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From Issue #41 April 24, 2014

Heart Strings

A classical guitar maker grows in Brooklyn.

By Phillip Pantuso Twitter icon 

On a chilly night at the Caffe Vivaldi in Greenwich Village, a moderately sized crowd watches a duo perform Brazilian choro music, a fast-paced, highly syncopated fusion of improvised styles. The musicians play a guitar and a pandeiro, a type of hand-frame drum popular in Brazil, similar to a tambourine. The fingers of guitarist Jason Ennis fly across the fretboard, the staccato notes seeming to glide from the instrument over the hum of conversation and the clinking of cutlery.

Ennis’s seven-string guitar was custom-built by Matt Rubendall, a guitar maker in Brooklyn. Ennis praised the guitar’s clear tone and ease of use, during a short break between sets. “Lots of guys play Matt’s guitars,” he says. “They feel great.”

Rubendall has a small workshop in Red Hook, where he builds eight to ten guitars each year. Lutherie, or stringed-instrument making, has flourished in New York and Long Island since the ’30s, and makers in the New York region are well known for crafting extraordinary archtop guitars.

Rubendall, however, exclusively produces nylon-stringed guitars; that is, classical and flamenco-style guitars with flat tops and round sound holes, rather than the distinctive f-shaped holes of arched-top cellos, violins, and mandolins. Classical guitar making was once vibrant in New York City, too. But these days, Matt Rubendall is the last of a dying breed: the only classical guitar maker left in New York.

Fretting the details

Rubendall, 44, started making guitars professionally in 1998 after a few years of repairing them, which, like most luthiers, he still does to help pay the bills. He built his first guitar for himself because he could not afford a good one. Rubendall no longer plays the instrument. “I was a guitar player for a couple of years, and I liked building things,” he says. Some of Rubendall’s guitars are commissions; the rest go to music stores around the country.

Rubendall hails from a small town in Indiana, where his family has lived for generations, and he retains a Midwestern sense of humility and matter-of-factness when discussing his craft. He studied art at Purdue University for a couple of years — “enough to know it wasn’t exactly what I wanted” — before dropping out. In his early twenties, he traveled around the country and was “fairly homeless” for a while. He always had an adventurous spirit: in Santa Monica, California, he lived for a time in a school bus with seven other people, and in New Mexico, when he lived in a cabin in the woods, he lost a front tooth making a fence. (He still has a small gap between his two front teeth.)

In 1992, after his wandering years, Rubendall enrolled in the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery, in Phoenix. Founded in 1975, it has been open longer than any other guitar making school in North America.

It wasn’t much of a stretch for Rubendall to train as a luthier, given his background. Both of his grandfathers let him help with projects like repairing motorcycles, woodworking, and the like. His mother’s father was “very German in his outlook,” a utilitarian mindset Rubendall has inherited. Granddad Byrkett had a file cabinet crammed with how-to articles from the ’40s and ’50s, clipped from magazines like Popular Science and subdivided by category — sidewalks, shelving, and so on.

Rubendall learned to make guitars, and he chooses to make them the slow way. “I use a lot of hand tools,” he says. But he’s quick to distance himself from the stereotypical image of the master craftsman, with esoteric pretensions and haughty character. To him, guitars are “not precious. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m sitting here with a pipe and a beard, listening to classical music. The craftsmanship aspect matters to me most.”

Striking the right chord

The acoustic guitar differs from most other stringed instruments in that it lacks a single, standard form. Most have six strings, but some have seven or twelve. Strings vibrate when struck and transfer the energy of the vibration into the top, back, and sides of the instrument, with sound waves emerging from an open chamber over which the strings stretch.

A guitar’s sound depends entirely on the resonance of the wood, which is determined by its type, thickness, and treatment. The wood resonates better when it’s thin, but it must also be strong enough to withstand the strings’ tension. A well-made guitar exists in a tenuous equilibrium with itself. Minor changes in the wood, strings, tension, bridge, and nut can distort the sound waves ever so slightly and throw a guitar out of tune.

This does a lot to explain the infatuation with — and value of — well-made vintage guitars. The best of them settle into themselves over the years and achieve a kind of balance, or “homeostasis,” as Rubendall puts it. Many contemporary luthiers try to engineer guitars to have that time-tested resonance. But in Rubendall’s opinion, this type of craftsmanship too often favors traditionalism for traditionalism’s sake, such as building guitars with Spanish heels (which prevent the neck from being removed, making repairs difficult) or completely flat fretboards (most now have a slight radius, to better suit the contours of human fingers).

Depictions of people playing stringed instruments date back 3,300 years, to a stone carving of a singing Hittite bard. These early forms coalesced into instruments we’d recognize today, like the lute, violin, and guitar.

In the 19th century, Spanish luthier Antonio Torres Jurado perfected the modern classical guitar. What Stradivari was to the violin, Torres was to the classical guitar. He recognized that the top of the guitar was crucial to its sound. His innovation was to create larger, perfectly symmetrical guitars with thinner (and thus more vibrant) tops, internally braced with wooden struts. Most modern nylon-stringed acoustic guitars are derivatives of his designs.

The final decades of the 19th century brought the innovation of steel-stringed guitars. Steel strings are brighter and louder than nylon strings, but they also exert more tension on the guitar. Luthiers responded by building flattop guitars with more bracing, sturdier bridges, and spliced necks, but a few inventive makers began tinkering with new designs. Out of this came the archtop guitar, which applies violin design principles to the guitar.1

In 1922, a luthier named Lloyd Loar refined Gibson’s archtop designs, adding violin-style f-holes to the top and extending the neck, among other subtle improvements. Archtops became popular with blues and jazz musicians, and before long they were the most popular guitars in America, especially in New York, where Italian American craftsmen mastered the archtop jazz guitar.

In 2011, the Metropolitan Museum hosted a retrospective exhibition about guitar making in the region. Titled “Guitar Heroes: Legendary Craftsmen from Italy to New York,” the exhibition highlighted the work of three makers, through which you can trace the heritage of archtop lutherie in New York: John D’Angelico, James D’Aquisto, and John Monteleone.

Plucky collector

Rubendall is the “only classical guitar maker in New York City,” according to an avid collector named Stuart Deutsch. Deutsch is known professionally for his work as an audio engineer (he’s been nominated for an Emmy), but he has a fervent passion for classical guitars. He owns 40 guitars but doesn’t “play a lick — well, maybe a lick or two,” he says.

Deutsch’s knowledge, enthusiasm, and connections are such that he can act as a Virgil to the classical guitar market in New York. One day, I visit Beverly Maher’s Guitar Salon with him, an in-home guitar market that Maher has run for the past 45 years from her parlor floor apartment in a Greenwich Village brownstone.

Maher is a classical guitar dealer — her clients include Paul Simon, Keith Richards, and Earl Klugh — and her apartment has the air of a 19th-century Parisian salon. Guitarists and luthiers are invited to simply hang out and fiddle with any of the dozens of stringed instruments scattered throughout the living room. “It’s a pleasant place to play,” she says. “Very different than a store.”

There are guitars made by such renowned luthiers as Manuel Velazquez, Hermann Hauser III, David Rubio, and Julian Bream. There is even an 1888 spruce and maple Torres. (Maher has dealt Rubendall’s guitars, too, but she doesn’t have one on the day I visit.)

Maher speaks nostalgically of the village from the ’50s to the ’70s, when there were a lot of guitar makers around and even more guitar players. “A bunch of people used to come into Noah’s shop,” she says, wistfully rattling off first names: “Joanie [Baez], Pete [Seeger], Judy [Collins].”

“Bev is the doyenne of the guitar world,” Deutsch says.

“They call me the Guitar Lady,” she responds.

Nowadays, all the classical luthiers have “died or left,” she says. Rubendall is the “biggest guy around right now.”

Workshopping a sound

Rubendall’s workshop, located near the Brooklyn waterfront, is an 11-by-13-foot room in an old brick building. While working, he favors plaid shirts, heavy workwear aprons, and a black beanie that hugs the back of his head.

Jigs, metal clamps, bending machines, guitar body molds, and saws and other hand tools are grouped into piles spread throughout the room. The skeleton frame of a guitar lies on a workbench. In one corner, chunks of wood — primarily mahogany, spruce, cedar, and maple — are stacked on shelves, where they age for a few years before Rubendall mills them down for carving. Most manufacturers use a pantograph machine to carve the wood for a guitar, but Rubendall carves everything by hand. “You can’t get the same visceral feel if it’s machined,” he says. “It may not be as precisely accurate, but in some sense, it’s more specific.”

Everything on a Rubendall guitar is made by him except the tuning pegs and the metal frets. Making guitars is a “personal competition” he’s in with himself. “I do care if people buy them — my wife loves when I sell guitars — and I want people to use them, but it’s more about trying to perfect this thing as much as I can,” he says. “Every guitar I make is better than the last one.”

The road to perfection splits into cul-de-sacs and side routes, though, and Rubendall’s craftsmanship aesthetic is not entirely utilitarian or linear. He has a number of pet theories that he puts to the test in his workshop. For example, one in-progress guitar will have doubled sides — in other words, instead of the sides of the guitar consisting of one carved piece of wood, there will be a second layer of wood glued to the inside of the frame, insulating it all the way around the guitar.

When a guitar is played, vibrations from the top transfer energy to the sides, which send the sound waves out through themselves rather than through the sound hole. Because that energy is lost, the guitar is quieter than it could be. Rubendall’s theory is that sturdier sides will be more resistant to this loss-transfer of energy and thus force more sound out through the front of the guitar. “I try and find innovations that make the guitar sound better,” Rubendall says, “while still sounding like a guitar.”

Photos by the author.

  1. The innovation is often credited to Orville Gibson, who patented a mandolin design in 1898 to enhance “power and quality of tone.” The mandolin had an arched top and back, carved from the same piece of wood, and was thicker in the middle than at the sides. An arched surface is inherently stronger than a flat one, and requires fewer “braces, splices, blocks, or bridges…which, if employed, would rob the instrument of much of its volume of tone,” as Gibson wrote in his patent application

Phillip Pantuso is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Brooklyn Magazine, Pacific Standard, Esquire, and BKLYNR.

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