unfailingly supportive and encouraging to me in my guitar making efforts. I leave you to guess which set of people I put my faith in. In any event, I went to Carmel feeling a little cocky and smug, thinking to impress the people there just as I had wowed my friends.
Carmel is an upscale vacation community four hours’ drive from San Francisco. The guitar festival—the first one I’d ever gone to—was a prestigious event that drew important people from all over this country and even a few from overseas. It had been organized by a prominent local classical guitar teacher, to whom I remain indebted to this day. Among my fellow exhibitors were Jeffrey Elliott, Lester DeVoe, Randy Angella, and John Mello—all of whom went on to support themselves by making Spanish guitars.
The festival was a catastrophe for me. My work, in its full and splendidly careless amateurishness, was the worst of anyone’s there. Worse yet, this was revealed to everybody. The three-day long event was a disastrous, humiliating, very sobering, and public experience . . . and I came back from that event severely shaken and depressed. My friends had, in fact, been no help to me at all with their uncritical kindness: I hadn’t learned anything. I stared the fact that I had been more or less wasting my time living out a hippie fantasy in the face. It stared back at me.
Understandably, I experienced a crisis. It became clear to me that I had two choices: quit making guitars and do something else, or buckle down and do better work. This wasn’t just a cognitive, logical, and prefrontal-cortex experience, though; I really got it. It took me several weeks of re-evaluating to realize that I actually liked making guitars enough to stick with it, and that the path was open to me if I wanted to apply myself and do professional-level work.
That was my real starting point as a guitar maker. And it was within a year of that decision to do the best work I could, and not let things slide, that I started to really focus on making steel string guitars. The timing worked out: I was starting to meet serious steel string guitar players in that period—and my work improved, and has improved steadily, from the Carmel Classic Guitar Festival on. My life would have turned out quite differently without my disgraceful showing at that event. In fact, if I’d made a good showing there I would probably have continued to make classical guitars and my life would have gone off in a very different direction.
Note #2: The (re)voicing of this guitar went hand-in-hand with structural fixes and renovations.
Specifically, I re-calibrated the entire top by shaving and re-shaping the braces on the inside, and also by thinning the topwood in places where I judged it to need it. At first, this top was very solid and immovable; after the work was done it was much more yielding: I could push down on the bridge with my thumb and both feel and see the face sink down from that force. Ditto the back, which is the secondary vibrating diaphragm of the guitar; one can of course design the back to be solid and unmoveable, but my thinking is that the back wants to, and can, participate in the vibratory dance of the soundbox’s plates.
If the (re)voicing of this guitar went hand-in-hand with structural fixes, it is also true that voicing work is necessarily part of structural work. One of the most important adages in Spanish guitar making is to make the guitar so that it is “on the cusp of disaster”. That means that it is no stronger than it needs to be to hold together under string tension and the rigors of being played; and it is no weaker than that either, because to make it so will ensure eventual failure (breakage or collapse). One can understand that a soundbox that is built to that balance point will be able to vibrate and resonate as fully as possible . . . because it is not being held back by superfluous mass or stiffness. This guitar started out far from that balance point. It is now much, much nearer it.
In general, I find the voicing of a soundbox fascinating. There’s always something new to learn . . . depending on the size of guitar, the species of wood being worked, the specific bracing layout in question, the temperature and humidity in the room in which the work is being done, the qualities of tone that my customer/client has voiced a preference for, and even the size of the soundhole/soundport.
The pacing of voicing work is rather slow. I remove small amounts of wood from here and there, and listen to the change in tap tone that that removal produces. I use the sounds of various types of tap tones as an indicator of how track how close to ‘right’ the soundbox is at. This work takes me a full day, and often two days, to do properly. I not only listen to the progression of the guitar top’s tap tones, but I periodically press on the wood gently with my thumb; I can sense the top getting looser and more yielding as I remove wood. It’s a little bit like doing CPR, where the subject’s rib cage sinks in as one applies rhythmic pressure—except that in this case the pressure is not great. My guess is that if you try this with whatever guitar or guitars you now own the top(s) will not move easily under your hand’s push. That’s how other guitars are built.
I once showed one of my clients my procedure for voicing on the guitar I was making for him; he had been persistent in asking me to do this and I finally agreed—on the condition that he not photograph nor ever describe the procedures to anyone else. Afterwards, he said it was like watching his favorite color of paint dry. But from my point of view this is always a meditative process in which I ‘converse’ with the soundbox; and I cannot do this if I’m thinking of anything else. No one can; one has to be relaxed and focused on the task.
On the whole, I must be doing something right. My guitars do have the reputation of sounding good.
Note #3: Rosette-ectomy
In order to do a complete internal re-voicing such as I’ve been describing, I needed to enlarge the soundhole. And in order to do that, I performed a rosette-ectomy to remove the old rosette. I installed a completely new rosette into the face after the voicing work was completed. The guitar was improved by this procedure, as the original rosette was . . . well . . . the best that I could do in those days.
Note #4: French polish
A French polish is the hand-application of a shellac finish that is at the end rubbed out to a high gloss. It was the traditional and best finish for wood in the days before lacquers, urethanes, catalyzed and ultraviolet-cure finishes, etc., arrived on the scene.
When it comes to guitars, French polish has several advantages, and perhaps a few disadvantages. One great advantage is that it is very thin compared with any of the other finishes that are used these days; this allows the guitar’s main diaphragms (the top and the back) maximum freedom of vibratory movement; this results in a louder and more present sound.
It is a non-toxic finish, as its solvent is alcohol. One can dissolve the shellac flakes in either ethanol or methanol; the principal difference is that one can drink ethanol, but not methanol; the latter is poisonous. [Note: Methanol itself was created during Prohibition . . . that period of time in the 1920s when Americans decided that alcohol was a tool of the Devil and needed to be abolished. Accordingly, petrochemical impurities and additives were mixed in with ethanol so as to render it poisonous for humans to drink. As we all know, Prohibition eventually went away; methanol did not. The reason that we still have methanol is that the liquor industry doesn’t want its customers getting their booze from the local hardware store.]
The thickness of a properly applied French polish is anywhere between the thickness of a soap bubble (.001”) and the thickness of a sheet of typing paper (.004”). Lacquers are often on the order of .008” to .012” thick, and lacquer is a denser material than shellac is.
One can sometimes see cracks in the finishes of older lacquer-coated guitars. This is called ‘crazing’, and it happens because the lacquer is thick and hard enough to crack over time. French polish is not subject to crazing. The crazing is not a problem, really; the heaviness of the lacquer is, though—as far as guitar sound is concerned. Because of its relative heaviness, a lacquer finish will damp the sound of a guitar much more so than a French polish ever could.
One disadvantage of French polish is that, because it is so thin, it does not protect a guitar against scratches and wear as a lacquer finish does. A French polish finish is so thin that it offers minimal protection. However, the principal function of any finish—besides enhancing the woods that it covers—is to protect wood against changes in the weather. Wood is hygroscopic; that is, it swells and shrinks depending on how much moisture is in the air. That movement can promote cracking and checking in woods. Therefore, I tell my customers that the function of a French polish is to allow the instrument its full and present voice, and to protect its woods from the weather . . . but not the player. I expect people who own my guitars to take reasonably good care of them.
Nonetheless, in case of damage, French polish is easy to touch up by anyone who knows how to work with it. And speaking of knowing how to work with it, mastery of French polishing is a genuine skill; it takes less skill to apply lacquer onto a wooden surface with a spray gun. Along with that, the urethane, polyurethane, and ultraviolet-cure finishes are not easy to repair in case of damage. The entire finish has to be removed, and a new one reapplied.
There is one other thing: lacquers and the synthetics are high-gloss finishes. They are so brightly reflective . . . even ‘plasticky’ . . . that they typically get in the way of one’s appreciating the woods themselves; the reflectivity gets in the way. Take a look at your own lacquered guitar and you’ll see what I mean. A French polish is shiny but not so glossy that it gets in the way of appreciating the colors and visual depth of the woods; these look more beautiful, and have more depth, even indoors where there is artificial lighting.