In mid-April, Froggy Bottom Guitar founder Michael Millard presented a one-day workshop with a dozen budding guitar builders at Brattleboro’s new Whetstone School of Lutherie. Michael brought five roughed out guitar necks and spent the day hand-shaping them – teaching, musing, puzzling, and chatting over the philosophy and techniques involved in shaping and finishing necks at Froggy Bottom Guitars.
Every neck that comes out of the Froggy Bottom shop is a hand cut neck accomplished to specs worked out with the player or, in the absence of a particular owner, to a set of shop specs. This allows Michael the opportunity to efficiently and personally address each specific player’s hands, playing style, desires, and playing experience as their custom instrument comes into being.
After a neck blank has been roughed to well-outside its standard or custom specs on the CNC [Computer Numerical Controlled router], Michael shapes each neck by hand. For custom ordered guitars, this is done with the hands, hopes, and needs of that particular guitar’s owner in mind.
As Michael noted during the workshop:
“This is one of the most satisfying parts of making a guitar for me, and I’d be at pains to describe why. Every time someone new walks in the door wanting a guitar, it’s one of the things I want to do: I want to make a guitar that feels just perfect. And after quantifying the body of the instrument for the player, the neck is arguably the most significant and personal part of the instrument in determining how the guitar works and feels. It is always challenging, always different. I do this for every guitar I make.”
Below is a excerpt of Michael’s comments over the course of the morning. We hope you’ll enjoy them. Good reading!
Custom Guitars, Custom Necks
For all of our different guitar models at Froggy Bottom, we have a default set of specs. And for non-commissioned guitars – in the absence of input from an individual owner/player – we build to those specs.
But, on a commissioned instrument, we can do anything to suit how someone wants their guitar neck to work and feel in their hands. If you know what you want – and we know what you want – we can accomplish that neck for you.
With custom instruments, we start with a very simple idea: this instrument is not for me.
This is not my guitar.
Before I make any sawdust, I want to have a very clear idea of what the instrument’s owner is looking for in this guitar: how they play and what they play. It is my job to find out why a neck works for someone. As a guitar builder, it is my responsibility to ask questions that are fairly probing and demanding.
If I’m making your guitar, I am going to do my best to get you to tell me everything you can possibly tell me about how a guitar neck feels and works for you: the kind of music you play, the shape and size of your hands, how you make your chords can be as unique to every individual as our hands, musical tastes, and styles of playing. Knowing the way the neck works in your hands is critical. But, I also want to be sure that we both understand why a particular neck works for you.
And once I know that, then I follow that. It’s not my position to judge. It isn’t going to be my guitar; it doesn’t have to work for me. It has to work for its owner – and our hands and desires are going to be different.
Two players may want guitar necks of exactly the same dimensions, and yet the necks will need to be shaped very differently to suit the demands of their playing and to sit comfortably in their hands.
And there’s an element of alchemy to this: if we took down and played fifty Martin D-28s – all cut and set up to the same specs – one or two of them would feel great in your hands and, relative to those, a couple of them would really resist your touch. Their dimensions would be identical, but they would feel and work very, very differently in your hands.
I can’t tell you why this is true. But I know that it is. This is where words fail us. And so, in dealing with players over forty years, I’ve learned to keep this as palpable as possible. I don’t rush to the specs.
I’ll suggest, “Play these five or six guitars, what works best for you? Why? Close your eyes, play the guitar.”