Sample Sound Files

Listen to a rough recording from The Luthien(large file)
Listen to a rough recording from my René Lacote Style (large file)

19th Century Guitars

When I first started building replicas of 19th Century instruments, I had the attitude that these instruments were not all they could be if modern construction techniques and experience were applied. In fact, when hearing and playing these original instruments I found them to have beautiful tone qualities but to be somewhat dull or muted. So, my worry was that I would have to build an intentionally defective instrument in order to keep the ‘19th Century’ sound.

What I learned was quite the opposite! The characteristic 19th Century guitar sound is independent of the responsiveness and dynamic range (loudness) of the instrument and is primarily a function of the dimensions of the guitar body. As a luthier, I can do everything I can to make the instrument sound great without losing the desired tone quality. This makes great sense because the great luthiers of the 19th Century were very inventive and would not have been satisfied with a defective product.

Why do many of the guitars original to that era have a dull sound? I can’t give a rigorous explanation of this, but they are old. Unlike a violin that can actually improve with the centuries, guitars are built much lighter and have significantly less playing energy applied to them during play (bowing versus plucking). Maybe the wood and/or glue fatigues under the constant strain of the strings and vibrations of play. Maybe there are other factors at work, but whatever the cause, the effect is that many of these instruments sound a bit dull. I am suggesting that these instruments did not sound dull when they were new. These luthiers were better craftsmen than that!

This was a great lesson. I can build in as much responsiveness, sustain, dynamic range and playability without losing the ‘19th Century’ sound.

What are the reasons for owning an original instrument, built in the 19th Century? First of all, it is a great experience to play an instrument that has so much history. It is a bit like owning an original of a fine art painting, especially if the luthier is a big name like Louis Panormo or René Lacote. It might be an actual instrument that Fernando Sor tried out in Lacote’s workshop or that was played by one of his students or fellow guitarists. Certainly, it will have that original sound, a sweet beautiful but delicate tone.

What are the disadvantages of owning an original instrument? In my experience, they require a lot of on-going care to keep them playable. Sometimes joints, bridges or braces fatigue and have to reglued. Some have issues to due to neck warping that create playability or buzzing problems. Some are not built to withstand the extra tension of A 440 tuning versus A 415 which was used in that era. It takes a lot of work by a highly skilled luthier to restore and stabilize such an instrument as well as on-going repairs to keep it playable.

What are the advantages of owning a modern guitar built in the style of these original instruments? It is like buying an instrument from the Lacote workshop! It still has the original sound, but it is new, bright, responsive, loud and shinny with great playability. You get the ‘19th Century’ tone but not the dullness common to original instruments. And, after all, the guitarists of that era played new, bright, responsive, loud and shinny instruments, so in that sense it is truer to guitarists and composers of the 19th Century!

Dave

David L. Edwards
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