A Conversation With Master Luthier Jeffrey Elliott

click to enlarge The inside of an Elliott guitar with Torres-style open harmonic bars
The inside of an Elliott guitar with Torres-style open harmonic bars
Jeffrey Elliott believes there are two kinds of guitar-makers: technical and intuitive. He places himself in the latter category.

“Any time I was on the fence about something and I did the thing that logic dictated, I was wrong,” Elliott said.

Elliott often encounters situations in his workshop where he needs to make a design choice based on theory or his own feelings and experience.

Yet, when Elliott was starting on the path that would make him one of the most sought-after luthiers in the world (his waiting list has been full for at least a decade), he went about it in a way that reveals a technical mind at work.

Elliott moved to Portland, Ore. in the early ‘70s. Michael Lorimer, the renowned Baroque guitarist and pupil of Andrés Segovia, would sometimes come through to give a concert. Whenever he came to town, Elliott would bring Lorimer one of his guitars for an informal critique.

“He took an interest in my work,” said Elliott. “He said, ‘You should visit this friend of mine. She’s got these guitars you should look at.’”

Lorimer’s friend was classical guitarist Dorothy de Goede. Besides being another Segovia protégé who taught in the Los Angeles area, de Goede owned two rare guitars dating from the 1940s that were modeled on the designs of 19th-century Spanish luthier Antonio de Torres.

Elliott, with a letter of introduction from Lorimer, decided to go down to L.A.

Over the course of three days, Elliott took photographs and measurements. He made several drawings of the guitars. While he was documenting, he had an idea.

“I mused out loud one day, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could X-ray these?’”

As luck would have it, de Goede knew a radiologist in L.A.

“So she called him up and he invited us down, and we went down the next day,” Elliott said.

The Torres design has influenced countless classical guitar makers, including Elliott.

“Torres put the best combination of all the variables together in the right proportion and came up with an instrument that really was superior in every way,” Elliott said. The thin-waisted, curvy shape of a Torres has become a gold standard for classical guitars. “Ninety percent or more of all classical guitars that are made today are some version of that core design.”

The term “classical guitar” is sort of misleading. In one sense, it refers to the construction of the instrument itself. But it’s far more versatile than its name suggests.

In the early days of popular American folk music, artists like Joan Baez and Pete Seeger would play on nylon strings. It wasn’t until later that steel strings became the default for acoustic folk music.

“More like a Martin or a Guild or a Gibson,” said Elliott.

Elliott started listening to classical guitar in his early teens, but he never played classical guitar himself.

“I played folk music and was basically self-taught,” he said. “You can play a lot of different music on classical guitars.”

Aside from the instrument itself, there’s also the sense in which “classical guitar” means a style of playing that encompasses everything from Bach transcriptions to Flamenco.

“But that’s not to say you couldn’t play it on a steel string guitar,” Elliott said.

Folk artist Leo Kottke famously recorded his own arrangement of a Bach bourée on a steel-string guitar for his 1971 album, “Mudlark.” (He offered apologies to Bach in the liner notes.)

“When you play the same notes on both of them it’s going to be recognizable as the same music,” Elliott said. But given a choice, he’d rather hear Bach played on nylon strings. “The character of the sound is different, so of course it’s going to color the music.”

According to Elliott, there are three main factors, aside from the skill of the individual player, that influence the sound of a guitar. For one thing, there’s the design. Lattice bracing produces an altogether different sound than the fan bracing of a Torres guitar. And, at the end of the day, the instrument shouldn’t crumple under the enormous tension of the strings.

“These instruments weigh either side of three pounds, but they’re under nearly 100 pounds of string pressure,” Elliott said. “It’s amazing that the architecture holds up over a couple hundred years and still sounds good.”

There’s also the choice of materials.

“There’s redwood, there’s different spruces, and there’s rosewoods and maple,” Elliott said. “And for Flamenco, there’s Cyprus.”

The type of finish is also critical. If it’s too thick, it’ll dampen the sound of the instrument. Elliott swears by the French polish method, which he uses on all of his guitars. This style of finish has to be as thin as a few thousandths of an inch. Elliott’s partner brushes it onto each guitar by hand, while most mass-produced guitars use a lacquer that’s sprayed on.

Finally, the type of sound a player will get from the guitar depends on who’s making it. According to Elliott, it’s the only factor in guitar making that can’t be duplicated.

“It’s impossible to be neutral,” Elliott said. “I think you leave your touch on the instrument no matter what.”

That’s why people as diverse as Burl Ives and Julian Bream have sought out Elliott’s instruments.

Elliott has to do a bit of detective work whenever a player asks him to make a guitar. The way they describe the sound they want is often as imprecise as music itself.

“We don’t have a lexicon that’s like winemakers, for example,” Elliott said. “A warm sound, a rich sound, a bright sound, a dark sound. I’ve talked to people where these terms are 180 degrees apart from what they mean to other people.”

Once Elliott knows what the player is looking for, “the best thing to do is listen to them play.”

Listening to Julian Bream’s recordings, for example, involves more than describing the sound he gets out of the guitar.

“You can identify the instruments on the recordings,” Elliott said, “and that helps identify the sound they’re after. It’s not just the way the player uses it.”

The whole process of crafting one Elliott guitar takes about three months.

“I’m not as productive as a lot of other makers,” Elliott conceded. “But I’m doing it the way I feel I have the most control over the quality.”

Elliott has been making guitars for more than half a century. Now, he’s excited to see a lot of young people getting interested in guitar making.

“I want to see the guitar evolve and serve the musicians and music that’s being written for the current time and future times,” Elliot said. “So I understand it’s not going to remain the same, and I don’t expect it to.”

That’s not to say guitar makers should ever short-change the musical potential of each instrument they make.

“I think there’s been a compromise in that regard,” Elliot said. “There’s a list of criteria for what we want out of these instruments. Volume should not be at the top of that list.”

Elliott hopes future luthiers will retain the wide range of subtleties in color and expression in their instruments.

“Whatever you do to suit the times and evolve things, it should still meet the expectations of the players and composers.”
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