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Tony McManus on Current vs. Vintage Craftsmanship

May 1, 2011
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gp0511_riffs_McM1_nr“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?

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