Luthier Focus: Michael Spalt
In this Luthier Focus, we take a greater look at Michael Spalt of Spalt instruments. Spalt Instruments encapsulate gorgeous tonewoods, unique artwork, exceptional playability and excellent build quality.
“To me the shape of a guitar body is archetypical, a dynamic canvas with erotic overtones. The influences manifested in the Totem guitar line, to date close to 400 instruments, go back to Dada, Surrealism, collage and assemblage art, Pop art and sometimes a more conceptual approach, along with the occasional dose of pure kitsch. The hybrid line, in turn, celebrates the organic shapes and textures of the wood, the fluid reflections on the polished aluminium surfaces, the interplay between hard and soft, warm and cold..." Michael Spalt.
Michael Spalt started working on guitars as a teenager, playing in bands, customising and modifying. A few early 70's SG's, Strats and Les Pauls received added pickups, stereo wiring, new finishes, and similar treatments. But he relished in the individuality of his guitars and obsessed about improving them and obtaining optimum playability. From this, he developed a basic understanding of guitar craft and a view towards designing guitars that don't necessarily follow the conventional mould.
After studying film, photography, and painting in San Francisco, Michael graduated from SFAI in 1981. He then went on to study painting at the Academy of Applied Arts in Vienna, Austria, while working as a photographer, shooting record covers, magazine stories, fashion, etc. However, Michael's main interest was film. This eventually led to a move to Los Angeles in 1986. He went to work in the film business. Work in special effects and set construction provided exposure to techniques and materials which would later be applicable in his work as a guitar maker.
Rebuilding and restoring guitars kickstarted Michaels lutherie career, as over the next few years he dabbled in making bodies, assembling parts, and restoring broken or modified instruments. Most of Michaels earliest work followed a fairly conventional path. He began by making guitars which he had always wanted as a teenager, adapting and improving designs where he felt the originals were lacking, this was a practical way to learn to make guitars, along with doing a lot of repairs. This meant learning first hand from lots of vintage and classical guitars in L.A. which passed through his workshop, as well as learning from lutherie books.
Eventually, Michael began to develop his own concepts. His background in the arts led to developments in the ‘resin top’ line of guitars: Totemguitars.
A more sculptural and materials-oriented approach resulted in the development of the hybrid line, combining metalwork and woodwork. Exploring new venues and concepts while striking a balance between functionality and aesthetics proved to be a fertile field for Michael.
"The aesthetic process has its own rules and necessities, but as I work on an instrument, I do keep in mind certain parameters, which will allow me to eventually turn it into an instrument. In regards to their quality as musical instruments, I try to follow a three-legged approach: reliability, playability, and tone."
As far as luthiers go, Michael is easily one of the most free flowing with his artistry. Each guitar has a different concept and is not tied down to specific labels or specifications. This structure reflects his incredibly talented and creative nature and is exhibited through his guitars.
Totem Series & Resin Tops
These guitars use a unique process of marrying a tonewood back with a clear resin coating on the top, into which decorations and inclusions can be applied. After experimenting with various types of resin Michael developed this process, allowing himself to assemble objects and assorted bric-a-brac into a homogenous guitar body. The resin is formulated to accomodate the thermal expansion and contraction of the wood and it is sonically transparent.
The wood used for the back supplies the basic tonal characteristics and structural stability, while the wood choices for the neck dial in the coloration of the sound. The resin adds sustain and its tonal effect is similar to a "maple cap over mahogany body" effect - sparkle and transparency in the upper frequency ranges. As with a conventional guitar the choice of hardware and pickups also plays a large role in determining the sound of the instrument.
The first Totem guitar dates to 1997: " G 9701 - California Special". Over the years it has acquired a slight amber cast, comparable to the ageing of nitrocellulose lacquer. Since then Michael has built over 300 resin tops.
The Gate Series
The gate to our Michael’s new home in Vienna needed replacing. The nice weathered, resonant, textured and light Pine boards seemed to be the perfect guitar material. This series is limited to 50 guitars, with the only similarity being the use of this gate material. The scale lengths, body shapes, back material all change dependant on the custom model which Michael makes.
Hybrids employ an aluminium skeletal structure with wooden wings and necks. These instruments embody Michaels sculptural approach to guitar/bass building - they are stripped-down to the ergonomic essentials. The wood neck dials in the tonal colour and is comfortable to play. The aluminium imparts a warm tone and clarity to the sound. All metal and wood work is done by hand.
The S&S series dates back to one of Michael Spalt’s earliest designs. It consists of a hollow back carved from a solid billet of wood, covered with a beautiful top. It combines light weight and an open sound with a dynamic response. The 486 line represents a refinement of the original concept.
S&S FLAME WALNUT
As much as I enjoy making a "traditional" instrument out of the finest "tonewoods", I also love making instruments which push the boundaries and open new possibilities to musicians willing to explore and expand the scope of their music. To me the prime quality of "tone" is not its more or less successful replication of some previous tonal fingerprint. It is the richness, definition, liveliness, transparency and balance present in the sound of the instrument. And even though each of my instruments has its own tonal identity, they all share these qualities and will offer them to the musician willing to listen.”
“Babe’s Fun House” is part of the Michael Spalt Art Series - exclusive top of the line guitars that are part of a larger storyline. In this case, I took inspiration from little bisque dolls I found at local flea markets and thrift shops. They were common toys in the 18th and 19th century, with little dresses and some with little wigs. Now you find them mostly naked and bald, beautiful little disturbing figures. One series of these dolls became “Babe”, a character going through various adventures and situations. It started out with the “Babe in the Woods” guitar, where, on her way through the forest, Babe was threatened by monsters lurking in the foliage. This one has a small vintage toy carousel operated by Babe, stuck in the machinery below. The guitar is a semi-hollow construction with a longer scale, 27”. I like that scale as it gives a rich, deep tone, and strung with 11’s the string tension is very comfortable while taking advantage of the additional volume thicker strings provide. It’s got a double coil in the neck which can be mixed with the piezo in the bridge - a monster of tonal possibilities! It does take a while to explore all the things you can do with this guitar, but the reward is a whole new repertoire of sounds!
We currently have a large selection of new and pre-owned Spalt Instruments in stock:
For more information on Michael Spalt and Spalt Instruments, please don't hesitate to email us here or call us on +44 (0) 207 835 5597.
Have a great week....play lots of guitar!