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Harpsichords: Reconstructing an Era

Harpsichords: Reconstructing an Era

by Byron Will

Originally published in Guild of American Luthiers Quarterly, Volume 5 ,#4, 1977



The music of the renaissance and baroque has undergone a rebirth in the twentieth century, with musicians and makers attempting to rediscover the high level of the art which was reached. A great deal of work has been done in the enormous process of making a musical era live again, with the scholar having to be cautious of falling into preconceptions and making personal assumptions which may be quite false. This long an difficult process has many times changed the musicians and makers outlook on the “correct” approach. Although there are not and never were absolutes, much more is known than twenty years ago and the modern maker has a better idea of what is required of the musician interpreting the great compositions of the past.

The most logical approach the modern harpsichord maker may take is to carefully study the old instruments and attempt to understand the old makers methods. There are many antiques that have been restored, although not all with the greatest of care. Many old instruments have been altered, perhaps many times, so not much of the original remains. What can we tell from the antiques which are two or three hundred years old? The antiques play music with the clarity, growth, and beauty that a great instrument has, having a strong character that works with the music and performer to give a completely satisfying performance. The antiques sometimes have a certain ugliness or crudeness to their tone adding charm and incisive character. The modern maker must determine what he hears in the antiques, study how they were constructed and incorporate this information in his work in order to properly approach the old makers’ art. Their need for caution is as important as the scholars’.

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Questions: Summer/Spring Wood

Questions: Summer/Spring Wood

by Byron Will

Originally published in American Lutherie #33, 1993 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Three, 2004



Anonymous asks:
I’ve heard people talk about “strong” winter grain in spruce and cedar and others talk about summer growth and spring growth, or summer wood and spring wood. Which is which? Does it depend on where you are? Also there seem to be different ideas about what is desirable. It seems as if violin makers want strong, dark lines and guitar makers don’t care so much.

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North American Softwoods

North American Softwoods

from their 1990 GAL Convention panel discussion

by Ted Davis, Bruce Harvie, Steve McMinn, Byron Will, and Dave Wilson

moderated by Joseph Johnson

Previously published in American Lutherie #31, 1992 and The Big Red Book of American Lutherie, Volume Three, 2004



Why don’t each of you tell us who you are, where you’re from, and a little bit of what you’ve done.

Ted: My name is Ted Davis and I live in Tennessee near the Smokey Mountains. The Smokeys have red spruce in them and when I found out this wood was useful, I started pursuing it. In the last two years, after a ten-year search, I have managed to find and cut a small amount of red spruce. It was the wood that was used by Martin and Gibson around the turn of the century, up into the 1940s.

Bruce: My name is Bruce Harvie and I have a company called Orcas Island Tonewoods in the San Juan Islands of Washington. I have spread myself very thin cutting all the Northwest species — western red cedar, Port Orford cedar, Sitka spruce, Engelmann spruce — and I’ve just returned from cutting some red spruce.

Byron: I’m Byron Will and my interest is more from an instrument maker’s point of view. I started building harpsichords in 1975 when I moved to the Pacific Northwest from Wisconsin. I wasn’t very satisfied with the woods I had been using. After seeing these gorgeous Northwest trees I started wondering about their physical and acoustical properties and how useful they’d be in my work. I decided to try some of the local softwoods and learned quite a bit through the years.

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