Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Classical Guitar Sound

It is a common thing to discuss a luthier's "sound" e.g. "Hauser's sound is always…” While it is true that most luthiers will produce a signature sound in their mature work, it isn't as safe to generalize these days because there are a lot of very talented guitarmakers producing a broad range of instruments. No longer can we characterize a guitar as coming from the "Madrid" or "Granada" schools just to name two. In truth there are probably any number of schools such as the Australian School, an American School, a European school and a Latin American School just to mention a few. Come to that, there are enough innovating luthiers in each area to bewilder any attempt at categorization.

Ok then, how about the hallowed "Torres-Hauser" tradition? I do agree that this "school" is somewhat helpful to describe some maker's style but in reality any luthier working with that model are doing their best to be differentiated from their seven fan strut brothers through quite variety of unique and personal refinements. It can be confusing.

If you try to relate to a "Fleta sound" or a "Romanillos sound", remember that most of the old masters guitars have been effectively removed from circulation as they exist for the most part in the hands of dealers or collectors where the prices make owning these guitars prohibitive but for the few. When it comes to valuing or studying the sound produced by a particular school or master luthier it has been reduced to so much historical mystique and hyperbole. Almost all professional guitarists are performing and recording on instruments made by contemporary builders. Some will say that the current crop of classical guitars lack the qualities of the old instruments but I think that isn't true especially when considering any character that can't be explained away by the notion of aged instruments sounding better because of age alone. It's so hard to build in 60 years worth of seasoning!

All that being said, some guitars are going to be better suited for some music types than others. A big warm, lush Cedar guitar probably isn't going to be the best guitar for pre-Romantic era music. Players who specialize in that music might prefer guitars with clarity, responsiveness and moderate sustain. Speaking as a luthier, I'm a firm believer that every guitarist should own several guitars to fit each musical period.

If you play out for audiences you might want to make sure your guitar has plenty of power so that you can compete in less than friendly environments where you're apt to be playing. If you play only in your own studio, how about a guitar that sounds great from behind the instrument since most of the time you're going to be the only listener? I have played guitars that would speak very well to an audience but sound terribly uneven to me the player.

I would recommend that any player searching for the fine instrument ignore romance and reputation and instead shop for sound and playability based on your personal evaluation not on dealer liner notes. Learn to discuss these issues technically with other players, dealers and luthiers without getting swayed by the romance. There are terrific guitars out there and you shouldn't have to go in debt to afford them.

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