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..

1 Responses to “When You Wish upon a Star”

  • Interesting. I had no idea that lutes had braces like that underneath the top. My experience is with violins (as a player, hot a maker). A brace would kill the sound! Have you ever tried making a lute without braces?

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