Guitars, time, and the big tradeoff

From the moment it creates its first tones, a guitar is a complex object. There is an enormous number of variables that contribute to the tone, visual appeal, and “vibe” of an instrument - materials, glues, pickups/electronics, finish…the list goes on.

The one variable that often gets overlooked in guitar design is time. As a builder who regularly repairs guitars ranging from 10 to 90 years old, I often have to confront the effects of time on guitars, and learn to identify what time will do to instruments - both properly-built ones, and improperly-built.

It’s probably safe to say that every builder imagines that their work will last at least beyond their lifetime - with the prices that handmade guitars command, and the energy and attention required for their construction, it’s reasonable to hope that the final result will outlast the maker.

In service of this goal, I have tried to take careful note of the common failures I’ve seen while repairing traditionally-built guitars, and have worked to design them out of my instruments. The easiest example would be my sliding adjustable neck joint - a neck reset is an invasive, expensive, and yet (it seems) inevitable part of the life of most flattop guitars. By making the joint adjustable, this big job is permanently rendered unnecessary.

Lightly-built instruments with thin tops, skinny braces and whisper-thin finishes can be incredible-sounding guitars from the moment they’re strung up - big, deep basses, explosive response and power, and wide dynamic range. Many modern “fingerstyle” guitars are built like this, and the results are hard to dismiss…simply put, the guitars sound wonderful right away. This style of construction has, in some ways, come to define the marketplace for modern flattop guitars, and set high standards that new makers are expected to meet.

However, the nagging question remains: if so many ‘60s Gibsons with too-thick tops and giant braces come in for repair with bellied tops, cracked bridge plates, and unplayable high action…how can we reasonably expect the lightweight modern guitars to survive, when the overbuilt workhorses of the past haven’t? What should be the service life of a modern handmade guitar, and how soon should the owner expect the guitar’s geometry to deform to the point where repair or service is necessary?

This is not a new question - Segovia expected his guitars to have a finite life, and moved on to the next instrument when the last one was “played out”. However, modern expectations for steel-string guitars don’t seem to include this understanding, and too often the buyer or collector doesn’t have this equation in mind.

In my work, I work to balance short-term responsiveness and power with longevity. I feel that, given the prices my clients pay, I have to build for long-term service and repairability first, and then do everything I can to make the instrument’s voice sing without compromising that long lifespan. This can mean anything from major structural aspects (the neck joint) to small, invisible considerations (using different glues for different joints, so some will resist heat while others disassemble more easily).

For the maker, all of this adds up to a constant balancing act, since the two priorities often act opposite each other - building for long-term strength and stability could result in an overbuilt, stiff instrument with no personality or character; likewise, voicing for response and power could easily lead one down the path of structural inadequacy. (For example, I built a prototype Auriole that was about 15% underbraced, and it had incredible bass response and projection, enough to overpower a D-style Martin without breaking a sweat. But - it was not a success, since I didn’t feel confident that it would survive for the long term.)

For the buyer, it’s more of a leap of faith - but worth considering when purchasing a new guitar. If an instrument’s voice is compelling, that should always be the first consideration.

However, close behind that - if the guitar has a paper-thin top, a pinned and epoxied neck joint, flush-fit fingerboard/soundhole intersection, and other features of the “modern fingerstyle” instrument - sure, it will sound great right away - but how serviceable will it be when the time comes, and who will be able or willing to do the work?

There is no right answer here - each player and collector will have their own priorities and will strike their own balance. For myself, I feel most comfortable considering the long view as an integral part of the design process, and working to refine features that will help extend the working life of my guitars as much as possible.

Martin Keith