Somogyi Book Review, by David Lang
Title: The Responsive Guitar
Author: Ervin Somogyi
Title: Making the Responsive Guitar
Author: Ervin Somogyi
THE RESPONSIVE GUITAR
“It is with books as with men: a very small number play a great part.”
When the idea of building a guitar first dawned on me in the nineteen-seventies very little information on guitar building was easily available. Books by Irving Sloane, David Russell Young, Arthur Overholtzer and Joseph Wallo were the only sources of information commonly available. These texts became my sacred how-to manuscripts.
Fast-forward thirty years to the present state of published luthier information for guitar builders. There are now more than twenty published books, two major magazines, two major web sites and innumerable blogs. We have the ability to get instantaneous good and sometimes dubious answers to our questions. We have access to dozens of blueprints of fine instruments to copy or glean inspiration from. Furthermore, the left-brained of us have enough books, spreadsheets, sites, and testing jigs to keep our heads spinning and keep us busy for a lifetime. With some woodworking skills, a box of nice wood, a few tools and all this information the average builder can with some persistence craft a nice guitar with an assurance that it will “turn out” reasonably well. With all this information do we really need another book on guitar building?
Despite the ready availability of all these resources, the path to the luthier’s grail, the “fine guitar”, is a different path than simply building from plans and advise from the library of luthier information. Despite all of this information very few of us will ever build the “fine guitar”. What is the secret to building a world-class guitar? Is it more precise jigs and fixtures? Is it finding that piece of drop dead gorgeous rosewood or spruce? Is it building dozens of guitars? Perhaps tapping or electronically testing tops will lead us there. Is it achieved by the faithful reproduction of a detailed blueprint or an existing model? Is it a spiritual property imparted to our instruments through our loving touch and shaping of wood? Is there a short path? Must I build hundreds of instruments to get there? Honestly, I don’t really know, as I am not there yet.
Ervin Somogyi has written a unique new book in two companion volumes titled “The Responsive Guitar” and “Making the Responsive Guitar”. Most would argue that Ervin is one of the premier builders of our time. He is well respected for his knowledge, the quality of his instruments with their artistic and tonal balance, and of course his sense of humor. The title alludes to his path to the fine guitar. His path is to build a guitar that is responsive to the player’s skills and faithfully produces music with all the desired nuances. In short, he recommends building a responsive guitar that does what the player expects it to do. He explains in his new book how he does just that. This is not a beginner’s book. This two-volume book is not a simple reiteration of existing luthier literature. He doesn’t give us a single blueprint, a new “wow” jig or a step-by-step pictorial guide to faithfully copy his guitar. He gives us one book of the “why I do it” aspect of his methods and a second book of “how I do it and why”. This instructional approach is unique among all of the published guitar literature, both printed and electronic, that I am aware of. He skips most of the basic mechanical aspects of guitar building and takes us further. With this book he leads us onto his very personal path to guitar nirvana.
Book One: “The Responsive Guitar”
Book one is comprised of thirty-four chapters laced with Ervin’s opinions and observations, eminently practical applied and workbench friendly science, and useful advise on better building.
He covers material science and wood science in a very understandable and more importantly a useful way. His “cube rule” as applied to tops and braces helps us understand why careful top and brace graduation is so important. Run-out and heliotropism is explained in a common sense way–it is how the tree grows. His treatment of tone wood selection and wood evaluation not only helps us pick good wood using objective criteria, but also he helps us avoid the trap of using merchandising grading systems to judge good wood. He debunks several misconceptions of wood grain and strength. Twelve of the chapters are devoted to the mechanical properties and “light” physics of individual guitar parts such as the “X” brace, the bridge, the functions of the back, doming of tops and the function of bracing. He covers mechanical beam theory without the math. Voicing is defined and explained in an understandable way through vibrational modes, stiffness, elasticity, and “connectedness”
He also covers his approach to joinery, ornamentation, and intonation within a context of how and why they affect the sound of the “responsive guitar”. Ervin finishes with a discussion of methods and mechanics of sustain, projection and settling in of guitar sound.
Book Two: “Making the Responsive Guitar”
The table of contents of the second volume, “Making the Responsive Guitar”, would suggest that it is simply another step-by-step how to guide. It does approach the elements in the usual order of tools, molds, wood care, humidity control, glues followed by the top, sides, neck and back, etc. It is this and yet much more. Are you a luthier? Check out the preface to find out. These chapters cover in order the construction of a guitar but from the vantage point of “why” and not just “how”. Ervin covers why use a hand plane and a scraper, improvements on the mold to help dome the sides, and shows off his famous mini-bench. His key concept of jig DNA is as vital to volume two as the cube rule is to volume one.
I found his coverage and philosophy of the neck joint interesting in that it melds the modern mortise and tenon, separate body and neck construction with the rigidity of a permanent Spanish heel neck body joint.
Ervin’s explanation of the neck alignment and fingerboard relief really shines. He provides the most lucid and well reasoned details of the how and why’s of fingerboard relief I have ever read.
A Book Within a Book
I found the “tucking in the corners” sections in Ervin’s books to be one of the most enjoyable, if not entertaining aspects of the text. They are full of historical information, clarifications, references and humor. Several of the chapters are mostly footnotes so you won’t want to miss them. Finally, a very complete almost encyclopedic section on sources, complete literature references and a glossary complete the text.
Ervin’s book(s) “The Responsive Guitar” and “Making the Responsive Guitar” are clearly the summary of his years at lutherie. They are replete with his philosophy, his prejudices, his well-reasoned techniques and knowledge that covers the length and breadth of the art, the craft and the science of the guitar. Rather than approach guitar building as a step-by-step technical exercise he approaches it as an artistic, philosophical, a scientific, and a technical journey. These are not books for the uninitiated beginner or books for the builder of guitars who doesn’t care how or why it works. This is not a book for the extreme left-brained among us. There is not a single mathematical expression in the books. These two books are for those luthiers interested in a very complete synthesis of the philosophy, science, art, and technical procedures that encompass Ervin Somogyi’s approach to the creation of the grail- The Responsive Guitar. They are a very good read. It makes you think about guitars, about physics, about metaphysics and life. Thank you Ervin for guiding us down your path.
David H. Lang