Presentation Series Rose

Guitar Bench
2009 Aaron Green Interview
March 10, 2010
Terence Tan

TT: Thanks for taking the time to speak to us, Aaron. I was wondering if you like to share with us how you got started building guitars?

AG: I started building guitars in July of 1991 just before my senior year in high school. My teacher was Alan Carruth, whom I had the very good fortune of meeting at a folk festival that was conveniently held at the school I was attending.The festival rented out the space during the spring vacation and I decided to check it out when I found a flier laying in the gutter while I was walking downtown.

I saw Alan’s name listed in the crafts exhibition hall and I headed over to the school as fast as I could. I ended up sneaking in as the admission fee was well beyond what I had in my pocket. I was 16 at the time and flat broke.One of the benefits of going to school there is I knew all the ways in and out, esp. if one preferred to do so without being noticed.

Previous to this event I had heard from a friend who sounded like he knew what he was talking about that custom guitars cost a lot of money and therefore custom guitar makers made lots of money. I played electric and steelstring guitar but didn’t have the impetus to really pursue that avenue and was looking for something I could do that would allow me to be self employed. My first job was when I was 10 years old and I worked pretty much after school and weekend jobs since then so I had enough experience to know that I didn’t really like working for someone else.

Making tons of money was never a strong desire but making a living was so I started doing all the research I could. I even did a report for English Class on guitarmaking when I was assigned one of those “what do you want to do with your life” kind of things they throw at you. The upshot was I got very little by the way of real information and lots of discouragement. I called all the local music stores and spoke with their resident “luthiers” and was told to forget it. I did find out about the Roberto Venn School of Lutherie and that seemed like a likely choice for me, until I met Alan that is.

When I met Alan it was the first day of the festival which lasted for three days. He had a booth full of instruments, not just guitars but lap dulcimers, hammered dulcimers, a harp, violins, violas as well as flat top and an archtop guitar. I introduced myself and pretty much spent the next three days in his booth.I kind of feel bad about that now, but it was like my prayers had been answered and I just couldn’t stop asking him questions and playing his guitars. He was and is the most generous person I have ever met and by the end of the festival I finally asked him to teach me and he said yes..

After three-hour morning classes with top teacher/artists like Jody Fisher (jazz), Matt Smith (blues), Andrew Leonard (classical) and Tobias Hurwitz (rock) and afternoon private lessons, Artist-In-Residence clinics and jam sessions (with equally massive lunches and dinners thrown in), we all eventually amble across the grass toward the huge white tent set up in a nearby pasture for the nightly concerts, which start at 7:30.

TT: So you were informally apprenticed to Al?

AG: In the traditional sense I guess you would call it informal. I didn’t live with him and his family, I didn’t marry his daughter and I didn’t work on his instruments. However he was my teacher and I was his student and the instruction I received was one on one. The first year I was still in school so I would come to his shop on friday afternoon and work until it was time to go home.

He lived in a town about a half hour car ride from where I lived so once I got my drivers license that summer after our first meeting, I began building a guitar. It was the highlight of my life at that point, I couldn’t wait for friday afternoon to come around and I would think a lot about things to talk about with him. Alan is an incredibly well educated man and our conversations while we worked ranged all over from politics, history, art, music, literature and of course instruments and acoustics.

Our conversations are what I loved and miss most about my time with him. His shop was tiny, in a kind of basement addition to his house which he heated with a woodstove (and always dressed a lot warmer than me so I got used to being cold in the winter) and was mostly devoid of the machinery, jigs and fixtures that you normally see in luthier’s shops. He had a bandsaw, a drill press and a jointer, which was always super sharp. He worked in a machine shop back in time in the Navy so he knew a lot about machinery but mostly we used handtools. It took me a long time to build that first guitar but I really knew how to use a plane, chisels and how to keep them sharp.

Alan was and is heavily involved in the science of instrument acoustics, his violin making teacher having been the late Carleen Hutchins. So on top of the physical education I got in actually how to put an instrument together, I got a very in depth education about what makes them tick and how to control that. In a nutshell he always stressed flexibility in one’s work, being able to adjust your approach to the materials you are using and the needs of the musician you are working for. He also is very practical and doesn’t get swept away with his theories to the point of trying to make reality conform to them, which is all too often the case and where we get the term “pseudo-science”. Alan is a very good scientist.

The next summer (in 1992) Alan was to give a lecture on acoustics at the Guild of American Luthiers convention in Vermilion, South Dakota. I just graduated from high school and had decided to put off college and continue building guitars. I asked if I could come along and this was the real turning point in my own lutherie pursuits as it was there that I discovered the classical guitar and my desire to build them. The trip out to the convention took four days and we camped at night along the way.
Our first stop was in New Jersey to see Carleen and pick up some of her instruments for the convention. The convention itself was such a blast I can’t even convey it in words. I had never met any other instrument makers besides my teacher and now I was surrounded by them. I met lots of great people, saw lots of guitars, lots of wood and had the time of my life.

TT: And after learning from Al you started out on your own?

AG: I stayed on with Al for three years. The first one was in his home shop but after the GAL convention he and another builder were talking about joining forces and renting a shop space with some kind of commercial visibility. Alan talked about it with me when I was with him and kept me up to date on the spaces they checked out. It was obvious to him that I wanted to continue building and he was making this new venture available to me, at least in the sense that I would have some bench space and keep on working.

That shop came to be in Waltham Mass. which is a town about a half hour from Boston. It was a rundown mill town that has come up a lot in the world since then but there was plenty of space to be had and it was relatively cheap. As a result there were (and are) a lot of artists there and a few other luthiers (all violin makers) as well. I was out of high school now so I had a day job at a retail store and built guitars in the evenings and weekends. After a couple of years there it was time to go and start out on my own.

I was sorry to leave but it forced me to get serious and give it my all to try and make a go of guitarmaking. I had many side jobs to support my guitarmaking habit. I am pretty sure that from age 18 to 25 I didn’t have a single day off where I wasn’t either working on guitars or working for someone else.I looked for jobs that would allow me to spend as much time in the shop as I could. I worked in halfway houses for the mentally ill (and challenged), delivered newspapers at 4 in the morning, telemarketed for a month or two before my conscience caught up with me, worked for some friends in a startup high end chocolate shop among other things.

I found shop space right up the street from Al, which made me very happy, on the top floor corner of an old office building right in the middle of Waltham center. It was a fairly big space (750 sq feet) for me and was entirely walled with these huge floor to ceiling arched windows overlooking the town common and the busiest intersection in the known universe.

My windows faced east and south so it got awfully warm up there, which was great in the winter and less so in the summer.I took to working without a shirt in the summer as it was often 100 degrees in there. I was on constant display to the other office buildings and the traffic so I heard a lot of stories about myself. I was in this space from 1994 to 2008.

As I had dedicated myself to classical and flamenco guitars it became evident that I needed exposure to good musicians to help me develop my guitars. I joined the Boston Classical Guitar Society and took a spot on the board of directors putting together the calendar for the newsletter.I got to meet a lot of the local players and took part in the guitar festivals the Society would put on. At one meeting we were discussing an upcoming concert we were promoting.

The artist was Dennis Koster, the famous classical and flamenco guitarist. I was excited to meet him, or at least trying to meet him. I didn’t want the others to think I was pushing myself onto unsuspecting artists but when the conversation came around about how to get him up to Boston from New York City, I said I was going to be in New York anyways and would be happy to give him a ride. Complete lie but I guess no one cared as it was saving the society a plane ticket (there and back). I got in touch with Dennis and went to New York in the spring of 1995 to get him.

This was singularly the smartest thing I have done in my career. Dennis became my second teacher, he made it possible for me to see on a regular basis some of the finest guitars made by some of the finest luthiers, he can dissect how a guitar sounds and plays better than anyone I have ever met and through him I have met countless guitarists many of whom are my clients, good friends or both. He is my partner in all things guitars and one of my closest friends in life.

New York has become my center of activity and though I build guitars for people all over the world now, I can trace many of them back to my circle in New York. My trips are nonstop action packed with delivering and showing guitars to people, going to see great guitars when the opportunity comes around, going to concerts and museums, hanging out with the likes of Fred Hand, Ben Verdery, David Leisner,. Gene Bertoncini, people who form the core of the New York guitar scene. It is always inspiring for me and makes me happy that I do what I do.

TT: Most of our readers are steel string players, and having seen some of the great classical guitars, would you mind telling us a little about some of the schools of constuction and how your guitars have been influenced by them?

AG: Sure, it is important to remember that today what we call classical and flamenco guitars, regardless of the design or country of origin is directly influenced by the Spanish guitar. Prior to this guitars being built in Europe were very different, good examples would be Lacote, from France, Panormo, from England and even the guitars of C.F Martin senior. In the mid 1800’s a builder named Antonio de Torrescame to be regarded as the premier builder in Spain and credited with bringing together a number of aspects of what was going on around him, to create the guitar as we see it today. You can find guitars by other builders in his time, Soto y Solares for example, that look very similar and have the same general size, scale length etc. as Torres. So he can’t be called the inventor of the modern guitar but he certainly took it to the highest level in his lifetime.

It took Andres Segovia though to really solidify the Spanish guitar as the modern classical guitar. Early in his career Hermann Hauser built European style guitars (among other instruments), until a meeting withSegovia in the 1920’s, I believe. He studied Segovia’s Manuel Ramirez guitar, which was directly influenced by the guitars of Antonio de Torres and began building in the Spanish style. Hauserguitars are considered to cornerstone of the German school of guitarmaking. Or at least the “traditional” school.

When talking about schools of guitarmaking you quickly realize the enormous amount of cross fertilization that goes on. A great example of this cross fertilization I am referring to would be what is known as the Granada school. The dean, as it were, of that region is Antonio Marin Montero. There are many builders in that area who build guitars very similar in body shape and overall characteristics to his.However his guitars, since the late 70’s are directly influenced by Robert Bouchet, the most important French builder of the 20th century. I once had my hands on one of his (Marin) guitars that was a very obvious Ramirez copy, prior to his switch to his interpretation of Bouchet’s style. It was an amazing guitar too, one of the best I have seen. Bouchet was self taught but he hung out with a Spanish guitarmaker working in Paris named Ramirez, although he was not related, directly anyways, to the famous Ramirez family of Madrid.

These days we have many modern takes on the “classical” guitar, from elevated fingerboard, to composite tops to carbon fiber reinforced lattice braced guitars. There is always one maker with whom these innovations are associated, in that order you would say, Thomas Humphrey, Mattias Dammann and Greg Smallman. In all three cases you find a very unique instrument that has gained acceptance and has inspired other builders around the world. In some cases other builders will copy them faithfully or use them as a point of departure.

Personally I like what Tom Humphrey once said, to paraphrase, “The tradition of the guitar is change.And that is because the musicians are saying “give us more”. You can’t really put it any better than that.In the end, the impetus is always (or should be) to build the best instrument for the musicians, who are the final arbiter in what works and what doesn’t. I don’t necessarily think this means you have to throw out what went on before or even make discernible physical changes to the design to come up with something that is unique, you just need to listen to the guitarists who you are either working for or want to work for.

So for me that meant going to NYC early in my career and studying lots of guitars and showing my work to the very best guitarists I can find. New York is the perfect place for this as the guitarists there have the biggest choices of guitars out there and as such, don’t cut you any slack, or anyone else for that matter.So I knew whatever feedback I was getting was the real thing. At this point I have very definite opinions about the kind of guitar I want to build I believe that the best guitar is the most balanced guitar, this not only refers to the response across the registers of the instrument but balanced in such a way that all it’s characteristics come out and are in a harmonious relationship to each other. I don’t want a loud guitar just for the sake of volume nor do I want a beautiful sounding guitar that is quiet. A great tone is nice but if it doesn’t come with a broad palette that the guitarist can make use of then you have what I call a “one trick pony”. The very best guitars I have seen have always been extremely flexible in this regard.

I have a client who owns a very famous guitar, the maker is Barbero and it was the guitar that Sabicas used to record “Flamenco Puro”, a landmark album by the greatest flamenco guitarist of all time, in my opinion. This instrument is so alive and so inspiring. When Dennis played it for me he went from a really fast and aggressive Bulerias (a form of flamenco) straight into the famous Chaccone by J.S Bach.Not only did the guitar not miss a beat but the sound was transformed by how Dennis was playing it. It went from razor sharp machine gun attack to this great bloom of profound tone and color. It also demonstrated to me that whatever you call the guitar, classical, flamenco, whatever….is solely dictated by the guitarist. I build guitars for guitarists and try my best to suit their needs and wants. As far as the names that get attached to them ,I try not to let get in the way of seeing clearly what it is I need to do.

TT: So really the best of the best can do everything and do it well?

AG: Well, yes and no. Yes in that a great instrument, in my opinion, will have the qualities needed for whatever music is being played on it, within reason of course. Even so you would be hard pressed to find a guitar that all guitarists would agree upon or at least not put in one category or another. I often build guitars for people who play both classical and flamenco music and this question often comes up. I tell them I don’t know any classical guitarists who wouldn’t want a guitar that was as fast and immediate as a flamenco or for that matter, had the clarity and separation of voices you find in the best flamenco guitars. I also don’t think many flamenco guitarists would object to a guitar that had the depth, flexibility and profundity of tone that you find in a great classical guitar.

This isn’t to say though that one size can fit all. There is always the matter of how well that particular instrument works for that particular player. When I build a guitar I have to consider very deeply my client’s approach to playing and what he or she needs and wants to hear. Every guitar will have it’s own natural center of sound and when building for the individual you have to understand where that needs to be for the guitar to work for them. The flexibility of an instrument is in how far away from that center the guitarist can take the sound of the guitar. This obviously is equally dependent on the skill of the guitarist. They have to know what they want to hear and how to get it. Julian Bream once said that about great Hauser (senior) guitars. He said they will do whatever you want them to do provided you know how to do it.

In the end there is an enormous amount of room in all of this for personal taste and opinion, which is a very good thing. This is why we see so many fine builders and a great deal of individuality out there in the world of the guitar. Without that things would be much more restricted and homogenized.

TT: Thank you for that. I suppose it’s about time to ask you about tonewoods and the finish you prefer…

AG: I am a pretty conservative builder in both regards. When it comes to the woods I use, my preference is not entirely dependent on any specific species rather the mechanical and acoustic properties of the individual piece of wood I am considering using. One thing I can say across the board is the woods must be very well cut and very well seasoned. However there is a good reason that certain woods are traditionally used for guitars and that is they are very well suited for the task. They work for how the design of the guitar has evolved and what people want to hear. But in the end I pick them based on how they sound when I tap them, how they feel when I handle them and how well they will endure the stresses of being guitars. I love Brazilian rosewood for the backs and sides of my guitars but frankly most of what you find is not really well suited for guitars.

It is a notoriously unstable wood to begin with so unless you are dealing with well cut wood that has been around long enough to do whatever it is going to do, be it warp or crack, it probably does not have the acoustic properties that will make it a superior tonewood. Whatever woods you use the trick is realizing the maximum potential of that piece of wood and bringing all the components of the guitar together in a harmonious relationship.

Long story short, it’s really easy to screw up great and expensive wood, so using them brings no promises. So it’s untrue that you have to use the most expensive and rare woods to create a masterpiece. I just had my hands on a Fleta today that is the very best guitar by that maker I have ever seen and it’s plain Indian rosewood for the back and sides with a nice but nothing special cedar top. Still and all it’s an inspired guitar and all the stars aligned as it were.

So I have spent a lot of time gathering my materials, trying always to make sure that they are superior tonewoods.As I said, I love great Brazilian rosewood, but I also use Madagascar rosewood and Indian rosewood and have a few sets of Honduran rosewood as well as African Blackwood. I build a lot of guitars out of Mediterranean Cypress which can build a great classical guitar as well as being the traditional wood for flamenco. I have also used Koa, Maple and Walnut in the past. For my tops I use either European spruce or Engelmann spruce and Western red cedar.

All these materials can bring something special to the table and the job of the luthier is to adjust his or her approach to realize each piece’s maximum potential for whatever the desired end result is. For the last 16 years or so I have french polished my guitars, which is an alcohol based shellac finish applied with a rag, basically. It is a very beautifulfinish and can be quite strong if the shellac is high quality and unrefined, as well as given the time to fully cure. It is a very labor intensive finish to say the least. It has the advantage of being very easy to fix and being non toxic, which is important to me.
I have never worked in a shop with great ventilation certainly not what you would need if you were working with lacquer so it was not a hard choice to learn to french polish. I also really like the process although I am looking for something quicker as long as it is beautiful and durable. Once I move into my new studio, which will have a dedicated finishing room, I will look into an oil based varnish for the back, sides and necks of my guitars. I will also french polish the tops as I think it has the least acoustical impact and the top is where it counts the most. Oil based varnishes are very strong and beautiful and I am looking forward to eventually making the switch.

TT: I gather that Classical players are quite conservative so I was wondering how the koa and walnut guitars have sounded and been received?

AG: You see some use of alternative woods, ie not rosewood in classical guitars these days but they still are the exception. I have never used walnut for a classical, although I did build a steelstring guitar in walnut years ago. I’ve built three steelstring guitars so far, I don’t really see myself building any more but you never know.I know from handling sets of walnut that in many ways it is similar to maple. I use a lot of walnut in furniture projects which I like to do for our home. For furniture walnut and flame maple is my all time favoritecombination. It’s nice to do something in wood working where I don’t have to worry about how it is going to sound.

Ibuilt one guitar in Koa and I found it to be a very nice wood, although it is very different than the usual rosewoods I use. I designed the guitar around it in many ways. It was a smaller bodied guitar and was a very sweet and full sounding guitar. The smaller shape I thought would help with the treble response and the set struck me as somewhat similar to mahogany in how it sounded when I tapped it.

I was certain that building a round and rich sounding guitar was not going to be an issue but the power in the trebles might. The smaller shape also lends itself to very sensitive instruments, tonally speaking and as such the guitar had a fairly broad palette, which was another thing I was concerned about in using that set.

The choice to use Koa at all was at the request of my client. He came up to my shop to visit when I was building a guitar for him, in Brazilian and spruce and saw this set of koa I happened to have. He has a real sense of aesthetics and fell in love with the way the set looked. He just left it up to me to figure out how best to make this set work for one of my guitars and I know him well enough to know in what direction I should go aesthetically as well. It’s a very fancy guitar and similar in it’s design to the maple guitar I built for La Bella strings, which is featured on their 2001 series string packs.

In the end it is going to be the sound that sells the guitars. I know for a fact that any player who plays guitar for a living is only looking for the very best sounding (and playing) guitar they can find. If the guitar was made from an orange crate it wouldn’t matter one bit, as long as it delivered the goods. The larger guitar buying crowd is made of up people who listen with their ears, those who listen with their eyes or wallets and all those in between. The traditional woods as I said, are traditional for a very good reason but there are others out there that can be used with great success. As time passes they will most likely find more and more room in the world of the guitar.

TT: With your experience working with steel strings, would you say that the construction behind the steel vs nylon is vastly different?

AG: In my career I’ve built three steelstring guitars, all of them very early on. My first guitar was a huge 12 string with a cutaway, then my 3rd and 5th guitars were both small bodied steelstrings, one in walnut and the other maple. So from personal experience I don’t really have the ability to make any comparisons between the construction methods of the two with any sense of reality. Alan Carruth is probably most well known for his steel string guitars, although he builds everything under the sun. Obviously from him I got the genesis of my whole approach to building so I guess I could say that like any other instrument you have to understand what you are trying to do, who you are doing it for and what you are doing it with.In that sense there is no difference at all.

In my area there are some real world class steel string builders who are friends of mine. T.J Thompson has his shop a few towns over from me and over the years I have learned a lot from his example. I have admired his work for years and hold him in very high regard. I met him very early in my career and it was from him I learned the absolute secret to doing precise and high level work. It was a lesson I’ll never forget and I don’t even think he was aware of it. I went to his shop and showed him a guitar that was probably my 15th or so. After chatting a bit he started working again while we continued to talk.

After a little bit of working on this guitar part, he turned on his shop vac and sucked up the tiny amount of shavings, put the hose down and got back to work. I looked around his shop and saw it was very neat and organized, esp, considering the amount of stuff in there and overall it has a very nice feeling to it, not chaotic or distracting at all. I went back to my shop, cleaned it from top to bottom, organized the hell out of it and kept my shop vac on permanent standby. My work got a lot better, not by accident but by changing my attitude and creating an environment that was conducive to allowing me to get into that zone.

Bill Tippin is a friend who does beautiful work. I have shopped out work to him on a few occasionsover the years, mostly spray work on some repairs. His shop is in Marblehead, which is on the coast and it is always a great learning experience to see how other guys work. He is very dedicated and has a great sense of aesthetics, which I love. He built a guitar for my Aikido teacher a few years back and it is just magnificent.

Julius Borges is another buddy of mine and he is in the same town as me. He moved here a year or so before I did and we were both unaware that we lived and worked in the same town till we bumped into each other at the local wine shop. Which was a great way to come up with an excuse to hang out. He does great work and we have talked a lot about our work and how to do things better and quicker. His guitars are just gorgeous. He recently finished a shop conversion project very similar to mine and was a wealth of information in that process. My new shop will hopefully be done in the not too distant future and I am very grateful to Julius for all the insight and information he shared, which kept me from making at least one huge mistake and probably a few others as well.

What I have learned from all these guys from watching how they approach building steelstring guitars is that if you desire to do the very best you can, it is going to take a lot of sweat and experience. The challenges of building a great steelstring guitar may be a little different than the challenges you face with classicals, simply because of the difference between steel and nylon strings. I’ve had my hands on some very early Martins, when the labels read “Martin and Coupa” with their NYC address with the distinction that they were “upstairs”. Those guitars were intended for gut strings, built in the European tradition, and a couple of them have been really great instruments. The X brace design that Martin later became known for didn’t work as well for gut as it did for steel. If I remember correctly switch came about so the guitars could compete, volume wise, with banjos in ensemble situations or maybe is was so they could replace banjos, I don’t remember.

In any case it is a classic example of a need and the most successful attempt at satisfying that need. Which is how evolution works. The very best steelstrings I have seen have been real orchestral instruments, very complex tonally and flexible to changes in tone and dynamics. Which simply means they are great instruments. I can’t imagine that it is any easier to do that in steel strings than it is in nylon.

TT: Thanks for that Aaron, how would advise a player who is looking to order a guitar for the first time?

AG:My advice would be to become as clear as possible in your own mind exactly what it is you are looking for in a guitar. Listen to lots of guitarists, try lots of guitars. If you find one that you love, then that’s the guitar for you, regardless of what the label says. In terms of commissioning a guitar, that is where my first piece of advice is the most important, as the success of the venture has a lot to do with the communication between the player and builder. I spend a lot of time establishingwith my clients what it is they have in mind. I try to do it in person whenever possible as having guitars in hand remove the subjective nature of words but I have a way of getting around that when I am working with clients in other countries or over distances that make hanging out in person impossible. I talk about music, what they like to listen to, who’s tone, style of playing they admire or don’t, what guitars they have tried that felt or sounded good to them… or not.
I find that by talking aboutother guitarists and guitars we inject a little more reality into the conversation. I’ll say, what do you think of so and so’s sound? I may call it bright, you may call it metallic, it doesn’t matter because we both can hear it and all you have to say is I like that or I don’t. My other piece of advice is when dealing with the luthier you have decided upon, listen to them and go with their suggestions. There is enough information out there on materials and such to be extremely misleading.

Every luthier, with enough experience, knows for themselves what they get from various materials and how to bring them all together to come up with the desired end result. You as the client are looking for the guitar that fits you best and unless you are also the builder, you have to put your trust in the person who is building the guitar to make the right decisions. All the more reason to be very clear as to what you are expecting, sonically and well as how it will play.

TT: Thanks for speaking to us Aaron. Before we go, I was wondering if you wanted to add anything to our interview?

AG: The only thing I can think of is to thank you for this opportunity to share my thoughts on this instrument we all love and to thank all the people, both those mentioned and those I haven’t, who have helped me along this path. I have been very fortunate and am grateful that I can spend my days building guitars for people. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

Read Aaron's interview in Guitar Connoisseur Magazine.

J. Brahms: Intermezzo Op. 118 No. 2 7:01 - Dennis Koster - Mozart Fantasy On Guitar


©2009 Terence Tan.