Interview with Australian Guitar Maker Lance Litchfield

You may remember a couple of weeks ago I did a wee review of a two of very fine instruments by the Australian guitar maker Lance Litchfield. If not, click this link and check it out.

Well, Lance was kind enough to agree to an interview to go along with the review of his marvellous C400 and C900 cedar top models. Yay! So without further ado, on with the show!

Why guitar and not any other instrument? In fact, do you build any other instruments?

How long have you been making guitars for and how did you get into it?

Could I answer these two at the same time? (CGnS: OK then….just this once….)

I fell into it really…I fell in love with the music and instrument early on – my father introduced me to the classical guitar through his own interest in it.  There was something about the classical guitar that spoke to me and captured my imagination.  More so even than related instruments like steel string guitars or bowed instruments, wonderful as those are.   I didn’t start building till I was around 20, near the end of my uni studies (anything to get away from studying!)

My very first guitar was put together in the traditional Spanish method using a book from the State Library.  It involved the making of all the specialized tools.  I remember burning my hands on the gas heated steam bender, and book-matching a plank of timber with a homemade bow saw because that was all I had.  Things are a bit easier in that respect today.

Once I had made that guitar I was totally hooked – I was fortunate that my guitars were well received from the start, and I haven’t stopped building guitars since then.  I am 43 this year, and till now I have only made classical and flamenco guitars, being a specialist in nylon string guitars.

Only lately have I made the leap to 10 string guitars and Alto11’s (still nylon), with the assistance of Peter Mony from Laudarra guitars who has commissioned these guitars and partnered me in this direction.  Making these instruments has been a lot of fun and has revealed new dimensions to me in terms of what voices can be cultivated in a guitar.

Who did you learn your craft from?

Once I knew I wanted to make guitars I sought to learn as much as possible. Back then, there weren’t any structured courses in classical guitar making in Australia.  I may well have taken that route if there were, but what was available were a number of professional and amateur builders, books, teachers and players and lots of good will.  I made use of all of it!  I have to admit too, that I had too many of my own ideas and goals to want it any other way.  I really enjoyed the feeling of original discovery, in materials and design.  My process has been a combination of creation, observation, and building on what worked over many years, guided by my intuition and skills and those around me.   In this way I have developed a guitar that is Australian in concept but unlike other guitars made here.  I was lucky enough to spend a bit of time in Chris Kinman’s workshop as well, where I learnt a lot about finishing, and also met some friends.

I feel I learn the most from players I talk to.  It’s this constant communication that educates me, trains my ear, and exposes me to new ideas and developments in guitar making.  It’s my job to identify and take what I value from it all, and make it work.

What is your philosophy or vision in making your guitars?

In the beginning I was led mainly by my instincts – I just had a feel for what should work both musically and technically.  Much of that was grounded in having spent time listening to early recordings by masters playing Spanish style guitars.   For those who say “what do you mean, the classical guitar IS the Spanish guitar” I should explain that I make a distinction between what I call a traditional guitar and a modern guitar.   The traditional guitar is the Spanish style in construction and sound.  A modern guitar is an attempt to improve on some of the shortcomings of this design.  I believe in both of these approaches and I also believe both approaches can benefit from each other.

Much of my love for guitar is derived from the Spanish sound and to this day I find these older recordings a source of inspiration.  What is the Spanish sound then?   To my ear…in my opinion…it is a separated sound, clear but also warm.  It can be thin in comparison to a modern guitar, and there is a woody tone, as opposed to a pianistic one.   Importantly, there is modulation in the note where throughout the sustain, the note does not remain flat and uninteresting like an electronic signal, but warbles and shifts to create texture and colour.  I think it is this characteristic which separates the classical guitar from other types of guitars.  The modern guitar can often succeed in increasing the volume and sustain and evenness of the traditional guitar, and can sometimes provide a sound with more body that carries well tonally and audibly.  The risk is to lessen the desirable traits of the traditional guitar in this endeavour.   My aim is to provide a nice balance between old and new….a traditional tone with an easy and sensitive response, volume, and evenness….a modern guitar that is sweet and modulating rather than dry and flat, and with a solid mid-range…and both with colours and dynamics at the player’s disposal.

Who or what are your inspirations? What is that inspires you?

The last question is tied up in here as well, but inspiration can take a lot of different forms for me.  From within the classical guitar field there are the masters like Bream, Segovia, and many others, but I really enjoy seeing new works and players too. Nowadays that can even come through social media. I was slow to discover social media but I think it has become an important tool for sharing music of all kinds.  I prefer seeing and hearing live performances when possible but the social media allows me to see what clients and other guitarists from all over the world are doing and achieving.  I have a friend in Sweden for instance, who is constantly doing new things in performance and teaching, and there are little niches all over the world that I can glimpse into these days, all from my home in the wilds of Upper Brookfield.  I think I appreciate what makes people and performances different and new as well as the music itself.

I will often be inspired by other instruments (not only guitars) I hear as well, whether it be a specific quality I hear, or just an indescribable impression or feeling I get.  Often this is tied up in the way the instrument is played or the music that is performed.   I also find myself curious about things that surprise me like a child’s xylophone or music box.  Some things I find mesmerizing like the ringing out of a large bell.

Outside of the field, I am a believer in enjoying other passions or pursuits as much as family life allows! When I started making guitars I was a young single guy, with plenty of time and little money.  Now I have little time …  That in itself is a motivator.   Somehow my outside interests always seem to come back and benefit guitar making in unusual ways…even my interest in cycling, with my first purchase of a handmade custom frame helped me to see how my clients might experience the process with me.   It’s a big deal to my clients to place an order, and I consider it an honor to receive it.

Which other guitar makers do you admire and why?

When I started building, the two main luthiers in Australia were Greg Smallman and Simon Marty.  They were the two main influences on me for some time, but I developed my own sense of aesthetics as time went on and I formed the view that I haven’t seen the perfect guitar yet…there is always some facet one guitar has that another will do better – it depends on the balance the client wants in the end.   I suppose that is why I make the different models.  There are many makers (especially in Australia) that I admire, but I have a strong sense that I want to be me, and not them, if you know what I mean.

Australia seems to punch well above its weight in guitar making talent. Why do you think that is?

I really don’t know, but these things usually happen for lots of reasons that come together.  Some of it would be the love of the “man shed” and the “give it a go” attitude.  It’s also great fun building in the Australian style.  It’s an adventure to use new materials in new ways to create something different.  It’s also a rarity in this day and age to be a craftsman.  People respond to the nature of a handmade instrument, and value the intensity of effort and heart that goes into making one.  There is also on the whole a kind of openness in Australia with communication and sharing, which serves to encourage and foster interest in building.  This and the quality of the guitars, and stiff competition for limited resources (guitarists!) has helped nurture a small but high-level industry.

What’s coming up on the horizon for Litchfield guitars?

More refinement, more discoveries.  More travel now that my kids are getting out of the very young phase. I want to open up new markets for my guitars and pursue the multi-string path.  I never seem to be short of ideas to tweak and update the existing designs, which are fascinating for me to watch the development of.  The first stringing of new guitars is always exciting for me.

As well as making some simply fantastic guitars, Lance also makes one of the most comfortable and most aesthetically pleasing guitar rests I’ve had the pleasure to use. Check out this article from back in February last year to take a look.

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