Classical guitar luthier: Randall Angella from Angella Guitar Company (USA)

Classical guitar luthier: Randall Angella from Angella Guitar Company (USA)

Classical guitar luthier: Randall Angella from Angella Guitar Company (USA)

I'm delighted to have Randall Angella from Angella Guitar Company from California, USA.

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

Angella Guitars began 44 years ago when a good friend, Richard Provost, introduced me to Julian Bream and John Williams and the Classical Guitar.  He later challenged me to build a first guitar. Early efforts were undertaken in a vacuum, as there were no local luthiers to advise and instruct me. I purchased a copy of Art Overholtzer’s How to build A Classical Guitar and relied on Art’s good sense as a Tool and Die maker. Art had a respect and reverence for the guitar and all that it encompassed which resonated with the direction Angella Guitars was going.

The first years were spent building five guitars to the Overholtzer pattern. Art’s plantia and his processes were well thought out, traditional and not technically difficult---a perfect basis from which to depart and begin developing my own techniques and process. My skills and techniques were developed and refined as information was gained. While matriculating to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, chemistry classes taught me the importance of a clean, repetitive technique. Guitar making is a process of many thousands of small decisions and adjustments; to learn anything of value, variables must be kept to a minimum. While exploring the process, I determined that using the same woods was necessary. Just as when exploring woods, the process had to be consistent. Once the relationship between the process and woods was understood a third element was introduced and the design or plantilla became the object of experimentation and development.

Choosing the musical direction Angella Guitars was to move in was made clear with the help of two key people: Craig Carter, once a student, then a close friend of the second key person, Michael Lorimer. Craig had a clear and thorough knowledge of the music and how it should sound, while Michael has an encyclopedic knowledge of the guitar itself and an extremely sensitive ear when evaluating a guitar’s sound.

From the Overholtzer design, Angella guitars moved in the direction of two makers.  The first, Hauser Guitars---at that time the loveliest, most technically brilliant instruments---and Fleta Guitars---indifferent to detail yet deeply intuitive and expressive. Both designs are heavily braced and have sounds worthy of their reputations. Influenced by the guitars of the masters, Angella guitars settled on both 7 and 9 fan configurations.

Angella guitars from this period are bright with a rich overtone series, well balanced and even. They speak clearly and quickly with a long decay and produce mature harmonics when played lightly. They were made to provide the player with an instrument meant to be musically transparent, requiring few adjustments for deficiencies in the instrument.

Whether or not these guitars were successful is something for others to decide.  I just make them and prefer to let the instruments speak for themselves. Accordingly, an instrument representative of Angella Guitars can be seen and heard by accessing Jorge Caballero Plays Bach on YouTube.

Through the years, experience has taught me that not all players require the same instrument. Some prefer a hard attack down into the string, frequently playing apayondo; while others prefer to play across the string with a softer, brighter sound, reserving the harder attack for those musical moments when maximum volume is called for.  Thus, custom Angella guitars are made only after both the builder and the client have come to understand what the client wants and how the right hand feel should be.

Angella Guitars has continued to develop and improve the process and design of its guitars since these early instruments and now ships many of them overseas to Asia, South America and Europe.

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

A good sounding guitar has a number of characteristics present and it is important to understand how these characteristics make them good guitars. You must begin at the level of a single note, then the chord, and lastly the music itself.  

A single note is composed of just four elements: onset transients, volume, overtones and a decay profile. The first element, occurring at the ictus, is a burst of incoherent noise present when any system is turned on; in the case of the guitar, this occurs at the release of the string by the nail. Onset transients appear as a spike in the profile of a single note and cannot be discerned as separate from the whole note itself. However, so important are onset transients, that if clipped from a single note of an instrument, the instrument type cannot be determined by the remaining body of the note. Onset should be quick, converting rapidly to a saw tooth wave form containing harmonics out to the 9th partial. As the relative stiffness of a guitar increases, onset transients shorten and sharpen, increasing clarity. A good guitar speaks with more fidelity when rapid, short duration notes are called for.  

The second element within the single note is self-explanatory, volume. All guitars have a usable volume. Good guitars produce more than the average guitar and are predictable in their response to attack, whether quiet or loud. Good guitars have a wider volume dynamic allowing the player a broader range of volume. Secondarily, a good guitar responds strongly to the right hand position, producing usable sound closer to the bridge, expanding the tonal palette.

The third element, the overtone series, is perhaps the most recognizable. The “sound” of a guitar is determined by the fundamental and the accompanying overtone series. A good guitar will produce a note with a strong fundamental and discrete harmonics out to the 9th partial. The more partials within a note, the clearer and more distinct the sound. The more distinct the sound, the more the guitar orchestrates. When playing dense, multi-layered music, orchestration becomes very important to the fidelity of the sound to the music.

The fourth element is the shape of the decay produced by the guitar. A note from a good guitar decays in a non-linear fashion. It first swells as the fundamental and overtones reach maturity and full power, then begins to decay. As the note decays, first the fundamental, then the octave, then the second octave, predominate. A good guitar will elongate the musical decay, connecting sequential notes when slow passages are required.

From single notes chords are constructed. A good guitar organizes single notes into chords that are even string to string. When a good guitar is strummed, the evenness of its chords can be easily heard, while the unevenness of a lesser guitar can also easily be heard. No string stands out with a uniform strum. Conversely, the note carrying the melody should easily be made prominent allowing the melody to move smoothly through the chord. Each string should decay as uniformly as possible, allowing the chord to decay intact. A good guitar possesses positional indifference.  That is, the same chord, fretted at different positions on the fretboard, should produce, as closely as possible, the same sound without losing the small tonal variations that allow for different voicings.

A good guitar possesses all of these musical characteristics and blends them into the music package you hear. Clarity and articulation, a wide tonal palette and a rich foundation of overtones supporting the melody, positional indifference, a lengthy poetic decay and sensitivity to the right hand attack and position. These musical characteristics are nothing without a close clean action and a neck/fretboard shape that permits ease of performance for the player.

How do you achieve making a good guitar? You use good woods, a sound design, and intelligent processes over a long period of time.

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

Playability starts with a well set up action and is finished with an abundance of the above mentioned characteristics. Setting the action at Angella Guitars begins with a slightly crowned fretboard, planed to match the height of the strings with the frets installed. The fretboard is worked with a very fine curve from the nut to the 12th fret, creating “relief” that allows strings to be low enough for ease of play while high enough to prevent buzzing on either side of the fretted note. Once the frets are stoned and polished, the neck is carved in a manner best suiting the client.

Playability is also enhanced by the presence of all the characteristics found in the answer to question 2 above. Evenness of sound with a clear, orchestral voice, good articulation, useful volume and a wide tonal palette, encourage the free expression of music and make the instrument easier to play.

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

French polish of shellac is the finest finish available for the top of a Classical guitar. It finishes both the wood and the sound of a guitar. French polish can be applied very thin, yet to the eye appears very deep. It is the least durable of the finishes, readily damaged by water and very reactive to alcohol. French polish is an additive process and is easily repaired and re-spirited to original condition. Because it is applied with a pad and not sprayed and buffed, shellac can be successfully applied and raised to a high gloss in a dusty shop environment, making it ideal for the small independent builder. Once mastered, French polish requires very little time and effort and can be fitted into pauses in the lacquering process. Once finished, French polish is difficult to distinguish from a high gloss lacquer finish.

Nitro cellulose lacquer has served for decades as a superior guitar grade finish, and can now be considered a “traditional” finish. Where French polish can be applied to a mildly smooth surface and yield a glossy finish, Lacquer needs a highly refined and prepared surface to be raised to a high gloss. The difficulty with lacquer is in the filling of the grain found in most hardwoods. Shellac is a fine sealant for lacquer, and can be readily adapted to fill open pored hardwoods while functioning as a primed surface.

Nitro cellulose lacquers are simple to apply and are more durable than French polish of shellac. Because nitro is easier to apply, it is well suited to production environments where predictability, consistency and speed are important. To be done at a high level, nitro is a bit more labor intensive and requires a spray booth within a clean environment. Repairing nitro-cellulose is more difficult than French polish.

Angella Guitars are finished by blending the two processes to get the beauty and acoustical properties of each: the acoustical benefits of shellac on the top, and the durability of lacquer where needed.

There are many new finish materials being developed: conversion varnishes, pre-catalyzed lacquers, waterborne lacquers, UV catalyzed coatings and many more. All are designed to have a low environmental impact while curing faster and harder, making them ideally suited to modern, high output “spray and walk” finishes. Whether or not these materials have any utility for the finishing of fine guitars, only time and somebody else’s efforts will demonstrate. Angella Guitars will investigate pre-catalyzed lacquers for some applications, but will continue with the traditional finishes.

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?

Well-made, short scaled guitars are a fine way to provide some players with a quality sound and a more comfortable, easy to play instrument.

If the design is sound and the instrument is put together well, a short scale of 640mm would not be appreciably different than an instrument of 650mm. However, as the string length decreases, so too does the surface area of the top and the interior volume. This skews the voice towards the treble side while losing some overtone presence in the basses. Adding a little treble to a guitar’s sound is sometimes a very good thing and the results are bright rich trebles. The volume of some of these guitars can be very high. If the parts are scaled down appropriately and artfully made into a short scale guitar, the results are delightful. The experience of owning and playing a fine guitar that is comfortable for small hands is open to all and should be encouraged.

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?

First consider, how does the guitar behave in your lap and how does it feel in your hands? If it is comfortable, a few chords will be enough to begin to form an opinion as to whether or not to continue. Check the intonation, are there any obvious buzzes?

Rather than examining every note on every string of the guitar, go to the extreme limits of its range and see what’s there. While damping all other strings, play each note on the first two strings and see how quietly they can be played with predictability and mature harmonics and how loud they can be played without breaking up. Listen for weak notes and for the decay of these unsupported notes. Weak notes will decay quickly and require a stronger stroke. Listen carefully to the volume and decay of each note from the 12th fret to the 19th fret on the first string. If these are good, strong notes, all notes will be good and strong.

Search for all harmonics present in the open 6th string. Starting at the nut and continuing to the first octave at the 12th fret, there should be a surprising number of discreet upper partials present. These high, odd numbered partials add character and clarity to the fundamental. The presence of these upper partials on the open 6th string is an indicator of how active all the strings are. Guitars rich in upper partials out to the 7th and 9th will have more presence with a clearer sound.

Play the same chords in different positions and compare their sounds. Listen to how they decay. Are arpeggios smooth, is any one string assertive, do notes decay uniformly within a chord?

Then play as fast as possible and listen for the way the guitar articulates. Conversely, play a piece as slowly as the guitar can be played, and still connect the notes.

Play some Sor and see how the guitar orchestrates.

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

The time to worry about after-sales service is before the sale, while the instrument is constructed. A great deal of care is taken when putting stable, aged woods into something as valuable as a fine guitar. Sound processes, proven design, and good wood seldom require replacement or repair. Most Angellas are made for clients that want the Angella “sound,” once requirements of left hand and attack are determined the guitar is constructed to fit and the client knows what to expect.

If a client is not satisfied with his guitar another will be gladly made for him. If there are any problems of construction they will be fixed at the shop without cost to the client. The satisfaction of the client must come first. In the words of Mark Twain, “your reputation leaves at a gallop and walks back.”

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

Brazilian Rosewood was becoming scarce 42 years ago. Now, however, Ebony, Honduras Mahogany, East India Rosewood, and German spruces are beginning to diminish in availability. Top woods are plentiful as Spruce forests in Europe provide fine tops and large forests in the US and Canada provide Canadian Western Red Cedar and some spruce alternatives.

Brazilian Rosewood has been replaced with many fine alternatives: Malaysian Blackwood, Coco Bolo, Central and South American rosewoods are examples of woods that have begun to enter the luthier’s wood sources.

As the scarcity of Brazilian Rosewood deepens, pieces once considered below guitar quality will be worked until they meet the quality level required for fine guitars. Stump wood is an example; once left to rot, they now are harvested and re-sawn into back and side sets.  

Angella Guitars was blessed early on with a modest collection of Brazilian Rosewood and has enough for the foreseeable future.

Honduras Mahogany is still available in small amounts for the individual builder. Cuban Cedar, Sepele and Mahoganies from Africa and South America are fine alternatives for necks, linings and braces. Because Honduras Mahogany is now beginning to show scarcity, prices are rising and supplies are dwindling. As clear vertical pieces are rare, once again additional steps are required to process the pieces into billets that can then be made into necks.

The quality of guitars made with these new woods, will follow a genetic path dictated by the alternatives chosen. All woods behave acoustically according to their physical properties. The sound of future guitars will be expressed through these alternative materials. For the most part, the actual sound will vary little as newer woods are simply amplifying a vibrating string and that never changes.

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

There are currently two camps within the ranks of guitar players: one is primarily concerned with volume. Double tops, lattice braced guitars, sound ported guitars and radial braced guitars are some of the non-traditional guitars having emerged in the last decades. The second camp is occupied by those that prefer a more traditional sound and are concerned more with the quality of the sound than the loudness of the guitar.

The demand for louder guitars will continue. Changes in sound will be driven more by this singular issue than any other. Ultimately the volume of any guitar is limited by the strength of fingers and nails and how much energy can be transferred from them to the string. New materials will be developed to increase the guitar’s ability to convert kinetic energy into sound energy; to make them more efficient amplifiers and more suited to larger venues.

As the demand for volume continues the future will see development of tops of artificial wood, so too with necks and fretboards as scarcity continues to rise. Backs and sides will always be woods as they don’t participate in volume and there are hundreds of varieties of suitable hardwoods.

Those that prefer the traditional guitar and sound will see advancements in electronic amplification as it becomes more seamless and natural. They will continue to seek fine sounding, easy to play instruments and builders will continue to put together fine, easy to play instruments. Their sound will change little over time.

The number of people playing, listening, teaching, composing for and building this loveliest of instruments will grow; however, depending on what direction composition and performance take, it will grow at a rate lower than that of the general population.

Whatever form the Classical Guitar assumes, it will always be a lovely mistress, beautiful to both the eye and ear, expressing both complex and simple music, able to whisper sweetly, then deliver the Chaconne. Able to express all the information and emotion a composer and player can put into six vibrating strings.

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