On Judging Guitar Quality by Ron Fernández

For teaching and sales purposes it is convenient to identify 5 bases for judging quality of a classical or flamenco guitar. These are: materials, design, craftsmanship, playability and tone. By considering the merits of a guitar in at least these 5 areas, we are more likely to achieve a balanced appreciation of it. In the absence of such a holistic and multifaceted view of quality, guitar buyers sometimes get obsessed with a single small aspect of a guitar and miss the overall picture. For example, a player may have heard that good guitars have a "bookmatched" face or that "the closer the grain the better the sound" (as was recently proclaimed in a Japanese guitar advertisement) and then they fixate on such trivia.

Materials. Guitars may be separated into broad quality categories according to the materials used in them. Most basically, there are all-plywood guitars (such as many cheap guitars from Asia)--these range from $50 to $400 dollars; guitars with solid wood "tops" (i.e. soundboards) and laminated woods for backs and sides (these range from $400 to $2000); and all-solid wood guitars (these start at about $1000 or $1100).

For a guitarmaker, a solid wood face (top) costs from about $10.00 in quantity to $100.00 depending on such things as the stiffness, color, straightness, and closeness of grain. Stiffness across the grain is usually highly prized. Laminated backs and sides range from $8 to $30. Solid wood backs and sides cost from $20 for mahogany (in quantity), $50 to$100 for Indian Rosewood, $80 to $150 for Spanish Cypress, and $400 to $800 for choice Brazilian Rosewood (Brazilian Rosewood is very expensive because there are international restrictions on its exportation from Brazil.). As a dealer of fine classical guitars recently pointed out to me, this information on wood prices will probably mislead many consumers because they will not appreciate various hidden costs. More specifically, it is essential to realize that after a premium piece of wood has been selected it must be properly dried and aged--this can take years. The processs of properly drying wood will add considerably to basic wood costs. Also, it must be realized that even in the most carefully selected wood there will be hidden defects which may make the wood unusable for premium instruments.

Woods must be properly cut and dried to 6 to 8 moisture content. Most woods for production guitars are kiln dried (A kiln is a special oven which controls humidity as it heats and dries the wood. If there is too little humidity while heating the wood it may crack). It takes about one month to kiln dry a 1-inch thick piece of a medium density wood such as mahogany, and a longer time to dry denser woods such as rosewood or ebony. Some artisan or custom guitarmakers prefer to use air-dried woods because they claim the wood has a better sound. It can take several years to dry hardwoods for guitar backs. (The woods used by Felix Manzanero in Madrid are all over 30 years old.). The importance of dried wood (either kiln-dried or air-dried) can not be understated. If the wood is not dried before the guitar is constructed, then the guitar will not be stable. When the wood finally dries the result could be a warped neck or the appearance of cracks in the body or face.

Each part of a guitar requires a wood with certain specific characteristics. Experience has proven the suitability of European Spruce, Engelmann Spruce, Red Cedar and California Redwood for faces. Brazilian, Indian or Cocobolo Rosewoods, Cypress, Maple, and certain Mahoganies for backs & sides. Spanish Cedar or Cuban mahogany for necks. And, ebony or rosewood for fingerboards.

Machine Heads vary greatly in quality and price. Simple nickel machines cost in the range of $5 to $15 dollars per pair. Good quality brass or alloy machine go for $50 to $80. Hand engraved, gold plated machines such as Fustero machines, which are made in Spain, cost $250 to $300.

Design. Design concerns aesthetic issues and functional features. Aesthetic issues involve the proportions and shape of the guitar. For example, for classical guitars built on modern Spanish designs there is a 3 to 4 ratio of upper to lower bout, 2 to 3 ratio of the waist to the lower bout, 1 to 1 ratio from the 12th fret up to the 12th fret down. Beautiful guitars are designed in accordance with such hidden geometric principles. Body contours, head designs and rosette patterns are all evidence of underlying principles of classical design. Many of these classical principles are rooted in Greco-Roman ideas of beauty and proportions.

Functional features concern such things as: fan bracing verses X-bracing, dovetail neck-body assembly as opposed to Spanish Foot integrated neck-body assembly, neck relief vs flat fingerboard, domed top verses flat top, symmetrical fan bracing versus asymmetrical bracing, etc.

Craftsmanship. Craftsmanship involves the fine execution of woodworking tasks and finishing operations. In recent years the physical appearance of factory guitars has improved tremendously. It can be argued that modern machinary allows a level of physical perfection which rivals the execution of the best master craftsmen. The benefit of a factory system is that it can produce high quality copies of a good design at a lower cost than custom production. For example, a wood carving machine can produce in minutes a dozen identical shaped necks which would take an hour each to make by hand. In contrast, one advantage of custom, low production guitarmaking is that a master luthier can modify his design (e.g., the thickness of the top or placement of the braces) in accordance with his evaluation of a specific piece of wood. In this way he can theoretically get the best sound out of his particular pieces of wood.

The quality of workworking is sometimes not apparent to the untrained. Of course, such things as miscuts, saw marks, or misaligned joints are easily observable. Other things such as a V-joint head-neck assembly or a mitred as opposed to a butt end purfling joint at the base of the guitar are not so obvious or easily appreciated.

Most modern guitars have catalyzed acrylic or urethane finishes. These are very durable and do not harm the sound if they are not too thick. Such finishes can be done in less than 5 days in a factory. Guitars made 25 to 50 years ago most often have nitrocellulose finishes. "Nitro" lacquer finishes take several weeks to do right because of drying time and sanding between coats. (William Tapia taught me the method Jose Ramirez III taught him of doing a lacquer finish.). The most time consuming finish is a french polished finish of spirit varnish (which is mostly shellac)--such a finish takes about 30 hours over 4 to 8 weeks to complete. Each of these finishes look different and each slightly affects the quality of the sound. Which is "best" is a matter of opinion. In any case, a fine french polished finish is the most expensive finish.

Playability. How a guitar "feels" to play involves a variety of factors such as neck angle, presence /absence of neck relief, fret shape and smoothness, saddle height, and nut slot height.

While low action makes a guitar easy to play it does not help projection and sustain. Consequently, many concert performers with strong hands have their guitars set-up with actions which would be uncomfortable for a less experienced player. In contrast, while unamplified playing to a large audience may require high string action, low string action may be suitable for recording through a microphone or performing in intimate settings.

At Fernandez Music, I personally set-up each guitar for good playing action. Minimally, this involves adjusting the "bone" or saddle at the bridge so the gap between the bottom of the string and the top of the fret is about 4mm at the 12th fret for the 6th string and 3 or 3.2mm at the 12th fret for the 1st string for classical guitars. (Flamenco guitars are set about 3.2 to 3.5 for the 6th string and 2.7mm to 3.0 for the first string). Also, I check the levelness of the frets by comparing each set of 3 frets, then, if necessary I level, recrown and polish them. In addition, I contour the ends of the frets by adding a second facet and then smoothing them.

Tone. Tone quality involves issues of projection, balance, sustain, clarity, etc. The ability to identify a good tone can take years to develop. The crucial sound test for a guitar is to listen across the room, not simply from behind the guitar. Is the entire sound projected? Are the trebles strong and clear? Are all parts balanced?

It is easy to get a big bass with a thin top. The trebles are the problem. Good tone demands enough wood density in the top--it cannot be too thin or too thick.

While many people can tell the difference between a good guitar and a bad one, there are few people who can tell the difference between a good guitar and a great one. The specialized knowledge required to evaluate quality and appraise value takes many years to obtain. Therefore, the 5 bases of quality mentioned above are only intended as initial topics to be considered.

Finally, it is important to point out that price is solely a matter of market demand not quality. Different people are attracted by different things. We know that quality by itself does not determine price because a guitar must have a label and a known maker to get the highest dollar. An unidentified guitar has limited market appeal. Also, average quality guitars may get very high prices because of a connection with a celebrity. Precise appraisal of a guitar is very difficult because contradictory evaluation standards can exist simulateously. Nevertheless, in the long run quality and price are somewhat related through a maker's reputation and wide public recognition.

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