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TNAG Notes #32: Stephen Bennett Interviews John Slobod of Circa Guitars

TNAG Notes 32 (or #2 in our occasional series of luthier lockdown interviews)

 

Not that many of us are getting out much, lately, but most visitors normally head to Portland, Maine looking for lobster, lighthouses and the wonderful world of Winslow Homer. Those of a more plaid-clad, duck-slaughtering persuasion are probably just passing through on the road to L.L. Bean in Freeport. An enlightened few, though, come in search of an elusive sound associated with a particularly iconic piece of American musical history.

Circa Guitars lies in the south Portland suburb of Pleasantdale, in a small and unassuming industrial premises. The master stylist within, John Slobod, shares the premises with a sculptor, two other instrument makers and a noted ukulele maker – after all, even symbolic warmth and sunlight can be a bonus up there on the north-east coast.

Circa guitars. Clean lines, classic tone and the impeccable (albeit three-way) marriage of form, function and finish. It’s hardly a secret, in the rarefied world of high-end, custom-built acoustic guitars that if you’re obsessively committed to the Holy Grail pursuit of that elusive tonal magic of the 1930s and early 40s, you’ll save yourself a lifetime of needless questing by going straight to John Slobod. Timeless tone in a brand-new body? No problem. Not for John, anyway. And because he’s such a fine chap as well as a guitar-maker of unparalleled skill and singular good taste, we thought it might be nice to give him a ring, have a bit of a chat, and see how all this lockdown business is going.

 

Well, it’s interesting. I often take breaks and walk my dog and, mostly, I have the bike trails and walking trails to myself but right now they’re kind of crowded. Which is ironic when everyone’s supposed to be at home. A luthier’s life is pretty solitary so I like to get out into these open spaces but lately I’m seeing more people out there than ever. Having said that, they do seem to be taking things quite seriously (rules, distancing etc.). A lot of luthiers work alone in their shops so we’re fortunate, I suppose, in that we don’t have to make a lot of drastic changes. The downside is that we’re ALWAYS in isolation.

 

You’ve been able to stick fairly closely to your normal working routine, then, regardless of all the madness.

 

It’s been a little tricky. Things like…trying to get more lacquer and parts into the shop. I’ve had a few people cancel orders mainly through the uncertainty of not knowing how long this is all going to last so there has been some impact in that sense. But I’m lucky. I have a lot of guitars on order and plenty of work to do, at least for the next couple of years.

 

The other side of lockdown, of course, is that there’s no excuse to avoid working.

 

Well, no change there, really. I tend to work a lot, anyway. The nice thing, though, is I’m getting to spend time with my family because they’re locked down at home, too.

 

We lament the cancellation of this year’s guitar shows and, as with Michael Bashkin last time, it’s the sense of community and peer interaction that John misses most.

 

It’s a very social thing. We talk about sourcing and techniques. We commiserate with each other about the things that are difficult. I think it’s really important to go, especially for guys like me who work alone and don’t get out to talk to the people in our community all that often. When I was younger, the shows were the more important because the few guitars you might bring to a show would represent a large part of your yearly output so there was more pressure to sell in the early part of my career. There’s a lot of guys, though, who really depend on shows for their income and they must be hurting. There are certainly a lot of guitars that were built for shows that are still out there waiting to be sold. I suppose we’ll have to see how it all pans out. We’re still early on in all this (coronavirus thing). Also, with so few hand-built guitars in the world, maybe we’re kind of immune in that sense.

 

Is there a particular ‘aural template’ that first set you off as a builder; the sound of a particular instrument or a certain player?

 

Initially it was a couple of really nice guitars from the 30’s -- mostly Martins. I also played a few beautiful Gibsons from that period, too. I just felt really attracted to the idea that these were guitars that could do anything – they had a musicality throughout their range. One of the drawbacks of steel-string guitars is that, with the amount of tension on the strings, especially the trebles, once you move up the neck, there isn’t enough string there to generate an organic sounding note. I’ve found a couple of things that consistently help to resolve that. One is keeping the finish very thin – nitrocellulose lacquer tends to have a slightly warmer feel for the trebles. The other is hide glue. It seems to push the guitar towards a slightly sweeter note in the upper registers. But I’m not one to say it’s got to be done that way. There are amazing guitars being made with all kinds of different glues and different finishes. You have to go with what works best for the particular voice you’re after. For me, with those two elements, the hide glue and the nitro-cellulose, combined with the recipe I use in terms of top-thickness and bracing, it all works together and that’s why I’m hesitant to change anything. Small changes make a big difference. Right now, I’ve got a recipe that works. Another thing that’s really important for me is that things are consistently good. Back when I was first starting, we couldn’t get consistently good quality red spruce but if you’re making thoroughbreds – highly sensitive instruments – you need that consistency in the top-woods. It’s essential. Fortunately, supplies have gotten much better.

I offer a lot of different voicings for every model I do. I have clients who say they want a really dry sounding, tighter OM because they’re going to be playing a lot of blues or flatpicking on it. Others might want an OM with a lot of reverb because they’re doing Celtic stuff and need something more delicate. I use different top-woods – around 75% red spruce, 25% German spruce. The German spruce is selected to be stiff and very heavy. I’m not one of those builders who thinks tops have to be as light as you can get them. That just doesn’t work for what I do. I want my German tops to sound like a slightly more responsive red spruce.

 

Is there an ‘ideal’ then - a body shape, a wood-combination - that might best demonstrate John’s vision of what a Circa guitar should be?

 

People are probably aware that I’m known as a heavily Martin-influenced builder. That comes from my initial period of working with Dana Bourgeois, who’s also a Martin-style guy. Ironically, when I was living in Berkeley, I looked into apprenticing with Ervin Somogyi so my career would’ve taken a very different turn if I’d gone through with that! But I ended up coming to Maine and working with Dana and mostly being influenced by what he was doing. Then I came into contact with Eric Schoenberg and Julius Borges and they were really trying to dial in that pre-war tone (as much as you can in a new guitar) and Julius had the simple but brilliant idea of saying, ‘well…let’s just do what THEY did’ – essentially use the same materials, the same lacquer, same glues, same woods, approximate the same top thicknesses - and see what happens. The results were really spectacular. That did it for me. I thought, ‘this is really what appeals to my ear’. It just felt like…home. So, I was already trying to build in that tradition in the work I was doing with Dana and, really, we just made a few tweaks to bring it in line with what they were doing in the 30s. These days, I’ve kind of boxed myself in a little bit because I’ve become well known for that. I have tried a few other things over the years and I really love a lot of other luthiers’ work but it’s just a totally different approach. You have to learn what works for you and right now, I’m busy supporting a family and don’t really have a lot of time to experiment! I can’t just say, ‘let’s do something like a Traugott-style thing’. I’d have to learn how to do it and, besides, I’d never be able to duplicate what Jeff does. I do my own thing. I’ve done a couple of modern-style guitars and it is nice to do something different but the other thing to remember is that there’s so much effort goes into making every single new guitar, you don’t want to take a chance that you’re going to have something with your name on it that isn’t really amazing! And though I have been making changes to my guitars over the last twenty years or so, they’ve been fairly minute. If someone’s going to pay a lot of money for one of these things, I have to know that, even if I make a change, it’s still going to be the perfect guitar for somebody to fall in love with. That they’re going to be happy. Then I’m going to be happy.

 

John’s currently averaging about fifteen guitars a year though this year has been especially productive and he’s hoping to increase that to number to eighteen in future. We delve deeper into the fundamental notion, with regard to a Circa guitar, of building a vintage vibe into a contemporary instrument.

 

My guitars will always be contemporary because they’re brand new, of course, so initially, they won’t sound as much like vintage guitars as I’d want them to.  Having done this for many years, I’m lucky to have a lot of professionals playing my guitars and a lot of them have said - though they may own vintage stuff - they play mine because they like that little bit ‘purer’ sound. What I love about vintage guitars is the extremely ‘dry’ sound - very woody in the mid-range. I particularly like mahogany guitars. Modern rosewood guitars are much fuller, more reverb-y, more complex, but the vintage stuff is what I call ‘dry’. What I’m doing tends to move in that “dry” direction over time. I’ve played a few of my guitars that are ten or fifteen years old and the tone has evolved but my guitars aren’t really going to be confused with something made in the 20s or 30s.

 

For all the precision and careful calculation that goes into John’s work, we wonder if it’s all that unusual for two identically built instruments to sound very different from each other. Currently, John’s ideally placed to answer that one.

 

I have two guitars here right now that are as identical as any I’ve ever built – both 000s with really high-quality Brazilian rosewood back-and-sides and red spruce tops. I strung the second one up yesterday and though they sound close, one of them is a little bit more growly. I’m really happy with both of them, though, and I certainly didn’t do anything differently in the build process. One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that it pays to be very picky about your top-wood. I’m not one of these guys who does deflection-testing. I don’t weigh every piece. I do all my testing with my hands. Every guitar has a slightly different thickness to the top and I make those decisions based on each top and what the client has told me they want in terms of a voice. I’m not just making ‘cookie-cutter’ stuff. Every top selection takes into consideration that ‘end voice’ and it’s the years of experience that tell me whether I need to go a little bit thinner or go for more flexibility. If a top is really stiff, I might have to go thinner than I normally would. It’s all about finding things out as you go.

 

If you were making a guitar for yourself, what would be your ideal wood combination?

 

Well, since I’m a Martin-inspired guy and I do build the occasional dreadnought – though I’m not really known for that – I love mahogany D18s. Has to be a red spruce top. I’ve played a ton of Sitka topped Martins from the ‘50s and I’ve never heard one that can compete with a red spruce top. It’s not about the bracing, either, it’s just something about that red spruce. So, yes, the D18 is probably, for me, a perfect guitar, especially as I like to play with a pick. For a smaller guitar? Probably a 00 or 000 Brazilian and Adirondack. That classic Martin tone. The two guitars I just strung up have that same wood combination. They’re so lively and organic sounding you could play all kinds of different styles on them. So, yes, I make a lot of 00s, 000s and OMs with that - or a very similar - combination. Even if I’m using German spruce, which is a little more ‘open’ than red, it can be very close in terms of tonality. That’s an option if somebody wants a very light response for playing pure finger-style stuff. You can either thin a red spruce top right down or, if you want something a little more airy you’d go with the Euro top. But that vintage Martin voice is ‘my groove’. It’s what I keep coming back to and, luckily, my clients tend to order my guitars based on that.

 

What about koa for tops - or mahogany?

 

If you’re using hardwoods for the tops, the guitars are quite different. Though, if you play a 1920s Martin with a koa top, you’d almost swear it was spruce. It’s amazing. When I worked at Bourgeois, we made a fair number of koa and mahogany topped guitars – and they never sounded like spruce. They had their own thing. Having said all that, I’m about to build a small-bodied, all mahogany guitar for a client and one of the things I want to do is use a torrefied mahogany top. I think it’s about getting the mass down and really being picky about the quality of the wood. It has to be really stiff along the grain. We wanted to try something different and I think it’s going to be a really fun project but…we’re going to bake everything!

 

So mahogany tops for small-bodied guitars only?

 

The only large-bodied guitars with mahogany tops that I’ve been around were at Bourgeois. They had a model they’d built for Ry Cooder and David Lindley – maybe Henry Kaiser, as well – that was a slope-shoulder dread, ladder-braced with a mahogany top. They were pretty tight. Those guys loved them but they’re certainly not like a normal guitar! It takes a lot more effort to get sound out of them but then, those guys were using them for slide.

 

And once you’ve selected your wood, it all comes down to the build.

 

True. Though if you have a crummy top-wood, there’s not a lot you can do. One thing I love about Red Spruce is that it is very consistently strong along the grain. It is also probably the most consistent in its mass as well. Other top woods are more fickle. European spruces and Sitka can be quite light or quite heavy. There is tremendous variability within the species. I’ve seen Sitka that was almost as light and soft as Englemann spruce, and some that was extremely heavy and unbelievably stiff. So, saying, ‘I want a Sitka top’ doesn’t actually mean much.

 

Will we need to expand our established mindset with regard to tone-woods as environmental circumstances change and affect the price of the ‘classic’ materials?

 

Definitely. Fortunately, in the guitar world, we’re not as restricted as, say, violin makers. Everything for them has to be done the traditional way; a luthier might make a slight change to the arching and that’s considered a radical innovation. For a guitar-builder, we can do whatever we want, try all kinds of woods, crazy designs, different scale-lengths - we can have fun and, basically, whatever sounds good, IS good. The thing about those ‘different’ guitars (in terms of the woods used) is that they might be spectacular sounding but the only way they sell is if somebody actually plays them. It’s hard to sell them online when people have questions. I’ve built wonderful sounding guitars out of everything from African Blackwood - which sounds almost like bell-brass - to walnut that sounds like a shoe box. The back and sides colour the tone, certainly, and if you’re an experienced guitar player with good ears, you’ll hear the difference. Almost any wood - if the tree is healthy, the wood’s dried properly, and it’s built well with a high-quality top - it’s going to be good. The one thing I am fairly picky about is that I don’t often use figured (flat sawn) back-wood. Initially, that was an aesthetic choice because I wanted my guitars to look like pre-war Martins but, after working with wood that has a lot of flat sawn ‘figure’ you realise that you can run into more difficulties with it. It is more susceptible to humidity changes and cracking.  I try to find wood that’s very straight grained both because it suits my aesthetic and I know it’s as stable as it can possibly be. But then, these days, a highly figured wood, dried properly is pretty stable and, besides, if it isn’t, you’ll find out in the build process before the guitar’s completed. You’ve just got to be smart about it.

 

So…back to the Circa bench. What fresh wonders are about to emerge?

 

Well, I’ve got about nineteen guitars lined up that customers are expecting over the next year, so it’s going to be busy! First, though, I need to finish four guitars that I’m about to buff and assemble, but while all that’s going on and other guitars are curing, I’m assembling backs and tops and doing rosettes, back-strips…all that stuff. Also, I’ve been trying to get back to one of my early inspirations - Martins from the 1890s to the ‘teens’. There were some Ditsons and Hawaiian-style guitars from fairly early on that had steel strings, but most were built extremely lightly and had gut strings. I’m trying to take some of the cool aesthetic features of those particular guitars and incorporate them into instruments that have the tonal characteristics of an early 30s guitar, which is voiced for modern light gauge steel strings. That way, people can own something that has that beautiful early Martin ‘mojo’ but is also voiced for a modern finger-style player.

 

Tell us a bit more about that lacquer process.

 

The top finish is really critical to the voice of a guitar. There have been a couple of occasions when I’ve worked on really gorgeous, sunburst guitars that have had a catalysed sealer coat, then a polyester coat, then the colour coat, then - because it’s a sunburst - you need to put extra nitrocellulose or polyurethane on top of the colour because you don’t want to cut through to the colour. Those finishes were really quite thick but they were some of my favourite guitars so - go figure. Generally, though, for the tone I’m after - the thinner the better. I’d be tempted to do French polish but, really, it’s not all that user friendly. It’s very finicky and, besides, I think I can get the results I want by trying to keep my top finishes really thin using lacquer. You can hear the difference between a polyurethane topcoat kept very thin and a nitrocellulose one. I had a couple of bluegrass players ask for polyurethane because they wanted something really tough - which makes sense considering they’d be travelling in the South where it’s so sticky and humid in the summer.  In my experience, the nitro lacquer imparts a slightly softer, more organic tone. It’s not that one’s better than the other, but you have to factor it into your voicing. A lot of it’s down to who’s playing it – and how.

 

Tell us then, John, why we all need a Circa guitar in our lives (though not for a day or two yet, of course, as you’re obviously a bit busy).

 

It’s probably what first drew me to the Martin way of building, that it would work for so many different styles of music - certainly the kind most people play. People who buy highly sophisticated, beautiful, hand-built guitars from individual luthiers are often people who are playing by themselves - playing finger-style arrangements on their own - and for a lot of modern builders, that’s perfect. They’re putting together the highly specialised, fine-tuned instrument for that kind of player. I’m trying to build with that same quality but from the perspective of having a more traditional guitar that suits a wide range of musical styles. Ironically, though, the first three major guitarists to sign up with Circa were all Celtic players - Tony McManus, Steve Baughman and Al Petteway – which was not the market I was shooting for! But I think, to get back to the main reason; you really have to like that Martin voice. It’ll have a certain woody, traditional sound to it but it’ll be one that’s very ‘alive’. You can get that from a bunch of makers out there who are building in that style but what I’m trying to do is take it to the next level by being super-picky about the materials and really careful when it comes to getting the entire project right. Hopefully, the results will be something you can’t get anywhere else. I’m lucky in that there aren’t that many people building in this particular style so I don’t have a ton of competition in that sense!

 

One suspects the competition might still have a lot of catching up to do. We veer off towards the guitar music we like – past and present - and (in a regular TNAG trope) consider how so much of our favourite stuff was produced on cheap instruments.

 

It’s true – some of the worst sounding guitars ever! Still, I don’t think expensive guitars are necessarily ‘better’ in musical terms. There are a lot of cheap guitars that can give you a certain sound and you might actually want that. Look at the old Beatles records. They had ‘that sound’. Most modern builders don’t build in that style whereby you have, basically, a percussion instrument. There are no overtones at all. They’re playing with dead strings on guitars that didn’t have very lively tops and…it’s a great sound! It’s hard to replicate, too.

 

And having veered off, we plunge headlong into the dusty corner of John’s comfortingly lived-in workshop that houses his enormous, ramshackle rack of vinyl LPs.

 

I really should fix that.

 

If it were to collapse, though, what particular treasures might you salvage from the ruins?

 

I’d probably have to say ‘Extrapolation’ by John McLaughlin – there’s some acoustic work on there too. I love the acoustic bass parts on that album - reminds me a bit of Pentangle meets Miles! One would certainly be a record by Egberto Gismonti and Ralph Towner on ECM that I got into when I was just out of high school (‘Solo Do Meio Dia’ from 1978). It’s mostly a Gismonti record and (though Towner’s all over it) he steals the show. He’s playing a ten-string classical and, for me, it’s absolutely THE desert island disc. Towner does a lot of the textural stuff on 12string and the interplay is great. I don’t know of another guitar record that sounds anything like it. Also, there’s an album I got turned on to recently that’s so good…Fabiano Nascimento. Amazing, like a Brazilian version of Towner in a way, with really complex rhythm patterns. That and maybe something by Baden-Powell. Then there’s Tony Rice. And Django, of course. I don’t listen to a lot of the modern finger-style stuff in the shop, mostly because I’m more interested in stuff where people are paying more attention to composition or are working in a traditional idiom. One of my favourite solo players is Stephen Bennett (that would be ‘the other one’, of course) Stephen is all about the tunes. He can play anything from Mancini to commercial jingles to Tony Rice licks. Mind-blowing. He’s a national treasure.

 

And as our melodic musings take a meandering diversion through the classic Capitol recordings of the great Frank Sinatra – John’s a big fan – TNAG is forced to acknowledge that even though he’s saved us the (admittedly never arduous) task of conjuring This Fortnight’s Fab Five musical recommendations, it’s high time the man got back to work. We need more Circa guitars in the world, after all, and rather than slow John down, TNAG would much prefer to be off making space on the showroom wall. The other good news from Portland is that the predicted May snowfall never arrived. That’s another lesson from Circa – always make sure you keep a ukulele-maker handy. It’s turned out sunny, instead.

 

Stay well. Stay in. Play more guitar. See you next time!

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