September 03, 2019

Intention and Attention: Brett Goodroad and Alan Perlman in Conversation

Alan Perlman. All photos by Brett Goodroad unless otherwise noted.

Alan Perlman. All photos by Brett Goodroad unless otherwise noted.

Two years ago, my friend Devin taught me to hold the classical guitar. I had an idea about getting closer to painters I’ve loved through lute transcriptions; Giorgione spent more time playing the lute than painting. Now, most evenings, I’m whittling at a pavana or fantasia.

When I met Alan Perlman at our local coffee shop, I didn’t know he was at the helm of many immense histories — we just got along. We joked and from time to time engaged in serious conversation about instruments and music. I didn’t imagine his clients ranged from Paul Simon and Keith Richards to an entire ecosystem of steel-string and classical guitarists. 

I feel lucky when he invites me over to play rare or beautiful instruments. The most recent was one of only nine known to exist. It had a crack he needed to fix; when he was done he called and we sat in his living room and it didn’t sound as remarkable as its history. Alan found and played notes Woody could’ve played in Toy Story. However, there are times when an instrument emerges from a bottle carrying Francisco Tárrega’s second-hand smoke. 

Alan has seen all the ways a player can “season” an instrument. One of guitar’s great historical heroes, Agustín Barrios, dropped his equally great Hermann Hauser off a bridge to splash into a river. When I asked Alan about this, his response (“Well, as long as it dried slowly…”) seemed an absurdly calm one, like a farmer whose reaction to his field catching fire is, “Well… I suppose we better call the fire department.” 

It is this kind of patience — or presence? — that demonstrates what makes Alan such a trusted and respected builder and restorer of fine and vintage instruments. Just as a player like Jon Mendle listens to his instrument, Alan thinks through the material of his craft, knowing how it will react. There are only a handful at this level. Mainly, it’s the instruments he’s saved; he has a resume of resurrection. Rooms in his home are bubbling with guitar cases.

When we discuss his vision as a builder and player he says he’s interested in touching the heart. You hear this in the way he plays the songs of his beloved Pierre Bensusan. You see it in his hands. You sense what he loves about an early twentieth-century Stahl because you hear it coming out of the replica he built. You see it in his rosettes and in the texture of the tones in his instruments. His longtime friend, James Kline, calls him “a monster.” I’ll add, “playing from the heart of tree.”

Alan and I recently met at his workshop in the San Francisco’s Outer Sunset neighborhood. His shop was a cascade of tools and guitars, an impossible playground in which to conduct an interview; every inch of that room is attractive. Ask a painter whose prime concern is metamorphoses to interview a transmogrifier of trees, and you’d be lucky if he said anything, and wasn’t just a pair of gawping owl eyes. Luckily, Alan is incredibly articulate; the following is an edited taste of our continuing conversation.  —Brett Goodroad


Alan Perlman: So, this is what I was talking about when we were looking at the French guitar in the book that had the classical bridge. This would have been the front line of the old bridge, and so they dug in when they removed what used to be there. And that was filled with white glue, which they use a lot in repairs sometimes, nasty stuff. This is a family heirloom. It belongs to a violinmaker in Berkeley and it’s interesting that he would give it to me, because I would think that he has all the skills to do it himself. But he’s not a guitar guy in his own mind. It came to me pretty much as you see it, but with a rather ugly bridge that I removed. It’s one of these projects that’s been ongoing. Because it’s hard to clarify scope there.

Brett Goodroad: What do you mean by scope?

AP: Exactly what I’m going to do with it. An example would be: Will I be able to get a smaller bridge on and still have it look good? There’s a large crack in the top that’s been repaired. Do I need to just back it up and stabilize it or actually put a splint in and try to match it to the rest of the top, which is what I’m inclined to do?

BG: How often do you get instruments from the Bay Area? You get them from everywhere, right?

AP: It’s most frequently the Bay Area. I’m squarely planted in both classical and pre-classical scenes, but also the steel strings.

BG: And what we’re looking at here is mostly classical.

AP: Today we are.

BG: Today’s a classical day.

AP: Or this month.

BG: This month is a classical month.

AP: Of course, we could easily be — and are most frequently — filled with old Martins and Gibsons and things.

BG: Who owns this guitar?

AP: A motivational speaker. He studied with George Sakellariou in San Rafael, and he’s been a client for many, many years. Like a lot of folks, he’ll acquire new ones because he just can’t stop, you know? [Laughter]

BG: That’s Brazilian rosewood.

AP: Yes. There’s a few different sources I have. That pile above the closet actually was underwater in Brazil for I don’t know how long; what’s happened is that the natural oils and resins have been replaced by minerals and so it’s really brittle. But that same quality, that brittle, reflective quality, would make it sound absolutely beautiful.

BG: I remember you telling me, one way of solving it would be to use a meat tenderizer?

AP: Yeah. The other stack, the lower stack that’s taped up, was from a three-hundred pound Brazilian rosewood beam that looked like a cracked old barn beam and it was part of a lot of stuff that came from Bahia Province back in the 1940s and ’50s when they were going to cut a forest. The first thing they did was clear an area, and they built their kitchen and sheds in the camp out of whatever they cut. So you might have kitchens with Brazilian rosewood beams, mahogany beams, who knows what. This beam was basically in miserable condition, but with something that large, you can get to the core of it and it’s still pretty healthy. I got about twenty guitars worth of material out of it, plus a lot of small pieces. There’s also stuff salvaged from stumps.

BG: Swiss spruce from 1987. What’s the length of time to age; I mean, I guess there’s no limit, right?

AP: Well there’s two things. One is drying, and a year is fine for that. It’s a thin piece of wood and it’s going to hit its moisture content and that’s that. But then being a resinous wood, what happens over time is that the pitchy resin crystalizes and when it becomes crystalline — the crystalline is going to sound much better.

And it does become lighter. People have tried to speed that up through baking it at low temperatures in a vacuum, all sorts of stuff. What people have managed to do with aging is replicate one part of it. There’s another, more mysterious part — like, over many years, as it’s played a lot and played hard, it improves a lot.

BG: One thing that is endlessly fascinating to me is the idea that every instrument is going to be inherently different because you’re using pieces of wood that are unique — even if they’re from the same tree. Trees follow me around; they’re always there, in my work. But there’s something about taking from this living plant, and not only making music from it, but also making this object from which to make music. It’s really complex, right? The variabilities… it’s such an organic process for such an analytical thing. I’m looking at all these tools and all these very specific measurements. As guitar builders, you’re talking in millimeters, or you’re talking in fractions of a millimeter, and yet the thing that you’re working with is always eluding you. I see that translating into my practice as a painter: what’s eluding you is what you’re driving at. It’s the thing you’re never going to get; and when you actually do get it, it’s this beautiful, magical thing that happens. I mean, I’m working with minerals but what you’re working with is actual plant material. And you’re sculpting out of it and making these beautiful rosettes.

AP: And you’re constantly trying to get as much out of that material as you can.

BG: Right, yeah. Romanillos talked a lot about the rays of the wood; his description was quite beautiful, the way that you have to have a knowledge of the rays of the wood when you’re splitting.

AP: When it’s perfectly quarter sawn, the medullary rays show as a lovely, silky cross-grain pattern. You frequently run across pieces that have not been sawn parallel to the heart of the tree. And that results in a condition called run-out which makes the wood weaker and not at its best.

BG: Can you say what you mean by “parallel to the heart of the tree”?

AP: Well, the heart of the tree is the center of the tree, and we’ll say that’s vertical; ideally, you’d want to cut your wood parallel along that line. When you split it, that automatically happens and working to that split surface, you end up getting that perfectly cut wood.

BG: There’s this Mirecourt guitar that you’ve been working on —

AP: You mean forever?

A Mirecourt guitar. Click to enlarge.

A Mirecourt guitar. Click to enlarge.

BG: Forever, yeah. When we first started hanging out — you gave me some mother of pearl to try, and I was arrogant enough to believe that I could mimic some of the marks that this maker had made. Do we have a name though?

AP: It is completely anonymous, as were many of those guitars, because they were made in the hills around Mirecourt between 1780 and 1885, unsigned, for dealers to label. They were an incredibly skilled people.

BG: One of the other things that’s fascinating about your practice, not only as a guitar maker but also as a restorer, is that you constantly have your hands in the history of the instrument itself. We have all these makers and only a few names, like Mirecourt, have lasted, right? I always reflect on is how complex that ecosystem of makers and players in France must have been to make instruments like what we’re looking at. Of course, this kind of instrument is made for a very rich buyer. But I remember you saying that’s not necessarily always the case?

AP: No, I think it’s like any maker: we will cater to wealthy clients for obvious reasons — they’re the ones that can afford this level of work — but those can also be great relationships.

BG: Of course.

AP: Makers also cater to the guitarists and are often really responsive to their needs and desires. An instrument like this, the same maker could have made something with far less ornamentation, six, seven, ten, eleven strings — just different iterations.

BG: Returning to this Mirecourt, the entire fretboard is covered in mother of pearl. Then at the bottom it’s “Gravé par Théresse?”, which is — gravé is —

AP: Engraved?

BG: But it’s also a musical form. Overture. Grave. Serious. Grave.

AP: And the name Théresse pops up on hundreds if not more of these guitars, and it raises the question —

BG: What’s up with Théresse?

AP: James Westbrook is one of the finest scholars of instruments of this era and later instruments, and he’s said that almost all of them say Théresse on them.

BG: Oh man, what a muse!

AP: And there’s an amazing lack of — as in zero — information on Théresse. In a book that’s totally devoted to these guitars of Mirecourt, there’s no mention of the engraver and I can only think that they don’t know who it is. But it’s somebody that was skilled beyond anything that I can imagine, knowing what goes into this work — I cannot imagine how long it must have taken, what kind of person is doing it deftly, and the level of skill and perfection required.

AP: Yeah, to make those marks on the mother of pearl is —

AP: It’s a layered, brittle material.

BG: It’s really tough. I remember thinking I could do it, and then I tried — it’s crazy.

AP: Staring at it for a long time probably won’t help our recording.

BG: No. [laughs]

AP: Sorry about that folks.

BG: We haven’t even looked at that one. That’s Mirecourt as well, yeah?

AP: This was bought by a young client who I built several guitars for, Jon Mendle. He’s one of the best classical guitarists, and earlier guitarists, to come out of the conservatory. Astonishingly good. And he’s gotten into collecting these instruments. He bought this one in a shop in Canada and it needs the usual work. You can see that there are some worm tracks on it, which is something that you have to really be careful of, because that could be a sign of activity, structural failure. Sometimes you’ll shine a light and you’ll see that it’s almost like a spider web of material left, and it’s all been eaten away from inside. But this one’s fine.


Jon Mendle playing “Romance” by Soffren Degen (1816–1885) on a seven-string guitar, the instrument for which it was composed, and which is a replica built by Alan.

BG: Mendle makes me think of your relationship with the conservatory over the years. And also (moving from Paris to Spain) your Torres project — you built a replica? Did some lectures, etc… When was that?

AP: I think that was three years ago. Yeah, I built a replica of what is known as Torres’ SE112. It was commissioned by the San Francisco Conservatory and the Harris Guitar Foundation. I gave three lectures about Antonio de Torres’ innovations and invited classes into my shop. Six students were chosen to perform on the replica in a few recital halls in the bay. It’s in the conservatory’s collection now.

BG: How did that come about, what prompted it?

AP: Torres was a builder in the mid-to-late 1800s, and he took the guitars of the time, which were mostly similar to this, small-bodied, romantic guitars — the soundboard bracing was just horizontal wooden bars across it, mostly. And he enlarged the body, changed the shape, fixed 650-millimeter scale length, the length of the vibrating string, domed the soundboard and refined the bracing pattern.

BG: Didn’t he also do a papier-mâché body once to prove the importance of the top?

AP: The top is everything, creating the sound. And so he made a body out of papier-mâché, and you’ve got to wonder about the papier-mâché itself. It was reputed to be a wonderful-sounding guitar and there’s a recording of it available. And it sounds fine, but you cannot get a true sense of a guitar’s sound from the recording, especially modern recordings; you know, you get a good digital recording and then you do something with it, you might add some reverb, equalization, something. And he also came up with a system of top bracing. He didn’t invent the fan bracing, but he refined the primitive pattern. And the fan brace is literally a fan that extends from the sound hole and radiates out towards the bottom end of the guitar.

So what he did is he essentially created the modern concert guitar.

BG: The classical world has really championed him. But that’s only in the last twenty, thirty years maybe?

AP: Maybe more. But right, there’s an appreciation in value.

BG: But he was a struggling artist that died poor and unappreciated.

AP: That’s why he built in epochs, two periods of time. In the middle, he ran a china shop to just get a little bit of money set aside. Interestingly enough, in each period of time he started with a small-bodied instrument and it got bigger. Started small and got bigger, and nobody knows why. It doesn’t totally make sense.

BG: Sonic exploration, I guess.

AP: Yeah, and he did a lot of exploration. I’ve restored five of his guitars, which is wonderful because I think there’s less than a hundred in existence. They generally sound beautiful. A touch quiet — of course, back then those were an incredible advance in volume from what they had.

BG: Those days players were playing in much smaller venues; it was much more of an intimate experience, right? And of course, the character of the tone was much more thought through, thought about.

AP: Yeah, and that’s what I still love. Far more into musicality than volume. Though I aim for both.

BG: I don’t think it’s fuddy-duddy to think that having a much more complex sound is more interesting than just being loud. All instruments seem to be wanting to be louder. As if there was a possibility for an instrument — an instrument that’s just an instrument, not attached to electricity — to even compete within an electrical world. Why can’t it just have its own characteristic as something that can be an intimate experience? The other night you were playing one of Pierre Bensusan’s songs. Sitting with you in your kitchen and you playing these few songs — to me, that’s just profoundly moving. Not only because you’re an amazing player — I mean, you nailed it. To me. I’m sure to yourself, you’re probably —

AP: I’m busy ripping them apart myself.

BG: You’re ripping it apart, but that’s part of it, right? It’s the encounter with the artist. And yet at the same time, it’s somewhat anachronistic; aside from family and friends, music isn’t set up that way anymore. I can’t help but think of one thing you said, that the conservatory is sonically chaotic — so when there’s a bunch of players and they’re all playing fairly loud instruments, there’s all these reverberations.

AP: Yeah, it bounces and travels everywhere. Returning to what we were talking about, there are some incredible makers, a few that can just build a loud instrument that still has a fair amount of nuance. But mostly, the notes pop very quickly, and are frequently uneven — some loud, some soft — and have a tone that I find somewhat unpleasant.

BG: I mean, we’re looking at one with a sound port [an oval hole in the side facing the guitarist] right now, and that has to do with volume, doesn’t it?

AP: It has to do with the volume as it feeds back to the player. You can easily cover up a sound port, so it’s very easy to compare a guitar to itself without a sound port. It’s on the edge of detectable to the listener. This guitar doesn’t have all the bells and whistles to make it louder, but it has a few. It has a paper-thin top. Where a normal top would two millimeters, 2.5 millimeters, this is maybe half that.

A framework of interlocked, small wood bars. They support a soundboard that is less than half the thickness of a conventional one.

A framework of interlocked, small wood bars. They support a soundboard that is less than half the thickness of a conventional one.

BG: Is there a little dome on the back?

AP: It’s very domed. And it also has what they call a lattice brace at the top. So if you look in the sound hole and you look at the top — or through the port and look at the top bracing —

BG: Oh wow. I have to take a picture.

AP: — you noticed there were no braces. It’s a laminated piece of wood, several layers that are formed in a press that give it this very severe arch. And it’s heavy.

BG: What a name too, William Faulkner.

AP: I know, Australian. So instead of the Torres model, where the whole body vibrates, this is relying on a very stiff and heavy back and sides that act more like a bass reflex speaker cabinet. It has back and sides that are able to reflect the sound, and it has a top that’s like a drum. I remember spending time with this exquisite Eastern European guitarist, Pavel Steidl. Just amazing. I spent an evening with him, had a bunch of guitars, it was fun.

BG: This is the other thing — you just hang out with all these amazing people!

AP: Well it’s a part of my job. Just people who love to play and love coming. Any genre.

BG: You have house concerts.

AP: Yes. So Pavel played an older instrument, like a Torres. He’s very expressive with his hands — he described the Torres as making a sound when you plucked a note, it would develop in waves, building very quickly, and then gradually fade. Where an instrument like this, he described the sound coming out in sort of a vertical pop that fades fairly quickly — and he wants an instrument that touches the heart.

BG: You can see that in the way he plays. Lots of rubato, right?

AP: Yeah. What I’ve seen in decent concert halls with good acoustics is that you can have a loud guitar, or you can have a quieter one with someone like Jon Mendle playing it. Audiences of course, are quiet these days, and what happens — and I love seeing this — is that the ear adjusts and people listen more closely and it just becomes the natural state of things during the concert. So what they’re hearing is this beautiful sound that’s having a perfectly fine time projecting to the back of the auditorium.

BG: Of course it’s a great deal to do with the auditorium, right? I mean, they record records at specific churches because of the wood-concrete ratio. Something like that.

AP: And that was the Julian Bream thing, for most of his career. He lived in England on a farm, and RCA came with their recording equipment to a church just down the road that he loved the sound of.

BG: He’s so rough. But he’s funny too.

AP: He’s very funny.

BG: He’s the type of artist where the primary material of him is this energy. There’s one moment, it must be during the Villa-Lobos, where he’s listening to this player and all of a sudden his hands fly out and his hair flies up and he’s like, “What we’re looking for is animation.” As a painter, that’s what I’m looking for as well: To do something. It’s like for God’s sake, do something! Coming back to rubato a little bit — when something becomes so regular you fall away from it. That’s the natural response, to stop paying attention. I think I remember Pavel Steidl talking about it too, in the sense that earlier musicians that were playing instruments like this, the pulse was constantly moving in a gestural way to animate the music. Even if it was written in a way that of course, how would you write in that? I guess you couldn’t.

AP: Usually that’s up to interpretation. But that was the exquisite thing about Bream, is that he knew where to use that expression. I remember him coaching students in Granada, a well-known piece.

BG: Oh yeah, which you’ve played.

AP: There’s a right-hand pulse that has to be absolutely rhythmic, but it’s rhythmic within exquisitely lyrical expression. That’s the other thing: intention. Everything is intention and attention.

BG: I mean, in two completely different players, right, Pierre Bensusan and Julian Bream — what I sense they bring is this huge breadth of color and sound. It’s spectral and it comes together in a single piece and it somehow becomes lyrical, but it’s gestural and of course.

Let’s get back to your history as a builder. I don’t want to be cliché and say, “What was the first guitar you built?” I think a better question would be, what was the propellant? Maybe it was your personality. You’ve talked about before that: you see something, you do something, you want to make it. Which makes sense. But the guitar is so intricate, — it requires a lot of focus. And were you in Vermont when you did it?

AP: When I started building, yes. So a little bit of personal history: as a young boy, I was fairly terrified of people and fascinated with the world of things, be it science or tropical fish — how things were made. I was fascinated with electronics, I would fix stuff. There was a basic innate understanding of how things worked and I would just love to dig into things and get lost.

So when I was in my late-ish teens, I moved to Vermont and I was living with a very quirky woodworker; there was an incredible availability of woodworking shops that you could work in and overhead was really low, so there was plenty of time to develop stuff. I’ve played guitar since I was twelve and was always just passionate about it. Irving Sloane came out with a book in 1966, Classic Guitar Construction. I got that book and I was maybe a forty-five-minute drive from Gurian Guitars; Michael Gurian was a hand-builder who opened up a twelve-person production studio, but he also sold woods and materials. In his good moods he would give you brief but astonishingly good advice and answer questions. So with the help of that book and my own propensity for doing that sort of thing, I built my first guitar. At the same time, I built my first Appalachian dulcimer and was introduced to an older fellow, Clark Vorhees, who was an incredibly skilled woodcarver and a dulcimer builder. He built these dulcimers that sounded great — he really knew sound — and were also beautiful to look at. He would carve the scroll, the peg head. He might have a woman’s head with her hair running down the back of the instrument blending into the wood. I worked with him, and he was totally generous with knowledge, and we had a great time together. Just a wonderful guy. He also carved wooden whales that were sold in stores in Hawaii and Cape Cod, all over the place.

Herringbone design next to a wooden mosaic classical rosette.

Herringbone design next to a wooden mosaic classical rosette.

BG: He probably made some cash on that!

AP: He did, and he passed it on to me. I would do, like, a week of intense whale carving. And that would give me some cash to pursue the rest of it. But so I got into the guitar thing, and also got into working with some antique dealers doing some restoration stuff. I was always willing to tackle stuff, and at the beginning there was definitely a casualty or two. But mostly I would do pretty well or better. Always learning, and always finding out stuff. Whatever it is in me — there’s a love for this stuff, there’s a comfort with it, a willingness to keep exploring.

BG: And you see often builders are also restorers. As part of a survival thing too, but also it seems like a way of engaging with history, engaging with all these other hands that have made these instruments, and continuing to learn from them in an incredibly intimate way.

AP: Yeah, that’s totally true.

BG: And all their problems. What did you say to me? That oftentimes it feels like you’re —

AP: — in a bad relationship.  And this is totally in jest, I don’t want anybody attacking me for saying this, bugger off. In advance, bugger off. But it’s like bringing someone home and thinking “this is great” and you know, you fix whatever’s wrong with this person. But then you find somebody’s been there first and just made a complete mess of it.

BG: Yeah, yeah. Oh my God.

AP: But yeah, I see that to astonishing degrees. What people have done in the past is just — I’m sorry.

It’s always a search for perfection, I want everything to be perfect — you know, as perfect as a moving target can be; and when do you stop and say “good enough”? It sounds pretty weak, but something might be as good as it can be, given the situation, and if I’ve spent too much time looking at it from two inches away, which is not its usual perspective.

BG: Right. Oftentimes with painting, you’ll be composing an image and all of a sudden, it’s working. But for some reason, you go back to the palette or whatever and you put one, slight stroke in somewhere and it just dies. I’m equating it in that way, and I don’t know if it’s correct. But it seems like it’s that tenuous.

AP: It’s not that tenuous. There are different things that happen. Like, the more wood you remove, the more responsive to bass frequencies the top becomes. People underestimate how much of their own feel for things goes into it — each guitar ends up sounding like a guitar that that maker makes. It has that maker’s sound.

If you look at Romanillos — and this is fascinating — he builds to a certain thickness that’s on the high side of anything he’s going to end up with. And he taps on it — this is according to him — until the top is uniformly dead throughout, and that’s what he wants.

When you have a plate, a top [the soundboard] that resonates really clearly to one note, that note very well might — but not always, it’s mysterious — be your wolf note, that G or F sharp might be really loud or distorted on that instrument.  And then there’s the back and there’s an air mass inside and those both resonate to a certain note, and so all that has to be factored in. You definitely don’t want a top and a back resonating to the same note, because that’s going to be a wild wolf note. One of the best guitar makers in this country — if not the best — Jeff Elliott, loves to tell this story where he built an instrument and it ended up where the top and back resonated to exactly the same note, and he was just thinking “this is screwed” and it absolutely wasn’t — in that guitar, it didn’t matter. So it’s how it goes.

I might tap some, because what I’m mostly looking for in the raw piece of wood is a certain kind of musicality that seems to transfer into the instrument, and if I took out a couple pieces of spruce, I think you’d hear it immediately. And stiffness and lightness, because a plucked string has very little energy and so we want something where mass is not in the way. And then when I’m bracing, it’s mostly by feel, feeling stiffness, pressing down on the top, and I want to see it move a certain amount. There’s other people that are measuring specific gravity, mass, deflection, everything. I don’t know that one group’s getting better results than the other group.

A rare, pensive moment.

A rare, pensive moment.

BG: Right. You see a lot of talk about physics and how scientists are going to discover whatever proper ways of bracing this stuff. But within that, I still think it’s a moving target. Because in essence, we come back to the fact that this is a tree and all this wood is coming from different trees, and it could be the same tree, but even within an inch, the tree is different — even within a millimeter, there’s differences in water content, resin content.

AP: To an amazing degree. But Romanillos picked out a tree — and I think probably for most of his career, he was building out of that tree. You know, because they’re giant trees.

BG: I remember he had a big log.

AP: Right, there’s some sort of consistency within a tree — much more than among different trees. But yeah, it’s the kind of stuff that makes me wish I lived forever, you know? There’s just no end to which I want to explore this.

BG: Just beautiful, endlessly beautiful.

AP: That’s why I love my friend Jeff Elliott — I mean Jeff and Cyndy, they’re a couple and besides being exquisite builders and finishers, they’re just great folks, incredibly generous with their knowledge and stuff like that. But Jeff took his last commission when he was sixty and based on the usual number of people falling off the waiting list, he has a fifteen-year waiting list. So the plan is to build until he’s seventy-five —

BG: Do people actually fall off it?

AP: A few. And when he’s seventy-five, build all the crazy shit that he’s always thought of.

BG: That’s amazing.

AP: I love that. However that pans out, it’s great. He’s been incredibly supportive at work, and he’s also passed on entire clients to me, like Paul Simon. I restored Paul Simon’s Velazquez, which was the first handmade guitar he ever bought. Nobody was copping to the fact that the guitar had been dropped, and that’s where most of the damage came from. It was dropped.

BG: What was the most tenuous you’ve ever felt when repairing?

AP: Sheldon Urlik’s Torres from 1867. This was a severely compromised guitar. Somebody replaced a bird’s-eye maple side — European bird’s-eye maple, which is barely available anymore — and one of my jobs was to replace the replacement side and finish it to match the instrument, which meant finding the right wood. And two suppliers, one in Germany and one in Poland, sent me an assortment of sides that I could choose from. Also, the soundboard of the instrument had been sanded, especially around the top, had been reduced from probably about two millimeters when it was new to as thin as .4 millimeters, which meant that it was sort of a lampshade at that point. That was a complex job, because the top also had collapsed, basically. So I removed the bracing, built an arched mold to replicate the original doming of the top, and set the guitar in that mold, and once a day for six weeks, a light misting, a very light misting of water and warm sandbags. Gradually just coaxing it into its original curve. And then in that mold, glued the braces on to lock it into that curve. And that worked beautifully.

BG: But you were stressed out the whole time whether it would work?

AP: No. For me — and I’ve come to know this in my dotage — the stress is anticipatory. So, it was a mistake to leave this in the closet and lose sleep over it. I don’t want to say that there’s a sense of mastery — I know what I’m doing and I know how to observe and steer and maybe fix. But also, with this it was for somebody that was a collector for whom there is a joy in the restoration as well in the finished project, so he’d rather see me spend time, take wrong turns, make a decision, change my mind, do that kind of thing and see that whole process. He’s in his later seventies and he’s seen this before with other restorations. And so, that whole package. It’s actually on YouTube, you see Jon Mendle playing that guitar.

And so that was the most challenging job I’ve done. There are some great photos. Fretboard Journal has a great article about that and other stuff. What I always keep in mind is my mom’s delicious statement to me that I frequently heard when I was young: you have more nerve than brains. Very supportive.

BG: Was there an instrument that you’ve built that makes you feel you’ll never get that again? The sound was so perfect or something — maybe just that there’s some confluence, it became this really magical instrument. And then you sell it. It’s probably no different than me selling a painting and I’m really proud of it for something, and seeing it go away, to some extent I’m tired of it. I’m tired of thinking of it, I’m happy to see it go. But then in the future, when I’m making, I think about what happened and I try to bring it to what I’m doing in some ways.

AP: Absolutely. It’s the difficult thing about doing so many repairs: I don’t have as much internal continuity as I’d like between guitars. But there’s a good memory for that, and the memory is the best part. There are some instruments that are outstanding. I mean, I hope they’re all outstanding from a certain point of view. But some that stand out in my mind, would be a better way of putting it. Most of it is relational in a way. I think of who I built for and what they did with it. So somebody like Jon Mendle stands out a lot, and Jim Kline. But there are also just so many folks that have a solid day job that are practicing classical guitar in their off hours and love it.

BG: Yeah. And are living with it, yeah.

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