I’m delighted to have AlanStewart Wilcox from Firenze, Italy.
Q1. Could you please tell us a little about your luthiery and its history?
1966, N.Y.C. I visited Amadeo and showed him the guitar I'd made. He said "You know how to use tools". Make one at a time. Velasquez has asked me to direct his factory in Porto Rico (80 workers. Impossible disordered situation). Amadeo did not accept when I asked to visit him when he glued in the fans. I phoned Rubio to know if the handle has an angle to the body. His wife said: "You have to make 100 guitars before you can talk to my husband".
I didn't choose to be self-taught!?
Q2. Please describe your idea of a good sounding guitar, and what you do to achieve it?
This question, or rather my answer, is different, and is the secret. Mr. Matano*, interviewed, would have no more to do with guitars if he could not use his mes-al-punto techniques. Only by precise control of where and how much wood to remove can this work proceed with positive results at each step.
Mr Matano: The Magician of Guitar adjustment, Japan Trade Magazine. This interview showed me that others also tune, albeit using a method different from mine. And inside a study Ramirez I found the upper Maestra of the back, treble side, had been sanded heavily (by reaching thru the soundhole with a stick having sandpaper on it until it was working properly). On this occasion and on others, the owner had asked me to tune her guitar; familiar with the results with her guitar of mine. There was only a little useful change to do to her guitar. It's universal - of course I ask permission of the pendulum, which answers "yes" or "no". The Papalardo was impossible to work with however.
Dowsing is the answer, and I make hundreds of tittle touches to arrive at the maximum potential for each guitar. Simple, easy to teach and learn. After playing in a guitar, usually it can be harmonized and improved to beyond the point when new.
Every luthier has some ways for modifying the outcome. First is intuition, and ways to modify from the time of designing. One day conversing with Pavel Steidl, the Torres was mentioned, and we agreed right away that it is the only design of our guitar. That design is still in the Ramirez of today. Dammann started his project by copying the Torres— "the low frequency guitar".
Discussing with other luthiers the point was made that each one of us has his own sound. Therefore no one, by copying, can produce the sound of the Torres again. People tell me: "Alan, your guitars have Your sound."
Guitarists would say to me: "I want that clear sound (Voce chiara)".
Of course balance, intonation, volume, a great variety of colors, and no noise result. The concert hall speaks everywhere.
Before making that first guitar, having decided to try the woodworking, when I wished to make the most complete sound anywhere, I felt that something else (someone else) was involved, had taken over. Later I was told that I was collaborating with the Entity of Antonio Stradivari. Chopra and others call my wish: inclination (The 7 Spiritual Laws of Success). A fine means indeed for sound-making!
Eliot Fisk remarked to me: "How come your guitars have perfect intonation? - almost impossible to find. The fretboards of Ignacio Fleta had to be removed because the distances were wrong".
Q3. Please tell us about your idea of improving playability, and what you do to achieve it?
Often working for students of Alberto Ponce, who are taught to dig into the string for expressiveness, a very low or soft string to touch delicately is not my style.
For one client with a small hand I designed a 64.7 string. We discovered that by narrowing the handle it became playable. A loose string tension in my work is adjusted by the mes-al punto, and intonation adjusts too. Always I tune the guitar in A=440Hz, when doing mes-al punto; so not surprisingly one guitarist said: "Your guitar is different from all the others - it plays louder when in A". While tuning I watch string movements. The string of old guitars when played makes an arch that repeats itself several times. (Steidl) purity of movement. Also tapping back and top confirms results obtained.
But tapping is not my tuning method. Richard Schneider who made the Kasha guitars, used a tap-tone procedure that Roy Hoeber (Martin guitars tech consultant) says this is why they play - not their design.
In Florence I was told: "We are friends of Segovia, and if you don't work like Ramirez we won't use your guitars. 66.4 and even 66.7. Cedar has more voice, and Spruce is slow to wake up".
Two falsehoods. So having built a cedar guitar other clients wanted a cedar guitar. And today many don't want the 66.4 (used guitars of mine). After designing the 64 Antonino Madonni phoned me: "You've hardly begun to work!? Use spruce because I want it to have a loud voice (Voglio che squilla tanto)".
Fisk said to me: "That was a huge mistake of Ramirez, the 66,4 string!". No one in the world has such a big hand as Eliot. After 12 years his beautiful Ramirez in cedar became sweet. "Never again a cedar top after this".
Q4. Please tell us your opinion about the traditional finishing method (French polish) and new methods (lacquer, catalysed finishing, etc).
I have never tried using artificial varnishes, but can see the disadvantages. Segovia (Florence, 1984): "This guitar you have made for me is open and plays freely; my Ramirez first string is woody and closed after months." Madrid: "Ramirez wants to give me a new guitar, instead of repairing this one."
It takes 8 months to play in a new Ramirez and the mass of varnish is so heavy that wood has been removed from the top to compensate, compromising sounds!
Most of the luthiers task (art) is to find the tensions in top and back free, adjusted, consolidated, resonating, etc. so that the music is more complete. Also the guitarist, starting with Ida Presti, can try to make more complete music.
So I find French Polish improves sound, consolidates enough.
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've made ca 25 or 30 small guitars, with the surprising result that they sound very much like the big ones. Not being an expert I hesitate to offer an opinion other than this. 40 years ago in my house I had for 8 months a Manuel Ramirez 1889, 63 cm. Gracious. Asked to make a small guitar 25 years ago, I used the shape, but not the inside. 4 years ago it was left here for a week to do small adjustments, and pleased me. So just for fun I made 2 more, however re-designing the braces. Big voice and complete colors.
In 1973 ca. I started a series of terzine (in G). Choosing 60 cm string. Wonderful results. Intuition helped me.
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?
Seldom have problems here.
A guitar may not take to the guitarist, however it is important there be the willingness of who tries out a guitar to get to know her that can open a dialogue. This can be precluded by the guitarist thinking of what she will do for him, etc. instead of getting to know her.
Alberto Ponce has told many of us the story of his 1972 Fleta: "I don't remember if it was the 3rd or 4th guitar, but when I held it up by the handle, I exclaimed 'THIS is my guitar!' 'Yes', replied Fleta, 'this is the one I made thinking of you'".
Q7. Do you offer any 'after-sales' service to customers - particularly customers who are nervous about making a substantial investment?
Luca Pierpaolo D'Amore phoned from Paris yesterday, and will visit me next month. That is his 2nd guitar from me. I tuned it more than once in these 3-4 years. It continues to improve continuously. After a year and a half he said to me: "Finally we begin to understand each other." When he sought certain voicing the guitar offered more than he could handle. I mentioned tuning and he hesitated, because more seems impossible. We are friends for many years.
He and other serious musicians are graduates of Alberto Ponce.
Q8. How does the increasing rarity of some woods, rosewood for example, impact on your methods, and the quality of the end product?
Indian Rosewood is fine, seems to suffer less the forces—Rio cracks more easily.
Q9. How do you see the future of this beautiful tradition in the 21st century?
There is a boom of young talented players and luthiers now in the Earth—a great cultural wealth.