Jonathan S Lee

Jonathan Lee:
Walden's Main Man

By Nick Brown
Australia's Mixdown magazine, April 2011

What’s your personal history as a guitar builder and with Walden?
I began my journey like many before me – as a failed rock star. Having put those aspirations aside, I was lucky to have the opportunity to pursue a long-time dream of learning the art of guitar building at Charles Fox’s American School of Lutherie in Northern California. Charles and I quickly developed a close friendship and realised we shared many values and visions. In 1996 we formed CFox Guitars, Inc. and built hundreds of handmade instruments that are well respected to this day. What I learned during those years became the foundation for my philosophy of guitar design and construction. After we closed the CFox operation in 2001, I began working directly with Walden guitars as their Research and Development Manager, and I’m currently the Chief Designer for Walden and President of the Walden factory. I spent a great deal of time at the Walden shop in northern China during those earlier years, defining the materials we could use, and rebuilt and redesigned many jigs, fixtures and moulds. I then retrained staff on many of the procedures, such as fret work, finish sanding, etc.

Mixdown Magazine

With a market that is constantly being refined and having to offer higher quality for lower prices, how do you compete?
Guitars are as good as they have ever been. This is a good thing. Guitars are as affordable as they have ever been. This too is a good thing, since it allows more people access to guitars as musical instruments, not just the “guitar-shaped objects” of the past that hurt so much to play that they ended up in a closet somewhere. Walden does not make the cheapest instruments and we never will. We focus our efforts on building legitimate musical instruments that will stand the test of time. We see our important points of difference in three general categories:
Ethics: We believe that operating in a moral, socially responsible way is an important part of our process. We believe that a guitarist cares not only how nice the instrument is, but also who built it. Walden is one of the only brands that owns its own Mainland China factory, while many of our competitors job out their manufacturing (the Nike sneaker model). We operate at high ethical standards. Staff work five days a week, eight hours a day. If we work overtime, we work until 9pm only. Retirement and health insurance is mandatory. Wages are above local standards. Minimum age is a high school graduate. Workstations are well lit and conditions are in line with any first-world wood shop. Compare that with the “sweatshop” many folks think of when they picture the typical Chinese factory. If you are not purchasing guitars from that kind of operation, Walden becomes one of the few available choices.
Innovation: By owning our own factory, we control the materials, designs and processes that we use to build our instruments. We do not have to fit our guitars into someone else’s mould and change the headstock for individuality. We are currently the only Asian manufacturer using a bolt-on neck to body joint, which is a more stable, unintended stress- free joint compared to what I like to call the “Asian dovetail”, which is forced together and leads to all kinds of potential problems. We incorporate a narrow-profile graphite reinforced neck on our high end instruments (1000 Series and above) and a glass-fibre reinforced neck on our mid-range guitars (500-700 Series). This neck design results in a more stable neck that resists twisting and warping. A result of being stiffer is that the bass resonant frequency of the neck increases and problems with wolf-tones are reduced. No other production shop builds with this kind of additional neck reinforcement. Walden in partnership with Graphtech (maker of Tusq) worked together to develop the Fossalite nut and saddle material, which is optimised for mid-priced instruments. Beginning 2011, all Walden 300 series through 700 series are installed with Fossalite.
Tradition: Building a legitimate instrument that both stands the test of time and sounds great relies on respecting key fundamentals of guitar building. Our shop pays strict attention to humidity control, with numerous climate control rooms set to 45 per cent relative humidity. This allows us to keep our materials at the correct moisture content critical towards helping an instrument survive the elements. We have based our bracing designs and measurements on an authentic 1942 Dreadnought and have referenced the specific body shapes from that pre-war era. The important end result is a guitar that is not overbuilt like so many of our Asian competitors.

Can you explain the concept behind the Madera line (Certified FSC Pure wood)?
Walden’s Madera line of FSC-Pure instruments are among only a few guitars built entirely out of FSC certified woods today. FSC, or “Forest Stewardship Council”, is a non-governmental, not-for-profit organisation that sets the standard for responsibly forested products and materials. Every member in the supply chain from forest through completed product must have a FSC Chain-Of-Custody (COC) Certification. As a COC holder, Walden must track all the FSC-Pure woods we purchase throughout our building process and only purchase from FSC COC mills. That mill must also track their wood processing and purchase from FSC-certified forests. FSC certified forests must develop and follow a long-term forest management plan to ensure the resources are well-managed. For example, the FSC-Pure Central American mahogany comes from a forest with a 70-year cut plan and GPS coordinates for each tree. Every FSC COC holder and forest must be audited by a third party every year to ensure compliance.

And TFT (The Forest Trust)?
TFT, or “The Forest Trust”, is another global non-profit organisation. Their focus is working with companies and communities to develop responsible products through reducing forest destruction and empowering local forest dependent communities. They have staff assisting local communities to achieve Verified Legal Origin status and eventually FSC Certification. At the moment, Walden is working with TFT to map our wood supply chain, beginning with our first-line suppliers through mill to forest to ensure everything is legal. We are committed to building with legal materials, and anticipate through our partnership with TFT we can create full transparency throughout our wood supply chain.

Your lines cover a fair spectrum of specs and prices – how are models/designs decided on?
We seek to provide the Walden owner with many options for his/her budget. For example, we do not offer only one dreadnought body shape in our solid-top 500 series. The Orchestra Model (O), Grand Auditorium (G), Travel (T), etc. all provide different voices and playing experiences tailored to the player’s needs and desires. Our 500 series is where our offerings are broadest and as we move upwards, selection and number of models is more limited. Our 600 series represents an upgrade in materials and trim; 700 series adds a solid wood back. Our 1000 series and above apply hand made guitar construction techniques to our line including our graphite reinforced neck, hand cut bone nuts and saddles, wood binding and a general increase in overall wood quality. In this line, we also offer the 1-3/4” nut width preferred by finger-stylists on our Grand Auditorium and Orchestra Models.