A MAGICIAN OF GUITAR ADJUSTMENT - Round Table Talk (Masaru Matano, Shiro Arai, Rikuro Hiyama) : Japan Music Trades Magazine (November 1972)

A MAGICIAN OF GUITAR ADJUSTMENT - Round Table Talk (Masaru Matano, Shiro Arai, Rikuro Hiyama) : Japan Music Trades Magazine (November 1972)

Mr. Masaru Matano's guitar making tools

In the previous interview, Alan Wilcox mentioned techniques used by Mr Matano. I asked Alan about it and he kindly let me know about the article he was referring to.

The following article "A MAGICIAN OF GUITAR ADJUSTMENT" first appeared in "Japan Music Trades", a popular music industry magazine in Japan, in November 1972. This article is available again on this blog courtesy of Japan Music Trades. I am really grateful to Japan Music Trades for their generous and kind support.


—Round-Table Talk—

The following is a record of round-table talk with Mr. Masaru Matano, who is a well-knowledged staff member of Meiko Gakki Inc., and Mr. Shiro Arai, well-known distributor of "Aria" Guitars. In the following, "H" stands for Hiyama of this magazine, "M" Mr. Matano, and "A" Mr. Arai.

H: Thank you gentlemen for joining this round-table talk. The other day, a "Guitar Dispensary" was held at Nippon Gakki Store on Ginza Street where Mr. Matano displayed his magical skills by thumping and scraping a dead-mute guitar and making it sound like a completely new, excellent instrument.

M: In order to emphasize the difference of the guitar sound, I first adjusted the 1st and 3rd strings and let the customer play it. Then, I adjusted them all and the customer was happy. Though, it wasn't a magic. My work was all based on theories.

H: Many people told me that your theory is quite interesting and unique. I wanted to have a chance of meeting you and hearing from you about it.

M: This is rather my belief than a theory, but we have to make the final adjustments to an instrument when it is completed. However, neither modernized mass-producing makers nor hand-makers really do a thing like this. An instrument is completed, checked, and it is done. That is usually how it is.

H: You mean to say that shape and finish completed beautifully do not indicate completion of the instrument?

M: That is right. The most important thing for an instrument is not the outlook. Sounds. To exaggerate the point, I don't care about the outlook. Although, most of the makers care so much about finishes and shapes. If an instrument could be made just following each part of the shape and all, in this age of science and technology, even a Stradivarius could be produced that way. But we can't. There is the secret of musical instrument.

H: When I visited acoustics laboratory at Sorbonne University in Paris, a professor showed me a triangle violin and told me that by throughly studying all the past masterpieces of violin, analyzing data, and designing without a set concept on the shape, out came the triangle violin. When he blind-tested it for me, I could not tell it from ordinary violin. Perhaps this is and example of your story.

M: A triangle violin sounded just like an ordinary one is not unthinkable. There is no reason that the guitars should have the same body shape. Although, there should be an ideal shape for an instrument.

A: I have known Mr. Matano for about three years now. When I first met him and heard what he had to say about instrument, it was quite unique and no instrument makers ever said nor were concerned with what he said. He is a unique personality in the instrument making population. Of course, the guitar makers would say they knew some of the things he said, but the point is that all there is about a musical instrument is the sounds. He thumps an instrument and finds out its balance.

M: Yes. Take for instance, a communist country is really solid when each and every one of the people is really a solid communist. You can say the same thing about a musical instrument. When the whole of a musical instrument makes equal vibration, it is a good instrument. In order to achieve this, every element, every part of a musical instrument should be in the equal tension so that they react equally to a stimulus. A stimulus given to a string does not go through the bridge to the top of a guitar. Every part of the guitar begins vibration at once. You may say that it is carried through bridge to the top, but I think the vibration starts all at once.

H: You seem to put the strongest emphasis on vibration. It is because you put your starting point on so-called "Sound Point" when sands are placed on an instrument and produce certain designs according to the vibration, is that it?

M: No, my concept is different from that. The sand designs just show the results of vibration. I try to pursue causes of the vibration. Even when you used oscillographs, all you get are the results. You must gather data as to what results were obtained from what reasons. Analyse them and you find certain principles. Reverse it, you will find the causes.

H: How long have you been studying this?

M: About four years. But, everyday I find something new. Sometimes I think I have no more to look for. But it just isn't so. I understand that is why Stradivarius kept studying 50 years.

M: When a musical instrument is in homogeneous tension, it is in the best condition. To say this is easy, but to put an instrument in this condition you need very complexed techniques.

A: Mr. Matano does it by thumping the instrument. Certainly a maker would thump an instrument to find out how good its tightness is, soft or hard. When he buys a top material, he thumps and tries to find whether it is good or not. But what they usually do are just doing so and no more. Ears to detect subtlety of sounds are what count there.

H: I guess playing a guitar could do this better than just thumping it.

M: Well, I can't say it is perfect way. But I have been testing guitars that way over several hundred dozens so far, and I am confident myself. When you try to adjust a TV set, it is rather difficult to do it by watching the screen. You use oscillograph or a tester with the circuits and do it better. If you try to play a guitar by the strings and try to adjust it, it becomes more difficult as more complexed elements are co-related together.

H: Thumping it makes it easier?

M: Right. Thumping is a very simple stimulus to the instrument from outside. Sustained sound as its result indicates its own vibration capacity.

So, when you thump all different parts of a guitar, you will find what sort of vibration capacity or reaction capacity it has. To detect it, however, you have to have good ear training. I spent almost three years to train my ears.

H: Couldn't you use oscilloscope or other devices besides ears?

M: I tired to use electric devices. But human ears are such fine instruments and could do it far better.

H: Do you just thump the top of a guitar?

M: No, I try all the parts.

A: Top of a guitar is undoubtedly most important part. Strings themselves naturally make vibrations. Add a top board, the sounds became louder. Add a back and side and make the whole things a box-shape, the sounds further become louder by vibrated inner air chamber. So, with a guitar, to attain the best vibration of the top and inner chamber, other parts have very important contributions.

M: To say it the other way around, a guitar in a perfect condition has all the parts hamper each other against attaining perfect vibration. If a peg is in poor condition, sounds become poorer. You may not believe this. But, scraping violin pegs would tell you. If you scraped a peg too much, the particular string sounds all of a sudden too badly.

A: I agree with that, too. I have long maintained that a guitar neck is something like an auto engine. With a poor engine, a car does not run well. Without a good neck, a guitar does not make good sounds. Unless we pay minute care to each small part of a guitar, balance of vibration will be broken. Without a good balance of vibration of all of its parts, the instrument cannot work in its utmost capacity.

M: You cannot pay too little care about its studies. If a maker does not pay attention sufficiently to the making of nut, fret and other small parts, he is failed as a maker.

H: If a guitar does not sound well, strings may not fit. If you change the strings, you can get better sounds. Isn't that right?

A: As an old saying goes, "A good instrument chooses good strings, good strings a good instrument", you cannot get good sounds without matching strings.

M: One thing I found out recently: you can adjust a guitar to the strings. There is no trouble, though. A bare string can be tuned to matching tension when you adjust the guitar to it. However, a wound string has inner string tensioned without the outer cover changing. Tension is different between the inner and outer strings. To try to adjust the guitar is then a problem. The most important part of a guitar is not where people ordinarily think. For instance, you break up a Stradivarius and glue it completely back. Its sounds are unchanged. It does not lose its masterful sound. The top of a string instrument is certainly important. But what changes sounds lies somewhere-else.

A: I once studied Stradivarius from acoustics point of view. However, no scholars could tell why. The researcher I hired for the task finally said that perhaps well-dried wood has something to do it. So, I concluded myself that musical sounds of instrument have got to do with something really complexed no acoustics studies can reason out.

M: Well, you can reason out all right.

A: So you say, Mr. Matato. But I don't think even the theory not perfect. I doubt very much that even Stradivarius himself really sought out such reasons and built his instruments.

M: I believe he did. And I think what I say now were already common knowledges in the town of Cremona. Those violins produced then in Cremona all sound well. I have not yet produced an instrument called a world's masterpiece. However, I believed I am working myself in the same direction as Stradivarius did. Although, Stradivarius was a genius and studied for half a century. I am just a common craftsman and studied only four years. But direction is the same, I believe.

A: But it is just what you believe. I think that such masterpieces may well have been produced by chance. If Stradivarius did study the way you say he did, I wonder why his theory and techniques have not been succeeded to this day.

M: But with my adjustment, even a ¥10 million violin becomes better again. Other makers put their backs into repairing and adjustments of violins and yet when I re-adjust them I find points to improve.

H: I am fairly well acquainted with what you think. What sort of guitars your firm produces now?

M: We make guitars with plywood backs. Though plywood, I think their musical level is fairly high. We are making day by day improvements. The best we have produced are ones with Bubinger back boards. I showed them at the "Guitar Dispensary" the other day. Some customers said that they are better than ¥700,000 brand instruments. A professional guitarist said that its balance and volume are good. One bad point about it is that, with the inexpensive materials, pianissimo playing produces hard sounds.

H: You said you used a cedar top. Usually top material is of pine family. What good points a cedar top has?

M: It gives larger volume. Sound quality is a little poorer than the pine top. If it is adjusted the way I say, you can get better sound quality without letting the volume down.

A: Even if we make instruments the way you advocate, they may not be good instruments. Thumping to find out the entire parts produce equal vibrations does not give a good reason that the instrument is good. I mean to say that vibration data does not decide a good instrument. You must always think about volume and sound quality as well. Volume and sound quality have a lot to do with vibration. However, large volume declines sound quality, better sound quality, smaller volume. When we make guitars, we aim at the highest of both, most balanced point.

M: My concept is different. A man told me one that larger the lens diameter, softer its focus. You seem to apply the same theory to the musical instrument. I think it is wrong.

H: But you said cedar top produces lager volume but poorer sound quality that a pine one.

M: I did not mean that. if you use cedar board and lower the volume in order to achieve better sound quality, there is no reason you should use a cedar top. Ramirez uses cedar top with good sounds, because they work out their ideas to achieve this.

H: I think I missed a question. What is the most important point to produce sounds?

M: Supporting sticks. Small ones do not matter. Even if you miss one, you get the same sounds when you adjust the large sticks right. So, with a string instrument, point of adjustment between strings and the instrument are supporting sticks. Some people say that board is too thick or supporting sticks too tight to get good sounds out of a guitar. It is completely wrong. If so, a Fleta could not make a sound with its such strong supporting sticks. It has got 9 vertical, 4 horizontal lower sticks. Hauser guitar, on the other hand, has only 3 upper and 4 vertical sticks. And very thin ones. But sounds of both of these instruments cannot be compared. Many people seem to misunderstand the point.

A: Like you always say, so many people do not know the fundamental principles of a musical instrument.

M: I can say that again. Many makers and traders who do not know the principles and yet they seem to prosper. It is a wonder to me.

H: But it is reality. Maybe, you should not know more. Then, you can keep on going ahead.

M: You may be right. But knowing far more about the principles, you will be able to make better instruments. I once tried a piano. Each neighbouring key sounded completely different as if from different pianos. The sound board cannot be blamed. I tried and found that frame was no good. The frame itself gets into equal tension. Strings are attached to the frame at one end, another to the pins. If both these ends fall into the equal tension, you cannot get good sounds. Even if you make a frame good from the physical dynamics point of view, it may not be good from acoustics point of view.

H: To sum up your concept, Mr Matano, you intend to drag out the maximum vibration capacity of wood the guitar material and let it work at its maximum capacity. Right?

M: Pardon my repeating, but in order to make an instrument sound real well, you have to have every part of it achieving equally perfect vibration capacity. If you can make perfect parts, everyone of them, and put them together, you must get a whole good musical instrument.

Note The following is an extract from a monthly musical instrument industry column "Musical Instruments and Music men" issued in October 1972.
"Musical Instruments and Music men" was Mr Rikuro Hiyama's life's work and was widely read in the music industry for around 30 years.


Musical Instruments and Music Men
by Rikuro Hiyama

I met an interesting man. He is so-called "enchanted by the musical instruments". He used to play violin in Kotaro Hara's orchestra. He ruined his health by playing too much violin and retired home. His home town is Kurume where Maruha guitar factory is located. He got a job with the guitar maker. He began working as the final inspector and began his own studies of the string instruments.

Later he quit Maruha and namely owns Meiko Gakki in the suburbs of Kurume. Mr. Matano began his own instruments making four years ago. From morning till night, he handled dozens, hundred dozens of guitars and seems to have acquired "knacks" of materials, structure, finish and composition in relation to the guitar sounds. He has become able to judge conditions of a guitar by thumping all the parts of the instrument and to adjust to make it better.

Since older time, the instrument makers thump of top, back, and elsewhere by the back of middle finger to find small cracks of bad pastings. In Mr. Matano's case, thumping on the guitar parts is a way to pursue his theory of finding condition of balance the instrument should have to produce its best sound, and to help adjust it to do it. "I find something new everyday. I have never stopped once for these four years. Now I think I begin to understand craftsmanship of those old-time craftsmen of Cremona. They must have acquired some such sort of techniques. I am just beginning to understand, not mastered yet" says Mr. Matano. Hew said it with such a reserve. But what he has acquired so far he is very confident of. While talking, he thumps different parts of a guitar in his hands, scraping there and here by small tools he devised himself. Finally, he strummed it and asked me "Now, isn't it a little better?" It seems to sound better. He has interesting tools of his own. A 12cm, thumb-thick, iron rod with 2 to 3cm top bared and all the other length vinyl covered is his "thumping hammer". The vinyl is wound around the rod with different pitches from top to the bottom. He also has a small box about the size of two cigarette boxes. One side of the box is open with specially carved inside, which is also adjusted to an pitch. Small knife, scalpel, etc. Using these small tools, he adjusts a guitar sounds to better one.

I visited one of Tokyo hotels with him and then overheard piano and violin duet from its restaurant. He instantly said, "The violin is no good. It is not sounding perfect". He explained that the violin is not adjusted into its perfect condition and making irregular vibration.

Master craftsmen of East and West, old and new, must have acquired some sort of theories and knowledges like Mr. Matano's.

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