“FRESHLY HANDCRAFTED GUITARS
stand up to any guitar from the past,” professed
Celtic guru Tony McManus at the
close of his September 2010 GP feature.
In this follow up, he talks about what he
looks for in an acoustic guitar, new or old.
What do you listen and look for when trying
out a new instrument?
Generally, I look for balance and clarity
without any “spikes” in the response. The
bass needs to be present without overpowering
the mids and highs. There needs to
be clarity across the strings—an arpeggio
shouldn’t descend into mush. Specifically,
I need to know how the guitar will sound
in lowered tunings, and also how it sounds
capoed up the neck. Comfort is important
too—narrow string spacing doesn’t favor
my style of fingerpicking. Since I carry few
instruments on the road, versatility is requisite.
I’ll ask myself, “How does it flatpick,
how’s the sustain, are there any dead
notes, how does it handle being strummed
or plucked hard or soft, and how would it
accompany a song, a fiddle, etc?”
Can you delve into some specific beliefs
regarding current craftsmanship, and how it
compares to vintage work?
The level of craftsmanship now is as high as
it has ever been—better than ever in some
areas. Craftsmanship is cumulative. I don’t
think we’ve collectively forgotten anything
about the relatively young art of guitar building.
The vintage era in the violin world is
three centuries ago. In the guitar world, it’s
pre-WWII. I’ve played some outrageously
valuable vintage guitars. I loved some and
scratched my head over others. I simply
don’t think you could point to anything on
a $200,000 Martin OM-45 Deluxe and say,
“If only Jeff Traugott or Linda Manzer or
Marc Beneteau or Paul Reed Smith could do
that.” Great-sounding vintage instruments
are so not because they are old, but because
they’re built well from the best materials.
Some old guitars have a mystique that you
can’t buy. I’ve drooled over some beat-up
D-18s that play beautifully, but you can’t
generalize and say old equals good and new
equals not so good.
Can you provide some closing thoughts
on tradition versus progression in regards to
creating music and crafting guitars?
The most creative innovators are those
with a firm grasp of tradition in the pure
sense. Otherwise, there can be an element
of joyriding, which can be fun while it lasts
but doesn’t lead to a significant journey.
In the guitar world, there are similar considerations.
It’s an exciting time to be a
guitarist. One of my favorite builders is
John Slobod who makes vintage Martinstyle
guitars, and there’s a whole school
of building in that style—Julius Borges
and T.J. Thompson for example. At the
same time, I’m excited by fanned frets,
arm bevels, and offset soundholes. The
only approach I’ve no time for is, “We
have to do this because that’s how they
did it 60 years ago.” Why?