Good With Wood
Words Jamie Dickson Portraits Joe Branston
UK's Guitarist magazine, Summer 2012
Jonathan Lee is a man on a mission. As chief designer at Walden Guitars and president of its innovative factory, he wants to bring the feel and tone of boutique acoustic guitars to Chinese-built instruments. He's also leading the charge to make guitars that are as forest-friendly as possible. Revolutionary? Maybe, says Jonatahn, but he still gets excited by the design of a 1942 dreadnought...
Tell us about your background as a guitar maker and how that relates to Walden...
"My history as a guitar maker is as a partner with Charles Fox. We formed a company called CFox Guitars in the mid-nineties, and we were building boutique-level instruments in Healdsburg, California, which is in Sonoma County. There were 10 of us in total, and we were building two guitars a day. They were listing for £3,000 to £6,000: very much in line with what Santa Cruz, Collings and Bourgeois were doing at the time.
"A lot of the innovative elements that were present on the CFox guitars, and boutique guitar-building in general, are evident on Walden guitars -- a good example being graphite-reinforced necks, which you don't really see on any production-level instrument mand in Asia or in America. For example, Martin and Tailer don't do graphinte-reinforced necks -- and forget about Asia.
"Walden guitars are built at one factory in mainland China, and we see ourselves as 'boutique within reach'. Hopefully, we can make some of those [boutique] features affordable to a much greater number of people. You can't really build like that [affordably] in Europe or America or even Japan. But having one factory situated in China allows me to establish a method and logic of manufacturing that is much more in line with boutique manufacturing."
With are the main challenges of trying to build the tone and sensitivity of a hand-made guitar into an affordable production model?
"The guitars that I built at Charles Fox were made with master-grade tops, master-grade sides and backs: totally uncompromised materials and components, such as $65 Shaller gold tuners with black buttons. That's like the total material and labour costs of some of our mid-priced instruments... So you really have to take into account how to use [more affordable] materials, and not build guitars that are either truly over-built or what I call 'race cars', that are just going to blow a tranny pretty quickly.
"You have to understand that an steel-string acoustic gutiar is under about 180lbs of tension. That instrument is basically trying to fold itself in half for the lifetime of its existence. At the same time, the same strings that are generating that tension are the nergy source. They're drving the shoundboard, which is acting kind of like a spaker cone, with the sides and back being like the speaker enclosure. So you have a very limited amount of energy that is driving a soundboard that needs to be flexible enough to push the air. Obviously, the heavier that soundboard is, the heavier the bracing is, and the thicker the finish, the worse that instrument's going to sound.
"However, the thinner you go with all of those things, the more that soundboard may just warp completely so that it's unplayable. And so understanding that balance point is a piece of the puzzle that I think a lot of Asian manufactureres, to this day, don't really get -- although some of them do, and they are making really nice guitars.
"But there's no one thing that you can do when you're building an instrument that's going to result in a fantastic-sounding instrument. The execution really is in how you assemble all the parts, how you treat all the parts, how you care for the materials before you even begin building, and then how you build so that the instrument is musical, not just a 'guitar-shaped object'. My hope is that when people do play Walden guitars, they will perceive that."
Why do you think some acoustic guitar makers get that balance wrong?
"Most acoustic guitars right now are made in mainland China or Indonesia, or Vietname. But where did they learn to make guitars? They learned frim either Taiwan or Korean, until Taiwan and Korea became to expensive -- but where did they learn? They learned from Japan. And 30 or 40 years ago, what was Japan doing? They were building OEM knock-offs of famous Martins and so on, as low-cost alternatives to real instruments.
"That philosophy of building has very much been copied culturally throughout the other Asian manufactureres from Krea to INdonesia. You see the same guitars coming from many different factories that all have the same compromises, in terms of building, material selection and finishing -- and it stops at Japan. I don't know if any Asian manufacturers have really gone back to the root and said, Well this is how they [classic-era American acoustic guitars] were bilt, so let's lear that. That's a big part of what I'm trying to do as an American guitar maker over there."
Do you ever feel that unfair assumptions are made about Walden because you manufacture in China?
"There are still some people who say, Your guitrar is made in China so it must be made with slave labour, but that is absolutely not what's going on here. We have a bunch of happy campers at our factory. We work an eight-hour day, five days a week. If we do overtime during a daily work week, we;ll do overtime until 9pm. Our working conditions are all just fine for any wood shop around the world: we have good dust congrol, good climate contril. It's all built into the back story behind the creation of these instruments. I want to go to bed at night and not wake up seating about being a bad guy and geting kicked out of the gates by Peter [laughts]!"
You've also launched the Madera series of guitars made from FSC 100 per cent certified, ethically sourced timber. Was that a struggle?
"On some level I've always been a closet env ironmentalist, and certainly once I started with Walden I started asking suppliers, How about Forestry Stewardship Council certification? I'd ask on eyear and it would get laughed out, and I'd ask the second year and they'd say, Come on, nobody's asking for it. Ask the third year and they said, You're still asking -- but no. So I Stipped asking, until about four or five years ago when some of these people finally came back and said, Hey Jon, guess what? We have [FSC-certified] mahogany. But I nbeed sprice for a top; I need cedar for a top. What about that? And the answer was, Well no.
"Then a few years ago a top supplier came and said, Hey, we have FSC-PUre -- which is FSC 100 per cent -- cedar and spruice. And that's when it really got interesting. So we started procuring these materials, and at tht atpoint I finally had a full set of materials that could be procured using this non-government, non-proffit global organization that is pretty much the gold standard currently in traceability in responsible forestry.
"Then Wladne moved forward with doing what had to be done to gain our chain-of-custody certifiation. What that means is along the full chain fo sully, everyone needs to be certified and audited annually to ensure that not only are they procuring responsibly forested materials, [but] they know how to track this material throughout their whole process so it doesn't get mixed with other stuff. Achieving FSC 100 per cent means that we track it from bringing it in to our warehouse all the way through the line in such a way that we can put on an FSC 100 per cent label -- which, byt he way, is also certified -- that means every single piece of that guitar comes from a responsibly forested source: from the braces to the top, to the blocks, sides, back, top, figerboards, bridge -- every single piece of wood.
"It's quite an involved process, and you have to pay the certifier to come in. Everone along the cahin of coustody is paying a little bit extra to make the effort but it results in the Madera, which is at the top of the line."
How much interst do you think there is in ethcially built guitars?
"I think people want sustainability, but I'm not convinved that they're willing to pay for it. Unfortunately, I have to say that I'm not sure most people understand how much of a problem we have here. Despite the diminishing supply of premium woods that are used on acoustic guitars, the whole guitar industry is less than one per cent of the wood used in the world. We have very little effect on the whole thing. The people that have the big effect -- furniture, pulp and paper -- are huge and they're going to be the game-changers if, by law, they have to procure legal wood and know the sourcing of their wood.
"If it was more pubic how dirty the wood industry is and how it relateds to the destruction of world resources, maybe people would begin to care a bit more. Right now, one of my biggest challenges is that my cost of manufacturing goes up becasue of the [responsibly sourced] materials that I'm trying to buy. We run the company very cleanlly and I know that I pay more than some of our competitors for the woods themselves. That meks it very difficult to be a leader in this."
How else do you try to innvoate in the design of your guitars?
" Our guitars are probably most innovative in the neck design. OUr neck profiles are a little bit thinner than traditional necks. Because we're not using hand-made insrument level materials, we actually reinforce our necks with either glass fibre or graphite, depending on level of build: graphite has great sustain and it's a great energy transmitter.
"So our mid-price instruments have glass-fibre reinforced necks while our high-end instruments are graphote-reinforced, and they're bolt-ons. I am not sure if there are any other bolt-on neck/body joint acoustics coming out of Asia yet. But certainly Collings uses a bolt-on, Talyor uses a bolt-on.. it's a very proven, tried-and-true joint. I"m personally not convinved that nayone can actually hear the sonic difference between a bolt-on nteck joing, a properlly done dovetail joint and a pin joint.
"In other areas I tend towrads tradition. For example, we use bracing that is based off a '42 Dreadnought that was burned in a fire back in teh Charles Fox days. We were doing a factory tour and this repair guy came by and showed it to us, and we descended upon that guitar like vultures to road kill [laughs]. We measured the exact angles and thicknesses and sahpes. It's all part of the body of knowledge and experience that bacame the base line from which we build Walden instruments."
What new trends in acoustic guitar design are you intersted in pursing?
"There are two directions that I want to go. I peresobnally love parlour-style, 12-fret to the body designs, shorter scales and shorter body shapes in general. However, it's really a case of evaluating what that would contribute to the world of guitar building, rather than just copying someone else's brand... But when you take a body and you make a 12-fret neck joint and you put the bridge in the centre of the soundboard, that's a great placew to pit it for the voice of the instrument. That's straight out of class guitar making.
"The other direction is baritones and basses. I'm very jazzed on developing a baritone. For that, the bracing system will be very different to a typical X-braced guitar, because there's a lot of freedom to do that: there is no defined voice of a baritone. In fact, there's not even a defined tuing for it, even though I think the easiest one is to just to drop it to B and then tune it in guitar inverals. But the challenge is how to solve th existing problems of producing and voicing the fundamental [frequency of each string] on such a small soundboard, when you're a fifth below. A lot of these things are all in prototyping: the 'Frankenstein's workshop' level of process. But given all my responsibilities within the organization, ti's really the fun part of the job."