02 April 2011

Review: Grondona / Waldner La Chitarra di Liuteria

Masterworks of Guitarmaking

(You will find the German version of the article here.)

It doesn't matter how much money you earn for a living: You don't always get what you want: For example a Stradivari or a Guarneri or a Torres guitar. What a pity or what a shame. 

But sometimes you get the chance to uncover for yourself a little bit of the secrets of the maestros of guitar building. And to start with a book and a CD is not the worst way to discover the unreachable dream, even if you can not hold the guitar in your own hands. 

In the steadily growing market of books about guitars, there is one which keeps it's promises :

The authors are well known in guitarist circles. Stefano Grondona an international known guitarist, published e.g. pieces by Llobet and Tarrega.

He also produced a CD with guitar music played on a Torres guitar (1886). Luca Waldner is a luthier, who lives and works in northern Italy. The third man in this trio was Massimo Mandelli, who was responsible for the wonderful photographs.

Starting point for this presentation were three festivals in Vicenza focused on the theme: Guitar Building. But this time there was a difference: Normally if you visit a museum of musical instruments, you can see them presented proudfully in expensive glass cabinets. But it is a presentation in deadly silence. 

In Vicenza it was different: The instruments during the day well hidden in the cabinets were presented in the evenings in the hands of master soloists. So they had to show, that they were not only built for show but to sound.

This concept was adopted by the book. In the first part of the book you will find in a historical timeline an impressive selection of guitars build by famous luthiers. You name it and you will find it in text and pictures: Torres, Garcia, Simplicio, Fleta, Arias, Gonzalez, Ramirez I+II, Hernandez, Esteso, Barbero, Hauser I+II, Bouchet, ... 

But not only the instrument are described in this book. An important role plays the interaction between music, player and luthier. We are talking about a nearly closed circle of persons who knew each other, who talked with each other and who played music together. And certainly it was a development in which every part was dependent of each other. So you will find the names of Segovia, Llobet, ... and their guitars in this concert of facts, history and background stories.

History of the guitar is far to complex to be told in a straight-line story. So guitars will be the protagonists,  surrounded by the development lines of musical history. The leading actors present themselves with their characteristics in detailed photographical studies. This is also a story about personal communication. People have met and influenced each other: musicians, luthiers and owners "built" these guitars nearly together. Construction, design and sound design are described as an ongoing interactive process

So the development of music which changed over time its expression and form demanded other tonal qualities from the guitar. This is demonstrated by Grondona. He plays on these guitars music, which emphasizes the sound characteristics of the individual instrument. It is music written for the presented guitars. Whether you are a friend or an antagonist of "historical" recordings it is more than interesting to hear the music on original instruments of that time. And they sound different. Grondona is able to play this music not only to present history as its best. I got the impression, whether it is true or not, that he had a lot of fun reviving these instruments with their music.

In the second part of the book you will find two aspects of guitar building which have another view than comparable publications. You will find a description of the development of strings and the personal view of the luthier at his work during his timeline. It is not the finished instrument which accompanies the maestro all the way to the desired sound. 

It is the everlasting look at the least detail. It is not the general structure and form which give distinction to  the working process.  It is the look through the magnifying glass: right angels, perfect straights, even planes, wooden mosaics of the rosettes, curvatures of bracings, the form of the neck between the 9th and 12th fret, ... You will be happy that at last you will see a well formed guitar. 

But remember: The design of the "Gesamtkunstwerk" was finished in the mind of the luthier before he made his first stroke with a plane. And if he was a real artist he could hear his guitar already at the time when he selected the wood for his instrument.

Until now the book was interesting to read for the general guitar aficionados. The third part is dedicated to the modern guitar builder, who is looking for magic in the technical construction. You will find a detailed description of each guitar as exact measurements of the body, strutting system, used woods, ... Additionally important parameters as thickness of soundboards etc. are presented in an orderly fashion. And: The measurements seem to be true. A well known luthier in Germany, who restored two guitars presented in the book, confirmed the reliability of the data. ( And this is not a matter of course.)

But the presentation will get even more attractive. Everybody knows, that even guitars which seem identical concerning their overall measures, do not sound the same. The uniqueness of each individual instrument will be determined by the wood. And that even in our time could not be cloned. 

The authors present two additional parameters which facilitate the approximation when building a replica: 

  • the deep fundamental resonance frequency of the guitar
  • and the resonant frequency of the bridge

And here I found a surprise: The deep fundamental resonance frequency of e.g. the guitars built by Torres (1. and 2. series) were considerably lower compared to modern instruments.

As usual you will find a glossar, bibliography, etc. A well formed container of information which presents its wealth of information in a very aesthetical way. Recommended or to say it in wood: AAA

La Chitarra di Liuteria / Masterworks of Guitarmaking
Stefano Grondona, Luca Waldner
Photographie: Massimo Mandelli.
Publisher: L'officina del libro
Italian / English
Format 21x23 cm
Pages 228 more than 400 pictures

You can search in the book at Google books