Not all knowledge can be written down

Good news – the guitar top seems to be well glued to the sides, with not strange gaps or misalignments. The arch that was built into the top and sides seems to have retained its form – the lower bout tilts back from the plane of the upper bout and neck by a few millimeters at the bridge location. Pictures will appear in a future post.

Now that the top is being held within the frame of the sides, I can proceed to “voice” it by selectively removing material from both the top and the braces. In theory, there is a “sweet spot” of resonance where the sound board just feels more lively. The problem is, I’ve only read descriptions in print of what this might sound like. The few recordings I’ve come across just can’t do it justice through laptop speakers. It’s as much a felt quality as a heard quality. So I’m feeling really cautious at this stage, because if I remove too much material I’ll cross the threshold into “floppy,” where the soundboard loses its important acoustic properties altogether. (It will also likely fail catastrophically under the tension of the strings).

Right now it’s like I’m hiking in fog. I can set off in a particular direction, and I’ll have a sense of whether I’m climbing or descending, but I can’t backtrack. I’d like to climb to a local peak, but from this position I don’t even know which direction to set out in. Like I said, no backtracking if I set out in the wrong direction. And how to translate this metaphor of setting out in the fog to deciding which braces to lighten, where to sand down the top? I have no idea. I think I’ll end up just making some tentative, global changes, thinning the top overall by a few thousandths of an inch. One guidebook actually suggests making guitars in identical pairs – as you alter one soundboard you’ll still have a reference to judge against. Oh well, that’s not my case this go-around.

What I really need is to be guided by a master who can show me the sonic landscape of soundboard performance, what the boundary conditions are, and ways of getting to regions of that sweet spot (even within the region of “good resonance,” people may vary the qualities as a master of taste).  There is a builder up in Belmont I could try to hook up with for advice. (Actually, what have I got to lose for asking?) There are others who offer more formal classes and workshops in voicing the instrument.

It’s clear to me that this is one of those learning situations where patient guidance of a teacher is called for. I’ll still try to find what I can on the Internet – maybe somebody has done a really high-quality instructional video. But in the end it’s one person trying to convey a sense of things to another, and in that dialog understanding emerges.

I had a similar experience just last night – we went up to see a classical guitar concert by the Romeros (a dynastic family of musicians). They played as a quartet, and some of the members performed duets and solos as well. Celin Romero performed two Villa-Lobos preludes I’ve been working on (#1 and #3). HIs rendition of Prelude #1 in E minor was ear-opening. The manuscript notes supposedly say something to the effect that it represents two sides of Brazilian character, both a yearning melancholy as well as sense of verve and gusto. The form is A-B-A, where the opening A section (the “yearning” part) is repeated after the B (more exciting) section.

Celin took the first A section far more delicately than I play it, and more patiently than many recordings I’ve heard. He was measured with his phrasing, allowing the piece to really breathe. I have to say I was a little disappointed in his B section (but I suspect, based on some technical choices he made, his fingers may be showing their age), but overall I was glad to hear and SEE him play it first-hand. Again, all of the manuscript notes in the world would not convey what it could sound like, compared to hearing a live or recorded performance (I probably own at least 3 versions of this prelude on CD, all with a different emotional interpretation. Celin’s was the 4th I’ve heard from a professional).

So, I’m off to find some good acoustic guides to soundboard voicing, and I’m inspired to pick up the Villa-Lobos prelude again. 🙂  Til next time.


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