Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Just past healdsburg and beyond "What's Next!"
So it's been a week-plus past Healdsburg and I have a lot to think about. I was happy with what I took for my own work, but not thrilled. I've got my issues to work on and that's great, but I didn't take an attention grabber to the show and that's the key, the state of the modern custom guitar builder is an interesting one in that we are limited by the instruments we build. Everyone's looking for a guitar that sounds "amazing" or is some composite approximation of what is "perfect" when the truth is an acoustic guitar can only do so much, even when it's done right.
My experience concerning the other builders at the show was that all the builders who were there had great instruments, they were all done right. You could go from booth to booth and strum the strings of any guitar on the table of one builder and move on to the next builder, strum the strings and it would sound the same! It didn't matter if it was a known makers guitar or an unknown makers guitar. If done well they all sounded the same, or generally the same taking in size and depth variation. Now there are makers out there who are "voicing" their instruments to sound for different qualities then other builders, "responsive" or "projective" or not; you can gauge a builders orientation by a few sounding and vibrational factors and to my ears everyone was in the same ball park.
I've read some online postings (that's the problem right?) that said they were unimpressed with the guitars out at Healdsburg or that they had this complaint about the shows setup or lack of space for this or that. It was interesting to read some of the builders perspectives and contrasting those with buyers/players/soon-to-be builders perspectives. To me if one was really at the show to buy an actual guitar there were amazing spaces to try an instrument to it's fullest and as a builder we had nothing to complain about. If I really wanted to "buy" a guitar I'm the kind of guy who will sneak a chair into the bathroom or ask a security guard if I can sit in the stairwell behind him in order to check an instrument. Perfect acoustic space doesn't matter. I love the way my guitars sound, on a stage or in the bathroom.
I was completely impressed with nearly all of the builders at the show. Some guitars weren't my playing or sonic taste, or my visual aesthetic but they all sounded very well and were well built. I was able to play some of the extremely famous and/or the newly sought after "rising star" guitar makers instruments and to be completely honest some I loved, but more often then not I was unimpressed with portions (some small, some large) of the guitar makers work from a builder and a players perspective. Weather it be neck shape or finish quality or projection issues, which in the end are all "builders choice" issues and had I wanted to actually commission an instrument they were all things that could be changed to my player preferences easily.
What made them famous or a "rising star" was they they had done something amazing earlier in their career or had worked with some other famous maker or had used some new build technique to draw people in to start, a "wow that's cool" or "they came from this" factor. I don't have the famous maker to lean on and unfortunately I'm a copycat. Building a MN shape with my own appointments for the small details but not noticeable enough to set me apart(yet). Because even as I'm trying to stand on my own I favor that MN shape and it's famous traditions so that all my detail work goes unnoticed to someone just walking by. I didn't have a wow factor, I had great Brazilian Rosewood but there were finish issues with my guitars so that even when someone did stop and look they could see the flaws and they would move on.
I'm not undercutting my instruments, they played and sounded just as good, if not better (for my builder perspective focus areas) then most guitars out there I'm simply saying, and saw, the exact same responses from guys who looked at finish details like I look at finish details (all inclusive guitar in it's finished form "finish details") from a player perspective. I would have set my instruments back if I was just at the show shopping too.
But that's what's cool I think. I am extremely judge-mental from the player perspective, I look at all the details, "fit and finish" (standard builder stuff) but I also look at the player perspective things, "How will this guitar sound in a room with 3 family members, in a coffee shop with 1 bad mic and a really bad PA and 23 people, will this give me more then just what I can hear in the 3-4 foot circle around me?" Not to mention, "can I play this guitar for 6 hours without it cutting off my arm or causing me to change my playing posture to get around some of it's 'fit and finish' issues?" To me that's the reason I know I'm going to make it as a builder, I can be down about my own work but it's because I'm focusing on the whole picture. I want to make guitars as good as the player inside the builder is.
My 3 builder types, the way I think about myself and other builders:
1. Some guys are great guitar builders. "Fit and finish" is clean and looks perfect, but sonically their instruments lack player perspective or sound perspective in some form. Hard corners, joint transitions aren't smooth for hand posture changes, or it doesn't project enough for the the players needs. They are usually traditional shape builders, copying the shapes and traditional of the "old" guitars. The ones that built the market and the demand for "custom versions." These guitars are great and the builders are amazing but they are not transcendent or above the norm.
2. Some builders are great guitar designers. They dream up some new approach that grabs the attention of a portion of the market and that builds a following because of the fresh approach. Whether it actually improves the sound or playability of the instrument is a whole other argument that in the end doesn't really matter to me in this classification because the builder has built a great guitar with this new idea as it's center piece and more often then not they are based on some traditional shape or style but they have included their design to push the limits of what was once tradition.
3. And some builders are guitar makers. Where their builds make the guitar an instrument in every true sense of the word. Gifted art and gifted build techniques meets successful acoustic / sonic qualities. The whole picture. The best blend of the the 1st 2 classifications but somehow above and beyond in their final instrument. The hardest version of my three subsections to get right.
In reality all builders are part or contain parts of all three of these classifications but some areas fit some builders better then others. I need more of the design and sales side. A guitar with a fresh perspective or individual design to draw people to my table to "really look" at what (and how) I'm building.
Here's the way my Healdsburg weekend went.
Thursday: I arrived early feeling excited and pumped up. 4 guitars with me. Brandi and I set up the stands on the table and I changed 2 sets of strings. There was a builder meet and greet that we walked into but after arriving I got embarrassed and insecure because I didn't "know" anyone and those I did know were all the guys who's work I had been obsessing over for years that I was too afraid to go up to.
Friday: Show up and set the guitars out, polish what I can and am excited for the show to start. As the day goes on I notice more and more issues with my own guitars. Thumb scratches in the finish from wiping glue from around the fretboard lap over the body. A couple of missed but well hidden burn through spots right in the transitions from purfling to binding (thank god for nitro, I can fix it all). And the worst one, a drop fill that I completely missed right on the top of a sellable guitar. Not bad in general, completely fixable once I get home but to be visible at one of the premier shows for guys like me in the country and to be under the weight of my own expectations for a good showing I start to fade (confidence wise) near the end of the day.
5 sit and plays
2 quiet room plays
8 Fretboard journal subscription cards
Good first day for a new guy.
Saturday: Slow to set up. Frustrated at myself and "the situation I've placed myself in," I look for ways to cover up or hide my errors. By the time lunch rolls around I'm completely embarrassed. Had a couple of guys come up and hold guitars and check the finish (hands out and rotated the guitars under the lights like they were in the shop looking for what I should have found) and put the guitars back without playing and without comment. Mortified. Lunched at 2:30 and was so sad that I left my table and decided to play my favorite builders guitars for some re-encouragement. Went to my new favorite builds booth, who's instruments I'd never played before, just seen in magazines, and played their newest and most expensive guitar (one of the most expensive at the show), and I hated the guitar! Hated it!!
Sonically not my taste, it was really quiet and didn't drive like I love makers guitars to do. It was complete and full but it didn't shine for me. The neck was way wrong to my preference, and the finish had sinks from insufficient pour fills all over the entire back, sides, and neck (every pour). I never felt so good about my own work and my 7 sink spots, 3 burn throughs, and 4 nail scuffs. Even my hero maker, who I will talk up to anyone that asks, has some issue that they are working on or would need to drastically change for me to be interested in their guitars as a player/customer. I'm not saying the guitar wasn't great or that it wasn't impressive (it was and it is) it is just completely not for me in any of my play/feel/sound perspective respects.
After the show went and ate and went to the builder party at one of the worlds best maker's home shop and took lots of pics!! Coolest guy ever and one of the best guitar makers the world has ever seen.
9 sit and plays!!
0 quiet room plays
11 Fretboard journal subscription cards
Great steady day for a new guy, even with the hard start. FBJ guys came and hung out and so did Baker from the Woodstock guitar show. Roller coaster day. Big writer day. Hot and cold builder day with a super cool end.
Sunday: Got there early to play more guitars. The builders were allowed an open hour and a half to play the other builders work. So I put out my guitars and walked the show without the chatter of show-goers. And I played one of a "rising stars" guitars. The builder has a great pedigree and design perspective and is gaining a steady customer base. The instruments price for nearly double my base price and they have only been building on their own for 1/3 the time I have. We've both been focused on acoustics for the same amount of time, but anyway I hated their guitar too (from my player perspective). Their really great design ideas didn't translate into a fluid players instrument from the headstock through the joint at the body. The joint was awkward. The top was tap tuned to it's booming potential but I couldn't hear enough from my perspective just above it to hear the voice of the guitar. Like everything it had sound wise went out front and I was left with ear plugs in trying to hear the little remaining sound through the sides and back. Neck shape and joint were not my fav but is an easy thing to change. But he was getting the audience draw and sales at double my price at the show.
Changed 2 sets of strings and cranked my trusrods to sleek my action to the n'th degree for the final day. Didn't matter. Slow last day.
2 sit and plays
0 quiet room plays
5 Fretboard journal subscription cards
OK day, fairly quiet last day but I really connected with some builders and really got inspired to get back to my shop and my work. Felt really good after evaluating the high $ drawing builders work and not like it at all. I just have to put in my time and be fair with my process because there is no timeline, as long as I keep building, I've won.
All in all I'm really glad I went, sales or not, I was lucky to be able to show. The show was done really well. The builders that were there were great and inspiring. I'm stoked to start my next builds and I have a strategy for the wow factor for the next show and I'm not going to pack my table. 4 guitars in a 2 X 4 space just looked cluttered. 3 max on a 2 X 4, and 5 on a 2 X 8 is all I'll do from now on. I'm excited to keep being the guy who shows at these shows and who's instruments just keep getting better and better. I'll still pick myself apart, to the n'th degree I'm sure, but man someday I'll lock into a player that digs those finite details like I do.
I'm currently prepping to teach an acoustic guitar building class that starts mid September at a local Woodcraft, should be fun and it's filling fast. Crazy!! I need to clean my shop and rework the finish on a couple of these guitars. Finish the 3 that got left behind and start the new guitars just because I can. All set. Go!!!