TNAG Notes: The Guru that is Grit Laskin by Stephen Bennett
Genius is often described as aiming for a target no one else can see and then hitting it. If that’s the case, there must be something particularly conducive to it in the chilly Toronto air. Especially here at Linda Manzer’s place in Cabbagetown, where master guitar-maker (and inventor of the mind-boggling “Apprehension Engine”), Tony Duggan-Smith, is answering the door to probably the world’s greatest inlay artist. Linda’s currently out but Grit Laskin is looking to raid her pearl-dot, fretboard-marker supply – by prior appointment, of course. Turns out she’s already left them for him, in a bag, tied to his car door. Grit thought it was Those Pesky Kids (again) and chucked the bag in the recycling – an admirably Canadian thing to do – from whence he must now retrieve them. Those geniuses, eh. Still, this current crisis atop the Lutherie Olympus presents TNAG with an ideal opportunity so, a few days later and a few miles away, we’re heading for the converted mattress warehouse that’s housed the Laskin workshop these past 26 years. The man himself answers the buzzer - keep going, straight to the top. And we’ll take that handy metaphor whenever it’s offered, thanks.
Most guitar-makers’ shops look like someone’s been testing wooden hand-grenades in IKEA. Grit’s is different. It’s almost eerily tidy. The man himself is naturally genial and generous. Here, in his element, he’s totally focussed on his often-spectacular work and he communicates that with a genuine passion. Often in print, colour and nuance gets missed but rest assured, even in stark black and white, Grit Laskin is always amused and amusing, engaged and engaging. He’s a natural educator who loves to talk – and sing.
TNAG: Most people in Europe who are familiar with your work might not realise that you’re so well known in Canada as a performing musician.
GL: Yes, it’s a shame I never got to Europe or the UK to perform but I got around in the States a bit. Michigan and New England, mostly. Mainly because we could do three gigs over a Friday, Saturday and Sunday and still get home. I haven't performed as a solo artist for years as I’m just too busy, though I do get out with my band now and then. We’ve been together on and off since I was 18 years old - some people have died, some bring their children who’ve grown up to be musicians, you know, it's been an interesting ride. We still do a three-city weekend every year, “rehearse” on stage, have a laugh and that’s it really. Solo, I just had to start saying no to things once there was no time for me to keep up my chops and work up new repertoire. So…keep going back to places you’ve played before and doing all the same old stuff… I can't do that.
TNAG: The albums are all still out there, though.
GL: Oh, yeah, they’re on iTunes, Amazon, through the Borealis Records website. My first two vinyl albums came out as a double-album CD with a couple of extra tracks that were recorded at the time but not released so, yeah. Pete Seeger recorded one of my songs, same with the Tannahill Weavers, a few others…
TNAG: Stand by for a massive sales spike.
GL: (laughs) Well, the royalties from the Pete Seeger track, that one sale alone, paid for the electricity bill at my house for an entire month. At one point I think I got a cheque for something like $200 so, yeah, that’s certainly where the money is – folk music.
TNAG: Was there something in the water at Larrivée around the time you started building?
GL: It was a combination of circumstances, really; the era and the timing…so many of us seemed to be consciously seeking a lifestyle that wasn't the routine. Some of us were lucky enough to fall into it but of course everybody understands if you're in any aspect of the arts, it’s going to be a struggle – you’re there out of passion. If making money’s your thing you buy and sell Hog Futures and get it over with but that’s not a very satisfying life. So it was luck. And things you’re totally unaware of at the time; that Jean would open the door just a crack to allow this scruffy, hairy teenage kid in. Linda (Manzer) had her motivations, David Wren had made a classical guitar in a High School workshop class and he was into all that. Then Serge de Jonge discovered Jean so…everybody had their own story. It’s interesting, though, no two stories exactly the same but they all led us to Jean in the end. Again, it was just the luck, the timing - especially for me because I discovered him so young. I was still a teenager - no responsibilities - so I could rent a room, I had a bicycle and had a few instruments so I could gig on the weekends. Yep, that was it for me. I could pour myself completely into this new lifestyle. I still remember it being almost like I was high non-stop for two years - which isn't even healthy. To be that cheerful? But that's what it was like because everything was so new. It was an adventure. I fell in with the Fiddlers Green Folk Club which ended up being where I met my wife. Then my band became part of the house band and I started learning other instruments – banjo, mandolin, concertina, Northumbrian Pipes, whistle, dulcimer – I was trying all of it. I was excited; meeting people and learning to make instruments in this whole new world. No family or mortgages or car payments but all the usual things to do with adult life, I was doing as a kid. I hadn't even turned twenty when I was starting to buy tools to set up my own workshop. I was with Jean from just after my 18th birthday which was late August. That was in the days before climate control so he didn’t work during the summer. He said wait ‘til mid-September when the humidity drops and I get going again, then come on by and we’ll give it a try. Two years later, I was setting up my own shop, I had my own orders - three orders before I even owned my first tools - because people knew I was leaving and they’d seen the work I was doing. So I was making some guitars at night, on the side, including one for myself. In that second year when it was just Jean and I, we made sixty guitars and some of them have my name on the label. He said, you’re making half the guitars, you should be signing the labels. Roger Sadowsky was in New York in ‘73, working on Paul Stookey’s guitar (Peter Paul and Mary) and he said, Grit, I’m working on this Larrivée so how come your name’s on it? So there’s twelve Larrivées with my name on them and we figure, some day, when both of us are gone, you never know, they might be worth something. I know where three of them are. Anyway, I got spoiled. I never had to go down the route that so many others have to; doing some repairs, restoration, slowly getting to build something of your own, putting guitars on consignment with dealers, all that. I’ve had orders non-stop since 1973 so I have no complaints. I feel astoundingly lucky. Anybody trying make a living in the arts, usually they're doing something else, you know, to support their artistic endeavour; actors waiting tables or potters and glass blowers teaching in colleges – I’ve never had to do any of that.
We touch on the subject of just how much time and energy goes into a single project and how buyers see a price, maybe get a bit thrown by it, and wonder where it comes from. Grit’s all too aware of the balancing act involved; equating an artefact (especially a small and highly-detailed one) with, on the one hand, the hours of commitment, experience and craftsmanship involved in its creation and, on the other, with the price it has to command.
GL: People don’t always understand and we face that psychology when it comes to pricing instruments. Often, for example, if you price too low, people are going to get suspicious; “I can’t see what’s inside but why is that one $4000 more than that one? I’d better play it safe and go for the pricey one” I tell people, yes, you can buy a guitar for 400 bucks and you can plug it in, make it work and sure, it’ll sound like a guitar. But the raw materials I buy – from the source countries, paying wholesale - what’s going into my guitars is already over $3000 worth of raw wholesale costs and that’s even before I’ve started doing any work. So you have to be able to give people the story of why and how there’s a difference; of what it takes to get a subtle response out of what’s essentially just a wooden box with some bits of plastic and metal strings. Except you don't just want sound, you want music, you want overtones and you want the sustain and balance that comes through the subtle manipulations of what you’ve been doing through year after year of trial and error. Then you can say, okay, maybe your first hundred guitars start to give you some experience in building consistently. Plus with all the variations of the materials, it really is the only way. You can’t, successfully, scientifically “model” a guitar – there are too many variables. With the next cut, even though it’s off the same board, say the grain is moving slightly differently, it’s going to vibrate differently in combination with this and that body or scale-length so, suddenly…where’s your model? That’s what you have to tell people but, you know, the good players understand. “Hear this subtlety?” That’s why this one is worth twice as much as that one. It takes the same effort again – every time - to make a good guitar. It takes an effort from the floor up to here (Grit’s belt). And to go to the next level…here (Grit’s navel) you’ve still got to start from the floor then add the extra bit, and so on. Every one inch higher, it still starts from scratch and involves the same, if not more effort, every time.
TNAG: There must be a degree of irony, frustration even, when you put so much emphasis on sound, in the fact that your guitars are so immediately identified by their visual elements (inlays, in particular) So much so that people even order on the basis of that.
GL: Mildly. But only because it’s my own fault. I'm having fun doing those inlays - and getting paid for it, so, yes…spoiled, once again. But because it's always different - I refuse to repeat anything - I have lots of examples that make for good visuals in books and such. It’s this colourful stuff that’s right in your face so…I get that. How can they not be perceiving me as “the inlay guy” as that seems to be what I'm pushing? However, then they get reminded, whether it's in thinking about the bevels or the side ports (which he invented), that I’m a player first. It’s all about the music. That’s what got me in here. If my guitars don’t sound good and play well, I’m a failure. It would be a case of, “if you want something that’s really beautiful to hang on your wall, get one of Grit’s. But if you really want a good guitar that plays well, just get a Collings”. No. And I can’t have people thinking that. It’s incumbent upon me to make a superb instrument every time because, if not, I’d be dismissed a lot faster than other people because of what I do visually. Happily, my customers get it. For example, one of the last pair I made - I work in pairs all the time as that works best for me; spraying two, constructing two etc. - was for an Italian guy who flew over from Rome to pick it up. He has a monster collection; lots of classical, historic ones, he's even got three Torres guitars. He's even looking at building a museum in Italy. Anyway, he came to pick up this steel string with the history of Ancient Rome on the neck - a monster inlay. But the guitar itself - made with Wenge, as requested, and I’d never used it before - he said, this guitar is superior, tone-wise, to every other instrument he's ever owned or played. Right there in the room he said that. He was just blown away by the sound.
Grit looks pretty blown-away himself, just from the thought of it.
GL: That’s what’s so important to me but I can't fault people, if they don't know my instruments, that figure, you know, I’m just “the inlay guy”. And yes, there are some people who want that and even if they hear good things about the sound, it’s the inlay that’s at the top of their mind. And I know that because sometimes they call and we haven't even begun to discuss the ergonomic issues; body size, woods, what you play and how you play it - all that stuff - before we’re onto all the subjective aspects of the inlay art. I mean, for me, that’s the last item but for them it’s, “I already know what I want to do with the inlay so…can you do this…and I’m saying, “Hold on, it’s going to be two years before we get to that”. I’m warning them, you’re going to change your mind nineteen times before then. And they do. Then again, I have people who say they love the inlay work but just want one of my guitars, so let’s maybe keep the inlay to something small. Then as the time goes by, they’re thinking about it, they’re seeing pictures and all of a sudden… not so small. I’ve had my schedule go completely to shit because people who told me it was going to be simple (or nothing) inlay job suddenly want the monster-narrative. But what can you do? Happens all the time. So…even if it starts from just the inlay, which is rare, it’s always ends up being about the sound as well. Having said that, once the work starts, of course, I'll be pestering them to give me themes, thoughts, what's important to them…how they might want it depicted.
TNAG: Do they ever worry about the amount or weight of the inlay affecting the tone?
GL: Oh, all the time - and it doesn’t. But that’s one of the reasons I don’t inlay on the tops. I really don’t like inlaying anywhere on the body, even though I’ve inlayed a back the odd time if someone’s insisted. Actually, (considers) I have done the top a couple of times but I would discourage it because then you’re playing with fire. You're adding dense mass, that doesn't vibrate well, into something that's delivering the most efficient vibration on the whole thing. The top’s supposed to drive and get those vibrations coupling to all the other parts as fast as possible. You’re just inhibiting it by putting in all this inert ‘stuff’ in there.
TNAG: When you left Larrivée at twenty was that urge to innovate and invent…that sense of “Hmm, what if I try this?” already in there?
GL: Well, everything happens kind of organically through the years, I suppose. And you do get inspired by some things “outside”, maybe. Certainly, from the beginning, I had my own ideas about headstock shape, my own body shapes and my own rosette. I’d already made sure I had some of those basics that said, “This is not a Larrivée”.
TNAG: You’ve always stuck with that same rosette design.
GL: It’s now more of a variation on what I was doing at the beginning. I made one with bigger veneers, then I shrunk it down, then I changed the colour, then I did it in rosewood, then black and white, then I added some colour, maybe changed the shell but…(laughs) yeah, it’s pretty much the same.
TNAG: When did the arm and rib rests start coming in?
GL: Those came later, whereas developing the inlay was an organic thing, you know, doing simple stuff like everybody else then attempting to do a face for the first time, going to the jewellery supplier and buying a graver and trying out different shapes. Then looking at a book on metal engraving and trying to adapt things from it to work in shell. Softer work.
The development of the Laskin arm/rib bevels gets set aside for another time. It’s well documented elsewhere, just as it’s more than likely anyone reading this interview will have felt the benefit of such a ‘simple-ideas-are-always-the-best’ moment of inspiration.
TNAG: At the risk of stating the obvious, your range of ambition regarding the possibilities of an inlaid image has broadened with the development of your technical skill.
GL: And that never stops. It snowballed very quickly once I changed my attitude to how and what you can depict in this small (headstock/fretboard) space. That really began when I was looking at a book on the early 20th century illustrator, Maxfield Parrish. I was looking at a drawing he’d done of a group of courtiers serving a meal to a King – very theatrical images – and I was taken by one of these humorous figures – it was like he was just coming into the scene and suddenly, I saw him walking onto the headstock. This is probably Art 101 – I never took art training – on how to indicate action ‘out of view”.
The conversation veers briefly towards the ground-breaking moment in Western art when the Impressionists realised, having seen photographs for the first time, that paintings could now include people moving half in and half out of the frame. Those geniuses, again.
GL: So it hit me, you start to change the perspective, see the neck and headstock as just the viewfinder of a camera and give the brain enough visual clues to complete the image. Then it’s a case of, is the body indicating movement well enough, can I show that by the folds of the clothes, by the angle of the limbs? Is the hair blowing, where are they looking? You just start expanding what you can do. Nothing limits me in terms of a theme, now. I'll find a way to do whatever a customer asks for even if that means experimenting with new techniques. For the McMichael exhibition guitar (see the “Group of Seven” guitar-makers’ show) I developed three different techniques, that I’d never used before.
We digress further into the theory of using the confines of a frame (here the neck/peghead) as a creative tool as opposed to a restriction, as per the Cubist, Georges Braque’s notion that too much freedom inhibits the artist’s creative imagination.
GL: I love that! The way a practical limitation forces you to be more creative. My wife, who’s an educator, turned me on to a book called “Drawing On The Right Side of the Brain” (by Betty Edwards) which really enhanced my drawing capability. She also opened up my eyes to cognitive theory, especially Edward de Bono and his work on understanding how the brain absorbs new knowledge; how you incorporate and ingest it. Apparently, tasks that are instigated within a set of limitations require more aspects of the brain to be active, and brought to that task, than any other. So I embrace the limitations – I never say, aw no, that’s not possible. Let me work with it, see what we can do.
Grit chose one particular project to illustrate his entire inlaying process in his most recent book, “Grand Complications”.
GL: I wanted to walk people through all the nuances, the details of the thinking and the ups and downs of the process but I knew I couldn't do that for all of the fifty projects in the book. No one would ever get through it! I mean, having one project that takes you through every little aspect is interesting but half way through the second one, you’d just be looking at the pictures. So all the other essays became far more succinct and I tried to be as interesting but different each time. And I love that one (the “Grand Complications” guitar itself) because apart from encompassing so many of my techniques, it was all about the process of both working closely with the client and teaching myself about a subject (watchmaking) at the same time. I’m being paid to learn stuff!
TNAG: Technically, it looks like a really challenging project – especially in depicting the Tourbillon watch-mechanism.
GL: I had to learn about all the details of that. Though the client also wanted inlay on the back of the headstock so, fortunately, that gave me the opportunity to describe it in enough detail.
With such precision, time-consuming work – a modern-day echo of illuminated manuscript - we entertain the notion of Grit, like the monks, handing down his trade secrets to a talented apprentice. But only briefly.
GL: No. That's the easy answer. Not for me. I mean, I’ve learned that I’m best working alone. If I have friends hanging out watching, I make mistakes. Maybe it’s the performer in me becoming hyper-aware of all that “dead air” such that, if I'm staring at something and all of a sudden the wood does something strange and I'm walking through four scenarios in my head regarding how I'm going to fix it, one part of me will be aware that ‘Dave’ over there is just staring at my back. No. I learned that lesson many years ago. Somebody was watching me gluing a fretboard on and, next thing, I was driving home and realised I’d forgotten to put the truss rod in. So, no, I don't want an apprentice though I do teach inlay and engraving from time to time because I find that I can isolate that skill and we can accomplish something in a week. Plus, I'm one of the founders of ASIA (Association of Stringed-Instrument Artisans) so I figure that's also giving something back. Apart from that, anybody who's just getting into all this (guitar-making) or having problems, they can email me or phone and I’ll stop what I'm doing and help them out. That's my own policy. Though I did it so I do understand that apprenticing is how you learn best. Still, that’s my personality. I'm a social guy, I love people but with work…I need to focus. Maybe one day, you never know, if I start to get arthritis in my hands, you know, start to see “the end game”, then maybe I’ll bring somebody on for a year and teach them.
In terms of the current scope of the inlayers art, it would seem Grit Laskin has developed not only a whole new manual of technical possibility but, often by necessity, invented the equipment to serve its needs.
GL: It’s not an ego thing but, yes, that’s happened. At first, I’d get worried, thinking people might be copying my style but now, I see as the years have gone by, even big manufacturers are exploring the wider possibilities (of inlay) – breaking the nut barrier (i.e. spilling the inlay design “narrative” over from the headstock onto the fingerboard) which was my thing. Nobody was doing that. But what can you do? All the images are out there and, if you’re influencing people, so be it.
TNAG: So essentially, if you needed something that wasn't there, you developed it, introduced it to the market and the others picked up on it – not least your ‘secret formula’ black engraving-filler.
GL: Everybody’s using it. There used to be this thing called ‘Monofil’. Engravers used it to help them see the edges of their work or to accent a line then they stopped making it. I knew wax was part of it so I drove out to a lab run by the Crayola Crayon company and took my engraving tools, shell, lots of little pictures and my stub (of Monofil) and said, “here’s what I do with this, could you find out what’s in it?”. They told me the lab policy was that they didn’t do work for other people but this looked like fun, for a change, so they took it on. Because they weren’t supposed to be doing it, I couldn’t pay them so I bought them books and records, instead. They analysed the stub, found out what was in it, and we played around with the elements and improved every aspect of it. It's mainly wax, an animal stearate - stearic acid which makes it super-sticky – and a dye. So we improved all that, increased the melt point of the wax so it stays harder, added better stearate and more intense dye. This stuff isn’t like the fill sticks you get at hardware store when you're filling in nail-holes on your furniture. No matter how fine the line, it's black. (“none more black?”, we suggest) It’ll even fill in sand scratches. Because they had to run through a crayon machine – for the stubby ones that little kids have – they could only do 800 at a time. And at night when there was no one around. I thought, “what am I going to do with all these?” Then I remembered a friend who smokes a pipe and her favourite tobacco is “Special Blend” so thought, perfect…“Grit’s Special Blend Engraving Filler”. I made up a label and started selling it. Stew Mac started going through the stuff like crazy. Then Crayola transferred their whole operation to the States. They said, here’s the formula…good luck. It took me three years to find another company to make it but I had to buy 10,000 pieces. We’re still working through them. Anyway, it’s miracle stuff. Bob Taylor bought a box and told me they use it all over the place – anything black.
TNAG: Do you have a special, “one of these days” project lined up?
GL: To be honest they’re all like that. They’re all challenging but they’re always different and and I look forward to each one. I’ve got a straight, unadorned flamenco coming up and they’re kind of like palate cleansers – no inlay, no nothing. I can zip that one out pretty quick. It gives me a mental break. I do have an order for an acoustic bass that just came in after the Woodstock show. I’ve made a couple of those and I like the guy so we’re coming up with a whole new shape, plus a new bridge design as he doesn’t want a pin-bridge, which I’ve always done in the past. We’re thinking something that’s not too big, like those Mexicans guitarrons that look like you’re playing a bath-tub. I mean, how do you even get your arm around it without killing your shoulder. So this will be my first new shape in a long time – smaller but still balanced to deliver the tone. For the inlay, he wants the history of the bison in America. The narrative will start with the native people and their use of the bison to its being destroyed and then reviving again. We’ll see how that goes.
All of which leads us on to a number of favourite inlay designs. Grit has a few.
GL: I’m always satisfied when I’m able to meet all the challenges of a particular project but the ones that stay my favourites, I think, are the ones when I’ve been afforded a lot of freedom. One I do like, in particular, is the Cellist of Sarajevo (set in the ruins of that conflict) maybe because I like to get political sometimes and I like making a statement. To me, that one’s all about the power of music. Also, one of my big favourites is the “Imagine” guitar. I love John Lennon, and that song, and loved having an excuse to be able to work on it. It was the first time I'd ever done lettering big enough whereby I could depict images within the letter shapes. I was really pleased with how that one came out - and that it takes people a few minutes to figure out what’s going on in those images. To me successful art, whether it's realistic or abstract or it’s dance, theatre, painting, sculpture, whatever…you’ve got to feel something from it. It has to do something to move you, make you think - even if it makes you angry! That’s when the art is a success. It’s communicating. To me, there’s no bad or good art, it’s either successful or failed art. If it doesn’t communicate, it’s failing.
Other gems get an honourable mention including the stunning, monochrome “Jazz Players” and the comparatively minimal, “Year of the Cherry” (depicting the seasonal changes to a Japanese cherry-blossom). Then there are the historical and musical luminaries; Leonardo, Darwin, The Beatles, Bill Monroe, even the Liverpool Champions League victory and a bunch of Marvel Superheroes depicted as a rock band…all astonishingly accurately realised in shell, wood and stone. On the bench as, we speak, there’s Paco de Lucia inspiring a lithe Spanish dancer with flying notes you can almost hear – and that’s before the strings go on. And of course, part of the reason we’re here…
GL: We’re going to start (at TNAG) with a guitar a year and see how it goes.
TNAG: So if you had to say, going right back to sound, what defines a Laskin guitar - what makes it different, why it stands out from everything else out there, what would it be?
GL: Everyone searches for terminology to describe what they’re hearing or feeling but for me, the priority is to produce guitars that I like. My aim is for clarity and balance, of course, but also for a warm, mature sound to the note. I don’t like the percussive edginess that a lot of contemporary, crappy-pick-up guitars sound have. That stuff annoys the hell out of me. So I'm looking for something that feels like it's aged; its rich and beautiful but it has the immediate qualities of power and balance, sustain and clarity. All that must be in there. It’s not to everybody’s taste. It’s not a Martin sound, it’s not a Taylor sound but it’s my sound. I will say I'm very proud of the sustain on my guitars. I get studio players telling me they have more sustain than anything they've ever played, to the point where they get angry at me because, at the end of a song nobody can move - the damned Laskin guitar is still ringing and the engineer won’t let them move in case the chairs creak. I sometimes sit there and hit a harmonic then look at my watch to see how long it lasts. I can’t say, though, that it’s one specific thing that’s doing it; it’s just part of the collective result of how I build my guitars - the attention I’ve put in to the weight and mass of the headstock, the neck – it all plays a role and I’m proud of that. If as a builder you’re thinking about the velocity of vibration brought on by the movement of this ‘object’ (the top), trying to make it as efficient as possible so that it’s fully engaged before the vibration starts to dissipate, then you have time to colour what’s going out there into the human ear. It’s an art form but there’s science in there, as well. You pay attention, get experience and you learn that this piece of wood, in combination with that one, is likely to do these particular things but you can never know 100% - there’s always the question - and that’s where the art comes in. Sensing, intuiting what you need to do with this particular wood to meet the needs of that particular player, that’s the never-ending challenge that keep us all here. The carrot is always just out of reach. You keep going for it and getting closer but you’ll never quite get there. But for guitar-makers, that’s what keeps it exciting. With other instruments – violins, for example –they’re really just trying to reproduce what’s been done before and competing with guys who died centuries ago. We don’t compete with dead people. For the most part.
And a human lifetime is about what you're going to get out of your guitar before it needs major surgery. That’s just the way it’s built, so lightly, to respond to a plucking action. Pluck a violin it sounds like shit but you start to bow it – which is what it’s built for - and it’ll blow a guitar off stage. So we have to deliver the same musicality from a pluck action. That’s not only more destructive to the instrument, you’ve had to build it light enough to respond and now it's got all this tension. It’s such a poor design compared to a violin – so inefficient. On a violin, you’ve got the natural arch, which is strong, you’ve got the sound-post resisting the downward pressure of the bridge, you've got the strings attached at the end, nice and secure, and not pulling on this thin piece of wood as on a guitar. It’s no wonder they last for centuries. Then again, there isn’t a Stradivarius out there that hasn’t had a new neck at some point. They were too quiet, for a start, so they put new necks on them. The originals were being built at a time when it was all about chamber music, before people were playing in big halls without amplification. To get that volume, they had to increase tension so - new necks, changing the angle, higher bridges, all that stuff. Even with that, they’re beginning to deteriorate. They’ve been vibrated too damn long. They’ve passed their peak. Whereas a guitar’s peak - a classical that’s more sensitive – is maybe 25 to 35 years of playing full-time. A player who’s played regularly will start to hear a lack of vibrancy on certain notes – how they’re not quite doing what they used to. The sustain, way up the neck, is not quite there anymore; subtle things that, if you play it all the time you’ll know it. That's the beginning of them starting to deteriorate. If you put an oscilloscope on a bowed violin, no matter how hard a player digs in with that first stroke, it's still a bit of an upward curve to the peak before the note ski-slopes off. If you pluck a guitar it’s “boom”! That’s the destructive part. And the guitar is so much more delicate. A steel-string guitar’s top is thinner than the thinnest part of a violin top. Hence all the bracing and support. They’re more easily damaged - the fibres, the physical structure – by that vibration.
So where does Grit stand on the current fashion for torrefied or baked tops?
GL: A few things to say - it's valid, sure, but whether it's going to make a better guitar…? Each maker’s going to be different and that effect's going to be mitigated - enhanced or diminished - by everything else you do on the guitar. Just getting that top isn't the panacea. I learned, when I was apprenticed with Jean Larrivée - as Jean did from Edgar Mönch before that - about cooking tops in the oven. He’d have them on low heat for a day before he joined them to the body. That would dry off the resins. What I do - I don’t have a stove here - is join the backs and tops then put them over a low fan for two to three months before I use them. They’re already long ago stable and dry. This isn’t about moisture, this is about crystallizing the resins. It won't do it as quickly or quite as fully as the heat but it works for me. So, yes, there is validity to that. Equally there’s validity in those units you can stick on your guitar (ToneRite) that will vibrate the top if you’re not playing it for a while. Basically, we know that wooden instruments develop differently if they're vibrated. They’ve got to be played, whether it’s a piano, guitar, violin, whatever – they will change. If you’re not going to play, you want them to be vibrated somehow. When I was working with Jean we built some classical guitars and if we felt a particular guitar wasn't quite opening up, right out of the gate, we’d hang it in front of some big speakers, tune in to the local rock station, crank it up as loud as we could with the guitar sitting right in front and just leave it for the day, let it vibrate. Then we’d hear the bass notes coming along and we’d even see the strings vibrate so much that they’d actually slap against the frets - just from the speaker vibrations. The whole thing’s opened up. I tell customers, you’re getting a guitar brand new and as great as it sounds now - and you’re already in love with it - that's the worst it’s going to sound. It starts from now. Just play it. From a guitar being new and unplayed, within a week you’ll start to hear differences. Within a month, you’ll hear it again. Six months, then a year and maybe it’ll slow down but it never stops changing. If it’s vibrated, we know that the cell structure starts to align itself differently from how it would be if it’s been sitting still. The guitar becomes more efficient at vibrating because you’re pushing it that way and that translates into a few different things; one is what some people call a “mellowness” because you're now picking up low frequencies, that might have been there but were too shallow to reach audible levels. Now they're expanding enough to move in to audible range. So you’ll get that but you also get a sensitivity whereby an equivalent amount of energy from your string will start to deliver more sound or, to get as much sound as you got out before, you can now use a lighter touch. The guitar just becomes more sensitive because it's becoming more efficient at vibrating. I remember once talking to someone who was holding his 125-year-old stand-up bass and the tones from our voices were causing it to vibrate. The thing was so sensitive you could just look at it and it would start to vibrate. Incredible. So that’s what happens and artificially doing it - by whatever means – is valid. On the other hand, there are people who say, Grit, your guitars pick up value over time, maybe I should buy one as an investment. I say don’t do that. If you’re not a player, it’s not going to increase your investment. It has to improve sound-wise to maintain that investment. A few scratches and dings from being played, that’s irrelevant - that means it’s been played. It has the “patina of use” which is a good thing and won’t diminish its value. So two or three times in my career, I’ve actually discouraged people – don’t buy it if you’re not going to play it. My guitars are tools be played. Pick it up. Play it.
And so, armed with those perfect marching orders, TNAG heads back out onto the bitterly cold streets of Toronto, warmed not just by those dazzling images of dancing senoritas, cherry blossom, fluttering wings and leaping dolphins but by the rare privilege of witnessing true genius at work, first hand.
Just a few testimonials found on Grit's website...