Sunday, April 18, 2010

Segovia Syndrome and the Hyper-Tension

Nigel's guitar is in for a quick fix. The instrument in question is a 1991 Ramirez SP semi professional model. Cedar Top, solid Indian, 650 mm scale, with all the usual Ramirez specs.
Nigel is a strong student with well developed, mature technique. He's asked if I can do something about the feel of the strings in the first position. His instructor noted how difficult it was to depress the strings, and giving it a go myself, I have to concur that a barred Fmaj chord is a real chore!

Looks like this isn't the first time the instrument needed nut work. A nicely made shim of laminated cedrella has been glued to the base of the nut. There's evidence of the removal process where the rock-hard Ramirez urethane finish has chipped off.

A look at the bridge. Not a pretty picture. There's little room left to reduce the saddle, the bridge itself is tipping forward, and one can see that there's another shim down in the saddle slot.

Despite this, the instrument produces an agreeable Spanish tone with good volume. This guitar displays the hallmarks of Madrid-style building geometry. The top is essentially flat, with characteristic deformation pulling up behind the bridge, sinking in front. The neck shaft is pitched forward from the plane of the body to a remarkable degree, rising almost 5 mm at the nut. (This is more than twice the rise I build into my instruments.) Coupled with the tapering fretboard, this forward tilt means that a straightedge laid across the frets will meet the bridge at a point only 1mm above the surface of the top. Remarkably, this isn't the most "extreme" Ramirez setup. Richard Brune reports having seen necks with as much as 10mm (!) forward tilt.

The action? Getting up there towards 5mm. That's about the upper limit I'd consider normal. Not much to be done with it, considering the bridge's condition. I suppose one could make a new, lower bridge. But why? This instrument is designed around having the strings 11 -12 mm above the soundboard. It would lose sustain and the powerful open vowel sound. You'd be left with a mediocre flamenco guitar.

Can I get on my high horse for just a minute? I'm not the first luthier to bemoan the Segovia influence on young musicians. It's been noted that with the Maestro's passing guitarists were suddenly free to pick other instruments with less macho setups. Why is then that in the past two years I've met three young guys (probably born after Segovia's death),who've bought Ramirez cedar tops? Not that I have anything against the company mind you. It's just that these instruments are designed like race cars. They're tailored to all-out volume in big halls, to be played aggressively with strong hands. Also like race cars, they're essentially impossible to repair. The flat top, high bridge, forward neck bow, heavily tapered fretboard with lots of relief, cedar top - all conspire to start driving up the action from the moment the instrument is first strung. Twenty years is the lifespan. Because of the integral-neck aspect of the Spanish system, in another year when Nigel's action is becomes unbearable, it will be necessary to peel the back binding, work the back free from the interior portion of the neck block, tip and pare off the excess, etc, etc. Forget about planing the neck. The extreme forward tilt and tapered board mean I'd have to remove almost 2mm at the nut end. It'd look freakish. The other option would be to make a completely new fretboard with a reverse taper, from 5 mm at the nut to 7 at the sound hole. Again, not ideal.

I guess what I'm saying is that Segovia didn't have to worry about this. Mr Ramirez was always ready to trade in for a new instrument whenever it was necessary. And it happened frequently. There are quite a number of Ramirez 1A's out there with Jose III's label certifying them as having been played by the Maestro. Contrast that with the 25 years of service that Segovia got from his original domed-top, lightly built Santos/Manuel I, or the almost 30 years from the Hauser.

I'd like to see young players educated about this situation. If you're going to lay out the serious dough for an guitar to last your lifetime, you deserve one that will make elegant repair possible. Don't try to drive the F1 car when the BMW, Mercedes or Saab will give you the street-level performance you need.

Let's do what we can. A stack of feeler gauges at the 1st fret tops out at .035". Not so bad actually, about .008-.010 heavy.

Wow. High nut equals big fret wear. More pressure needed to note means more friction. This looks more like steel-string type wear. The green tape is there to keep strings from rubbing the finish. The urethane on this guitar seems almost crispy. It's flaked away on the binding in several areas leaving voids with sharp borders.

I've popped out the nut and we can see the wood sandwich. I've stroked some pencil lines to verify where I'm removing material.

Here's a teensie-tiny jointer system. I really don't like to see nuts that have been sanded out-of-square. Worse yet is a nut with a radiused bottom from rocking one's grip. They've got to make good contact all the way across the neck. This is a mill file clamped against an oak strip in my mini mechanic's vise. With this setup I can very accurately taper things (to the bass side, in this case).

After several alternate checking/shaving cycles I've got things down to where I'm satisfied. I'm pressing at the 1st fret. You can see how much airspace is left over the 2nd fret. At first I thought the neck was bowed. There is some considerable relief through frets 3-9, but it actually has more to do with the fretboard taper and forward set of the neck. I did do a little filing on the fifth and sixth string grooves, mostly to improve the line.

One other side-effect of a hard action at the nut is the tendency to negate the compensation factor built into the string length at the saddle. The string is stretched on both sides, pulling it seriously sharp. Did I mention that Nigel has been experimenting with extra-high tension strings?!!! The forward tipping at the bridge has eaten up about .5mm of the compensation so far. I'll recommend he switch to as low a tension as he can stomach.

One positive is that the lowered nut has actually brought the action down to 4.5mm on the bass, 3mm on the treble.

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