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Classical guitarist and luthier pens book about the journey of creating a new instrument

July 7, 2013


July 07--The image of the classical guitar was on a computer screen, but it still touched Maureen Newman's heart.

There really was no way to explain the connection she felt with the instrument, but she was certain it was the guitar for her. Now that it belongs to her, she is convinced of it.

"My mother passed away two years ago and left me a little money," Newman said recently from her home in New York. "I wanted to get a beautiful classical guitar with it, and I thought that one day I would find it, or it would find me.

"I came across it on a website, and the way it looked and how it was described sounded exactly like what I was looking for. I took a chance, and it worked out great. It's absolutely beautiful, sounds great and is easy for me to play.

"I can't help but believe my mother intervened in this whole process, because this is the guitar for me."

The guitar was built by local luthier David Lewis Edwards. Of the 25 guitars he has made, he felt that this one represented his best effort.

"I had said I wouldn't sell it," Edwards said of the guitar. "Then Maureen called me and said she had fallen in love with it after seeing it on my website and wanted to buy it.

"I told her I'd be glad to build her one, but she wanted this particular guitar. It's a very sweet instrument, and it's probably the one I liked the most.

"But I decided to sell it to her. After she got it, she asked me if it would be OK if she named it Ellie, after her mother."

Ellie is now one of Newman's most cherished possessions. It's distinctive, of course, for the love she feels toward it, but it also stands out because of its style.

Although Edwards has built everything from a harpsichord to a Les Paul-style electric guitar, his specialty is making a style of classical guitar popular in the 19th century.

These early guitars were smaller than the classical guitars of the modern era. But Edwards believes the style he creates is unsurpassed in the ability to create the music composers of that period wrote especially for them.

"Renaissance, Baroque and classical-era music played on these instruments is beautiful," Edwards said as he held one of his handmade classical guitars. "When you play the music of early 19th-century composers on the larger modern-style classical guitar, it doesn't work right.

"On this instrument, you can tell it is the instrument they wrote it for. It's light, joyful music, with a much lighter tone.

"My guitars are in the style of Rene Lacote, a Frenchman who made instruments during the first half of the 19th century. His style of guitar became very popular and actually started a guitar craze in Paris. I've made a couple different styles of the older guitars, but I think Lacote's is the best. It has a pleasing shape, is a comfortable size and has a very nice sound."

Edwards recently wrote a book, "Luthierie: The Art of Building Classical Guitars." Rather than getting bogged down in a swamp of technical jargon, the author instead takes the reader through the process in general terms, with an emphasis on the joy he derives while creating one.

"I had been describing to some of my friends the process I use to build the guitars," said Edwards, founder and president of Re:discovery Software Inc. in Albemarle County. "And I had written poems about it.

"I had learned a lot since building my first guitar in 1972. So there were a lot of things I felt I wanted to write down to tell people about what the process was like.

"What I wanted to do was not write a book that would be how you build a guitar, but something for musicians that would tell them about what is behind their instrument and what goes into it. I wanted to convey the thoughts and feelings that happen during the process."

Edwards was playing mostly rock music on his steel-string Martin guitar in the early 1970s when, by chance, he discovered classical music. Wishing to improve his finger-picking technique, he started taking lessons from a teacher who played classical guitar.

"I could read music, so my teacher started giving me classical music to play," Edwards said. "I started to really enjoy this style of music, which I hadn't been familiar with.

"At one point, he told me that if I liked playing classical music, I'd have to get a classical guitar. I was attending the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor at the time and had a workshop that was available to me.

"I thought I would build the guitar instead of buying one. So I bought a book that walks you through building a classical guitar and got started. My daughter has that guitar."

Recognizable versions of the guitar have been around for centuries. But according to Edwards, the first guitars with six strings made their appearance around 1785.

"What six strings did was expand the range of the music you can play on it," said Edwards, president of the Charlottesville Classical Guitar Society. "All of a sudden, it became a much more interesting instrument for composers, and that's when we see the guitar really take off.

"There were several key guitar makers in Europe, and one of them was Johann Georg Staufer. Out of his shop in Vienna, Austria, came C.F. Martin, who came to the United States in the late 1830s.

"Martin was making guitars in the style of Staufer, but in about 1850 we start seeing larger instruments coming out, because that gives them more resonance. Because of that, these smaller instruments were left behind, and I think it's a shame, because they have their place."

It takes Edwards between 100 and 120 hours to make a guitar. The price tag is $5,000, and owners like Newman think that's a bargain.

"For a small guitar, it really has a big sound, and I'm able to get more of a dynamic range in my playing because of that," Newman said. "I've always thought I would be able to play a smaller guitar with more clarity, and this guitar has proven that to be correct.

"This will sound quirky, and I don't mean it like that. But if my mom was a guitar, she would look just like this one. Blonde, petite and curvy."

Manufacturers can mass produce beautiful, well-made classical guitars. Nonetheless, Edwards believe those made by hand offer qualities most guitars made in factories can't match.

"The problem you have with the manufacturing process is that you're doing the same thing on different woods," Edwards explained. "Every now and then, they'll get the right thickness for that piece of wood, but every piece of wood is different, and it responds differently.

"In the handmade process, you can tune the wood to match that piece of wood and get the tone you're after. They can't do that in the manufacturing process.

"They can make a great neck with a machine, and there are certain technical things they can do much better than a hand process can. But there are certain things that just have to be done by hand and need a lot of attention."

Edwards builds guitars as a hobby in his spare time, so he's currently producing about three a year. He loves playing as well, and he and other classical guitarists can be heard from 5 to 7 p.m. every third Sunday at C'ville Coffee.

"I think the most interesting thing about classical guitars in the style I build is the range of expression a player can get out of them," Edwards said. "You can play the middle of the strings around the sound hole and get a very sweet tone.

"Or you can play right near the bridge and get a sharp tone. You can have a melody brought out against chords, or you can just play chords to accompany your voice.

"Bach is my favorite composer, and sometimes when I finish one of his pieces, I just have to sit there, because the music is so moving and beautiful. In everything I do I try to honor God, and when I play music or build a guitar, I feel his pleasure."

Edwards' new book, "Luthierie: The Art of Building Classical Guitars," is available on Amazon and Kindle. To learn more about his work, go to his website,


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