Talking Guitar: Ervin Somogyi - Part Five: Wenge and The Sound of 410 & 421
Talking Guitar: Ervin Somogyi - Part Five: Wengé and The Sound of 410 & 421
Unsurprisingly, because of the altered design of the main vibrating diaphragm (the "tick bracing" as opposed to an “X” braced arrangement), the sound of guitar No. 421 is different than that of others. It certainly sounds different, to my ears, from the sound of the average Somogyi guitar.
I’ve had a number of people come by my shop and try these guitars out (they were, after all, what I had on hand to show to visitors). And I was, of course, curious as to their reactions to these instruments that looked the same but were not constructed in the same way.
Interestingly, some players have favored the sound of No. 421 and some have favored the sound of No. 410. And some of these preferences have been quite strong. What is that saying: sauce for Harry is sauce for Tom? Or something like that? Well, clearly, sauce for Harry is not sauce for Tom. If it were true, Harry and Tom would always be competing for the same woman. In fact, everybody would desire the same woman.
One can hear individual tonal differences between these guitars, of course . . . but the real test is whether they are played in a room vs. the outdoors (or a large room). In outdoor tests an interesting primary difference in sound could be discerned. Guitar No. 410 (with “X” bracing) has more of the nuanced and responsive range of what one might consider the sound of the typical Somogyi guitar to have. Part of the reason for this is that I’m experienced with “X” brace design and its possibilities. I’ve played with “X” bracing in lots of ways over the years; changing the spread and angle(s) of this or that, changing the tapering and profiling of the braces, sanding and thinning the face differentially, and altering/refining the overall design in many ways.
The technical explanation for the differences in tonal response is that, by virtue of differences in the mechanical structure, the sound boxes are allowed to discharge their string energies in different ways. If a soundbox discharges its energies in such a way that they are distributed among a greater number of partials, the guitar acts as a Diffuser. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but it’s not inaccurate. In this kind of guitar, the sound does not travel very far from the soundbox. It’s not exactly a concert instrument but it has a beautiful sound, and it is well suited to being played for few listeners in average sized rooms. It’s an absolutely unbeatable sound as far as sheer warmth and beauty are concerned. And when recorded, if the microphone is of good quality, it will capture an amazingly even spectrum of sound without equalization or boosting required. (NOTE: you may have to read my books to better understand my terminology.) My “X” braced guitars function in this way.
Guitar No. 421, the one with the “tick bracing”, has a somewhat different response dynamic. Its sound can be heard much more clearly over distance. As I indicated, I’ve played and listened to both of these guitars in-doors and also out-of-doors. The sound energies of No. 421 are discharged in such a way that they are not so much allocated to, or spread among, a broad spectrum of partials, as they are allocated to and more taken up by the frequencies of fundamental notes. Therefore, while its close-up sound is not so exquisite, refined, warm, smoky, etc. it is a guitar that projects farther. The sound is in fact more solid, present, and in-your-face. Or, rather, in-your-ear. But, as I said, with less shading, depth, nuance, and subtlety.
Put in other words guitar No. 410 is a more of a Diffuser and guitar No. 421, the “Rapunzel” guitar, is more of a Projector. Neither is “better” or “worse”, any more than a hammer is better or worse than a saw is. Both types of guitars have their functions and uses.
But none of that is here nor there, really; I’m just giving you information about what these guitars are and what they represent. The REAL proof in the pudding is whether, and how much, someone you will like the sound and playability of either one, or both.
The playability of both instruments is identical. Both guitars are the same size, shape, and depth. The necks are of equal length, width, and cross-sectional contour. The strings are the same. I prefer light-gauge John Pearse brand phosphor bronze strings, with a .013” instead of a .012” for the high ‘e’ string.
[TECHNICAL DETOUR: The reason for that is that string gauges are nominal. That is, they’re called this or that without actually being this or that. If you take a micrometer to guitar strings, you’ll find that .012” labeled strings are really .011”; .013” labeled strings are actually .012”; .016” labeled strings are really .015”; and so on. Losing a thousandth of an inch of diameter won’t make much difference to most strings, but a thousandth of an inch is an appreciable fraction of the diameter of a thin one. So if I want to put an honest .012” in place, then I will want to use a .013”.]
Finally, the action on both guitars is the same. And one guitar weighs an ounce or two more than the other one does. But that’s about it. Their playability ought to be the same.
About my finishes: all my guitars are French polished unless my client wants something different. It's the thinnest finish I know of outside of an oil finish, and the French polish loads the face only minimally. Lacquer, the polyurethanes, etc. all damp the top, and therefore the guitars' sound.
People may point out that French polishes are the most fragile and easy to scratch of the finishes, and I wouldn't argue with that. However, my forte is guitars with good response. As such, my attitude is that the job of the finish is to protect the wood from fluctuations in the weather and humidity. Its job is not to protect the guitar from the player.
I expect people to treat my guitars with reasonable care. In the shop, I ask players to place a chamois cloth on their laps expressly to protect the guitar from belt buckles, buttons, zippers, etc. I've not yet devised a way of protecting a guitar from the players' fingernails except to use clear plastic pickguards.
French polish is relatively easy for anyone skilled in using it to touch up. Lacquers can be touched up but it’s hard to make the repair truly invisible. The polyurethanes are easy to apply and are quite hard, but it’s impossible to touch up such a finish that’s gotten some damage. One has to strip the entire instrument and start from scratch.
O.K., let’s take another break.
More later. Ervin.