Interview with classical guitar luthiers: Shaun Newman (UK)


I’m delighted to have Shaun Newman from Crediton, UK as my second interviewee for this project.


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

I began making guitars around 20 years ago principally from books and with the help of an evening class in our local community college. The first three were played by a professional concert guitarist and led to my first commission. During my 20 years of instrument making I have constructed classical guitars (full sized concert as well as a number of shorter string length ‘salon’ guitars after Torres and in the French style). I have also made gothic and Celtic harps, mandolins, dulcimers, ukuleles and mediaeval fiddles. I am currently working on a renaissance lute.



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

The most important property that a guitar can offer is a good sound. The key is widely regarded as the structure and quality of the top. This must be made from solid spruce or cedar and must have a minimum of 20 grains to the inch ensuring density. Cedar tends to produce a punchy sound with less sustain than spruce, and is preferred by flamenco players. Spruce holds notes for longer and is enjoyed by expressive players. Some modern makers are using a laminate of both spruce and cedar separated by a thin film of nomex. My preferred top is of Engelmann spruce and brought to a thickness of 2mm on the bass side, and 2.5mm on the treble. The top must be carefully braced with fine grained spruce, and my struts are no thicker than 3mm and just 4mm deep, offering ‘beam’ strength. Many experiments have taken place over the years, and some recent makers are using a lattice pattern of struts, and they may be made of carbon fibre. I still use spruce in a fan bracing pattern, as to my ear the lattice only increases volume and does nothing for sound quality. Finally on sound, the back and sides remain important to the sound and Brazilian rosewood remains possibly the most sought after. I have used cypress, rosewood (both Brazilian and Indian), maple, zebrano and am currently also making a concert guitar in ziricote. All of these timbers work in different ways, but if the top is well made, a good sound can be expected.



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

Achieving playability is extremely important and every player has their own requirements. I start with a very smooth fingerboard usually made from ebony and with frets which are individually made and filed by hand to ensure smooth edges and no hint of sharp edge causing discomfort. The bone nut and saddle are then made to the players requirement. Julian Bream famously used a 5mm action at fret 12 on string 6 on his guitars, whilst some players want as little as 2mm or 2.5. The action must also be balanced by string tension. High tension strings are widely regarded as more difficult to play than low, but give good volume and brightness. Low tension string tend to suit expressive players. I always advise players to insist on relevant adjustments until the playability of the instrument suits their style.



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 made several shorter string length instruments and they have been very well received, not only by players with small hands, but by those wanting for example to play programmes of 19th century music or similar. There is usually a compromise on volume, but if the top is well made then a good player can still fill a concert room with a small guitar. Small ‘beginners’ guitars made with plywood tops are however much to be avoided. They will put a player off rather than encourage!! My preferred small guitar string length is 605mm which in effect is standard classical and flamenco minus the first fret. It is important to get the compensation right, and with smaller guitars the compensation can be up to 3mm. In any case I always add a small amount of compensation to the g string because of its thickness. This is achieved by reversing the ramp on the saddle just for that string.



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

I always offer an after sales service; not least to make adjustments to the action etc to ensure the instrument suits the player. My general advice is to take an instrument on a week’s approval, and to ensure the guitar suits the player. People tend to buy through three ways. They buy through their eye, in other words a visually stunning guitar will appeal to them. Others buy through recommendation. And the third way is through the sound. My advice is to go for the best sound that you can, and a sound that excites you and that you will always want to produce.



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

There is no question that some of the favoured woods are now almost unavailable such as Brazilian rosewood. There are however many sustainable alternatives and these can produce fine sounding instruments, provided they are solid and not simply exotic timber veneers over ply or some other inferior base. Ziricote is attracting a lot of attention at present as well as many Australian hardwoods. Maple is a very good alternative, and makes fine smaller instruments. Many flamenco players will still insist on cypress, despite the emergence of the ‘flamenca negra’ i.e. the rosewood flamenco.



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

The future depends on the players. In the 70s when everyone knew John Williams and Julian Bream then classical guitar sales reached a peak in the UK. Nowadays the classical; guitar is regarded as a bit of a speciality. This is why it is so important to have good teachers helping to spread the word and of course good makers to offer the best sound possible.



Website: Shaun Newman Guitars

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