The Music of Guitar Wood

Master luthier TJ Thompson of West Concord, Mass., demonstrates how guitar wood sounds before it's made into guitars... and how a guitar-maker's task is to find the music in the wood.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

So far our series called SoundClips has brought us the sounds of a squeaky bathtub, an underground elevator, a bike on a wooden velodrome, even a helper monkey. Today, a master guitar builder, he specializes in repairing and reproducing instruments from the 1920s through the '40s, the golden age of the CF Martin and Company. And he says sometimes he can hear the music before he builds an instrument.

(Soundbite of guitar)

Mr. TJ THOMPSON: My name is TJ Thompson. I work here in West Concord, Massachusetts, building guitars. And we're going to talk about tapping wood today.

(Soundbite of tapping)

Mr. THOMPSON: If this piece that I'm tapping is a about one-eighth of an inch thick, and it's shaped like a guitar, and I don't know anybody in the history of this business who's talked about (Unintelligible) this way. So this is not sort of a normal conversation that you would necessarily be having with somebody in this business.

(Soundbite of tapping)

Mr. THOMPSON: I think most people are trying to make guitars that look beautiful. I mean, I like to be able to make guitars that are shiny and pretty and attractive but that's not our number one goal.

(Soundbite of a vibration)

Mr. THOMPSON: There's more music in some trees than others. And the secret to being luthier(ph) is understanding that relationship with nature. So that's what we're going to talk about today - tapping some wood and seeing if we can find some music in these trees.

Mr. THOMPSON: This is a piece of German spruce.

(Soundbite of tapping)

Mr. THOMPSON: This is a piece of Engleman spruce from Western United States.

(Soundbite of tapping)

Mr. THOMPSON: When I pick up this piece of wood, it's warmer and it's softer. I mean you can just feel it. And that's how it sounds. The other piece of wood the German spruce is harder, and it's colder.

(Soundbite of tapping)

Mr. THOMPSON: It sounds denser, doesn't it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: This is a piece of Sitka spruce, which is probably denser and stronger.

(Soundbite of tapping)

Mr. THOMPSON: It's the least expensive most available wood. And it's the wood that you saw most often in guitars up until a few years ago when people figure out that the Holy Grail of wood was the red spruce - Adirondack red spruce in particular. And that Martin used in the '30s.

(Soundbite of guitar playing)

Mr. THOMPSON: I'm lucky enough to have sawn the trees myself. Most of it came from trees that I cut, so I know that particular wood. I know that tree. I cut a couple of spruce trees in the early '90s. And I've been building guitars from those pieces of wood ever since.

(Soundbite of tapping)

Mr. THOMPSON: Okay. Here's a tap tone from one of those Adirondack spruce trees.

(Soundbite of tapping)

Mr. THOMPSON: Music to my ears.

(Soundbite of tapping)

Mr. THOMPSON: So this piece of Adirondack spruce that I tap for you, this one -

(Soundbite of tapping)

Mr. THOMPSON: Is going to go on a my modern replica of an Owen 28, which I have an original here from 1930. This is the goal. This is what it's supposed to sound like when it's done. And I figure out I have a much better chance if I used the same wood that they used on the original guitars.

(Soundbite of guitar playing)

BLOCK: That's TJ Thompson tapping and picking guitars at his workshop in West Concord, Massachusetts. You can find out more about our SoundClip series at NPR.org.

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