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A question and answer session with Oakland’s master luthier Ervin Somogyi
by Lynda Carson (tenantsrule [at] yahoo.com)
Saturday Jun 29th, 2019 5:21 AM
This beautiful acoustic cutaway steel string guitar was made in 1985 by Lynda Carson in the guitar workshop of master luthier Ervin Somogyi under his guidance and wonderful teaching skills! It has a Sitka spruce top, and Indian rosewood for the back and sides.
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A question and answer session with Oakland’s master luthier Ervin Somogyi

By Lynda Carson - June 29, 2017

Oakland — Master luthier Ervin V. Somogyi (born in 1944) is known around the world for making some of the finest acoustic steel string guitars available for musicians and collectors from around the globe. Ervin Somogyi has a guitar making workshop in the Temescal district of Oakland where he builds his fine handmade acoustic steel string guitars, and where he also creates some fine exquisite wood carvings and artwork that have received international recognition.

Through the years Somogyi has taken in numerous apprentices into his guitar making workshop, including Leo Buendia, Tom Sands, Jason Kostal, Raymond Kraut, Michihiro Matsuda and many others. Apprentices that have learned enough fine woodworking and guitar making skills to eventually set sail on their own to different parts of the nation where they are building and creating their own beautiful acoustic steel string guitars for numerous famous musicians and collectors.

As a result of Somogyi’s fine skills as a teacher, Oakland has become home to many guitar builders through the years. Guitar builders that have been attracting many professional musicians from around the country that are seeking some of the finest acoustic steel string guitars available for recording sessions, and for use on concert tours or performing in front of an adoring public.

During a question and answer session with Oakland's famous master luthier Ervin Somogyi during the past few days, Somogyi was gracious enough to take some time to share his thoughts and feelings regarding his experience in making some of the finest acoustic steel string guitars available that may be heard on many CD releases by some of the finest guitar players across the nation.


The question and answer session with master luthier Ervin Somogyi:


When I asked Ervin Somogyi what are you thinking about when you are quietly working away on your guitars, or if you are listening to some music as you work, or listening to NPR, I am wondering, what puts you in the best mood to create some of these beautiful instruments that you have made through the years?
 
Somogyi reply:

Actually, I don’t really “think” much, or about much, when I’m working.  I focus on the work.  It takes my mind off of everything else, and I find working at my own pace relaxing and soothing.  It’s comforting . . . or at least it would be if there weren’t so many interruptions. Of course, anyone who’s been around as long as I have and is as well known as I am will have a steady stream of interruptions.  You know: the phone rings, visitors come, apprentices are always interrupting me to ask me something, I have LOTS of emails to answer, I have a bookkeeper and a personal assistant/organizer who need my time.  When I had a landlord he’d fix whatever was broken; but since I’m my own landlord I’m responsible for fixing, mending, repairing, landscaping, cleaning . . . etc. etc. etc.
 
Oh, and I have a partner who requires time and attention too.

1)    Have you ever walked away from one of your guitars and left it unfinished because the completion of the guitar was interrupted for one reason or another, or because of any mistakes?
 
No, I can’t say that I have.  I’ve had commissions canceled for one reason or another, but I’ve always completed them.  Why waste the time and energy I had already put into them?  At the very worst I could make the experience a bit useful by doing something a bit differently . . . that I could learn something from.
 
2)    Have you ever destroyed one of your guitars because of any mistakes or accidents that may have occurred in the process of making it?
 
No, I never have.  I’ve made lots of mistakes . . . but fixing them is part of the work. Many years ago, as I was taking over luthier Denis Grace’s shop on Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley, I observed him once or twice get back a guitar that he’d made and be so unhappy with it that he put it through the bandsaw and cut it up into pieces.  It’s hard to forget something that dramatic.  And it’s a bit odd for me to consider such a course of action because surely something could be done to rectify or at least improve whatever the cause for the dissatisfaction is.
 
3)    Can you generally cover up any mistakes that you might make when building a guitar?
 
Oh, my, yes.  You’d really have to make a HUGE mistake that was so bad that it made completing the instrument unworthwhile.  As I said I’ve made lots of mistakes . . . and have learned something from each of them . . . and have also learned to correct them either by (1) redoing something entirely, or in part, or (2) by modifying the problem area, or (3) by inlaying something decorative over the fix-it spot.  Even major repair jobs like replacing an entire top are merely in the category of repair work.
 
I did repairs for many, many years before I sold guitars. Why would anyone have bought a guitar from me years ago?  No one knew who I was.  I didn’t know what I was doing.  But thousands of repairs of all types were the foundation of my education in working with guitars.  It was a great education.  And today no one goes that route.  These young luthiers graduate from Roberto-Venn or the Galloup school, or something else, and sort of expect to put up their shingle.  I’ve never seen it work like that.
 
4)    Do you still eyeball things when making a guitar? I can still recall in your shop with you telling me years ago that you would eyeball measurements on a guitar at times.
 
I still eyeball.  It’s how I learned.  And it’s how a lot of people learned to do the work before calipers and micrometers were made available.  The eye can be trained; it’s capable of great sensitivity and discrimination.  It’s just that most people nowadays have never had to learn to use their eyes like that.
 
Of course, micrometers and rulers are mighty useful. But you really can get along without them.  If you have a good pair of dividers, and some woodworking tools, you can make a guitar. In the old days guitars were designed by assigned proportions.  Dividers are great for working with proportions.  
 
5) Are there any guitars that you have built but have regretted selling them?
 
Not really.
 
6) Have you built any guitars that you liked so much that you decided not to sell it?
 
No, I could never afford that.  Also, unlike some others, I’m not a collector at heart. I’m a maker.  I’ve never had a situation in which I could have a bunch of guitars cluttering the shop.
 
7) Are there any guitars that you have built for yourself? If so, what kind of guitar?
 
I play flamenco guitar, and I’ve built myself a few flamenco guitars.
 
8) Have you ever bought back any of the guitars that you have built?
 
Yes I have, especially lately.  When I began to make guitars I was young and everyone who fell in love with the guitar was young.  This is not so any more.  And some of my clients have thought of me when it was time for them to lay their guitars aside, and maybe sell them, as they had no use for them any longer.  So I’ve bought back a few of these guitars. I’ve re-worked them, re-modeled them, re-voiced them, and re-finished them to make them “new”.    Some of my guitars are owned by collectors, and for these people “original” and “authentic” mean a lot; technically, if I were to re-work an older guitar, it would still be a 100% original Somogyi because NO ONE ELSE HAD EVER DONE ANYTHING ELSE TO IT, and it would qualify as “original”.  This has to do with resale value and things like that.
 
9) Do you prefer playing a classical guitar, or a steel string guitar?
 
Well, as I said, I play the nylon-strung flamenco guitar.
 
10) Are there any types of guitars that are different than anything you have ever made, but have not gotten around to making it?
 
I’ve long thought about making a harp guitar. I’ve just never had the time to do that. And by “had the time” I mean constructing the jigs, molds, templates, and forms that a new model of guitar would require.
 
9) Are there any guitars sitting around in your shop that are unfinished for one reason or another, that you may never get around to finishing?
 
I have a number of guitar bodies, and parts of bodies, that are waiting for me to get to them.  It’s a question of time.  I plan to get to each one of them and complete them.
 
10) When exploring the techniques of voicing a guitar, have you ever reached a point that the guitar collapsed on itself from string tension, or from shaving the wood or braces to thin? 
 
I’ve had a few experiences of guitar tops dipping alarmingly from the strings’ torque, when there was insufficient reinforcement in front of the bridge.  I’ve had a few experiences of making something so thin that the sound of the instrument suffered.  I fixed all of these . . . or at least did something to them to make them better and saleable.  But the point of these experiences is basic: in thinning, shaving, sanding, lessening, profiling, reducing the dimensions of anything on the guitar . . . where is the point at which you must stop doing that?  You can only learn that by going past that point a time or two.  You have to have a sense of when to stop.  Those “failures” have been some of my most useful experiences.  I mean, it’s nice to make a guitar that sounds great and all that . . . but you don’t usually learn anything from it that you didn’t already know.  Failing can teach you a lot.
 
11) Are there any guitarists that have been able to fully explore and discover all the hidden secrets and mysteries of your guitars, and all the different sounds they can make?
 
That’s a good question, but that’s not how things work.  A really well made guitar is a precision instrument of a certain type, that has a wider range of possible tonal responses than the average guitar has. Along with that, every talented guitarist has his own style and way of extracting sound from the soundbox.  If you look at YouTube videos of classical guitar players they will ALL be playing in the same style, with identical uses of fingers, fingernails, etc.; that’s because they play as they were formally taught, and the teaching is rather uniform.  If you watch some YouTube videos of flamenco players you’ll be knocked out by how varied their styles of playing are.  They have different length nails, they hold the neck differently, they hold their wrists (and hands) at a huge variety of angles, and while the general techniques for the creation of flamenco sound are known by everyone in that network, the variety with which these specific techniques are executed (you can watch their fingers move during these videos!) is really surprising. It’s a very anarchic thing . . . and it all works.  Some of it works brilliantly.
 
Pepe Romero plays some flamenco, on a YouTube video, but using classical guitar fingering style.  The song itself, largely as a function of that, I think, sounds rather pallid and flat.
 
In any event, all of these things are true with steel string guitar players.  They have in many instances have invented their own styles of stroking the strings, and they have their own unique sounds.
 
But because each individual guitar player will have perfected their own technique and style of playing, that means that they do not play in someone else’s style – which may pull different sounds out of the soundbox.
 
12) Do you have a favorite musician that you have sold a guitar to that seems able to make your guitars sound their best?
 
This is not a yes-no question.  Part of the reason is the repertoire.  Some songs are brilliantly fast.  Some songs are fast, but maybe not so brilliant.  Some are lush with tempo, countertempo, rubato, ligato, brilliantly shifting accents and emphasis.  Some are very show-off-y and technically astounding. Some are old standards that everybody knows.  Some are from the modern atonal repertoire that many people don’t recognize as being legitimate music.  Some people are really into experimental styles.  The voice of the guitar itself is obscured by all of these.  The only musicians who let the guitar show off its own voice are the ones that allow silences in their music.  The silences are the windows into the actual voice of any particular guitar.  And most guitarists today don’t allow silences.  British guitar player Will McNicol does; he has some YouTube segments that are beautiful to listen to.  Ditto British guitar player Michael Watts.
 
13) What is your favorite wood to work with when building a guitar?
 
I learned my craft by working with Brazilian rosewood.  It really is a good tonewood.  But wenge, osage orange, and padauk are just about as good.  For tops, I’ve never found a better wood than spruce.
 
14) Other than yourself, who do you believe is out there making the best steel string guitars?
 
Wow.  Now there’s a question that can put some people off. Can you imagine asking your doctor or lawyer, “besides you, who are some of the good people in this field?” . . . and imagine what the other people in those fields, who are not named, would think?  Well, I’m going to answer your question by filtering it through my C.I.A. and N.S.A. contacts.  
 
My favorite other steel string guitar builders are [John name redacted], [Bill name redacted], and [Joe name redacted].

END of the question and answer session with Oakland’s master luthier Ervin Somogyi:
 
Well, there you are folks. Hopefully this wonderful question and answer session with Oakland’s world famous master luthier Ervin Somogyi will help to shed a little more light on his thoughts, and many years of experience with musicians while building some of the finest acoustic steel string guitars available in the United States, and around the world.

Note: I have had the wonderful experience of building a beautiful acoustic cutaway steel string guitar in the guitar workshop of master luthier Erviin Somogyi back in 1985. Additionally, back in 1977 I became a graduate of the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery, where I also studied guitar building under master luthier William Eaton. Even though I have not built any guitars or done any stringed instrument repairs for years, I still deeply appreciate the exquisitely beauty of acoustic steel string guitars and love to play the guitar that I built in the guitar workshop of master luthier Ervin Somogyi.

Lynda Carson may be reached at tenantsrule [at] yahoo.com

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(For more about master luthier Ervin Somogyi, click on link below.)

Guitar Bench - Interview with Ervin Somogyi (2014)

Click below...

http://esomogyi.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/guitarbench.pdf

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Making The Responsive Guitar by Ervin Somogyi…

Click below...

https://www.amazon.com/Making-Responsive-Guitar-Ervin-Somogyi/dp/098232071X

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The dreams of luthiers and guitar builders in the Bay Area

By Lynda Carson -- Tuesday Jun 25th, 2019

Click below for full story…

https://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2019/06/25/18824219.php

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by Lynda Carson
Sunday Jun 30th, 2019 4:51 PM
Michael Watts, plays Ervin Somogyi’s 500th guitar...

The guitar is called "The Disoypyros".

(The Diosypyros is a 14-fret Modified Dreadnought. It takes its name from the ebony used for the back and sides of the guitar https://www.britannica.com/plant/Diospyros .)

Click below to hear what this beautiful guitar sounds like...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ckJYoMdxYQI

(LC)

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