I'm conducting interviews with famous guitar makers to learn more about the art of luthiery and our beloved instruments. Find out about the idea of a good sounding guitar, playability, finishing methods, woods, etc. in the words of luthiers themselves.
Today's guest is Leonard Plattner from Madrid, Spain.
Q1. Could you please tell us a little about your luthiery and its history?
As far back as I can remember, I always liked guitars. As a musical instrument as well as a piece of art. Music became the most important thing in my life when I started to play electric guitar as a teenager. When I was 20, besides playing music, the local guitar shop hired me to change strings on the instruments.
I was very fortunate. The shop in question was Vincenti guitars in Geneva, Switzerland. Jacques Vincenti, whom I consider my first maestro, conveyed to me his passion of antique guitars (Enrique Garcia, Torres, Santos Hernandez, etc.) and for their history. And he gave me the opportunity to observe, play, and work on guitars made by the greatest craftsmen. Also, I got to meet great musicians like Carles Trepat, Matteo Mela, Lorenzo Micheli, Stefano Grondona as well as fine contemporary guitar-makers like Andrea Tacchi and Enrique Botelli. After 8 years working there, I wanted to increase my skills and learn traditional building methods.
That's what led me to meet Arcangel Fernandez, whom I consider the inheritor of Spain's finest tradition (Santos Hernandez, Marcelo Barbero). At that time Arcangel Fernandez was about to retire, and he didn’t have a successor for his shop. Since I was interested in carrying on with his workshop, he agreed to teach me his building method and I made a couple of instruments under his supervision.
What I liked about Arcangel’s building style was his way of coupling a huge sense of intuition right down to the way he sensed the materials, with an extremely rigorous artistry, tied to uncompromising standards in respect of materials and finishes. For me, taken together, these two parameters are fundamental.
Q2. Please describe your idea of a good-sounding guitar, and what you do to achieve it?
First of all, I think that a guitar must sound like a guitar!
And a guitar that sounds good is a guitar that can make any single note resonate for its musical value. I believe the guitar is a very imperfect instrument. For example, it has a low volume compared to most instruments. And there is that tonal gap between the different strings. And these imperfections are exactly what makes the guitar so rich!
A good guitar is an instrument that can make a single note, any note sound musical. A good guitar is a guitar that invites the one playing it to be a musician first and foremost, and a guitarist second.
To get to that point, the guitar needs to be a sensitive instrument. It needs to have a rich timbre, a wide range between the sharp and bass notes, and ideally the first string must stand out every so subtly from the other strings. I also find it more important for the instrument to play well at a very low volume, rather than strum loudly like a banjo.
Guitars from the first half of the 20th century are likely to have such qualities.
Also, I think that the sound of a guitar is really tied to the character of the particular instrument, the exact wood that was selected in its making, the way it was built, the steps in time that went into processing the materials. In an interview, maestro Romanillos compared the guitar to a sponge that has soaked up the energy produced by the one who built it, ultimately channeling back this same energy…I really like that image.
Q3. Please tell us about your idea of improving playability, and what you do to achieve it?
It is really important to avoid making the instrument an obstacle to the musical voice of the guitarist. The instrument must be adjusted in accordance with the hands and the playing style of the guitarist.
Q4. Please tell us your opinion about the traditional finishing method (French polish) and new methods (lacquer, catalyzed finishing, etc).
I personally only apply traditional shellac on my instruments. And this seems to be an essential factor in concert instruments. But I’m not against using other less delicate varnishes for practice guitars.
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’m of the opinion that the length of the strings is one parameter among many that make a guitar comfortable, or less so. I think that the standard guitar parameters and strings currently on the market, the 650 mm scale length, works fine. In respect of smaller guitars, I believe the size of the instrument is important in relation to the size of the musician, but not the dimensions of their hands. We don’t build pianos with narrower keys for the ladies…
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?
Choosing an instrument is very personal, and an instrument can be pleasing for a whole range of reasons.
For anyone not accustomed to trying any instrument other than their own, I think it’s interesting to go into a store and to compare several instruments within a given price range. Today there is a real diversity of approaches, by both guitar-makers and musicians, and there are guitars to match all the tastes out there. I think that for guitarists who are more tuned-in to what they like in an instrument, a rapport with a guitar-maker is a winning option. Likewise, the guitar-makers must also reach out to musicians, to get to see the guitar from their viewpoint (their repertoire, the player’s style, etc.)
Q7. Do you offer any 'after-sales' service to customers - particularly customers who are nervous about making a substantial investment?
As a guitar-maker, I get pleasure out of my relationship to the person buying one of my instruments. Each guitar that I build carries a piece of me in it, and part of my work is to follow-up on the life of the instrument.
Q8. How does the increasing rarity of some woods, rosewood for example, impact on your methods, and the quality of the end product?
That’s something that goes beyond the world of musical instruments alone. It raises a bunch of questions: about the consumer society we live in, about diminishing resources and biodiversity, which in my view is also a way of addressing these same topics through the angle of instrument making. However, I also think it’s very unfair for the craftsmen who build instruments, and for the instruments themselves, to be penalized by existing laws protecting wildlife and flora. And also, it seems to me that these laws were drafted by the same states who have profited from shameless pilfering of nature and its resources (not to mention its citizens) for centuries.
When you handle all these species of woods all day, you learn to love them, to love the trees. I also consider my work an homage to the trees, to the earth.
From a materials performance viewpoint, I think using a good quartersawn Indian rosewood is a much sounder choice than a mediocre Brazilian rosewood, which is more commonly available in the market. There appears to be a certain snobbery in choosing wood types. Despite this fact, certain masters such as Friedrich or the Fletas have been using Indian rosewood for years and nobody seems to mind.
Q9. How do you see the future of this beautiful tradition in the 21st century?
I think we’re living in an era where craftsmanship and the commensurate skills have gotten poorer, while the technological breakthroughs of the last 30 years have had a decisive impact on the place occupied by men in their given crafts. Our mode of consumption, with its short-term focus, cheap deals and abundant availability of mediocre goods, has also played a part in finishing off European craftsmanship. Today, a cabinetmaker is unfortunately most likely to just be assembling prefabricated kitchen sets rather than making custom-made furniture built for the long-term and able to serve several generations.
A creative manual occupation can be very satisfying to those working that way, a very pure satisfaction. That is something which makes the trade of luthier very attractive. And, in the end, the crafting of a musical instrument by hand remains a craftsman’s trade, where a craftsman can earn a living, while not constantly being hampered by profitability.
I, personally, also look at my work in terms of a political and ideological commitment that fits into the way I try to live my life.