Gernot Wagner: The Master Luthier on the Double-Top Movement and His Influences
From the Summer 2016 issue of Classical Guitar | BY THÉRÉSE WASSILY SABA
Over the past 100 years, the demands of a concert classical guitarist’s musical life—performing in large theaters, playing chamber music with other instruments that produce a substantially greater volume, performing concertos with orchestras, and recording—have forced guitarists to demand much more from their instruments. Thus, the challenge has presented itself to guitar makers throughout the world to build guitars with greater volume, more sustain, and increased sound projection.
This has resulted in many innovations in the construction of classical guitars, particularly in the top of the guitar, with guitar makers building for and sometimes in collaboration with leading concert guitarists, such as Andrés Segovia with German guitar maker Hermann Hauser I and the Spanish guitar makers José Ramírez and Ignacio Fleta, John Williams with the Australian guitar maker Greg Smallman (who created the lattice-braced system), the Assad Brothers and Sharon Isbin with American guitar maker Thomas Humphrey (with his elevated fingerboard Millennium design), and David Russell and Manuel Barrueco with the German guitar maker Matthias Dammann (with the construction of “double-top” guitars). Along with those collaborations, the introduction of Nomex (a light carbon fiber honeycomb material) into guitar construction by the German guitar maker Gernot Wagner, based in Frankfurt, has been a game-changer.
Wagner’s guitars are played by concert performers such as Jason Vieaux, Duo Melis, Bill Kanengiser, and others. He talked to me recently about the secrets behind the strong but beautiful sound that his guitars produce.
CLASSICAL GUITAR: When talking about “double-top guitars,” two luthiers come into my mind, you and your German colleague Matthias Dammann. Would you say that there are big differences in your approaches, or are they similar?
GERNOT WAGNER: I met Matthias more than 20 years ago and we soon felt a kind of spiritual kinship with each other. At least [we share] a very similar integral way of viewing things concerning how the guitar works. We often exchanged ideas on acoustic issues and on practical questions which arose at work.
He has been building guitars with two wooden skins and with thin wooden strips in between as a spacer for many years. In my own guitar making, I was very struck by the sound of the guitars I made with tops using wood with a lower specific gravity. So I continued to build solid wooden tops using such wood for my guitars. With cedar, it is much easier to find extra-light wood, so I mainly built cedar guitars.
At that time, the way Matthias chose to make his tops seemed way too risky and too fiddly with all those thin wooden strips. So when I discovered the Nomex honeycomb, it was like a brainwave! When I discussed the use of this new material with Matthias, it was obvious for him to immediately borrow this idea [and] he built the first guitar using this material. The use of a synthetic glue and vacuum gluing was stringently required. A little later, I made my first double-top guitar using this fantastic material. Since then, numerous luthiers around the world have been copying the Nomex method in making guitar tops.
It would be better to call these tops “composite tops” because we are marrying two different materials with the aim of getting properties that are superior to the respective single materials we use.
Using Nomex as a spacer between two wooden skins, I get a high stiffness, which is required to withstand the string tension, combined with a low density—two factors that enhance the amount of sound radiated from the instrument. Furthermore, I will get a better propagation of sound, which is important for coupling all strings to those modes which induce net volume change.
Why is the low weight so important?
First, the tension and mass of the guitar’s nylon strings are both rather low. The force created by plucking a string is not very strong and it has only short-time momentum. There is no continuous input as you have with bowed stringed instruments. Also, the mechanical impedance of the guitar top/bridge is different from that of the strings. The bigger this difference is, the more of the applied force is reflected at the interface [top]. On an electric guitar [high impedance] this difference is much bigger than on a banjo, for example. With the electric guitar, you will have an “endless” sustain [amplified]; with the banjo [low impedance] you will get a great volume but very short notes.
The consequence is that it is important to strive for a better impedance matching of the two coupled oscillators [strings and guitar body]. Impedance matching gives a more effective transfer of energy. Thus, by having a lighter top, you will get more volume. With these tops, which are more flexible but not at the expense of resilience, you get a better modulation of volume. You have a wider dynamic range. It is easier to induce vibrations even with very low force. So you get a better pianissimo and you can also play loudly when you need to. With these tops it is much easier to get lower fundamental modes. My Helmholtz resonance [body resonance] is mostly around F or F sharp. This way I get a really sonorous bass with a great number of harmonics, and thus my guitars have a rather dark timbre.
Has there been a particular luthier who has been a model for you?
From the luthiers who are still alive, Daniel Friederich is the first in line. His aesthetic standards and his level of craftsmanship are unmatched. As far as I know, he was the first luthier who had a scientific approach to guitar making. It’s such a pity that he retired last year from his work. Other colleagues whose work I admire are Dominique Field from France, and Jeffrey Elliott/Cynthia Burton and Robert Ruck from the US. Perhaps some of the Australian makers—like Greg Smallman, Simon Marty and Jim Redgate—are important to mention, especially because of their innovative inspirations and really revolutionary methods. But they are more colleagues who have a very similar approach, and work at about the same level. And last, but certainly not least, is Matthias Dammann. Of course I also admire the creations of Antonio Torres of the Barcelona school, Enrique García and Francisco Simplicio, the French maker Robert Bouchet, and the German luthier Hermann Hauser I.
A lot of people, when they talk to me of guitars, they mean a very refined sound. This is more like a Hauser I or a Fleta, which has a good high E string. In the meantime, I think tastes have changed. You can see that John Williams has been playing on Greg Smallman guitars. In his earlier days, he played on a Fleta for many years. I think you can’t separate this development from a change in the taste of the players. If I had built this guitar 30 years ago, I think it would have been out of place, because our imagination of sound was very different.
You have also designed some fantastic machines for your guitar-making workshop. Do many makers ask you about these?
Several years ago, I was in Madrid to train some employees of Ramírez in making these double-tops and I built vacuum devices for them.
My instruments are plain, without frills, and they have no adornments without function. Apart from meticulous craftsmanship, sound and ease of playability are the things I continue to strive for—almost always improving, hopefully. So it’s a never-ending challenge!
Watch Irina Kulikova put a 2007 Gernot Wagner through its paces:
GERNOT WAGNER, JASON VIEAUX & KOBLENZ
Many of the delights of a large festival like Koblenz are incidental and unexpected. The presence of Jason Vieaux was one of them. He had just taken possession of a new guitar by the German luthier Gernot Wagner. It uses the technology that Matthias Dammann uses in his guitars, which are played by noted soloists like Manuel Barrueco, David Russell and Scott Tennant. Jason Vieaux’s Wagner has a spruce sandwich, whereas most of the Dammanns I have seen have been cedar. I was prepared for the larger volume of sound, but I had not expected quite so high a level of sheer beauty in the sound. Jason played Albéniz and Ponce in an impromptu foyer recital for my benefit, and the sound filled the large and carpeted space of the Mercure Hotel. In the hands of this remarkable young American, it came close to the perfection of sound I have had in mind ever since being seduced by the guitar when I was in my teens—and that, in the current climate of volume, efficient use of energy, and general innovation, is as high a compliment as I can pay. I know very well that no guitarist worthy of the name would ever choose a guitar just because I liked it, but I thought I would put that on the record.
If I had had enough euros in my pocket, I would have bought one there and then. But Herr Wagner had already left, and besides, such ravishing beauties are not for the likes of guitar hacks.