Classical Guitar Luthier Interview: Christopher Dean (UK)

Cassical guitar luthier: Christopher Dean (UK)

I'm delighted to have Christopher Dean from Oxfordshire, UK.

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

As a child I was a talented artist and liked making models.  In my teen years I began to learn to play the guitar and these two interests inevitably came together and I made my first classical guitar on my parent’s kitchen table when I was in my late teens.

I abandoned a career in agriculture and instead applied for a place at the London College of Furniture to study Musical Instrument Technology, specialising in modern fretted instruments.  I spent three years here and the course included visits to luthiers such as Paul Fischer and Jose Romanillos.  During this time I developed a passion for the guitar which has deepened over the years.

After my studies finished and after I had spent a year making furniture in New Zealand I worked as the assistant to Paul Fischer.  During the two years I spent in the Fischer workshop I was privileged to gain a wealth of knowledge about techniques and the business of guitar making.

I set up my own workshop in October 1985, eager to develop my own ideas.  I have worked on nothing but my own guitars since then save the occasional restoration of guitars by master luthiers such as Santos Hernandez and Herman Hauser.

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

I prefer to make in the traditional way.  I am a refiner of an art, not an innovator since do not feel the guitar needs 're-inventing'.  The beauty of the classical guitar drew me in in my early years and it is the colours and emotion, the clarity and good dynamic range, that I seek to achieve.  Since guitars are played in large concert halls I try to achieve a good level of volume, but I will not sacrifice its natural beauty.  I therefore aim to produce a guitar with good volume, clarity and a good balance across its range, and a guitar with character.  In order to achieve all of this I only use the best materials, and lots of experience!

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

Playability, in my opinion, can be defined as; the action of the strings over the frets, some of which is achieved by having the right level of tension in the guitar; the shape of the neck; the overall ‘feel’ of the guitar, which cannot be easily defined.

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

I always French polish my guitars.  On some occasions I use an oil finish on the soundboard.  Apart from being the most luxurious finish with a deep shine I feel that French polishing using shellac allows the guitar to flex and is sympathetic to the guitar's vibrations.  I feel that some synthetic finishes inhibit the sound of good guitars.

On a practical level French polish finishes can be repaired or built upon in a way that is impossible with lacquer 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?

I have made many 640mm guitars and some shorter than this.  For the guitar to sound at it's best I feel it is important that the bridge is central to the lower bout so a 640mm scale suits a slightly smaller soundboard.  However a skilled luthier can adjust the construction so there is no noticeable reduction in volume.

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?

I sympathise with guitarists.  It can be very difficult to make a decision on which guitar to buy.  I am aware of this and will, in most instances, not insist on a customer taking the guitar I have made but instead invite them to see if it suits them.  My feeling is a player should try to empty their mind of all prejudice and simply feel which guitar feels right for them.  If you are trying several you will always gravitate to the one that is for you - even if you break the budget!

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

I always offer an after sales service and make reasonable adjustments, for at least a year after the guitar has been purchased.  I want each customer to be happy with what I make - and to tell others about my work - so I do all I can for this to happen.

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

I am very fortunate in that I have a good stock of Rio Rosewood (Jacaranda {dalbergia nigra}) all of which is supplied with a CITES approved licence.  However I am very happy using Indian rosewood, which I use very much.  They produce guitars of vey similar quality - the Rio giving slightly more instant reflection and projection of sound while the Indian is possibly warmer but still producing similar volume.

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

I don’t know for sure what the future of the guitar will be but it captures the heart of so many people and brings such pleasure to so many that I see no chance of it being any less popular in the 21st century.