To Make the Wood S
fits to the rim. From there they go to the
Are they nickel plated, then gold plated?
Yes, nickel then gold.
That’s the old Gibson way.
Yep. Then they go to a local craftsman and
have the ebony appliqués made. A few guitars have been ordered with some abalone
work inlaid in the appliqué, but that’s a custom feature. So it’s the metal supplier, the
sheet metal guy, the machinist, the plater and
the craftsman – five people are involved in
the making of a tailpiece!
The Eastman archtops use a similar idea, in
that the tailpiece is brass with a decorative
ebony piece on top – only theirs is made
to look like a Benedetto violin tailpiece.
Unless you look closely you can’t tell there’s
a metal piece under it.
One reason a lot of guys use actual wooden
tailpieces is because, like myself, they’re not
metal workers. So if you want an original
metal tailpiece – where do you go? How do
you do it?
It’s a complicated process.
Yes. I was fortunate that I knew the sheet
metal guys – there used to be a big jewelry
industry in Rhode Island and there are still a
few plating houses around. But a lot of guys
are using the wooden tailpieces, and it’s kind
of trendy now to use a wooden one.
How does an all-wood tailpiece affect the
tone of the guitar?
I don’t know. Obviously I am not a wooden
tailpiece guy. Initially it kind of made sense
to me, but I have to disagree with some of
the experts on this. I don’t think it necessarily improves the tone of the guitar. I’ve
heard many wooden tailpieces that vibrate
in an undesirable way. The big thing for me
was that I wanted to do stuff that looked
traditional and I liked Gibson stuff because
they all had metal tailpieces; I played too
many old Gibsons with metal tailpieces
where I thought, “there’s no way you could
improve the sound of this guitar – it sounds
great. What’s a wooden tailpiece going to
do for this?”
Maybe it’s the brass?
I don’t know. Sometimes you do get a little
bit of a metal harmonic or overtone, but I
don’t find that objectionable! A great L- 7
does the same thing and you don’t have a
problem with that. To my ears, I don’t think
a wooden tailpiece is necessarily a design
improvement. The whole idea with a lot of
the contemporary stuff is borrowing [from
violin design]. Archtop guitar design is based
on violin family instruments. And while they
did borrow many design features from the
violin family, that doesn’t mean that all the
violin features apply to the guitar, because
it’s a whole different instrument. It’s plucked
instead of bowed, so there are some violin
features that would actually be a detriment if
applied to the guitar design.
Your three models span what price range?
The base prices are $4000, $5500 and
$7000. It’s about a separation of $1500
Has the recession slowed you down at all?
Are you concerned about that?
That’s maybe way out there on my radar
screen. If I was dependent on a local economy I would be concerned, but my business
is nationwide and worldwide. If the whole
national economy tanks then the first thing
that happens is people cut back on luxury
items, but somewhere in the U.S. or the
world there will always be people that have
money to spend on luxury items! My guitars
are still relatively affordable for the average
It seems to take a guitar about 30 years to
take on the mantle of “vintage.” Where do
you think your guitars will be in 30 years,
as far as how collectors will look at them?
And where will you be 30 years from now?
I’ll be 83! I’m not good with leisure time. I
always feel like I have to be productive. So I
imagine I’ll probably build as long as I’m able,
although maybe not at the level I am building
at now. I’m going to want to keep busy. I’d
like to think that my guitars will acquire vintage status. Of course, as soon as I croak the
more expensive they get! [laughs] I’m pretty
confident they’ll attain a fairly noble status
after I’m gone – why not? Especially since I
won’t be making them any more!
To Tap or Not to Tap
We asked Mark if he tap tunes his tops,
and if he believes that it can produce a
better guitar. He explains how tap tuning
fits into his philosophy of building.
The big question is, do any two people
really have the same definition of tap
tuning? When I started building, archtop
construction was just as much of a mystery
to me as it was to anyone else. I was strug-
gling to find out what tap tuning meant
– there are some people who go with the
definition that it means tuning the plates
to a particular pitch and I’ve heard some
people say, “tune the top to one pitch and
the back to a certain interval away from that
pitch.” I threw all that stuff out the window.
I have owned a lot of good archtop guitars,
and at that time I was madly pursuing any
information about how you make a guitar
sound good. At one time I owned 12 or
15 great sounding, vintage Gibson arch-
tops – L-5s and L-7s – and I used to study
them. No two sounded alike and no two
were built the same. What I initially real-
ized was that there is no one right way to
build a good-sounding guitar. These guitars
were all wildly different, in terms of their
construction. Some of them were paral-
lel braced, some of them were X-braced,
some of them had really thick tops and
some of them had thin tops, but they all
sounded great. So, I abandoned the idea of
tap tuning to a particular pitch – however,
I do tap.
If you have two raw plates carved to the
same dimensions, and you tap each of
them, they’ll produce a pitch. The one that
produces the higher pitch is the stiffer piece
of wood, so I use that as a kind of measuring stick of the wood’s stiffness. The higher
the pitch it produces, the stiffer it is. The
stiffer it is, the thinner you can carve it – I’m
just carving to a point of getting the top
loose enough to respond. There’s a point
of diminishing returns; if you carve it too
thin, it won’t have enough wood to generate any kind of powerful sound. You need a
certain amount of heaviness to it to get the
power, but you want it to be loose enough
to respond. If the top produces a fairly low
pitch and it isn’t stiff, you’re going to want
to leave it a little heavier to retain enough
stiffness so it doesn’t get too boomy, too
bassy. I use the tap/pitch technique to
assess how stiff a piece of wood is and,
using that assessment, to determine how
thin I should make the top.