Classical guitar luthier: Rik Middleton (UK)

Classical guitar luthier: Rik Middleton (UK)

Classical guitar luthier: Rik Middleton (UK)

I’m delighted to have Rik Middleton as my first interviewee for this project.

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

A lifelong hobby woodworker I took up guitar making after taking early retirement from teaching (biology). Two of my early guitars were entered for a competition in London in 1994 and came away with the gold and silver medals. On this evidence of some talent I persisted and was supplying commissions and retailers by 1997.

Q2. Please describe your idea of a good sounding guitar, and what you do to achieve it?

Do you have any idea how big a question this is? I wrote a 35,000 word book and couldn’t get all that in. See answer to q5 for description of sound. Achieving good sound comes from making a front that is the best thickness and gradation that that piece of wood will achieve and bracing it in such a way as to allow all frequencies to be expressed. I firmly believe in bracing a dome into the front to increase the rigidity:weight ratio. The box you mount this onto the front of must be in sympathy with the vibrations the front produces. For the full explanation I could write another 35,000 words - just get me a publisher.

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

The ‘Action’ of a guitar is the airspace between the string underside and fret top at fret 12 unless otherwise stated. For classical guitars this is typically 4mm bass E and 2.75mm treble e; A difference of 1.25mm. On a plane flat fingerboard this requires 2.5mm greater height at the saddle on the bass compared to the treble side. This can look odd and affect the tonal balance. To correct this the fingerboard can be planed such that the thickest part is on the bass string at the nut and the thinnest at the bass 12th fret. Take care that this does not leave fret 19 position too thin. Looked along the front has a twist. The saddle can be more nearly level.

When a string vibrates the space it occupies has a curved outline. Bass strings have a larger movement. So, imagine a bass E fretted at fret 1 and played; on a flat fingerboard it is most likely to buzz against fret 5 or 6. As you fret higher the interfering fret will move up too but the movement is less at higher pitch so the effect reduces. “Bass relief” is the planing of a small amount of longitudinal concavity leading to frets 5&6 being dropped from their theoretical level by a certain amount. This reduces along the line of basses A and D and becomes virtually zero along treble e. The concavity should not extend beyond fret 12 or the fingerboard thickness at fret 19 would be compromised. 12 down to 19 should be a uniform thickness. Optimum bass relief for a classical I would reckon between 0.25 and 0.35mm at fret 5/6 position measured under a straightedge between nut and fret 12 position.

When you place a barre across all 6 strings on a flat fingerboard it is difficult to apply extra pressure if needed in the middle. So raise the middle and give latitudinal convexity. Bearing in mind the constraints of paras 1 & 2 this is difficult to do evenly along the length. Bass relief will make this greatest at fret 5 or 6. It should decrease above fret 9 or 10.

All the above has to be planed as a single process. You have to have it all in mind before you start. The finished surface is complex! It is most important to use a straightedge to check that there are absolutely no points where the longitudinal surface shows convexity. Any point at which the straightedge will pivot when parallel to the strings must be lowered. The concept of this final playing surface must also be held in mind when dressing frets; it must be true for the dressed fret top surfaces as well. In this way the instrument achieves maximum ease of playing.

Q4. Please tell us your opinion about the traditional finishing method (French polish) and new methods (lacquer, catalysed finishing, etc).

The finishing material on a guitar needs to be hard wearing as it covers an item which is handled fairly robustly and often with sweaty hands. It should remain glossed on the surface to keep the instrument looking attractive and should be wiped down occasionally with a cloth moistened slightly with something that will remove the oil and salt components of sweat.  Dilute soap and water will do.  White spirit is good.  It must not come off with the sweat and slight abrasion of hands.  French polish fails all of these as far as I am concerned.  Nothing looks better than a well finished new french polished guitar; Nothing looks more 'down at heel' than a french polished guitar after a year with someone whose sweat attacks the surface.  I am strongly in favour of modern lacquer finishes.

The finish needs to be applied very thinly to the front to preserve its resonant capacity.  It needs to be applied to other parts in thicknesses appropriate to their experience of wear in normal use.  It also needs, in the long term, to be refinishable.  Some production factory guitars have industrial finishes to which nothing else can adhere. Repairs cannot be refinished properly. I have tried repairs on these and it is soul destroying to find that your careful repair is going to look like it needs repairing!

Probably the best finish when well applied is plain nitro-cellulose (Not catalysed).  This needs industrial spraying booth equipment as it will fumigate a household workshop and gas its worker (me).  I am constantly trialling new materials looking for one that will finish well and quickly and be recoatable.  My current finish takes a long time to apply satisfactorily, but I am trialling others.  I then flatten with fine abrasive and buff the surface to a gloss finish.  My own performance instrument is 14 yrs old and a good advert for its surface finish. It's done a lot of work!

There are those who will tell you that ONLY french polish preserves the sound of the guitar.  This is nonsense born of their view of french polishing as arcane and highly skilled.  These people are on an ego trip that has destroyed their judgement.

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?

I think that if you need a shorter scale length than 650 there is little point in going 640. I have made a series of guitars for people with smaller reach capacity at 600. If such guitars are made with appropriate adjustments to thicknesses and resonances and built with the plantilla and size suitably modified they can perform very well with the right strings. Quote from one of my retailers:

The skill of this maker is such that the sound quantity, string tension and depth of sound are all fairly normal and (it) is a pleasure to play.

So you petite people, here is a hand-made, high quality instrument designed especially for you.

Q6. Many readers say they end up being very confused after trying many guitars. Could you give us some advice on how to examine the guitars' sound quality and playability at a shop or luthier, from the guitar-maker's point of view?

Making sure the guitar is accurately in concert pitch the sound assessment of a guitar should start with the bass. Is the open bass note clear? Can you vary the tone a lot by playing different strokes at different places on the string? If you’re struggling here, move straight to another instrument. Do the treble notes on the top half of the fingerboard ring on when played? Are there any that stop too soon? Does this continue from fret 12 upward? There will be some notes which don’t ring on quite as much. Test these notes at other places on the fingerboard.

Test a barre chord in the middle of the fingerboard. How easy is it to play? Do the bass middle and treble parts sound equally to your ears? Do this assessment at frets 1 & 2. And again as high as you can.

Can you tell the basic resonance of the instrument? If your voice is low enough quietly sing bass notes into the sound hole until you find the one that sings back at you. This should not be the same as one of the open strings. A can be a problem, E could but it probably won’t be that low. G# and F# are good notes to have.

And if it passes these tests don’t forget to be totally subjective in asking yourself - ’and do I like it?’

Q7. Do you offer any 'after-sales' service to customers - particularly customers who are nervous about making a substantial investment?

After sales service - yes. Anything you want within reason. If you are nervous about the investment you get to play the guitar before you accept it. I do not take deposits for guitars ordered from me. If you don’t like it you don’t buy it. (It’s a very long time since I’ve been taken up on that offer) But equally I do not give full refunds on guitars which come back to me second hand.

Q8. How does the increasing rarity of some woods, rosewood for example, impact on your methods, and the quality of the end product?

Quote from the website:

I am a conservationist as well as a user of tropical timber. I see no conflict, since I am a paying customer of third world products and give them every reason to sustainably harvest their resources. I am concerned, however, when I find that guitarists only want one timber, regardless of its rarity, because it is imagined to possess some legendary sound quality. No timber is unique nor do guitars all have to look like clones of each other.

There are excellent alternatives to Rio Rosewood and conservation is best served by using a diversity of species. For this reason I hold a wide ranging stock of timber varieties ~ tropical and temperate ~ for custom build clients to choose from. I can make a completely non-rainforest guitar if you want one. My timber store and workshop are humidity controlled and centrally heated. Some of my stock was bought from other makers and is older than my involvement in luthiery. Much of the rest is over 5 years old. Regular weighings of samples ensure stability is attained before use in a 45% RH atmosphere. High quality raw materials carefully nurtured definitely improve wines and guitars!

Making a guitar that works well is not dependent on which particular timber you use [although some are unsuitable] but on sympathetic adjustment between the parts. My last guitar was made of cheap plain Mahogany. Its professional player owner is delighted with it.

Q9. How do you see the future of this beautiful tradition in the 21st century?

I do fear inappropriate application of conservation intended laws which would prevent makers using old timbers harvested legitimately. I look upon the attempts to conserve the elephant by destroying ivory as ‘shooting themselves in the foot’. unintelligent! ((This IS planet Earth Rik- Whad’ya want? -Intelligent life?))

My nearest neighbour luthier has made plastic guitars and reckons they work. I would love to try some suitably synthesised carbon fibre materials. They may come but probably not in my time (I’m 69 next birthday). It may be that the classical guitar of the future will be a digitally amplified non acoustic device with computer controls for tone and volume. These already exist and better controls could make them successful. They’ve made violins out of aluminium. Who knows? The truth may turn out to be stranger still.

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