An American Dream Manufactured in China

By Daniel Neves and Miguel De Laet
Violão Pro magazine interviews Jonathan Lee, Walden's chief designer. To read this review in its original Portuguese, click here.

Are all Chinese guitars created equal? Be careful with the answer. Many have preconceived notions about products originating from Asian countries without checking into it further. Violão PRO talked with Jonathan Lee, one of the ones responsible for the development of Walden guitars, on the development of Asian manufacturing, the reasons for manufacturing in China, and on environmental and social responsibility.

Tell us a little about yourself and how Walden Guitars was born?

I am currently the Division Manager of the Fretted Instrument Division at KHS Musical Instruments. KHS, a musical instrument manufacturer for over 75 years, is the sole owner of the Walden Guitars brand and produces Walden guitars in Lilan, China (located nearby Beijing). All Walden guitars are made at the Walden shop. Previous to becoming the Division Manager, I was the Research and Development Manager as well as the Marketing Manager for Walden. Walden Guitars originated as a collaboration between CFox Guitars, a company I helped found, and KHS. Original designs and specifications were created in consultation with CFox Guitars.

Why manufacture in China?

There are many reasons why building guitars in China was a natural choice for Walden. With lower average labor rates than elsewhere, it allows for the creation of a high quality instrument with far greater affordability. Chinese history has a rich and deep cultural and artistic tradition which also aids their ability to appreciate some of the finer points of guitar making. KHS Musical Instruments, is headquartered in Taipei, Taiwan. Since all staff members speak Chinese, overcoming the language and cultural barriers to operating in China are furthermore minimized. It also facilitates the international distribution of all other KHS brands: Mapex Drums, Jupiter Band Instruments, Hercules Stands and Majestic Percussion. The KHS factories are all nearby and this allows for products to be combined into the same shipment better servicing the needs of our customers. Today, we manufacture somewhere around 50 thousand instruments per year.

How to associate quality and price?

With a background in handmade guitars, finding the balance point between quality and price has been one of the greatest challenges for me. When building guitars that sell for around 3,000 US dollars and above, I could afford to work with the highest grade materials that offered ideal tonal, visual and stability characteristics. Woods that are perfectly quarter-sawn, each piece hand selected. Providing instruments at Walden’s competitive prices presents numerous conflicts from a luthier’s point of view. Although benefits are realized in terms of labor and overhead expenses, the material cost-to-quality ratio becomes a critical consideration when creating instruments in the $300 to $1,500 range. A good example to illustrate this: When building hand made guitars, the cost of a Sitka spruce soundboard and back-side set of Indian Rosewood, before any woodworking has begun, is already well above our distributor’s wholesale price for some completed Walden models! In fact, the price of some tuning machines we used at CFox were greater than the cost of the completed Walden. How do you create a guitar that even comes close to a fine handmade guitar when you can’t come close to affording the materials required to make an instrument of this kind? We and other Asian manufacturers simply can not afford to use these materials and have to work with lower grade, lower cost materials. The challenge then becomes ensuring that the materials used can satisfy the sonic, visual and stability requirements to create valid musical instruments. “What can be sacrificed? What can be compromised? What can not? Where is the line between acceptable and unacceptable?” These become the difficult questions to answer in our quest to create legitimate musical instruments and not just “guitar shaped objects.”

Talk about the manufacturing process of Walden.

All quality instrument making operations incorporate similar processes to achieve similar objectives, be they the solo, one person lutherie workshop or large scale factories.

Walden’s manufacturing process draws specifically from my experience as a luthier at CFox Guitars, and from techniques used at USA large production shops such as Martin and Taylor. Our guiding principal is to respect the elements of the guitar building process that are critical to producing quality stable, excellent sounding guitars. Knowing what we absolutely can not compromise and knowing what we must to create instruments at this price level. In our four broad departments: Parts Fabrication, Body-Neck Assembly, Finish, and Setup, each process has its own jig, machine fixture or mold that ensures the consistency of result. Most work is done by hand with recognizable standard woodworking machines such as table saws, jointers, routers, band saws, etc. Some automated machines are used when either a better result can ensue, such as a fingerboard fret-slotting machine, or when an operation is too laborious for an employee.

How is this process is different from what is done in other Asian companies?

If one looks into the history of Asian guitar making, you will find that most current factories can trace their history back to Japanese methods of the 1960’s where they were essentially producing low cost alternatives to USA and European made instruments. As labor costs rose in Japan, this system of guitar-building moved to Korea and Taiwan, and later Mainland China, and now Indonesia. Many Asian operations still make “guitar shaped objects.” This is due to a lack of understanding of the fundamentals of guitar design or manufacturing, or due to the business model of producing the cheapest instruments dictating their choice of poor materials or poor method. From a product standpoint, outside of procedural differences, all Walden guitars incorporate a bolt-on neck joint and 2-way adjustable truss rods which are both less common in Asian manufacturing. Fret ends are hand shaped and polished above standards even seen at Martin. The Walden Natura line may be the only line of nitrocellulose lacquer finished instruments in China, NC lacquer being known for its excellent sonic properties compared with the more common Polyurethane finished used in Asia.

What are the most commonly used in woods in manufacturing Walden guitars?

Walden currently only uses what are considered “traditional” guitar tone-woods. Varieties of spruce (Sitka & Engelmann) and western red cedar. Back and side woods are either Indian Rosewood or Mahogany originating from Africa or South & Central America. Fingerboards and bridges are Indian Rosewood and Ebony imported from India and S.E. Asia.

Here in Brazil we find some luthiers looking for alternative in other species to substitute traditional woods in the manufacture of instruments. Do you believe that can also occur in the industry?

A difficulty arises though when the balance of stability and sonority must be considered. The woods traditionally used, were chosen for these reasons. Choosing replacement materials on the basis that they happen to be sustainably grown simply does not work. A good example comes from experiments we have conducted using Bamboo. It’s so common these days for eco-friendly flooring, it’s hard, and grows like a weed. However, in our tests, it had horrible tonality. Tap a board created from bamboo and it sounds dead, like tapping a cardboard box. That said, we are actively on the lookout for suitable replacement materials that are outside of the traditional woods and can be sustainably acquired.

Tell us specially about the Walden classical guitar series inspired in great guitars built by Antonio Torres and Hermann Hauser. How did the idea to try to reproduce the Torres-Hauser soundboard bracing occur?

In 2004, at the Guild of American Luthiers Convention in Washington State, I attended a seminar hosted by luthier Jeffrey Elliot. The topic: “Restoring Tarrega's 1888 Torres." This guitar had been severely damaged and masterfully restored by Jeff. He also presented plans and measurements for this piece of guitar history and we had the privilege of hearing that particular guitar played in concert that evening. In truth this began my inspiration and respect for the modern classical guitar. As I considered adjustments that we might make to the Walden classical guitar, I also had an opportunity to review drawings for two guitars built for Andres Segovia, the 1912 Manuel Ramirez and the Hermann Hauser 1937. Much like an aspiring painter practices the techniques of the masters, I decided that this was the place to begin the development and improvement of the Walden classical guitar.

It is a Fact: every classical guitar built around the world is based on the Torres classical guitar, but with some soundboard bracing modifications. Are there some modifications in brace dimensions and angles? Is this really the most important topic to craft the sound and tone of the instrument?

The soundboard is the most important element contributing to the guitar’s sound. The various vibrations of the side and back influence the tonal quality of the guitar’s voice, particularly the upper partials (the higher frequencies / harmonics) but too “flexible” and they can suck energy from the top and negatively affect sound and tone.

The current Walden classical guitar soundboard bracing design stays quite faithful to the Torres / Hauser designs. Minor modifications include the use of a bridge plate which was not used by Torres on the 1888 but used on the ’37 Hauser. In terms of crafting the tone and sound of an instrument, the bracing dimensions and angles are only one piece in the puzzle. The 1888 Torres had soundboard thicknesses as low as 1.2 mm at the edge and 1.5 - 2.0 mm under the bridge – this is amazing when you consider that a typical soundboard is commonly about 2.5 – 2.8 mm. The way to achieve this is to find exceptional materials, high stiffness-to-weight characteristics allowing a thin the top without losing the stiffness to resist the tension of the strings. With this lower weight, the strings don’t need to work as hard to pump the top: energy is represented as sound.