The reward comes from the first notes. After months of sawing, sweating and manipulating wood and metal into just the right shape, the instrument maker has created a body that awaits a musician’s touch.
Erik Baker, an acoustic guitar builder in Canterbury, said that more than making furniture or household crafts, woodworking in this way is a creative process that manifests itself in the final product. A table is just a table; a chair is just a chair. But the music an instrument creates has endless possibilities.
“It starts as a box, but once you add the strings, it has its own voice,” Baker said.
In New Hampshire, the builders come from all over. Handmade acoustic guitars are born in a workshop in Fremont. They’re also made in Baker’s basement in Canterbury. Wildly designed electric guitars and basses first sing in an industrial park on Manchester’s east side. A 400-year-old violin-making tradition continues in Nottingham, and at a workbench in Henniker, hair-thin wire is wrapped by hand thousands of times to create the perfect pickup.
“What’s most important is the state of mind,” John Whiteside, founder of North Road Guitars in Fremont, said of building an instrument. “You cannot be impatient, and you must enjoy each step. It’s like when you play a song, you must enjoy each note. You can’t cut corners.”
Dubbed “The Old Guitar Man,” Whiteside first learned to play when he was 12. But as he grew older, music-making fell by the wayside. After he retired, he picked up woodworking but still couldn’t shake the desire to make music. So he decided to combine his interests, and, after studying the craft for two years, converted the woodworking studio he’d built into a guitar-manufacturing workshop and classroom.
Each tool in the workshop has its specific purpose. Metal planes shape the neck, and adjustable frames shape the guitar’s body. Jigs guide the way for neck carving, and knobs and switches power vents that keep the shop at the ideal humidity. His barbecue rotisserie, which once rotated chickens, now rotates nearly finished guitar bodies to be sprayed with finishing material.
Approximately 200 hours go into each guitar, but Whiteside said he finds the painstaking work to be worth it. Creating music is an immensely gratifying experience, he said, but little can compare to creating the instrument that music comes from.
Source of the sound
The guitars all start the same way: With slabs of wood. Whiteside said it’s essential to get quality wood no matter where you have to go to get it. He’s brought some in from Maine. Some has come from the West Coast. Internationally, some has come in from the Ukraine.
A piece of California redwood found its way to Whiteside’s shop that he is particularly excited about. It was formerly part of a railroad bridge that stood in the 1800s. The bridge has since been torn down, but lives on in the guitar and in a picture of the very same bridge on the interior of the guitar’s body.
A soft wood, such as spruce, is for the tops. Cherry, rosewood, Hawaiian koa, ebony and bloodwood can become the back, neck, fingerboard and headstock. Though at this stage no notes can be produced, Whiteside can peer into the future and get a sense of how the final product will sound.
Holding up a piece of Ukranian spruce, already carved into a guitar top, against his ear, Whiteside’s fingers tap around the wood. It resonates with deep, rich tones, signifying what will be the top of a strong sounding guitar. A similar top produces a muted sound. It could still make a decent guitar, Whiteside said, but the sound won’t be as powerful.
“You can have wood of the same species from the same tree, but it may sound different,” he said. “You need to have a big pile and go through it.”
The shape of the guitar’s body is drawn on in pencil to the top and back pieces of wood and carved out from there. Though it’s hard to tell from a distance, both pieces of a final acoustic guitar are slightly curved. Whiteside has developed a luthier’s bench with a proper curvature built in to get the wood bent to the perfect degree. It’s also intentionally circular, so the builder can access the guitar from all angles.
The sides of the instrument are then bent using a separate mechanism and can only be attached to the top and back until the proper shape is formed from the curved luthier’s bench and bracing pieces have been glued on to maintain the shape. The neck is made completely separately from the body. Once the neck is carved and planed into the proper shape to the player’s specifications, the fingerboard is laid over the neck.
Frets are cut from wire designed specifically for that purpose and laid into the fingerboard. Baker said the spacing of the frets is an essential part of the process where precision cannot be overlooked.
“Frets are something you don’t want to mess with,” Baker said. “If one is off by a millimeter, then that note will be off. There are some things I’m willing to play with, but some that I am not.”
Frets aside, guitar building does leave room for flexibility. Baker’s guitars have a signature headstock design, while Whiteside’s share a unique rosette design, which is fit together like a puzzle from 120 separate wood pieces that snake around the sound hole.
“I build a standard shape,” Baker said. “Not a standard model.”
When it comes to electric guitars and basses, even shape can make for a full canvas of creativity. Zoov Guitars, Nick Lacroix’s company in Manchester, produces instruments designed to stand out from the norm.
Some of Lacroix’s basses have up to six strings. Some of his guitars have eight. The body shapes change with each guitar built, with seemingly endless options of scrolls, points and curves. Zoov guitars all feature a natural wood grain appearance peeking through the finished body.
Inspired by bass guitar legend Les Claypool and his custom Rainbow Bass, Lacroix sought to build an instrument that would look just as good as it would sound. While tone and playability are essential in creating instruments, Lacroix said he wanted to also explore his creativity.
“If I’m going to be building guitars, I want to make some weird stuff,” Lacroix said. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”
In with the old
But at a workshop in Nottingham, Jim Robinson, owner of Renaissance Strings, builds violins, violas and cellos to the exact specifications of master builders from more than four centuries ago. Like Whiteside and Baker, before Robinson began creating his instruments, he had some extensive woodworking experience, his with homes and furniture.
With a love of classical music and a desire to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, who ran an instrument repair business, Robinson made the leap to violins. Robinson began his studies under master violin maker Karl Roy and adapted to the craft so quickly that he worked his way up to become an assistant teacher alongside Roy.
Unlike guitars, Robinson said the species of woods he uses cannot vary. The top is spruce. The sides, back and neck are maple, and the fingerboard is ebony. Because bowed instruments have been made in the same manner by master builders for so long, Robinson said making any physical alterations to the design will take away from the finished product.
“Once you start customizing parts, it will lose its purpose,” he said. “They have been doing this for 400 years, and there is a reason why they chose what they did.”
The front of Renaissance Strings is a retail store. Robinson’s creations line the shelves along with other imported instruments that he sells. His workshop is in the back. In one corner of the shop, century-old violins hang from the wall awaiting repair. In another corner, wood is stored to eventually become instruments, and in another, formed instruments hang awaiting their turn to be colored and finished.
Though violins rarely vary in design, Robinson said he can pick his instruments out of a crowd by the finishing. He said he is known for dark colored violins, violas and cellos. Similarly, he said his instruments also tend to possess a low, bassy G-string, providing a distinct tone for classical music.
“I’m known for my dark G,” Robinson said. “Most people love that dark sound.”
But Robinson said he can adjust slightly depending on the musician’s preference. Wood with a tighter grain produces a brighter sound, better for fiddlers playing country and western. A more porous wood with wider grain provides more bass, better for a classical violin tone.
On a workbench in Henniker, Derek Carignan doesn’t make whole instruments, but he does build an essential piece of a guitar. Spools of wire hang above his workspace and a pedal on the floor powers a machine he created to wind the wire around bobbins with pinpoint accuracy.
Carignan is the founder of Smokin’ Joe’s Pickups, which manufactures and repairs pickups for Fender style guitars and basses. Having always been a fan of Stratocasters, Carignan said he felt if the pickups, the mechanism underneath the guitar’s strings that “picks up” the electromagnetic vibrations and sends them through the amplifier as sound, were wound a little tighter and with a little more care, one of the world’s most recognizable electric guitars could become even better.
As a former mechanic, he used his knowledge of electronics to create a winder powered by a foot pedal and sewing machine motor. By controlling the speed at which the pickup is wound, Carignan can get the wire in precisely the right places and ensure it doesn’t slip, a common malfunction in factory-wound pickups, he said. The result is a more reliable product that can be created to match the tone the musician wants.
“There are so many things I can tailor to get to the sound [customers] desire,” Carignan said. “The more conversation we have and the more feedback I get from them, the better. I’d rather be making a handful of pickups than 300 of them, because I’m putting out quality.”
Carignan said he will talk for an hour with a customer to better understand the style of music the guitar will be used to play and the tone the player hopes to achieve.
“The best feeling for me is after talking with someone for a half-hour or an hour and sending their pickups out, is when a couple of days later, I’ll get a phone call and they say they love it,” Carignan said.
Teaching the trade
Robinson spends the vast majority of his year making and repairing violins, violas and cellos. But for two weeks out of the year, he teaches an intensive course in building violins in Nottingham. Then, he spends another two weeks teaching the same course in Tucson, Ariz.
The only way to ensure violins are created with the old masters’ ideals still in mind, Robinson said, is to get a new generation of builders interested in carrying the tradition into the future.
“I like the idea of passing on the trade so it might last another 400 years,” he said.
Whiteside doesn’t just make guitars for his customers; he guides them through the building process so they can experience the creation, from start to finish, themselves. He said his students’ hands become his hands, and he can intuitively guide the process. Because he has been through it so many times before — the frustrations, the stress and the tension of knowing one false move could ruin hours of work — he can stop a student just moments before a critical mistake.
More times than he can remember, he’s been watching a student plane, carve or glue, and without speaking, he has reached out just in time to stop a student’s hand, just before it goes to the wrong place, and moved it to where it needed to be.
“I’m calling on my own experiences, and it can be quite effective,” Whiteside said.
Carignan said if his customers have an interest in learning about how the final product is made, they are welcome to watch him in action. By observing him at work, Carignan said his customers can better understand the modifications their guitars are receiving and can be assured he is providing his full attention to the new pickups.
“If you want to wind them with me, come over and I’ll show you how to do it,” he said. “I want to make the customer as much a part of upgrading their guitar as possible.”
An investment in music
At Havn Guitars, Baker tends to stick to two styles: a medium jumbo acoustic and a parlor guitar. The medium jumbo is a traditional steel string acoustic, and a parlor guitar is a smaller instrument. Baker has experience building a lap steel guitar and has also worked with electrics.
Baker said his guitars are within the vicinity of $2,800, but like Whiteside’s guitars, that price can vary depending on materials. While a handmade guitar is pricier than most that line the walls at a typical retail store, the approximately 200 hours and personal attention that go into the instrument justify the cost, Baker said.
Lacroix said his customers want something that will help them stand out when they take the stage. Because his guitars feature such unique shapes and wood lamination techniques, they can often become conversation starters for gearheads.
“For a musician, there is no catalog,” Lacroix said. “I’m not telling them, ‘These are your options.’ We will go back and forth with a picture or a drawing and collaborate on the design.”
Lacroix said Zoov guitars start at around $2,000, but can go for as much as $5,000 or $6,000.
Robinson said his products start at around $5,000. Because they are larger instruments and require more work, violas and cellos cost more than violins. He said a Renaissance Strings viola is generally around $6,000, and a cello costs around $15,000. Robinson will also repair instruments and though his shop does not manufacture bows, he will repair them as well.
Single pickups that come out of the Smokin’ Joe’s shop range from $65 to $75, though that can vary as well. A full set of pickups can run from $195 to $205.
Make your own
Whiteside’s students spend months making their guitars, and he said the goal is to fit the guitar to the player to ensure maximum comfort. Students can choose to have a cutaway in the guitar body and can make specifications to the thickness of the neck.
Generally, Whiteside said his guitars can range in price in the area of $2,400 to $2,700, whether he’s commissioned for a job or guides his student through the building process. But those numbers can vary depending on the type of wood used, the style of the fingerboard and headstock inlays and other personal touches.
Loving care required
Violins can be played for centuries if cared for properly. However, Robinson said instruments that come out of the Renaissance Strings workshop are not meant to be rugged.
By nature, Robinson said violins are fragile instruments, and if a musician wants one to provide top quality sound, it will be even more fragile than most. By taking the instrument out of the factory setting, the builder can pay more attention to the little details that make for an improved sound. The idea of a handmade instrument built to the specifications of the original masters also draws in a certain type of customer, Robinson said.
“I make instruments for playability, not durability,” he said. “They are fragile and need to be well taken care of. The people who buy these violins are the same type of people who would go out and get a custom kitchen, rather than just going to Home Depot.”
Mark Pszenny, lead guitarist for Blues Brothers Next Generation, a Hooksett-based Blues Brothers tribute band, said when he’s on stage he has always favored Fender Stratocasters. As an experienced guitarist, he said he had been searching for his perfect tone for years; when he realized Carignan was building pickups just up the road, he decided to give them a try.
Once he had Smokin’ Joe’s pickups installed on his Strat, Pszenny said, he was blown away by the added power his guitar had.
“I’ve always played Strats and I’ve been through everything,” he said. “I much prefer to have a set of Derek’s pickups. He’s a guy who puts everything into it.”
Baker said when he sells a guitar, his customers love the idea that they personally know the man who made it. Because they trust that he knows the guitar inside and out, Baker said his customers don’t even bother taking their guitars to a repair shop. They only trust the hands that created it.
“If they say they have a fret buzz, I’ll tell them to just bring it in,” Baker said. “They like knowing I’m never too far away.”
A chance encounter
The best feeling of all, Whiteside said, is what happens when connections are made between music through strangers. A frequent visitor to the annual Sunapee Craft Fairs, the Old Guitar Man always sets up a booth and brings along some of his finished products. One of his favorite moments of his career as a luthier, that he was lucky enough to get on tape, came when a young woman visited his booth at Sunapee and started playing one of his guitars. Another gentleman stopped by and picked up another on display.
Without saying a word, they began to jam. She sang and played rhythm and he plucked out lead parts.
“They had never met and may never meet again,” Whiteside said.
But for those brief moments, a bond was formed, a familiarity that only those three could understand. Whiteside had given the two musicians each a voice, and together, they sang beautifully.