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A Tale of Two Schools

A Tale of Two Schools

by Fred Carlson

previously published in American Lutherie #53, 1998



In 1975 I was a skinny nineteen-year-old with a small beard and a big passion for making wooden musical instruments, living in a commune in northern Vermont. That fall, I had an extraordinary experience. It was one of those experiences that we are blessed with once or twice in our lives if we’re lucky. I had the opportunity to spend six weeks studying guitar building at a small school devoted to that art, run by a man named Charles Fox.

Nearly twenty years later, in the spring of 1995, I found myself on the other side of the continent in Santa Cruz, California, my beard shaved off, still building guitars, and still using those few simple, elegant techniques I’d learned twenty years earlier. I’d long ago lost touch with Charles Fox, but in a very real way he was with me. For many years I had a tattered old blue notebook, my guitar-building bible of notes taken during those six weeks spent with Charles and five other young, crazy, would-be guitar builders. I had referred to those notes time and time again. I’m sure I had parts of them memorized. During my big move west in 1989, the notebook was misplaced, and I have yet to find it. Although I lost an old friend with the passing of that worn volume, I discovered that I had learned its lessons. I could build guitars without it!

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In Memoriam: Don Bradley

In Memoriam: Don Bradley

1949 – 2016

by Deb Olsen, Chris Herrod, Alan Carruth, and Fred Carlson

Originally published in American Lutherie #127, 2016

We are fond of all our GAL members, for sure. But there are some members who have been with us for so many years, who have grown up with us and the Guild, and who we have enjoyed spending time with at so many conventions over decades, that they have a special place in our hearts. Don Bradley is one of those. Happy, amiable, kind, funny, smart, and humble, Don has always been a great supporter of the Guild and its ideals. He has been with us from way, way back — a member continuously since 1977, he attended his first convention in Tacoma that year after completing one of the early courses at the Roberto-Venn School, and he attended at least a dozen in all, including the last five held in Tacoma from 2004–2014. (See his “Meet the Maker” article in AL#111.) I’d have to do a little research, but it’s possible that he attended more conventions than any other member (other than the GAL staff). So we were always delighted when we’d get his convention registration and knew we’d be seeing him again. Conventions can be daunting, but one of the things that encourages us to keep doing them is knowing that we’ll be seeing some of our old pals like Don. We’ll really miss him at the next one.

—Deb Olsen

Intelligent, soft-spoken, and kind, Don Bradley was for many years a welcome fixture at NCAL (Northern California Association of Luthiers) and GAL events. We grew accustomed to his friendly, easy-going presence and that makes his sudden passing all the more difficult.

Aside from building a variety of instruments, Don applied his keen, inquisitive mind to a wide range of pursuits: banjo playing, electric cars, folk dancing, raising llamas, and gardening. Perhaps he will be best remembered for building the signal generator device for Chladni testing (“free plate testing”) that was sold for many years by LMI and others.

Thank you, Don. You will be missed.

—Chris Herrod

Photo by Teri Korsmo

I first met Don at the GAL Convention in Vermillion, South Dakota, in 1992. He approached me, introduced himself as an electronics engineer, and asked if there was anything he could do to help. I was looking for somebody to take over the business of making signal generators that I had suspended on the death of my father a few years before, and his offer was very welcome. I sent the parts and information to Don with gratitude.

Those machines were only slight updates of the ones detailed in the old GAL Data Sheet #112 by Matt Fichtenbaum, and were very far out of date by then; so Don came up with a wholly new, and far better, design in consultation with me. Although from habit I use my old unit for day-to-day work, when I need real precision or portability I turn to Don’s device.

Thereafter we would see each other in Tacoma when I was able to get out for conventions. When I had a table we would set up a signal generator, and Don would spell me in demonstrations. He would also help out if I had a talk to give.

Don hosted me at his home when I went out for what turned out to be the last Healdsburg Festival, providing a pleasant and undemanding oasis amid the cacophony. My flight home was late on the Monday after the close of the festival, and Don took me on a sightseeing tour. We took in the Armstrong redwoods and Bodega Bay in a pleasant and relaxing day’s drive.

I always hoped that some chance would enable me to return the favor, and show him some of the scenic attractions near my home in New Hampshire. Sadly, that will never happen now. I’m left wondering how his instrument making went, and whether he ever got that Tesla that he wanted.
Adios, Don: I owe you.

—Alan Carruth

Don Bradley was such a nice guy! I met him at the first GAL Convention I ever attended, the one in Winfield, Kansas, in 1978. I was oh-so-young (early 20-something), on my first real trip away from home on my own, at my first luthier convention, showing off some of my instruments to other luthiers for the first time. Don was so warm and easy going; I immediately felt comfortable with him. We got caught together in some building when a brief and wild summer tornado cruised through, filling the streets with water in minutes. Watching this amazing phenomenon of nature, we got to talking, and it turned out he had just locked his keys inside his truck. I spent quite a while taking apart my backpack to get at a metal rod that was a part of the frame, and we used it to pick his truck-door lock. The sort of experience that one remembers, and that can lead to lasting friendship, which it did. We mostly only met, over the years, at lutherie-related events, and saw each other less frequently as the years went by, but each meeting was a happy event, and the friendship was always there, waiting to be enjoyed.

Wherever luthiers go when they pass on, I know everyone there will be happy to see him, but we’ll sure miss him here!

Happy journey into the mystery, my friend!

—Fred Carlson

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Review: Getting a Bigger Sound: Pickups and Microphones for Your Musical Instrument by Bart Hopkin with Robert Cain and Jason Lollar

Review: Getting a Bigger Sound: Pickups and Microphones for Your Musical Instrument by Bart Hopkin with Robert Cain and Jason Lollar

Reviewed by Fred Carlson

Originally published in American Lutherie #74, 2003 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Seven, 2015



Getting a Bigger Sound: Pickups and Microphones for Your Musical Instrument
Bart Hopkin with Robert Cain and Jason Lollar
ISBN 0-9727313-0-X
Nicasio, CA: Experimental Musical Instruments, 104 pp., 2002
www.windworld.com

I know I’m not the only electronically challenged luthier who’s been waiting for someone to write an understandable, useful handbook on pickups, microphones, and instrument amplification. I’d been envisioning the author to be lutherie renaissance-man Rick Turner, who wrote the fine “Electronic Answer Man” columns for American Lutherie in years past. I know how busy Rick is, but I remain ever-hopeful that pressure from the lutherie community will drive him to it someday. In the meantime, another of my musical instrument heroes has come out with his take on such a manual, and I’m happy to say it goes a long way toward filling the void in useful introductions to this subject.

Bart Hopkins’ take on the adventure of electronically amplifying a musical instrument is undoubtedly coming from a different perspective than one from which a more guitar-oriented writer like Rick Turner would approach it. Bart has spent many years spearheading Experimental Musical Instruments, an organization devoted to interesting and unusual musical instruments of all sorts. For many years, EMI published a journal of the same name that featured all sorts of amazing stuff from the wonderful, quirky, experimental underside of instrument building. Bart did writing and illustrating for the journal as well as editing and publishing duties. He’s also an active guitarist and creative instrument builder/inventor with experience and interests covering a broad spectrum of the music world. Since EMI’s journal ceased publication in 1999, Bart has kept the organization alive as a source of back issues. EMI also offers recordings of many of the wild and wonderful creations featured in the journals’ pages, as well as several books Bart has written on instrument design and building. Recently the EMI catalog has added pickups and pickup components and materials to its stable of offerings.

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Product Reviews: Livos Oil Finish

Product Reviews: Livos Oil Finish

by Fred Carlson

Originally published in American Lutherie #63, 2000 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Six, 2013



Livos Oil Finish

I’ve experimented with my share of different finishing materials over the twenty-odd years (twenty-eight, to be exact, and some of them have been very odd indeed) that I’ve been building wooden stringed instruments. From my early years working with my artist/luthier mentor Ken Ripportella, I remember various concoctions of linseed oil and beeswax; later came guitar building with all sorts of awful chemicals, starting with automotive acrylic lacquer and soon moving on to the more standard nitrocellulose brew. It took some years to get advanced to the point that we had an actual exhaust fan to draw the toxic solvent fumes out of the shop, and during one of those years I had a bed on a small loft above my workbench, next to the finishing room. When finishing was going on, I was breathing lacquer fumes day and night. By the time we finally got the exhaust fan and I learned how to use a respirator, a certain amount of damage had been done, and I began to experience a lot of discomfort when exposed to lacquer/solvent fumes, as well as other chemicals. Although I had no idea then that my ignorance would compromise my health, perhaps for the rest of my life, it became pretty obvious pretty fast that I couldn’t work around solvent-based finishes anymore. I had continued to use oil and wax finishes on some instruments, but had not been completely happy with either the acoustic or protective qualities of those finishes when applied to the top of a guitar. I’d taken to using oil and wax for everything but the top, for which I was using nitrocellulose until the mid‑’80s. My sensitivity problems caused me to switch to one of the early waterborne lacquer-like polymers, similar to what I still use today.

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Review: Experimental Musical Instruments

Review: Experimental Musical Instruments

Reviewed by Fred Carlson

Originally published in American Lutherie #3, 1985 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume One, 2000



Experimental Musical Instruments
A Newsletter for the Design, Construction, and Enjoyment of New Sound Sources
Published bimonthly
Magazine defunct (1999)

Volume 1, #1 (1975)

In a world of luthiers trying, with all the intensity luthiers are capable of, to see who can make the best Martin or Strad copy, this publication is a potential breath of fresh air. It is my personal opinion that we as luthiers have to not only continue traditions, but evolve, expand, even break out of them entirely at times, in order to keep them vibrant and meaningful. Experimental Musical Instruments is a newsletter that seems to me to get to the heart of this issue. Creation is what it’s all about: using existing knowledge as a basis to experiment, learn more, and have fun. And maybe make some real breakthroughs in the process.

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