Cedar vs. Spruce Top Guitars According to John Williams
Interview by Chris Kilvington and Colin Cooper | Excerpted from the March 1990 issue of Classical Guitar
Chris Kilvington: A very basic question: are you still using a Smallman guitar?
Absolutely! I have two. I got another one last November (1988), which I’m tempted to say is the best yet. Except that I still have an affection for one of the two, previous ones. Gerry Garcia has one of those, and I’m playing the other one. We’ve been talking about what’s preferable and what is actually better. I’m tempted to say the new one is better, but I’ve just recorded a whole album of Takemitsu with the London Sinfonietta, and I used the older guitar. It has a slightly less forceful character and a lower action, which helps, but also a slightly sweeter sound. That’s not to say the other one isn’t sweet…
It’s a question of the slightly lower action for the delicacy of Takemitsu, and ease of legato, with fewer squeaks. It was absolutely beautiful. Incidentally, I now always use semi-polished strings for recording.
I keep the two guitars because I use both, but principally I use the newer one for concerts. The latest recording, The Spirit of the Guitar, was with the newer guitar.
I’ve just got a lot of wood from a violin maker and instrument repairer called Andrew Dipper; he’s just moved to America, and had a whole lot of wood including some cedar guitar tops, which I’m taking out to Greg Smallman.
But yes, the Smallman guitar: it’s not only a question of how good the guitar is, it’s the kind of sound. Ben Verdery in New York plays a lot of chamber music on his, and he has also said that other musicians notice it. It’s not a question of volume; the volume is a bit more, but there are guitars which—in a way—are louder. It’s the nature of the sound and quality of the volume; for example, lots of percussive attack and fundamental note can give a very big subjective impression of volume, like a rifle. But true volume comes from sensitivity of the top to the range of upper harmonics and frequencies—this gives volume and body to the sustain, and of course this is more musical.
Colin Cooper: People sometimes say that cedar doesn’t project in a large hall. What do you say to that?
Rubbish! I don’t mind seeming to be very arrogant about it, but honesty compels me to say that most of what people say about guitars and woods is rubbish. And most of it is due to the fact that they don’t know anything about it. Now I know very little, but I certainly know more than the people who talk absolute nonsense!
I’ve gone to guitar exhibitions where maker after maker has brought two guitars to me—“This is my cedar guitar and this is my spruce guitar.” They make the same guitar and they put cedar on one and spruce on the other. I mean, it’s ridiculous! It’s like being in two cars, say two Austin Allegros: “I’ve put a five-litre V8 in one and I’ve put a two-litre Six in the other”—you know?
That’s really what it’s based on. And then they say that the back is made of such-and-such because the quality of Brazilian rosewood is something or other—whatever it is—etcetera, etcetera!
I am very interested in it. I’m not saying it’s all rubbish from the point of view from which they make the judgement or the statement. But from the point of view of what’s important about guitars, it’s all rubbish. If you’re making guitars in the same way, and you put a cedar or spruce top on it, they will obviously sound different. And some people will prefer the cedar, and some people will prefer the spruce. For different reasons. It’s very important to mention that. They’re not talking rubbish from the point of view of the difference which they prefer. The point is, are they using cedar for the reasons that cedar can be better, or are they using spruce for the reasons that spruce can be better? Do they have an overall direction in what they are trying to achieve?
In most conversations they seem to have no understanding. The construction is incredibly complex, and it depends on the standpoint, and if the standpoint is one of admiration, which is what Greg’s is: positive admiration for certain guitars, in particular Fleta, which I used to play for years. What impressed me in my first contact with Greg was when he said, “That guitar is wonderful. What, if anything, would you say can be improved about it?” So he didn’t start off by saying, “I want to make the best guitar in the world” but, “that seems pretty good. I’ve made a lot of guitars and they’re not as good as that.” That’s what Greg said.
He’s developed from that. Now I actually think that that’s the attitude any good guitar maker should have. Because there are lots of very good guitar makers who are making lovely instruments in what I call the conventional style. They work well, they have a beautiful sound, but they are all for me fatally flawed, for musical reasons. Because the traditional guitar design is too percussive. Most of its dynamics, its loudness, its softness and its tone colours come from the initial percussive attack. And of course that is inherent in the nature of the instrument—you can’t get rid of all that. But if you want to improve it musically as an instrument, you have to evolve from it, to minimise the worst aspects, which are the percussive ones, and to enhance the positive aspects, such as the beauty and dynamics of the sound. Now if it’s making a beautiful sound, you want more of that beautiful sound; you don’t want it to die, to be inaudible after a strong percussive attack. Greg is redressing that balance. It’s not a question of a complete change of instrument. The question is to minimise the percussive attack and transfer some of that physical energy into variety and range of volume and colour, making it more sensitive to touch.
So my interest in guitars is, if you like, through his eyes. I’ve discussed his ideas with him, and I like the way they work. Other musicians in orchestras and chamber music ensembles always pick it up, without being prompted.
I don’t emphasise this business of volume in the ordinary sense, because I think it’s a false direction. Smallman guitars are actually a bit louder than average, but this is a by-product.
CC: Nevertheless, one hears remarks—and I can confirm this to some extent from my seat at the back of the Wigmore Hall—to the effect that spruce does have a better focus of sound.
Only to the extent that it’s more percussive! It’s more springy, it’s heavier, and consequently requires more effort. It requires more effort from the fingers, from the strings and the bridge, to set the top in motion. And in doing that, it absorbs energy which could be used more musically. That’s physics. It’s not because I’m obstinate—or if I am obstinate, that’s not the reason!—I’m only interested if makers are looking at it from the point of view of musical and dynamic range, and away from the traditional limitations of too much percussive attack.
Even with the old Fleta, when I hear it on record or on the radio, it always comes out pretty hard and brittle to me. It’s the complete opposite of what I knew I was hearing while playing it. It’s in the nature of the guitar.
The last record that I feel had the “soul” of the Fleta guitar was the one of Ponce, where I recorded it very, very close. I recorded it as if I was in the room, and in fact I afterwards sat and played in the middle of the room, put the record on at the same volume, and the difference to my ears was hardly anything. I wanted it as close as if I was sitting there, not an extension of the room but sitting right there. And unless you did that, if you recorded or played in another kind of presentation where it was playing at you as opposed to with you, it sounded a bit hard. And that’s this percussive thing, which in my case is exaggerated because of hard nails. But serviceable, very good nails for practical reasons!
But with the Smallman I find I can get a range of colour and dynamics which I can control more like a violinist does. I feel I’m more in touch with the sound.
CK: And you’re playing with a little less physical effort for want of a better expression ….
Except when I need to, yes. If I need to, I play louder, and I get more note. With most guitars, if you play louder, you get more nail, more percussive sound, relatively.