Gypsy Guitars Design - Vintage Gypsy Guitars - Busato- Favino-Di Mauro-Castelluccia

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Gypsy Guitars Design

Technical Info

Gypsy guitar design

The gypsy jazz guitars are an ingenious combination of flat top and arch top guitars with some of the qualities of both. They were originally built early in the jazz age when guitars of greater volume and projection were necessary in order to be heard over the wind instruments typical to jazz ensembles. Guitar manufacturers in the United States, like Gibson, were developing the arch top design that produced a mid-range dominant tone that had the volume and cutting power necessary for live playing situations, but these were rare and very expensive in Europe.
Mario Maccaferri’s design produced a guitar with many of the same qualities of tone at a fraction of the cost. He was a classical guitar performer and luthier who studied with builder-musician Luigi Mozzani in Cento, Italy. (Francois Charles, The Story of Selmer-Maccaferri Guitars). The instruments he built with the Selmer Co. were influenced by this tradition, but Mario was always an independent and creative thinker. He designed several models for Selmer, but the two that have become most popular (thanks to celebrity endorser Django Reinhardt) are the Orchestre Model – known as the Model Jazz or Grande Bouche- and the Selmer Model known as the Petite Bouche. Mario’s major innovation on these guitars was the use of a highly domed top that allowed the bridge to be of sufficient height so that a tailpiece could effectively be used. The more bombé on the top, the higher the bridge is in relation with the tailpiece.
The primary movement of a floating bridge under string tension is vertical, with very little torque or rock, which is why the tone is mid-range dominant. The wide, glued on bridge of a flat top guitar is driving the soundboard in a more complex way that favors fuller overtone development. The amount of down-pressure on the bridge greatly affects both tone and volume. Greater load favors the fundamental pitch and more volume, while lesser load makes for a richer tone with more harmonic overtones but somewhat less volume. Some luthiers (not gypsy guitar makers) build the tailpieces of their guitars with height adjustment screws that allow the player to balance the instruments fundamental/overtone mix by changing the break angle over the bridge. Bridges on these guitars are hollowed out to reduce mass and increase volume. Players today prefer much lower action than in the past, so it is sensible to make the bridge with an in-set saddle for easy adjustment to various string attack. The bridge weight must be light and the impedance is maximized with a two-legged bridge. Playing gypsy guitars with a low action is a mistake. You will never get a truly superb sound with a low 2.5mm action at the 12th fret. You do not need either to play with a high action above 4mm, but everybody should be able, with a well-set guitar, to play comfortably with a 3.5mm action. A too low action generates some buzzes, even hardly noticeable, as the strings wipe against the highest frets. This contact prevents the note from sustaining and also kills fundamentals.
The dome shape of the top is crucial to the tone and functionality of this kind of instrument. This dome is accomplished in Maccaferri’s design by gluing arched braces to the top that run perpendicular to the grain of the spruce with two short vertical braces under the bridge. This creates a cylindrical section, with the entire arch in one plane. Forcing the top down at the neck and tail blocks attains the dome, which creates a lot of uneven stress on the top. The back is built in a similar way – like most modern flat tops. The tone of these guitars is predictably dry and lacking in overtones. Ladder bracing favors the fundamental pitch of any note at the sacrifice of the rest of the overtone range. This is because the top is divided by the braces into only a few vibrating plates which are essentially rectangular. Ladder bracing is also used in lute construction. The right hand attack of the player must be strong to get the best sound from a laddered braced guitar.
Ladder bracing is created when all the braces are parallel with the bridge, so if you look at the back side of the guitar top, the braces look like steps in a ladder. There usually are not many, 3 or 4, maybe 5. They create fulcrum points where the top can easily vibrate in short, low amplitude motions that are perfect for producing high notes, which therefore get emphasis, along with high overtones from lower pitched notes. Thus ladder bracing strongly supports what is called the "long dipole", though there are more than two poles (spans) created. Highs increase the carry and make the sound more assertive. To get this, the top sacrifices the rich complex lows that a well built X-braced top can provide.
Ladder bracing tends to produce a less stiff top because there are fewer braces and they do not create much triangulation. Thus the energy transferred by the strings to the top can move it further, creating a louder sound, along with the emphasis on treble which makes the sound carry better. Some say ladder bracing came to be because it was easier to execute in a factory environment. Others say the Italian artisans employed by Oscar Schmidt (one of the early guitar factories) were simply accustomed to doing tops this way, since the lute and early parlor sized guitars were made this way in Europe. There is probably truth in both theories.
Contemporary ladder brace builders tend to copy old designs without many essential changes, except to build them better, with more playable necks and with a truss rod, better sounding wood, tighter construction standards, and so on. The blues are the natural fit for these instruments, as they were for the earlier ladder braced guitars, and also gypsy music. Since flat pickers value loudness, a large bodied ladder braced guitar could suit their playing better than the X-braced guitars. Likewise the assertive nature of ladder braced sound could compete better with other instruments in the bands.
The backs of Selmer-Maccaferri guitars and gypsy guitars were laminated. Selmer-Maccaferri guitars are unique in the world, and all French-Sicilian and French-Italian luthiers used the same concept. The dry unique sound of gypsy guitars owes much to a basic combination of two factors: The ladder bracing and the floating bridge, with the bridge under high tension thanks to a low tailpiece. This tension gives volume and projection and favors fundamental notes. A gypsy guitar producing too many overtones in relation with the fundamental has a wet sound and does not behave like the best gypsy vintage guitars. All modern gypsy guitars, made industrially, semi industrially and by artisan luthiers have a much wetter sound than the best vintage instruments. I think I can claim I tried hundreds of those, and often the best ones. I have still to play one, which would be up to snuff with a Busato.
Believing that all great luthiers, and Busato more particularly, just succeeded to make awesome guitars intuitively would be a mistake. They were making vibrating monster machines, using a set of secret techniques, which were probably only partly applied or understood by modern luthiers. Busato was making guitars, seriously, with any wood quality he would find. And he did not always find the best grades or best looking. But you know what? Who cares?
While scientists still try to discover the secrets of Stradivarius, apparently without much success, many modern artisan luthiers are simply replicating formulas, copying design, dimensions and some wood choices, and they are producing various levels of gypsy guitars. Some, of course, are decent, and some are really good. Gypsy vintage guitars fans are glad that there are modern luthiers as otherwise the price of vintage instruments would not make them affordable to all.
Barnabe “Pablo” Busato remains undoubtedly the unchallenged master, and probably for a long time…

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