Nothing Like Old Wood. An Expert Responds

Before you read this post, please read the post entitled “Nothing Like Old Wood. Or Not.” This post was an email sent to me by luthier Ken McKay who built the guitar I’m writing about in the previous post. He fills in a lot of the blanks for me and explains his (and Gibson’s) methodology. Here it is in its entirety.

I enjoyed reading that and generally speaking I wholeheartedly agree.

In 1959 Kalamazoo factory was filled with newly ordered racks pattern grade mahogany, it was just dried the normal way.  They used drying kilns in those days. These billets of mahogany were pattern grade meaning they used the wood to make patterns for automobile parts. They had to be stable. So that is the neck. Just pattern grade mahogany. Still available if I look hard.

Let me get into the other parts a little bit. But first I have to tell you that the ES xx5 guitar design is evolutionary. Once they got it right with the center block they pretty much kept it that way. That is until circumstances made it different and it became an entirely different guitar.  Current 3xx guitars only replicate the essence of the original models. It’s too bad some players get confused and think they’re getting something that they are not. They are simply not the same. If a player wants that sound and feel that comes with a vintage guitar. Then only a vintage or McKay will get you there. If A player goes into a store and plays a new 335, and likes it, that’s a different story. There’s no confusion there and they’re getting what they want. I would encourage players to play a few vintage models though to see what’s really possible.

In my Benchmade guitars I use different quality contour brace material. I also have the veneer sliced to different dimensions using different materials than the current factory does. I use different glue. And like you,  I like to use Brazilian Rosewood for fingerboards.

It’s an engineered guitar. It’s ply construction. Not just the top and back plates but the entire body. If you take a cross-section of the guitar body cut in half there will be 11 layers from top to back. Four veneers for the plates, spruce followed by Maple followed by Spruce again and then four more layers of maple veneer. These are all glued up in different succession to make up a composite. This was the best they could do at that time. The materials at the time were simply wood and glue. Metal was too heavy and Carbon plastics and things did not exist. And some things  were happy circumstances, for example the glue they used dried hard and crisp. This of course could’ve been engineered into the plan but I think it was just circumstance. Because it helps retain the crisp high-end.

Another huge factor is the part of the guitar that is not there, the air. The pickups hear all the parts including the resonance of the air. Air is a cushion. It gives the guitar the acoustic attack and is mixed with the sustain of the center block maple. The amazing thing is they got the proportion correct pretty much from the start. Personally I think it’s a practical thing if they were to have made it thicker it would be too heavy. In the body, the size does seem to be perfect. So this is part of the engineered guitar… the double air chambers.

The center block is soft maple. It’s not too heavy. It’s not too anything for that matter,  it’s just correct. I have used different material and it did result in different sounds. So this, of course, can be part of the process. Generally speaking, though lightweight, soft maple works out best. If you wanted for example little more crisp high-end and spankiness then perhaps hard maple might work out for you.

The Spruce contour brace material is also important because it helps sound waves travel rapidly. I use very straight grain material and the speed of sound is rapid through this material. With this you get a quick attack. I think this would drive up the price of a factory guitar if they used only high-quality material like I do.

And then there’s the other things that add up. Long studs, proper metal for saddle, bridge,  proper nut material. The headstock angle and the neck angle also make a difference of course.

Here’s a picture of my innards.  Contour brace stock and maple centerblock stock. I weigh each for  comparison.




Ken’s logo on one of his wonderful guitars.

8 Responses to “Nothing Like Old Wood. An Expert Responds”

  1. rob says:

    Wonderful description indeed. Thanks, guys.

  2. RAB says:

    Very interesting…always great to hear directly from a master craftsman!

  3. Steve Newman says:

    Very well written and informative, Mr. McKay! Just through your descriptions and pictures, I can tell you that I am a fan of your work. The commitment to researching and replicating the original construction details and the quality of your craftsmanship are very impressive!

  4. Ken McKay says:

    Thanks so much! I am committed. And I guess if I was asked, one of my best proven attributes is perseverance. In the beginning I had trash cans full of failures.
    I’m going to have some serious talks with Charlie this weekend.

  5. James says:

    Very awesome! There is no substitute for someone who cares deeply about their craft and quality of work. I would rather have one of McKay’s guitars than anything Gibson is cranking out today.

  6. 58 Unbound says:

    Love your site Charlie, thanks
    Excellent review ~ Skill !!


  7. cgelber says:

    Thanks, Chris. I still want your guitar. Let me know when its time to let it go.

  8. Don Butler says:

    This is a really great overview of how they’re made then and how the McKay’s are made now.

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