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Occasionally, I build older style instruments, like this 00 sized guitar

I’ve reconstructed, from my notes, the gist of a conversation I had with a customer to illustrate a few points:

  

TG:  Hi! Nice to meet you, and I see you’ve brought your [factory] guitar!  

Customer:  Yes, I brought it along, like you asked, and good to meet you, too, after all my ‘phone calls!  

TG: Well, come on in a let’s get to it!  Please, take a seat.  I’d like you to play a couple pieces so I can understand your style.  

Customer:  No worries!  

Customer pulls up a chair and pulls a vintage Dreadnought from an equally vintage (and battered) case.  He proceeds to play a couple of pieces in a very accomplished finger picking style.  I listen carefully (and somewhat enviously!), watching his fingers on the fretboard and his right hand technique.  

TG: Nice playing!  How come you play a Dreadnought?  

Customer (somewhat quizzically): Well, it was the only decent type of guitar around at the time.  It’s what everybody played.  I didn’t really think too much about it.  This one seemed better suited to picking; it’s a bit stronger in the mids.  

TG:  May I have a look?  

Customer:  Sure!  

Customer hands over a spruce topped Dreadnought with a three-piece rosewood back.  

TG: Hmmm.  It’s getting a bit of a belly…  

Customer: Yes, middle-aged, like the rest of us!  I’ve had the saddle cut down, but the action is still a bit high.  

TG:  So, why do you feel you’re ready for a change?  

Customer:  Well, my right shoulder’s a bit crook (Aus. slang for his shoulder frequently hurts) and I need to be able to get through recording sessions without it killing me.  And I don’t want to have to work so hard to get the sound I want.  I don’t get much volume out of this without really laying into it and that makes it hard work to play and hard to mic effectively.  

TG: Do you play other styles?  

Customer:  90% finger style.  I play a bit of classical now and then, but never at gigs.  I learned playing classical; years ago.  

TG: Can you play a little classical for me, please?  

Customer: No worries.  I’m a bit rusty…  

I take the workshop classical from it’s hanger on the wall and hand it to the customer.  He strums it, tweaks the tuning then launches into a classical piece I’d not heard before and then one of the pieces he’d played on the Dreadnought.  He played in an authentic classical style, having moved seamlessly from the Dreadnought to the classical.   

TG:  Nice playing!  

Customer:  Nice guitar!  

TG: Thank you!  

Customer:  I seem to be more relaxed on the classical.  Probably something to do with the string tension, though the wider string spacing makes life easier.  It feels like I don’t have to be quite so precise.  

- Cut of considerable discussion about strings, string spacing, neck feel etc. etc. - 

TG:  Well, it seems from what you’re saying that what would work for you is more or less a classical guitar with steel strings on it.  

Customer:  Well, I hadn’t thought of it like that, but yes, now you mention it, it does sort of make sense.  

TG: OK.  Well how about you have a go with one of these?  

I pull a medium bodied steel string guitar from its hanger on the wall and pass it over.  

Customer (inspecting the guitar).  Hmmm, this looks interesting.  It’s like those in the pictures you sent, right?  

TG:  Yes, that’s right.  I tend to refer to it as my steel string concert classical, but really it’s a bit larger than a classical guitar but smaller than a Dreadnought.  How does it feel?  

Customer:  Well, my shoulders feel better already!  Ah, 12th fret neck join, that’s why it sits better. And having a real waist, it sits lower.  Not such a reach for my left hand, either.  Wow, that’s quite a wide neck, but, huh, it feels OK.  What’s the nut width?  

TG:  That one’s about 47mm.  A bit wider than a typical steel string, but still 6mm (¼”) smaller than a classical.  It used to be quite a popular size on vintage small and medium bodied steel string guitars, but most guitars these days have narrower necks.  Strange, really, as hands aren’t getting any smaller.  

Customer strums the guitar.  

Customer:  S—t, that’s loud!    

TG: Well, yes.  But most things sound loud in here.  You get free reverb from all the guitars on the wall!  Take it onto the deck and try it out there.  

Customer moves outside and sits on one of the stools on the deck.  

Customer:  Still sounds loud to me!

TG:  Try one of your pieces.  

Customer starts into a piece, stumbles a bit after a few bars and starts over.  

Customer:  Hmmm, I’ll need to get used to this neck size.  

Customer plays the piece through from start to finish, adding more embellishment as he gets further into the tune.  

Customer:  Do you know, I’ve not played the twiddly bits in that piece for years because it was always a bit hit and miss whether I could get them or not.  With a bit of “getting use to” time I reckon I could nail them every time on this.  

  

-Cut   -  

  

and that, really, is what playability is all about.  Nailing your chops every time, without “killing” yourself.  

That particular customer was a relative local (2 hours drive time away).  I lent him the medium bodied steel string for a fortnight and he came back with a big smile on his face and ordered one pretty much the same, but we pushed the nut width out to 48mm.  Big for a steel string, for sure, but he’s a big bloke and it suited him fine.

  

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Playability

  

Playability covers the range of physical attributes of a guitar and how those attributes impinge on the player.  A guitar with poor playability will never bring out the best in a guitarist.  

The factors that affect playability include: the body size and shape, the spacing of the strings at the nut and saddle, the neck’s profile, the scale length, the guitar’s tuneability, the string height at the nut and the twelfth fret, the fretboard’s radius of curvature, the neck’s relief, the finish on the back of the neck, how the neck blends into the fretboard, the spacing of the strings from the fretboard edge, the number of frets and their size, the number of frets to the body joint, whether or not a cutaway is incorporated, and on and on…  

However, it’s not “one size fits all”.  Of necessity the factory builders have adopted a set of playability factors which many players find adequate, but are hardly optimal for specific individuals.

As a custom builder, you get to choose what I build for you, rather than choosing from a narrow range on offer.  The range of playability factors and their permutations may seem mind boggling; however, I see it as part of my job to help you through that, so you make the best choices for how you play and your repertoire.

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