So, the next of my friend’s guitars that I took a look at was called an ‘Ashton’. I was unfamiliar with the brand so I looked it up.
I learnt that it was an Australian company based in Sydney, which got its instruments made in China (at least that is what the label inside the guitar said), which got sold in India!!!! That’s cosmopolitanism for you!!!
As I went over the guitar, there was just one adjective that sprang to mind: Neat! Nothing fancy, no frills, no trims, yet, all quite there. I remember asking my friend how old it was, and if I remember correctly, he said that he bought it for 10K a decade ago.
As he gave me that figure, I thought to myself: ‘Certainly a solid top’! And as I looked at it with a magnifying glass, sure, it was a solid top. But then something caught my eye, right at the soundhole. See if you can see it too!
It was not only not a solid top, but it was a double laminate!!!!
Here, let me go off on a tangent and explain, plyboard, laminate and solid guitars a little. I have done it several times before, but I received a request recently to explain that concept again. So, get your popcorn and your favourite beverage and let’s get rolling.
In producing anything for commercial purposes, the investment in raw material is of prime importance as far as the end profit is concerned. The cheaper the raw material, the larger is the profit margin. And so, in India at least, a majority of guitars are made from plyboard (what we erroneously refer to as plywood): 9mm.
Next time you’re near a hardware store just ask to see a piece of ‘9 mm ply’ and you will understand what I am talking about. It is reclaimed layers of very, very thin wood that are pressed into becoming one piece of wood under pressure.
Yes, you cannot separate the layers but that does not take away the fact that THEY ARE different layers of wood pressed together, and that is what affects the overall sound of the instrument, if one were to build an acoustic instrument out of it.
To explain this, let me take another little diversion and take you right back to school, into your Physics class. Refraction, and we learnt about different mediums and how the ray of light bent, passing from one medium to another.
That is pretty much the case with plyboard and sound too. Imagine sound waves traversing a homogeneous material and travelling though a heterogeneous piece like a plyboard: it is bound to affect the sound. No wonder, you get such guitars for Rs 3.5 K and from a reputed house like Martin, the very base model will cost something like 10 times that amount!!
This is what you would actually call plywood: several distinct layers of different woods of a specific thickness mashed together. Again, if you are near a hardware store, ask to see a piece of plywood. Compare it with the 9mm piece and you will understand what I am talking about.
For construction purposes it comes in various thicknesses, but for the purposes of guitar building, what manufacturers do is press in a layer (referred to as veneer) of spruce wood or cedar wood with any ordinary wood. The idea is that the spruce/cedar will retain some of its properties while the other wood will support it. Unfortunately, it does not work that way. Remember refraction?
But upright manufacturers say upfront that ‘x’ guitar is a laminated guitar, which means that the top, back and sides are not single pieces of wood but laminated.
But to give the devil his due, laminate guitars don’t sound half as bad as plyboard ones. Why? To answer that let’s see who makes these guitars. It’s big brand names who wish to put an affordable piece of their know-how in your hands, or those, who produce for a market of ‘hobby players’, as is the case in India.
Real serious players, who know what they wish to buy, are few and far between. Most go into a shop asking for an acoustic guitar and walk out happily clutching a classical instrument, when what they actually had in mind, was a steel-string American folk guitar!
SOLID WOOD GUITARS
One-wood guitars. No pressing, no mixing, just solid wood. And how do you confirm that it is a solid-wood guitar? Look for a wood pattern on the top or the back of the guitar. Now look for that same pattern on the underside. If you see the same pattern there too, it is indeed a solid-wood guitar. The sound of an instrument made from this wood is a pleasure to be heard: the volume, the sustain, everything. And let me leave it at that.
Try finding one in town and play it for sometime. Tell me what you felt!
Back to the Ashton on the counter; it was a double laminate. Let me explain. So, instead of the regular lamination of a single layer of spruce/cedar and some other wood, it had a top and bottom layer of spruce sandwiching a layer of ordinary wood.
Now, there can be two reasons for doing this. a) A mistaken belief that an extra layer of spruce/cedar will lend a better tone, or, b) to fool people into believing that it was a solid wood guitar! In both instances, a wrong move!
Whatever be the reason, there was nothing to rave about in the guitar, except its simple, clean looks. What was more, its plastic saddle was too thin for the slot and was tilting over.
Thankfully, it had not reached the stage where it could force a crack into the bridge. So, I just loosened the strings and pulled out the saddle and the nut, replacing them with bone elements.
Like always, the nut did not require too much work, the saddle though had to be cut down some, and then some. The black that you see in the nut slots is carbon, which acts as a lubricant for string movement, not allowing strings to get pinched in the slot.
Again, with this one, the corners of the bridge had started lifting and 12 to 18 months down the line, should pose a risk. For now, I let the bridge be.
A little love potion for the fretwires, and some love potion for the fretboard, and look at it shine!