Interview with Classical guitar luthiers: Gary Southwell (UK)

Gary Sounthwell Cover

I'm delighted to introduce Gary Sounthwell from United Kingdom.


Q1. Could you please tell us a little about your luthiery and its history?

I started making guitars in 1978 in my father's furniture making workshop. I was, and still am, a keen guitarist and artist. In 1980 I went to The London College of Furniture where I studied  guitar making with the guidance of Herbert Schwartz, Tony Smith and Stephen Barber. I graduated 3 years later and set up my own workshop and have been a professional guitar maker ever since.


Q2. You are specialised in historical guitars of 19th century and modern guitars called A Series. Please tell us about those guitars, your idea of a good sounding guitar, and what you do to achieve it.

My work on 19th century guitars was more by accident than design. I had made a copy of a Panormo guitar in my final year of college, which attracted a lot of attention from guitarists who were involved in period performances of the 19th century repertoire. I was instantly in demand for both copies and restoration work, as at the time I was one of very few makers specialising in this field. I travelled all over Europe researching instruments in public and private collections, when little was thought about or known about these guitars. I'm pleased to see that today there is much more interest in these guitars and their important place in the history of the guitar is recognised. For me the 3 great makers of the early romantic period were Stauffer, Lacote and Panormo, then later in the century Scherzer and Torres. All had a different style. I am probably most inspired by Stauffer, his inventiveness and sense of style and the balance,clarity, quick response and projection he achieved in his guitars. I admire the elegance of Lacote's guitars and while I do not like the sound of Panormos as much, I just love the head design. Scherzer carried on Stauffer's ideas and I believe created some of the greatest guitars of all. Torres brought together many strands and ideas with which he created  beautifully balanced guitars that have inspired so many fine makers.
The first 10 years of my career was spent working exclusively on historical guitars, but I had trained as a modern guitar maker and became more and more interested in returning to working on my own designs. My immersion in the 19th century guitar had given me lots of ideas on different and some unusual approaches to making a good instrument and so I began to put this knowledge into practice and to design and make modern guitars again. This led to my A Series design. Elements of the design are inspired by details from historical guitars, in particular the 19th century Viennese style, and are very much part of the tradition.  Yet my guitars are often regarded as “radical”  and “ground breaking”. The guitars themselves are very much aimed at the 21st century guitarists. Blending  modern ideals and aesthetics with traditional elements from the past.
I feel it is important to create your own sound and to develop an individual style. I have done this by many years of intense study of the great masters of the past. In copying their work successfully there is a need to leave your own ego behind, this is where I have found the real learning begins. I have also had the chance to develop my sound by working with many of the finest guitarists of our time. In particular my many years spent working with Julian Bream and David Starobin. With other notable contributions from John Williams, Scott Tennant and Frank Bungarten. It is ultimately the musicians and the music they create which inspires me the most.  My idea of a good sounding guitar is one that is well balanced with lots of warmth and richness, dynamic (so it is responsive and full sounding at ppp and still allows a big full fff), has big tonal variations with lots of colour and character, is capable of long sustain, is responsive and has great projection. Have I left anything out?  It takes many years of experience, experimentation and a lot of hard work. After 36 years of full time making I feel I'm starting to get somewhere!


Q3. Please tell us about your idea of improving playability, and what you do to achieve it?

Good playability means different things to different people and as there are many approaches to playing techniques it is impossible to come up with a single solution for everyone. I am very aware that the guitar is a physically demanding instrument to play. In my design I have thought carefully about making the guitar as comfortable and easy to play as possible.  The size, shape, weight and balance  along with the feel of the neck all play a role. I have introduced a cutaway for ease of playing in the upper registers, an arm rest which not only makes the arm resting on the guitar body more comfortable,  it also decreases the amount of damping on the soundboard.  A good fret job is vital and setting the guitar up well with a comfortable action. Again this is something that will differ between players. One feature of my A Series guitar is the use of an adjustable neck which allows the player to quickly and simply set the action as they want. This is an adaptation of an invention by Stauffer from 19th century Vienna, a method of neck construction which had been abandoned and I re-introduced to the modern guitar back in the 1980's and something other makers are now beginning to emulate. If you are making a bespoke instrument you have the opportunity to discuss a clients needs as regards to neck size and shape and to make something which is right for them. But in my experience not all players know what is best for them and especially if they think they want something extreme, it is a good idea spending lots of time working this out with them to find the best solution. The  biggest element of all  is to produce a guitar that is responsive to the player's touch, so the instrument is actually working with the player.


Q4. Please tell us about the finishing method you use.

I have two finishing methods I like to use. One is an oil varnish, that I make myself. This is brushed on and cured under UV light. It has a beautiful lustre and in my opinion is superior in looks, sound and durability to French Polish. I also like an oil method of finishing. This gives a more natural look to the wood and works very well with my bog oak guitars, I also finish the bog oak wood with a beeswax that again I make myself using propolice from my own bees that I keep. I like the natural look, as opposed to the big glossy appearance factory made guitars have led us all to. The oil method helps produce an open, warm sound and is easy to maintain.


Q5. Please tell us your opinion regarding shorter-scale guitars such as 640, 628 and 615mm in terms of playability, design, sound quality and volume. Is there an increasing need to cater to smaller-handed or female players?

Back in the 19th century the standard string length was 630mm and so I am well aware of the qualities of a shorter scale. While they lack a certain depth to the sound and can never achieve a big deep bass they more than make up for it by having a wonderful lyrical quality with good balance and clarity. When talking of volume we have to be careful about what we really mean. Many of the smaller guitars have such good projection and balance that they end up sounding louder than many, so called, big or loud guitars. It depends so much on what your perception is and from where you judge the guitar. When a player wants a smaller scale I am careful to explore why. Sometimes they have decided this is the answer to a problem they have with their playing, but experience has taught me that this is not always the answer. Indeed, even for someone physically small it is not always right. There are other things to look at, like the shape of neck, the set up and how the guitar responds to the touch. Often all they need is a better guitar. But I am always happy to make a guitar with a shorter string length if that is ultimately the answer. 


Q6. Do you have a preference for any particular string type or tension when you design/make your guitars?

I don't make my guitars with any string in mind. This is such a personal choice for the player. I feel it is my job to make a guitar that will respond well to anything the player wants to do with it.


Q7. How does the increasing rarity of some woods, rosewood for example, impact on your methods, and the quality of the end product?

I am now fortunate to have a great stock of wood to use. I love to make my soundboards from German spruce and with what I have stored and with a large donation of fine tops from Julian Bream, some years ago, I have a wonderful selection of soundboards that are at least 30 years old and more than enough to last me my working life. I have never been a big fan of Brazilian or South American rosewood and I have never really understood the mythology surrounding it. While I have used it in the past I no longer have any in stock and will not use it any more. I have always preferred the sound quality from Indian rosewood and will continue to use this from the stocks I have. My favourite woods to use on backs and sides are Maple and Bog Oak and I plan to make more guitars using these woods in future. I don't believe the rarity of certain woods has effected the quality of my work or methods in any way. While I appreciate it may be an issue for some makers and for future generations it is something that does not effect me personally. I believe there will always be solutions to these problems, and with my many years experience of studying historical guitars, believe that a great maker can use almost anything to make a great guitar.


Q8. How do you see the future of this beautiful tradition in the 21st century?

I do not have a clear vision of the future. While technical excellence abounds I see a lack of understanding and style in much of what is made today.
I see the biggest challenge in the future for the guitar, as with society, is of dealing with new technology.  Computers and  machines are already becoming a part of the way many individuals, and not just factories, make guitars. I do not believe these technologies can replace human creativity in any form. I want to sense the person behind the work, to empathise with their emotions and to become a part of something special. Our character, faults and all, are what makes us unique and I hope this will be valued by makers, musicians and their audiences for generations to come.


Gary Southwell: Bog Oak A Series with oil finish (front) Gary Southwell: Bog Oak A Series with oil and beeswax finish (back and sides) Gary Southwell: Adjustable neck 1 Gary Southwell: Adjustable neck 2 Gary Southwell: Bog Oak A Series with Yew top Steel String model Gary Southwell: Cedar A Series version also varnished (maple back and sides) Gary Southwell: Stauffer Gary Southwell: Lacote Gary Southwell: Panormo Gary Southwell: Scherzer Gary Southwell: Torres Gary Southwell Workshop 1 Gary Southwell Workshop 2


Very interesting ! I own one of his guitars and it's amazing. After reading this interview I appreciate it even more. Thanks for sharing this.

Thanks for leaving a comment, Stephen. I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed the interview!

I'm fortunate to own the very first Steel Strung version of Gary's A series Fenland Oak instrument made with 5000 year old 'Bog Oak' A beautifully made and highly resonant instrument with a huge voice. Sadly I am unable to play now so I plan to find a new home for it. Do have a look at the instrument on his site to appreciate the superb craftsmanship.

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