By Chris Gill | Photography: Massimo Mammacurta
Classical guitar enthusiasts wax poetic about the work of past master luthiers like Torres, Manuel and José Ramírez, Esteso, Hauser Sr., Bouchet, Fleta, and many others, and rightfully so. However, classical guitar construction continues to thrive and progress, and dozens of luthiers plying their craft today are making instruments that achieve new levels of excellence that often equal (and some would argue even surpass) the quality of instruments built by the past masters.
Luthier Greg Brandt, who has specialized in crafting nylon-string classical guitars for nearly 40 years, certainly qualifies as a present-day master luthier. Brandt has built guitars for classical players like Elizabeth Busch, Michael Kudirka, and Perfecto de Castro, jazz guitarists Jim Fox and John Pisano, Brazilian innovator Dori Caymmi, fingerstyle master Laurence Juber, and Hollywood session players like George Doering and Tommy Tedesco, who used a Brandt classical to record the theme to Field of Dreams.
Brandt is inspired by traditional designs and construction techniques but is not averse to modern custom touches like cutaways, alternate neck profiles and dimensions, and seven- or even 10-string guitars. The Standard Concert Model is the second guitar that Brandt has built with a decorative inlay motif nicknamed bubbles.
Brandt built these guitars, along with another example with a rectangular tiles motif, as showpieces that subtly adopt the aesthetics of modern custom steel-string flattops without deviating too far from a classical guitar’s traditional, relatively modest adornments. In this example, the “bubbles” are pieces of curly koa inlaid in the rosette, bridge, back, and tail of the instrument.
The bubbles inlay work is an option, but most of the guitar’s other features, including the Indian rosewood back and sides, ebony fingerboard, and Honduras mahogany neck, are standard. This example has a Western Red cedar top, but Brandt also offers a European spruce top option for his Standard Concert Model. This example also has Sloane tuners with ebony buttons and engraved plates and ships with a TKL arched-top case.
The neck has a comfortable 650mm scale length and 52mm nut width, and its C-shaped profile offers a “just right” balance between heft for tone and comfortable playability. The gloss lacquer finish is immaculately applied with a light touch—the kind of attention to detail that mass-produced instruments can never match. The top is braced with a traditional fan pattern inspired by vintage masterpieces that have passed through Brandt’s workshop, particularly instruments built by Hermann Hauser Sr.
One initial test that I always perform on a classical or flamenco guitar (and one that most mass-produced nylon-string guitars almost inevitably fail) is plucking the open low E string and playing notes on the high E string around the 12th fret. To me, the bass note should have a percussive attack, tight definition, and full, round body similar to a bass note on a piano, while the treble notes should sound sweet, possess a good amount of sustain and body, and respond well to playing dynamics.
The Brandt guitar passed my test better than any new classical guitar I’ve ever played with a price under $10,000, and it even delivered a gorgeous, expressive voice with impressive balance across its entire tonal range similar to several vintage masterpieces I’ve been fortunate to experience.
The Brandt’s dynamic responsiveness is like a mainline to a player’s soul that expresses every detail and nuance of a player’s technique with minimal disconnection from the source of the sound—the fingers contacting the strings. It’s a highly inspirational instrument that can be powerful and bold when played with vigor, but its voice becomes sweet and lyrical when notes are caressed. Its volume output throughout is impressive and room filling, making it a true concert-grade classical guitar. While many guitars with cedar tops usually produce warmer tone and are less dynamically responsive than their spruce-top counterparts, this example delivers the best and most desirable attributes of both materials.
I love the modern aesthetics and understated glitz of the bubbles inlays, particularly how some playfully extend past the rosette into the top. The materials are gorgeous, with the cedar top and Indian rosewood back and sides all boasting tight, arrow-straight grain patterns. Brandt’s decades of expertise are evident in every construction detail, from the seamless, flush fit of the koa bubbles inlays to the perfectly rounded and smooth curves of the scalloped nut, as well as in the expressive tone and overall playing enjoyment this instrument delivers.
Price: $9,000 (as shown, Standard Concert Models begin at $7,000).
Master Mind: Greg Brandt discusses the art behind his craft.
What was the inspiration for your bubbles and tiles inlay motifs?
Bubbles came from a shower curtain and tiles from a supermarket floor! I knew how much latitude steel-string makers had with their clients for unusual design work, and I decided it was time to try something different on a pair of “show guitars.” I made some rosettes with pieces of walnut and liked them enough to carry the ideas further along on appropriate spots: the bridge decorations and the backs and butts of the guitars. I sold those and got orders which led me to continue experimenting.
Why did you opt for the Hauser-style fan bracing that you use?
I had the chance to spend some extended time with a few Hauser Sr. guitars early in my career. They were stunning in their clarity, singing quality, volume, and I was smitten. I began to incorporate subtle aspects into my own work and soon found the sound I desired in solid tops and fan bracing. That continues to be the foundation in the voicing of my tops: a singing treble, a rich, full (but not overpowering) bass, and a clear and even response across the fingerboard.
Do your construction techniques differ in any significant way from traditional classical guitars?
I build a fairly traditional guitar in a slightly less traditional way—more like a steel-string guitar in that I make the complete body in a mold. Then the finished body and rough neck are routed for the joinery, and the neck is attached with a floating tenon, similar to a dovetail used in steel-strings. It allows me better control of the overall geometry of guitar and to address playability and action for a particular player. Also, I carve the neck and heel once it’s attached to the guitar.
Find out more at gregbrandtguitars.com.