10 Questions with Jack Sanders

Jack Sanders

Read Time 11 Minutes

Jack SandersJack Sanders’ focus, passion and meticulous attention to detail permeate everything he does. In addition to solo and duo CDs, he performs nationally and internationally in symphonic, chamber and solo contexts. As an educator, Jack is a member of the faculty at Pomona College, has taught at California Institute of The Arts and has developed ground breaking techniques to resolve and prevent practice related injuries.

For the purpose of this interview, I chose to focus on his remarkable work as a luthier.

In addition to his signature classical and flamenco models, Jack has created stunning period pieces. These instruments are interesting for a couple reasons: they incorporate unique elements not found in contemporary models, and the technical building challenges are, seemingly, overwhelming. To replicate a modern design, it’s easy enough to copy the dimensions from an existing model, but how does one replicate/duplicate/fabricate an instrument that hasn’t been in vogue in several hundred years? This is just one question I had when learning of his commission to build a ten-string Décacorde, based on an instrument created by René Lacôte.

A somewhat mysterious figure, Lacôte was probably the most important 19th century French luthier, but even his year of birth and death are in question. Lacôte’s instruments were wildly innovative (if not always successful as you’ll see below) and incorporated a number of elements that are difficult to execute even now.

Now, here are 10 questions with Jack Sanders:

1. You touch on some elements of this in your Memoirs of a Newsboy essay, but how does one go from being a Ventures fan to building original guitar models and reproductions of 19th century instruments?

There are three things I’ve done since childhood: build with wood, play the guitar and surf. I have memories of using my dad’s tools to make a boat out of a two-by-four scrap when I was about five years old. An important lesson on how not to use a chisel was learned when I was about six or seven when I stabbed myself in the thumb with a ragged, dull chisel. Of course, I didn’t tell my parents! Whenever my dad couldn’t find a tool, I received the blame, deserved (probably) or not. Had either of my parents known that I used my father’s radial-arm saw (likely the single-most dangerous tool ever made) from the time I was 10 years old, they would have locked the garage permanently. When in high school, I figured that I’d be on my own soon, and would need some furniture. So, I went to House of Hardwood in West Los Angeles, to get wood for a table. Buying some beautiful Peruvian Walnut, I made two tables, one as a wedding gift for my older brother, the other I still use. Friends, teachers and family began to ask me to make furniture for them, so this became my part-time job while I was a student at Cal Arts.

For a number of years, I resisted the urge to build guitars. The argument I made was there were many wonderful luthiers in the world – was there a need for another self-taught guitar builder? Part of what changed my thinking was the realization that fine instruments carry a unique quality about them that represents the personality and character of the builder. Of course, we don’t know what Stradivarius, the person, was like, however, all his instruments have personality traits and a style that distinguish them from Guarneri, Amati and other prominent Italian makers of his generation. Not that I claim to be in that class, but I became interested in what personality my instruments would display.

Secondly, I developed a love for the vihuela repertoire of the Spanish Renaissance (interviewer’s note: the vihuela in this case refers to a 15th-16th century Spanish guitar that was tuned like a lute), and since vihuelas are not generally available at music stores, I had an interest in making one. My first vihuela was based on the ‘Guadalupe’ vihuela, housed at the Jacquemart-Andrée Museum in Paris. This is an odd instrument in the sense that it is gigantic. Even though I scaled my version down to a 660 mm. string length (down from 798 mm. – probably too big even for Shaquille O’Neil!), it still proved to be cumbersome to play much of the repertoire. That led to making a smaller vihuela in 2000, which I still use in concerts. Since then, I have built baroque guitars based on the Stradivari (1700) guitar in the National Music Museum in South Dakota, René Lacôte and Johann Stauffer guitars from around 1830, and, recently, instruments based on the 1930 Herman Hauser plan-shape. Of course, I also make modern-size classical and flamenco guitars. So far, I have made about 80 guitars, roughly half being early guitars.

Some guitars I have seen and measured, such as the Stradivari, Lacôte and Stauffer instruments, and I have museum drawings for about 15 other early instruments.

2. Since you’ve done two Lacôte variations can you talk a little about them and how the commission for the Décacorde ten-string came about?

I have been fortunate to be able to measure and play several original Lacôte instruments. They have a beautiful and surprisingly strong tone for their size. The first Lacôte copy that I made was a Décacorde (ten-string harp-style guitar, c. 1830) for Michael Patilla, on the faculty at Mississippi State. I have museum drawings for the instrument; nonetheless, it proved a difficult challenge. The finished guitar had a fantastic sound, quite loud, and Michael was very happy with the instrument. However, after about 8 months, the neck began to pull up, raising the string action to an uncomfortable height. I bought the guitar back, replaced the neck and soundboard and turned it into a very nice six-string Lacôte. Now, I know why Lacôte only made one instrument with the bottom four strings unsupported by the neck!

My next commission involves building a Lacôte with a “floating” 7th string. Hopefully it will go smoothly.

3. What kind of research is required for a project like this?

Now that I have experience with a number of different historical guitars, I find that many details remain consistent among instruments of a particular period. Having good drawings is a plus, and any chance I can, I like to visit museums to observe original instruments and procure drawings, measurements and photos. Last summer, my wife and I went to Paris and were able to see the ‘Chambure’ vihuela in the Cité de la Musique Museum and get drawings. That museum also owns one of the rare Stradivari guitars.

Even though I try to build instruments as faithful to the original as I can, there is still the all-important task of fitting the instrument to the person for whom I am building it. Therefore, it’s sometimes necessary to adjust string length, string spacing and neck dimensions for the player. Frequently, my clients don’t want an exact copy. They might want different woods, decorative details or whatnot, but they still need the basic instrument to be based on a particular historical model.

4. What woods did you use in the guitar’s construction and did you need to make any compromises from the original design (i.e. nylon strings instead of gut, etc.)?

One very important concern with old guitars is that just about any wood or material imaginable was used. Visiting musical instrument museums, you will find guitars made of rosewoods, ivory, tortoise shell and just about any precious material imaginable. Often, guitars from the 17th and 18th centuries were made to show off a particular person’s wealth or status, thus you find incredible workmanship and detail. Very few compromises, other than occasional string-dimension adjustments, need to be made. Obviously, the use of ivory is a problem, but reasonable substitutes can be found. Using either gut strings, or a wonderful substitute called NylGut, which is made by Aquila Strings in Italy, makes no difference to the building of the instrument, as the relative string tension is about the same.

One interesting feature about the Stradivari guitars, which date from around 1688 to 1700, is that the back and sides are curly maple. To the best of my knowledge, no surviving guitars from before that time are of maple. Many guitars built after 1700 were made of curly and birds-eye maple, especially during the so-called “Romantic” guitar period from 1800 to 1860. Lacôte seemed to be especially fond of maple, as the majority of his instruments that I have seen in person and in photos appear to have maple back and sides. It goes without saying that the soundboards of virtually all acoustic guitars prior to 1960 were of spruce.

One idea that I often present is that if guitarists are interested in playing concerts with instruments from a variety of periods, including modern classical guitars, having the early guitars made out of maple back and sides, as opposed to rosewoods, will give a striking color difference between the old and new instruments.

Jack Sanders 10 String5. In terms of the challenges of making this instrument – I’ll start with what I can’t see. The body size seems almost like a parlor guitar, but how is the guitar braced to accommodate it?

The bracing of Lacôte and Stauffer guitars is relatively simple. They have one or two transverse (i.e. horizontal) braces – the Lacôte generally have one on either side of the bridge, and the Stauffer has one under the bridge. Personal observation and museum drawings support this. Due to the smaller body size and shorter string length, there is less stress on these guitars; therefore they need fewer structural supports.

One difference between modern guitars and those made before, approximately, 1840 is that even though you can find fan bracing (interviewer’s note: “fan bracing” is the bracing pattern used on most nylon strings) on guitars dating to the 1700’s, transverse bracing was by far the most common approach. The significance of this is that transverse bracing strengthens the soundboard across the grain, where the wood is naturally weak, and fan bracing tends to strengthen the wood along the grain, where it is already strong.

Modern classical guitar builders who use either “lattice” or “ladder” bracing patterns are, essentially, improving strength in both directions of the grain in the soundboard.

6. I would think that ten strings would cause additional string tension on the headstock and bridge. I see the bridge is offset to hold the harp strings. Were any modifications to either the tuning or the bridge plate necessary to withstand the tension?

The particular Lacôte décacorde that I copied was unusual in many ways, which is why Dr. Patilla and I were interested in it. The fact that the regular six strings were centered as usual to the body, and the four harp bass strings were suspended off the neck, meant the player didn’t have to adjust in going from a regular 6-string guitar to the Lacôte. In other words, the first string was located where it normally was – with regard to the center point of the soundboard. Also, the suspended, or floating harp strings presented less of a visual distraction to the regular six strings. Unfortunately, I didn’t install substantial modern neck reinforcement such as carbon-fiber or a truss-rod, so there was no way to prevent the neck warp. The Lacôte décacorde was one instance where I copied an instrument without having personally inspected the original, and I paid a price. It certainly could be the case that a visual inspection of the original may not have added special insight, but perhaps I would have noticed details warning of the neck problems. Keep in mind that I worked off museum drawings and excellent photographs.

Regarding the structural integrity of the soundboard and body, the décacorde copy I made held up fine. There were no modifications to the bracing or body structure, other than a beefier-than-normal neck block inside the body. I also made a slightly bigger tail block piece to help balance the weight.

7. In a design element on the Lacôte’ that is either completely inspired or insane – the guitar has frets incorporated into the top of the soundboard. How on earth did you install them?

That was a little tricky. First, I sawed the fret slot into a piece of ebony, added the fret wire and then dimensioned the ebony to the appropriate size I needed for each fret. The critical step was cutting the slots into the soundboard with a trim router. In order to have good intonation, each slot had to be exactly right. There is some reinforcement wood added to the underside of the soundboard, beneath the slotted frets. I have used that technique on several Lacôte copies with success. When I was commissioned to build two Lacôte copies for the San Francisco Conservatory, they specified that they wanted raised fingerboards so students didn’t ding up the soundboards with their fingernails.

Lacote 10 String Headstock
Lacôte’ 10 String Headstock

8. The headstock has a number of interesting design elements: from the shape, to the bone nut over the harp strings and (most surprisingly) the additional wood used to elevate the second nut. Can you talk about what factors went into building it this way?

The headstock design of the original was quite unusual, both visually and functionally. Since the drawings were clear from several angles, I had a clear picture of what needed to be done. Like many instrument building situations, I left the critical wood pieces a little high, and carefully shaved them down when I set up the instrument. As complicated as it looks, the initial setup went pretty smoothly. I must admit to making some mistakes along the way, and ruined the first headstock I made, but, when building a new model, some mistakes are to be expected.

9. Jack, we’ve talked a lot about a specific model in this interview, but if people were interested in commissioning a guitar – what would the process be and what is the backlog for new commissions?

My wait-list runs anywhere from six months to a year.  A lot depends on the type of instrument the customer would like.  If they are interested in a historical model, we would need to talk about the variables such as the string length, materials, decorative details, and what style of music they were interested in playing on the instrument. 

For a standard classical guitar, we would talk about the string-scale length, nut width, kind of action they favor and so on.  For smaller players, I also build a 1930 Hauser plan shape that works well with a scale of 640 mm. to 650 mm.”

10. One thing many musicians struggle with is time management. Clearly, you have a number of different irons in the fire at once. Do you have any recommendations for how to juggle multiple projects and priorities at the same time?

It is quite simple, I work 7 days a week, and don’t bother to ask me about a particular TV show or movie – I haven’t seen it. Even though I teach at Pomona only two days a week, and have several students that I teach at home, I organize my schedule to maximize as much work time as I can. This means teaching at Pomona from 9 or 9:30 till noon, then 12:30 to 8, and coming home and practicing when I have concerts coming up. Unfortunately, in my situation, I am always up against a deadline – either a guitar delivery has been promised, an Essay on Playing the Guitar is due for Soundboard, the quarterly journal for the Guitar Foundation of America, or a concert. So, I am frequently in a panic mode, but I don’t complain. It is good to have different interests, all involving music and the guitar. Switching from playing, to building, to teaching keeps me from getting stale, and I always have something interesting to look forward to.

Thank you for your time Jack!

You can find out more information about Jack’s guitars, his discography and his touring schedule on his website: http://sandersguitar.com

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Scott Collins

Scott Collins is the author of the pedagogical/reference series, <i>The GuitArchitect’s Guide To:</i> and several e-book titles that include: <i>An Indie Musician Wake Up Call</i> and <i>Selling It Versus Selling Out</i>. His playing is inspired by a wide range of western and non-western music, and, as a performer, he specializes in real-time composition.

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