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Saturday, September 8, 2012

Luthiers' Series… with David Worthy

David is certainly no stranger to those who have attended the Singapore Guitar Show in 2011. He is from down under, a self-taught Luthier and a stage professional as well. It is indeed a privilege for me to know David in person. He is sincere and authentic in relating to people and building guitars. I have an opportunity to meet him during the period where Chorus Line performed in Singapore some time this year. We exchanged ideas about guitars and we have much enjoyment from our meeting. David has left a Vintage model with me (David Worthy Guitars). Your invited to check his work out. Just drop me a line at for an appointment.

Guitaring Passionately presents an exclusive interview with David Worthy, the man and his thought…

How he started…

I started playing at about 13 years old. My mother bought my father a guitar, which he didn't seem interested in, so I started playing around with it. It only had 4 strings on it when I found it in the wardrobe, so I tuned it to something that sounded ok to my ears - of course it was tuned to nothing really. When the bridge started to come loose I fixed it. But it wasn't until I heard that someone at our school was "building" a nine string (probably a 12 string with 3 of the strings left off) that the idea of actually making something occurred to me. Soon after I found a copy of Irving Sloane's Classic Guitar Manual and that was it - I was on my way.

At the time I didn't think it possible that building instruments could be a way to make a living. I grew up in the seventies. In Australia manufacturing was declining, as it was in most places. Although the house we lived in was designed by my father who was a draughtsman, and the house he grew up in was built by his father, who was a master builder, I think by the 60's and 70's the idea that if you wanted something - you made it, or you knew someone who could make it for you was becoming a thing of the past. Japan was taking off as a place of mass manufacturing and the few items that were still handmade or bespoke were becoming 'quaint'.

His maiden attempt…

12-string model
My first attempt was a real 'on the kitchen table' job. I had limited tools, was afraid of routers and lived in an apartment block so hand tools were essential to keep the noise down. The first guitar was a classical with a floating bridge that was to drive a Robert Bouchet inspired top. It was never finished. Next attempt was a dreadnaught - the first and last I ever made. Sitka Spruce and African Mahogany with a spanish heel. It took 7 months to complete - finally strung up in the props room of the Theatre Royal in Sydney. I had been working backstage since the age of 18 and the guitar building was a parallel interest. It worked well. The theatre work paid for the materials and tools, some of which were common to stage carpentry, and the theatre work was in the evenings leaving the days clear to work on the guitars. Then there was a 10 year break when the theatre work became more touring orientated. A chance meeting with an old guitarist friend from years earlier rekindled the guitar making and now I have two full time jobs! And a waiting list!

Headplate Inlays
That dreadnaught was from a book by David Russell Young. The next guitar and all that have followed have been from me. At the time I knew I had to follow some sort of instruction - I suppose I figured I that way I could 'measure' the result. I couldn't. Instead I made a list of all the things that were wrong with it vowing the next guitar would produce a shorter list. Looking back it was a very self critical exercise. If your passion is for 1923 F5 Gibson Mandolins then the path is very clear and strict. On the other hand if your mind wonders into asymetrical shapes then Harry Fleishman and Fred Carlson will become your reference points.

Building the dreadnaught was useful - it was a starting point. Harry and Fred's work really inspires me but I don't want to copy their work. Instead I'd like it to inform my work. Every composer stands on the shoulders of their predecessor - so it should be with instrument makers. Some innovations will endure, some will fail and some will be passing fads. It will be the musicians who decide whether the tools we provide them are appropriate.

His influences…

I have a book on early European instruments. It's full of illustrations and has the weirdest and most fantastical instruments you could imagine. Basically it tracks the evolution of the major western instrument families. It's useful to see that most ideas have already been thought of - there is even an instrument with fanned frets from the 1500s; and it's interesting to see what innovations gained traction, what fell by the wayside and what ones have resurfaced, particularly during the guitar renaissance we now live in.

I prefer to try new things, yet I don't ever want to be different for the sake of being different. I moved to symmetrically braced tops early on because I could not see how a top could be thought of as having a treble 'side' and a bass 'side'. To me the top is a continuous membrane. And yet when I build my acoustic basses with the carbon fibre reinforced lattice, the vibrating surface is not symmetrical. If the customer is happy with the result then that should leave me to work out what it is I can draw from the experience and use it to refine.

The unusual projects…

I'm also attracted to the more unusual projects. I have an order for a double neck acoustic 12 and 6 string necks; a second 27 string for Glenn Rogers and another acoustic bass. The 27 was fun. It had 6 up the neck, 7 diagonal harp strings, a pair of chikory strings along the body, and 12 sympathetics inside the body that went up inside the neck. With the sitar like symps the guitar has 4 distinctive tonal colours. There is a good photo of it on Glenn's website. Due to the nature of the headstock it didn't have the usual 'Worthy' logo inlaid into the top; and yet when a musician friend came over to play the guitar he said if he didn't know I had built it, he'd have guessed it was a Worthy guitar. That was a flattering moment. Maybe that's part of discovering 'your sound' – exactly the way a player discovers their sound. It also has a lot to do with ascetics. No one will take an ugly guitar off the wall to hear what it sounds like. Thankfully there are as a diverse range of taste as there are styles. To me the guitar has to be visually appealing - of course that could mean anything. But I think the basic rule has to be that it has to work first and look pretty later. Never form over function, but an amalgam of both. That is where (I think) Fred Carlson's work excels.

In closing…

A few years ago I was obsessed with quantity. I set myself unrealistic goals and found I was stressed by unrealistic timeframes, and subsequently a fall in quality - and I wasn't enjoying the work. We all want to have every guitar shop in town full of Worthy Guitars but the truth was I only needed to build half the number of guitars I had imagined to make the business pay for itself without running myself into the ground. If I could build 10 instruments a year - confident that they will well outlive me and get better with time - like a good wine - and now and then make it onto a CD recording then that would be just fine. Adam I think I've run out of puff. I can add to this or clarify if you need. More than anything i hope this is useful and can't tell you enough how much I appreciate your passion.

The end of interview…

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