Making Guitars Come True
Interview in the Spring 2008 issue of Ins and Outs magazine

 

For Ric McCurdy, guitar making isn't just a job. "I dream guitars," says the fifty-one-year-old luthier (someone who makes or repairs stringed instruments). "If I can help a musician get his art out, and get it out easier, then that's all I want from life." McCurdy is living his dream as one of the few guitar makers able to remain in New York City at a time when rising costs have forced others to leave.

The luthier's workshop, located on Hudson Street in TriBeCa, is flooded with light and permeated by the smell of sawdust and freshly cut wood. Guitars in various stages of completion - some almost asking to be picked up and played - cover every surface of the room, along with a wide assortment of tools and saws. It's McCurdy himself, though, who really brings the shop to life. Dressed in jeans, a Wes Montgomery T-shirt, and big tortoiseshell Ray-Ban glasses, the guitar maker exerts a compelling enthusiasm for his craft.

Despite his devotion to the business, McCurdy hasn't always made guitars. Born in Connecticut, McCurdy earned a B.S. in Political Science from the University of Oregon, and worked as a jazz guitarist and bassist in California before he started building guitars in 1981. He built his first guitar on the coffee table in his living room, and moved to New York City ten years later to continue the craft.

Despite his devotion to the business, McCurdy hasn't always made guitars. Born in Connecticut, McCurdy earned a B.S. in Political Science from the University of Oregon, and worked as a jazz guitarist and bassist in California before he started building guitars in 1981. He built his first guitar on the coffee table in his living room, and moved to New York City ten years later to continue the craft.

Unlike violin makers, who each spend a good deal of time as an apprentice with a more experienced maker, McCurdy said, guitar makers learn most of the trade on their own. Assiduously organized and detail-oriented, McCurdy kept a notebook full of everything he learned about making guitars as he went along. Through trial and error, and many phone calls to other makers, McCurdy began to develop his own particular style.

Despite a lack of formal training or apprenticeships in the guitar business, McCurdy explained that the business is communal, with most makers more than willing to share their knowledge and expertise. "Everyone was happy to help me. As they say, a rising tide lifts all boats." This constant exchange of knowledge led not only to McCurdy's expertise, but also to guitar designs that are always improving. He likes to talk about the process as one of evolution, with older and newer makers alike contributing to a constantly expanding body of knowledge. For McCurdy, guitar making will always be a curious mixture of old and new, the staunchly traditional and the revolutionary. He is constantly drawing parallels between the great violin luthiers and guitar makers of today. "This is really the Cremona of guitar making right now," he said, referring to the home of the great violin maker Antonio Stradivari. "It's the golden age. People come from all over the world to buy guitars made in New York City."

But the technology of the twenty-first century has played just as big a role in McCurdy's work as the inspiration and intuitive craftsmanship of the seventeenth century. Unlike violins, which have necks made solely of wood, guitars have a rod in the neck to counter the 160 pounds of pressure exerted by the high-tension strings. Most luthiers use ebony, but McCurdy says that his guitars have graphite. "They're using graphite to reinforce the wings of jet planes," he said. "Why not use it in guitars?"

Guitar necks also contain a steel truss rod, used to adjust and stabilize the neck of the
instrument. Most luthiers use an older version of the truss rod that hasn't changed since 1938, said McCurdy. "We've landed on the moon and invented power steering since then," he quipped, questioning the use of an older model. Instead, McCurdy's guitars contain a modern, more technologically advanced truss rod that is manufactured in Japan. He said this helps to prevent dead spots on the instrument, making every note resonate equally. "Jazz is chromatic," said McCurdy, referring to the tonal system often used in jazz. "Every note has to sound."

The new technology used in guitar making extends from the neck of the instrument into the body. The front and back of a guitar are connected by ribs: curved pieces of wood that give a guitar its three-dimensional quality. Historically, guitar makers used a pipe and torch to bend the wooden sides into the correct shape, but McCurdy again looks to modern science and uses silicon heat blankets, which were originally developed by NASA to keep the walls of satellites warm enough for the internal instruments to function. The blankets can heat up to 600 degrees, according to McCurdy, and by using a mold, he is able to shape the sides to the exact specifications desired.

Even some of the hardware on the body of the guitar is more space-age than Stradivarius. One guitar he makes uses a tailpiece - the part that holds the strings towards the bottom of the guitar - made from titanium, which is best known for its use in aircraft parts. The part is cut on a CAD/CAM (Computer Aided Design/ Computer Aided Manufacturing) machine, allowing for exact precision and detail.

But despite the various modern technologies McCurdy has integrated into his craft, the process still has a distinctly traditional air. "There is a kind of recipe to it," he said, referring to the 100 or more hours he spends on the construction of each instrument.

The process begins with the selection of wood, most of which is either spruce or maple. Many of his recent guitars are made from the wood of an Alaskan bridge that was once a Works Progress Association project back in the days of Roosevelt's New Deal. "I bought a whole bunch of it and it rang from a bell," McCurdy said. He quipped: "It's basically recycling."

Once he has a good piece of wood, McCurdy cuts it to size. There's no exact science here - he thumps his finger and thumb on the wood, listening intently for the point of resonance. "You have to tap to get the same tone all around the guitar," he said. He also still uses the "magic measurements" originally derived by violin makers of the seventeenth century.

The process continues with more assembly - he bends the sides, makes the rim of the guitar, and glues the box together. He works on the neck installment of the truss rod and graphite reinforcements, then attaches it to the body. A few finishing touches - like sanding out defects, buffering, and spraying on a special kind of lacquer made from a Japanese beetle - completes the process. McCurdy says he charges from $7,000 to $10,000 for each handmade instrument.

Most of the guitars that McCurdy makes are archtops - guitars with a hollow body and a slightly rounded top. They were first made in the 1890s by Orville Gibson, who had previously made archtop mandolins. Sometimes called "cello guitars" due to their similarity to the violin family, these guitars are most popular with jazz and blues musicians.

Archtops, says McCurdy, require more precision than any other more conventional models. "[They] are a very delicate thing. [An archtop is] the hardest thing to make," he said. "Every note has the same sonority and volume. And that's what sets these jazz guitars free."

Like violins, most archtops have two sound holes, which allow the sound to escape and for the wood to vibrate more freely. But McCurdy builds his archtops with three sound holes (the third is located on the side of the guitar). He said that on most guitars the sound that the musician hears comes out of its back, which means you lose many of the higher frequencies. This third hole, he says, allows the player to hear a more accurate representation of what the audience receives. "It makes the sound come right to your ear," he said. "It's revolutionary."

One advantage of living and working in the Big Apple, says McCurdy, is that all the great musicians come to you. Guitarists are always making their way to the city to perform, providing McCurdy with a steady stream of clients. Sometimes he will show up backstage at a jazz concert with a guitar in tow and encourage the musician to give his guitar a try. Artists including John Abercrombie, Sheryl Bailey, and Joe Beck all play McCurdy guitars.

The feedback he has received from musicians has been overwhelmingly positive. Craig Snyder, a jazz and fusion guitarist, raves about McCurdy guitars. "[He] is one of my favorite builders. Not only are his creations stunning and wonderful sounding, they are also incredibly playable," he said. "He's one of the very few builders I could go to with an idea in my head and have it made into a great instrument."

- Cory Ramey