Shop talk: a conversation with Darren White

As promised in my last post, here is the 5th instalment of my “Interviews with luthiers” series that I started last April. Today’s subject is the Irish luthier, Darren White, who reached out to me about a year ago for something completely unrelated, which led me to ask if he might be interested in participating in the ramblings on my blog. Darren is a fascinating person to talk to (or, should I say, email with) and has built some very interesting and beautiful instruments. You can find out more about him on his website, clareguitar.org.

As always with the rest of this series, very little of the work is mine. The bulk of the text is taken directly from Darren, as are the pictures included in this post.

E.S. How did you get into guitar/instrument building?

When I was a full time stone sculptor/mason, I found that I was increasingly having to make bespoke crates for shipping my sculptures abroad. These became more and more complex as the sculptures became bigger and more complex. This got me into learning joinery. I then began to incorporate wood into my sculptures so I kinda learnt about the differences between woods, how they are finished, what kinda finishes different woods take well, how different woods work well…or not, as I went along.

Coupled with that, I am a life long musician (Bouzouki, guitar, piano, low whistle, a bit of fiddle….anything with strings on really…). All my life I have carried out repairs and just got more and more adventurous as the years went on. I began repairing friends instruments about six years ago. At some point in the last few years I began to build electric guitars, after following Crimson Guitars on YouTube. After building five solid body electrics I made the leap to building acoustic instruments.

I am a composer so I am more interested in building ‘one off” “weird” or challenging instruments, that might attempt to solve problems that composition ideas have thrown up, or simply to try and challenge me to find strange composition ideas.

E.S. Could you expand on the building of instruments as a composer? I’d be interested in hearing about the composition conundrums that you have turned into instruments.

I studied electronics in music and for a few years became fascinated with building electronic instruments, as well as studying composers like Stockhausen, Xanakis, Pierre Schaeffer etc. The trouble I encountered with electronica and computer music is that it is timbre and rhythm based. I feel as a guitarist, first and foremost, that I think always in terms of harmonic structure and melody. These both being defined/derived by the nature of the instrument’s dynamic range and construction. What made me abandon electronic music was that the instrument design is essentially based around ‘switching’ mechanisms, (signal on/off), and software based methods of creating ‘virtual’ ways to mimic nuance in timbre and expression……which can already be REALLY DONE on REAL instruments.

How does this relate to composition..? Well, if you like the ole traditional melody supported by an interesting harmonic structure, like I do, building instruments that challenge my playing technique and expand the harmonic range available to me are far more inspiring to think about and build than putting together groups of sine wave oscillators.

I first built an 8 string electric because I was inspired by people like Tosin Abasi and his explorations in expanding the lower end of the instrument and the upper end for developing wild and longer and longer arpeggios. The development of thumb tapping a bass line and simultaneous chord and melody playing is great. It’s the principle of, “here are two more strings in the low end, what can we do with them in terms of developing new playing techniques and composing out of that.” I built the harp guitar with a set of twelve extra strings and spent weeks working out all the different tunings that were possible to provide me with the widest range of chords I could pluck. The physical nature of that guitar led me to develop a left hand technique where I strum with my little finger of the hand that is holding the chord down. So my composing comes from experimenting with what can be done with the nature of an instrument… hence the drive to build strange/challenging stringed… things.

E.S. Do you have formal training, or are you self-taught?

I have two really good cabinet makers nearby who are happy to answer my constant questions, plus a good network of online makers, but no formal woodwork training. My third level study was in Music composition and performance, and then in electronics and media technology. I’m also a Theatre nurse, (I think that’s operating room nurse in North American), as my daughters joke, “your patients are asleep most of the time, just like your music audiences, Dad!”

E.S. Do you have any luthier heroes? 

There are so many people online that I follow, I especially like PabloRequena on You Tube because he is such a methodical video blogger, really great resource. Pablo Soriano is another good maker. Being an ill-disciplined maverick in most things I do, I don’t hero worship anyone in particular, but just try and find good techniques for use in what are becoming more and more ‘hair brain’ projects, like the lire. If I had a wood working hero it would be Tom Fidgen, who is not a luthier but did inspire me to let go of the idea that you need loads of expensive machinery and enjoy the act of working with wood. I think he is a Canadian, actually. I think he has a great approach and philosophy and I have all his books. Anyone who is willing to chat and share their skills and knowledge is a hero of mine. I am also amazed at how ‘cagey’ some luthiers are about their work. Knowledge and experience not shared is just wasted. Oh, another lovely luthier on youtube is Jon Mangum, he makes fiddles.

E.S. How many instruments have you built?

Five electric guitars (two 8-strings and three 6-strings), three steel strung acoustics, three bouzoukis, a couple of mandolins, currently working on a lire de Braccia and have the sound boards for two nylon strung models. Numerous rebuilds, from new sound boards to new necks. Oh and I forgot the Two Harp guitars I made.

E.S. Do you have a favourite type of instrument to build?
As a builder of electric and acoustic instruments, do you find yourself approaching these instruments in particularly different ways?

I like the challenge of acoustic instruments. The acoustic guitar is especially interesting because there are so many approaches….should I use a form, or do an open build?, would this work better built ‘top down’? Bracing patterns?, what materials?…. can I be accurate enough to do this? All the different approaches to the neck…. one piece, or join?…glue/bolt on? These challenges I like. With solid body electric guitars, once you have a good level of carpentry skills, and can route and measure accurately, you will be fine, it’s just a matter of what weird body shapes you can come up with. Acoustic instruments are at another level, I feel. It’s cabinet making accuracy and delicacy, not just carpentry. So I prefer acoustic instruments to build.

E.S. What space do you have for a workshop?

My workshop is two separate rooms in the house: one where I do my main work and one were I do finishing. Then I have a twelve foot by eight foot shed where I do all my rough cutting, jigging and electric planing of the large slabs. No power tools in the main workshop, (Ok, I lied, I do have a pillar drill) but everything else in the instrument builds is done by hand.

I am in the process of buying a house much bigger than the one I am in now, that will solve my workshop space problems. I had to invest in a vacuum and air filtration system recently, to keep the fine dust down in the rest of the house.

E.S.What were you looking for in a house as far as workshop requirements?

I have looked at many properties with big separate garages, barns or stables that I thought I could convert for a workshop space. However, the house I am buying has no out buildings. The reason for this is that it dawned on me that a separate building needs separate heating/insulation and also renovation. I am buying a house far too big for me and utilizing half of it as a workshop space, (one reception room as a machine room and a separate but adjoining sunroom for my ‘fine working’ space). No renovation required just the installation of my dust extraction and air filtration system. I plan on going solar and running the whole workshop off that.There is also an enormous closet (about six by ten feet) I will use as a wood store/project store. All with temp control underfloor heating. The house will also accommodate people for planned weekend workshops in woodworking/instrument making that myself and another local craftsman are planning for next year.

So if you are looking at property in the future I would say consider finding a house that accommodates your craft and music inside it… if that’s your life, why not put them in your living space! I’m looking forward to just stepping out of my kitchen, across a hall and straight into my workshop… that’s actually big enough.

E.S. Is there anything in particular that you are interested in at the moment or that inspires you to continue exploring and experimenting?

My major interest at the moment is the whole concept of ‘tap tuning’ and the acoustic properties of different woods. I like to use diverse and unconventional woods, but have very lively debates with other builders regarding differences in tone for differing grain densities, and wood types. I am not a complete cynic but as a relatively new builder I find myself very dubious about some of the ‘folk lore’ around sound board, or ‘plate’ construction. I feel one definitely needs a good resonance in the wood and each builder finds their own way to achieve this ‘optimum’ resonance. But I feel people don’t consider the whole construction when tap tuning a plate. We glue a sound board and bridge to the plate after already gluing a back and side to the thing, which are usually made from different woods. We then brace strings across it……..my question is, “beyond the fact it was hopefully a resonant piece of wood when you held it between your thumb and fore finger and tapped, what relationship does the plate, in that free state, have to the plate that is glued and held fast as one part in a very complex construction?”

I don’t think tap tuning tells us anything beyond the fact that it should resonate well, once its made part of a guitar. I am building two nylon strung guitars at the moment, and doing them in a very traditional manner, but I have used woods that according to some text books, shouldn’t work as sound boards and they have sounded really nice. Of the few instruments I have sold so far, no one has bought one back.

E.S.  In what way are/were the soundboards for your nylon string guitars not in line with textbook “good wood,” and how do you go about choosing the wood for your instruments?

I have read in many text books and online that the closer and more numerous the grain the higher quality of a sound board you will get. Roger Siminoff in his book “The Luthier’s Handbook” states, “No less than 10 rings per inch is preferable for spruce and cedar sound boards”. He claims this leads to a ‘brighter’ tone. “Timber of less than 15 rings per inch should not be used for fine instruments” is stated by Mcleod and Welford in their book, “The Classical guitar.” But is this actually true? I treated myself to a Hanika concert quality classical guitar a couple of years ago because I could and I was doing a little more regular performance than I am now. While that guitar is of very good quality, has a loud and even tone and has a good broad neck and lovely profile… it isn’t my favourite sounding guitar. It’s almost too even and perfect. I like a bit of variance and colour in the tone of an instrument. I’m not sure perfect pure even tone is that great a thing. Having built a few instruments with soundboards made from wood well under ten rings per inch and found them to be very pleasing in tone, I’m not convinced this ‘rings per inch rule” I keep hearing and reading about is not just really a specific tradition, rather than a recipe for quality that it seems to claim. The first acoustic arch top I built I used spalted maple for the sound board because I thought it looked good. There is no easy to see grain pattern in it, but it sounds fine. It features in my mildly narcissistic promo vid.

What am I looking for in wood? Like you, if it looks good and seems to be resonant and strong, I’ll use it. My wood supplier, Tim, fells all sorts of trees, from yew to apple, to lime, to ash. They all have such beautiful grain and colour. I recently bought some apple wood from him, which is too small for guitars but might just stretch to a mandolin. It has a nice close grain and I have heard it used in fiddles to good effect. I bought it because it looked so pure and white with a lovely hint of red through it. Of course that will all be lost once we stain it with a finish!

The Lire De Braccia is being constructed from lime and cedar. A lime soundboard and ribs, with a cedar back.

I use a good bit of cedar in my backs, but not really close grained, and I find it just as strong and seemingly resonant. Ultimately I am just more interested in experimentation/exploration than I am with complying with tradition and convention. But that’s not to say I don’t value or respect those things, I just like pushing boundaries and bucking trends.

E.S I find it interesting that you are building this lire with a hardwood top and softwood back – kind of the opposite to traditional classical guitars. Forgive my ignorance, but is this standard for this instrument? Also how is lime wood to work with?

On the hardwood top thing you have to consider the density/flexibility of the wood in relation to what it might work as. As I am sure you know, the hardwood/softwood categorization of timber is a bit misleading. Not all hardwoods are hard and not all softwoods are soft, the categorization hard or soft is based on weather a trees leaves are a certain shape and if they fall off in winter. Lime is a ‘hardwood’ but its not that dense or hard. I find it acts feels and cuts similar to spruce, though I must admit I am finding this batch a bit ‘brittle’ and ‘gritty’. I don’t know if you have ever noticed that with kiln dried woods sometimes? But its working well so far and looks lovely.

Cedar takes a good finish and I liked the variance of grain and colour in this slab when i spotted it at the yard. I wouldn’t use it for a guitar back but the lire is only violin sized so I figured the small surface area wouldn’t cause to many structural problems. ……of course it might just fall apart! But its an adventure of experimentation.

E.S. Regarding your interest in tap tuning, are you looking for anything in particular when you tap a piece of wood, or just something that seems to resonate well?

Tap tuning…. I just listen for a clear even vibration that lasts over two seconds after I have fixed the braces on. I don’t consider what pitch it is vibrating at, just that it resonates well all over the ‘working’ surface. I read somewhere recently that recent acoustic analysis of guitars has shown that the sound is coming from the whole instrument not just the movement of the sound board. This points towards the quality of construction being just as, if not more important than the individual woods used.

A huge thank you to Darren for participating in this series. Do check out his work via his website, clareguitar.org if you have a moment – he has a couple of videos up to demonstrate his instruments as well as the usual photographic fare.

Who should I interview next? I’ll take requests (although no promises on timelines…), so leave me a comment below.

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Emily

I play guitar. I build guitars when I can. I enjoy all sorts of music, but Baroque, 'classical' guitar music of the 19th and 20th centuries, and jazz music hold special places in my heart. I am using this blog to document some of my adventures in guitar building, performing, and teaching, and hope to give my readers a bit of a look at the world inside a guitar.

5 thoughts on “Shop talk: a conversation with Darren White”

  1. Darren has quite an interesting personality, he obviously likes a challenge.. shows how much luthery can be intuitive and intriguing! Hope the paduk provides as much! BTW, should you be in Ireland…. go check out his workshop!

  2. Hi Emily,
    Another interesting interview and very fascinating. I really like Darren’s willingness to experiment and to go ‘against the grain’. Well thought out questions and excellent answers!
    Mike

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