German luthier Philipp Neumann has built an excellent ten-string guitar.
The instrument that I tested could not be faulted on the usual issues of poorly-made ten-string guitars. The neck is constructed from Spanish cedar (its darker appearance is due to Neumann’s custom finish) and thus it is properly balanced in relation to the mass of the body. The compact, minimalist headstock further reduces the mass on the neck-side; it’s a feature I highly recommend other luthiers to adopt. Another pleasant surprise is that the fingerboard on this particular instrument has an adequately ‘high’ action (upon the request of the owner) and thus facilitates not only a genuine dynamic range but also nuances of timbre produced not just by shifting the right hand along the strings but ‘in place’, by varying the type of touch, e.g., being able to play various types of soft, medium, and strong rest strokes without a ‘buzz’. As we come out of the formalist era and the inevitable swing of the historical pendulum begins to move in the opposite direction, I believe that more classical guitarists will again recognize the primacy of such musical desiderata and not predominantly the ease of the left hand.
Of course, the most important consideration is tone quality – because the timbre is present first and throughout any performance. If the tone quality is low (percussive, ‘bright’, ‘tinny’, ‘thin’, lacking ‘voice’), the performance is a mistake from beginning to end, no matter how ‘perfectly’ executed in the formalist sense. While tone quality varies from one guitar to another, it does also vary from player to player, from touch to touch – a fact that has sometimes been overlooked in these difference-reducing times. With some guitars a performer attentive to tone quality will work harder to make them ‘sound’, by which I don’t mean simply to play louder! I mean to give it ‘voice’, to make it ‘sing’ – in acoustics jargon, to produce a sound recipe that is richer in fundamental and lower partials and poorer in upper partials, or, to put it differently, a tone colour that approaches that of the voice, piano, or woodwinds rather than the ‘tinniness’ of the harpsichord or steel-string guitar. Such careful mastery of timbre is what makes the difference between a classical guitarist’s projection or non-projection in the concert hall, not mere decibels.
Thus I was pleased to find that Neumann’s ten-string guitar is not only resonant and very powerful but, more importantly, that there is for the most part nothing inherently ‘tinny’ about it. In fact, it was a rare and unusual pleasure to play. I would, however, prefer a slightly ‘darker’ (more ‘singing’) timbre on the first string. But this might be remedied by using a (non-carbon) first string with a greater gauge. (I would, for the same reason, also be interested to hear Neumann’s work in a cedar- as opposed to spruce-top model.)
The only other small caveat is that I hope luthiers in general will solve (for serious post-formalist artists) the problem of raising the action, not (as seen on another luthier’s work) by bulking up the bridge, or even by gradually sanding down the fingerboard, but by setting the neck at a slightly different angle to begin with, plus, of course, recalculating the fret spacing to compensate for the greater displacement of the strings by the left hand. (Who is up to the challenge?) With respect to action (for dynamic range), as with the 664mm scale length (for projection), I’m convinced that Ramirez III and Bernabe Sr were onto the right track by the early 1960s, that is, before a technocratic (‘plugged-in’) and miniaturizing formalism rose to dominance. With waning interest in the formalist ‘classical’ guitar, it’s time to pick up where the old masters left off.
Neumann clearly made a thorough study of a Bernabe ten-string guitar before building his own instrument. On the whole he has made a great ten-string guitar.
For information about the luthier or inquiries, visit: http://www.neumann-gitarren.de/classical-guitars.html#