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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 9, No. 7

The Right Guitar

by Anna Sampson / April 26, 2004

Version française...

Though most guitars available in shops are mass-produced, Canada is home to many fantastic guitar makers or luthiers. A quick Google search turns up a ton of maker sites and regional guitar associations. Buying a handmade classical guitar can be a bit expensive. "Good instruments run from between $4000 and $7000," according to Ontario luthier Oskar Graf. Not quite as expensive as my cello, but not cheap either. This explains why Graf mostly sells to already proficient players. "It's not that often that a beginner would come to me for a guitar; what I do get are players who used to play in their younger years and now want to take up the instrument again. Their playing is far from concert level but they do enjoy the quality and sound of a fine instrument. Being a hand builder, I can customize their guitars to make playing a bit easier." One of Graf's instruments can be seen at Ottawa's Museum of Civilization.

Speaking of custom-built instruments, Montréal maker René Wilhelmy apparently started out by making his own lute while in the classical guitar performance program at the CÉGEP Marguerite-Bourgeoys in Montreal. He was fascinated by Elizabethan repertoire, and due to the high cost of buying an instrument he decided to make his own. Now he makes about ten instruments a year.

When asked about his apprenticeship in a recent interview, he said, "I was inspired by several different guitar and violin makers during my travels in Europe. Montrealer Neil Hébert's methods and ideas also had a significant impact on my approach. The recognition of quality and the understanding of materials are fundamental, I think. The better the cut, quality and seasoning of the materials, the better the likelihood of success."

The materials Wilhelmy refers to are spruce or cedar for the top of the guitar and Indian rosewood for the body. Brazilian rosewood might be used but it is very expensive. Graf explains, "The instrument is then covered with a synthetic lacquer finish. In the upper price range you also find guitars with 'French Polish' (the traditional method of applying a shellac finish). The classical guitar is nearly as standardized as a violin or a cello. The body sizes vary only slightly and string length has settled in at 65 to 66 cm. The neck width too is in a close range of 51 to 53 mm at the nut (the top end of the fingerboard). Within that range players will find that some instruments feel much more comfortable than others to play. The actual shape of the neck, the thickness and width, play a role; but also the setup, that is string height over the finger-board, will make a difference."

Surprisingly, unlike the violin or cello, guitars do not age well and do not appreciate in value. Due to the incredible tension (up to 120 lbs.) put on the body of the instrument, guitars lose sound after years of intensive playing. According to Wilhelmy, after its 15th year a guitar begins to lose some of its original qualities. Oskar Graf says that there is a playing-in period, "depending on player and instrument, of about a year or even longer, in which the tone improves, becomes more homogeneous, more alive, and possibly even more powerful." There are exceptions to the rule; guitars made by known makers or played by stars do increase or maintain their value.

So how should one go about choosing a guitar? Base your decision on your budget, the sound of the instrument and the playability or amount physical effort that goes into playing it. Listen for how it projects and responds. Bring a friend whose playing you admire. Talk to a guitar teacher. Try many instruments to develop a definite idea of what you like. Graf says, "I usually leave inexperienced players alone to try out a guitar. The instrument is intimidating enough without having me listening in. If one is nervous there is no way to get a good tone or to begin to explore the tonal potential. But most novice players come with their teachers to select or order a guitar... If I ship a standard guitar to a customer he has a three-day approval period to try out the guitar. But customers who come to my shop are expected to make their decisions right there. I have heard of guitar stores that allow trusted customers to try out guitars at home, though."

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