Classical Guitar Luthiers Interview: Michael Cadiz (Austria)

Classical guitar luthiers: Michael Cadiz (Austria)

I'm delighted to introduce Michael Cadiz from Austria.

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

I built my first guitar at the age of 15 with the American luthier and now pickup manufacturer Jason Loller. We lived on a small island next to Seattle where he offered a workshop and I was the only one to sign up! So, we built a guitar together. I very much enjoyed the process, but was more serious about guitar playing at the time and focused most of my attention on that. I studied classical guitar with Michael Nicolella during high school, attended the conservatory in Clermont-Ferrand during an exchange year in France and then at the Music Conservatory of the Chicago College of Performing Arts. I studied there with Sergio Assad, but also had occasional lessons with Denis Azabagic and guitar ensemble classes with Pamela Kimmel. I really loved my lessons there, all of the teachers and the program in general, but I eventually decided that I didn’t really have what it took to be a professional classical guitarist and decided to try other things.

After that, I played a lot of music with friends in bands, toured around a bit and had a variety of jobs. I’m not entirely sure what got me thinking about building guitars again, but it washed over me like a wave; I became obsessed with it. I sold my car to buy tools and made a little workshop in my apartment. I had an old friend from Peabody that had started building a guitar, but never finished. He sent me the materials and I finished the guitar and sent it back to him. After that, I was addicted. I got hooked up with the Seattle Luthiers Group and found that there was a relatively large community of builders in Seattle willing to help and share knowledge. The meetings were informal and held once a month on Michael Gurian’s barge in Lake Washington. It was pretty impressive actually. He supplies the whole industry with bindings, purflings, bridge pins and all sorts of inlays and the entire two-story workshop is just floating on the lake in Ballard. In any case, I met Rick Davis and Cat Fox there and ended up taking a class with them. They were a huge help in the beginning and did quite a bit to foster the guitar-building community in Seattle. The next big evolution in my building came when I met Robert Ruck. I ran into him by chance at the Handmade Musical Instrument Exhibit in Portland. He was incredibly friendly and ended up inviting me and another builder to stay with him for a number of days, where he methodically showed us his workshop, building methods and shared his ideas about luthiery and life in general. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I stayed in touch with him over the years. He was always kind and I was very sad to hear of his recent passing. As one would expect, the quality of my building made a huge jump after that. I moved into a shop in West Seattle with another builder David Myka and started working full-time. At that point, I started really pushing the quality and focusing on my own sound. I worked closely with the Rosewood Guitar shop in Seattle and was able to study a lot of the guitars there, including the private collection of older instruments. That was also an important opportunity and wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the owner, Bill Clements.

In 2016, I moved my shop to Graz, Austria. As it turns out, Austria is the last country in the European Union where musical instrument making is a protected trade governed by the old guild system. That means that before being allowed to build and sell instruments, one must first complete a degree program, apprenticeship and then pass a test. I spent the better part of the last two years trying to convince the city licensing office to allow me work here. After dozens of meetings and eventually presenting a binder full of documents, I was allowed to take a guitar building test and, having passed, I am now legally allowed access to the musical instrument building market in Austria. If this sounds familiar, it is maybe because C.F. Martin famously emigrated to the United States from Germany in the early 19th century because of similar issues with the guild. I did it backwards. There are obvious benefits and drawbacks to the system. I try to have an open mind about it, since I’m still relatively new here.

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

I am of the opinion that there are many types of “good” sounding guitars and, when well built, they all have their strengths and weaknesses. Some guitars are good for certain styles of playing, players, repertoire, rooms or being amplified with an orchestra. That being said, I tend to be drawn to lightly built traditional Spanish style guitars such as Torres, Hauser, Hernandez, Romanillos, Barbero etc. I also very much like Marin Montero and many of the Granada builders.

It goes without saying that materials are important. Good, well seasoned, split and quartered spruce is paramount. I like Cedrela Oderata for necks and a variety of materials for back and sides depending on the desired character of the guitar. I build in the traditional Spanish style using a Solera. I still plane everything by hand and I use mainly hide glue. I don’t use laminated backs, sides or linings as I find that guitars that become “too” efficient can tend to lose some of the breath and character that I like and then they start moving into banjo territory!

With my Classic Concert Model, I focus on achieving the light, flexible and lush character of the Torres design, while balancing it with enough stiffness to provide a balanced palette with high-end detail, projection and an adequate dynamic range. These have a very alluring low body resonance, loose fuzzy basses and smooth trebles.

My Modern Concert Model is relatively traditional for today’s standards, still being fan braced and assembled with hide glue, but with it I try to bridge the gap between a Torres style guitar and a modern guitar with a more homogeneous response and a wider dynamic range. These tend to be stiffer and brighter with a clearer attack and a more gradual decay to the note. The body frequency is slightly higher than my Torres style instruments though less noticeable. I design them to be played with higher tension strings and a more aggressive right hand. The body shape and size is a bit larger and more along the lines of a Ruck or mid-century Madrid guitar.

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

Playability can be somewhat of a moving target, depending on the player. In general, I try to get the the lowest action possible at both the nut and 12th fret while maintaining a reasonable buzz threshold. I keep the treble side of the fingerboard flat and add a slight amount of relief on the bass side. I also sometimes shape saddles with a slightly higher 4th string to combat the common 3rd or 4th fret buzz while maintaining a lower overall action. I carve my necks to what I’ve found to be generally easiest on the hands for most people. That being said, I also offer custom neck profiles. I prefer a flat fingerboard, but I also offer a very slight radius for people that find that more comfortable. I also find that the flexibility of the top and sides play a huge role in the action of a guitar. I think there is a range in flexibility that most people would find comfortable.

Q4. Please tell us about the finishing method (varnish) you use.

I French Polish my guitars. I think at this point, it’s widely agreed to be the best finish for classical guitars. It’s totally harmless, very easy to restore and happens to be incredibly beautiful! I go back and forth between pumice or paste pore fills, but at the moment I’ve gone back to pumice. It’s the traditional choice and requires the least amount of sanding and doesn’t produce dust.

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. Isthere an increasing need to cater to smaller-handed or female players?

I’ve made many 640mm scale guitars. I find them to be very good option for plays with smaller hands or people dealing with hand injuries. However, I feel that shorter than 640mm starts to become noticeably different in sound.

Even though I don’t make any at the moment, I must say that multi-scale guitars are really fun to play. You can get some of the benefits of longer and shorter scale lengths at the same time and they aren’t hard to get used to at all. I played a Jeremy Clark guitar a couple years ago that I didn’t even realize was a multi scale until I really turned it around and looked at it.

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

I usually use normal tension strings on my Classic Concert Models and high tension strings on my Modern Concert Models. I use a carbon 3rd string and nylon 2nd and 1st strings. Usually D’addario or Savarez. You really have to pay attention to the actual tension in pounds or kilos though, because they vary a lot between brands.

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

I use mainly Indian rosewood for back and sides which is still easy enough to acquire in good quality. I love maple and walnut. I’m also becoming a big fan of Pau Ferro. It’s harder to plane, but once you get used to it, it’s a great tonewood. Like everything, there’s a big range in density, so I like to use the lighter pieces that are more similar to Indian rosewood. I don’t use Brazilian rosewood. CITES is kind of a pain, but once you figure it out, it is manageable.

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

There are more and more builders all the time and they are getting really good. The markets are opening up, so we all have to compete globally now, or at least internationally. It’s both good and bad. After living for two years now in one of the more conservative markets in the world, I can now see that it makes it harder for local luthiers to maintain hold on a local market; the players and students here have guitars from all over Europe. So, you have to travel, go to festivals and see what other builders are doing and what the players are interested in. It’s actually one of the parts that I like most about the job. The classical guitar community is still incredibly small and tight-knit, so it’s possible to be a luthier and still be engaged with the performing, teaching and composing side of things. There are some amazing builders from the United States and Canada as well as an emerging community of builders from all over Asia. People are doing really good work and there is also always a very vibrant amateur community. The fact is that guitar building is incredibly intriguing, alluring and satisfying and there will always be people interested in taking on the challenge both professionally and as a hobby.