Rosewood in the 21st Century


As many now know, all species of rosewood have made it onto the CITES list restricting international movement of anything with any amount of the wood in their construction.  For guitars, this can include fingerboards, backs, tops, sides, bridge pins, peghead overlays, heel caps, pickup rings, inlay details, etc.  So how does a guitar owner deal with this?  I’ve assembled a number of links to articles on rosewoods and to the US Fish and Wildlife Service who enforce CITES regulations in the US.  For anyone overseas, you’ll have to do your own research to see what organization.   If you’re interested in all wood species, the Wood Data Base is an incredible resource:

Please understand that I am not an expert on International law, nor do I necessarily know what rosewood may or may not be in a particular guitar.  A number of rosewoods are very difficult to tell apart visually; we’ve had Amazon rosewood, Madagascar rosewood, and cocobolo in my shop that were absolutely indistinguishable from Brazilian rosewood.  To further confuse things, Brazilian rosewood is not the only rosewood found in Brazil!    Also, when I got into lutherie, we did not distinguish among rosewood species.  Rosewood was rosewood, and Brazilian was often used, especially for fingerboards and bridges, on cheap guitars…little Gibsons, Harmonys, you name it.  Rosewood?  No big deal in the centuries past.

If the links below do not take you to the information you seek, just remember “Google” is your research assistant.

What is CITES and why do they get to restrict trade and movement of rosewood, ivory, etc.?

International travel with an instrument having any species of rosewood; the “passport” issue:

Chris Herrod’s LMI blog on rosewood:

And Chris again on alternatives:

Michael Watts and John Thomas on Brazilian rosewood and CITES

John Thomas again on CITES

NAMM on CITES Update:

An interesting article outlining how to distinguish Brazilian rosewood from other rosewoods:

Information on some (but not all) of the rosewood species we’ve used here at Turner Guitars

Added on 3/19/2017

Here is additional information from my old friend, Chuck Erickson, aka “the Duke of Pearl”. Chuck has been at the forefront dealing with the bureaucracy on behalf of luthiers and NAMM for several years now.  Lacey Act and CITES regulations impinge closely on his own business, and he has taken the time to advocate not only for himself but for all of us in the lutherie, decorative inlay, and scrimshaw trades.

APHIS issued guidelines for getting exemption certificates on pre-2008 items (including guitars) which contain unknown woods or lack other information (but only if the wood is really not identifiable!):…/lacey-act-special-use-codes….

The non-commercial export of an instrument containing CITES I materials like Brazilian rosewood (BRW), tortoiseshell, or ivory requires a species-specific export permit, such as a preconvention certificate 3-200-32 ( – but this only applies to the U.S. and doesn’t necessarily protect the owner in other countries. For CITES II materials no permit is needed as long as all other personal exemption requirements are met (such as not involving any type of commercial activity).

This permit can also be used by luthiers to register unpapered stocks of BRW or other listed materials. The cost is $50.00-200.00 (depending on whether applying for a single shipment, personal property, or for setting up a “Master File” for multiple items). Currently the approval process can take 3-6 months. Recently published factsheets by the USFWS regarding musical instrument issues can be seen at: ://…/by-activity/musical-instruments.html and ://…/pdf/factsheet-musical-instruments.pdf.

Everything needs to be listed by metric weight or volume, or by the number of parts in stock; if by weight or volume, you should include an estimate of how many guitars or parts that raw wood will eventually yield. Take good close-up pictures of the woods, and submit an accurate tally of how many sets of backs, sides, tops, neck blanks, veneers, bridges, etc. you have in stock; or, how much wood you have in cubic meters (along with your best estimate of the number of guitars that will produce). Get everything notarized and submit with the application. Then, if approved, be very careful to not make more instruments from that inventory than the estimate allowed for. If the story is credible and doesn’t involve a container load of material, there’s a very good chance of being approved.

As of June 26, 2014, all unpapered BRW already in the U.S. will continue to be illegal to buy or sell internationally unless it receives the above exemption permit, or has CITES paperwork that includes a Pre-Convention Certificate. Domestic sales requirements are a bit more relaxed: to be legal, all that’s required are more informal but credible evidences that the wood was in the U.S. prior to June 11, 1992 (a label date, a serial number that can be referenced to a pre-ban date of manufacture, a dated invoice, a certifying letter from the maker, etc.) and no special permitting is necessary, but get it all notarized.





Richard and Mimi Farina and the 6 1/2th Fret


Richard & Mimi Farina and the 6 1/2th Fret

In about 2013 I was teaching my “Build a Ukulele in Four Days” course at the Crucible in Oakland, and one of my students was a wonderful artist named Wayne Jiang.  On the second or third day of the class, we were all eating lunch in the workshop and chatting, and Wayne happened to mention his love of mountain dulcimers and that he and his partner, Patricia Delich, were working on a film to be titled, “The Heart of the Dulcimer” centered around the surge in popularity of the instrument in the 1960s and ‘70s, much of which was inspired by Richard Farina’s use of the instrument in some of the earliest folk-rock.

When Richard’s name came up, I casually said, “Oh, I put an extra fret in Richard’s dulcimer in 1965.”  Wayne was astounded.  “You put in the 6 1/2th fret?”  “Yes,” I said.  “Was that a big deal?”  Well, it turns out that it was a huge deal in the dulcimer community.  It made it OK for the dulcimer to not be a strictly diatonic instrument, and it has now become the norm for the fretting pattern for the instrument.  Here’s the story of “The Night of the Living 6 1/2th Fret”

I’d been touring playing guitar with Ian and Sylvia in 1965, living in Cambridge when not on the road.  We folkies all pretty much knew one another in Cambridge at that time…the Jim Kweskin Jug Band with Geoff and Maria Muldaur and Bill Keith, the Charles River Valley Boys, Taj Mahal, Tom Rush, the guys who would go on to be the Youngbloods…Jesse Colin Young, Jerry Corbitt, Lowell “Banana” Levinger, and Joe Bauer, Jim Rooney, and of course, Richard and Mimi Farina who lived about four blocks from my place on Kinnaird St.   One early evening when I happened not to be on the road, I got a call from Mimi: “We’re doing Robert J. Lurtsema’s radio show tonight on WCBR.  Richard has just written a new tune, but he’s missing a much needed note on his dulcimer.  Can you put in an extra fret?”  “Hmmm, yes.  How are we going to do this?”  Mimi said, “We’ll come by and pick you up, can you put it in at the radio studio?”  “OK!!!”  Because that’s just what you say to a challenge.  So they swung by, and I de-tuned the strings in the back of the car on the way to the radio station, and when we got there, I did a quickie calculation of where that fret should go, sawed the slot, banged in the 6 1/2th fret making sure it was level and even with it’s neighbors, trimmed it, and handed it off to Richard.  They launched into the tune, and much later…by about 50  years…I found out that I’d been a part of dulcimer history.

UPDATE: Thanks to Douglas Cooke, an archivist of the Boston Broadside folk magazine from the early and mid 1960s, we now know that the radio show was on April 23rd, 1965.  Thanks, Doug!

In about 1988 or so, Mimi invited me to be on a KPFK radio show with her, and she and I told the tale with much chuckling and outright laughter.  That woman could be utterly infectiously hilarious.


Thoughts on Structure and Tone in Acoustic Guitar Design

This is the talk I was going to give at the Santa Barbara Acoustic Instrument Celebration, but when I got there, there was nothing in the program!  Oh, well…

For the visuals, you can cut to the chase:

and then read, or:

Acoustic Guitars…

Structure, Tone and how to Reconcile the Two…

September, 2016

By Rick Turner

Historical Background and My Own Journey

          I started my lutherie career as an apprentice repairman in the caveman era…1963…in a shop in Boston called the Stringed Instrument Workshop.  The work done was crude by modern standards; there was no ASIA, no Guild of American Luthiers, no Internet, and there were but two books on guitar making, both small, both from England, both written to show how to build a classical guitar with a wee nod to steel strings.   Yet we had guitars coming in then that showed some of the now-well known structural issues that plague guitar players and provide job security for luthiers.  Three of those problems were (and remain) the need for neck resets as the geometry of the instrument changes with time and stress; the classic top crack (or two) next to the fingerboard with the top shearing into the soundhole…an issue that I call a tectonic plate shift disaster; and the hump or ski jump where the fingerboard transitions from being on the neck to being glued to the top.  These are not new problems; they all have to do with how the neck intersects with the body of the guitars; yet very few luthiers have taken the time to deal with the issues other than overbuilding the upper bout or making necks easier to reset.

As I started to build acoustic guitars in the mid-1990s, I decided that if I were to do this, I wanted to “bring something to the table” other than just making nicely decorated traditionally built instruments in the Martin/Gibson lineage.  I’d owned (and still own) a number of Howe Orme instruments made in Boston in the late 1890s; I’d first seen them in my 1963 apprenticeship, and they made an everlasting impression for two reasons, both of which involve very clever engineering.  The great thing is that the Howe Ormes are not only engineered brilliantly, but they are built very well…up to the standards of Martin in the 1890s, and they sound both unique and great.  When I showed one of mine, a 12 fret 000 sized one in spruce and Brazilian rosewood to Martin Simpson, his reaction was, “Is this the best vintage guitar ever?”


Adjustable Tilting Neck

The two key features of the Howe Orme guitars are the adjustable tilting neck with the cantilevered fingerboard not touching the top and the “longitudinal belly ridge” where by the center third or so of the top is cylindrically arched giving it fantastic longitudinal stiffness allowing the top to be quite thin, yet stiff enough for steel strings which were indeed available in those days…a full 20 years before Martin made a production steel string guitar.   Note also that tilting necks were a feature on some guitars from the 1820s coming out of the Johann Stauffer shop in Vienna where C. F. Martin learned guitar making, so in my way of thinking, a tilting neck with cantilevered fingerboard is a traditional way to build!

Of these two Howe Orme design features, I chose to start with the tilting neck system. For one thing, it takes care of the whole issue of a neck reset; it takes longer to find the right Allen wrenches to do the adjustment than it does to do the job itself. You can literally reset the neck angle, and therefore raise or lower the action in about ten seconds. Two added advantages is that by not gluing the fingerboard to the top, you have the option of getting more vibrating area from the soundboard, and the fingerboard is no longer subject to dipping down or kicking up past the neck joint, particularly if you use carbon fiber under the fingerboard to stabilize the playing line of the fret tops.

I have modified the Howe Orme system which used a metal fitting at the heel cap as a hinge, and then two bolts threaded into the heel face under the fingerboard (which has a stiffener extension of the neck) which bear against the body close to the top.  The problem with the Howe Orme design is that as you adjust the action, you also change the overall playing string length; the two are locked together.  My approach is to replace the hinge with a bolt so the hinge point itself can be moved in and out.  This allows for a bit of overall adjustment of intonation as well as full neck angle and yaw adjustment.

 Structural Fingerboard

All of this brings up the whole issue of guitar playability from first fret to last.  When designing a guitar or bass, you have to start with a straight line…a side elevation representation of a typical string.  Add your playing length defining nodal points, the string nut and the bridge saddle, and do whatever you like with the string afterlength, nut to tuning peg, saddle to bridge or tailpiece.  Now the next thing is the very gently curved even line of the fret tops from first to last, curved for “relief”.  It is the job of the fingerboard below the fret tops and the neck below that to perfectly maintain the perfection of that relief line.  It should not deviate where the neck joins the body or where the fingerboard is (perhaps) attached to the top of the guitar, and no reasonable and predictable amount of guitar geometry shift, whether that’s from long term stress or from humidity changes, should change the perfection of the relief line of the tops of the frets.  This perfection of line over time is something that “traditionally built” acoustic guitars just do not maintain.  The fret at the neck to body joint define a hinge point, and sooner or later, the fingerboard extension will “drop off” over the body or ski-jump up.  We’ve gotten so used to this that it’s believed that we need to build in “drop off” over the guitar top.  In fact it’s just a workaround for a bad design; the neck and the guitar top support the fingerboard, and therefore the relief line so differently that we’ve just learned to jury rig the fix, often during a refret or fret level, crown, and polish.  And in neck resets, there is often the need to taper shim the fingerboard extension to get it anywhere near the correct relief line.

My solution to this has been to make what I call a “structural fingerboard”…I dado two 1/8” x 1/8” slots into the underside of the fingerboard and glue in two ½” tall x 1/8” wide carbon fiber bars from the nut end of the fingerboard to the very end.  A fingerboard made this way is stiffer than most completed necks, and since the stiffness is designed in to best support a constant relief line, playability is assured.

As for the carbon fiber over the body, I deal with it in two ways:

  • Relieve the underside of the CF for clearance with a cantilevered fingerboard. It’s amazing just how stiff the fingerboard extension remains even with the CF down to less than ¼” tall.  There is also no lack of volume of the notes played on the cantilever.
  • For a non-tilting neck, I cut two slots right through the top and as needed, into the neck block and any upper bout transverse braces so there is no change in structure for the fingerboard support through the neck joint area.

The Flying Buttresses

          Over the years I’ve repaired a number of guitars and a mandolin where one or two top cracks appeared next to the fingerboard and the top under the ‘board was shifting into the soundhole like a tectonic plate shift after an earthquake.  Clearly it took a glue joint failure in the upper transverse braces to do this with the guitars; most likely the instrument got hot enough for the brace glue to at least soften, and with a glue like Titebond, 130 F. is enough to do that.  It does not seem that a French slipper foot neck block nor massive bracing can prevent this collapse of the top under the fingerboard; the shear force of 160 or so pounds over years and with heat will do this.  I recently repaired a nice B. C. Rich dreadnought with this issue, and upon researching the guitar, I found that this is one of the better known failure modes for these guitars.  The worst I’ve fixed was a ‘70s Martin D-45 with buckled rosette, and the oldest were a Gibson A style mandolin, and one of my Howe Orme guitars.


So how does one design around this problem without just massively bracing the upper bout of the top?  For me, the answer was at the Cathedral of St Denis in Paris, the first of the Gothic cathedrals to feature flying buttresses to support the walls without requiring truss chords inside the building.   I’d been aware of the concept of flying buttresses, but it wasn’t until I saw the building and then stepped inside that I really got it how effective the engineering is.   The cathedral builders wanted no truss chords inside the building to interfere with the soaring lines of the ceiling which is 28 meters…92 feet tall.  The problem is that a roof with no truss chords (the horizontal beams tying one end of the truss to the other in tension) puts outward pressure on the walls, pushing them to collapse.  The answer was flying buttresses…supports outside the building directing the outward horizontal pressure down to the ground.  The Basilica of St. Denis was finished in 1281 AD, and after more than seven centuries, the walls still stand.


Since the collapsing force on the neck block area of a guitar is inward, not outward, my solution was to put two or four carbon fiber tube flying buttresses inside the guitar from the upper part of the neck block down to the sides just below the guitar waist where the nearly in-line and vertical plane of the sides is extremely strong in compression and where the pressure will be distributed to the sides and not the top.  This allows me to put in very light bracing in the upper bout since the top is no longer tasked with supporting the approximately 160 pounds of compression from the tension of the strings.  Since I’m cantilevering the fingerboard above the top, that area is now able to contribute to the tone and volume of the guitar.  In tapping the upper bout vs. the lower bout of a completed guitar, I find a rather obvious “tweeter/woofer” type of response, and in listening to what these guitars actually do, I hear really wonderful harmonic sustain and an evenness of response that I really like.  The guitars are not necessarily louder than a more traditional design, though they do punch out well, but it’s that harmonic content that I really like.   If one preferred a more traditional Martin or Gibson sound, it would certainly be easy to block the upper bout with more braces specifically to control tone, but those braces would not be needed for neck or fingerboard support.


The real test of my approach to these structure issues was the guitar I built for Henry Kaiser to take to Antarctica in 2001 on his National Science Foundation Artist in Residence Grant.  Henry wanted me to design “a real guitar made out of wood”; using carbon fiber to reinforce the wood was fine, but Henry wanted this to be a part of the whole experiment.  Success or failure were both open options, and either would yield a learning experience for both of us.  This was to be a somewhat experimental guitar; I knew it wasn’t going to be a disaster, but I was aware that the climate might wreak havoc on it.   The guitar design itself was part of the grant proposal kind of summed up as “let’s see what happens.”  The climate even in the “summer” is brutal.  Outdoors can get down to minus 50 F. with humidity down below 5%.  Then the instrument…and people…go inside to normal room temperature, the snow they drag in melts, and humidity may go up to the low 20s for a while.   In other words, it’s guitar hell.

Henry spent close to two and a half months down there, and with the adjustable tilting neck, he was able to change the action for standard or slide playing with ease.  When he got back, the structure of the guitar was perfect.  The neck needed absolutely no truss rod adjustment, the action was just fine, and amazingly, though there were a few nicks, dings, and scratches, the basic integrity of all the wood was just fine…as it has remained for about sixteen years now.

To see the inside story on how I approach acoustic guitar design, check out this article that was published in Fretboard Journal a few years back:








Lindley for Breakfast

Lindley for Breakfast

In about 2003 or so, David Lindley came to Santa Cruz to play at Palookaville, a wonderful club downtown that is no more.  The night was a disaster that wasn’t…for some reason, electric power failed utterly downtown that night.  Events and gigs were cancelled throughout the Pacific Mall area…except at Palookaville where scores of fans found candles; and David and Wally Ingram, in the very best show biz tradition declared that the show would go on.   This was not a small club; capacity was about 300 to be fire marshal-legal, which meant that with someone like David, there were likely to be 350 people there. The only “electric” lights in the place were the automatic battery powered backup emergency lights, supposedly to be used to help people exit the venue.  But nobody left.  We were there for a show, and David was there to power on.  Wally wrapped strands of gaffer’s tape around barbeque stickers to make low volume drum sticks; David decided to go full acoustic, not even a battery powered amp for him; he understood that the crowd would turn their ears up to hear him.  Some folks made special candle reflectors out of aluminum foil so David could see his Weissenborn lap steel strings.  The result?  An evening of total musical magic.

I’d known David for several years by that time, and he was kind of “Uncle David” to Jessica and my son, Elias, who was about seven at the time of this gig.   We’d invited David over for breakfast the Sunday morning after the gig, fully knowing that the show had really taken it out of him…doing a full show to over 300 people…with NO pa system.  This was strictly old school.  Eli was elated, ecstatic, totally over the top that “Uncle David” would be coming over, and even though we prepared him…”the show was really tough last night; he might not want to talk much; we’re just trying to support him with good food while he’s on the road”, etc., Eli was just over the top.

So, having recently been introduced to the concept of knotting string, Eli decided to design and build a “Lindley trap”.  Eli got up early and got to it with a design that was something between a fish net and a spider’s web…a lace of string starting at the front door that was to entice David inward, but not allow egress.  Yes, keep Uncle David around forever!  Well, could we possibly object to what Eli had in mind?  NO!

David arrived with his tour manager; Jessica made a splendid breakfast; David admitted to how difficult the gig had been while it was yet triumphant, and discussion ensued into many subjects.  Eli had gone back to his room, apparently to contemplate; bear in mind that he was maybe about seven years old, but of a thoughtful nature since birth.  Then Eli came back into the living room with a question on his face.  We all acknowledged his curious look, and he said, “Uncle David, I have a question.  What do you think of the Shroud of Turin?”  What the fuck!  My kid who is barely in grade school just asked Lindley about what?   The Shroud of fucking Turin? I don’t think the subject had ever even come up in the household, though I certainly admit intellectual interest.  How is it that Eli has even heard about it, much less developed curiosity about the thing?  But there we all were, chins on chests, and so ensued a conversation in which David expressed his belief that the Shroud of Turin was a forgery done by Leonardo Da Vinci, and there was the most rational conversation you could imagine…catalyzed by a seven year old who is now twenty one…and still asking those questions.imgres.jpgimgres

Tech Talk on Glue…Trigger Warning…this is for lutherie geeks!

Glues I use in lutherie, where I use them, and a bit about why.

Hot Hide Glue

This is the traditional glue used for centuries, and it is still a favorite for many lutherie jobs. Hot hide glue may have tonal benefits largely because of how hard it cures, and because it pulls the glue joint together as it cures. It has better heat resistance than Titebond and other “carpenters’ glues” as per tests done by luthier Frank Ford. It has very low cold creep, and so a properly fitted joint will not move over time due to stress. It is only good for well fit joints. Hot hide glue joints are reversible with moist heat, and some grades can be shocked apart; both of these qualities make it a must for violin construction and repair. New glue reconstitutes old so it is good in repairs of older glue joints without the necessity of cleaning off all the old glue…an issue with carpenter’s glue. A major plus in production is that HHG sands to powder, and thus not loading up gunk on our wide belt sander belts when we use the glue for center seams on book matched guitar tops and backs. Also, when used in repairs, HHG can make a very strong and nearly invisible glue line; I’ve done major repairs where after finish touchup, I cannot see the glue line. Hot hide glue comes in a range of gram strengths, we generally use the 192. For a great treatise on HHG, see:

* Center seams for tops and backs
* Gluing braces to tops and backs
* Bridges on acoustic instruments
* Kerfing for acoustic guitars
* Tops to sides on acoustic guitars

Fish Glue

This is another traditional protein based glue but one which doesn’t need to be heated. The best fish glue is “isinglass” made from the air bladders of Russian sturgeon; it’s getting hard to find; Kremer Pigments is a source. It is good for most places you’d use HHG. Fish glue has a long “open time” making it easy to align joints and allowing plenty of clamping time, but it does take a long time to cure. Fish glue can also be made from other fish…cod was a major one, and it’s a favorite of some classical guitar builders like Jose Romanillos. If you remember Le Page’s glue with the funny bottle and rubber applicator top, you know fish glue!

Caveat: Fish glue is more hygroscopic than hot hide glue, and thus it is not good in high humidity conditions. The sturgeon isinglass is the most humidity-resistant type.

• Pretty much any wood to wood glue joint in a guitar and anywhere you might use Hot Hide Glue

LMI “Luthier’s Glue” from Luthier’s Mercantile

This glue (I believe it to be a polyvinyl acetate..PVA) has the convenience of Franklin Titebond and other “carpenters’ glues”, yet cures much harder and seems to have some of the favorable qualities of hot hide glue. It is known for low “cold creep”, a possible real factor with regard to tone and the need for neck resets on acoustic guitars.

* Peghead scarf joint
* Most assembly of semi-hollow guitar bodies in my shop
* Some less sonically important joints in acoustic instruments

WEST Epoxy

WEST epoxy was developed initially for the purpose of making cold molded yachts using the :Wood Epoxy Saturation Technique”. WEST epoxy cures hard and very clear; it’s great for bonding difficult to glue woods; does not introduce water into the glue line; joints can be taken apart with heat if need be. There are two versions of the hardener that we use…fast and slow, and there are a number of additives to alter the viscosity of the epoxy for use more as a putty, this being more useful in boat building. One of the great things about the WEST system is their metering pumps for the quart and gallon cans. One pump stroke of epoxy to one pump stroke of hardener.

* Laminating necks
* Fingerboard to neck joints
* Laminating fancy wood skins and veneers to guitar bodies
* Gluing on “back strap overlays” on the back of pegheads
* Potting pickup coils in the shells

Smith & Co. CPES ( Clear Penetrating Epoxy Sealer )

Another great epoxy often used to stabilize woods like rosewood to prevent cracking. It’s nearly water thin and so it penetrates well into wood. Often used to stabilize rotting wood on boats or buildings.

* Primer for wood finishing…pre-sealer
* Rot and spalting stabilizing
* Toughening wood

Franklin Polyurethane Glue

This is glue is catalyzed by moisture; for fast cure, it’s recommended that you mist dampen one side of the glue joint, but I generally do not use any water with it; we allow the ambient moisture content of the wood to do the job. With our semi-hollow Renaissance instruments it’s great for gluing the centerblocks onto cedar, spruce, or other wood tops as the glue line does not telegraph through to the top like it would with a water born glue. With peghead overlays, again, the lack of water makes for a stable layup without subsequent shrinkage as you’d get with the LMI white glue, fish glue, or HHG.

* Center block to tops on semi hollow Renaissance guitars
* Laminating layered “skate boards” for “back strap” peghead overlays

Cyanoacrylate, aka CA or Superglue

Gear Up has a range of cyanoacrylate “super glues” and their “Glue Boost” is the best of all the accelerators to speed up cure. The glue also works well with baking soda as a temporary nut slot filler when the slots are too deep.

Uses, thin superglue:
* Gluing and stabilizing frets
* Inlay dots
* Some polyester finish repair. Gear Up’s “Fill and Finish” is formuated for this application
* Some binding work
* Some quick repairs

Uses, thick superglue:
* Inlay
* Some binding work
* Quick repairs
* Making jigs and fixtures
* Bonding carbon fiber to wood

Duco Cement

We just keep coming back to Duco for binding. We’ve tried the rest, Duco’s the best! If you built balsa or plastic models as a kid…or do now…you know Duco! Do not huff the product!

* Binding (plastic/celluloid)
* Laminating celluloid

Melted Celluloid or ABS

You can make your own colored glue for celluloid or ABS bindings by melting down scraps of binding in acetone.

* For dealing with gaps and joints in celluloid binding

Fleetwood Mac, Lindsey Buckingham, and the Birth of the Turner Model 1 Guitar

In 1976 I got a call at Alembic from John McVie of Fleetwood Mac.  The band was ensconced at the Record Plant in Sausalito to record their second album, to be known as “Rumours,” with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, and John invited me down to meet them all, check out the setup on his early Alembic bass, and also see to anything that Lindsey’s Les Paul and Strat might need.  Visit I did, and I quickly became very at home with the band and their studio crew of Ken Caillat, Richard Dashut, and Rick Sanchez, as well as guitar tech Ray Lindsey.  I visited frequently, partaking in the crazy hospitality, and found that I had a lot in common with Lindsey when it came to musical influences.  It might have helped that we were all in a similar state of personal disarray; I, too, was going through a major marital breakup with my wife, Gail, at that point.  At least I wasn’t trying to make an album with her at the time!


On one of the funnier nights there in Sausalito, we were all sitting in the control room when in came an excited Richard Dashut with the latest copy of Billboard.  “Number one!  We’re number one!!”  “What?” was the general response.  The band’s previous album, “Fleetwood Mac,” their first with Stevie and Lindsey, had been released a year before this, and the band had pretty much forgotten about it, with all the drama and creativity flowing at the Record Plant.  Also, at that time, if an album didn’t really take off in six weeks or so, it was destined for failure.  The band had written it off, but suddenly they had the hottest selling album on the charts.


This happened the same month Mick and John’s lawsuit against their former manager was settled in their favor.  A couple of years before this, at a point when there was barely a band, it being down to Mick, John, and Christine, their manager had hired a bogus bunch of musicians and put them out on the road as “Fleetwood Mac.”  Mick and John sued, but in a countersuit, all of their recording royalties from Warner Brothers wound  up in an escrow account.  The band had to scramble and try to survive on live gigs with a succession of guitar players.  When Lindsey and Stevie joined the band, they were doing a lot of covers of earlier iterations of Fleetwood Mac’s material.  The new songs that Lindsey and Stevie brought to the “Fleetwood Mac” album changed the direction of the band, but the real impact didn’t hit until they were in Sausalito recording Rumours.  Suddenly they were the number one band in the world, and a couple of years worth of royalties broke loose.


John started buying Alembic basses that I’d bring to the studio, and they included the very first carbon fiber necked instrument, a short scale bass in the shape now made famous by Stanley Clarke, and a long scale fretless with a stainless steel fingerboard which can be heard on “The Chain” from Rumours.  It’s the one used in the bass intro to the song outro—bum, ba ba bum ba ba ba ba ba booooommmmm before Lindsey’s screaming Strat comes in.


For Lindsey, my main contribution during Rumours was installing an Alembic “Stratoblaster”  in his Strat exactly like the one I’d put in Lowell George’s guitar, the one you hear on Little Feat’s live album, “Waiting for Columbus.”  For Lindsey, the sound of the electric on Rumours is his guitar with the ‘Blaster gain all the way up, basically destroying a succession of HiWatt amps.  Evidently, the HiWatts did not have adequate current protection; they were fine with normal electric guitar output levels, but when we boosted that by nearly 12 dB, the amplifier just tried to pull more and more current through the power transformer, and after about 20 or 30 minutes of high gain sustaining guitar solo, the transformers would literally go up in smoke.  Luckily, they had three of them, and every day one would go off to Prune Music to be repaired.


I had started to confront the flaws in the Alembic guitars after meeting Lindsey; we talked guitars a lot, and I built him an Alembic—a beauty—all white with black chrome hardware.  But I had known for some time that there was something fundamental in the design that made the Alembic design great for bass but not friendly for guitar players; this was painfully evidenced by our 20-to-1 ratio of bass to guitar production.  Most people I discussed this with thought it was inherent in the low impedance pickup and active electronics design; they thought the sound was just too clean for the average rock’n’roll guitar player.  While I thought that this theory might have some merit, I still saw the problem as being deeper than that.  After all, with the Alembic variable tone control filter it was possible to kind of superimpose the frequency response of a Strat, Tele, or Gibson humbucker over the wide band response of the Alembic pickup, yet that still didn’t sound right.  I came to believe that the strings just weren’t moving the right way, being coupled as they were to a heavy bridge set on a sustain block and then to the stiff and high-frequency resonant neck laminate that went through the body from the peghead to the butt.  The very construction feature that made Alembics stand out visually and aurally in a positive way was working against us when it came to making a warm and seductive guitar.  Further discussions with Lindsey who had purchased an Alembic guitar confirmed my feelings, and I set out to design a completely new instrument.


The trick in a game like this—designing from scratch—is to climb down off the particular design tree you’ve been exploring and go find a new tree.  You have to really get back down to the very ground and try to a) forget everything you’ve been doing, and b) don’t forget anything because it might be useful.  It requires that you logically justify each and every little decision, and that you do nothing just because “that’s how it’s done” or because “that’s what I know how to do.”  It means that you have to start with the results you hope to achieve and work backward, always keeping an open mind, but also trying to work with what you know and what you’ve learned from other people, other instruments, and of things completely outside the musical instrument world.


For me it meant wanting to make a guitar that would combine the warmth I liked in Les Pauls and SGs with the clarity that comes from a Strat, and then I wanted to put a kind of acoustic overlay on that sound as well as the look.  I wanted to make an electric guitar that would appeal to an acoustic guitarist used to fine old Martins, Larsons, and Gibsons, and yet would be capable of the kind of full bore electric tones that players like Peter Green, Eric Clapton, and of course, Lindsey Buckingham could get.  I guess if you could express the sound I wanted it would be like lemon butter—rich with a tangy touch.  And this sound had to be inherent in the instrument itself; it could not be achieved with any old plank of wood by putting just the right pickup on it.  It’s all in how the guitar affects the string vibration—that back and forth feedback loop between wire and wood.


I started with the most obvious place, the body.  I needed to get away from that neck-through body thing; it did not allow enough contribution from the body wood to warm up the sound.  My favorite sounding electrics were the old Les Paul custom—the original version with the all-mahogany body and no maple cap—and the Gibson SG, though I thought it punked out below about “B” on the “A” string and above about “B” on the high “E” string.  The common theme between the two instruments is the mahogany body, a well loved instrument wood that can impart a dry tone to acoustic guitars, but a warmer tone with the thicker pieces used in electrics.  I also wanted to bring the average weight of the new guitar in at between that of a Les Paul and a Strat—no use sending the players to the chiropractor after every gig.  In thinking over what I’d learned about PA speaker cabinet building, echo chamber design and such, I realized that parallel surfaces lead to standing waves, even in solid structures, and that made me wonder if the problem with the SG’s narrower response might be that the parallel surfaces might lead to some kinds of issues with limiting the frequency response, or having resonances too pronounced.  These considerations brought me to the idea of arching the surfaces of the top and back, and doing it based on one of the main design features of my favorite vintage acoustic guitars, the cylinder topped Howe-Ormes from the 1890s.


I drew up a set of blueprints for a new guitar that would have a “set” glued-in neck and a mahogany body.  For the warmth I liked in the Les Paul customs and SGs, the body was to be mahogany, and I realized I could make a “clam shell” of two body halves with each being 1-¼” thick in the center; that just happened to be the thickness of an Alembic bass body center section on which we glued a ¼” thick top and back.  Thus it would use a common lumber dimension with what we were already using.  For the neck, I realized that every Alembic bass neck yielded a piece of laminated scrap approximately 20” long, 2-¼” wide, and that could be thicknessed to ¾”.  By stacking a heel block on and then scarfing on a peghead, this was perfect for a 15 frets-to-the-body neck that would have the stiffness characteristics—and somewhat the tonal properties of a Strat neck.  It would be stiff and not absorb much string vibration, and with a rosewood fingerboard, it would balance the mahogany body nicely.  I showed the drawings to Lindsey, discussed the idea of a single pickup with semi-parametric EQ, made a few minor changes, and did a final blueprint.  When I took the ‘print down to the studio, Lindsey said, “I’ll take one as soon as you have it done.”


Not long after this, but before I got a chance to build a prototype Model 1, things at Alembic went South…way South.  There were a lot of irregularities on the business side of things; there was a lot of money apparently missing; and I instituted an audit and discovered that things were not as they should have been.  I wanted an official audit to be done by an independent accountant; I was overruled and subsequently fired for rocking the boat.  I learned the age-old lesson that 43% ownership is not 51%, and if the 14% owner had personal reasons for not wanting the boat rocked, well, tough shit for me.


Luckily, I’d moved several years worth of canceled checks to my house where a couple of people and I were digging into how checks had been “coded” and accounted for in the company books.  It was not a pretty picture, and I got an attorney involved and moved the accounting to his office.  A week later an arsonist burned down my house in Santa Rosa on Pearl Harbor day of 1978.  Eventually I settled with Alembic for a financial payout plus taking the design of the Model 1 and my share of the carbon fiber neck patent with me.  I learned at that point that you can have justice or get paid, but not necessarily get both at the same time.


As all this was going on, I decided  to start up a new guitar company, and so, with the settlement money and the insurance from the house, I started up Turner Guitars with my then-brother-in-law as a junior partner.  We set up a shop in Ignacio, in Marin County, and tooled up to build Model 1 guitars.  My pal Larry Robinson managed to buy about 300 of the neck scrap laminates from Alembic without them knowing that the parts were going to me; I had my old friend and former employee Jim Furman design the preamp/EQ electronics; and Bill and Pat Bartolini agreed to make the humbucker I’d designed, as I was no longer set up to wind my own pickups.


By the end of summer of 1979 I was finishing up the first three prototypes of the Model 1 guitar, and I knew that Fleetwood Mac was going to start the Tusk tour near the end of October.  I called Ray Lindsey, Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar tech, and let him know that I had a guitar for him to try out.  Ray invited me to come down to Hollywood to the sound stage where the band was rehearsing.  I got there on the early side, before the band got in; Ray checked out the guitar and loved it, and he left it plugged in and put it up on a stand plugged in front of Lindsey’s amps, and we walked to the back of the place (it had once been the site of Esther Williams gigantic swimming pool!) and just sat and chatted.  Lindsey came in first, went up on stage, picked up the guitar and played it for about a half an hour before the rest of the band came in.  I thought it sounded fantastic—exactly the sound I’d had in my head when I first started designing the guitar.  Lindsey then shouted back to Ray, “Leave the Les Paul, the Strat, and the Ovation at home.  This is all I need now!”  Well, fucking make my day!  Then the rest of the band came in and started to rehearse.  The guitar just sat perfectly in the mix on any and all tunes.  Lindsey could play it clean like an acoustic, get a bit more edge, kind of like he was playing a Strat with a clean tone, or crank it up full bore with Santana-like sustain.  It did the trick.  After about an hour, Mick came back and said, “OK, Rick, you did it.  How fast can we get a backup for that guitar?”


Thanks to Paul Hostetter for editing



Start ’em up here!   A friend suggested that rolling my life and times in music and lutherie, and writing it up into a blog would be a great way to pull all the elements of my lengthy book project into one place where I might get some feedback, some questions, and get some editing done.  So here it comes.  Some will be raw, some will be edited, and I hope it will all be of interest to friends old and new.  Please do not expect linearity!   Author and songstress Sylvie Simmons relieved me of that burden by saying that memoirs need not be chronological while a biography should be.  So what will come will contain memoirs, to be sure, but also a fair amount of technical writing…and extension of the many columns and articles I’ve written in the past for Guitar Player, Bass Player, Acoustic Guitar, Premier Guitar, Guitar World Acoustic, American Lutherie, and other publications.

I do welcome questions and suggestions for topics.  I cannot promise to be timely about any of this; FaceBook is more useful for quick quips and (I almost hate to say it…) some of my snarky comments.  The blog format will allow me more extended commentary.  Bear in mind that I do have a pretty extensive backlog of writing to extract from various computer hard drives.

A word about the soft focus photo up top…in the foreground is the jumbo acoustic guitar I made for Henry Kaiser for his first Antarctic venture; the uke is my “go-to” instrument these days…an all-figured koa “Compass Rose” tenor that I play in “Uke Ellington”; the banjo to the left is a 1922 Paramount Style C which I gave to my son, Eli, for his birthday a couple of years ago.


David Crosby’s 12 String

David Crosby's 12-string
David Crosby’s 12-string

David Crosby’s 12 String

In 1970 my guitar workshop was in the basement of the Alembic headquarters on Judah Street in San Francisco. We had our PA and live 16 track recording gear upstairs along with Ron Wickersham’s electronics lab, and some space set aside for doing a little bit of in-house mixing and even some recording. The workshop was packed…we were even doing some speaker cabinet building down there, and Frank Fuller had moved over from an old-school guitar shop, Satterlee and Chapin, where I’d worked for about six months, to work with me. We were mostly modifying and repairing existing instruments…doing a lot of what would be now termed irreparable harm to vintage Gibsons, Fenders, and Guild basses, but we were “Alembicizing” them…making them better than new. We had an incredible clientele…the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Malo, and David Crosby among others. I was working on Phil Lesh’s “Godfather” bass making pickups for it, and I’d started on what became Alembic bass #001 for Jack Casady.
Crosby got wind of the alchemy we were brewing at the place, and he brought in an unfinished thin, hollow body 12 string. He’d somehow talked Gibson out of a “Crest” body…hollow, 335 shaped, outer ply of the arched top and back plus sides done in gorgeous Brazilian rosewood with a great solid Brazilian neck made by Bay Area lutherie legend Mario Martello. Ron and I were basically to put our overactive brains to work and turn this into the world’s best electric 12 string. David had the faith that we could do it; and we were riding the beginning of a long wave of inventiveness, willingness beyond eagerness, and I dare say ability to do exactly what David and the other musicians we were working with needed and wanted. In a funny way, it was like we were a part of all of their bands…we just didn’t appear on stage with them or play in the studio with them. But I knew that one of the things I had going was my several years as a professional musician, and a lot of that attitude went into designing tools for these new friends.
For the 12 string, I decided to wind a couple of Gibson humbucker sized true stereo humbuckers but make them wide range, low impedance types to match with a custom stereo on-board preamp done with all-discreet transistor circuitry. I put in a switching network that allowed for the true stereo output if David wanted that…it sends the three bass pairs of strings to one channel and the three top courses to the other. It can also switch to “normal” mono output with a volume control for each of the two pickups. I welded a kind of free-form sculpture bronze tailpiece, modified a TunaMatic bridge, inlaid the Alembic logo in the peghead in abalone shell, and then the most radical innovation was to install Monsanto MV-50 ultra miniature red LEDs in the binding in the side of the fingerboard. Bear in mind that this was in 1970; it was the earliest use of LED’s as position markers on any guitar, and fast forward to 2015…the LED’s still work after 45 years.
David loved the guitar, and after having it for a few weeks, he brought it back for some minor adjustments. It was in the shop for a couple of days, and then went back upstairs for David to pick up…and then the place was broken into with the only thing gone being David’s 12 string. Yes, we had an ADT silent alarm system. No, it didn’t go off. Why? Because another tenant had left the building and had ordered the alarm system turned off. ADT came to do that…and turned the wrong unit’s system off. We’d thought our place was fully armed every night, but it wasn’t. We were devastated, embarrassed, nervous, and pissed off, but the only thing we could do was to call David and give him the news. You may think of David Crosby as being “an excitable boy”, and that can be true, but he’s also a gentleman. He was righteously bummed out and let us know it, but he didn’t put it on us.
About two or three days later, I got a call from Bill Stapleton, then one of the owners of a small music store, Banana’s at Large, about five miles from our place. Bill said, “I have a really unusual 12 string here with your logo on the peghead. What’s the story?” Whew! That was the story! It turned out that a couple of guys had brought the guitar in to sell. Bill saw the logo and immediately put it behind the counter saying that he had to make a phone call. Bill’s description of the guys hastily leaving was something like “Oh, we have to go get ice cream for our mom…” No money changed hands, and we got back the guitar.
We knew that David was recording at Wally Heider’s (now Hyde St. Studios), and so we decided to return the guitar in person. Ron and maybe Bob Matthews and I went down to the studio well before the session, and with the help of the engineer, we staged the guitar in the studio room lit and staged like Tiffany window display. We sat back on the couch behind the console and waited for Cros to show which he did, kind of glum faced. The engineer (Stephen Barncard???) said, “Turn around, David, and look into the studio; the guys brought you something.” Crosby freaked out…joyously this time, and the guitar has remained one of his favorites now for 45 years. He generously brought it with him to the Fretboard Summit in the fall of 2015 and let me show it off and play it for a small audience of true guitar freaks.