The Traditional Models
The voices that gave birth to jazz guitar
I believe it was 1989 that Lionel Hampton established his school of Music. As a young jazz saxophonist at the University, the biggest gig of my life was opening for that concert. We were really happy with our performance and then his band came out and blew the roof off that place. In an unmitigated act of childish stupidity and pride, I decided I could never improve enough to turn professional, so I quit music entirely for nearly 20 years. Folks, learn from my mistake. Don’t ever give up before you start. If you love something, hang in there, you will grow into it. OK, so I was an impulsive kid, but what does that have to do with the Traditional Model?
Hang in there, I’m getting to that part of the story…
20 years later, stressed out by my job, my wife and I decided we needed a night out. It was the worst storm of the year, but we found in the newspaper that a jazz trio was playing at a winery in the Columbia Gorge and we set out determined to have fun much in the same manner that Chevy Chase and his family went on a quest for fun at Wallyworld in that movie “Vacation”. The storm was insane – the road to the place was flooded and we almost got blown off the freeway once, but we were determined to get there and we made it.
We were the only people in the audience that night. The concert was held in an arched ceiling underground brick winery vault with amazing acoustics. It was a “gypsy” jazz trio… I didn’t know what that meant, so it was completely without preconception and in the most unlikely of circumstances that the first gypsy jazz I ever heard was played so sweetly and in pristene silence in a private concert on an absolutely wonderful Busato by a talented jazz guitarist. It was an epiphany that I cannot possibly relate in words. In minutes… two decades of lost music rushed up on me and it was like a voice inside said: “That is what you are going to do with the rest of your life – don’t worry about how or why – just know that it is… you can’t live without music so be ready because your life is about to change.” Of course I didn’t turn out to be a musician, but by pursuing the music, my life became exactly what it wanted to be; something wonderful that I would never have foreseen but in hindsight is so obvious. I’m not a “spotlight” guy… never have been. I’m a music/engineer/nerd/woodworker/perfectionist/hermit whose heroes from childhood to present have mostly been jazz musicians. What else could I have been meant to do? But really, it’s only obvious in hindsight.
Pete, Jason, Tim, thank you so very much.
The Pursuit of Vintage Tone at any cost… or not?
So, is the Traditional Model simply my quest to re-create the tone of that first Busato? Well, yes and no. Busato is my muse, but I’ve learned that guitars don’t have tone. Players have tone because they develop it through years of practice and performance. Guitars have abilities and characteristics that cause people to wax poetic such as reverb, sustain, focus, directionality, power, range, and balance which can make them respond well or poorly to certain techniques. This is especially true of the great vintage designs which were more unique than modern guitars as they tended to evolve from the mind of the individual luthier whereas modern guitars tend to descend from, or are outright copied from, a few common popular designs. It’s exceptionally difficult to build new guitars that respond in the same way as these highly individual vintage guitars and I have poured many of the hours of my life into exactly that endeavor. It turns out that building bench copies means recreating both the brilliance and the flaws of those designs.
Flaws? Isn’t that kind of a strong word?
Yes, absolutely – in fact it is a misleading word if taken literally. Consider that Marilyn Monroe was one of the world’s great beauties even with that big mole on her lip and E.E. Cummings couldn’t punctuate to save his soul. Some flaws are beautiful bits of uniqueness or creativity when taken in the context of the whole. That’s why I tend to use the word “characteristic” a lot. So I take each design for what it is and add some hindsight and common sense and get to work. For example, Busato began building in the style of the Italians, without soundhole tonebars and relatively flat braces under the end of his fingerboard and this worked brilliantly for the small short-scale guitars of that era. As the music evolved and his guitars evolved longer scales, larger bodies, and higher neck angles, he seems to have began using excessively large soundhole tonebars to keep the soundhole area stable because the flat fingerboard braces were over-stressed. He later seems to have begun using arched braces under the fingerboard to offset the neck angle which is probably the “proper” way to solve that problem as it doesn’t affect the tuning of the rest of the soundboard as much. But his guitars from all three of those eras are unique and beautiful with incredible voices that were cherished by top artists of the time; including Django who wrote his last song “Anouman” on a Busato just before he passed away.
So how do you determine which “characteristics” to reproduce?
I don’t slavishly reproduce aspects that are known to eventually cause stability or playability problems in the originals, and yet I don’t try to smooth all the characteristics even when they are unusual in the context of the design – because doing that produces an instrument with little of the sound or character of the original. I try to build a guitar that responds like the original, but without some of the impediments that are usually fixed or modified on the vintage guitars that are actually played professionally. But I try never to judge a traditional design – it’s not my place. My design – my conclusions – are captured in the Model Nouveau which is a different topic entirely. Look at the videos on the homepage and you’ll find different artists playing the same guitar and each sounds like himself. Even on highly individual instruments, the player is the tone.
But what you really want to know is how close I can come to the original, right? It’s a fair question. I think the answer is likely to be: “Darned close.” Only time will tell how close, because I don’t build Traditional Models to be like the vintage instrument. I build Traditional Models to be like the vintage instrument was when it was new. Time and usage are important parts of the equation. Also, as mentioned above, I do exercise a limited amount of common sense judgement to fix things that are known sources of trouble on a vintage design. Often this amounts to “pre-cleating” areas that are known to crack and choosing neck profiles that professional players prefer while altering materials slightly to achieve a neck mass and damping similar to the original. Again, common sense. Here’s a video of Michael playing one of my prototypes against a vintage guitar. There are a few of these floating around of Traditional models after a few Selmers, a Maccaferri, a Busato and I believe a Castelluccia. This particular video is of Selmer #520, a wonderful mellow woody early 4-brace Selmer.
Michael Horowitz playing Selmer #520 and Holo prototype #14 after Selmer #520