I'm delighted to introduce Rodney Stedall from New Zealand.
Q1. Could you please tell us a little about your luthier and its history?
I have always been a craftsman. In my high school days I ran a leather-craft business making sandals, bags and any other commissions which came my way. In 1998 I made my first guitar from instruction books. When I lived in South Africa I started the Guild of South African luthiers with the philosophy of teaching and learning from each other. We held an annual luthier get together where we displayed our guitars to the public, had workshops and always an evening concert where prominent guitarists played our instruments. This was a major incentive for us to improve the quality of our guitars and where I can say I have had instruction from other luthiers. I soon began to specialize in concert classical guitars built in the Spanish tradition. To this day my construction methods are still predominantly Spanish. Even my elevated fingerboard guitar is built in the same solera (top mold) as my conventional concert classical. I now live in New Zealand. My workshop was designed into the house we built four years ago. Q2. Please describe your idea of a good sounding guitar, and what you do to achieve it?
I believe that a guitar should be able to convey the mood of the music which is being played to the satisfaction of the player. This satisfaction will then transport to the audience which could be either in a small intimate setting or a larger concert hall. The warm sound and projection which is characteristic of good Spanish guitars seems to achieve this balance. The guitar should sound as good when played softly as when played loud. I don’t think that the modern trend towards increased loudness is a quality which makes a better guitar as most concerts are held in small venues and when larger venues are used the guitars are generally amplified.
The consistency of sound in my guitars is achieved by building in my tried and tested concaved solera. My guitar tops are lightly braced using hot animal glues. My sides are laminated from two 2mm thick tone woods. Laminated sides are stronger and give more rigidity to the sides which improves the vibration of the domed soundboard.
Q3. Please tell us about your idea of improving playability, and what you do to achieve it?
One has to consider right and left hand when considering playability. My standard neck profile and setup seems to be well accepted by most players. I will however customise a guitar to suit the stature and hand size of players. If requested I will try to replicate the neck profile or width of the client’s favourite guitar. I also now taper the fingerboard on the bass side down towards the sound hole to cater for the heavier vibration of the bass string when played hard. Right hand playability can be improved with experimentation with different gauge strings and I believe that optimum string height at the saddle plays an important role. A responsive soundboard will also lessen the amount of right hand effort thereby improving guitars playability.
Q4. Please tell us your opinion about the traditional finishing method (French polish) and new methods (lacquer, catalysed finishing, etc.).
I have no provision in my workshop for any method other than environmentally friendly French polish so all of my guitars are finished this way. I prefer using super blonde shellac mixed with clear ethanol. My guitars are firstly filled with pumice filler prior to building up a mirror like shine. French polishing is a method of rubbing successive ultra-thin layers of shellac into the wood surface. It becomes an integral part of the wood as opposed to sprayed finishes which become a new layer which retards the function of the wooden plates in a small way. I like the way that French polish enhances the appearance natural wood grain.
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 seem to be developing a reputation for manufacturing shorter scale guitars. I have done 640, 630, and 615 and recently completed a completely new design of large body guitar with 550 scale neck. Part of being a luthier is being able to customise a guitar to any specifications the client may desire. In the case of the 550 scale (which is in essence a ½ size guitar), in order to sound like a standard concert guitar I wanted the lower bout to be almost as large as my standard model. For this I had to completely redesign the upper bout by shortening this part to still have the customary 12th fret meeting the body. My 640 scale guitars have sounded as good as any of my 650 scale guitars. Even when going down to 630 scale I am still able to use my standard body shape. The 10mm shift of the bridge towards the sound hole was initially a concern which soon proved not to be a problem in terms of sound quality.
Q6. Do you have a preference for any particular string type or tension when you design/make your guitars?
A consistently good and reliable string for my guitars is Pro Arte Hard tension EJ46. Some of my players have successfully changed to Savarez Alliance HT classic or Corum high tension. It is important with the shorter scale guitars that one increases the tension to compensate for standard tuning on a shorter string instruments. Hannebach strings cater very well for these ½ and ¾ size scale lengths.
Q7. How does the increasing rarity of some woods, rosewood for example, impact on your methods, and the quality of the end product?
I think Indian rosewood makes excellent guitars, arguably as good as any of the other three Dalbergia rosewoods I have used. I have recently had a good run of using old Madagascan rosewood which makes lovely guitars. One of my best sounding concert classicals has been one made from African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxolon) of which I have limited stock. I still have quite a lot of very good quality and beautiful Brazilian. I accept that when my stocks of these rare woods are depleted that I will have to find alternatives. Tasmanian blackwood and Indian rosewood will probably be my future wood choices. I have yet to experiment with New Zealand native timbers.
Q8. How do you see the future of this beautiful tradition in the 21st century?
Artisan crafts will always exist but I do think factories and cheap labour will result in an ever widening gap in the price between a factory product and the handmade equivalent. This is going to put stress on the survival of some luthiers and one may not see many young artisans entering full time lutherie.