Talking Guitar: Ervin Somogyi - Part Two: 'Live' Guitar Making Woods
RE: “LIVE” GUITAR MAKING WOODS
As I said, the most live and responsive woods for guitar making, in my experience, are [Brazilian] rosewood, padauk, cocobolo, osage orange, and wenge. No other wood that I know of is as good as these five, for sheer liveness. At least, this is so as far as guitar backs are concerned.
Some of you will know what cocobolo and padauk (pronounced “paduke”) are. Most of you probably will not have heard of osage orange. This is a wood that once grew plentifully in the American Midwest, but rarely to a large size, and that no one could ever find much use for. One use that people did find for it was to make knife handles out of it, and it got to be called knife-handle wood. But it mostly got in the way of people’s clearing their land for farming use, and therefore a lot of this wood was simply cut down. Unbeknownst to most people, however, this wood has a hell of a live tap tone; it’s a really good tonewood for anyone who can find pieces wide enough to make guitars out of. Figs. 3, 4, and 5 give an idea of what this wood looks like, or can look like.
Fig. 3 Osage orange wood #1
Fig. 4 Osage orange wood #2
Fig. 5 Osage orange wood #3
“Live” woods, in general, are brittle. Like glass. That’s what makes them superior tone producers. It’s also that same brittleness that makes it easy for these woods to crack; it’s the price of liveness.
Wenge itself is quite brittle and never fails to leave splinters in the fingers and hands of anyone who works with it. It almost gives me splinters if I just walk past it. But, I repeat, it’s a great tonewood. And I offer a free box of band-aids (plasters) with the sale of each such guitar.
THE “STUDIO” MODEL:
My Studio model is the same as the Mod. D., but sized down 4%. It is between the Dreadnought and the OM models in size, and very comfortable for people who like a bit of a smaller-bodied guitar. It can be made in both 12- and 14-fret versions.
As I mentioned, guitars No. 410 and 421 are what I call my “studio model” guitar. This guitar is in-between the “standard” Dreadnought size and the “standard” OM size. I’ve found it challenging to make guitars that are ergonomically optimal, as each guitar player is a bit different in size, height, and proportions of trunk-length-to-arm-length, etc.; so I’ve experimented more than most luthiers have, as far as ergonomic (and tonal) factors are concerned.
My most popular guitar sizes/models at present are the Modified Dreadnought and the OM, or OOO. The OM and the OOO are the same body shape, with the difference that the former has a 14-fret neck and the latter has a 12-fret neck). The Studio guitar is in-between these sizes; it is Modified-Dreadnought-shaped but 4% reduced from that instrument’s footprint. There’s an interesting story behind my Modified Dreadnought model. It’s outside the scope of what I’m writing about now, so I won’t go into it now. But I may come back to it later and write about that.
The Mod-D. or M.D. (Modified Dreadnought) is my proprietary shape; it grew out of the very traditional Martin Dreadnought guitar. That guitar was designed for musicians who stood when they played; my version is designed for musicians who sit. As such, it offers a waist and a better center-of-balance. This model was furthermore invented before luthiers were calling their own models showy names like the “Shenandoah”, the “Il Padrone”, the “Grand Tetons”, etc. (these are names I’ve thought up, by the way; I don’t think anyone actually uses them). I had modified the canonical Dreadnought guitar, and simply called it the “modified dreadnought” at the time. The name stuck.
The OM models are the same, except for the fact that the former has a 14-fret neck and the latter a 12-fret neck. This has structural and tonal implications.
The Jumbo guitar is the largest commercially available guitar body. I make two sizes of it; the first is for the six-string version; the second slightly larger one is for the 12-string version. It can be made in both 12- and 14-fret versions.
The OO is my streamlined and visually improved version of the standard small-bodied OO guitar. It can be made in both 12- and 14-fret versions.
I can also make the yet smaller Parlor and O guitars, or pretty much anything one might want. I’ve made one-of-a-kind shapes for clients who have desired such a thing or need some particular ergonomic feature. Such considerations add to the cost of a project, as I probably have to create new molds, templates, jigs, other infrastructure — and of course a custom-fitted case. They can, of course, be made in both 12- and 14-fret versions.
I was asked to submit my logo, to accompany whatever advertising Ben and TheNAG was going to do. I don’t have one. At least, I don’t have one that works outside of Japan. What I have is one of those “name stamps” that one sees on Japanese art, and on Japanese documents. One’s name stamp substitutes for one’s signature on anything important enough for one to claim any formal or official connection to. I have my own made-in-Japan stamp, and it appears on each of my guitar labels (Fig. 6).
I traveled to Japan some years ago and was given one of these name-stamps as a gift. These stamps are rendered in kanji, or characters that represent sounds. Some kanji are more formal and “ceremonial” than others. Mine is a formal one. There are four characters in it. The first one signifies “MADE BY” and the other three are the sounds of my last name, so the entire thing reads as: MADE BY . . . SO . . . MO . . . GI.
Fig. 6 “MADE BY . . . SO . . . MO . . . GI”
Well, so far, so good; SO-MO-GI is pretty much how my name is pronounced by Japanese speakers. Interestingly, though, the kanji that are used on my particular name-stamp are of a type that carry a symbolic/ceremonial meaning in addition to their phonetic sound. It was explained to me that, in this particular kanji, the symbolic meaning of the character that is pronounced SO is “imagine”. The symbolic meaning of the MO character is “growing” or “growth”. The symbolic meaning of the character that is pronounced GI is “a tree”.
Therefore, with the use of this particular kanji, SO MO GI actually means “imagine . . . growing . . . a tree”. This is really not inappropriate for a guitar maker. And it would work pretty well as a logo if anyone who spoke English could read and understand it.
A NOTE ABOUT TOPWOODS:
I’ve mentioned liveness in back/side woods. As far as topwoods go, both European spruce and Sitka spruce will make good soundboards. For that matter, so will cedar, redwood, Adirondack spruce, Alaskan yellow cedar, and Engelmann spruce . . . if one understands how to use them and their variously different specific qualities. Guitar No. 410 has a Sitka spruce face and guitar no. 421 has a European spruce face.
O.K., let’s take a break for tea.