Thursday, June 20, 2013

Rhymes With Orange: Once More into the Uke ...

Classical guitar
Cedar-top, Osage Orange back and sides, by Alan Carruth, September, 2006

Okay, I know, I know, but his is too good a tale of serendipity to let pass. First some background:

I've owned guitars since I was sixteen, but didn't get to seriously trying to learn how  to play until around 2001. I had a cheap and not-very-good classical guitar, 
circa 1965,  parked next to the file cabinet, and quickly realized it wasn't going to do what I wanted, so I got a slightly better one and started saving my money. 

Along the way, I bought and sold a couple, got a good one, but, you know, I was looking for the Grail ...

In the summer of 2005, I connected with New England luthier Alan Carruth, and we chatted about a custom-made instrument. We went back and forth.  He was experimenting with the wood Osage Orange, which, he said, was a drop-in replacement for rosewood,  sounding halfway between Indian and Brazilian in tone when used in the back and sides. The main drawback, he said, was that it was a bright pumpkin color when fresh, though it would eventually darken to a rich brown. Not traditional, and a lot of classical guitarists are very much that, they want rosewood, so he wasn't getting much interest in using it.

Those of you who don't know, Brazilian Rosewood is a hardwood traditionally featured in high-end classical guitar bodies, it's rich, reddish-brown, sometimes figured, and is now endangered, on the CITES list, and you can only get it from tree stumps, old furniture and doors, or if you have a stock old enough to pre-date the listing. A top-grade set of Braz adds a thousand bucks to the cost of a classical guitar up front. And it's called rosewood because that's what it smells like when freshly cut: roses.

There are some countries around the world where, if you try to take your Braz guitar across the border, they will confiscate it if you don't have the correct paperwork showing the wood's provenance. That would ruin your whole day.

Osage Orange is a trash-tree, used for wind-breaks and fence posts and sometimes, long bows, and not the least bit endangered. Produces a fruit that look kind of like a green brain.

Back to Carruth: Alan is a master maker, flat-, arch-top, harp guitars, violins, violas, harps, dulcimers, and so on. He has a reputation as one of the leading experts in the field of  stringed instrument acoustics, when he talks about sound, people stop and listen. 

Go for it, I said. I don't mind freaking out classical guitarists who might see my axe. His prices were beyond reasonable, (and have since gone up) but I got a kinfolk deal and was thrilled. There was a waiting list, little over a year, and I got on it.

So, fast forward fourteen months, and there it was, the Carruth guitar. Beautiful, exquisite tone, way beyond my ability and never going to be what was holding me back. So, I went into the light, top of that mountain, done buying guitars, and I've kept to that.

Seven years later, it's 2013, and I found myself becoming enamored of the jumping flea, the 'ukulele
Bought some, traded 'em, got more, found two that were terrific, and that's it. Said so, right here I did. Two, my limit, no more, finito, all done!

I was mistaken. But it really wasn't my fault, because of what happened next:

It occurred to me that Mr. Carruth could probably produce one hell of a uke, if he had a mind to do so, but there weren't any shown on his site, and googling failed to come up with any. Too bad. But, just for fun, I dropped him a note and asked him if he'd ever made any ukes, or had considered it. I was picturing in my mind what an Osage Orange uke would look and sound like, and how other 'ukulele players might react to seeing one.

Hey, wow, what kind of wood is that? 

Even if he would consider it, his lead time has probably gone out further, so it would be a year and some away, but, hey, it was a nice fantasy, and fantasy is what I do ...

Got a note back: Well, coincidentally, Alan said, had just made a couple tenor ukes, one of which was in Osage Orange, and the customer who was interested had decided to buy a house and that discretionary income was gone. It was available, no waiting. Would I like to see a picture of it?

Would I?! Yes, yes, yes-yes-yes! Send the picture, send the picture, send it now!  

And it was, of course, gorgeous. A mini-version of my guitar. And I knew the quality of his work, so the only question then was, could I afford it?

And guess what? It turned out I could ...

Behold ... (Not my images, these are from Alan.)

It's got an Engelmann-spruce top, Osage Orange back and sides, and most of the dark wood is walnut, though the fingerboard is apple with a walnut stain. The white wood in the trim is Maple, and there's a bit of Bloodwood and Pink Ivory in the rosette. The tuners are open-back Waverlys. 

More pictures and a sound-check when I actually get it ...

Okay. I'm at the top of that mountain, too. Now I'm done buying ukes ...


Mike Byers said...

Nice! I've made a few items from osage orange over the years; it's an interesting wood. A cabinet maker friend showed me how to finish it with lacquer: this seems to keep it from oxidizing so it will retain the yellow color. As you said, this might not be the best color for a guitar, but it can look good for inlay, etc. A local luthier uses it for the backs and sides of his dreadnaught-style six strings with great results. He finishes the wood to a rich brown color, but color aside his guitars sound great.

Sean said...

Yeah, I was done buying instruments after my third 15 years ago. Yet somehow there are 10 more hanging on the wall...the GAS never fades :)

Dojo Rat said...