Saturday Afternoon

Saturday 4 July – afternoon
by T. Wesley

built by Cristian Mirabella and 1 employee in Babylon, New York

Mirabella got his start in luthiery at 10 years old doing what a traditional apprentice starts doing – sweeping the floors. He graduated to fetching wood and other minor shop tasks before being allowed to touch a guitar.

Before too much time passed, he was doing full restorations on priceless D’Angelico and D’Aquisto guitars, some destined for museums, others eventually returned to their collections. Along the way, he started building guitars influenced by what he learned from doing countless repairs and restorations; he set out to build a guitar that players would be proud to gig. Though he favors building, he still does repairs and restorations that require his specialized experience and knowledge.

Mirabella uses traditional tonewoods certified for use in cellos, which means they’ve been closely supervised and dried for up to 50 years. He uses German spruce for his tops and European maple for the backs and sides of his guitars, adding fingerboards and accoutrements of ebony and rosewood. He finishes exclusively with nitro despite the difficulties he faces in sourcing the best quality materials and the inherent environmental issues involved in properly shooting the traditional finish. He also makes his own bridges and hardware except for Schaller and Waverly tuning machines.

His backlog is hovering around 3 years, while his output remains steady at 15 to 16 guitars per year. He’s noticed a trend in the popularity of his guitars with flat-top guitarists that never play a note of jazz, which is a departure from his regular customers in the past.

Mirabella’s most innovative instrument is his Trap Door Guitar. This is a complete ground-up re-imagining of how an acoustic guitar operates. The guitar features three wafer-thin, highly polished aluminum doors that slide easily in channels lined with the same felt used in piano making. There are two doors on the side nearest the player’s ears and one door on the bass bout of the top.

The doors do two important things at the same time. When they are closed, they stiffen the top significantly, tightening up the overall sound and emphasizing the mids and highs. As the player opens the doors, the top begins to vibrate more freely, releasing the solid low end and opening up the sound of the instrument. The mid emphasis dips, while the highs stay balanced with the low end. It’s a remarkable transformation to hear, and one that Mirabella says is very popular with session players that don’t want to haul 3 or 4 guitars to a session.

The Trap Door Guitar features asymmetrical X bracing to balance the tone across the tops. That’s correct – tops. Mirabella has two tops in this guitar, neither of which comes directly into contact with the other. It’s an impressive innovation that has to be heard.

built by Linda Manzer in Ontario, Canada

Linda Manzer is perhaps most well known for her nearly 30-year long association with guitarist Pat Metheny. They are celebrating this mutually beneficial relationship with a limited run of 30 Pat Metheny Signature guitars, built to the exacting specifications of the very first steel-string she built for Metheny.

Though Manzer usually does every last thing on every guitar she builds, for the 30 Metheny fingerboards she’s enlisted the aid of an outside inlay artist. She uses traditional tonewoods, with Indian rosewood backs and sides and cedar and German spruce tops. She finishes her guitars with pre-catalyzed lacquer.

Manzer designed and built a monstrous guitar for Metheny she named The Picasso. This 42-string behemoth instrument posed a unique problem for her – how to enable the guitarist to see all those strings. She came up with an innovative solution to this problem, a solution she calls the Wedge.

The basic idea behind the Wedge is to make the guitar more ergonomic, allow the guitarist to better see the top of the guitar, and do both things without significantly altering the tone of the instrument. She squeezed the top (bass) bout and spread the bottom (treble) bout by equal amounts, which keeps the internal volume of the instrument nearly exactly the same as a non-Wedge guitar. This retains her signature bright yet warm tone.

The top’s relationship to the sides is exactly the same as a non-Wedge guitar; it’s the back’s relationship to the sides that changes. Wedge guitars are extremely comfortable to play as they fit in tighter to the body than a non-Wedge guitar, allowing the player’s arm to swing without the forearm rubbing across the top-to-side junction.

built by Michihiro Matsuda in Oakland, California

Michihiro Matsuda builds large-bodied, spruce topped guitars with the most unusual headstock on the market.

Not only is the headstock split in the Z axis, it includes the capability to add a full half step to the low E string – two frets lower, that is, allowing the guitarist to play with an open low D note. He achieves this effect with a rosewood buttress on the bass side of the headstock which includes a spring-loaded mini-capo mechanism.

Matsuda’s guitars have a rich, balanced tone, and the top responds extremely well to the lower notes attained by retracting the mini-capo. The guitar sounds positively huge with crisp bass tones and smooth mids and highs.

built by Ervin Somogyi and one employee in Oakland, California

Ervin Somogyi says he’s not doing anything different when he builds a guitar than thousands of other guitar builders. He uses very traditional tonewoods – rosewood backs and sides, spruce tops, and mahogany necks. Though he prefers to finish with a French polish, he also finishes with nitro when the customer insists on it.

What Somogyi is doing differently than other builders, however, is building guitars of such exquisite beauty that they simply demand attention.

He is a gifted inlay artist, whether the inspiration for his design comes from a customer that owns several coffee shops or an interlocking pattern of large and small squares on the ceramic tile on the floor of a Mexican restaurant.

His incredibly beautiful Andamento guitar took over 500 hours of labor to complete, with every piece of inlay cut and laid by hand.

built by Greg German in Broomfield, Colorado

At first glance, Greg German’s guitars look oddly skewed. The requisite double-take does absolutely nothing to dispel this image, because his guitars are skewed.

To solve a playability and tone problem tendered by a local guitarist, David Thomas Bailey, German took traditional guitar design and turned it on its head. Bailey prefers heavy strings and low tunings, and with regular guitars found his bass strings floppy and undefined – especially since he wanted to play a 7-string acoustic guitar.

German solved both problems simply by stretching out the bass side of the guitar – the entire bass side, from the headstock inlay to the tailpiece. In a tribute to high school math, the only right angle on the entire instrument is at the 8th fret.

The extended bass side of the guitar tightens its bass response, even with dropped tunings and heavy strings. The guitars remain very balanced tone-wise, and the stretched scale length on the bass side takes very little time to adapt to as a player. After a few minutes of playing, it’s barely noticeable. His parlor guitar (pictured) has very rich and true bass response, which is very uncommon for a small-bodied guitar.

German uses Sitka, Englemann, and Adirondack spruce for his tops and pao ferro, big leaf maple, and red maple for his backs and sides. He finishes with McFudden’s UV finishes, which he prefers for its look, durability, and workability. “I hate nitro,” German said, “this UV finish trumps everything.” Given his nine years of repair work before he started building his own guitars, he’s definitely had time and opportunity to develop his strong opinion about guitar finishing.

built by Paul Woolson in Madison, Wisconsin

The advice Paul Woolson offers beginning luthiers is simple: “don’t tell your math teacher that trig is useless.”

Woolson discovered this little fact himself when designing an instrument for a player with specific hand, wrist, and arm ailments. The culmination of this design process is his Jumbo Parlor guitar, which looks and plays like a parlor-sized guitar from the soundhole to the headstock, but due to its jumbo-proportioned lower body, has the bass response and balanced sound of a much larger guitar.

He also found part of his client’s solution in a multi-scale fretboard, which is a 25.5 inch scale for the low E and a 24.5 inch scale for the high E. It’s an odd looking neck at first, but it plays as well as – if not better than – any acoustic guitar on the market.

Woolson uses cedar and German spruce for his tops, but he often uses them together as very thin layers laminated together with a micro-thin layer of Nomex between them. This gives his guitars a stiff and stable top that he claims need absolutely no bracing to function properly. He still does very thin bracing to voice the top, however, in a highly modified X format – with absolutely no bracing between the sound hole and the neck joint. Since the whole top moves in lock step, the guitar sounds full and alive, with great bass response from such a small instrument.

Woolson is another nitro hater, preferring to use polyurethane, which he applies extremely thin. He finds polyurethane to be a better finish that more common poly resins, which he says can be brittle when applied in very thin layers.

built by Pete Swanson in Ontario, Canada

Pete Swanson is a very unique luthier, with a background in boat building and a fanatical passion for hot rods. Such a unique individual could only produce the very unique Dagmar guitar.

Each of Swanson’s guitars start with a carbon fiber core, which he forms by hand instead of with a mold. He then builds the sides of the guitar piece by piece, cutting and fitting each small block together in a painstaking process. It takes Swanson nearly 250 hours of work to finish a single instrument.

In an incredibly odd trifecta, Swanson credits his success in completing his guitars to high school math as well as careful documentation and incredible attention to detail.

He uses common tonewoods for his guitars – cedar and European spruce for the tops, Engelmann spruce for the internal bracing, big leaf maple for the backs, and Honduran mahogany and flame maple for the intricately constructed sides. He also uses “cooked” maple for tops, a process which requires the wood to be physically baked in an oven and breaks down the cellular makeup of the wood, creating a denser, stronger wood with a unique, reddish-brown natural look. His necks are 5-piece laminates of maple and carbon fiber. He uses ebony for the head caps and fingerboards.

The Dagmar guitar, with its distinctive lightning bolt f-holes, sounds crisp and bright, with smooth mids and good bass response. The guitars are very comfortable to play and balance well on the player’s lap; they don’t require (or even really inspire) that the player pull the guitar in tight to the body for stability. As a matter of fact, they sound a bit more open and respond a little better when not drawn tight to the body.

built by Peter Malinoski in Hyattsville, Maryland

Peter Malinoski’s guitars and basses are, quite simply, the most unusual instruments I have ever seen in person. Each one is utterly unique. His background in sculpture is obvious as he seeks what he calls “total unity of the machine and economy of design.”

The very distinctive headstock functions well and includes a brass “comb” to control the path of the string from nut to Gotoh or Grover tuner.

Malinoski builds 32 inch scale basses and 24.75 inch scale guitars out of North American ash and maple, using padauk for necks and finishing them with acrylic paint or hand-rubbed oil finishes.

His hand-built pickups sound thick and chunky and are visually arresting, keeping with the overall theme of his avant-garde instruments. The guitars balance neatly on the leg and whiles slightly on the heavy side, are nowhere near backbreaker weight.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s article, which will feature the only amp and pedal builders at the show, as well as wood distributors and – of course – more guitars!

Click here for the Saturday Night report.