I’m delighted to have Luis Fernández de Córdoba from Washington, D.C., USA.
Q1. Could you please tell us a little about your luthiery and its history?
I specialize in making classical and flamenco guitars in the tradition of the great European master luthiers of the past, such as Torres, Santos, Esteso, Hauser, Fleta and Bouchet. But luthery can be very personal and one uses a lot of intuition when building, adding personal touches.
I got started in luthery while in my late teens. Interested in the alternative way of life of the artisan, I sought to find viable means to make my livelihood as such. I began building my collection of tools, some of which I still have. All this time I always had in mind my ultimate goal: to become a luthier. Time has gone by. I completed a certified guitar-making course, followed by an apprenticeship, repair work and construction of classical, steel string and bass guitars. I've spent time with dozens of luthiers of all types, in the United States, Spain, Mexico, Argentina and my native country, Panamá. I continue to read all the books on guitars and luthery that I can get my hands on and I am a member of the Guild of American Luthiers.
All of this cannot replace the fact that one learns to do anything by simply doing it: by experimenting and using one's heart, intellect and creativity to always make the best that one is capable of, and by doing good work that one can be proud of. This is the essence of what it is to be a true artisan and is what I love the most about my work. I seek to combine the beauty of art with all the technique of engineering in my work, drawing from both my knowledge base and my intuition.
Q2. Please describe your idea of a good sounding guitar, and what you do to achieve it?
The acoustic guitar is an intimate musical instrument with a romantic tone. Great guitars can also fill an auditorium when they have been made to have a clear voice.
My style is to make light, vibrant guitars with clear vowel tone and balance over their entire range. I like the bass to be deep and the highs to have luster. I want to hear a pure sound, not a noisy sound. For flamenco guitars I want a dry sound with quick attack.
To make a great sounding guitar, I look into the traditional ways of building as a base, and I am inspired by the great makers of the past, as well as contemporary makers. Knowledge of the properties of the materials is of utmost importance. Proper fitting of all the components and stress free assembly using hide glue exclusively. Taking time to feel and listen to the top as it is being thinned and braced.
Q3. Please tell us about your idea of improving playability, and what you do to achieve it?
Fret-work and set-up are important to make a guitar playable and have great intonation. I make a slight curvature in the fingerboard that makes it more anatomic for the grand barre position and feels great all around. I strive to make the neck profile feel nice to hold.
My standard set up is a little lower on the 6th string than usual (3.5 mm from the 12th fret instead of the usual 4 mm), mainly because I believe that with proper fretwork this is high enough to sound cleanly when the player has good technique and the guitar is responsive enough to not require heavy or hard playing to get the sound out. Of course the action is fully adjustable to the players preferences.
Q4. Please tell us your opinion about the traditional finishing method (French polish) and new methods (lacquer, catalysed finishing, etc).
Applying a coating to the exterior of an instrument has always been thought of as one of the most important aspects of the process of building a guitar. It not only adds to the wood depth and beauty but also protects it from moisture. Lastly, it has an effect on the sound of the instrument by dampening some of the harsh frequencies.
Most makers of guitars agree that it sounds better when the finish is applied as thinly as possible. Too much finish and you can dampen the sound excessively, loosing some of the depth of the sound.
The traditional way of finishing guitars has been to apply shellac by rubbing the surface of the guitar with a pad almost dry of the solvent, alcohol, creating a pressure feed that also produces a lot of friction, thus polishing the surface at the same time as one applies a minimal amount of material.
This technique has the additional benefits of being environmentally friendly and also less toxic for the finisher than are modern finishes. Shellac is a product that comes from an insect excretion, harvested and refined in an ancient and natural way. The solvent is ethanol or pure grain alcohol, the filler is ground pumice, and the lubricant is oil.
The result is a beautiful finish of great depth without being thick. It is true that a french-polished instrument does need to be cared for, but this is true for any hand-crafted guitar, no matter what the finish. The french polish can always be touched up, and it develops a nice vintage patina as it ages.
Laquer and catalyzed finishes are tougher than french polished shellac. They can be applied very thinly, too. Many factory guitars are finished with industrial coatings that are thick. It takes great care to apply a coating that is thin and the factory setting does not permit this kind of inefficiency. Very few artisan luthiers apply a thin lacquer or catalyzed finish to a high end classical guitar, instead they go with french polished shellac).
Sometimes professional flamenco guitars are finished in a catalyzed finish for reasons of durability, but if the guitar was made at an artisan shop, they usually have it finished at a separate finishing facility. Most artisan shops do not do any finishing other than french polish because lacquers and catalyzed finishes are toxic and require special equipment and more space to use.
I do believe that the very best sounding traditional guitars are french polished.
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?
Antonio de Torres made guitars in a variety of scale lengths, the proportions of the plantilla adjusted to go harmoniously with rest of the design. I agree that different scale lengths have an effect on the tone, the feel of the strings and feel for the fretting hand.
I would let the player choose what scale length he/she wants for whatever reasons and make the necessary adjustment to the design and construction to make it work. The shorter scale lengths are a good solution for people who feel the standard is a little too much of a stretch sometimes, or for somebody who just wants to try out something different.
The standard scale length for the classical guitar, 650 mm, actually 25.6 inches, came to be because it is the French pie de roi times two, or 12.8 inches times two. The pie de roi being the scale length of a modern 4/4 violin.
A luthier I met at a GAL convention, John Park, writes that there is actually not much difference in the string tension between different scale lengths. He writes this:
The actual change in string tension between 640 and 660 is about 3% which is hardly a factor when you consider the typical first string is about fifteen pounds and the second and third about twelve – a twenty percent drop! On a flamenco the long scale (i.e. 660 mm) is nice if you usually play with a cejilla.
I don't think the guitar would loose sound quality or volume if a shorter scale length is used. So far I have not gotten a order for a short scale length guitar, so I do not know of the demand for it.
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 would recommend that the guitar buyer try out a few guitars in his/her price range before buying. The room should have a pleasant feel and good acoustics. The aesthetics and workmanship of the guitar do count. Even the smell of the the guitar should count. I would rate the guitar's balance, fullness and richness of sound, dynamic range, sensitivity and responsiveness. A clear, full sound will usually be loud enough further away. Listen to the room. Listen for purity. The guitar should feel good to hold. It's a sensual experience.
Q7. Do you offer any 'after-sales' service to customers - particularly customers who are nervous about making a substantial investment?
A buyer of a one of my guitars is always free to drop by my shop or ship the guitar to have work done to it. This work is not free. The exception is if the guitar has a problem that clearly comes from a fault in the construction.
Q8. How does the increasing rarity of some woods, rosewood for example, impact on your methods, and the quality of the end product?
I do not use unsustainable woods. There are plenty of woods that are available and make beautiful, great sounding guitars. Once in a while you come into some rare wood that was harvested long ago, or reclaimed and I would use those.
That said, real Brazilian rosewood, Jacaranda de Rio or dalbergia nigra is probably one of the most beautiful woods used for instruments. It is a shame is was not protected better.
Q9. How do you see the future of this beautiful tradition in the 21st century?
As long as there are people who appreciate this great instrument, some of us who are craftspeople will strive to create beautiful and great sounding guitars, as well as restoring the wonderful instruments of the past, for years to come.