We Can Have Our Cake and Eat It Too: The various ways guitar builders make our instrument so personal

March 11, 2019

Choosing a guitar is a unique, fun, and extremely personal experience. While almost any instrument has different customizations that can be made and different sound qualities that can be achieved by the maker, virtually any part of the guitar can be changed according to the player or builder’s desire. Whether it’s choosing a custom rosette, tuners, particular woods for the back and sides, type of polish, or any of the myriad of personal touches, this freedom of style has appealed to instrument builders for centuries.

One particular aspect of guitar customization that is particularly important to both players and their audience is the type of wood used to create the instrument. It seems that over the years of what we now see as our standard sized guitar’s development, two main preferences have evolved for the choice of the top piece of wood: cedar and spruce. Interestingly enough, most players usually classify themselves as preferring one or the other. Those that favor cedar often prefer a “warmer, darker tone” while those who prefer spruce typically seem to desire a “brighter and clearer tone”. Although there are most definitely sound differences between the two types of wood, these adjectives we’ve come to so casually throw out to describe them are not always true. The more builders experiment with changing the traditional build of the guitar, the less significant this difference in wood seems to be. Tone is so often affected by the type of polish, the age of the wood, the climate that the instrument has been built or kept in. So, even these stereotypical descriptors vary from instrument to instrument.

One thing that has plagued classical guitarists for years about the general construction of the instrument is the production of volume without sacrificing sound quality. The unamplified guitar is a relatively quiet instrument, which makes performing in a large concert hall or in a chamber group a difficult proposition at times. One way that luthiers have found to try and accommodate for volume is changing the construction of the top of the instrument. The three most recognized forms of construction are the traditional fan bracing, the lattice bracing (or hybrid lattice bracing), and the double-top guitar. All of these variations were conceived in order to compensate for volume or sound quality, and many players have vastly different preferences regarding the sound of each of these. What other instrument has so many variations of body construction to accommodate sound preference?

Another incredible way of modifying a guitar that is unique from most other instruments is the way in which we can improve the playability of an instrument based on a particular performer. For example, it’s now very commonplace for players to use a 640 scale length as opposed to the traditional 650. Unlike most of the string family, changing the scale length actually modifies the stretch between notes, whereas the reach between pitches on a violin, cello, etc. would not change regardless of fingerboard length. There are 7/8 size instruments in the string family that can accommodate a smaller performer, but the guitar is unique in that the fretboard is often modified independently of the standard body size. In addition to the length of the fretboard, builders often modify the way the fretboard meets the body. On some instruments it is almost flush with the body, but more commonly builders are now elevating the fretboard and angling the top of the body to assist with playing in the upper positions.

Whether it’s changing the construction of the instrument or its aesthetics, the guitar is such a personal instrument. This is something that we should embrace (and dare I say brag about?) as guitarists. From bracing choices to the type of polish and/or wood chosen for the top of the instrument, builders are constantly looking for ways to push volume, quality of sound, and resonance of guitars. Our instrument is continuously evolving for the better, and through this evolution we continue to expand our palette of personalization.

-Kathryn Lambert

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