Fretwork: Luthier James Lister Blends Old and New Approaches

From the Fall 2016 issue of Classical Guitar | BY GUY TRAVISS

James Lister’s interest in the classical guitar was first as a player, but the pleasure and challenge of working with wood lured him away from a career in physics and engineering to study instrument-making full time. He studied lutherie at London Guildhall University and then specialized in classical guitar at Newark College with Roy Courtnall and Tony Johnson. James currently teaches at Newark College two days a week, “and the rest of my working week is spent building guitars in my workshop in Sheffield.” He makes both fine classical and flamenco guitars “handmade in the Spanish tradition,” influenced by acknowledged masters such as Antonio de Torres, Hermann Hauser, and Santos Hernandez, but with his own personal touches and innovations.

James Lister’s “Romanillos Guitar”

CLASSICAL GUITAR: How did you get into making guitars?

JAMES LISTER: I didn’t start making guitars until I was in my late 30s. I had been working with high-power laser systems for about 13 years, but I wanted to do something more creative, and to be my own boss. I had always loved working with wood, and had played classical guitar on and off for over 20 years, so I quit my job, moved to London, and started my [lutherie] studies.

CG: How does it feel to have reached you 100th instrument?

LISTER: I started thinking about my 100th guitar in 2014. I wanted to do something a bit different, but I’ve never really been interested in elaborately decorated instruments. I enjoy working with alternative tonewoods, and after a lot of thought, I decided to build a guitar using no tropical hardwoods, and to use FSC certified woods wherever possible.

I designed a new rosette to distinguish my “non-tropical” guitars from my standard instruments. I came up with a leaf design that fit the concept well, and it was also quite a challenge to make—the finished rosette contains over 25,000 pieces of wood, most of which are about a tenth of a square millimeter in area.

It was quite a milestone for me to reach my 100th guitar, and I have been extremely pleased with the responses I’ve had to it. Most significantly, I showed the guitar to Marcin Dylla at the Classical Guitar Retreat in Scotland last year. He was very impressed with the guitar, and really liked the tone coloration produced by the maple back and sides. In January I traveled to Poland to deliver the guitar to Marcin, who now has it on loan for a year.

I have recently received an order for a close copy of this guitar, the main difference being that it will have a shorter scale length—640mm—and I’m hopeful that more players will become open to the idea that great classical guitars do not have to have Brazilian rosewood back and sides!

CG: Looking back, what are some things have you learned about guitar-building?

LISTER: It amazes me that after 15 years building guitars, I’m still learning all the time. Over the past few years, I’ve made a few guitars that are very different from my standard instruments. I think there are two contradictory aspects to developing your skills as a guitar maker. It is important in the early part of your career to find a design that works well for you as a maker, and then stick quite closely to that design, just making small changes in areas that you think can be improved, and trying to perfect that particular design.

On the other hand, it can be very useful to experiment with significantly different designs, and in recent years I have built a guitar with radial bracing; one based on Romanillos’ guitars, which turned out very similar to my own design; a very experimental guitar with a really thin top, heavy back and sides, but with traditional fan bracing; and most recently, a copy of a 1838 Panormo. With the exception of the Romanillos, these guitars all sounded quite different than my standard design, and helped to improve my understanding of the relative significance of some of the many variables I can adjust to control the sound of my guitars.


CG: How far have your ideas come?

LISTER: Although experimenting with other designs is a very useful learning exercise, I still always come back to variations on the theme of Torres, with solid woods and fan bracing. It’s the sound that I grew up with, and when I hear one of my guitars in the hands of a really good player, I know that there really isn’t much of a gap between the guitars I make now, and my “ideal” guitar.

CG: What is likely to change in future?

LISTER: There will continue to be new ideas and new developments in classical-guitar making, but I think there is something of a move away from the modern construction ideas, such as double-tops and lattice bracing, and back to Torres-style instruments.

The other change I see happening is an increasing interest in building guitars using alternative, non-tropical hardwoods. Tropical hardwoods are becoming rarer and more expensive, and more customers are becoming aware of the environmental impact of using them. Newark College is one of three European lutherie schools involved in the Leonardo Guitar Research Project, an organization funded by the European Commission to research the possibilities of building acoustic and classical guitars from non-tropical woods. Students and luthiers involved in the project are building and comparing guitars made with and without tropical hardwoods.

As an ex-scientist, I would have to say that the project is not likely to come up with any definitive answers to such difficult questions as “Is a maple guitar as good as a rosewood guitar?” But I hope that it will at least increase awareness among both luthiers and players.

It isn’t difficult to find good substitutes for the main tonewoods—spruce for the top is no problem, and I have always been a fan of maple guitars. And for my 100th guitar I managed to source these from an FSC certified supplier. The neck wood is a little more difficult, but walnut works well and there are a few other options.

Fingerboards on good-quality classical guitars have traditionally been made from ebony, and players have an expectation that fingerboards on quality classical guitars will be black. It is difficult to find a good alternative to meet that expectation, but bog oak is one option I’m happy with. There is an issue with sustainability there, so I’m also looking at some synthetic alternatives for fingerboards.

CG: How does contact with guitarists inform your day to day work?

LISTER: Frequent contact with a variety of classical guitarists is very important to me as a maker, although I try not to let any individual player’s feedback influence the direction I take in developing my guitars, as I have a clear idea in my own mind about the sound I’m aiming for. Of course, it’s great when players of Marcin’s abilities are enthusiastic about the work you are doing, and it gives me confidence that I’m moving in the right direction.

CG: You’ve been quite open about sharing your knowledge with other builders—for instance, you have a DVD about French polishing available on your website and you have also offered detailed plans of some of your designs. How did each of those come about?

LISTER: About five years ago, my commissioned work was a bit slow, so I started looking into the possibility of putting together a series of DVDs focusing on the traditional Spanish method of classical-guitar building. I was fortunate to have a friend who was in the filmmaking business, and we decided to start with a smaller project to see how it went. The most obvious, and perhaps most useful standalone topic I thought we could easily cover in a single DVD was French polishing. It was quite a learning experience for me; I simply hadn’t been aware just how much time and work was involved in putting something like that together. I was very pleased with the results, however, and I’ve sold nearly 200 copies of the DVD to date. Sadly, the idea of making a series of DVDs covering the whole guitar making process has had to be put to one side, as I just don’t have the time to do it now.

As for the plans, a few years ago I decided that our students at Newark College should have access to better quality, more detailed plans of the Torres guitar that they build in their first year. I produced the plans on AutoCAD, and having spent quite a lot of time and effort coming to grips with the software, I thought I might as well produce some good-quality plans for my own guitars. I’d had a few inquiries about the construction of my guitars from amateur luthiers, so I decided to make the plans available for sale.

CG: Where do you sell your guitars?

LISTER: Most of my guitars are commissions, and are sold direct to the customer, but I’m hoping that my guitars will become available through Miles Roberts at Kent Guitar Classics later this year. In general I prefer to have that one-to-one contact with the customer and work towards making a guitar that exactly fits their needs.