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Players & Builders

We asked some famous players and builders what they look for in a guitar. Here are some of their comments:


John Pisano

"The first thing I go for is a warm, acoustic sound... sometimes described as a "woody" quality. Other qualities that I look for are the response, the balance and a good strong projection. Of course the feeling of the neck, which is a personal choice, and a low and tight action are all important too."

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Jimmy Bruno

"Trying a new guitar is a lot like meeting a new person for the 1st time. For me, there are two things that are important, sound and feel. The guitar has to be easy to play and have a round warm sound, not too bright on the high end and not to dark on the low end. I don't believe in modifying guitars. If you don't like it when you pick it up, changing the frets, or pick up etc will not help. Find something you like that sounds good and get to know the instrument. Each instrument has little nuances and quirks. Once you get to know what they are you can exploit them to your advantage."

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Steve Herberman

"I like my guitars to have an even sound acoustically and electrically. Sustain is important to me and is sometimes lacking in many archtop guitars. It is a plus if the acoustic sound has some volume being that I like to practice without an amp. Any buzzes or rattles drive me crazy! When I plug into an amp I like the guitar to cut through the band nicely. A tight, focused sound with a warm and rich tone. The guitar must feel comfortable for both solo chordal playing and single note playing and be fairly light in weight.

It seems that a great guitar can sound consistently nice through most amps though I believe that the player's technique also plays a large role in achieving good tone."

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Tony Purrone

"The main thing I look for in a guitar is "feel" and versatility. By "feel", I mean, how the guitar hangs off my shoulder when playing standing up, how it lays in my lap when sitting down, it's position in proximity to myself when I move while playing and since I prefer a thin-body guitar, the crucial right-hand picking distance from the top. Fingerboard (not bored!!!!) "feel" is equally important in order for me to execute my ideas and compositions and expand on the intricate nature of my own blend of "true modern jazz, fusion, blues, funk-rock, Latin", etc....---I require a 22-24 fret neck and double-cutaway for the wide range of music I perform. The sound of the guitar is more important to me when plugged in, for all volume levels but, the "right" amp must work hand-in-hand also, and is just as important, if not more so!! It goes without saying that my personal touch and attack for all moods of music is the first and last variable for all of the above to be a success".

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Michael Coppola (HYDRA)

"My guitars must have 9 strings! How's that for a demanding onset? It only gets harder. I expect a super low action (so I don't get tendonitis playing such a wide neck) without any buzzes (because I can't stand string noise). Although the action needs to be so low, I like a little string resistance, so they don't FEEL too close to the neck. I tend to think only Jim DeCava knows what I mean by that last statement.

Making all of this more difficult, I use sets of strings with the 1st being .011 (not too bad right?), oh yes, and I tune down a whole step. Basically the luthier's worst nightmare! After this, I expect a warm round sound that has individual string clarity, but I don't want it to FEEL punchy. I hate a high end sound, yet I like the high end to be brought out with a rich warmth. I love deep bass notes, but boominess is an absolute no-no. I always have specific fingerboard radiuses in mind because of the amount of barring I do. I also have an inlay design (my name in Korean characters) that must be on any guitar of mine. My guitars must be beautiful...sexy, powerful confident, sensitive, dangerous, loving and scary. Are luthiers lining up to make my guitars? No, but I only play DeCava Guitars anyway."

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Bill Bartosik

"What do I look for in a guitar? In a nutshell, tone and playability. Tone is easy: if it sounds good, it is good! (I might spend quite a few hours and play quite a few guitars, though, before I decide that one in particular really does sound good.) I usually choose a darker tone over a brighter one - I just feel more comfortable playing if my sound is balanced and not too cutting.

Playability is a little more complicated. I like a neck with a shallow cross-section, with frets a bit on the wide side. And while I prefer a fairly light action, I want the strings to spring right back at me when I release a note or chord: mushy, rubbery, or otherwise slow action interferes with the music. Body size and shape are also important; I like a guitar that sits well on my lap, and isn't too big to reach around!"

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Mark Elf

"What I look for in a good Archtop is clarity of sound. That is to say that each string sings no matter what fret you happen to play that string on, both with an amp and acoustically. I like a tight action, strings somewhat close to the fingerboard and a very straight neck. The guitar should be able to be adjusted to fit my needs. I look for a guitar that's not too bottom heavy but has the richness of tone that only a quality instrument can produce. I'd like to have it look great too but that's only secondary to the sound. By the way these qualities are in both my DeCava Mark Elf Custom Classic and my D'Aquisto 1981 New Yorker."

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Joe Giglio

"The first thing I require in any guitar, hand or machine made, is playability. Sound, workmanship, wood, and design, are all essential components of a good guitar, but all of those elements are moot if the guitar doesn’t play. I am partial to low action, and medium or heavy strings, depending on the guitar, and the music to be played. Not being tall, I prefer smaller guitars – fifteen-sixteen inches for an arch-top, and "OM" size, (orchestra model), for a flat-top. I also feel that smaller guitars ‘speak’ faster, and are preferable for single-note, and chord soloing. If I was a rhythm guitarist in a big band, I would choose a seventeen-inch archtop, such as an "Epiphone Deluxe", or the modern, luthier-built equivalent. If the guitar is to be played amplified, I prefer a built in pick-up, and a guitar that does not feed back. If the guitar is primarily to be played un-amplified, or with minimal amplification in quiet settings, I then want a truly acoustic, resonant instrument. I am not a big fan of the trend in archtop building, whereby in an attempt to achieve maximum volume, the classic archtop tone is sacrificed, and a tone more akin to a flat-top is the result. I was raised on the tone of my teacher’s "D’Angelico Excel", which I was fortunate to borrow for weeks at a time. What many forget is that the archtop was designed to cut through a big band. The sound really develops several feet in front of the guitar. As I stated in the beginning of this note, playability is paramount. I’d rather play a "Telecaster" with a proper set-up, than an "L5" with high action." NYC-November 2003

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Debbie Davies

"Tone, Feel, and Soul!! Let's start with the feel: The shape of the neck and it's comfort in my hand is most important, I think, in playing my guitars. My signature model that Jim DeCava built for me is perfect when I want to play a slightly jazzier style, as the neck is a little narrower than my strats. My hands are powerful, but they are small so extended chords and jump-swing runs are executed best when my "Archie" is in my hands. The tone from this guitar is so great that I'll often leave it on for the rest of the set as I get hooked on the sound! Folks always come up during the breaks at my shows and rave about the tone, and want to find out just what kind of guitar it is that I am playing?!

The soul factor is an unexplainable entity that a guitar either possesses or it doesn't. I know it is a combination of craftsmanship, fine woods, and then there's the "X" factor...could it be love? When a guitar has soul, I can access my soul and play what I feel. We become one, and there's a bond, and then all is well in my world."

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Jack Wilkins

" Essentially I look for three things in a guitar, 1- intonation 2- ease of play 3- feedback free. Without good intonation, you can't play anything worthwhile. You don't want to have your hands hurting from fighting a guitar all night. Lastly, since most of my playing is on the amp, the feedback must be at a minimum."

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Tom Ribbecke

"First of all I look for different things in all types of instruments, i.e. flattops, classics or archtops, common to all guitars the playability, how inviting an instrument is to play, followed by the change in tambour with the notes decay, this should be interesting and should be different at different amplitudes as the note decays if the tambour creates different interactions in real time as the notes react to each other, this is expressed as "texture" to my ears... so I liken this to the finish of a great wine...there should be no dropouts in response and In think a great guitar should be like dancing with someone, there should be a response, maybe a little tug here or there . . .With the archtop I like to here the instrument voiced to the point where the bass and mid range are still clear (Too thin and the note loose their focus, the trebles should be fat and should open up with the decay like a flower..."

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Linda Manzer

Manzer strives to complement her client’s musical expression with the finest instrument possible.
Linda Manzer has been designing and building world-class flattop and archtop acoustic guitars since 1974 and she studied with master luthiers Jean Claude Larrivée and the late James D’Aquisto.

Her creative journey has given birth to many cutting edge innovations including in 1984, the “Wedge”, an ergonomic tapered guitar body shape originally designed for the renowned 42-stringed Pikasso guitar and available on all models since. Other interesting instruments include the sitar guitar, the fretless nylon archtop guitar and harp guitars in a variety of original configurations.

Many discerning musicians including Pat Metheny, Bruce Cockburn, Milton Nascimento, Carlos Santana and Julian Lage play her instruments. Her guitars have been displayed in the Smithsonian, Washington D.C.; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Museum of Civilization, Canada.

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Mark Campellone

Since my focus for the last fifteen years has been on building archtop guitars, I'll talk about what I look for in an archtop guitar. From my point of view, if an archtop guitar is going to be 'good', it has to have the following qualities, all equally important.

1. Good playability – obviously this is a given for any decent instrument. Fret work should be clean, the overall feel of the instrument should be comfortable, and the neck should have a 'familiar' feel to the player, with action adjustable to suit the player's needs.

2. Clean workmanship – another no brainer. The bar is constantly being raised with so many builders doing such good work and customers becoming more sophisticated – anything less than top notch craftsmanship is simply unacceptable.

3. Good sound – here we get kind of subjective. Builders and players have in mind a particular sound they expect to hear when they pick up a guitar and play it. There is no one 'perfect' sound. Rather, while all good sounding instruments must have in common certain fundamental qualities, they can at the same time display quite a range of variety. I think of it like the 10 finalists in a beauty contest – almost everyone would agree that they are all beautiful, yet no two look alike. In a good archtop, I like to hear a tight, throaty bass, a warm midrange, and a crisp, strong treble which balances well against the bass.

4. Visual appeal – whether a guitar is done in the traditional style, with lavish appointments, or in a more contemporary style, incorporating innovative features and minimal ornamentation, the design should make artistic sense. It should be thoughtful. It should make a clear statement. Design inconsistency can make a guitar look like it's dressed in a striped shirt, polka-dot tie and plaid pants. Relatedness in design and ornamental features creates an overall effect which is aesthetically pleasing.

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Brad Nickerson

For me the ideal way to try a guitar would be in the dark, or blindfolded. I'm most concerned with the way it feels: ergonomics, balance, action, neck shape, fretwork, the ability to play in tune and stay in tune, responsiveness and evenness, are all important...not necessarily in that order. Having said that, like most of us I'm influenced by the way an instrument looks. If I think it's really ugly, I may not even pick it up! And I think I was drawn to building archtop guitars in large part because I felt they were beautiful.

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Harry Jansen

A builder from Holland says:
I personally think there are many things to look for in a guitar.

Generally speaking, taste is one of the keywords in instrument making. A maker with good taste and great craftsmanship generally produces fantastic instruments. For me, harmony in style, sound and playability come together. I have seen many makers doing wonderful stuff and yet their guitars can be so different from one to another. I may be mistaken but so far I have noticed that instruments made with real good taste always play well and sound good too. It takes so long to achieve that kind of outstanding quality and all those years of training will eventually lead the real maker to the top league. I hope everybody who deserves it gets it too and that musicians of equal standard will pick them up and say: " this beauty is mine". That's what I am looking for!

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James R. DeCava

"To ask a luthier the question “What do I look for in an instrument?” I would think you should expect two different answers, one from a builder’s viewpoint, and another from the player’s viewpoint, as most luthiers are, from my experience, accomplished players also, albeit usually a little bit rusty (Who wants to play a guitar after you’ve spent a whole day building guitars?). From a builder's viewpoint I look for harmony of design, the type of woods that were used, and the execution of details. If the guitar is not set up to my taste, I also notice how adjustable the guitar is. I’ve played many hand-made instruments, which don’t seem to respond to adjustments or are on the brink of unplayability.

From the player’s viewpoint, I notice the weight and balance of the instrument in my lap. The action and the tension on the strings to my fingers is important to me. If I have to fight the instrument to play it or to get any sound out of it I’m usually turned off."

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