Was it worth building my own?

Finally, the all important question:

Was it worth the effort?

Answer: Absolutely yes, and here is why:

It is actually quite funny. There is absolutely no way to try a guitar until you´re done building it all. I does not need the finish ok, but all the building needs to be completed so that you can put the strings on and see what it sounds like. Imagine the tension having spend weeks building it, and you have absolutely no clue if the end-result will be any good until the very end.

That moment had finally arrived around mid February. I still remember it like it was yesterday. So how did she sound?

Honest answer: a bit “strange” at first. She was very loud. At least twice the volume of my previous guitars. Basses were very present, with a lot of sustain. No buzzing whatsoever, and the trebles clear as glass. The 12 fret high e had so much sustain and harmonics that it sounded almost anreal.., hmmm, now, was this good or bad. After playing the first couple of pieces the next day (takes some time for the structure and the strings to settle in) I knew I had achieved something incredible. At least as good as the high-end Hanikas, so the 3k were a well invested… however, I still had that impression that there might be a little too much sustain.

So that following Saturday I took her to my teacher. I still see him taking her out of the box (no finish on yet, and no linings and purflings either (I had just roughly trimemed the top and back flush with the sides, otherwise she wouldn´t fit in the case), just the “gros-oeuvre” as they say in french. Looks at her, and was quite amazed that she actually looked like a real guitar. Guess he was really expecting a cigar box sort of thing 🙂

Then, still kneeing besides the box he start playing the first couple of notes…. stopps…. looks at me, back at the guitar…. and all he said was … “this is interesting”…. he gets up (with the guitar) sits on his chair, and starts playing parts of various pieces for about a minute or 2.

“If you hadn´t shown me the picutres, and if she wasn´t still a ´work in progress´ there is no way I would believe that you made this” were his next words, and we both started laughing, “How in the world did you achieve this” was his next serious question. He played some more, which gave me the opportunity to listen to her from an audience position. All guitars sound different from the players perspective compared to “in front”. And seriously, the sound was amazing. A huge dynamic range, a very good tone separation, a good balance, nothing stepped out, nothing seemed to be lagging behind…. amazing really. Even that G string (since I´ve had issues with this on my Manuel Rodriguez I was a bit scared that it might be similar on my own…. If a well known guitar maker has issues to align the G-string, then it must be a trick part to get right…) Here it was very musical up and above the 12th fret. Honestly the G note played on the 12th fret sounds very musical and doesn´t die off after 2 seconds.

Then I mentioned my impression or fear of “too much sustain”, and too many persisting notes that keep ringing on forever…. This is when he started making serious fun of me 🙂 “Well, what you have here is a professional sounding concert level instrument”. And you my friend (he actually ment me) Need to bring your playing capabilities to the next level in order to be able to take advantage of what this guitar has to offer…. Then he explained and gave me an example by playing the prelude of the 4th lute suite by Bach (1006). First he said, I´ll play it ´your way´. And there it was again… a sort of musical “overload”. A little bit like playing the piano with the sustain pedal all the way down all the time).  Next he plaied the piece again this time by muting out what need be, and all of a sudden the piece sounded fabulous. I remember that he always insisted on these aspects, and that I never really took it serious, nor did I really bother giving the muting mutch attention or practice. It simply never seemed critical to me. Ok, it made a small difference, but on my previous guitars, I really got along without it. That was a completely different story here. (And sinsce I hadn´t followed my teachers advice, I had some serious work ahead to revisit quite some pieces in order to integrate the muting element…. next time I´ll listen his advice 🙂 )

In fact I realized that beginner or intermediate (study) level guitars are what they are because they are easy to play (and ment to be in a way), and they do not require the player to master every aspect in order to sound good. That advantage has a disadvantage as well, you cannot make them sound like a concert level instrument no matter how good a payer you are, the same way that a Formula 1 pilot cannot break the track-record with an off the shelf Ferrary car. On the other hand, if those guitars let you “get along” with subtle playing imperfections (simply because you don´t hear them since the guitar lacks the fine response to bring them forward) that´s another story with the high end instruments. You really hear everything, and that includes all your playing imperfections. You get the angle of attack of a string slightly wrong, and the sound becomes harsh or too aggressive, or to mellow etc. One right hand finger stands out because it is a bit stronger or weaker (think  A-finger) and you end-up with volume differences in your playing. (Ok, it is not “that” extreme, but stuff that remains unnoticed on a standard guitar does become audible and of nuisance at times on these kind of instruments…)

I´ll expand a bit on the car analogy introduced above because I think it helps explain things quite clearly: You cannot drive a Ferrary or even better a formula one car (The Ferry would be more the Hanika Meisterklasse) like you yould drive a VW Golf GTI. To take real advantage of what the Formula One has to offer and to appreciate the difference it requires the experience and advanced driving skills of a well trained and ´aware´ pilot. If you keep using the accelerator or breaking pedal or even the cluch like in the Golf, well first of all the ride is likely going to be quite bumpy (if you don´t stall her so start with) and sooner or later, chances are that you will end up throwing her out of the first tighter corner.

Everybody can accelerate in a straight line (I´d still recommend to leave the electronic helpers enabled, as long as the car´s got some – which won´t be the case on a formula one by the way), but racing up a winding and tight mountain road is a different story. You will manage in the Golf, but I doubt if the standard driver would even manage by being careful in a formula one…. and if you do, it surely won´t be a pretty picture 🙂

The matter of fact is that the player has to adapt to this kind of instrument to make her sing, and not scream 🙂

And there was my next (somehow unexpected challenge) learn to play properly and cleanly 🙂

In other words, if you are still learning or if you are an amateur type player, and play for fun, then chances are that you will probably be happier with a high end Hannika. On the other hand, if you happen to a perfectionist like myself (I am by no means a good player, and I picked up guitar playing from scratch about 5 years ago, at the age of 40 with absolutely no musical backround or experience whatsoever…) and if you´re ready to go the extra mile then you´ll have a lot of fun (like frustration at times) playing these instrumets. Worth mentionning: After having played my prototype for 6 months now, it is fun how occasionally switching back to a ´standard´instrument makes your playing on those effortless and astonishing 🙂 The technical finesse which you will aquire (and have to in a way) will increase your overall learning curve, but is well worth the effort. Chances are that you won´t bother otherwise, which was my case before with the string muting issue I talked about before.


But back to the subject…

there was that other question still in the air: had I been very very lucky with my prototype result? That´s what some people I talked to were actually thinking. I talked to a charming young lady luthier at the international guitar festival in Bruxelles in May this year. She also believed that I must have been lucky since it isn´t an easy undertaking to get all the ingredients right and mutually aligned so that the end-result is a very well sounding and well balanced instrument like hers.

Quite frankly, I was doubting as well. Ok, I had done my homework very seriously, and the result was in line of what the theory I had learnt was suggesting based on the decisions I took. Then again, I had absolutely no building experience, and nothing to compare my prototype to. (I mean no other guitar of my own making)

So how could I be sure? Hmmm, well, why not build another couple of guitars and if those would turn out in a similar fashion…. well… then I must somehow understand what I´m doing, AND do things the right way, or at least my right way 🙂

So, quick decision, and back I was to Espen wood near Frankfurt. This time I felt more confident already, and decided that I would vary the design (esthetics) a little by chosing other kinds of wood. I found a very attractive set of bubinga back and sides (from Afrika); I also bought some snakewood for the linings  and decided to buy another set of cypress for the second (or third) guitar. Cypress smells really nice, and together with the spanish cedar neck it would make for a very light and white-yellowish instrument. Personally I like the looks of the blanca flamenco guitars that mostly use cypress for the guitar body, and why not make my own?

For the top wood I picked another set of European mastergrade spruce to go with the cypress, and decided for a aaa class western red cedar to match the brown-reddish look of the bubinga.

I always chose well air-dried wood and tops that have been drying for about 10 years. Once home I put them in my garage (which has become my luthier shop since last year) to let it adapt to the environment for a couple of weeks. And before end of june I started my next 2 builds. I actually finished the 2 new guitars about a month ago.

My comparison of the 3 can be found here:

Conclusion after the finishing my first 3 guitars