Caption This!

"But seriously you guys, I could shred this thing in 8th grade."

Thought for an Autumn Day

“The fullness ends when we give Nature her ransom, when we make children for her. Then she is through with us, and we become, first inside, and then outside, junk. Flower stalks.”

― John Updike, Rabbit, Run

When You Wish upon a Star

Wishful thinking : From our friends at Wikepedia: Wishful thinking is the formation of beliefs and making decisions according to what might be pleasing to imagine instead of by appealing to evidence, rationality, or reality. It is a product of resolving conflicts between belief and desire

How many times have you heard from on various guitar forums, lute forums, violin forums :

I just got this new instrument made by _________, and it’s gorgeous, but it still needs to break in a bit before it starts sounding amazing!

Six months later: I just got this new instrument made by _________, and it’s gorgeous, but it still needs to break in about a year before it really blooms!  

Six years later :  I just got this instrument made by _________, and it’s gorgeous, but it still needs to break in about a year before it really blooms , you know like the old instruments of the masters!

I went through this scenario with a local player. He’d paid a small fortune for a guitar made by  an un-named rather big name maker. To my ears the guitar when new was moderate in volume , fat on the bass , and constricted on the trebles. It didn’t sing well. Imagine a guitar with a perpetual cold. I played with this person on and off for twenty years. Twenty years later it still sounded fat on the bass , and constricted on the trebles. New strings, higher tensions , lower tensions, D’addario strings, Concertise strings, Carbon fiber, Titanium Nylon. It didn’t make much a difference. When I last saw  him he was now playing a an Australian guitar , it was brilliant, it was open , projected like a cannon , the trebles opened like a soprano in the midst of an Aria, the dynamics were almost piano like. In short a wonderful guitar, and brand new.

Which brings up the subject of my discourse of the day: Too many times we feel that we have payed for something fabulous , it should be fabulous.  Often times it isn’t. It’s ordinary or less than fabulous and just mediocre.  Mediocre is not bad it just not great. In hipster language : Meh.

I’m amazed how many people have told me their instruments have improved over time and that , yes they were a little disappointed when they first got it but over time it “opened up and now plays beautifully”.  Which brings me back to my favorite subject “ Cheap lutes “ and why they are so wonderful.  I’ve heard many of these Pakistani lutes that can be had for $700US.  I bought one for an experiment recently  and re-examined the why people praise them for their sonic qualities.

My impression:  It plays, barely .  The spacings were adequate, the action was surprisingly good.  The sound: It made some.  Small and listless. Small dynamic range.

I changed strings : the results? The sound: It made some.  Still small and listless. Still small dynamic range.

I bumped up the string tension from 2.8 to 3.3 Newtons : The results: The sound: It made more but still small and listless. Small dynamic range. The notes sounded and then died rather quickly.

Now here’s why:

I  removed the top ,and here’s what I found: The top has an average of  2.2-2.3 mm thickness with no graduations.  That’s a thickness used making classical guitars with a much heavier tension 5 kg per string.Middle east lute top

The braces are all uniform at about 3.5 mm thick ( that’s about right) but every brace is at 10mm high.

To cite our  good friend Scott Tremblay  “I have braces like that in my house! “. Precisely ! It’s great bracing for stability and sturdyness if you’re  laying down a floor. For a lute top; not so much.

The result is the top is uniformly stiff through the entire area of the top.  I don’t know what everyone else claims to be the magic formula but I do know that certains areas need to stiffer than others  to allow the top to flex on response to the string vibration. 

It seems our Middle Eastern  makers can go through the motions of but don’t really understand or give much regard to the mechanics of the top.

Which brings me to my closing points:  When I build , all my instruments  sound terrible on the first day . No exceptions. I hate them all . I can’t stand it.  The first day the instruments take on the strain of the string tension, the necks and the top flex and gradually settle in place. Over a few days the settling comes to minima and I can finally tune the thing and it’ll stay in tune. It’s at this point I can tell whether it’s a dog or not. But here’s the truth that I’d like to pass on to all of you: There’s a certain myth of about instruments getting better as they age. When I was younger I got to play some fabulous Spanish Guitars : Santos, Ramirez I , Barbero , Freiderich . They were on the average 15 to twenty years old  and truly fabulous.  But the question really boils down to : Were they good new?  I tried a relatively new Friederich  and the answer was yes!  Would it be better in twenty years?  Hard to tell. But this is what I think:  Good sounding instrument is good sounding on day one. It may get better as it ages or it may go south as well.  I ve seen plenty of “vintage”  classical guitars from very famous players that were worth money only for the label with sagging tired unresponsive tops. Not all tops will last twenty thirty years of playing.  So the moral of this story is : if your instrument isn’t doing it for you today , don’t rely on wishful thinking for it to transform into what you want it to be.  Life is short. Thanks for sticking it out to the bitter end here..

What’s in a name?

Faux  Blackbird 001 (2)

In the city of San Francisco, there are a few things you’re supposed to do when you open a business: 1.  file a business registration so the city can  collect taxes from you   2. File your fictitious business name so they know where to send your tax bill.  The fictitious business name filing makes sense, after all I am certainly not Mr. Blackbird nor has anyone ever addressed  me as such and looking up Blackbird will certainly not produce my address or reveal who I am. Filing a fictitious business name entails that you go to city hall and research through their records to ascertain that no on is using that name. If no one is using it , you’re good to go. In practice does that work? Yes and No. I am filed as one word:   Blackbird. Not Blackbird Lutes, not Blackbird music or Blackbird Sofas , Blackbird Movers, Blackbird Chinese  Food to go. Therein lies the problem .  See the news clipping above ? Blackbird Guitars. And what do they make? Carbon fiber Guitars. I got no knocks on that.  Notice they were astute enough to say Blackbird Guitars.  But what about Apple?  We all know they make computers and they call them whatever they want but the company is still Apple.  It’s not Apple Tablets, Apple Phone company , it’s  Apple , right?   So, can anyone start a company and call it Apple Guitars?  or Apple Radios?  or Apple Exterminators?

More on a name later.


Simple tasks

Quote from the archives of the Dartmouth Lute discussion message  board:

> >And the prices’ that these people charge, $1500 is a lot of money for
> >an instrument.I have priced some of the wood used myself, the profit
> >seems to be ungodly high.

> Indeed, wood is relatively cheap and $1500 is a lot of money. Those who
> want a truly inexpensive lute should assay making one themselves. There
> can’t be that much to it.

My favorite topic.  What do you readers think?  How many of you are up to it?  Can’t be that much to it…

Everybody Loves Sarah Lee…

Cheesecake  that is. The Chinese have a habit of following and imitating American Culture .  Whatever we do here in America the Chinese will have some adaptation of it.  To wit: sex and advertising in the guitar business. I was surfing through the web for a guitar case maker and I came across this on AliBaba the Chinese  equivalent of  Amazon. Its got the cute girl holding the guitar but not quite knowing what to do with it. Typically to be filed under born to be mild chinese cheescake!

Compare with the original American Cheesecake:  Dean Zelinksy knew how to make intersting guitars but he was a genius at marketing to the 15 to 25 year market. dean

Need a case for your guitar ? Or better yet need some aids for stretching out those hamstrings? At first glance you have to ask what are they selling? it’s obvious: Cheescake.

case girl

as opposed to this as the best example I could find for Lute cheesecake:


Or authentic Lute Cheesecake: appealing to those 50 and older….Reproduction_Painting_Italy_Solario, Andrea 1460 - 1524_The Lute Player


Caption this! Totentanz-2alt-300

Gosh, you guys are shy! four responses?  How about if I up the ante?

Best caption wins a real prize!

Okay, getting back to the contest as of this date:  eight entries.  Real excitement and anticipation here…

Attention Cheapskates, Paki-bashers, Hoi Polloi!


For all those referred from the Dartmouth site:

Tsktsking Wayne Cripps  on the term Paki is out of line. He was merely quoting what I wrote here.

For those of you who are ready to paint me as racist. You can stop reading and exit this website right now.I ‘ve no need for your  uber political correctness.

The term came up when I worked with an  internist who hailed from London. He brought it to my attention that many of the ER visits in London were the result of an unfortunate pastime of some rather unpleasant people engaging in ” Paki bashing. ” Since then I’ve had all manner of people refer to their Cheap Ebay lutes as their Paki- lutes. I didn’t come up with that term. What is write about is merely a reflection of what many of you have been saying.In a quick search through the Lute message board archives just searching the term “Paki” yielded 57  responses with that term. The term was used in equal proportion from writers from the US  and  Europe . European responses came from a variety of sources , Scotland, England France and Italy. For those decrying it as insulting in England you only have to look at the source.

My favorite subjects: The cheap , the bad and the ugly and when Lute players whine.

Our friend Mike was recently gifted a lute. Mike being a horn player didn’t know the first thing about lutes. He called me and asked me to check out his new lute. When he walked up the stairs it was quite evident what he had. The trapezoidal red vinyl case gave it away : a Middle eastern made Lute or one of the infamous Paki Lutes. I had seen one of these ten years ago and I have to admit I was tremendously underwhelmed and a bit appalled.

My impression of the Paki lute ten years ago was this: crude at best. The top was made of a rough grade pine, the rose although simple looked as if it had cut with a kitchen knife, the bowl was very rounded with no faceting on the ribs , the pegbox very crude and sticklike with pegs that had been cut rather than turned. The pegs ,to be polite were impossible to tune and hold. On top of that the fingerboard was out of true and the action terrible. And you were waiting for me  to  say but… it had the sweetest tone? No, on the contrary; it played like a pig had terrible tone , and no projection with the notes dying quite quickly. In short : It was a piece of junk , a complete waste of money and lumber.

Since then countless people have defended these Paki Lutes and have played them on videos on Youtube and Lute.ning. I thought either they were very good players who either transcended their instruments or they had doctored the recordings.

Back to Mike : I was expecting see another one of these pieces of junk as we opened the case. This is what I saw : A well put together bowl of Paulownia and rosewood with white spacers.  The body outline was close to that of a Venere . The slightly flattened side profile was quite pleasant . The enclasp was of a rosewood ,although plain it was neither offensive or crude.

paki lute front

The top: made of even fine grain spruce , probably Englemen spruce with a rose in the style of Venere. The rose itself had the right pattern but was still clumsily cut. The voids were there in the right places but the line work was crudely chamfered.  The solid rosewood neck was pleasantly shaped with a good taper. The pegbox was crude in many respects, the peg holes were not on center with the length of the pegbox taper, The relief channels on either side were very crude chamfers. The interior pegbox block was  a very crude rosewood ramp as was the ebony nut. The nut was very crudely cut with very deep string channels that kept the strings from moving across the nut. The pegs were made of ebony ; The good news: they were turned and tapered. The bad news: they didn’t fit the holes and were impossible to turn. More bad news : the pegheads clear each with about 3/32 of inch between the pegs and the pegheads are really thin. Pretty tough to handle.paki rose detail

Some remarks about the playability at this point : the nut spacing at ____mm is adequate for a seven course but really crowded for an eight course. The first three course were so close together that it was impossible to play.

What to do? The strings were removed so that the pegs could be removed and lubricated with peg dope. The nut was recut and respaced . The first six courses were evenly spaced and the seventh and eight courses were crowded onto the bass side.paki peghead

And how did it play and sound? Surprising to me…not bad at all. Not a very big voice but sweet and even on the first four courses.  The action was quite reasonable .What do I think of this thing ? It’s not as bad as I had imagined it. It actually could make a very satisfactory first instrument: consider the cost : My first impression was that all these middle Eastern Lutes were all the same; they’re not. Apparently this model sells for $700 to $900 depending upon the vendor. That’s a far cry from the $350 -$400 Paki lute.

What you get are better materials, a nicer bowl and something that is closer to a Venere copy. Some aspects such as the bowl construction (the actual bowl) and the symmetry of the top are quite good , but other features such as the pegbox construction are still crude ( you can see over extended saw marks and some very rough surfaces ). However you need to keep in mind that the nut needs to be recut , and the pegs refitted. Depending upon whose shop you take it to this could run into another hundred dollars worth of work. It’s not a Paul Thompson Lute but at this price what did you expect?

Six degrees to Ownership

Somewhere on Wayne Cripp’s  Dartmouth lute website is his famous quip ” the two happiest days for a lute player is the day he buys his lute and the day when he sells it…”

Of course, buying a lute can a test of one’s patience as well. I’ve heard that story more than once: ” I ordered one last year and it’s way overdue.” Or I sent it in for a simple repair and it’s been over a month!”  There’s a easy explanation for all of that:  We as lutemakers are all liars and scoundrels. Yep , just draw that Venn diagram with the lutemaker subset directly inside the liar , scoundrel , cur circle.  No need for intersections. Okay, let me back up a little bit. We all kind of lie. When I say I’m working on your lute doesn’t mean i’m literally cutting and gluing bits of wood. I might be thinking about it. A long time at that. Of course that brings a lot of anxiety on the clients part.  No news or poor comunication only heightens that anxiety. We’ve all encountered that.  How many of you have thought ” omigosh I was so stupid to have paid him ! He’s probably spent all my money in Las Vegas!

Rest assured most builders I’ve met have been guilty of being inefficient rather than dishonest. We have our mental lapses ( how long was that scale supposed to be?) , disasters in the shop ( 140 fahrenheit not centigrade?) , family issues ( okay everyone in the car! we’re going to the emergency room again!) and the ennui factor ( why did I agree to this project?)

A wink and a nod to Jon Stewart of the Daily Show for the following:six degrees

Happy just to be here.


For those of you who don’t know George Peacock , He’s been a fixture in San Francisco for years. If you’re ever in the city stop by his shop in the Duboce Triangle area , say hello, chat a while and throw some money at him . His shop is not all glitzy and carpeted like the local Guitar Center. It’s a real throwback to the old style music instrument shops when I was a kid. In one corner is is his band saw, one side of the shop his workbench, and then the stands and cases with assorted sundry guitars and all manner of stuff..  George is recovering from treatment for a brain cancer. I spoke with him a few days ago, he says he’s feeling better and well enough to work at he shop.  In his words ” I wake up in the morning , grateful for another day”.   How apropo for the rest of us.

End note:  With much sadness , George  passed away December 27th 2011.   Good-bye to a decent man generous with his time and spirit. He is survived by his wife Miriam and his children  Noah  and Emma.