BYO: What Makes a Guitar "Good"?

Hi all. I'm a professional violin maker and restorer who is making the leap into the fretted world to build Selmer-Maccaferri style guitars. I have already acquired a number of good learning resources and I have a decade of experience making string instruments as well as a lifetime of experience playing them, so I think I might actually have a shot at making some pretty decent instruments right out the gate here. I have a tone wood shipment arriving later this week and I am absolutely chomping at the bit to get started.

Any advice anyone can contribute will be very helpful but I'm especially curious to know, from all players of these instruments: what makes one good? What qualities do players seek in these instruments? What separates an acceptable instrument from a truly exceptional one? What do you wish you could find in a guitar? When you playtest instruments, what are you listening for? What are you feeling for? What gets you excited about an instrument? I know how to answer these questions for myself about what guitars I like, and I know what bowed instrument players are looking for generally, but within this very specific subset of the guitar, I am curious if there are any specific qualities I should be striving for (besides LOUD, which is inevitable just from the nature of the build).



  • wimwim ChicagoModerator Barault #503 replica
    Posts: 1,459

    A lot of this is subjective, but something that you'll probably hear a few times if you ask around many players is that people want a "dry" sounding guitar. I think it means there are not many overtones, and the majority of the energy is in the fundamental or in simple modes of the fundamental, with very little energy going into vibrations of higher order modes.

    The opposite is described as a guitar that sounds "wet", a term which people use disparagingly. If you're selling the guitar, you'll say it has "complex" or "rich" tones instead.

  • billyshakesbillyshakes NoVA✭✭✭ Park Avance - Dupont Nomade - Dupont DM-50E
    Posts: 1,337

    I know talking to several luthiers in this style, they've had the opportunity to handle/study/observe many different instruments in the style, and especially ones that people enjoy the sound of. They've taken measurements, sound frequency response data, etc. to understand why the guitar plays and sounds the way it does. If you have the opportunity to do something similar by attending such events such as Djangofest NW in WA, Django in June in MA, or Django-a-GoGo in NY/NJ, you should do so. The latter might be closest to you.

    Of course, if you are hot build one right out of the gate, I'm sure you'll learn along the way. Try to get your instrument into the hands of enough good players who can give you feedback that will help you along your path. With your previous experience making violins, I'm sure a lot will carry over in terms of craftsmanship and that expertise will help you tweak the design along the way. Good luck!

  • gdwilsongdwilson Pittsburgh, PANew
    edited January 2023 Posts: 3

    Thanks! Dryness is a great piece of advice, that's definitely something to bear in mind. That's a very different target from the violin market where complex overtones and wide open sounding instruments are highly sought after, I'll have to curb my tendency to shoot for too much "richness".

    I have only had the opportunity to play about half a dozen Selmer style guitars so far, which ranged from bottom-of-the-barrel student stuff up to around the $5-$6k mark, so I'm just starting to get a feel for the differences between factory built vs. bench made guitars. I am looking forward to taking measurements of some of the instruments in my guitar teacher's collection later this month, and I hope to make it out to Django in June this year (or maybe next), so I'll gather some more points of reference there.

    Does anyone have a feel for whether experimentation or traditionalism is more "in vogue" right now? I admit it seems sort of silly to ask a question like that in a genre where everyone is playing 100 year old music on instruments that are all based on a tiny sliver of one luthier's career. It is a pretty "traditionalist" genre overall. But sometimes more modern innovations catch a bit of a buzz and it can become temporarily difficult to sell more traditional instruments that are suddenly seen as "too old-fashioned". I've been planning to start with very traditional Selmer replicas, but I don't want to stay too true-to-form for too long if it's going to shoot me in the foot when I try to get these things to market!

  • BonesBones Moderator
    Posts: 3,320

    Dry and loud. Look into how to do a 'pliage' on the top like the originals. A few threads here on Djangobooks on ways to do it.

    If they are too wet (too much overtones) it drives the soloist crazy.

  • Russell LetsonRussell Letson Prodigy
    Posts: 360

    The preference for a "dry" sound is pretty common--but, to my ear, too much of that makes for a brash, brassy, or nasal voice. There are builders whose instruments can do loud/cutting leads without sounding harsh when it's time to play rhythm--Michael Dunn, Shelley Park, and Bernie Lehmann, to name the ones whose guitars I've played. (I currently have grande bouche models by Dunn and Park, and if I were a decade younger I would happily add a Lehmann.)

    What I hear from the classic recordings by Django and others is a strong, fat, and round voice--a guitar that can be pushed hard without breaking up and still produce a round tone.

  • bbwood_98bbwood_98 Brooklyn, NyProdigy Vladimir music! Les Effes. . Its the best!
    Posts: 676

    @gdwilson Perhaps a slightly different understanding of dry: For me (note, mostly a rhythm player - This I think would be very different if you are a soloist); a good guitar is one that has no wolf tones; but in which the sound is loud, bass and mid rich (bright treble is nice too), and blends the sounds of the strings blend well. There should not be drastic sustain (see high end classical guitars) but not too little either. Punchy and balanced would be mostly what I am going for; and loud enough that I don;t have to work too too hard.

    Happy to show you what I've got and what most of the folks I play with have if you ever make it to NYC.


  • bbwood_98bbwood_98 Brooklyn, NyProdigy Vladimir music! Les Effes. . Its the best!
    Posts: 676


    And one more thing - this is a genre of guitars where innovation is somewhat frowned upon (as opposed to electric guitars, where there seems to be more room for that); though if you can modify the form and come up with something better, perhaps a lot of players would want to know that!

    Lots of good guitars are around; and for each guitar there's at least 3-4 opinions as to if it's good or bad and why lol!

  • flacoflaco Shelley Park #151, AJL Quiet and Portable
    Posts: 98

    I'm sure Michael can give feedback on the market better than anyone, but my impression is that most players want the traditional designs. I think the only way a non-traditional design will get much of a following is if a well-known player were to play it. As @bbwood_98 mentions, I'd imagine the less traditional designs tend to sit longer without selling. Years ago I was really tempted by this La Fee guitar:

    But I was worried it would be hard to sell if I ever wanted to move to something else.

  • Jangle_JamieJangle_Jamie Scottish HighlandsNew De Rijk, some Gitanes and quite a few others
    edited January 2023 Posts: 208

    I've played quite a few gypsy jazz guitars over the last twenty years, and I can find positives in almost all of them (even an APC JM200 which has a very nice neck!). One thing is the variety of tone from gypsy guitars amazes me. I have a dry sounding Gallato RS1939 model with a loud bark when you really attack, which I like. I took the lacquer off and refinished it with french polish. It's a heavy guitar (mostly the big chunky walnut neck and neck block I think). I have an amazing Gitane DG270 which I also refinished. It's very loud and has beautiful rich deep and loud mids, along with loud and cutting trebles and a good amount of bass too. I think it's solid birdseye maple back and sides. It's really an amazing guitar. I have a very beautiful handmade Selmer copy made for me by a friend in Australia. Solid Fiddleback Blackwood back and sides and a Celerytop Pine top - all Australian tonewoods. It lacks a little of the volume of the DG270, but it is incredibly sweet and has a wonderful woody character. This guitar I will be refitting with a Killy Nonis tailpiece (currently has a Gallato fitted) and new bridge made by Robert Ford. I expect volume to increase and it'll be interesting to hear what happens to the tone too. I have other gypsy guitars too which all have their own plus points - my Gitane DG370 is fabulous and looks great with flamed maple body and neck (I just love the look of maple necks, especially with ebony stripes). It's all very personal though!!

    Good luck building guitars. I wish I could go on one of Jerome Duffell's guitar building courses running this year, but time and money are very tight at the mo.

  • MichaelHorowitzMichaelHorowitz SeattleAdministrator
    edited January 2023 Posts: 6,155

    As mentioned by many above, the Gypsy guitar market does tend to be quite conservative, with most people wanting something that looks and sounds like a vintage Selmer. However, there is some variety which I would categorize as such:

    1) Traditional Selmer: the most popular choice, closely following the original specs and sound of a vintage Selmer.

    2) Modern designs: Attempts to "modernize" the Selmer guitar to make it physically and sonically more adapted to hybrid styles of Gypsy jazz that incorporate elements of modern jazz. Stefan Hahl is the most notable maker of modern Gypsy guitars, especially the models he created for Bireli Lagrene

    3) Gateway guitars: Designs that for the most part usually look like a Selmer, but soncially have the much fuller bass and rounded highs of a flatop. These tend to appeal to newcomers to the style who have a hard time adjusting to the brasher nature of traditional Gypsy guitars. However, as their technique and aesthetics evolve, these instruments usually loose their luster.

    4) Other vintage designs: A smaller number of players prefer the sound of other classic Gypsy guitars, most notably Busato and Favino. Some makers have made accurate copies of these designs which have become quite popular.

    It's also worth noting that very few makers these days have ever seen a vintage Selmer. That doesn't mean they can't make a great guitar but you do tend to hear the most purely Selmer type sound from the makers who have spent a lot of time studying the originals.

    There are also different eras of Selmers, with the pre and post war periods being noticeably different. The most attention gets put on Django's #503 which is the ideal for a pre-war Selmer. Although, Fapy always told me he thought Django's best acoustic sound was on the Rome sessions. Some of that had to do with better recording technology, but it's also worth noting that he was playing a post war Selmer on those sides (#704.) Personally, I've always found the Selmers built in 1947 to be some of the very best. They have this great midrage quality that adds a lot of "meat" to the single note lines and really fills out the chords, but they also project better than just about anything else.

    Hope that helps!


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