The Secret of the Well-Known

Thoughts of Ermanno Chiavi (Zurich) on aesthetics in guitar-construction and a self-portrait. Suggested by Oliver Primus (Zurich, 1 July 2000)
Ermanno Chiavi: It is important for me constantly to develop my sensibility and to support my knowledge and experience in an objective way. Because of this every guitar gets its own, very detailed report. One could get the impression that I construct my guitars with the help of a computer, but I don’t. To compare the real acoustic results with all the precise facts of construction, also many years later, is basic in gaining many very valuable insights. A guitar changes, not only in its sound but also physically. After a while I look back at my notes: What were the conditions in the beginning? Because of that I gain a better understanding of the durability of materials. Even at the very beginning I was measuring. Today those results are no longer useful because they were not precise enough, but that was the starting point of training my perception, to realize what are the most important things. This process developed in different phases. I always tried to have an aim – with my first guitar I only wanted a person to open the guitar-case and say: “Ah, now this is a guitar!” So this was a low-level aim. After that, sitting beside Lake Zurich, I read a book: “How to make a guitar”, by an author who wrote it while constructing his first guitar. Not too bad! Then I sent many letters to guitar builders asking for any possibility of becoming apprenticed, without success. Later somebody told me about Gerold Hannabach. I went to see him at Bubenreuth and showed him my first guitar. He was hesitant - something I can now understand, after my own experiences with volunteers who want to learn in my workshop. He had never trained anyone before: a responsible task which takes a lot of time. So he suggested that I should join his “workshop for repairing guitars” which I did for several years. After that I asked him for a sort of apprenticeship paid by myself. Through these lessons with Hannabach I also met Margarethe Brunswicker in Frankfurt. Both helped me a lot, for which I still feel very grateful. In Switzerland the profession of a guitar builder is not recognised. This is different in Germany. To be in contact with the lively German guitar constructors’ scene is very important to me. At that time I also realized how precise and unambiguous the German language is. In Italian, my mother tongue, expressions especially for technical terms tend to have several meanings. This apprenticeship was a solid grounding for my development. At that time I had a concrete aim for every year. One thing was one day to be able to make my living through guitar building – and to make instruments at the level that I had learned to achieve. During that time I did not focus on details of sound; I thought: What is the use of my sound ideals while my handicraft abilities are not sufficiently advanced? So I sold my first guitars very cheaply. After a while an important guitarist came along and told me: “Your guitars are too cheap. That’s not good for your reputation.” When I had started to be a guitar builder at the age of 29 I wanted to cut off my way back. I invested a considerable sum in machines and tools and made an official registration as a guitar constructor. In my previous years I had gone through many different experiences. In my first profession I had been a primary school teacher. After that I worked with handicapped people, then with children and as a cultural animator for Pro Helvetia. I had also gone for a few semesters to the Swiss Jazz School in Berne, but soon I realized that I was not a musician. In my first workshop in Zurich I repaired many instruments. And because of this I have held many great instruments in my hands: Fleta, Ruck, Romanillos, Friedrich, Rubio and so on. I was measuring a lot, was astonished… but the most important thing was to understand the philosophy behind everything. Each instrument is a thing which was developed out of a specific language and has to be understood in a deep sense, not just the technical “how to”. When a guitar is good everything fits together. If you change one thing it will have consequences for the whole instrument. The question of how everything is a harmonic part of the whole was always very important to me. At that time I could not recognize many details and there existed only a few books about guitar construction. I always had the impression that many descriptions are somehow incomplete – so that the strength of the struts might not be as important as their arrangement on the soundboard. Again the idea is that everything has to fit together and nothing should be neglected. One looks at an object realizing three elements – and we don’t see ten because we are not well enough trained. The same thing as in life. Hannabach told me many times the way that someone does something is not so important – if the achieved aim is correct. This encouraged me to find my own way. I have kept some details of construction from that time until today with conviction; others I changed totally. Actually I am learning slowly because of observing many things at the same time. I am bound to our time, but in spite of respect for the tradition of the old masters I think it is not correct to look down on today’s violin- or guitar construction by comparison to historical instruments. Because of the same reasons I think that not only a collector should judge an instrument. To be more precise: This is a way of setting values – which is doubtless important in preserving them – but judging modern instruments concerns mainly guitar builders, in the same way that players and audiences have to judge the sound. My personal ideal of sound is getting more and more clear – and perhaps I can never completely reach it – but I think we have to observe the origin of aesthetic ideas in their own time. Possibly one could say: I invented nothing, everything was already invented. But I put all the elements together in a different way. The old masters knew that also; the difference is that we have more precise instruments at our disposal. But the laws of nature have not changed! In this sense there are no secrets. And the process of developing a personal sound ideal goes on always. I find it very difficult to formulate this in a general way. Just to separate each sound parameter and to find words for it… supported by physical knowledge and practical experience as a craftsman. Well, on the subject of models… from many guitars with a high reputation I made plans. After comparing construction with sound I needed more and more to find my own way – I did not want to copy because there was no model which totally convinced me; some details were fantastic. But something important was always missing. In saying this I don’t want to judge - also copying can be a very important process. Actually I use every device to train my perception and as a sort of objective judgement. But during constructing the manual work – to look, to listen, to feel – remains the main thing. Machines just do the routine work. Here I want to say something about materials. Today it seems doubtful to me to measure instruments of old masters and reconstruct them one-to-one. The characteristics of every used material and its process are also very important because wood is organic. And because of this it is unique - in nature every piece of wood exists only once. To achieve my ideal of sound I have to work on every piece of wood according to its conditions. Because of this I measure the statics and dynamics at every soundboard (values on the torsion or stiffness and resonances of frequencies). I collect and update these data so that I can compare them later. At any rate, the way I deal with a soundboard, or the way of arranging the struts, is a personal decision of that moment. I think it is an important task to research the criteria on sound, to define and formulate them. Because very soon there are limits in the language itself. For example: When a guitarist speaks about a “round” sound – what does this mean? Very often the words which describe sound are just defined in a subjective way, incompatible to the language of another musician. So we have to solve a problem of language. This difficulty seems to me very specific for guitarists. The person who is tuning a piano for example – if he or she is really capable – does it in the way the player wants it. In this case the words are defined more clearly. Not so with our instrument: Depending of the right-hand technique, the shape of the nails and the characteristics of the strings the resulting sound is always different when ten guitar players play on the same instrument. So first of all I try to find out the meanings of the words a player uses for his sound ideal. These are basic for my work. Sometimes the words are congruent, sometimes not… very often they are figurative: a “round” sound, “misty”, “out of centre”, “thin”, “thick”, “with stomach” etc. If I am able to translate them to the areas of frequencies it is possible to start work and to construct those parts which correlate to the specific sound. But everything is much more complicated because very often it is not easy to realize what is an effect and what is a cause. Today there is a tendency on the market to construct loud instruments for bigger concert halls. Very often this is achieved with a loss of sound colours. The energy which is transmitted from the strings to the instrument is taken from the material (ca. 3%), reflected and coloured in a specific way. In trying to minimize the loss of energy by making bottom, neck and frames stiffer so that only the soundboard can vibrate, some of the sound-colours are also lost. I should add that because of this the guitarist sitting behind his instrument is less supported by the guitar; he feels it less. It’s an error to think that “loud” instrument will be better heard. It is one of my most important aims to construct a guitar which is modest in a way but which responds very sensitively – so that a player has more access to the different areas of sound to realize his interpretation more precisely.” This article was published in “Gitarre aktuell /// / 2002, Hamburg”.