48. An Educated Thumb

Carolan has spent time with renowned guitarist and luthier Steve Hicks. Steve and his collaborator Lynn Golbourn are currently busy touring folk clubs and festivals throughout the UK. Steve started out with flamenco guitar at age fourteen before studying with the legendary Duck Baker and expanding into fingerstyle jazz. Today, Steve is master of a bewildering array of styles spanning classic ragtime, swing jazz, blues, Celtic, early and modern classical. He has also given guitar playing workshops and master classes at venues including the Stamford International Guitar Festival and the Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago. It’s quite a track record!

Here, Steve plays Baloney Blues, an original composition in the Nashville thumb-picking style (though he heads into Doc Watson’s Deep River Blues in the middle). Sounds lovely – that’s a truly educated thumb.

Steve is also a professional luthier with a full order book for his handmade acoustic guitars. He is of course, in an ideal position to give us a luthier’s perspective on our project.

First off, Steve emphasizes the growing importance of provenance and of documenting the making process, noting how everyone now wants to follow the build process. This said, he also notes the difficulty of taking time out from building to make even short films:

“By all means come around and stare over my shoulder while I’m working … but to actually take time out to do that sort of thing … it can be quite disruptive in the working day”.

We also discuss how continual documentation might reveal backtracks or even mistakes in the making process, especially where unusual specifications are involved and there is a high degree of innovation. In short, while documenting the build process is clearly attractive to customers, we are going to need to think carefully about when and how luthiers can do this within part of their traditional craft practices.

Something that becomes apparent during the interview is Steve’s evident emotional attachment to the guitars that he makes, which can make it difficult to let them go:

“You get very attached to this box on the workbench that you’ve spent hours over. Myself, I have to break off my emotional attachment to an instrument otherwise I’d never sell a guitar, so I deliberately sort of two thirds of the way through detach myself a little bit then the instrument goes out to the customer and I sort of forget about it. So it’s rather nice if an instrument comes back or if I see it again down the line.”

While we’ve been considering how we can enhance players’ and owners’ attachments to their instruments, we’ve perhaps forgotten to consider the luthier’s feelings in all of this – that it might feel good to keep in touch with their instruments as they travel the world.

Of course we discuss Carolan’s decorative inlay. Steve is wary about the sonic effect of the etched and decorative inlay on the front of Carolan. He explains the theory:

“Sound waves travel along the grain of a piece of wood more efficiently than they travel across it … you don’t want to cut across the long lines of the wood grain”.

 Steve also notes, however, that other characteristics will also affect the instrument’s voice. For example of choice of maple may lead to a more jazzy and less sustaining voice – which we certainly hear with Carolan. In spite of the theory, it is difficult to predict the voice of an instrument in practice and each handmade guitar tends to find its own unique voice.

“There’s always that element of mystery or variability”

Finally, Steve comments on the relationship between his life as a performer and as a luthier, noting that:

“Whilst word of mouth is the best advertising for my guitars I get a lot of orders from the stage. I’m playing gigs, there are people in the audience that are guitar players. They see me playing my guitars and that’s it, they order a Hicks.”

What better advert could there be for Steve’s guitars than his own wonderful playing and if you were lucky enough to own one, then surely you would want it to play back some of his own recordings to you?

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2 thoughts on “48. An Educated Thumb

  1. Pingback: 48. An Educated Thumb | Adrian Hazzard

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