Brother to Brother – Gino and Ross Vannelli

The guitar I just started building is truly the most exciting project I have ever done. It’s for someone who is one of the biggest musical influences in my life. To understand this, you need to know a little bit about me.

I have a passion for music. Born into a family of non-musical parents and siblings, I started singing in public at age five with my parents’ urging and support. I spent years studying violin, clarinet and guitar, including jazz guitar with session player Andy Roemer. In college I studied piano with Kathleen Vadala, a gifted pianist and wife of Chris Vadala, woodwind player in the Chuck Mangione Quartet at the time.

Since the age of 14, I have played in duos, ensembles and bands. I have performed on television, radio and in many other venues. I have a song published and a self-produced CD of original music.

Did I mention my eclectic taste in music? Back in high school, family and friends were as likely to hear a Beethoven concerto on my stereo as a jazz standard from Grover Washington Jr. or a 15-minute tone poem by Kansas. My musical interest ranges from Bach to Beatles, Liszt to Led Zeppelin, and Joe Sample to Keb’ Mo’.  I can’t go a week without hearing pieces by David Benoit or Jars of Clay. If the song is great or performed well, I am likely to count it among my pleasures, regardless of genre. My wife and I attend dozens of concerts a year.

One sunny day while I was in college in 1974, I turned the FM tuner to my favorite underground college station in Virginia. I heard a song that had an everlasting impact on my musical life: Powerful People by Gino Vannelli. I grabbed my car keys and rushed down to Korvettes to buy this amazing song, but the record department clerk didn’t know anything about it or the artist. He reluctantly agreed to try to order it. Not finding it listed in his binder of printed pages, he wrote it in on the order form.

In the meantime, the radio station played several more cuts from the album: People Gotta Move and Felicia – both equally fantastic songs. When the album did come in, I played it continuously and for anyone I could get to listen. It became the anthem of my musical family.

Over the years I have seen Gino in concert many times. I have travelled great distances to see his shows. I have also read his book, Stardust in the Sand, twice. I own everything he has ever recorded.

In February 2013, Gino gave a concert at the House of Blues in Orlando. I was lucky enough to get meet-and-greet tickets. I was finally going to get to meet my musical inspiration! I practiced what I was going to say so as not to sound like a crazed fan. My son David suggested that I offer to build him a custom guitar.

The concert was simply incredible. My wife commented (several times) on just how good Gino still looks.

When we were in line to meet him, I rehearsed one last time, and I wrote out a note on my business card. Gino was very cordial, but I had only about a minute for a handshake, picture and to say, “Thank you for giving us decades of outstanding music.” I did not have time to talk about guitars or give him my business card. Nonetheless, the evening was magical and one I will always remember.

After the concert, and at David’s urging, I emailed Gino through his website and told him I would be honored to build him a custom guitar in the hope that he will continue to compose wonderful music.

I truly did not expect to ever hear back from him, but to my surprise, the very next day I received an email from his brother and manager, Ross Vannelli (who wrote Gino’s hit, “I Just Wanna Stop”). Ross told me Gino has a good guitar but it is not really ideal for studio recording; could I build him one for recording?

Over the next several weeks, we discussed the sound, action, appearance and application of a custom, studio guitar, which I am building to Gino’s specifications. He prefers a bright and balanced sound with low action for his finger-style technique.

Based on Gino’s responses, I suggested two guitar shapes and two combinations of wood. To my delight, since Gino lives in the Pacific Northwest, he selected local, domestic woods: Oregon Myrtle for the back and sides and master-grade Sitka Spruce for the top in a Grand Concert model.

And so the adventure begins….

 

Dan picks up his new guitar!

Dan flew into Tampa and drove over to pick up his guitar. The guitar was in its new TKL Professional Series hardshell case.  I was watching his face as he opened the case – his expression went from anticipation to excitement and then to joy. As he strummed his guitar for the first time, his analytical side emerged as he fingered his first chords, evaluating the string spacing and the action. He was very pleased with the way it played. He tilted his ear to the soundhole as he played and I sensed he also heard the warmth of the Cedar top and articulation of the Ziricote back and sides. Dan sounded really good during his first moments with his guitar. Of course I am so excited that he likes the guitar as much as he says – it was a priviledge to create this instrument for him and I wish him a lifetime of joy with it.

Dan also plugged in the guitar to hear the natural sound of the Baggs iBeam pickup running thourgh a Baggs preamp and a Roland acoustic amp.

Dan also plugged in the guitar to hear the natural sound of the Baggs iBeam pickup running thourgh a Baggs preamp and a Roland acoustic amp.

Thank you Dan! And thanks to all of you who followed this blog. Thanks again to my son David for creating the blog (and encouraging me to use it) and thanks to my wife for taking all the pictures.

Next up I plan to build another slotted headstock, 12-fret to body concert model with a Redwood top and Macassar Ebony back and sides. This will have a significant amount of Pau Abalone inlay and Waverly tuners.

If there is any interest in having me build your next guitar, please comment on this blog and I will be happy to discuss the possibilities.

I had a difficult time prying Dan's guitar from my wife - she REALLY likes it!

I had a difficult time prying Dan’s guitar from my wife – she REALLY likes it!

MDR

The finished guitar and a few video clips.

I have recorded a couple of quick video clips of the newly strung guitar. They are recorded with a basic camera so the quality is not very good but it will give a sense of how this instrument sounds. You can hear these clips on Facebook with the link “RG on Facebook” at the bottom of this page.

The finished guitar has a very balanced sound with awesome sustain and beautiful overtones.

The finished guitar has a very balanced sound with awesome sustain and beautiful overtones.

The action and string spacing are perfect for fingerstyle playing.

The action and string spacing are perfect for fingerstyle playing.

Final shaping of the bridge and saddle.

I mark the center of each string using a progressive spacing ruler.

I mark the center of each string using a progressive spacing ruler.

The nut is the start of the scale length on one end and the saddle completes the scale on the other end. The strings must be spaced at the nut to allow the left hand to comfortably press the string to the fretboard with enough space between strings.

The razor saw is used to cut the thin kerf on the string marks.

The razor saw is used to cut the thin kerf on the string marks.

After taping the neck and peghead to protect it, I use special rounded nut files ranging from .13 to .56 inches.

After taping the neck and peghead to protect it, I use special rounded nut files ranging from .13 to .56 inches.

I file into the kerf to get the string to sit as low as possible but not where it will buzz against the first fret.

I file into the kerf to get the string to sit as low as possible but not where it will buzz against the first fret.

The saddle then must be contoured on several dimensions. First it must be low enough to allow the strings to be presses easily without buzzing. I measure this action at the 12th fret. I set the distance from the top of the fret to the bottom of the string at 5/64″ on the treble strings and 7/64″ on the bass strings.

Next I will adjust the intonation of each string. You won’t find this kind of adjustment on mass produced guitars – they are compromises at best! The pitch of the harmonic at the 12th fret must exactly match the fundamental note when the 12th fret is depressed. If the note played at the 12th fret is higher or lower than the harmonic, I have to move the crown of the saddle either forward toward the nut or away from it. For this I use a Peterson Strobe Tuner to  verify what my ears are telling me. Generally the low E and B strings need to be lengthened and Dan’s guitar is no different.  I also move the crown of the A string back about 1/32″. The other three strings will have a crown in the exact middle of the saddle.

The label inserted in the guitar. It is signed and dated.

The label inserted in the guitar. It is signed and dated.

I create a custom label for each guitar. I select a picture of the guitar during the building process and sign it.

Next up is to string the guitar and start enjoying it. I will try to post a video and audio clip.
Susuan, a great friend of ours dropped by and had to snap a picture of the nearly-finished guitar.

Susuan, a great friend of ours dropped by and had to snap a picture of the nearly-finished guitar.


MDR-

Installing the tuners, nut, and pickup.

The nut is fitted to the neck against the fretboard on the front and the peghead on the back.

The nut is fitted to the neck against the fretboard on the front and the peghead on the back.

The nut is sanded until it fits tightly in the nut slot on the neck. I then draw a line across the front equal to the height of the first fret. About 1/16″ is added to indicate the bottom of the string channels. The top of the nut is angled back 10 degrees, similar to the angle of the peghead.  I use two drops of glue and clamp the nut tightly to the neck.
I layout the string channels using a special progressive spacing ruler. This ruler accounts for the different string diameters to make sure strings are evenly spaced. I use a razor saw to score a kerf on the top of the nut. I will widen this kerf to the string  diameters after the final assembly of the guitar.

 

Next I install the beautiful Waverly tuners. These slotted tuners have Ebony buttons against a gold finish – they are awesome. I drill small holes to accept the screws – two gold screws per tuner.

I use a micro-screwdriver to attach the tuners.

I use a micro-screwdriver to attach the tuners.

The jig helps determine the spacing and position of the pickup.

The jig helps determine the spacing and position of the pickup.

Dan has decided that he wants a pickup in the guitar. I favor a transducer type pickup that picks up vibrations directly from the wood. This is different from magnetic pickups that receive the signal directly from the string as used in electric guitars. I decided to install an L.R. Baggs Passive iBeam pickup. This attaches to the bridge plate parallel to the saddle. It attaches to an endpin jack – no battery or preamp inside the guitar. Baggs supplies a jig that helps position the pickup exactly under the saddle.

I place the pickup on the jig and insert into the body.

I pull the jig up through the string holes in the bridge to position the pickup under the saddle.

I pull the jig up through the string holes in the bridge to position the pickup under the saddle.

The iBeam attaches using a special adhesive on the surface of the pickup.

The iBeam attaches using a special adhesive on the surface of the pickup.

The next step is to bolt on the neck and shape the nut and string it up!

The last view of the disassembled guitar!

The last view of the disassembled guitar!

Attaching the bridge to the top.

The most critical factor in proper intonation and playability is the bridge position  in relation to the neck angle and nut. The length of the distance between the nut and the saddle is the scale length, in this case it is 24.9″. Compensation is added to this scale length to help the strings stay in tune when they are being pressed to the fretboard. This stretching changes the tension and length of the string. Compensation is the addition of a little string length to account for the change in string tension. So the saddle is moved 1/16″ further away from nut on the treble side and 3/32″ on the bass side.

I use my neck template to locate the exact position of the saddle and I tape the bridge in place. I drill two holes  in the top through the E string holes on the bridge. I secure the bridge with special bolts that fit in string holes. The bridge is glued to the top but it cannot be glued to the lacquer so I have to remove the lacquer where the bridge will be glued.

With the bridge in place, I scribe the outline of the bridge into the lacquer with a razor blade.

With the bridge in place, I scribe the outline of the bridge into the lacquer with a razor blade.

I then remove the bridge and use a razor blade to scrape off the lacquer up to the scribe lines. This process takes about two hours. Some luthiers use chisels or sanding blocks but I have not had my best success with these methods – it is easy to gouge the top. I use the razor blades because they scratch off even amounts of lacquer with no chance of  leaving gouges.

I apply even pressure to both sides of the razor blade to scrape the lacquer.

I apply even pressure to both sides of the razor blade to scrape the lacquer.

The lacquers flakes have a translucent look to them - this helps me know when all the lacquer is off.

The lacquers flakes have a translucent look to them – this helps me know when all the lacquer is off.

After I clean the area of any excess lacquer flakes, I apply luthiers glue to the bare top and to the bottom of the bridge. I set the bridge in place using the two bolts through the E string holes and then I use three clamps along the bridge. I had made a caul earlier in the process that temporarily attaches to the underside of the top. It has channels for the top bracing and rests against the top. The clamps press against this caul so not to damage the top or braces.

The two bolts and three clamps are used to attach the bridge to the top.

The two bolts and three clamps are used to attach the bridge to the top.

I let the glue dry 48 hours before attaching strings. We are almost done. The last steps are the final assembly and set up.

MDR-

Buffing out the lacquer.

After the final wet/dry sanding, the lacquer must be buffed out to achieve a high gloss finish. I use an arbor and electric motor that I assembled to hold my buffing pads. To one of the pads I apply a medium buffing compound and to the other I apply a fine  compound.

Applying medium buffing compound to the buffing wheel.

Applying medium buffing compound to the buffing wheel.

Buffing can be a dangerous process if you don’t hold the guitar firmly. The RPM of the buffing wheel needs to be fast enough to generate heat to the lacquer to bring out the gloss – too much heat and it can buff through the finish.

The wheel can pull the guitar right out of your hands if it catches a corner or if it is not held firmly.

The wheel can pull the guitar right out of your hands if it catches a corner or if it is not held firmly.

Buffing the headstock.

Buffing the headstock.

After the buffing results in a high gloss, I let the guitar cool down and set over night.

The guitar body after buffing.

The guitar body after buffing.

MDR-

Final sanding before assembly.

The lacquer and varnish have cured for eight days and are ready for final sanding. For this process I use 2000 grit wet/dry paper. I soak the paper in water with  two drops of Murphy’s Oil that serves as a lubricant. The wet sanding decreases the loading of the finish on the paper and this reduces or eliminates scratching of the surface.

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Wet sanding the lacquered top with 2000 grit sandpaper.

Sanding the side with wet/dry sandpaper - I frequently change out the paper because 2000 grit does not last long.

Sanding the side with wet/dry sandpaper – I frequently change out the paper because 2000 grit does not last long.

The contour of the neck presents a slight challenge during wet sanding - I do not want any moisture to reach the Ebony fretboard.

The contour of the neck presents a slight challenge during wet sanding – I do not want any moisture to reach the Ebony fretboard.

The headstock was extremely smooth to start with so just two swipes of the paper did the trick.

The headstock was extremely smooth to start with so just two swipes of the paper did the trick.

After sanding the guitar is begging to be assembled and played!

After sanding the guitar is begging to be assembled and played!

I will let the guitar dry for two days before I buff out the lacquer. Today I orderd a nice hardshell case from TKL’s Professional Series. We are getting close Dan so start warming up your fingers.

MDR-

Curing the finishes.

Last week I finished lacquering the top and neck and applying the varnish to the sides and back. I will let the topcoats cure at least one week. I keep them inside so the humidity and heat can be controlled. They are actually hanging in the closet in my office where I keep my tonewoods. In several days I will do the final sanding.

I hang the body and neck in a controlled environment to cure the finish.

I hang the body and neck in a controlled environment to cure the finish.

This is a Florida version of the Abbey Road album cover. This Sandhill Crane family did their best to imitate the Fab Four!

This is a Florida version of the Abbey Road album cover. This Sandhill Crane family did their best to imitate the Fab Four!

A slight change of course.

I had always planned to apply water-based lacquer as the finish for Dan’s guitar. After sanding sealer was applied and before the top coat, I discovered that there were minute surface voids in the Ziricote that needed to be filled. I also noticed that the beautiful figure in the Ziricote did not look as striking as a guitar I made several years ago that was built with Ziricote. On that guitar, I used a hand-rubbed polymerized oil varnish finish on the back and sides.

 Polymerized oil varnish is very glossy and does well on hardwoods but not on softwoods because it is absorbed into softwoods and slightly dampens the sound and changes the color. I do not use this finish on tops but I really like it on back and sides and necks so I decided to finish Dan’s back and sides with this finish. Although it takes two to three times longer to apply this varnish, I believe the effort will be worth it! I will rub in about 12 coats of varnish. I have already finished 6 coats and it is looking rather awesome!

MDR-