By Kenny Hill
Designing the Future, Building on the Past
From GUITARMAKER MAGAZINE, FALL 1999
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Over the past year and a half I've had the good fortune to collaborate on a new model of guitar with the legendary classical builder Robert Ruck. He has always been a very prolific (he's built over 700 guitars himself) and often experimental builder, and over the years he's been working with original design elements that are producing excellent and consistent results. Now he is interested in seeing these ideas proliferate in more instruments than he is able to produce all by himself. (Right now Bob Ruck has a waiting list of 8 or 10 years.) But I happen to have a shop in Mexico as well as one in California, in which I've been producing some fine guitars for about four years now, so this seemed like a way to leverage this new model into something more widely available and maybe even affordable.
It was actually Jerry Roberts, the well known classical guitar dealer in Nashville, who linked this project together. Jerry and Bob go way back together to college days in Florida, and Jerry has probably bought and sold more Ruck guitars than any other single person. He has also been a strong supporter of my work, and I have done OEM manufacturing for his company La Mancha Guitars for several years. Jerry suggested to Ruck that we produce this line in my Mexico shop. Ultimately Bob and I got together in Tacoma in 1998, we talked it over, he produced some drawings, and we were off.
The essential new elements are disarmingly simple. First, the soundboard fan is modified. It's still a fan, but every other fan bar is wideabout 24mm, and very thin, kind of a lamination. Second, there are two holes drilled (or rather sawn) in the sides in the upper shoulders, one on either side of the heel. These holes are around 30mm, though experiments with various sizes and combinations produce good results. Overall there are many other details of specsthe plantilla, the materials, the arches in the top and back,the neck angle, etc.but these two noticeable features make a very big difference in the sound, making the guitar louder and at the same time very rich and sensitive, giving not just more raw power, but a beauty of sound as well.
The first impression is of more sound coming into the players face (and ears). And that's true, because there is now a sound hole right there almost aimed at him or her. If that were all, it would be a significant improvement in itself, because after all, the player needs to hear the instrument as much as anybody does. But that's not all. It's louder out front toosignificantly louder. And it's a full and complete loudness, not just horsepower.
How does it work? I don't really know, but I'll tell you something that happened when I was making the first prototype. I had the instrument all built and was fretting it, hammering in the frets above the 12th fret, steadying the guitar with my left hand on the neck, and there was a strong, gusty breeze puffing on my wrist with each whack of the hammer. That got me curious, so I found a Bic lighter and cranked it all the way up, practically a torch, held the flame next to one of the auxiliary sound hole and gave the top a quick thump with the side if my thumb. Poof! That flame was gone. Of course. But now I get itthe guitar is an air pump. I suppose I knew that before, but now I really know it. Sooo, thinking about a guitar with just one normal sound hole, and seeing it as a sort of diaphragm pump, it's clear that there is an"air flow" bottleneck there at the sound hole, and for that instant while a column of air is moving out it actually prevents air from moving in, and visa versa. This causes a temporary vacuum or pressure to occur inside the instrument. If you open up a hole somewhere else, you free the top up, just like opening the vent hole on a gas can. This implies that the hole could be anywhere, but in by locating it in the guitar's shoulder region the player gets the enjoyment of the sound right in his or her ear.
As for the wide fans, I have a little harder time explaining it, but the proof is in the sound. These 3 wide braces offer a large surface to control the doming of the top, and through the nature of lamination they offer a great deal of strength with very little mass. This spreads the control of the soundboard more evenly and seems to give a very responsive top, offering the player the ability to mold the sound coming out of the instrument.
Too easy? Maybe so, but that's one of the things I love about this design you get a lot of bang for your buck. And it's something that inspires a real admiration for Bob Ruck, that through his experience and his refined intuition he can get huge sound advantages out of relatively subtle changes. In the bigger picture, I believe that this is how the guitar will move forwardthrough building on what we have rather than reinventing the instrument from scratch. Evolution certainly wants to take a path of least resistance, and it's hard enough to build nice guitar without having to completely start over. When Torres took guitar design ahead from where he found it, he saw an instrument such as Panormo was building and he essentially just redistributed and re-proportioned the design elements that were already there. If you build a Panormo style guitar, and then you build a Torres style guitar you say "Of course, this had to happen." and in reflection the design evolution seems so obvious. But it wasn't obvious until someone, Antonio de Torres, actually did it.
When I was in my twenties and just making my first guitars, I was all fired up to make something totally unique that would blaze trails into the next epoch of lutherie, that would redefine what the guitar was all about, inspire generations to come, etc., etc., etc. Of course I didn't know anything about what was really important in guitar making. So I fiddled around with disconnected details, focused on irrelevancies, all the while oblivious to essential concepts. I made some nice eccentric instruments with some bohemian charm, but certainly not the new generation of guitar making I was imagining. Gradually I realized that I had to do what probably all serious guitar makers have to doget down to basics, learning some of the classic designs and finding out about the elements that go unseen to the aficionado or the casual observer. Later I started a whole line of guitars called the Masters Series, where I make shameless copies of important historic builders, to pay tribute to them, and to learn from them what I can by practicing their designs. It has been most enlightening. Now, in collaborating with Robert Ruck, I have the opportunity to work from the models of a living master, someone who can continue to offer feedback and criticism and answer questions, (unlike Antonio Torres, Ignacio Fleta, etc.) So Ruck has shared some of his ideas with me and helped put them into practice, and we've gotten through the development stages of a new Ruck model of guitar that has an improved sound through modern innovations that rise naturally out of established guitar making traditions. As a builder, and more importantly as a player, it has made a real difference in the way I hear the guitar, and now that I've heard the difference, I can't go back.
In the current trends of "modern" design there are a quite a few very diverse currents that I'm aware ofand no way is this supposed to be a complete list. There is the Australian "Smallman school" of construction with very light top construction, composite lattice bracing, and a heavy body with a laminated back. There's the Millennium design by Tom Humphrey which features a highly raised fingerboard and rather extremely angled and tapered body with a strongly arched top. There's the Kasha/Schneider "scientifically" engineered construction. Augustine LoPrinzi is making a new guitar with wedge shaped holes in the corners between the upper soundboard and the upper sides. Mathias Daman has some sort of double-top soundboard design with a hidden bracing structure sandwiched between very thin inner and outer soundboard veneers. These are a lot of different contemporary directions for a guitar builder to be pulled.
And now there is the Ruck, wide fan brace system with acoustic ports. I'm really enjoying the collaboration between Ruck, Roberts and myself. And I'm REALLY enjoying the sounds that are coming out of these guitars. Also I feel good about being part of a project that offers a new kind of guitar that will be widely available and affordable to people who spend a big part of their lives making music. Whichever direction the guitar evolves - and it will continue to evolve - it will be a direction that offers builders and players the most real gain for their effort.
Classical guitarists are a conservative bunch, but at the same time they are always hungry for a louder, bigger, stronger sound. Some want total tradition, some only want the latest thing. Many want both. It can make a guitar maker crazy! And if it looks different, many guitarists will shy away. But if it sounds better the real musicians in the bunch should overcome that. Some of the best sounding and most satisfying instruments in the world are built on the most traditional models, and some are being built with interesting new innovations. And it seems that the best of these ideas come from intuitive leaps, and only when we hear the results, only then do we try to explain what really makes it work. Finally it's in the hands, and the ears, of the builder. A guitar is the sum of many factorsthe materials, the design, the skill of execution, the weather, but really the most important one has to be the inspiration.
© Kenny Hill, Felton, CA