Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The continuing skirmish between old and new

A frequent question I receive when playing goes along the lines of “How old is your violin?” You can also substitute guitar or mandolin for violin in that query. I also get asked if I made my mountain dulcimer, but that’s another subject. People ask the first question because a myth exists that older always means better when it comes to string instruments, but that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. Some older instruments are quite good, but new luthiers are building superb models these days, and a Taylor Guitars catalog calls this the golden era of guitar making.
Two lines of instruments are highly sought by collectors and players: Martin guitars from the 1930s and early 1940s and Gibson mandolins from the early 1900s, especially those made by Gibson builder Lloyd Loar. I haven’t played or heard those instruments in person, and I’m not doubting their quality — I heard a couple old Martins on a CD last year, and they were gorgeous — I’m just saying that old doesn’t automatically mean good. Quality sound is a result of workmanship, wood, good strings, a good player and time, the last because wooden instruments improve in sound as an instrument is played. I’ve seen that first-hand: if I neglect an instrument, its sound locks up and it requires many hours of playing to loosen up the sound again. When that happens, the sound hole sings to me with a delightful sonority, a resonant, ringing tone that swells and fills the room before fading into the ether.

Violins made by Stradivarius are not exceptional because they were made in the 17th and 18th centuries but because Antonio was a superb workman, and his violins can command hundreds of thousands of dollars. Those old Martins and Gibsons can command thousands too, and Gibsons signed by Loar can sell for six digits. That’s fine for collectors, but I’m a player, not a collector, and one with a limited budget, so I’ll go for newer instruments.
Taylor Guitars President Bob Taylor addresses this subject in his book “Guitar Lessons,” in the chapter titled “Innovations.”
“Modern steel-string guitars like ours were developed in the early part of the 20th century through innovation. Guitars were once strung with gut strings, but wanting more sound volume, makers began to use metal strings instead. This put more tension on the guitars and so the design was changed until eventually a new type of guitar evolved that could support and withstand the tension. These newer guitars were called steel-string guitars, as opposed to nylon-string guitars, or classical guitars.
“But somewhere along the line, the innovation stopped. People believed that they’d mastered the design and there were no further improvements that could be made. There were some people who felt that we should no longer innovate, but rather, try to recapture what was good about the guitars of the 1930s and 1940s. These are referred to as pre-war guitars and are highly sought after.
“But when I started building guitars, I just saw what was wrong with them. They sounded good, but they were unstable, hard to play, and very hard to service or repair.”
Taylor described in the book how he began using a bolt-on guitar neck, whereas all acoustic necks prior to that had been attached with dovetail joints, making them hard to remove to do repairs. Other guitar makers, of course, said, “You can’t do that.” But Taylor was proven right when his technician repaired a guitar whose owner had been complaining to the company about the poor quality of his instrument. When company representatives, including a technician, held a Taylor forum, the complainer brought his guitar. The technician looked at the guitar, loosened the strings, unbolted the neck, and said, “Here, will you hold this?” The owner looked surprised, and the tech asked again if he would hold the neck. In a few minutes the technician had added some shims, reattached the neck and retuned the guitar, and the problem was solved. Dovetail necks, however, would require shipping the guitar to the factory. Taylor also invented a thinner neck that other companies later copied, and not only are Taylor guitars innovative, they have exceptional sound and tonal accuracy.
So if I must choose between a gorgeous-sounding collector’s item that costs thousands of dollars or a rich newer guitar for $1,000, it’s an easy decision. And if I get signed by a major recording label, I’ll buy one of those old Martins. But that’s not likely to happen in the microcosm of traditional Celtic music.

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