I Am The Greatest

“Great,” is hardly an underused word.  That was a great meal!  This is a great guitar! Wasn’t that a great movie!  Less often do we claim that something, or someone, is the greatest. “I am the Greatest!”  These famous words were spoken by Cassius Clay, now Muhammad Ali, after his heavyweight boxing victory over Sonny Liston in 1964.  Notice that Ali did not say, “I am great!”  Claiming that he was the greatest meant that he did not feel the need to share his kingdom with any mere mortals in the history of his sport, or those lesser boxers who were simply “great.”  Consider that in 1964, boxing was still in its heyday, and could boast a history that included the likes of Joe Louis, Gene Tunney, Jack Dempsey, Rocky Marciano and Sugar Ray Robinson.  As far as I know, neither Jascha Heifetz, Vladimir Horowitz, or even Andres Segovia ever made public comments that they were the greatest, however much they may have thought they were.   

“The Greatest” is an accolade that history rarely bestows on a person or object.  It is one thing to claim to be the best of one’s generation in a particular field, another to be the greatest of all generations.  For whatever reason, people like to bestow the honor of being “great” on anything from ice cream to autos, from the arts to presidents, but rarely do we bestow the honor of  the “greatest.”  After all, Alexander was merely “the great”, not “the greatest.” 

In the world of instrument building, only Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) is universally crowned the greatest.   Of particular interest in the last 50 years or so, is the notion that there was a secret to his instruments.  Whether it is the “secret” varnish that various people claimed to have replicated, the minerals in the wood that were absorbed when the logs were floated downstream, or that Stradivari employed alchemy in his building process, we seem to think that there was a trick involved.  If we could figure out the trick, then wham-o, any builder could make great violins!  Of special interest to me is the fact that although two of his sons were dedicated helpers in the Stradivari workshop for decades, neither seemed to have maintained the legacy of building great violins after their father passed away.  How could that be?  Was Stradivari Senior so secretive that even his two sons, everyday workers in the shop, didn’t know the special ingredient? 

When queried about the key components of what makes certain instruments special, luthiers are typically vague as to the reasons.  Why is a particular instrument better or worse that the one before or after?  What makes their instruments better than the competition?  Most luthiers are constantly tinkering with just about every component in their instruments, whether it be the braces, the bridge, different woods, or what-have-you.   

A substantial part of what makes instruments sound unique are the hands that make them.  This is the factor that luthiers usually cannot control inasmuch as they are not aware of how their touch or approach might be different than anyone else.  Consider that if 5 master chefs made a particular dish using the same recipe and ingredients, most likely, each chef’s rendition would have subtle differences from the others.  Every step of the cooking process is influenced by the chef’s technique - the manner in which the ingredients are stirred, the desired temperature of the eggs, the order in which certain ingredients are combined, the design of the utensils, and so on.   

My guess is that Stradivari did not know all of the reasons why his instruments were better than most; the personality of the man drove him to build in his own particular way.  Every person has a creative “thumbprint” that makes their work unique, and instrument builders are no different.  I am certain that if you had five world-class guitar builders attempt to make an instrument exactly the same as the others, using identical plans and woods, striving for the exact dimensions and so on, each of the instruments would still bear the mark of their individual personalities. 

Two American luthiers have had dramatic influences on the guitars that many of us play today.  Thomas Humphrey, who, sadly, passed away this past April at the age of 59, left an indelible mark on the history of the classical guitar.  If imitation is the ultimate compliment, Mr. Humphrey’s legacy is assured, as hosts of guitar builders from around the world employ variations on his Millennium design, and a large number of excellent guitarists play his instruments. 

Another important figure in the world of guitar building is John Gilbert.  Fortunately, at 85 years young, John is still in his shop most days, though he has retired as an active builder, having turned over his building career to his son, William, in the mid 1990’s.  John’s instruments, with the distinctive “pin” style bridge, unique rosette, and powerful tone, have been a favorite of many of the world’s top guitarists, but it is in another way that John’s legacy will be forever felt.   

John’s converted-garage shop has been a pilgrimage destination for umpteen budding luthiers in the last 35 years.  Not only is his shop a favorite stopping point for many luthiers who happen to be in the San Francisco Bay area, but John has been a favorite lecturer for workshops at a number of GFA and other festivals over the years.  John’s approach is not to have others copy his building techniques or design; instead, he invariably challenges luthiers to be more in control of their art, whether recording the weight of bridges, devising stress tests for soundboards and braces, or simply urging them to improve their craftsmanship, tool and jig-making skills.  Reading various articles in the Guild of American Luthiers quarterly journal, there is hardly an issue that I’ve seen that doesn’t have references to building approaches that John instigated. 

Simon Marty, the terrific luthier (and avid surfer) from Down under, and I were having lunch in Sydney, Australia in August 1999 when he mentioned that he had visited John in the late 1970’s.  I would not be able to pinpoint any aspect of Simon’s guitars that specifically show John’s influence, but, nonetheless, Simon refers to his visit with John as being very significant.  In my own luthier career, which began in 1995, John has encouraged me with phone calls to see how I’m doing, and he has insisted that I feel free to call him whenever I have a question.  Most often, when I have posed a problem to him, the answer is “Jack!  What in the world would make you ever consider doing THAT?!”  Or, “Jack, THINK about it!”  Then, by leading me through the subject in a “Plato-esque” fashion, with questions, not answers, John helped me come to an understanding. 

The last couple of times that I have visited John’s workshop to show him instruments, I have prodded him to reveal his “secret.”  Wryly, John laughs and evades my queries…   

At least that is my story to you…