Guitars with a Personality

By: M.A.

No doubt art is found not only in music, but also in the instruments that play this music. Without them, music could not exist, and besides this fact, the personality of each instrument also has an influence on that of the music played with them. Unlike the mass produced instruments, those that are handmade by luthiers possess a unique, inimitable personality, which enriches the compositions where they are used.

Amongst those luthiers specialized in guitars, Josep Melo is a clear example of a craftsman who does not allow his art to be influenced by fashions, who keeps himself apart from conventionalisms so as to experiment with new ideas, and whose instruments succeed in achieving a unique personality that makes them stand out from any others.

Attracted by music from an early age, the guitar immediately became his favourite instrument. Besides playing it and collecting them, he became interested in the secrets that determine their sonic texture. He befriended such worldwide famous luthiers as Jim D'Aquisto, Jean Pierre Favino, David John Morse and Josť Luis Romanillos, from whose experiences he deduced valuable conclusions. He visited several guitar factories, such as Gibson's in Nashville, Bozeman's in Montana and that of Martin & Co in Pennsylvania. His formation as a designer, as well as his studies on the physics of sound, allowed him to engage into the manufacturing of guitars with a high scientific knowledge quite unfrequent among luthiers. Joining this technical basis to his personal ideas, he has succeeded in creating an attractive brand of acoustic, classical and electronic guitars, whose characteristics can turn out to be very surprising indeed. For instance, his electric guitars have a sonority quite similar to that of an acoustic one.

Josep Melo has given us an interview in his workshop, where the scope and the thoroughness of his work can be fully appreciated.

-Is the making of a guitar more an art or a technique?

"Well, this is a somewhat difficult question to answer. To build a guitar, one needs to know how to be a carpenter, since it is necessary to work the wood with the sufficient skills. Also one must know as best as possible the properties of the materials one works with. For a carpenter, many of the aspects of the way one works the wood and the placing of the elements on a structure have little importance. But unlike what happens with furniture, in a musical instrument the correct use of the material is basic, and so is the selection of the correct material for each purpose. As is obvious, one must know all the technical characteristics of the instrument that must be made, and it is desirable to have a solid formation in the physics of sound".

-You work both with acoustic and electric guitars. Aren't these very different kinds and perhaps with opposed philosophies? Do you find any rivalry between both types and that those who are in favour of one or the other display conflicting attitudes?

"No. Some years ago, perhaps it was true that there was a barrier between folk musicians with their acoustic guitars and those who chose rock with their electric guitars. But today this no longer happens, especially with those guitar players that do not come from Classical Music. These are very versatile musicians, who may very well play an acoustic or an electric guitar. Those who intend to keep both classes apart still tend to be the classical musicians. It's difficult to have them use an electric guitar to perform. They are orthodox even in the characteristics that the acoustic instrument must have: certain predetermined measures, a given shape... The modern musician is more versatile, accepts a greater number of designs, and even dares try new philosophies of sound. On the other hand, it must be said that several modern guitarists, even some of a proven professionalism, do not take adequate care of the aspect of sound. It happens to be quite astonishing that a guitarist with a great performing technique uses the guitar of an amateur. Being a luthier who intends to make a sound which is different from others as well as introduce new qualities, it is quite frustrating for me when the musician who comes to see me cannot appreciate such things out of his own ignorance on the generic sonic characteristics of the guitar".

-What do you think about the electronic processing devices for acoustic instruments, and especially for guitars?

"In the case of the acoustic guitar I think that it has to have its sonic qualities by itself, and in any case the only conversion I gladly accept is amplification by means of the piezopassive system, whose only function is to turn the vibration of the string and the cover to electronic signals that are later amplified, so that the tonal quality, and above all, the dynamics of the instrument, are not modified. In my opinion, the great problem of the acoustic guitar amplified with a signal frequency amplifier is the fact that it decreases or increases the frequencies. It is as if they were all placed within a central track, ignoring the extreme margins, which precisely are the most representative trait in the personality of the acoustic instruments. The best they can offer in sound is their great amount of dynamics. What a signal frequency amplifier does is to equalize these dynamics so as to redirect them all into some sort of track that the amplifier can accept better, therefore the signal is more equalized and easier to process. I prefer the guitar with passive electronics, so that in this way the original sound is not modified. In this way, everything you play reaches the amplifier intact. As for the electric guitar, something very similar happens here, and the sound can turn out to be "artificial", although I know that this is difficult to understand if you don't listen to it. In spite of its not being a purely acoustic instrument, I believe that the electric guitar can also give 'natural' and precise sounds. So, if in its amplification active systems are used, the genuine sonority is lost".

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