March 5, 2008

Interview with luthier Bill Tippin

Tippin Guitars

These exquisitely crafted instruments are the work of luthier Bill Tippin. Born in Florida, Tippin relocated to the competitive sailing hotbed of Marblehead, MA to work on maintaining and restoring sailing yachts. Through decades of woodworking experience, gained both on the yachts and in building and restoring furniture, he honed his craft and developed a positively deft attention to detail. Today Bill builds some of the finest guitars in the world, crafting his own modern designs with a thorough understanding of guitars of the past.

Bill was kind enough to take time out his busy guitar building and restoration schedule to answer a few questions for this interview.

You came to guitar building after years of experience in boat building and furniture making. How did your experience in these endeavors inform your luthiery?

Having the woodworking experience to fabricate jigs or fixtures and applying them to specific needs was a huge insight to building guitars. As in boat building, with exception of the strings and scales, there are no straight lines in guitar making.

What motivated you to begin building guitars?

I wanted a new guitar. In 1979, I bought a kit because I couldn’t afford the guitar I wanted, and the second was from scratch, and so on.

In an era of exceptional guitars, with a number of remarkable small builders, where do you see your guitars fitting in?

I’ve been building for many years, and my beginnings were from a traditional approach. The roots of my past will never totally leave as an influence in my building. Over the years, I have evolved to more modern techniques, and original designs. The result of this has led me to my own models, called the Staccato, the Crescendo, and the Bravado that have been well received by players of all styles.

Many of our customers have become guitar connoisseurs – they know about tone woods, have opinions about design, and an eye for fit and finish. Tell us a little bit about your take on tone woods, and where things are headed as some of the “classic” favorites are rapidly depleting.

Tone Wood – the most important part of building a great guitar. There are many types of good wood to build with; my favorites are Brazilian of course, the Mahoganies, and African Blackwood for the backs and sides.

Spruce, for a top wood, ranging from Red Spruce, German / Italian, to the American Sitka are all very good but need to be coupled with the appropriate back wood to produce the desired tone.

Being a wood junky I have been collecting for a long time. As far as the future, I heard someone say that we have come to the end of the golden era of guitar making. I think we are at the doorstep of a new beginning of the golden era. Granted, it is going to be more challenging, but the world of creativity is limitless.

You have a nice photo tour of your shop on your website. Give us a little overview about your working methods, your shop, and what goes into making a Tippin guitar. Do you manage all aspects of building your guitars, or do you have anyone working with you?

I have tried to do everything, but I don’t like bookkeeping or the IRS so I hire someone else to do that, but anything associated with the building, inlays, finishing – I’m the guy. I have a full repair service and work comes from all over the country, so there is a lot more going on than you would think. I have two full-time, very talented apprentices that do repair work as well as construction.

Guitar building is one of the few surviving crafts that are still carried out extensively by hand. Do you employ any modern methods in your work, either in using computer aided design, or CNC machines? Most luthiers that I have spoken with also have a passion for tools and tool building. Are there any particular tools that you find yourself relying heavily on, or that you have built?

Technology has advanced to the point where it has given us the means to bypass some of the “ roughing out” as I call it, but most of the tools in any good luthier’s shop are the ones they have made for themselves. Back when I started, there were very few tools that weren’t made by the builder.

Taking advantage of technology is important, it helps you make a living in today’s economy. However there are many steps in making a great guitar that has to be hands-on, as well as your mind and all of your senses. I do not have a CNC but I work with someone who does for certain applications. Each tool is equally important whether it be used once or many time during the process.

For a person interested in pursuing luthiery, do you have any advice? Was there any formal training in your background, or has your path been more experiential and self-guided?

Don’t even begin – be a doctor – would be the first thing that comes to mind…HA…but I’m still doing it. To excel at this profession, luthiery has to be a passion and that passion has to be a part of you naturally. Getting rich is difficult, but it’s a challenging field that is ever changing and never boring. My influence is from many and my education has been self-taught and I continue to learn every day.

In your mind, what defines or best represents a Tippin guitar? (Thinking in terms of tone, playability, aesthetics…)

I think the dialogue between the builder and the customer helps to personalize the tone, playability and aesthetics of each individual guitar. The description of the basic tone values for each model can be found on my web site

Roughly how many guitars do you build each year, and how much time (generally) goes into building a guitar?

I build around 15 + per year. Depending on the complexity of inlays, details, and cure time for different finishes, construction can run between three and four months for completion once it is started, providing there is only one guitar being worked on.

As you continue to build instruments, what motivates you? Have you built any guitars yet that stand out as your very best, or has that guitar yet to arrive?

Seeing the progress unfold from the beginning to the end is the first reward, but most of all is seeing and knowing that the customer is very pleased. As far as my very best, I think that my present day guitars are the best of my work, what luthier wouldn’t say that?

Maybe when I’m looking down on my work from the pearly gates I might say –THAT ONE – is the best guitar I ever made, but in my life, I will continue to make a better one.

Given that this is for a blog, what role has technology (the Internet, your website, etc.) played in the success of your business?

The Web is the best thing that has happened to me as a luthier. It’s a lot of work to put up a good web site but it’s worth it.

On your website, you mention that you perform repair and restoration services. How does that fit into your overall work? Do you find inspiration in working on guitars from other builders that lead to the overall development of craft in your own work?

We have been able to see a wide variety of boutique makers guitars as well as some of the oldest and rarest guitars in the country for repair, from set ups to major restorations. It is a great experience to learn how others perform their art. With that experience it heightens my awareness in building my own.

When building a custom guitar for a particular player, what considerations do you make?

I have made guitars for the bluegrass picker to the soft fingerstylist. When I make a guitar for a player, I give them my utmost attention and consideration to their style within the realm of a Tippin guitar, which is a fairly wide spectrum.

What can we expect from Tippin guitars in the near or not so near future?

Well, I’m still here and my mind is still creating. I don’t work for GE, and I can’t fall back on their retirement plan, so maybe my best guitar is yet to come.

Thank you for your time Bill!

March 3, 2008

100 Posts!

After several months - and a couple of lulls - this marks the 100th post to The Podium blog. Many thanks to everyone for taking the time to peek into our corner of the Internet.

Taking into consideration the input of several readers, you can expect to see more interviews, content that addresses the challenges of recording and amplifying acoustic instruments, and exploring the role of the guitar in different genres of music from around the the weeks and months to come.

On a wholly unrelated note...

The wonderful collaboration between Allison Krauss and Robert Plant continues to grow on me more and more. As a longtime Led Zeppelin fan, it is a treat to see Plant continue to passionately engage in the creative process. (It never hurts to hear Krauss' angelic voice either...)

R.I.P Jeff Healey

Canadian guitarist Jeff Healey died yesterday after a long struggle with cancer.

Known for his bluesy-rock sound and unorthodox playing style, Healey also had a passion for early jazz as seen in this clip below:

Trumpet and guitar...amazing.