Luthier Focus, TNAG Connoisseur

Tom Sands' Singing Tree Redwood and Joshua Tree Koa Guitar

In the first issue, Connoisseur talked to UK luthier Tom Sands about finding inspiration, apprenticing with Somogyi, and a special TNAG build for 2022 using tonewoods he’ll “never see again in his career”.

As the date of delivery nears, and while we have another very special guitar of his in the shop, we're sharing this delightful chat with Tom. Enjoy!

Tom Sands is a revelation. He’s honest, forward-thinking, doesn’t take himself too seriously (and is an excitable guitar nerd at heart). He talks openly about his way into guitar making (via electric bases, funk-metal band Primus, and of course, an apprenticeship with kingmaker Ervin Somogyi), and is clear about where he wants to take his builds.  

Balancing clean design aesthetics, pure functionality, and ‘material process’, he builds some of the finest guitars available today from his workshop in North Yorkshire, England. 

We’re here to talk about a special project in the pipeline for The North American Guitar in 2022, but before we do, we can’t help but talk about his time with Somogyi. 

“I think Ervin just has such a curious mind you know,” Tom says, swivelling around on his workshop stool to return a set of tonewood to its safe place. “He's arguably the finest maker in the world today, and he certainly inspired every luthier out. He really changed the course of the modern steel string acoustic guitar, but the thing that really amazed me was that he's still curious and he's still looking for ways to make the guitar better in terms of its sonic performance, how it's constructed, its aesthetic.”  

“He's got this kind of roguish, kind of rebellious nature, where he's always wanting to challenge people's perspectives on what the acoustic guitar could be, and that has really stuck with me because I think for someone like Ervin, it would be easy for him to just sit back and just be like, ‘I've done everything there is to do, and I'm really respected,’ and all this kind of thing. But he's still going, and still teaching.” 

Before his Somogyi apprenticeship, Tom worked in industrial design and luxury furniture design. An influence he doesn’t discard. “When I'm thinking about designing guitars, I almost try not to think about guitars. I try to draw inspiration and influence from external sources outside of the guitar world.” 

Dieter Rams (German industrial designer) is a huge influence. He has thisless but better’ philosophy and that’s where I'm increasingly trying to go towards. To strip away anything that's not needed and really just focus on pure design, placing the real emphasis on the materials. If you don't step outside of the field that you're directly involved with, you run the risk of creating something that’s generic. I look at a lot of mid-century product design, furniture design, Scandinavian minimalism, Japanese design, car design… but all the while I’m really paying attention to the materials. I can't help but be influenced by colleagues that I really admire too. Ervin. People like Ken Parker, Michi Matsuda. You know, all the greats that we're surrounded by at the moment. 

Canadian guitar trades 

But who builds the best acoustic guitars? “Ouch, you’re asking that! Well, defining ‘best’ is where we have to start with this one. I'd look at people like Dion James. We've long talked about building a guitar for each other. But I’d also have to say Ken Parker and his archtops. Ken and Dion focus on cleanliness, execution, and just the mechanics of the instrument. It's very much, where form follows function. Nothing superfluous.” 

A key aspect of Dion James’ approach to guitar building is found in collaborative working—something else Tom is a big advocate of. “Nothing great ever comes out of a vacuum, right?” he says in return.  

Dion No. 4 vs Tom Sands Model M

“If you're working alone you can become insular and closed off to new ways of working, because you're only drawing on your own experience. Looking back at my experience in Ervin's shop, when I was surrounded by really talented makers at different stages of their career, I was exposed to all kinds of successes and failures. And that really inspires your own work.” 

“Shared environments are really important, and ideally sharing spaces with people who aren't necessarily directly linked to yours. I have this fantasy, I guess, where I'm in a shared space with a sculptor, a jeweller, you know, some people doing all different kinds of things. You really just feed into everybody's creative process and you can learn something from it. Wouldn’t that be great?” 

A graceful take on the ‘golden era’ 

Talking about simplicity, we can’t ignore the ‘golden era’ guitars from Martin and Gibson. Despite building ‘modern’ acoustic guitars, the importance of classic depression-era and pre-war flattops aren’t lost on him.

“I've been trying to orchestrate getting a hold of an old mahogany Martin 0-15. I just love the simplicity of those instruments. You know, there's nothing superfluous. I love the color pallets. I love the sound of them. I love the old Gibson L-OOs too.” 

“I admire the utilitarian nature of those kind of early instruments. I'm really not about loads of ornamentation and loads of decoration and so those early guitars are definitely inspiring to me. It's the foundation on which everybody else is working, and I think it's pretty remarkable that in almost 200 years those designs have remained unchanged. Some people are still trying to replicate that sound. It's the foundation on which we all stand on.” 

Acquiring those pre-war instruments isn’t for the faint hearted (as Jason Isbell and Joe Bonamassa will tell you elsewhere in this issue). Tom has a pretty clear-cut opinion on those chasing holy grail instruments.

Available Model M Redwood & Maple with cutaway

“If something like a pre-war Martin, if that is regarded as the kind of holy grail, and you've got the money to pay for it, then why not? Do I think that a pre-war D-28 is a quarter of a million pounds better than a guitar I make? No, of course it's not. But that's not what people are paying for. They're paying for the rarity, they're paying for the story, they're paying for the exclusivity, they're paying for the fact that their heroes played those instruments.” 

Holy grail or not, everyone experiences a profound moment with a particular guitar that sticks with them. Doesn’t matter whether it’s a pre-war D-28, a 50s Les Paul, or production line flattop. If you connect with that guitar, whatever it may be, you’re not going to forget it any time soon. 

“Yeah, that’s it and I know exactly when I had that moment,” Tom says. “It was definitely the first time I played one of Ervin's guitars. It really is a sound and a feeling, you know? The first time I hit the low-E string, and just feeling it reverberate, and hearing this sound that I've never heard come out of another acoustic guitar before. It was just one of those moments, like I remember exactly where I was sat, I remember exactly who was in the room. I remember what I was wearing. Honestly, it was the moment when everything changed for me.” 

2022 project: Koa and Redwood magic 

“Let me put some magic spray on it because it’s amazing,” Tom says, holding up a set of Koa to his webcam.  

Together with Tom, we’re embarking on project for 2022 that will deliver one of the most special guitars we’ve ever had the good fortune of working on. Taking two sets of incredible tonewoods and the storied history of their provenance, and combining it with Tom’s ethos for boundary-pushing acoustic guitar design, the ‘2022 Sands’ project will be like no other.  

Joshua Tree Koa for the back and sides 

“We’re going to build something really special, really unique with this wood,” he says holding the Koa. “This is what's known as Joshua tree Koa. It's like ‘The Tree’ mahogany of the Koa world. I've been working with a supplier called Joshua Johansen who is a third-generation Hawaiian forester cum logger. He specializes in ethically sourced, sustainably harvested Koa. 

“I did an interview with him a couple of years ago now and he was telling me about this one tree that he'd almost overlooked because it was in a remote area that had fallen into a bog. It was really inaccessible, it was really high up, and it was this tree that was just kind of sat there, and he was like, ‘I don't know if we're ever going to be able to get that out or if it’s worth it’ because the thing with trees is you don't know what it's going to be like until you cut it open.” 

“He was kind of thinking to himself, ‘Man, I could exert all this effort getting this tree out, and then cut it up, and it just be plain and boring and awful.’ Anyway, he persevered, and pulled this tree out, and sure enough it just yielded this insanity grade Koa which is like I’ve never seen before. It's really dense, it's really dark, and the curl on it, the way the figure is, is just unbelievable.” 

“He's really passionate and precious about this wood. I had to plead with him to let me have some. His wife said to me, ‘Josh is kind of really particular about who he sends the wood to. He doesn't want just anyone to have it, he doesn't want to see it get butchered.’ And so I feel very fortunate that he’s let me have some of it. I certainly don't think I'll ever get any more in my career, so it has real sentimental value simply beyond its rarity.” 

Singing Tree redwood for the top 

It’s not just the back and sides that will have storied wood. The Koa will be paired with a redwood top from what’s known as the Singing Tree.  

“Have you heard of Lucky Strike redwood before?” Tom asks.  

‘Lucky Strike’ refers to a particular log from a storm-drowned redwood tree that was salvaged in Humboldt County, California, in the 1990s by Craig Carter and his wife Alicia Carter. The name ‘Lucky Strike’ is believed to be a reference to a storm that may have uprooted the tree, but also to the fortune of finding wood harvested from the forest floor with unparalleled, uniform grain and density. Experts put the age of this tree at 600 – 800 years old.  

“There are lesser-known logs that for some reason or another didn't kind of hit the celebrity status like the Lucky Strike log did, and one of those he named the Singing Tree. It's just exquisite. I absolutely love redwood, and as far as redwood goes, the stuff that he produced in the '90s is just outstanding.” 

What to expect tonally? 

“If we think about the spectrum of sounds, from a top wood perspective, you've kind of got European spruce on one end which is very articulate and ultra-responsive, very bright sounding and rich in overtone content. And then you've got redwood and cedar on the other end of the spectrum, which tends to be characterized as having a more round, warmer sound.” 

“The Carter redwood is almost like a hybrid between traditional redwood and spruce. It's just got a little bit of everything. Really lightweight, it's really brittle, so it's going to be a really nicely balanced soundboard. A nice balance of clarity and articulation, but with everything just slightly kind of rounded off. A really rich velvety sound.  

“Paired with the Koa,” Tom asks himself, “is difficult to predict because it's so different to regular Koa. I think they’re going to be pretty special together. I feel quite emotional at the prospect of building it, because it's wood that is so storied and means so much to the people who produced the timber.”  

“I feel more like a custodian to have been trusted with this material and to do a beautiful job with it, so it's quite an honor to work with it. I just hope that it translates into an instrument that ultimately is a real tribute to the materials.” 

While this very special guitar is already claimed, we'll still be sure to share content on it when it arrives. In the meantime, you can snag yourself Tom's very first Model M, also crafted with Lucky Strike redwood and a unique set of spalted maple from Ervin Somogyi's stash!

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For more Tom content, don't miss this interview from the TNAG London showroom back in 2019, and follow Tom's own excellent YouTube channel.


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