Talking Guitar: Ervin Somogyi - Part One: Hello From Ervin
A CORDIAL HELLO FROM ERVIN SOMOGYI:
I’ve recently sent two guitars that I’ve made to The North American Guitar Company (that I call The NAG; sorry about the awkwardness of that, but it just seems like such a convenient shorthand). We’ve recently agreed that The NAG will carry my work.
I’d like to introduce myself to The NAG’s subscribers by way of saying a few things about these first two guitars and about myself, and about my work in general. I’m pleased to be here, and to “meet” you in at least this way.
First, a bit about me. I’m an American guitar maker. I started out as a young, enthusiastic and very innocent luthier when I made my first guitar in 1970. I remember the happy shock of selling it for $200, which was quite a lot of money then; I was young, single, thin, had no responsibilities to speak of, and could survive on $175 a month.
Over the years I seem to have morphed into an authority, pioneer, and “grand old man” figure in world lutherie . . . and have simultaneously lost the ability to survive on $175 a month. Who knew this could happen? But in the intervening years, I’ve made a few hundred guitars and learned from many mistakes and dead ends. By now I’ve shown my work at many exhibitions and shows, taught and lectured extensively, and trained a cadre of talented apprentices (not a few of whose work is represented by The NAG).
I think that part of my success as a luthier has come from the fact that was an English major in college. The principal skill that such a curriculum develops is one of analysis. For example: what is this piece of writing about? What’s really important in it, and what isn’t? What elements work in it to support the theme? Which elements don’t add anything? Does the author achieve what he intended to? What is lacking? And how and why? Etc. etc. etc. Accordingly, I’ve paid attention to the various parts and functions of the guitar, and tried to understand the functions and uses of its various parts -- including their design, history, aesthetics, and tone -- as best I could.
While it is a truism that if you talk with five guitar makers you’ll get eight opinions, I feel that I at least am consistent in my thinking and that it is based in direct observation and experience over many years. If someone asks me something I’ll give them a damn good answer . . . and usually a longer and more comprehensive one than they expected to get . . . or are used to getting.
I also like to write. Over the years I’ve written more than a hundred and fifty articles about various aspects and functions of the guitar. And, most importantly, I’ve written a two-volume work that is considered the leading textbook now available about the construction, history, dynamics, design, and assorted nuts and bolts of the contemporary guitar. I was in a conversation with a client from Asia a while back and was trying to explain these things to him, using this same language; he said that he wasn’t sure about the nuts and bolts but if I thought they’d help he was o.k. with them. As I said, who knew??? I really have to be careful of how I phrase things.
The guitar in its full resplendence contains art, science, engineering, acoustics, physics, metallurgy, wood science, music, design, craft, history, architecture, brain-work, and even business and commerce. Besides trying to understand this wonderful instrument I like to teach people about it, and about its functions, and its woods.
I sometimes feel I know these better than I know a lot of people; but then again I've spent more of my life with woods than I have with people. Lutherie -- at least as I’ve practiced it -- it is essentially solitary work. And I've been at it for fifty years now. And I might throw in that I also have a dry-ish sense of humor.
However, besides introducing myself to you -- albeit briefly -- this is to tell you something about the two guitars I mentioned above.
ABOUT THESE FIRST SOMOGYI GUITARS:
These guitars are examples of my “studio” model; they are made of wenge, instead of rosewood. I’ll talk about the Studio model as a specific guitar size and shape later on. But I’ve offered these specific woods to Ben M. & Co. (and you, as TheNAG’s potential friends and buyers) because of the by-now-well-known difficulties in shipping rosewood products across national borders. Alternative and sustainable-growth woods seem to very much be the future of international lutherie.
For those of you who don’t know about CITES, please go to Wikipedia and read up on it.
Wenge (pronounced wen-gay) is an African hardwood that is one of the five most live woods that I know of; the others are of course rosewood (of course Brazilian rosewood, but also its brother East Indian rosewood) -- and also padauk, cocobolo, and osage orange. Woodworkers and bowl turners have long since discovered wenge as a good material to work with, but luthiers do not seem to yet have done so.
I’m inclined to believe that this is for three reasons. First, it looks rather plain and nondescript from a distance. It lacks visual oomph. However, from up close the grain pattern is visible and lovely. Second, wenge is relatively cheap, which I think disinclines people to try to work with it. All that this means is that it’s not yet been “discovered” sufficiently to have the price rise. Third, it has lacked a pioneer to champion it, if I can put it like that.
“LIVENESS” IN WOODS:
I mentioned “live” woods. What that means is that when tapped, these woods give off a sound like that of a bell or a gong -- the specific frequency of that sound being a function of the size, length, thickness, etc. of that piece of wood as well as the energy with which it is tapped. Many woods don’t do this very well at all; some do. This has to do with what the scientists call the “Q” of a material -- which mysterious letter merely stands for the word “quality” and is thus, sadly, not of much use in furthering one’s understanding of what the heck is going on. But “Q” stands for an internal structure that is vitreous (glass-like) and that does not absorb or damp incoming energies. Instead, when driven by an energetic impulse such as a tap, the wood vibrates and keeps on vibrating; and as it does so it excites air and we hear that as sound. At certain vibrational modes, a wood can produce a sub-bass – a sound below the hearing threshold of the ear (which is at about 50 cycles) but that one can actually feel as low-frequency physical vibrations against the skin! Substances like cardboard, Styrofoam, lead, and certain woods have no “Q” whatsoever. Glass and bronze and certain woods do. Ask someone at TheNAG to show you any samples of “live” woods that they might have lying around. For those who have never heard a simple piece of wood make a sound when tapped, the experience is amazing.
In any event, from an acoustico-dynamic point of view, wenge is one of the most live woods I’ve ever run across; and from that perspective my guitars No. 410 and 421 are in no way inferior to anything I’ve ever made out of any of the traditional Rosewoods.
Guitar No. 410 is a cutaway model. Guitar No. 421 is a non-cutaway. Incidentally, I call No. 421 “The Rapunzel” -- like the princess in the fairy tale who was imprisoned in a tower, but who let her hair grow very long and braided it so that she could lower it to the ground from her window . . . in order for her price to climb up this “rope” and rescue her.
I never quite understood the logic of allowing the prince to climb up the princess’ hair . . . I mean, even without worrying about the weight of the prince tearing her hair out by the roots. Now, climbing up the tower would get the prince into the same room that she couldn’t get out of; but he’d be equally trapped because the door was bolted from the other side. And how could they both get down? For one thing, I guess the princess couldn’t very easily climb down her own hair. Or one might think that, once up in the princess’ room, the prince could have lowered her to the ground by her own hair . . . but that would mean that he’d stay in the room and be trapped up there without having any way of getting out short of jumping out the window. Worse yet, once on the ground (that is, once the prince let her down and let go of her hair) the princess couldn’t climb back up to at least keep the prince warm in the night as they tried to figure out some other plan of escape. Who thought this stuff up, anyway?
But never mind all that; I’ll just tell you more about this guitar later on.
And, for the time being, I think this is enough for a first narrative.