Category Archives: Guitars

Back to Folk Singing

49 years ago I bought the guitar of my dreams, a brand new Martin D35. In those days I was in love with Gordon Lightfoot songs, the Beatles of course, and all that music that sounded great on a big flat top guitar.

My late friend Bob Wylie strumming my D35 c. 1977

But the years passed and so did my taste in music, so 24 years ago I sold the D35 and moved on to jazz. However, the circle of life comes around like the seasons and so I recently decided it was high time I had a big “folk” guitar again. The Martin dreadnought, or D type guitar is the most copied guitar in the world, because it is like a battle ship that fears no man or woman. But it is big, a bit too big for me now that my shoulder and arm can’t take long hours of being draped over a huge guitar. I checked around and found the next best thing – a Taylor Grand Auditorium. This guitar has a narrow waist that allows it to sit lower and thus is less painful on the strumming arm. It was designed to compete with the Dreadnoughts, and by and large it can, although it’s a little smaller. The D size guitars are very large and in the opinion of many guitarists the 000 Martin is the acme of flat tops. While I tend to agree, I had already built one of those many years ago, and I wanted something different. Hence the latest guitar – my version of a Taylor Grand Auditorium, complete with the “all new, improved V bracing”.

Here is my latest guitar, #37, successor to my long gone D35, which I expect is still out in the world being strummed somewhere.

The famous C chord, beloved of folkies everywhere!

Taylor is converting their guitars to this v shaped bracing system, away from traditional x braced tops. They claim to have invented it, but it’s been around a long time in one form or another. I just copied their design however, figuring they had already done all the testing for me. I played a few examples and while they were no better than some of their x braced guitars, it seemed like an adventure to try a new design. I already made several ukuleles with v braces and I knew they sounded really good, better than the fan braced ones I had made before.

The guitar sounds great for folk music, no good at all for jazz, which is how it should be. I already have a dozen jazz guitars!

V braced top, a la Taylor. They patented this. Didn’t stop me.

For the record: cypress top, cypress braces, African mahogany body and neck, rosewood fingerboard, ebony bridge. Tuners are Gotoh 510, 1:21, the smoothest damn tuners on earth and worth every cent of the hundred bucks they cost. Strings are D’Addario EJ15 phosphor bronze, extra light. Even with extra light strings this thing is loud. I might up the gauge when I change strings, but the trade off is more volume for more work, and I have lazy old fingers.

Body is 16″ x 20″ x 4 5/8″ deep, same as Martin D. The nut is 1 11/16″, exactly the same as my old D35, as is the bridge. Scale length 25.5″, just a tad longer than Martin’s 25.4″ scale, so it feels like a D35 in my hands. Now to go practice “Did She Mention My Name”. Today’s pop music is so banal and crappy it’s not worth listening to, so thank heavens we have Gordon Lightfoot, who is still alive! He should have got the Nobel Prize, not Bob Zimmerman… the worst performer I have ever seen. But BZ wrote some good songs. I may play one of those later.

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One Week Guitar Project

Guitar #36 – made in a week!

This year has been crazy, but it did allow me to make more guitars than I ever did before. Thus I built #36 one week ago, in 7 days. It began with an idea about how I could use an old pickup. This pickup is a Seymour Duncan Jazz Humbucker I bought over a decade ago and rarely used. I had it on an old beater electric but didn’t like the sound of it on that, so it ended up in my box of parts for many years.

Recently I got it out and decided to mess with it by breaking off the legs so I could stick it right onto the soundboard of my latest Corona guitars, which have a space at the end of the neck deep enough for that to work. It sounded very good, but it just didn’t quite fit, so I puzzled over what I might do with it. Then I remembered an old guitar neck I got cheap at a thrift store some time past. It was a Fender style bolt on neck a bit thicker than the depth of my Corona neck extension, so the pickup would fit there with room to spare. I just needed a way to install it, since it now had no legs.

I hit on the idea of attaching it to the end of the neck with a bracket, like the Johnny Smith pickups on various archtop guitars. I got a metal pickup cover and soldered onto that a brass bracket, then stuck the legless pickup inside the metal casing and soldered it in place. I had a suspended pickup and all I needed was a guitar body on which to install it.

A suspended humbucker

I had lots of miscellaneous wood around, including a nice torrified Englemann spruce top, narrow walnut pieces for ribs, and an old guitar back with a hole in it. All this was perfect to construct a hollow body electric guitar from, so I immediately got to work.

I didn’t worry about the extra thick top of over 4mm since the idea was basically an electric guitar. However, after I glued the braces on it had a very decent tap tone. I put the ribs and top together and prepped the holes for the two pots and the output jack, then attached the back. The top gave out an even better tone when the box was assembled, so I decided not to cut a sound hole or f-holes in the top until I heard how it sounded. After all, there was a decent sized hole in the back already.

Repurposed back plate and hole to provide access for controls.

I had to modify the headstock to take 3 + 3 tuners, since that was all I had to work with and I don’t like the 6 in line ones much anyhow. I did this and installed the tuners and screws to act as posts for the strings in order to prevent the sideways pull of the strings from yanking the nut out of line. This was ugly but free and worked fine. The tuners were a nice set of Grovers acquired free from my sister. Thanks Val!

Modified headstock for 3 + 3 tuners

So, I got it all assembled and wonder of wonders, it sounds great without a hole in the top. Imagine my shock! Despite the thick soundboard and lack of hole, this thing is loud and sounds a lot like a carved archtop with the strong attack you want in jazz. The pickup is great too and deserves the reputation it has for not only jazz but most any type of electric guitar music you can name.

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Guitar #35

Recently finished this guitar. Maple body, cypress top. Hand rubbed French polished sunburst finish, somewhat like the bass I made before this. The yellow stain is made from turmeric in alcohol and the red brown colour is Dark Brown leather dye, which works on wood. I used that on the entire maple body and neck. This guitar is a full depth body of 4″ with x braced top like my previous Corona models. Previous models of this design were 3″ deep, so this one has a bit more low end. As part of this experiment this top has less arch, and I used cedar for the braces to see how that might effect the tone. Conclusion – it worked out very well. It’s loud and bright but more mellow than my normally arched tops. This one is perhaps the best of the bunch of Coronas, due to the balance between attack and sustain. It certainly holds its own in a jam and is not at all nasal, although real loud!

Strung it with Martin 80/20 light strings, to my ear the closest thing to Argentines at far less cost. 80/20 bronze alloy (4:1 copper to tin) is thousands of years old and the same stuff they make church bells of etc, so the magic formula hasn’t changed over time. I made the head-stock joint lower down on the neck this time, which I think I now prefer the look of. With a 2 way truss rod I can dial the neck from flat to whatever relief I want. The neck is on the fat side, a bit larger than usual but I like the feel of that too, as it is substantial and will be very stable, especially being hard maple. The fingerboard is extra thick as well, which contributes to the overall stability. With zero tension on the truss rod, the neck has a bit of relief. I dropped that to a tiny bit for now, but it is very easy to tweak it either way.

The bridge is Japanese, and rosewood this time as opposed to ebony on my previous ones. Rosewood is better to work with than ebony, which is brittle as heck. I had to cut it down a bit since they come too tall for this design.

Tailpiece is gold plated steel. I made the wood insert for it as they come without one. Hard to argue with the low price of stuff from China, and it’s really not bad looking. The brass ones cost almost 10 times the price !

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A Short Scale Hollow Body Bass Guitar

I just completed my 34th guitar, this one being a bass. I used the same body shape as my recent Corona style, which was convenient in several ways: I had the mold for it, and it reminded me of the Hofner Club Bass. I own a Jazz Bass solid body which is heavy and has a 34″ scale. I wanted a short scale instrument that would be easier to play and also lighter, so I decided to use the Hofner look for inspiration. I ordered a Chinese made copy of the tailpiece and bridge, and set to work designing the instrument. If you set out to build a guitar, or any instrument, you better have an accurate plan, unless you have built whatever you plan to make many times. I can build a guitar almost from memory now, but the bass has significant differences. So I designed it with my old CAD program (Vectorworks 10) which although now an antique of software, still does what I need it to do. I have designed all sorts of buildings and other things with this, and I am very comfortable with how it works.

Since the bass has long strings, which are also very thick, the forces involved are much greater than on a typical six string. I did some research and figured out what the best strings weights would be (50-105) for a short scale bass. The shorter scale also requires heavier strings for the same frequencies, or else the strings will flop around more than they should. Think of down tuning a guitar and how sloppy the strings feel. To use regular strings made for 34″ necks on a 30″ neck would be like detuning a regular bass. I tried this, and it was bad! Using information published by D’Addario I was able to build a table of string weights, unit mass, frequency, scale length and break angle. This gave me the string tensions and the pressure on the bridge. From this I basically guessed how heavy to make the braces, hoping that my intuitive feel for the strength of wood would suffice. To be safe I erred on the side of overbuilding, so the whole thing would not collapse. Since it was to be an acoustic bass however, I didn’t go too far in that direction, or it would have been acoustically dead.

In any case I built it as per plan and of course when it was done I discovered that my instrument was not exactly what I had planned for. Tiny angular rotations, like the neck angle, make large differences at the bridge. I had planned for a bridge of a certain height, which would mean a certain break angle of the strings. That determines the down force on the top, and the higher the bridge is, the greater the angle and down force.

My bridge height was higher than expected, meaning my bridge was now too short! I had to add a spacer underneath it to bring it to the correct height. This was not a problem except that I realized that this was going to increase the force on the top by about 10 lbs. I thought about using regular strings to reduce this, but decided that was not going to work, so I went ahead and strung it with the proper strings and hoped that my extra heavy braces would hold up. After 24 hours they seem to be fine. My sense is that the bracing was the right size after all, and like most well engineered things, had a decent margin of safety. Time will tell however, but so far it sounds great and is performing as well as hoped for.

In keeping with my desire to make my instruments as unique as I can, I made my own pickup using my home made pickup winding machine – an old sewing machine. I built the pickup from a maple core and walnut plates, with 4 neodymium magnets and many thousands of winds of 42 gauge magnet wire. The DC resistance is 10K, for those who know about this. That’s a lot of wire, but it makes for a strong signal and in this case it does not hum at all, unless I get close to a fluorescent light that is, like the one on my workbench. That induces a loud 60 cycle hum, but otherwise the single coil is fine.

I used Gotoh bass tuning heads rather than the silly little bass tuners Hofners have. For a Hofner you must buy special short scale strings with reduced end wraps in order to fit into the tiny tuners. This looks good and is lighter weight, but it restricts the sort of strings you can usually find in the music stores. These tuners allow me to use all off the shelf strings. I put Ernie Ball Slinkys on it, which are very good and as cheap a string as you will find. Maybe one day I’ll try flat wounds, but they don’t offer much except for lower noise from the friction of your fingers. I have tried them on my guitars and I always go back to round wounds, because I like that friction under my fingers. It all depends on preferences of course.

So far I resisted getting a bass amp, because in the house all I need is a low power amp and my Roland Cube Monitor can handle bass very well at low volume. For some reason bass amps are much cheaper than comparable guitar amps, but I have no idea why that is. A bass amp will work just fine with a guitar, but most guitar amps are not suitable for bass. So why do they cost more? Something about this tells me we are getting hosed!

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Collecting Things

Adler J2 c. 1974
Adler J2 typeface sample

Wednesday Jan 27, 2021

I’ve just collected my 199th typewriter yesterday – a 1974 Adler J2. I am typing on it here, to give it a test and see how I like it. Despite how good many of my typewriters are, I generally go back to the same old ones after a while, because they seem to suit me best. This has a delightful typeface however, which is a bonus. This machine has a plastic shroud, which makes it somewhat less desirable. Metal seems to be preferable for some reason, probably because I associate it with my childhood, an era for which nostalgia rules my heart. The idea of collecting typewriters is wrapped in nostalgia, because of the fact that they are now a thing of the past, and were mostly all made of metal. Only the later models had plastic shells, and though many of those are great, I and others, seem to have this preference for metal. It is illogical, but so is collecting things, unless done for profit, and even then there is not much profit in this when you consider all the time and effort spent to find a typewriter, clean it up, and fix whatever may be wrong with it. Often there are plenty of problems, and the hours spent do not pay well for the cost or price received when selling. But we persist, for the joy of finding typewriters, like birdwatchers scouring the bushes for rare birds, we scour the thrift shops in search of the new and unusual models, yet still glad to find some old favourite thing, even as we decline to buy it, unless it is such a bargain…

I wonder if typewriters were all $5 each, and there were half a dozen in every thrift shop, would anyone bother to collect them? I think not. We tend to value things that are rare and or expensive. If every typewriter was $5, which one would I buy to use? Not some rare old thing, unless it worked so well that I preferred using it over a better made model. When one removes price and rarity from the equation, then we find an entirely different set of values. I think of this as something like a blind test. I find this to be true for guitars, especially.

People will pay thousands of dollars for a guitar that has some label on it that they imagine confers a great value to it, even if in a blind test there is no difference between that and a similar guitar that is practically free by comparison. If I were to offer someone any typewriter in the world, and they had no idea what any of them were worth on the market, I bet they would chose simply by how the machine felt, how good the typed page looked, and last, what the machine looked like. But if I had informed them that the Hermes 3000 was worth ten times the cost of the one they selected, I also wager they might well change their mind fast! This happens to me, I should admit, despite my trying to judge things solely on logical grounds.

I think this is a factor of knowledge versus ignorance. When I was young I had less knowledge, and hence more ignorance. The things that I liked then were selected on my youthful judgment, unclouded by the opinions of others and or what the thing cost. I liked things for what I perceived them to be, not for what others perceived. When judging the worth or something now, I always try to keep that thought in mind, and think like a child, rather than as a fan of this or that because everyone else is.

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The Social Distance Isolation Blues

Two months, no gigs. For a musician this pandemic has put a halt to that, among everything else. But, we came up with a plan this week – a concert on the front lawn, maintaining 2 metres between players. I debuted the Corona Gold guitar, which performed flawlessly. I however performed less flawlessly, and more so as the temperature continued to drop and the wind picked up. By 8 PM we were done, after 90 minutes straight out fun.

my band –  bassist Larry is behind the tree

the sign says it all

Meanwhile, life in isolation goes on. Meetings are held via computer. Days are spent alone, mostly, making something, or lately – painting again. I made a second guitar following the pattern of the Corona Gold, but this one strictly acoustic. I switched the top bracing from parallel to X, and made the body a little deeper than the previous one. Also employed the X brace on the back, and the same projected neck design. Having a tall bridge allows using a nifty adjustable bridge too, which makes action adjustments dead simple. Body and neck are maple, with spruce top.

Corona Gold II – the acoustic version – Engleman Spruce top

back plate – arched X braced

detail of projected fingerboard

detail of neck heel

Again I finished this using wiped on polyurethane varnish mostly, with a few coats of french polish shellac on the top to make it glossy.

When the guitar was done, I decided it was time to get out the paint again, after a year. My first project was a kid sized card table, which became the canvas for duck. This is for the amusement of my 3 grandsons.

duck on a small card table

Two of them saw it, and were mostly impressed with the little pictures of trucks I painted around the edges. So much for the duck!

Next up was a scene from the Presidential Range of the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Once upon a time I spent many vacations hiking along those ridges, and several times staying in the huts. Lake of the Clouds hut is the largest of them all, and commands quite a view from its perch on the shoulder of Mt. Washington.

lake of the clouds hut

Sticking with the wilderness theme, I rendered my vision of a scene along the Cold River in the Adirondacks of New York (corrected from previous label of Raquette River, which was somewhere else). This was from a slide (Kodachrome even) I took while hiking the Northville-Placid Trail in 1979. May it remain ever wild and remote.

I’ve also been working on another picture book for kids, called Ciel The Blue Horse, and intend to publish it any day now.

Ciel frees Aaron the snail from the bucket in which he was captured.

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Corona Gold Guitar

Guitar #6 c. 2001

When I took up guitar building, I began by attempting to build an archtop guitar. I quickly concluded that I should try something simpler, so I put that aside and built five other guitars before returning to the archtop in 2001. I carved the top from a hunk of cedar I glued up from lumber I found at the local yard. It was a huge thing, and it sounded great, but when I tried to stick a pickup on it I ruined the top. I was going to throw it away, but then decided to see if a simple domed top would work. I removed the old top and made a new one for the body.

body with top removed

new top – domed plate

attaching new top to the old body

I didn’t try to disassemble the neck, because it was made like a classical guitar, with the ribs built into it. So I slid the new top into place and glued it on.

guitar #6 – version 2

I played this guitar for years, and stuck a face mounted pickup on it. It sounded great, but it was still huge and unwieldy. Last year I decided to have a go at turning it into a thinner, smaller guitar that I could use in the band, so I sawed the back of it off, and reformed the lower bout, reducing it by 2″. I put on a new back, and made a cutaway so I could access the high notes. I needed controls for the pickup however, so I cut a hole in the lower bout, planning to mount the controls there on a plate. When I played the guitar after making the hole, it sounded better! I decided to leave the hole, and I mounted the controls on the body between the two main braces. I stuck a mason jar ring into the new soundhole, because it just happened to fit. Everyone seems to notice this.

guitar#6 – version 3

This became my main guitar for band use, since everyone who heard it said it was better than my other guitar. This may have to do with the pickup, an old Framus single coil. I played it for a couple of years, and recently decided to build a copy. I hadn’t built a guitar in 5 years and thought this would be a good idea, if only to see if I still had it in me to do it. I began in February and worked on it steadily for the past 6 weeks. Building a guitar is intense , and I thought of little else for the time I was engaged on the project. The guitar has a maple body, stained gold with home made dye made from turmeric. Since it is the colour of beer, I have called this guitar the Corona Gold.

the Corona Gold

I copied guitar #6 closely, with a few improvements. Luckily I had a second old Framus pickup, so the pair of them sound pretty much the same plugged in. The new one has a bit more punch however, as it is a little deeper than #6. The new neck is attached with a dovetail joint. The body is exactly 70mm deep. I made the neck in two parts – the dovetail block was made first, then the neck part was glued to that. This allowed for a solid neck from end to end.

neck projects and is not connected to the body below

the back – gold stained maple

That’s it for now – I have too many guitars as it is!

 

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Clipper Makeover

repainted Smith Corona Clipper

Boeing 314 “Clipper”, named after a typewriter!

It’s been years since I repainted a typewriter. I recently sold the last one I repainted, so when I picked up a drab Smith Corona Clipper I decided to have another go at repainting. I had forgotten just how much work it is, and how fussy. I removed all the panels, sanded out the chips and scratches, then filled in the holes with quick body filler, sanded again, then primed and then got down to spraying. Of course I screwed it up right away by missing spots and then adding too much paint to others. You can’t respray this paint unless you wait 24 hours, another mistake I learned about the hard way when the old paint wrinkled. This machine has CLIPPER printed on the back of the paper feed, but the serial number and features are those of a Sterling, series 5A, not 5C. So it’s a Sterling with a Clipper label. I decided to recreate the Clipper logo with the Boeing Clipper, and print my own water slide decals for that and the Smith Corona name. I copied the clipper logo from a photo I found on line and worked up a reasonable facsimile by hand drawing the plane and importing that into MS Publisher. Combined with text and another imported file of a blue line I drew for the waves, I designed my own Clipper logo, which I then printed on clear water slide decal paper.

 

Same thing for the Smith-Corona logo.

I clear coated the lid to protect the decals and reassembled the bodywork. It’s a lovely typewriter, but I’m going to sell it because I have several of these already, and don’t need more of the same. I hope someone will enjoy this little gem. I won’t get enough money for it to justify all the work involved, but it was fun all the same. Also, I learned how to make water slide decals, and made some labels for my guitars.

During the process of hunting down the logo for the Smith Corona Clipper, I learned a lot about the Boeing 314 “Clipper”. Air travel should be like this! Beds and staterooms, dining rooms, lounges, and separate bathrooms for men and women. Air travel has really improved since those days, because now we have gender neutral toilets. Plus we have 50 channels of programs. Back then they had to get up to go eat. Now they bring you the “food”, and it is so delicious.

Boeing only ever made 12 of them, all for Pan Am Airways, but the plane is much larger in legend. Every plane was called a Such and Such Clipper. There are none left. Only typewriters remain…and of course our own Victoria to Seattle Clipper – a fast catamaran that goes from here to Seattle daily. Maybe they will buy this typewriter for the passengers to use!

The Victoria Clipper

sheet of decals

my version of the Clipper logo

my Smith Corona decal

Guitar logos:

 

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Second Cap of Caffenol

I’m on my second cup of coffee and I still can’t face the day – Gordon Lightfoot.

There should be a tariff on Canadian culture! But I bet DJT doesn’t even know who Gordie is…

Meanwhile we sweat through the heatwave that has engulfed us all. Weather has no borders.

I hike up here most every day with a 20 lb pack, getting my legs ready to walk 10 miles a day for 10 days

brined dill pickles – thanks to Mr. Katz!

fresh crete at the local playground – I didn’t write my initials in it

old farm scale – for big loads!

the wedding gig – at a farm

my axe – A Crafter made in Korea – the best electric guitar I ever had…

no swimming unless the guy is in his chair

horses, of courses

all farms have tanks for stuff

I’d like to have a bath in this

another 8 storey condo beside the park, another owl nest down

asphalt paver – our playground got rebuilt and repaved, but the kids couldn’t tell the difference

there is nothing like bedrock to remind you that the earth will still be here after we destroy all life on it

meanwhile we should all eat plenty of fresh garlic

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Hail Suzuki of Nagoya

Suzuki AD312S

Suzuki AD312S

Found at a thrift store for $40, with bridge almost detached. It also had cracks at the tailpiece, but nothing serious. Everything else about this guitar looked OK, so I brought it home to repair and maybe sell. Little did I know how great it would sound and play. First I patched up the cracks at the tail end. I didn’t bother to worry about how it looked, as I consider wear and tear on an old guitar part of its charm. I then pried off the bridge with a hot knife. It was obviously way too thin, for reasons that escape me, so I sanded it flat and glued on a 3mm thick scrap of walnut. The bridge is rosewood but I didn’t have any rosewood scraps about. I sanded the perimeter and stained the new wood black to match the stained rosewood. After prepping the top by a little sanding to smooth it out, I reattached the bridge with clamps and cauls. That brought the bone saddle a bit too high, so I had to bring it down a millimeter or so. Looking inside I found that the bridge plate was a piece of softwood, which was getting chewed up by the string nuts, so I glued in another small walnut plate to strengthen that. Some guitarists have removed heavy bridge plates, but what I added was not even an ounce of wood, so I had no qualms about potentially muffling the tone here. Six new 25c bridge pins and a set of extra light Gibson phosphor bronze strings completed the repairs. I prefer using light gauge strings, if only because I’m quite used to how they feel. This guitar most certainly didn’t need heavy strings for it to deliver the goods.

label

label – Suzuki Nagoya

I didn’t know anything about these guitars before but I’m wise now. This one is quite excellent. It has a fine top of solid spruce, and the bracing is pretty much standard post-war Martin Dreadnought. The body is all laminates but that is not a problem here – this thing has killer vibes! The post-war Martins had their braces moved back an inch to make the tops less prone to warping, as well as having straight braces, as opposed to the earlier scalloped design. There are heated arguments on both sides as to which design is best. Taking advantage of this, Martin now makes some models with “forward shifted scalloped bracing”. This is basically their old design made new again. But every design change to a musical instrument has consequences. The new old design being lighter braced, and forward-shifted means the sound is bigger and has even more overtones. Some players like this sound, and are convinced it’s better. Others say it tends to muddiness. All those overtones cannot be had without a concurrent change in the whole dynamic, which means you lose clarity of the fundamental note. I love the clarity of this guitar, which I would attribute somewhat to the “tighter” bracing of the old=new post-war backward-shifted non-scalloped design. Whew! One difference I observed in the bracing vis-a-vis the Martin standard, is that the main x-braces appear thicker but lower. So Suzuki copied Martin, but not quite exactly.

new old bridge

new old bridge

I was contemplating selling this guitar at first, but after playing it I decided to keep it – it’s just too good an instrument to part with, and for what the market would value this at, not enough money to turn around and buy anything nearly as good. Considering it dates from 1977 as far as I can gather, it hasn’t much wear on the frets – they’re almost unworn. This guitar has the power and bass of a good dreadnought, but quite a distinct clarity when picked. Now I will be on the lookout for more old Suzuki guitars. Suzuki Nagoya no longer make guitars but they still exist and make violins, as they have done since 1887 according to their label.

headstock logo with Suzuki Three S label

headstock logo with Suzuki Three S label

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