Describing musical instruments in terms of tone and response can be tricky as there is no generally agreed terminology. A few words I’d accept as having common meaning and some can of course be taken from the science of acoustics but in the main, analogy and poetry creep in to our attempts to describe the instruments we play and we may well be left with a confused picture. I therefore attempt to keep my descriptions to words that I think make the most sense whether on the poetic or the scientific side. There is no replacement for the ear of course and so I will add video and sound as much as possible. Or come and visit!
An instrument first and foremost has to feel right to you. I’m not just talking (in my case) about the neck profile, body size and finish but also the way the strings feel on both hands – the way it responds. It also hand in hand has to sound right to you. Volume is something but not everything. It’s a complex picture of how the notes blend together, how ‘airy’ or ‘solid’ it sounds and its frequency emphasis. Also how it holds together in a strum or how ‘open’ and responsive it is when picked. And the rest…..
My approach to mandolins
When I first started, I built all my mandolin family instruments with ‘flat’ (slightly arched) tops and backs like my guitars. It was mostly what I saw around me being played – uk hand made ones and the more arched top, portuguese models. I was happy with them and they all still sound great and remain well loved and used today. But as I started to hear old Gibsons and carve my tops and backs I soon realised that this approach would become my mainstay. They were more balanced, still wonderfully harmonically rich, you could hit them hard as you like, they were structurally more robust and they had a weight in the tone (fundamental) I was missing. With the way I was building them, I was getting a bit of the flat and the classic carved top sound which pleased me. I have made a few with carved tops and flat backs which worked well but I now exclusively make with a carved back as well as top.
In terms of American folk and Bluegrass, my mandos fit in well due to the obvious Gibson influence but I have simplified my models thus far to two, based on what I get asked for, my aesthetic and the music which I have the most affiliation for – Northern European Folk. I have also made a number for mandolin orchestra customers who are using them for a more classical repertoire. I can’t rule out an f5 for the future ….we’ll see.
My approach to bouzoukis
Again, my bouzoukis and octave mandolas started off as flat top and back models with floating bridge but I soon started to build with a bigger body and with a guitar pin bridge which gave me a power and bass response I wasn’t getting before. This made for a great rhythm bouzouki but it was when I added the carved Apline Spruce top that I found I could get the treble cut for melody but keep the thumping bass response. More recently, I have made two guitar bouzoukis based partially on the Sobell model played by Andy Irvine. These I built with more top and back arching than my standard guitars to give headroom and treble cut and they worked wonderfully. They are especially suitable for rhythm accompaniment but are still fantastic all rounders, having a weight in the treble that cuts through well.
I think I can call my instruments hand made. It’s not about the tools and machines – mine are pretty low key in the grand scheme but that’s mostly irrelevant. It’s about the approach. Production or a Bespoke. I make small numbers and so I get more time to select timber, grade it and match it. I get more time with the customer if need be and to think about and execute the project at hand. I make all the wooden components myself other than the internal linings and do my own inlay and finishing. All round I like the flexibility and control it gives me. There are good makers around adopting both approaches, it’s what works for me.
I always make my instruments with longevity in mind as I want my guitars and mandolins to stand up well to the rigours of gigging and touring. I don’t make structural compromises when it comes to voicing and build all my instruments in a humidity controlled environment to mitigate for wood movement in different environments here in the UK and across the world. I select the best materials I can get my hands on, make sure they are seasoned and acclimatised and have the time to check each piece thoroughly before and during construction. I build with common sense measures to mitigate for cracks and distortion. I finish my instruments in a musical instrument specific lacquer designed for the job.
My prices I hope very fairly reflect the standard of my work and my commitment to after sales care as well as the time spent with the customer. I don’t currently sell through shops so when you buy from me there is no middle person up charge. I always want to remain accessible to musicians and want all my customers to feel that they don’t have to keep them in a glass case. ‘Boutique’ guitars you may see on line are named thus because they are sold through boutiques, online or physical and mainly in the US. The double price tag is basically that up charge. A high price may in some cases justify the reputation and experience of a maker but nonetheless it quite often includes that cost.