Classical Guitar Luthier Interview: Roger Williams (UK)

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I’m delighted to have Roger Williams from Staffordshire, UK.

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

Strangely enough, I decided to build my first guitar because of lack of money! I was in my mid twenties and mad about the music of finger-style players like Davy Graham and Bert Jansch. I’d been given a steel-string guitar years earlier when I was about twelve and had eventually traded up to a Framus which was very tired, so I needed something else, but a wife, two children and a mortgage didn’t leave much spare. So I bought the materials and a book from Sydney Evans Violins and set to. The book was by McLeod and Welford and described a design and method for making a classical guitar. However I didn’t get very far with this project, as shortly afterwards I was introduced to sailing and I was bitten then for several years, by the sailing bug. I got into boat repairs then building, and this together with work and family took all my time, I was still playing guitar though and this is where my fascination with the sound of the Spanish guitar began.

When I was young I was surrounded by relatives who were all skilled craftsmen and who made and mended all manner of things, so I was destined to develop a skill at something. My younger life was spent making models of all kinds, but mainly model aircraft; flight has always fascinated me. I was fairly bright at school and was able to gain an engineering apprenticeship at Rolls-Royce Aero Engine division, which was a bit like being accepted at Cambridge in those days. The engineering apprenticeship and subsequent career as a designer, production engineer and project manager gave me all the skills I needed for work requiring design, production and precision skills, and yes I was also still playing guitar! About twelve years ago I faced redundancy and decided it was now or never, so I started Roger Williams Guitars.

I was in a hurry when I started, as I had a deal of catching up to do, so I enrolled on a course with Norman Reed, the methods I learnt from Norman together with the hand skills I had, proved invaluable. I have always had a need to understand how things worked so then began a long period of research into methods, designs and acoustics using sources such as the Guild of American Luthiers, the Journal of Guitars Acoustics and the Romanillos book on Torres life and work, together with numerous sources on the web. I also met Rik Middleton, a Luthier from Coventry and we share many ideas and techniques to this day.

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

My instruments are based on an amalgam of good practice from several makers and designs. I once took two guitars to Kevin Aram to critique and he was very helpful, but my biggest inspiration came when I was asked to restore an old guitar which was in a sorry state with splits in the sides and table and much worn finish. I was surprised when I opened the case to find a 1955 Edgar Monch, the model once played by Segovia and John Williams. This instrument was a revelation to me, I was astonished at how light it was, it stopped me in my tracks and clearly showed me where I was building too heavily to get the sound in my head. I went straight out and bought a Hacklinger gauge and measured it! My next guitars were much improved, lighter, brighter and with good harmonic content. The next breakthrough came when I met Antonio Marin and his nephews in Granada, they introduced me to the “Marin-Bouchet” style of bracing which I have further developed. Antonio once spent a year with the legendary Robert Bouchet in the late ‘70s and his design is very much influenced by this association. My refinement of this bracing format now employs five fans and a very light transverse brace across the lower bout. I find this gives me the balance and projection that is a feature of my guitars. I build light guitars very much in the “Granada style” they have been credited with a very Spanish sound for an English guitar, but with a clarity and harmonic content that is typically English.

At this point I build three main types of guitar; a concert classical, a Flamenco (blanca or negra) and an acoustic guitar for finger-style players, all based on the same plantilla. Cedar and Alpine Spruce tables are available and my preferred back and rib wood is East Indian Rosewood from renewable sources. I have used Walnut, Maple, Mahogany, Cypress and others, each wood lends its own character to the sound, but for classical guitars I find that East Indian Rosewood gives the richest harmonic content. I have repaired too many Brazilian Rosewood guitars to be impressed with anything other than the beauty of this expensive wood. I make all my own purflings, bindings, rosette mosaic and lines from natural woods and all my rosettes are hand-inlaid and individual, based on a typically Spanish mosaic theme.

I have experimented considerably in the past but now I focus on continual refinement based on players’ feedback and my own findings. As well as “tap-tuning” I test the compliance and weight of the table at various stages and use computer sound capture tools to provide a spectrum analysis which allows me to refine the bracing and obtain the resonances I want in the finished box. All this data is recorded and used to inform the continual refinement of my instruments. Sadly there is not a single makers secret that is a “silver bullet”, making guitars is a little like playing in one respect in that “the more I practice, the better I get”.

Professional players often seek the louder guitars in order to fill large halls, and to this end play instruments that are often lacking in tone. Lattice and double-top tables can increase volume but often at the expense of a balanced tonal palette. Personally I don’t like the “pinging” sound of many of these constructions and so do not use them, for me they lose an appeal and character in the sound, especially if they use reinforced plastics in the table. As an experienced repairer I also believe that the longevity of some designs is questionable. Sadly many amateur players follow these new construction trends believing them to be somehow better. In my opinion a well designed and tuned solid-wood table can give all the volume, projection and character needed to fill a front room as well as a decent size hall!

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

All my guitars are shellac French Polished using both modern and traditional shellacs according to the instruments needs. I have used many finishing methods including oils and lacquers but for me a French polish brings out the depth of colour-tone I am looking for in the beautiful woods that we use. I developed my technique from working with several specialists, one of whom had spent his life polishing and re-polishing Grand Pianos.

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 enjoy working with clients to specify a custom guitar, but the classical guitar market is very conservative, only occasionally am I asked for different scale-lengths, neck sizes, cut-aways, wedge bodies, armrests, and electronics but all are available. Most custom requirements lie in the choice of materials, decoration or tuning machines, although if agreed, I will put my name to most features requested. I always request a profile of the customers present guitars, music and style before accepting a commission and where possible hear them play – some are surprisingly reluctant though.