By Steve Rider
Dake Traphagen is an amazingly accomplished luthier with style firmly rooted in the traditional. At first glance, his instruments may seem very conservative in style, but upon closer inspection, the attention to tiny details jumps out at you. Dake pays tribute to the long history of luthiery with his unassuming style yet has considerable experience studying and replicating the most ostentatious and painstakingly detailed baroque instruments.
Guitar Connoisseur: Could you tell us about your childhood and how you got introduced to luthiery?
Dake Traphagen: I played music, piano, viola, a little bit on guitar. I played many instruments as well, saxophone, and sitars; pretty much anything I could find, I just picked up and played it. I played lots of styles, anything from folk to jazzy stuff to lots of classical. My mother gave me a dulcimer kit for my eighteenth birthday. I started with that and just went from there.
GC: So once you started building, you never stopped?
DT: Yeah, I said, this is fun, and there’s got to be better materials than this. I worked on the dining room table using tape and rubber bands and encyclopedias for clamps and stuff like that. I just kept finding better materials and started making dulcimers out of solid wood and carving the pegheads into different animal or bird heads, doing that and selling at state fairs and renaissance fairs, that kind of stuff. Then I got introduced to a violin maker that my parents had bought a viola from when I was playing viola, Ed Hunnington.
GC: What happened between that first instrument and your entry into an apprenticeship with Ed Hunnington?
DT: I started working with Ed and diving deeper and deeper. I was doing repair work and restoration, pretty much all violin work. There was also some guitar repair because he did some of that. I had a friend who introduced me to building guitars, and I got involved in doing classicals and would take them to the San Francisco area. Michael Lorrimer, who was a very well-known player there at the time, I would show him instruments, and he would say, well, you have to go work with Nico van der Waal, who was in Holland. And I was also getting into building early instruments, renaissance, and baroque stringed instruments. So I made renaissance guitars, lutes, and harpsichords, among others.
GC: Can you tell us about your time in Europe in ’76?
DT: I went to Europe and had appointments in various museums. I went to Victoria and Albert first in England to look at the Stradivarius guitar. Then I went to the Paris conservatory looking at lutes and a guitar. Then I was in Brussels, and they had an unbelievable collection of instruments, but they didn’t know what they had. They hadn’t cataloged anything! So they would load up baroque guitars in my arms like firewood, and I would carry them across the street to their other building, where all the measurements, cataloging, and photographing would take place. The only deal was that they had to get a copy of everything. So I was bicycling everywhere, then I took the train up to Amsterdam to go work with van der Waals.
GC: What was it like working with Nico van der Waals? You only had a month together; did you focus on particular aspects of the art of luthiery?
DT: We had about a month and a half. We built one baroque lute and one guitar together. I sort of just worked with his techniques, and he did things very meticulously. He made extremely lightweight. He built his guitars more like lutes. But he was pretty inefficient in how he would do things, so I showed him how to do things faster and even use a little metal lathe for making pegs. He was making pegs by hand one at a time on a lathe and trying to match it up to a template. So I showed him how to make a metal template right on his lathe so that you would cut them out in a very similar fashion to a key-making machine, only a little larger. I took away how to work with more precision and balance how the sound goes through the instruments.
GC: What sorts of wood do you like to use, and how do you go about bringing out the best in musicality from those materials?
DT: I still think Brazilian rosewood is the best material for making the backs and the sides. I think it imparts the most color, the most contrast, and complexity to the sound palette. Of course, you know, that’s been listed as endangered since ’92. So I’ve gone there several times working on salvaging wood. I was going to scrapyards and old buildings, working on salvaging and taking out the beams. I had two sets of beams that carbon dated to 1700. The beams are very large, but you don’t get much material out of them. They look like driftwood pieces; there are bends and cracks everywhere, then you cut them open, and it’s like opening a geode. You’re like, hey, look at that! Most of the wood I have is carbon, dated to the eighteenth century. And the stump wood was dated to the 1930s-1940s.
GC: What is the process that gives old wood that superior tone?
DT: From what I understand, not being a scientist, per se, but in all the research I’ve done. And I know this happened to the Stradivarius’ wood. I know everybody attributes a lot of his sound to his varnishes, but it was his wood. When the wood is older, the resins in the cells dry out. So the cells are more open. If you put celery in a glass with food coloring, you can see the cellular structure. Well, wood is pretty much the same. So the cells open up, and some of that resin empties and some of it dries out. The wood’s cellular structure opens up for the air to travel through it, making it more resonant. It also makes the wood lighter weight. It’s slightly stiffer and can also make it more brittle. But if you keep the humidity stable, it stays in good shape.
GC: Would you say that you have an intimate relationship with every instrument you build?
DT: Yeah. Yeah. Part of that is because I use a lot more hand tools. It’s not that I don’t use power tools, but I do tend to use them more like hand tools. So the wood is in my hands more, which gives me more information about the piece I’m working with. I also do displacement tests and tuning tests to see where they’re resonating. I used to do displacement tests on everything, every brace. You suspend the piece of wood on either end with a dial indicator in-between, then you put a designated weight, whatever weight you happen to use, then you see how much it flexes. And I would do that throughout the building process as well. And that’s mainly to ensure that your guitars are consistent from one to the next. I don’t do that as much now; I’m pretty consistent with my tops. They can be within a few grams without measuring at this point.
GC: What made you focus on classical and steel-string guitars versus the other types of instruments you’ve built over your career?
DT: Mostly because I was doing too many things and having to deal with too many types of people. The older instrument people are a whole other breed, they want exact replicas of instruments from 1628 or whatever, and they don’t want to pay for it. And you’re continually making new molds and new patterns and all of that. Plus, the decorative work of baroque instruments is so involved and detailed. For me, it was more just the challenge of doing that; once you’ve done it a few times, you don’t want to do it anymore; it’s just too tedious. The violin world was too narrow for me as far as the materials you get to use and what experiments you could do to change the sound. It’s very limited, where the guitar world is much more creative, especially if you’re building various models. On the steel string, I’ve got twelve models, and they’re really all very different. And, of course, the classical guitars are radically different from the steel-string world. There’s a lot of detail work on my guitars, but it’s very subtle. And that’s how I like it. There are many guitars out there that are all flash and bling, but there’s no substance to it. I’m much more interested in the tonal qualities of the instrument. But if you’re working with excellent materials, they deserve to have some little flourishing touches here and there.
GC: Can you tell us a bit about the models you build?
DT: In the classical world, there’s the traditional solid top guitar. I use spruce or cedar, and mostly I use European spruces. I’ll use some Adirondack spruce, primarily for dreadnaught style guitars or a guitar played with a pick. I’ll use European for fingerstyle instruments. All the cedar is salvage, so it’s very old wood. And in the classical guitars, I’ll also make double tops. I’ve made a couple of acoustic guitars with double tops as well. The whole concept of the double top is to make the top a lighter weight. So you have a much higher strength-to-weight ratio. It takes much less energy to activate the soundboard. Even in the double top world, I make two styles. One has Nomex, and the other has little wood flaps. And there’s solid wood as well at the places where it’s the highest stress. It’s quite a process to make them because they’re very delicate. But once you make them, they’re very resilient. They tend to be louder than single tops and hold the tone, while the single tops sound more complex. The baroque guitar is very detailed with elaborate decoration in the soundhole made of parchment. They’re cut with a scalpel, and you make little punches; it’s like making an inverted wedding cake.
GC: The Crossover Jazz guitar has a unique setup on the headstock; could you tell us about it?
DT: The seven-string has a peg up there called the Cyclops Head. Because if you’re making seven-string guitars, you either need to have an extra peg up there or have an asymmetrical slotting of the pegheads. Some seven strings have an extension if the person wants them. These are for Jazz players; there’s another fret, so where the nut would be, there’s another fret and another fret behind that. There’s a little clip that’s almost like a paper clip that you can engage or disengage. That way, you don’t have to keep tuning the string up or down. It’s not new, if you look at old baroque lutes, they have this thing called a rider, which is attached to the peghead side, and that’s for another string. So basically, we’ve stolen it from a baroque instrument and put it on a modern one. That’s one of the unique things about my perspective is that I’ve not only seen the old instruments, but I’ve reproduced them. It makes it fun, and you see modern builders doing takeoffs on it. We’re all sort of connected even back in time. We are connected to the builders from the sixteen and seventeen hundreds in some strange way that we don’t really understand.
GC: Has the guitar world changed over the decades you’ve been in the business?
DT: We live in a whole different media age now. Everyone’s always looking for an edge, something that’s unique to them. And it’s usually just an extension on a theme that’s been done before. The event of carbon fiber and introducing that into instruments, and you’ll see braces that are laser cut with holes in them, making them lighter. It’s changed in that way; it’s a whole marketing thing. A luthier does need to be more marketing-savvy these days, which is not my strong suit. I have a small presence on Facebook. I have it for other people that have my instruments can share videos. I know builders who participate in a lot of blogs and that sort of thing. It seems like a conflict of interest, so to speak, by putting out their ideas as the best way to do something and convincing people that this is the best or only way to do it when in actuality, there are SO many ways to build a guitar.
I’ve intentionally changed my building methods over the years so I don’t get caught in a rut. But there is a lot of wrong information out there now. People on these forums tell others what to do, and they’ve never even built a guitar. Back when I started, there was no information. There was a book on guitar and lute building, and it was in German. I didn’t read German. You had to figure out most of it by yourself unless you were apprenticing. And even then, when you went out on your own, you wanted to work in your style, so you started doing things your way. You’re stuck with your sound with acoustic guitars. I’ve changed many things around and still ended up with a guitar that sounded like my guitar. One of the apprentices I had, we tried to build exact copies of a guitar. We used wood from the same tree, worked in the same environment, used the same tools, and when we finished the instruments, you could tell the difference between the one that I built and the one that he built.
GC: What kinds of things do you have going on right now and any plans for the future?
DT: Now I’m making a very traditional small-bodied Torres-style guitar for someone, and I’m making a seven-string guitar for playing classical and Jazz. They’re very opposite, but they’re both nylon string. Then coming up, I have a twelve fret OOO, I have a fourteen fret what I call my Concert Body. That guitar is, particularly for fingerstyle players. It has a lot of sustain, and you can have a lighter touch. I also have a Flamenco guitar coming up and a double cedar top with the old Brazilian rosewood from the 1850s. So it’s a whole gambit of various things. I’m building about two guitars at once, where I used to build three to five at once. My hands don’t want to build five guitars at once. So that’s what’s coming up, and it’s looking like a lot of fun. I’m still really enjoying building. I let the wood do the talking instead of putting a lot of bling on the guitar because when the woods are so beautiful, I don’t want to detract from their beauty. I’ve been collecting wood for a long, long time, and I have some pretty fantastic wood.
To learn more about Dake Traphagen please visit: traphagenguitars.com
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