Classical Guitar Luthier Interview: Allan Bull (Ausralia)

Classical guitar luthier: Allan Bull (Ausralia)

I’m delighted to have Allan Bull from Tasmania, Ausralia.

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

I built my first guitar more than forty years ago but did not commence commercial luthiery until 2000. During the intervening years I retained a keen interest in guitars and their construction but my formal training and the need to raise a family dictated that I pursue a career in business. I am very fortunate that I have been able to create a second career as a luthier.

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

To me a classical guitar should possess a number of characteristics. It should respond readily to the right hand with generous sound but with good string/note separation so that the sound is clear. It should project strongly and sustain is important. The sound of the trebles should be brightened by higher partials but not thin. There should be a well-defined core to the note, the sound should be bell-like but rounded in quality.  The bass sound should have plenty of bite through the presence of higher partials but not at the expense of the fundamental frequency.

I find that an asymmetrical grid bracing works well for me by giving the soundboard a greater range of stiffness so that there is more consistent support through the guitar’s range. My soundboards are thinner than traditional designs but not as thin as lattice-braced guitars. They are relatively light and compliant but engineered to resist static bridge rotation. I use heavy quarter linings, reinforced sides and (generally) reinforced, braceless backs. This results in a rigid body structure and helps keep energy in the top plate and assists with projection and sustain.

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

Left-hand playability is assisted by a slim, flat profile neck. My neck depth including fretboard tapers from 22mm to 21 and the neck tends to have a flat back  profile. This assists players with smaller hands and is not a disadvantage for those with average to large hands.

My standard neck width is 53mm at the nut and 63mm at the body join with string spacing of 45mm at the nut, 57.5 at the saddle. I feel that a slightly greater string spacing gives better clearance. Of course, I will reduce these measurements for players with smaller hands.

Because the sides on my guitars taper from the tail to the neck join the fretboard is elevated above the soundboard. This gives better access above the 12th fret. It also results in the fretboard being at a slightly negative angle to the soundboard. This slightly softens the attack, improving right hand playability, I think.

My fretboards are biased with greater relief towards the bass side. This allows a lower action without buzzes.

I offer a slightly radiused fretboard as an option for players who find the traditional fretboard too flat.

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

French polish is an excellent finish in every respect except resistance to damage through contact with the skin. Invariably the finish will degrade where it comes into contact with the skin. Nitro-cellulose lacquer is much more resistant to this damage, but will eventually break down also if the player is careless. French polish is considered to have superior acoustic properties but I doubt that anyone can hear the difference if lacquer is applied thinly. I use shellac base coats with thin nitro-cellulose lacquer top coats. Polyurethane and polyester finishes should be avoided in my opinion.

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?

Shorter scale guitars are a good option for players with smaller hands or disabilities such as arthritis. More people are considering this as an option. I have built 630 and 640mm scale guitars without discernible impact on volume, sound quality or sustain. I retain the same body dimensions as for the 650 scale but reposition the soundhole to optimise bridge placement.

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?

My best advice is to take someone with you whose ear you trust and whose playing you know. Particularly with modern guitar design you need to hear what the guitar sounds like from the front as well as from behind. You don’t hear as much through the back as you might with more traditional guitars.

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

My guitars are guaranteed to the original purchaser against manufacturing defects during my lifetime as a luthier.

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

Apart from Brazilian and, perhaps, Madagascar Rosewood, good quality back and side woods are quite readily available. The cost is increasing but this is inevitable. I try to use Australian timbers (particularly Tasmanian) as much as possible. I use mainly Canadian soundboard woods which are of high quality and readily available.

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

I think that the tradition is in a very healthy condition with an abundance of talented luthiers around the world. In my country, despite the small size of the domestic market and the difficulty of maintaining a reasonable income from luthiery, new people are entering the craft.

Around the world and here in Australia Innovation is probably happening at a greater rate than at any time in the past. The classical guitar, in particular, will continue its evolution for many years to come.