I built my first instrument in 1972, at age 16, and knew immediately that I had found my calling. I worked/played for several years with an extraordinary "musical sculptor" in rural Vermont, Ken Riportella, a man who spent hundreds of hours on each beautiful and meticulous piece he created. Mostly these were wooden sculptures that could be played like Appalachian lap dulcimers. So, the first instruments I built were also dulcimers, and later little wooden banjos with a sweet sound like crickets singing.
In 1975 I attended a small guitar-building school, then known as "Earthworks", but soon to become the "Center for Guitar Research and Design" (GRD), run by Charles Fox. Charles, who currently builds and offers classes at his American School of Lutherie in Portland, Oregon, is a wonderful guitar builder and a brilliant teacher. I've also had the privilege of association with a number of fine guitarists, some of whom perform and record with instruments I made, and all of whom have helped me along in some way, in my evolution as a guitar builder. As a musician myself, I play a number of instruments with varying degrees of accomplishment, and consider my music-playing to be an integral and invaluable part of my instrument building.
My partner and I are currently living and working in the coastal hills
outside of Santa Cruz, California, where we continue our journeys through
the world of creative instrument building, and enjoy drawing like-minded
souls into the adventure.
ABOUT MY WORK
For the last 25-plus years I've been building original and traditionally-based guitars as well as numerous other types of instruments. Since 1980 I've shared workspace with my violin-building partner, Suzy Norris, inventor of the "Suzalyne" (a violin/viola combination with sympathetic resonating strings), occasionally collaborating on projects, and always influencing each other. Although my focus now is on guitar-like instruments, I've also built (in addition to dulcimers and banjos) violas da gamba, rebecs and vielles, marimbas and xylophones, thumb pianos and various things that can't be labeled quite so easily.
Until recently we also offered a full spectrum of instrument repair (I've had to cut out most repair work to keep up with custom orders). I find that this wide range of experience is incredibly helpful in my current work, which mostly consists of unusual custom guitars, or guitar-like creations. I'm also very much enjoying refining and evolving the "Sympitar" (my guitar with sympathetic strings), the portable "Dreadnautilus" guitar, and other forays into the evolution of guitar design. I have a tremendous love and respect for the traditions of guitar building, but I do my best work when I'm moving beyond those traditions, on that exciting edge of innovation.
I'm attempting, through my own artistic interpretation of guitars, to create instruments that are not only exciting to play, hear and look at, and satisfy all the usual requirements of a fine guitar, but also offer new satisfactions perhaps not expected from a more traditional instrument.
As I mature as a builder, something that I find increasingly joyful is
my involvement in the entire process of helping a musical instrument to
emerge from a tree. The romance of finding that perfect old-growth redwood
stump in the canyon behind our house, the piece of fallen walnut or acacia
tree from a neighbor. The joy of knowing where that tree stood, how it came
down. The hard work of splitting, hauling, seasoning and finally resawing.
That magic moment when I get to see inside the hunk of tree, that first
view of grain, color, possibility. Then, to go from there through the process
of visualizing, designing and building a beautiful instrument from that
wood. Finally, the crowning glory of playing and hearing the voice of this
new creation. The whole thing is true magic; creating this thing that seems
almost like a living being out of substance that had once been alive.
About "My" Sound
Every luthier has their own sound, just as every piece of wood and, of course, every instrument does. Some builders strive for a particular quality of tone, and want to replicate that as closely as possible with each instrument. Other builders may have a wider range of sounds that they're happy with, but still end up infusing an instrument they build with basic qualities of themselves that inevitably contribute to the underlying character of that instrument's tone.
I don't always strive for a particular character of tone, unless a customer requests it. Rather, I try to work with each design, each piece of wood, to make it as responsive as possible. Ideally, I want an instrument's own, unique voice to be open and unrestrained, with a balance of warmth, brightness and clarity throughout it's range. Beyond that, I enjoy instruments that have different characters - life would be pretty dull if all guitars sounded the same (or looked the same, for that matter!)
With custom orders, I apply all of my accumulated knowledge and intuition to realizing the tone that I think the customer has in mind, by playing with body dimensions, bracing, woods, strings etcetera. I've learned a lot in my many years of experimenting with a wide variety of instruments and materials; my attempts to capture the sound in a customer's head are generally successful. What if a sound doesn't mesh with what the customer has in mind? Well, I find that often the customer very quickly comes to love the sound for what it is, even if it's not quite what they were imagining. In the unusual case where the difference is irreconcilable, it's my responsibility, as the builder, to figure out how to make things right.
With my more unusual instruments, I sometimes have a specific sound in mind, and design the instrument around that. Sometimes I just want to let the combination of design, materials and sweat create it's own character. No matter what I do, it always has some of me in it. And that's true of any builder.