Interview with classical guitar luthiers: Lance Litchfield (Australia)

Litchfield Guitars

I’m delighted to have Lance Litchfield (Litchfield Guitars) from Australia.


Q1. Could you please tell us a little about your luthiery and its history?

I fell in love with the music and instrument early on - my father introduced me to the classical guitar through his own interest in it.  There was something about the classical guitar that spoke to me and captured my imagination. More so even than related instruments like steel string guitars or bowed instruments, wonderful as those are.  I didn’t start building till I was around 20, near the end of my uni studies (anything to get away from studying!).  My very first guitar was put together in the traditional Spanish method using a book from the Queensland State Library.  It involved the making of all the specialized tools.  I remember burning my hands on the gas heated steam bender, and book-matching a plank of timber with a homemade bow saw because that was all I had.  Things are a bit easier in that respect today. I was fortunate that my guitars were well received from the start, and I haven’t stopped building guitars since then.  I am 44 this year, and till now I have only made classical and flamenco guitars, being a specialist in nylon string guitars.  I make 8 to10 guitars a year and so there is a lot of time spent on each instrument.  I think this is a factor in the consistency, reliability and quality not only of sound but also the build.  Only lately have I made the leap to 10 string guitars and Alto11’s (still nylon), with the assistance of Peter Mony from Laudarra guitars who has commissioned these guitars and partnered me in this direction. Making these instruments has been a lot of fun and has revealed new dimensions to me in terms of what voices can be cultivated in a guitar.  Once I knew I wanted to make guitars I sought to learn as much as possible.  Back then, there weren’t any structured courses in classical guitar making in Australia.  I may well have taken that route if there were, but what was available were a number of professional and amateur builders, books, teachers and players and lots of good will.  I made use of all of it! I have to admit too, that I had too many of my own ideas and goals to want it any other way.  I really enjoyed the feeling of original discovery, in materials and design.  My process has been a combination of creation, observation, and building on what worked over many years, guided by my intuition and skills and those around me.  I feel I have developed a guitar that is Australian in concept but unlike other guitars made here.  My guitars employ a mixture of techniques - some taken straight from the old school, and others that have been developed purely by myself using more modern tooling and machinery and materials.  I work out of a small but capable workshop in my family home in the beautiful and rugged hills of far west Brisbane. 



Q2. Please describe your idea of a good sounding guitar, and what you do to achieve it?

I make a distinction between what I call a traditional guitar and a modern guitar.  For me, the traditional guitar originates from the Torres school, even though there are guitars that predate this period.  The variations on this theme up till recent decades fall under a familiar tonal umbrella.  A modern guitar is an attempt to improve on some of the shortcomings of this design.  I believe in both of these approaches and I also believe both approaches can benefit from each other.  I embrace different styles of instruments from different periods, and makers, but I must admit to having strong tonal preferences, or limits. Much of my love for guitar is derived from the traditional sound and to this day I find the older recordings a source of inspiration.  What is the traditional sound then?  To my ear…in my opinion…it is a separated sound, clear and articulate but also warm with some subtle nuance.  It can be thin in comparison to a modern guitar, and there is a woody tone, as opposed to a pianistic one.  Importantly, there is modulation in the note where, throughout the sustain, the note does not remain flat and uninteresting like an electronic signal, but warbles and shifts to create texture and colour.  I think it is this characteristic which makes the classical guitar special.  This and the ability to manipulate colours in such a direct way - with physical contact of vibrating parts of the guitar like stings and plates, rather than through pedals and keys for example.
The modern guitar can often provide increased volume, sustain and evenness to the traditional guitar, and can sometimes provide a sound with more body that carries well tonally and audibly.  It can lessen the tendency for fundamentals or lower partials to be lost over distance hence reducing percussiveness and presenting a richer sound to the audience.  The risk is to lessen the desirable traits of the traditional guitar in this endeavour.  My aim is to provide a nice balance between old and new….a traditional tone with an easy and sensitive response, volume, and evenness….a modern guitar that is sweet and modulating rather than dry and flat, with a solid and beautiful tone in homage of the traditional guitar…and both with colours at the disposal of the performer.
Often players are polarized by Spruce versus Cedar sounds.  I acknowledge the differences but also the overlap they share.  Do I have a preference on these timbers?  My view is that a guitar made from either must share each others good points to some extent while allowing their true natures to shine.  I can enjoy the fullness and sheer warmth and depth of cedar, and also the ease of response, but there must also be some modulation in the note, and it must resist the risk of becoming too uniform and hence a dry sound.  Spruce may not have the wall and quantity of partials from beginning to end, but its appeal for me lays in the linear fashion that Spruce disseminates its constituents.  In this way even though spruce is focused and bright, it is able to sing.  It tells a story, revealing itself with suspense.
So…how do I try to make these things happen?  It is the most difficult thing to achieve in making an instrument.  The traditional guitar with its early influences has a natural disposition to create colour using natural materials in harmonious ways, like a stone mason would build an arch from stone rather than a beam from concrete.  Modern methods can provide new inspirations and improvements and open new doors by pushing new limits.  I have used both of these schools to my discretion to guide and shape my sound over years of building and refinement.  My guitars are a mixture of modern and traditional materials and designs, like Spanish neck/body joints to carbon composites.  I aim to build with sensitivity to the past and with natural materials, and also with regard to structural integrity and new developments.




Q3. Please tell us about your idea of improving playability, and what you do to achieve it?

Playability can be complex, and for classical guitars, where action can be quite high, it is very important.  First, it must be said that playability is not only related to the body construction, response and age of the guitar, it is interdependent with issues like tuning.  

Traditional style guitars with thicker or stiffer tops can often feel stiffer or tighter in the strings, but can sometimes be set up a little lower in height. With age the stiffness can lessen due to the response and flexibility of the top improving. Similarly, modern guitars with supple and responsive tops can feel much softer to play when new, but require slightly higher action.  Playability here is more of an adjustment of timing for the player to the guitar than a need to adjust the guitar to the player.  Other mechanical issues merely require the optimal adjustment of all parameters such as nut and saddle height, and fret profile and level etc.  

A very responsive guitar that requires little energy to produce volume may also feel easier to play due to reduced effort for sound production….this is not only with volume but also colours and playing techniques.  Then there are ways of improving playability that are more individual to the player, such as through customizations to scale length, neck dimensions, string spacings etc.  



Q4. Please tell us your opinion about the traditional finishing method (French polish) and new methods (lacquer, catalysed finishing, etc).

Mostly, my view is that it is more about application than material, but it is also true that some finishes are used due to their manner of application.   Some materials are more suited to small scale production as some are to large. Some finishes do not lend themselves to fine finishing, at least the choice to use these finishes is based on the benefits to production not sound.  As Luthiers, we have to consider the tonal qualities first, and then protection for the guitar.  Apart from that is the real issue of our health, and also the ease of use.  

Personally, I prefer to use Nitrocellulose which is an old style of finish used for many decades with great success.  The other option I would consider is shellac, which is even older and especially relevant for period instruments.  I view nitro as a tougher version of shellac in that it shares some properties but is more durable.  I would not rule out using other finishes, especially for special circumstances of a client.   

There are a lot of different formulas for Nitro these days, all having different properties.  I opt for a slightly more modern version which is semi catalysed and still very flexible and stable.  



Q5. Please tell us your opinion regarding shorter-scale guitars such as 640, 628 and 615mm in terms of playability, design, sound quality and volume. Is there an increasing need to cater to smaller-handed or female players?

I have done quite a number of smaller scale guitars.  Technically speaking, my smallest would be the Alto11 at 560mm, but that guitar is a multi-scale instrument.  Standard 6 string guitars are commonly 650mm in scale but I have also done 640, 628, and 610. 640 is a length that seems to not change much about the guitar but below that I think you start to hear some differences.  

These days, with modern instruments and very light and supple tops, the differences in volume are negligible if not non-existent.  I do believe that there are some differences in timbre, but that these are not detracting in any way, just different.  I make some parallels with playing low tension strings on a standard scale.  This makes some sense regarding the lower tension at given pitch for shorter scales.  

Without altering the neck position (12th fret to body placement), scales at 610 and below change the relationship between the bridge and body position, which isn’t to my liking so unless the client has a strong reason to go this way, I would advise against it or suggest some adjustments to either the body shape or neck position.

I do feel that shorter scales are becoming more commonly accepted.  People come in all shapes and sizes and I feel strongly that a custom made guitar should be made to suit individual preferences where possible.  Some players with normal size hands will also opt for a shorter scale which is fine too.  There are so many other things that can be done including neck shape and dimensions, fret height and width, action height, etc.  Most of these adjustments don’t add any extra cost with my guitars, as each guitar is bespoke to the client.



Q6. Many readers say they end up being very confused after trying many guitars. Could you give us some advice on how to examine the guitars' sound quality and playability at a shop or luthier, from the guitar-maker's point of view?

Funnily it isn’t only players who find this! Many times I have been through festivals or meetings when it is just a case of guitar overload.  The best thing a player can do is limit the number of viewings in one day, and do them all in the same venue with a frame of reference, like their own guitar.  It is also good to make the examination relevant to the players use, and either find a quiet room or large space/concert hall to listen.  Ideally as well as playing the guitar oneself it can be helpful to step back and hear someone else play to truly hear what happens to the guitar at distance.  There is a limit to how much one can prepare a viewing, but some acknowledgement of string types and tensions, apparent distortions of sound to the player/audience via sound ports or ergonomic differences can all be worth noting. 



Q7. Do you offer any 'after-sales' service to customers - particularly customers who are nervous about making a substantial investment?

I pride myself in quality service and product.  This applies before, during and after the build.  I encourage clients to contact me if they have any questions, and I believe I am very accessible and approachable.  Due to the methods and time I spend in making my guitars, I fortunately rarely ever have guitars returned.  For instance, in 25 years of building to my knowledge I have never had a strut come loose on a top.  Dealing with natural materials in solid form however, does have its challenges and if anything does go wrong I do my utmost to help my clients. 



Q8. How does the increasing rarity of some woods, rosewood for example, impact on your methods, and the quality of the end product?

It’s true that even in the period that I have been building I have seen the quantity and quality of timbers decline for many species.  Some woods like East Indian Rosewood, have remained fairly good, which is why it is a staple for many luthiers.  While it is sad that the choices and stocks are not present today for many of the most prized timbers, I feel that good and great guitars can be made from unconventional timbers and grades. Sometimes a Luthier can decide to use a piece of timber for its particular density or grain for a specific purpose, which need not fit the traditional ideas on grading.  

Things get harder for traditional models where the client has a specific request for rare timbers that are either not available or badly cut or exorbitantly priced.  These issues need to be discussed with the client on an individual basis. Fortunately for those clients after a modern guitar, I advise that the body timber type has minimal impact on sound production, and my view is that for this kind of guitar the design and construction by far dominates sound over the timber employed.



Q9. How do you see the future of this beautiful tradition in the 21st century?

Someone mentioned to me that this was the golden age of Luthiery.  I can see why this might be so.  Access to specialist information and communications and exotic materials is so simple via the internet.  Machinery and technology makes things easier and faster and also opens new doors and ideas for production.  Hopefully the interest in making reflects the interest in the music which is incredibly varied and ever changing.  There are also so many incredible players today, that competition for luthiers and players alike is quite stiff.  I would like to think that the Luthier made guitar has a future, and that there will be a plethora of choice in all aspects of the field.



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