I’m so very pleased to present this article today. Allan is a well-respected member of the Australian guitar making community and was the maker of my very first high quality, truly hand-crafted instrument. He’s been so very helpful in answering my questions about the guitar over the last few years.
Allan kindly agreed to take some time out of the workshop to provide us some insight into his style and approaches to making his marvellous instruments.
1) Why guitar and not any other instrument? In fact, do you build any other instruments?
I guess the simple answer is that the guitar is built mainly from wood. It’s a wonderful intersection between two of my great loves – music and working with wood. I build requintos and the occasional steel-string guitar but haven’t bothered with any of the guitar’s relations whether plucked or bowed. Maybe a cello one day……..
2) How long have you been making guitars for and how did you get into it?
I built my first “serious” guitar over forty years ago but didn’t start building commercially until about ten years ago. I built a couple of guitar-like instruments in my early teens but my interest really took off when I bought a Japanese Xenon nylon string guitar at about fifteen years of age. This was soon followed by a Hagstrom classical and a Maton 12-string and I built my first guitar a couple of years later.
3) Who did you learn your craft from?
Like so many other luthiers my first detailed instruction was from Irving Sloane’s “Classical Guitar Construction”. This is a wonderful book and was a great starting point for me. My other early inspiration was from Frank Williams who was a guitar shop proprietor in Brisbane in the 1960’s. Frank repaired guitars but I don’t think that he ever built a guitar from scratch. Nonetheless he encouraged me and others to give it a go.
I have since learned something from every luthier to whom I’ve spoken and from each guitar I’ve played. Every one teaches you something, even if sometimes it’s what not to do.
4) What is your philosophy or vision in making your guitars?
My philosophy is fairly simple. I try to build the most playable guitar that I can with as much tonal response and consistency across the range as I can engineer and with the fewest vices that I can achieve. All guitars have vices/weaknesses. It’s essentially a flawed instrument. If the classical guitar wasn’t so charming players wouldn’t tolerate its shortcomings.
The sound is all-important but I believe that the guitar needs to be structurally sound and durable and aesthetically pleasing as an object. I like to use Australian woods wherever possible, but never for the soundboard.
5) Who or what are your inspirations? What is that inspires you?
My ongoing inspiration comes from the players. Otherwise I might just as well make timber craft or designer furniture. If there weren’t players willing to support Australian luthiery, buy our guitars and make them sound good, I wouldn’t bother.
6) Which other guitar makers do you admire? Why?
I admire any luthier who develops a design, makes it work and builds guitars with integrity that stand on their own merits. There are quite a number of Australian luthiers who seem to me to achieve this. Most luthiers have their own sound signature and a particular guitar cannot appeal to every player.
If I were to single out one Australian luthier it would be Simon Marty. To my ear his spruce guitars have a great balance across the range and a wonderful array of (in tune) partials. There’s all the attack you could want with great sonority and sustain. In the hands of the right player they sing in the trebles and growl in the bass and the mid range does exactly what’s asked of it. Karin Schaupp and Anthony Garcia provide all the evidence of this that you could want.
I also admire the work of Jean-Noel Rohe, a French luthier, though I must admit that I have not heard his guitars “in the flesh”.
7) Australia seems to punch well above its weight in guitar making talent. Why do you think that is?
Australia tends to punch above its perceived weight in many areas so I don’t think that this is necessarily peculiar to luthiery. I am sure that the fact that Smallman is an Australian helps the rest of the world to take notice of Australian guitars. However, this would not be nearly as persuasive if Australian guitarists and teachers didn’t so wholeheartedly support Australian luthiers. I don’t know of one Australian classical guitarist of any note who does not own and play at least one Australian concert guitar. By-and-large, advanced players seem very willing to think of Australian hand-made guitars when they are ready to make the move to a concert guitar. Obviously they wouldn’t do this if there weren’t very good Australian guitars on offer, but the importance of their support shouldn’t be underestimated.
I think it helps that we are prepared to experiment and do not feel so constrained by the dictates of tradition as our European counterparts. And luthiers seem to be well over-represented in the Australian population. I have not done the detailed numbers but would be surprised if we didn’t have two or three times the number of professional luthiers per capita of many European countries with a much longer tradition in the instrument. There’s nothing like a bit of competition to improve performance.
8) What’s coming up on the horizon for Allan Bull guitars?
A lot more years of building and selling guitars, I hope, with incremental improvement. I’m disappointed if each guitar is not better than the last in some way. I will continue to experiment with new design elements. I’m currently working on an asymmetrical grid soundboard bracing design with a view to improving evenness of response across the guitar’s range. I plan to do a much-needed update of my website next year with new sound clips, photography and information. This was supposed to happen this year but I managed to find other, more interesting things to do such as building.