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is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Barry Guest » Thu Sep 27, 2012 8:28 pm

Andrew Porter wrote:I want to believe that a good looking piece of wood regardless makes a good sounding instrument. I haven't enough experience to support this. Anyone else's thoughts?

You hit the proverbial nail on the head when you wrote "good looking piece of wood". Beauty is what all luthiers aspire to when making an instrument and beside graduating thicknesses etc, and despite the plethora of studies done on the acoustics of wood, we are really still in the dark about what makes one species better than another. For instance, Australian woods have made inroads into lutherie in recent years, but there is no definitive studies out there that say they are better or worse acoustically than the trad woods. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the beauty of sound is in the ear of the beholder.

I use this rule: If it looks like a good piece of wood, and it has tap tones like a good piece of wood, then it probably is....you know, if it walks like a duck, sounds like a duck, it probably is a duck.
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Mario Proulx » Fri Sep 28, 2012 12:16 am

There are some parts of an instrument where the wood's physical properties trumps all else, and other parts where any piece of wood that is stable enough will do just fine. It's one thing to walk like a duck; it's another to walk upright without waddling like a duck....

I want to believe that a good looking piece of wood regardless makes a good sounding instrument.

You should actually word that in reverse, no? In other words, you should want to believe that any -good- piece of wood, regardless of whether it is beautiful or ugly(or even cosmetically flawed) can make a good sounding instrument.

And this would be very true. Wood does not need to be pretty to sound great! BUT..... When you pour 100+ hours into making an instrument, don't you want to at least use the prettiest wood you can find? Of course! So with that in mind, doesn't it make sense that all of the "traditional" woods we use came to be traditional because they have all the right physical properties we need(IE: stable, strong, stiff, light, etc..) AND are beautiful.

Traditions don't just "happen". Traditions become such because they stand the test of time. For hundreds of years, rebel luthiers like yourselves have wanted to build instruments from any 'ol wood they thought would work, and they did just that, but where are they now? Right. Few to be found, because few wanted to own them, or those that did take them, found them to be lacking enough that they never recommended them to their friends or musical peers.
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Alan Carruth » Fri Sep 28, 2012 2:36 pm

Mario wrote:
"Traditions don't just "happen". Traditions become such because they stand the test of time. For hundreds of years, rebel luthiers like yourselves have wanted to build instruments from any 'ol wood they thought would work, and they did just that, but where are they now? Right. Few to be found, because few wanted to own them, or those that did take them, found them to be lacking enough that they never recommended them to their friends or musical peers."

You're right that traditions don't 'just happen', but they don't happen in a vacuum either. There's an awful lot that goes into determining the 'suitability' of a piece of wood that has little to do with either it's stability or it's acoustic performance. Beauty is one thing that matters a lot, and fashion plays a big role in that. Did Brazilian rosewood become the go-to wood for backs and sides because it was used in furniture at the time (due, of course, in part to it's beauty), or because it has outstanding acoustic properties, or because it smells good and bends well? It has to be 'all of the above' of course. I'd hardly call it a paragon of stability!

A hundred or so years ago, when 'Golden Oak' furniture was popular in the US, Sears put out oak guitars. I've seen one: considering it was pretty cheaply made it was not all that bad. It prompted me to start making oak guitars. Acoustically, they've been quite successful, but selling them is tough. In part it's because people associate the look with a lot of old furniture they've seen at yard sales and junque shops: it's cheap wood, so how can it sound good?

And anyway, why bother to make something of 'local' wood when the imported stuff is not all that expensive, and it's easy to get? When I started building Brazilian rosewood was not all that much more expensive than Indian, although that situation didn't last too much longer. In any case, neither was 'expensive'. Back then, every small town lumber yard had at least some nice looking Honduras mahogany around. No longer!

Another aspect of this is, I think, that instruments tend to evolve in ways that are, at least in part, dictated by the woods that are used. A good example of this is the Flamenco guitar. Originally guitar makers used cypress for the backs and sides of Flamencos because it was the cheap local wood that had decent properties. It turned out to be quite well suited acoustically to the use, since it's low density and low damping (which are not often found together) gave the guitars a lot of 'punch' and a good high end. Over time the Flamenco guitar design evolved more in direction s that both took advantage of the woods used, and also served the musical ends. I think much the same happened with violins. It's not just that soft maple is 'suitable' for them; the whole design has evolved around that wood. Since much of the playing style and repertoire is, in turn, conditioned by the size and shape of the violins we have, it's very hard to make a violin out of anything else that will work well: you can't alter the design to adapt it to the wood.

Guitars are not so constrained by the materials, and it is possible that, with the tightening of supplies of tropical woods, we'll see more acceptance of 'non-traditional' woods over time. We already do, actually: when I started out walnut was rarely used, for example, and there's a host of tropical woods we'd never heard of then that are now common. There are, of course, reasons behind tradition, but a lot of what tradition excludes has been done for reasons that have little to do with either music or woodworking.

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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Mario Proulx » Sat Sep 29, 2012 1:14 am

Did Brazilian rosewood become the go-to wood for backs and sides because it was used in furniture at the time (due, of course, in part to it's beauty), or because it has outstanding acoustic properties, or because it smells good and bends well? It has to be 'all of the above' of course. I'd hardly call it a paragon of stability!

Actually, Alan / Luthier, you missed the real reason that BRW became the "go to" rosewood. Availability. Brazil was set on clearing land, thus cutting trees, for hundreds of years. They are also the nearest source of rosewood we had. It was cheap, it was available, and oh yeah, it was pretty and stable. Why would anyone seek out rosewood from India, a far-off and little known, exotic location, when we had BRW at every lumber yard?

Right!

Before Honduran became "traditional", the go-to mahogany was Cuban. Again, a short 50 mile ride on the water and there it was, on our shores. Readily available, beautiful, stable, and CHEAP.

Red spruce was used by Martin until the mid 40's because it was...... Local, readily available, and CHEAP.

Maple and European spruce was used by the long-dead Italian Masters because it was local, available, and CHEAP.

Of course, all the above also proved worthy of becoming "traditional woods". 100 years ago, more instruments were being produced in the Chicago area than anywhere else, and they also used a lot of woods that were local, available, and CHEAP. But, they differ, and none of these became "traditional" because they failed. Poplar necks warped with time, and those that didn't warp turned green under the varnish. Not all that pleasing to the eye.... The birch backs warped and twisted, so did many of the birch necks. All the while, high quality instruments were being built using prettier woods that proved very stable and strong, and when all was said and done, only cost a dollar or two extra.

Is it any wonder some became traditional, and others failed?

Your example of oak is a perfect example, also. As a buyer, why would anyone buy a guitar that looks like Grandma's kitchen cabinets when it sounds only "as good as" any of the more 'exotic' woods that look way better? Really, you cut --your-- costs by what, $10 or $20 by using oak instead of figured maple, walnut, EIR or mahogany, yet it took you the same amount of time to build the instrument, so you still need to charge the same, or near the same for the final instrument. So, unless oak sounds way better than the rest(thereby gaining an edge, to make up for its lack of beauty), it ain't gonna become one of the "traditional woods". And it didn't, nor isn't, going to. Is it a fine tonewood, stable, strong, available and cheap? Sure! But it still lacks.....

Bottom line is is that traditional woods are just that because they have the most "pluses" and the least "minuses".
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Alan Carruth » Sat Sep 29, 2012 8:18 pm

Mario wrote:
" So, unless oak sounds way better than the rest(thereby gaining an edge, to make up for its lack of beauty), it ain't gonna become one of the "traditional woods". And it didn't, nor isn't, going to. Is it a fine tonewood, stable, strong, available and cheap? Sure! But it still lacks....."

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the ear as well. I happen to like the look of well quartered oak, as do at least some other people, and I would not recommend the use of flat cut oak! Fashion plays a role as well, and can cut either way. It does seem to me that the beauty of quartered oak has been denigrated in part because it is so common in cheap furniture, as I have said. Who wants to play a guitar that looks like Grandma's sideboard?

As for 'better than the rest': is Honduras mahogany really 'better' than, say, walnut, or cherry, or black locust, or even oak? Isn't it more likely that it took over the spot it now occupies because of a fortuitous relationship with a far better wood: Caribbean mahogany (which grows in Florida and Central America, as well as Cuba)? With that gosh-awful red finish they put on it, S. macrophyla looks passably like S. mahoganii, but that's about as far as the resemblance goes in most cases.

Which brings up an interesting question that you, Mario, might know the answer to: did they ever use S. mahoganii on a D-18? I don't recall ever seeing one, but your experience in that regard may be wider than mine. In not, I have to wonder if that 'D-18 sound' would have been the same if the denser and lower damping wood had been used? It could well be an example of the co-evolution of music and instruments I mentioned.

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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Mario Proulx » Wed Oct 03, 2012 9:54 am

did they ever use S. mahoganii on a D-18?

Swietenia mahagoni. Only one "i"....

That's been debated a lot, but as far as I know, nobody can say for certain one way or another. Some of the mahogany on pre war Martins is very dark, even on the unfinished interiors, while others are quite light in color, but we have no way of knowing what environmental factors are also at play. Many of these have been workhorses through the years, played in smoky bars, outdoors, and just plain not taken care of to the degree we expect today. The sometimes extreme light weight of some of these guitars is also quite legendary, yet others aren't that light at all. My opinion would be that Martin, like anyone and everyone else, simply purchased the best wood they could find at any given moment, so their sources would have been subject to change without notice.

In other words, methinks that yes, at times they would have used plenty of "cuban" mahogany. Especially since it grew in Florida, the Bahamas, Jamaica, the Virgin Islands, (and of course, Cuba), etc... Honestly, it's pretty hard to imagine that anyone would have insisted on mahogany from Honduras when a near-identical mahogany grew right on your own shores.... The only real argument left is whether the greatest examples(because, we know all too well that not all of them are stellar) of the vintage mahogany guitars were cuban or honduran mahogany....
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Alan Carruth » Wed Oct 03, 2012 2:20 pm

All of the early Martins I've seen look like S. macrophyla, and the wood has also been less dense and softer than S. mahogani. OTOH, I have not seen that many....

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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Alain Bieber » Fri Oct 05, 2012 1:49 pm

This topic will logically be very long, I fear it mixes too many ideas. It starts with, maybe and according to me, a slight lack of precision in what is meant about the world of string instruments. For some instruments one has no freedom of course, for others he has plenty. For some makers the input price of the wood means a lot, for some others it means almost nothing. For some instruments the kind of sound expected is quite precise, for some others it can vary a lot. And so on...ad libitum.
I also think the word "tradition" is interpreted very differently by each individual making an object such as a musical instrument... acoording to the kind of musical instrument he is after. And this is pure logic.
I personally like a definition of tradition which associates it simply to the existence of a map when you are walking in the mountains. It usually helps, more than it annoys . But each mountain deserves its map<g>.
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Barry Guest » Fri Oct 05, 2012 9:49 pm

Alain Bieber wrote:This topic will logically be very long, I fear it mixes too many ideas. It starts with, maybe and according to me, a slight lack of precision in what is meant about the world of string instruments. For some instruments one has no freedom of course, for others he has plenty. For some makers the input price of the wood means a lot, for some others it means almost nothing. For some instruments the kind of sound expected is quite precise, for some others it can vary a lot. And so on...ad libitum.
I also think the word "tradition" is interpreted very differently by each individual making an object such as a musical instrument... acoording to the kind of musical instrument he is after. And this is pure logic.
I personally like a definition of tradition which associates it simply to the existence of a map when you are walking in the mountains. It usually helps, more than it annoys . But each mountain deserves its map<g>.


The map of the word "tradition" may lie in its synonyms, some of which are "acceptable", "usual", "accustomed", even "ancestral" or "classical". However, other synonyms for this word can be more menacing to an inquisitive mind. One that comes to mind is "doctrinal", suggesting a measure of brainwashing along the way. The analogy that "Stradivari's way was the only way" can be drawn in this debate. If we don't keep an open mind on this subject, established convention not only gets in the way, but hinders the acceptance of new developments.
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Mario Proulx » Sat Oct 06, 2012 12:20 am

I am beginning to think that those with the truly closed minds are the ones arguing against.....

Honestly, we can set ourselves so steadfastly against traditional materials that we force ourselves to use anything but, even if common sense says we should. Or in other words, we'll go well out of our way to use anything but maple and spruce to build a violin, then MAKE UP arguments for our choice, instead of just being happy that we did what we did with what we used and that it turned out just fine.

Or seen another way, it's like when an atheist argues hand over fist with a believer of any one religion; what it amounts to is that the atheist is actually arguing -his- religion(that being that there is none) with another. Silly, ain't it? You want to use non-traditional woods? Go for it! I've done it all my career, and even successfully introduced composites to arguably to most "traditional" of all music genres, and built a rabid following by doing so. All the while, I never had to argue or apologize for "breaking tradition". I didn't have to beat my clients into submission..; I simply built a better instrument, and the musicians(and sales) followed....
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Alain Bieber » Sat Oct 06, 2012 2:40 am

I just wanted to underline the fact that the role and importance of tradition, in a rather positive acceptance (which is mine I confess), should be discussed for each kind of instrument. Not"in general". And we all know that the problem of wood choices is different for instruments going directly in a symphonic orchestra, compared with those staying in the hands of freer musicians folk, jazz, pop, etc....even classical, but played in a more personal environment than Carnegie Hall <g>.
And "tradition", I believe in a modest way, is not to be treated as a problem opposing "something" to "facts" (as said in the first question). Finally, of course each builder is, as points out Mario, free to build as he likes. I totally respect that freedom.. as I used it myself so intensely when I started.
Now, when I walk in a mountainous area, I prefer to have a map. Tradition is nothing more than this I believe. And you can leave the path anytime.
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Barry Guest » Thu Oct 11, 2012 3:56 am

Mario Proulx wrote:I am beginning to think that those with the truly closed minds are the ones arguing against.....

Honestly, we can set ourselves so steadfastly against traditional materials that we force ourselves to use anything but, even if common sense says we should. Or in other words, we'll go well out of our way to use anything but maple and spruce to build a violin, then MAKE UP arguments for our choice, instead of just being happy that we did what we did with what we used and that it turned out just fine.

Or seen another way, it's like when an atheist argues hand over fist with a believer of any one religion; what it amounts to is that the atheist is actually arguing -his- religion(that being that there is none) with another. Silly, ain't it? You want to use non-traditional woods? Go for it! I've done it all my career, and even successfully introduced composites to arguably to most "traditional" of all music genres, and built a rabid following by doing so. All the while, I never had to argue or apologize for "breaking tradition". I didn't have to beat my clients into submission..; I simply built a better instrument, and the musicians(and sales) followed....


Mario, methinks you misunderstand me. I made the point (maybe not clearly enough) using synonyms to explain myself. I use both "trad" and alternative woods and I am by no means arguing a case to use the alternative in favor of traditional woods. I merely wanted to draw attention to the evolution or lineage of the spruces and maples -- that they became traditional by default, a default locked in a time zone where luthiers did not have the choices we have today. Columbus sailed onto the Americas in 1492, but I hazard to guess that the first use of alternative woods in lutherie came much, much later. I pose the question again --- if a man like Stradivari was born in New York, what wood would he have used, and would that wood now be known as traditional?
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Mario Proulx » Thu Oct 11, 2012 9:07 am

if a man like Stradivari was born in New York, what wood would he have used, and would that wood now be known as traditional?

If Strad was born in New York, he'd have used spruce(red, white, or black spruce are local) which was plentiful, and for sure, maple(sugar and red maple are abundant)....

Of course, if he'd been born in Australia, he would have had to use completely different woods, as maple and spruce are not native down under. Therefor, the better question to ask would be:

"if Stradivari were born in Australia, would his instruments, made of native Australian woods, have become the standard to which all others are judged by?"

Of course, we'll never know the answer to this question.

Another question we may ask ourselves is "did the violin evolve in the small-ish area of Italy that it did because of the craftsmen that lived there, or because the craftsmen of that area had access to excellent tonewoods that would later prove ideal for violin making?" Perhaps both, I would say. Did they fluke into those woods? Likely not. They surely tried the various pines, firs, and cedars that also grow in the area, but they did settle on spruce, so there's a reason for this. The maple, well, that was likely chosen because of its beauty as much as for any other reason, though it has proven to be quite ideal in its physical qualities also, hasn't it? So what's not to love; it's reasonably stable, hard, yet carves and bends readily, takes finish beautifully, requiring little to no pore filling, and produces a pleasing sound while also pleasing the eye. So, while our long-dead heroes surely had access to many other hardwoods, why would they have chosen anything else?

Remember, THEY weren't held back by tradition, since there WAS NO tradition.

Hmmmm, you say..?
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Barry Guest » Thu Oct 11, 2012 7:25 pm

Ah Mario, but there WAS traditions for the Italians to follow. The civiization of Mesopotamia lasted until 500 Ad, and those people made and played lyres, lutes and harps, the woods of which evolved through the middle ages to the Renaissance period.

So new boy Stradivari was simply following those who went 1000 years before him. The Italians had the great advantage of this brilliant innovator to show them the way forward, but he was given a leg up by Amati and his 24 violins to the King's court. This contract gave the violin credibility as a solo instrument. I wonder if Antonio was admonished for being such an upstart and changing the classical design of the violin, as some are now admonished for using alternative woods. Hmmmmmmmmmm, YOU say!
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Mario Proulx » Thu Oct 11, 2012 9:39 pm

You're pushing a bit too hard, methinks, when you start placing all of those together, but hey, I can play along, too.

At some point, no matter how far back you want to go to find an example to show that our heroes, the dead Italians, were merely following tradition, there HAD to be --someone-- who started that "tradition". From scratch. The next question I pose to you is, why has THAT been followed blindly for, oh, 1500 years by your time scale? A bunch of mindless idiots merely using what the others had used... Until now, of course, where, finally, some forward thinkers such as you and I come along.

<bg>
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Barry Guest » Sat Oct 13, 2012 12:26 am

Forward thinker? You are much too kind Mario.

Yes, surely someone was responsible for the gorgeous marriage of the maples and the spruces, but it happened long before the heroes of Cremona. The dead Italians, as you so fittingly describe, are responsible for the perpetuation of the traditional woods by a weird default...their outstanding success. The end of the 18th century saw a decline in the violin trade. The pursuit of the master craftsmen of the 17th century became the 19th and 20th Century pursuit to emulate, copy, reproduce, fake, antique and restore. Even Guadagnini spent his last years as an alumni of Stradivarius. The disease spread to France and Germany, and most notably, the Vuillaumes of the Mirecourt school churned out thousands of copies each and every year. Viva la impératif commercial.



These days, we call it commercial imperative, and it still exists in the world of the violin today.
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Jeff Brooks » Sun Oct 28, 2012 8:42 am

I've often wondered... If we lust over "exotic hardwoods" because they come from far away lands... Then do the luthiers in the far away lands lust over the "exotic hardwoods" grown in America? Maybe we should open our eyes to what has been created right in front of us. Just sayin'...
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Barry Guest » Mon Oct 29, 2012 2:10 am

Well, lust is a bit strong. However, I think you are right. I work in Australia and drool (not lust) over woods that you probably have on racks in your local suppliers yard. The other man's grass is always greener? .....just sayin.......
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Jeff Brooks » Mon Oct 29, 2012 5:19 pm

Yeah I guess lust was too strong. 'Coure I didn't mean lust as in the perverted sense, but rather in the 'strong desire' sense... like, "Man I gotta have one of those..." I like drool much better. :D
I happened across a really nice piece of black walnut here in Tennessee that has a grain pattern that looks like a child's fingerpainting. :D
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Re: is tradtion holding us back wood wise?

Postby Barry Guest » Mon Oct 29, 2012 7:51 pm

Cool. ....and drool! I think "perverted" is something that luthiers deal with on a daily basis....second meaning that is--- "Having been corrupted or distorted from its original course, meaning, or state."
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