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Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011
U.S. guitar maker uses traditional methods for great sound
By YUJI NAKAYA
PORTLAND, Ore. — Built from scratch with carefully selected wooden materials and exquisite balance, John Greven's acoustic guitars have won a loyal following among musicians both at home and abroad.
"It's very, very bright. It's very, very stiff," he said while tapping a piece of wood. "So this guitar will have a very bright sound, very stringy, almost metallic."
Using a certain piece of wood for bracing will help soften the tone of the guitar, he explained during a recent interview.
Greven said he can tell what kind of sound a guitar will make by simply tapping various wooden materials.
He has manufactured more than 2,000 guitars over 40 years, and around 600 of them have been shipped to Japan.
"You can voice the guitar, you can change the character at the top by what you put under it," Greven said. "The shape of the brace, the size of the brace, all of that is very important."
His work space is located in the basement of his house in a quiet residential area of Portland, Ore. Various tools hang on the wall irregularly, as if beating out a complex rhythm.
The 64-year-old guitar builder is critical of modern guitars that are mass-produced on assembly lines by major manufacturers.
Unlike handmade guitars, such instruments are produced by a division of labor in which individual workers are only familiar with their production phase and few of them know the entire manufacturing process and the way to produce great sound, Greven said.
Contemporary guitars do not have tone quality as they tend to be both too large and too heavy so that they do not easily break, according to Greven.
He speaks harshly even about pricey guitars, such as those built modeled on vintage instruments.
Taking an "authentic" replica model of a 1930s guitar by a major guitar manufacturer as an example, Greven said, "They are not even close, not even remotely related" to the original musical instruments.
The old guitars sound great, but most of them are unavailable for musicians as they are either very expensive or no longer playable.
By contrast, Greven is proud of his guitars. "When you play my guitar, you hear not only the note and that nice solid quality of the tone, but you hear this depth to the sound."
When he started building guitars in the late 1960s, high-quality instruments were everywhere around him.
Greven made a thorough study of the quality and structure of wooden materials that were used for such guitars to understand the mechanism of making great sound.
"I know what they sound like. I know how they're built," he said.
But most of the modern guitar builders have not had such an experience and thus they do not know how to assemble each part to produce a good-sounding guitar, he said.
"How you make the part isn't so important, it's just the part itself."
What kind of material is used for the brace, or where you place it, is something that "a computer can't tell you."