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Talking Guitar: Ervin Somogyi - Part Three: No. 410 AND No. 421 STUDIO GUITARS


I’ve been writing about two guitars that I’ve recently shipped to TheNAG: wenge-wood Studio-model guitars No. 410 and No., 421. I thought I’d say a few things about their ornamentation. And, by the way, please excuse me if I get too wordy. If you feel that I’ve gone on as far as you can tolerate, stop reading and go do something more enjoyable.

These guitars’ soundholes are decorated with what I call my “sunset” rosette. This design is my own idea. It’s a mosaic inlay just as all Spanish guitars have . . . but with a difference (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7 The “sunset” rosette.

After having made hundreds of rosettes, and seen thousands of rosettes that I didn’t make, it came to me that it might be visually interesting to have something that, while still being round, wasn’t the a continual repetition of the same design element or line value all around the soundhole. So I came up with the sunset rosette, with a single localized shifting palette of colors.

To my eye, this rosette has the crepuscular colors of a sunset . . . and/or a sunrise as well. This is especially true once the finish has been applied; it darkens the colors of the wood mosaic pieces wonderfully. And I’m not averse to a bit of abalone shell.



You will have noticed that Spanish guitars almost always have mosaic rosettes, and that steel string guitars usually have non-mosaic inlay decoration around the soundhole. This is strictly a function of tradition and habit; none of it has to be like that. But it is something that we have all become used to.

I began my guitar-making career by making Spanish guitars. Well, how not? I play flamenco guitar, and the kind of instrument one plays would naturally be one’s preferred starting point.

I might point out, from my position of having been a member of the pioneering American generation of hands-on lutherie, that while Europe had had a centuries-long tradition of making musical instruments by hand, the United States did not. The American model was 99.9999% the factory model until my generation came along.

Here’s something interesting that virtually no one knows: it is that ALL of my pioneering cohort of young American luthiers used to play flamenco guitar, not classical guitar. That’s right: ALL OF THEM. They may have played other guitar music as well, but each and every one of them jumped into lutherie from the flamenco end of the pool.

There seems to be something about the organization of the brain such that if one is attracted to flamenco, it’s not all that far a reach to sooner or later become interested in making guitars. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that if one is attracted to classical guitar music and playing the classical guitar, then when it’s time to move on one goes into computer work. I’ve seen this time and time again.

Of course, that was all in the beginning. Now people are coming into the field from many other areas of life, and at all ages. Furthermore, lot of my own students who have done a wide array of prior work and raised families and had “normal” working lives, have gravitated to lutherie once they’ve retired. I find that interesting. While these individuals may always have wished to do work like this they were sidetracked by jobs, homes, families, and responsibilities. Now, later, unburdened from all that, they have decided to turn to something that interested them long ago, that could be of interest and give them pleasure now.

Anyway, I digress. I was speaking about rosettes. The traditional mosaic rosette one sees in Spanish guitar tops are time-consuming. Some of them are exceedingly beautiful. But American guitar making has long been committed to more industrial imperatives of efficiency and time-motion management; and the manufacturers have long ago devoted themselves to relatively simple and easy-to-install rosettes -- often of the two-or-three-concentric plastic rings type.

Now that individual luthiers want and need to compete for their share of the market, rosette design is taking a leap forward. Some of the new rosettes are brilliant and unique -- and take time and care to design, make, and install. I might add that I’m particularly proud of the rosettes that my various apprentices have come up with. I encourage every apprentice to find his own style and look rather than to copy mine. And they keep on coming up with some absolutely beautiful soundhole decorations.

It’s a good thing I’m not the envious or jealous type.


O.K., so much for the soundhole decoration. Besides the “sunset” rosette both the guitars I’m writing about have “linear abalone” inlay position markers. These are linear segments that have ends at the appropriate fret positions and give the player a clue as to where to put their hands.

I’m big on visual elements that echo or reinforce one another. So in the case of these instruments, it seemed like a good idea to “match” the abalone of the position markers with an echoing abalone shell border on the rosette.

I repeat: I’m partial to echoes and supporting elements. Because the rosette is the visual culmination of the fingerboard, it has always seemed to me to be a good idea to “tie these together” in some way.

The main way in which this is best done, I think, is to make the rosette darkish to match the ebony of the fretboard. A light-hued rosette will, of course, look exactly as good as its workmanship is, from closeup; but it tends to get lost in the whiteness of the guitar face if seen from a distance. Fig. 8 is an example of what I’m talking about. In my opinion, this kind of rosette will look washed out if there’s not enough contrast – and I’m sure that we can agree that the principal function of the rosette is to be visible. When all is said and done, a dark hue to any rosette that has been inlaid into light colored wood makes the rosette stay visible from across the room.

Fig. 8 A lovely yet un-contrasting rosette.

Visual parity is appropriate because, as I said, the rosette is the visual culmination of the end of the fingerboard. These should look as though they belong together.

ETYMOLOGICAL DETOUR: “Parity” comes from the Latin “par”, meaning “equal”. Things that were historically considered to be not equal were “non-par” -- as, in contemporary French, “nonpareil”. In Old French such a non-par person was a noumpere. This word eventually lost its N and became “umpire” -- a person of higher status than two competing teams, and who had the power to judge between them. How cool is that?



As far as playability is concerned, there is no difference between these two guitars. The necks, scale lengths, fingerboard widths and tapers, etc. are the same on both. Well, there are two differences. First, the cutaway allows easier access to the high frets.

And second, the Rapunzel guitar has Gotoh heads and No. 421 has Schallers.

But, personally, I am very fond of the "Rapunzel" back-of-neck inlay work on the non-cutaway. It's a truly unique design that was time-consuming and skill-dependent to execute.

Aside from that I am glad to have learned something about this level of tonal dynamics by having extended myself into this project.

And I repeat: you can learn more about my use of descriptive words if you’ve read my books; they cover every aspect of the guitar that I know of -- including the vocabularies used to talk about them.


O.K.; let’s take another break.

To be continued . . .

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