Aaron Green: “A lot of repair work is done through the soundhole, which is like brain surgery through the nostrils”
By Steve Rider
Aaron Green is one of those rare and lucky people who discover their passion in life at a young age. He began building guitars before leaving high school, and that passion has led him to the pinnacle of the guitar world. Humorous, insightful, and dedicated to music and luthiery, Aarons’s patrons are happy even to wait for two years to acquire one of his handmade masterpieces.
Guitar Connoisseur: It seems that you had an idea that you wanted to learn to build guitars at a very young age. Can you tell us about when that idea first took root and the time in your life between that and meeting Alan Carruth, the man who would take you on as an apprentice?
Aaron Green: It was an exciting experience. I went to Colonial Williamsburg when I was about twelve, and that was the first time I’d ever heard of building instruments. They had a musical instrument shop with someone making violins and a harpsichord. He passed around pieces of maple and spruce and had people tap on them, and it seemed like an amazing this to take hunks of wood and make musical instruments. It planted the seed earlier than any research on my part. It got me thinking somewhere in my subconscious about it. Later on, when I played electric guitars as a teenager and was trying to decide what I would do after high school, I met a friend who commented about guitar makers making a lot of money because guitars cost a lot of money, which also piqued my interest! That notion was disabused quite early on by Alan the day I met him.
GC: Alan took you on, and you studied with him for three years. Can you tell us about that time in your life and how your craft developed early on?
AG: Alan was in many ways the perfect person to show up because he’s an incredibly easy-going man, incredibly generous, no guile about him, an incredibly lovely person. He took me on enough to show me how to build a guitar. After I got my driver’s license, I would go to his place in Denham on Friday afternoons for a couple of hours and just build a guitar. I didn’t have anything in the way of woodworking experience or knowledge and just jumped into the deep end and started working with hand tools because that’s how Alan builds. I built a twelve-string acoustic guitar. I remember thinking, How hard can it be? And I found out right away!
I was about halfway through the guitar when I understood that this was what I wanted to do. We went to the Guild of American Luthiers conference in June of ’92. I hadn’t planned on going, or rather wasn’t even invited. Alan’s brother-in-law had to bail out. He was driving from Denham, Mass. to Vermillion, South Dakota, in a minivan and carrying many Carline Hutchins’ instruments as a joint venture between the Guild and the Acoustic Society. Carline was one of Alan’s teachers, and I had heard all about her. So the combo of needing another driver and getting to meet this lady, who he revered, then going out and meeting a bunch of instrument makers was more than I could bear to miss out on. So I went with him, and it was this colossal watershed moment for me in many ways.
One was I got to see what other builders were like. I also got to see a wide range of instruments, which made me decide to build classical guitars. I saw a guy playing Bach, and I was watching his hands move. I was still thinking like a guitar player at that point. It was just so cool to watch. I also remember a guitar maker named Tom Met, who was Alan’s guitar teacher. He played Flamenco. He used that finger roll strum that identifies Flamenco and is quite impressive. It grabs your attention if you’ve never seen it before. A lot of it was just getting the visuals and seeing the instruments other people were building. Classical is one of the most challenging styles to build. It has so much stacked against it. Nylon strings are pretty lousy compared to steel strings as far as producing sound, so it’s challenging to make a musical instrument like a nylon string guitar. Also, the demands of the musicians are more demanding as well. Not that there aren’t great steel strings out there, but the challenge of the classical guitar appealed to me.
GC: Carruth said, “I was always impressed by his use of color and proportion in design and trim work.” What is your approach to these?
AG: The best way would be to say that I take everything that inspires me from builders who come before and then create my aesthetic within that framework, be a continuous line from what came before. Pretty much everything I’m doing is about standing on the shoulders of those who came before me in a way that’s unique to me. When you look at really great builders, there’s nothing very much identifiable about the guitars; the guitar looks like a guitar. But they were able to create their own identity, which is what I want to do. Just copying others’ instruments is not of very much interest to me as a builder, though it’s the way you want to start.
GC: It seems that your relationship with Dennis Koster has been gratifying. Can you tell us about how you met and how he has been involved in making you the luthier you are today?
AG: Sure. Pretty early on in my career, it became apparent that I needed to have as much exposure to great musicians and great instruments. To figure out what I was supposed to be doing—discouraging to show guitars to guitarists and just have them be not even interested in them or have anything to say, and then not know what to do about it! So, I got involved with the Guitar Society. I tried to meet a lot of guys and see a lot of instruments. And again, it was like being tossed into the deep end of the pool. They talked about things that I could not really grasp, but the information was still there when I was ready for it.
So I drove to New York to pick up Dennis for a concert in Boston. He was playing a concert for the Guitar Society, and I jumped at the opportunity to pick him up. I kind of lied and said I would be in New York already, and I would be happy to drive him back. I honestly expected everyone to decline because I was an exceeding eager young guitar maker. He would be stuck in a car with me for four hours while I was working him over. But apparently, they didn’t see it that way; I jumped at the chance and went and got him. Dennis is a lovely and generous, wonderful guy. He’s a true artist. What counts in his life is music, art, and being an artist. He’s a very active teacher as well. So when I met him, I told him I was a guitar maker and he said, Sure, I’ll take a look. And he played it and said, Oh, that’s nice. And I know a brush off when I’m getting one, so I pressed him a little more. I kept pressing him, and finally, he started to get specific. He laid stuff on me that I was nowhere near capable of understanding how to approach or rectify.
Nonetheless, here it is; this is what’s not right. He gave me some examples of better guitars. I think he liked my tenacity and the fact that I could take a beating and come back for more. He was always very nice about it. But other guitarists in New York City didn’t care about your feelings. It’s New York City, after all! I knew that this was what I wanted to do, and I was going to do it, hell or high water.
I think Dennis was very young when he met his teacher, Mario Espedaro. And I think he had that same experience with Mario early on. As a result, due to his determination to become a great Flamenco guitarist, he was performing at a young age. He was already an outstanding guitarist, on his way to becoming a great one.
GC: In addition to building your highly praised classical and Flamenco guitars, you are also skilled in restoration work. Can you tell us a bit about that?
AG: I’m part of a team with Karl Franks, a genius luthier, and a good friend. We have done several high-end challenging jobs, and we tag team on them. I’m the guiding force behind it with my guitar knowledge, and Karl being the microsurgeon from the violin world. He just has this ability to sit down and be as patient as he has to be. He can “outpatient” anything. It’s gratifying.
The building, restoring, and dealing guitars they all kind of dovetailed together. When there’s a really good instrument around, I want to see it. That’s one that’s great about being near New York City. One of the people that Dennis introduced me to early on was Beverly Maher with The Guitar Salon. She’s always been terrific about letting me see guitars when they’re there. I started to do some complicated restorations on my own, and then I got Karl involved, and it’s worked out very well.
GC: Would you say that your restoration work has influenced your building?
AG: Yes, that’s a great question. I would say without a doubt because once you start to see what can go wrong with an instrument and how difficult it can be to fix it even under the best of circumstances, it gives you pause when you’re making your own decisions. The guitar is not an instrument intended to be taken apart, and unless you’re using hide glue, you’re pretty much ensuring that the instrument will be impossible to take apart. People don’t realize how important it is to be able to disassemble an instrument. A violin is easily taken apart, and that’s a primary reason we have four-hundred-year-old violins. They can be taken apart, address the problems, and be put back together. In the guitar, a lot of repair work is done through the soundhole, which is like brain surgery through the nostrils. It’s not an ideal situation through any stretch of the imagination.
So, for us to take guitars apart and restore them, and have those guitars be valuable enough for people to want to put that kind of money into it. It has been a great experience. It has helped me learn as a builder why those old guitars are the way they are and what choices I should make in my work. Perhaps not quite so hung up on why things should be done one way or another because I’ve got verifiable proof in front of me that after eighty years, this is something that could come up. It has caused me to make decisions to use materials and methods to allow my guitars to be around years later.
GC: You were involved in selling the very famous Barbero guitar. Could you tell us about the history of this instrument and your experience with it?
AG: Well, that is a legendary guitar, and I was fortunate to learn from it. I knew the owner; he was a student of Dennis’. And this was a guitar that players were talking about and builders were copying, but none of them had ever seen it or heard it. It was an unbelievable opportunity. It’s tough to know what you’re shooting for if you’ve never experienced it. When Dennis played that Barbero, first of all, it’s a cannon. It’s incredibly alive. It’s got a very, very fast attack. The notes are super sharp but have tremendous weight, a real depth that comes right behind it. And it’s a very versatile guitar.
Dennis played the Flamenco, which is the closest thing to rock guitar you’re going to find, and then went straight into Bach, the guitar just morphed right along with him. It was an incredibly sensitive and flexible tool, and that I had no idea how anyone could ever achieve that, but I saw that it was possible. It was right there in front of me. I’m a big believer in the power of intent, that if you put a considerable amount of energy and focus into achieving something, you’re going to manifest it eventually. So I went down that path, and as I got closer to it, I would make decisions that put me even closer. You know, as a dealer, I get to see a lot of guitars. And I will listen to it and then look inside and think, how did they get it to sound like that by doing it this way? I could never get that through the method they used. Every builder has to find their path.
GC: How has the art of luthiery changed from those old masters to builders like yourself today?
AG: That’s a good question. I think it’s changed in a lot of ways. I think modern technology has made it infinitely easier for people to learn, even in the time that I’ve been involved. That was the biggest challenge to me, finding someone to teach me. Now you can find everything through a Google search, and that can’t be a bad thing. That being said, the ones who had to go out there and figure it out like the previous generation to me, they had to figure it out, and they had to spend a lot of time catching up to where the Spanish builders were at, and then in a lot of ways surpassed them because they had to figure it out. Kind of the Japanese way, someone doesn’t teach you, you steal. And when you do that, it’s yours; you own it. It’s not an abstract concept that someone is laying on you. You’re going out there and realizing it. So that’s, maybe, an advantage that they have, if you can call it that. People who make it through that system have it. That’s perhaps a little more challenging.
GC: What materials and techniques do you use in the construction of your guitars?
AG: Well, I’m pretty spoiled. I do have a huge stash of tonewoods that I acquired over the years, being very young when I started. I had little to spend my money on besides buying wood. You pick it up little bits at a time over the years, and one day you look and say, I’ve got a ton of wood here! I went to a Guild show with this auction where they had like six sets of Indian rosewood. I would have given anything for that rosewood at the time. I went to this little watering hole that had slot machines, and I had like three dollars. I played the slots, hoping to hit it so I could buy that rosewood. I was eighteen! And if I had gotten the wood, I probably would have just wasted it on my earlier guitars.
GC: As some wood species become harder or impossible to source, do you see alternate woods coming to be the norm for builders of the future?
I think so. I’m looking at that issue myself right now from a couple of angles. One of the things I’ve been doing for the past few years is trying to engage the government to be beneficial to the people in the industry. Not changing any laws at all, but just creating compliance pathways so that the government knows that we’re not part of the problem. The history of the government issues with guitars is easily forgotten, but when they put Brazilian rosewood on Appendix 1, which took everything legal and made it illegal overnight with absolutely no retroactive pathway. There was no way to be compliant, really, other than to cease to build guitars. At first, it was seen as an unmanageable piece of legislation, so they didn’t enforce it. Later on, the powers that be at CITES thought we were all a bunch of criminals, frankly. Things got blown way out of proportion on both sides of the fence. People thought that officers would come and take away their guitars and wood and make them a felon. And when I spoke to the guy at Fish and Wildlife, they were thinking we were out there slashing and burning, raping and pillaging, and thumbing our noses at the government, which of course is something they don’t take very kindly to. I told him that there was no way for people to get on board, so how could they expect anyone to be on board. I want to have easy ways for people who are not criminals to have a very clear way to identify themselves as such. I hope to keep using my Indian and Madagascar rosewood in particular. There are domestic woods. I don’t mind working in Cypress. But in the future, it might not even be wood sources. Maybe it will be something completely different.
GC: What are you looking for in the wood you use that makes you say, yes, this is for one of my guitars?
AG: I like the traditional materials. They’re traditional for a reason: Brazilian rosewood, for example. And just because it’s a traditional wood doesn’t mean it will make a great stringed instrument. I go more by the qualities of the wood versus the species. A good piece of wood has to have something about it; it wants to be a guitar, it has a soul. I tell people it’s potential. A good piece of wood can make a great guitar, but you can also screw it up.
GC: What are your plans for the future?
AG: I’m looking to start increasing my profile in the guitar world again. I kind of backed off for a while. I haven’t done any guitar shows in a long time. I’m looking to build electric guitars, designing more, and having a workshop that produces them.
To learn more about Aaron Green, please visit: thespanishguitarworkshop.com