The Responsive Guitar

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Ervin Somogyi discusses acoustic guitar theory, design and construction.

Video Transcription

[slow classical guitar music playing]

[on-screen text reads: The Responsive Guitar - Ervin Somogyi, Luthier] 

Things Ervin considers important on his guitars

Ervin Somogyi: There are two things that I consider important on my guitars. One is the sound.

I really want my guitars to be sensitive and responsive tools for the musicians who play them.

Now, the second thing is, I'm concerned with a certain look, a certain sense of line, a certain sense of aesthetic that is associated with my guitars and that people expect to see on a Somogyi guitar.

What Ervin is best known for

Many hand makers of guitars have their distinctive ways of ornamenting and designing them. One of the things that I'm best known for at this point is my segmented sound hole rosettes. These are the decorations that go around the sound hole, which are usually one continuous ring or several continuous rings. Mine is interrupted and makes a very, very distinct visual statement.

I learned to build guitars at a time when the use of hand tools was pretty much the only way to go. Power tools were not plentifully available. I've stayed with that. I still very largely use hand tools in my work, and I like doing it like that. I get better and cleaner results, the work is actually faster and it's much more satisfying to actually put my hands on the wood as opposed to maybe pushing the wood through a sander.

World-class guitar players

Many of my guitars end up in the hands of world-class guitar players. I'm very happy to be able to say that. One of them is Steve Erquiaga [on-screen text reads: Guitarist and Composer]. He's not quite world famous yet, but that's not because he doesn't have the chops. He has a wonderful sense of the milliseconds of extra emphasis that really make a passage of music pulsate and be very alive as opposed to, well, just be there.

His sensitivity of musical touch is phenomenal.

My reputation is as a steel string guitar maker. This is ironic because I actually play the nylon string guitar. I've been playing that for a long, long time, and when I started making guitars, I of course was making classical and flamenco guitars. In those days, unfortunately, I didn't really know what I was doing and I found it impossible to please people in those musical networks. So my learning curve coincided with my meeting steel string guitar players, whom I really liked. They're very appreciative, and by that time I was making guitars good enough that people could actually want to play and buy. So it was a happy meeting in terms of timing, and I've never gone back. I've simply made guitars that people like more and more in this network.

[Steve is playing slow acoustic guitar music]

Ornate designs with maximum responsiveness

I like to constantly create things that are a bit new and I've got a good track record for making people very pleased with a lot of my new designs. I have two guitars in the shop right now that really are new, and they represent this pushing of the envelope for me. They represent an awful lot of work in so far as doing very unique kinds of details in ornamentation and inlays.

Because my guitars are such responsive instruments in the hands of a guitar player, they're more delicately constructed than the average sound box. I achieve this by removing wood selectively in ways that will weaken the structure enough that it can respond fully vibrationally, and then just falling short of the spot were where the guitar would collapse. It's a balance of a very delicate structure.

Making a film is something new for me. I've always shown my work by going to guitar shows. There were a few of these that everybody goes to once a year, or twice a year, but this is a way of showing my work and showing images of my work to a wider audience. I really would like to do that at this point, and I'm glad to have this very interesting experience of being put on film.

About the book

It's amazing how many things in life start because of some unexpected little push. I started writing my book out of a rather casual conversation, and I thought it would be fun to put down on paper what I know about guitar making, and it's grown into two volumes, which are the sum total of everything I've learned in the last 40 years. I was going to write a book about how to build the guitar, and I did, but I kept on adding material about what does this procedure have to do with sound and what happens to the tone when you do that. So, at least half of the book is about what do you have to do to the sound box to get it to really sing. In this way, I think this is going to be a very unique contribution to the literature that's out there about the guitar.

The guitar is not a very complicated thing. It really has fewer parts than any toaster or bicycle. But it's very subtle. My book right now is in two volumes. The first one is about the mechanical things, how you make the neck, how you bend the sides, how you put them together. The second one is about what makes the guitar tick. And between the two of them, I try to show the reader just how delicately he can craft and shape the pieces so they can be maximally responsive by the time the maker puts strings on it and the player picks it up and strums on it.

It's because of my concern with the guitar's sound and responsivity that I chose the title, The Responsive Guitar. I didn't want to make it sound as though this was just another book on how to put together guitar parts.

My books contain an explanation of my methods in as complete a forum as I could put down on paper. The intent behind them is to enable anybody who wants to make a really good guitar to be able to do so, and maybe even make better guitars than I can. I'd very much like that to be my legacy.



Ervin Somogyi

Guitarmaker, Luthier Instructor and Author

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