December 2022

Sometimes I'm Just a Vehicle

The more instruments I build, the less in charge I seem to be. I mean, I’m the one deciding what to do and when to do it, which wood to use, which tools to use and so on, but often times at some point the build takes on a life all its own. This happens despite hundreds of decisions that I must make along the way, but those decisions often feel guided by some exterior force, or perhaps it’s really an inner force, and I—with my eyes, hands, fingertips, and tools—am just along for the ride. As I work, the state of the project tells me what’s next. The beginning of a build feels like the start of a journey, a feeling not unlike starting out on a roadtrip in the car. They often take on lives of their own too.

The beginning might start long before any wood is cut, perhaps years before anything happens in the shop, taking shape slowly in my head in fits and starts. Sometimes, while working on the current project, ideas for a certain future project appear, and if I’m lucky, I’ll have something handy to jot it down. Usually it has to do with the shape of the body. I’ll start by sketching out the shape in pencil, and many versions later, using a CAD program on the computer, with more versions to follow. With classical guitars, shapes and sizes are rooted in the Spanish tradition, which makes finding a case to fit much easier. There’s also the practical matter of being able to sell what comes out at the end!

Small changes call out to be made on the established shape I start with. An ungraceful transition crops up next to the altered area, like a bump or flat spot, so one change can morph into many, like trying to get four legs of a table the same length, but with a guitar shape, it seems like I have about 20 legs to chase after. When I think the latest changes are final, I’ll sit with them for a few days—months in one case—and there’s a good chance more changes will be needed. Then somewhere along the way, the calling to make more changes comes to an end, and I can start cutting wood.

Once a build reaches that point, it behooves me to take a step back every now and then, to watch and listen. If I don’t pay attention to those signals, and take back control, the results are often poor, and the best thing to do is stop and clean up the shop, or go in the house. The best results come from paying attention, listening and watching, for what’s to be done. When it’s done, the guitar goes out into the world on its own journey to make music.