Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Judging a guitar by its cover

All motorcycles look alike to me. Same goes for pickup trucks. It’s because I see the broad outlines of the vehicles but not the many details that distinguish one from another. Until recently that was somewhat true for me concerning guitars, despite having played for four decades. I could easily spot a classical guitar, a steel-string guitar or an electric, but further than that I paid little mind to the details during two decades of obsessing over all things mandolin.
I said “until recently” because last year I delved deeply into the arcana of acoustic guitars, learning details such as the number of frets clear of the body, scale length, types of wood, and much more after years of fumbling about in the half-light of partial knowledge, not needing to know more than what it took to play. I owned a Sigma dreadnought guitar for years but mostly played mandolins, mountain dulcimer and violin, and although I liked to play guitar I paid little attention to the fine points of construction. I began my quest when I picked up Taylor Guitars’ annual guitar guide, featured in the winter 2013 issue of the company’s magazine, “Wood & Steel.”

A dreadnought is the large-body guitar pioneered by Martin in the early 1900s, named for the naval ship of the early 1900s. Guitars in the 1800s were small compared to now and were strung with nylon or gut. Martin developed the larger guitar for the demands of 20th-century music and pioneered a form of braces under the top to allow the guitar to withstand the tension of steel strings. The dreadnought is famous among players for its booming bass that can stand out among the banjos and fiddles of bluegrass bands, and it became the standard acoustic of the 20th century. It has a wide waist with a shallow curve between the upper and lower bouts. The jumbo compares in length and width to the dreadnought but has a narrower waist, giving the sides more convex curves, and it has been popular in country music, western swing, and early rock and roll. Gibson developed that design in 1937 for cowboy singer Ray Whitley, adapting the curves from Gibson archtop guitars used in jazz music. The archtop is just what it says and has F holes like on a violin rather than one round soundhole, whereas most acoustic guitars are flattops. Taylor Guitars dropped its jumbo line in 2012 and in 2013 introduced the Grand Orchestra to replace it.
Ranging in size between the small guitars of the 1800s, known as parlor guitars, and the dreadnought and jumbo are a series called orchestra models by Martin and bearing varying names depending on the manufacturer, and it is to those that I, being a player of mandolins, have been drawn. Using Taylor’s line as examples because that is what I’ve been studying, the company’s equivalent of Martin’s smaller orchestra models are the Grand Concert, Grand Auditorium and Grand Symphony. Their shape is similar to the Grand Orchestra, but their size appeals to me, allowing easier playing of single-string melody because the string tension is less.
The woods are of equal importance. Guitars, and other wooden string instruments, most often are made of two woods, a soft wood for the top and hardwood for the back and sides. Spruce is most common for the top, followed by cedar, which creates a softer, warmer tone. Common hardwoods are mahogany, rosewood and maple, each contributing its own characteristics to an instrument’s voice, and less commonly koa, ovangkol, cocobolo, sapele and ebony are used. Many lower-priced guitars use laminates to keep the cost down. The sound is not as complex but can be suitable.
Add the other details, such as the shape of the headstock, the ornamentation around the sound hole and at the edge of the top, and the pearl inlay in the fingerboard, often quite ornate, and you can often identify a guitar’s brand at first sight and have a basic understanding of its tone before you ever pick it up.
I’ve come a long way. Motorcycles and pickups may look the same to me, but a whole new world of guitars has come to life for me, and I’ll never see them the same way again.

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