Metculous Notes

Baltimore guitar maker Gary Flowers studies the best in the business as he picks his way with great precision toward becoming one of them

March 20, 2000|By CARL SCHOETTLER | CARL SCHOETTLER,SUN STAFF

Gary Flowers saws, planes, sands and strokes the lovely blond spruce wood he's shaping into an archtop guitar.

His tools range from a complicated homemade pantograph router that looks as if it were inspired by Dr. Seuss to simple hand scrapers that might have been invented by Antonio Stradivarius.

In one place he uses a plane so small it could have come from a child's work bench. In another spot he buffs with sandpaper so fine you can hardly feel the grit.

He gets a bit of a tom tom sound as he thumps, taps and drums on the guitar while he works.

"You have to do [that] while you're carving," he says. "It's called tap-tuning. You have to tap-tune these tops to get a nice even vibration.

"There's a treble and a bass side because you have your low `E' on the top and the high `E,' " he says, strumming the low E. "This is the driver's side, as they say."

Some players like more bass, some more treble. He shapes the guitar to their tastes, as delicately as a jeweler polishing a gem. When he's finished, his guitars glow with an inner warmth beneath eight coats of lacquer.

Flowers is lean, moderately intense and 40 years old. He's a native Baltimorean who grew up in Govans and graduated from Northern High School. He's thinking about adding a Baltimore logo derived from the Washington Monument to the head stock of his guitars.

"I started doing this because I've been playing guitar forever, and I've been a woodworker forever," he says. "I'd been doing a lot of guitar repair, and I decided to make myself a guitar."

He works in a big old loft in a warehouse on Low Street owned by the Jeppi Nut Co. It's in Oldtown, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Baltimore, which seems an appropriate place to practice a craft as old as guitar making.

For the past 12 years he's been primarily a scene builder for television and feature films, notably Barry Levinson's "Avalon." For about two years, he worked on the "Homicide" TV series, where he built the set for the much-used morgue. He works about one week a month on commercials now, which helps pay the bills and allows him plenty of time to build his guitars.

He makes the archtop guitar jazz musicians prefer. Archtop guitars are an "American thing." Classical and flamenco guitars are flat-tops. So are folk guitars.

"These are jazz guitars," he says. "And jazz basically started here. So that's where the instruments developed.

"The top arches like a bridge," he explains. "The strings come up from the back and they come over [the tail piece], and they press down right here at the bridge. That's where the sound really gets transferred to vibrate that top."

He raps out his tom-tom tune. He's trying to get a balance between structure and tone. "You're listening with your ear and also feeling with your fingers," he says.

He's attuned to feeling air vibrate from the F-hole. That's the opening the archtop guitar makers borrowed from the mandolin. Spanish and classical guitars have round openings in the center of the top.

He flips the guitar body over. The bottom is arched somewhat more sharply than the top.

"What you want to do is get the top to vibrate nicely, then you want to get the back to act as a kind of diaphragm. You thin it out around the sides. This should move in sympathetic vibration with the top."

The archtop design of the big-bodied "old-style" orchestra guitar of the 20s and 30s was taken from the violin and cello and that whole family of instruments.

"That's for projection," Flowers says. "They were made to cut through the orchestra before pickups and electrification."

`Sophisticated'

For about 50 years, Freddie Green drove the rhythm section of the Count Basie orchestra with a big archtop Stromberg guitar. Green, the greatest of the big band rhythm guitarists, never used an amplifier.

"They have the reputation of being the loudest," Flowers says. "Well, Freddie Green kind of gave it the reputation."

He strums a 1930s beat, like the second guitar in Django Reinhardt's Quintet of the Hot Club of France.

"Those guitars were basically a rhythm instrument," he says. "Most players nowadays are not playing that big band style. So the guitar has subsequently evolved, too, a little bit more delicate touch, a little bit more sophisticated."

The modern history of the arch- top guitar begins with the Gibson L-5, which was introduced in 1923 by a concert mandolinist named Lloyd Loar, an acoustical theoretician who is routinely called "legendary." Around 1898, dear old Orville Gibson proved the archtop could play loudly. But it remained for Loar to make it into the instrument jazz musicians love.

His guitars -- and mandolins -- remain classic. Gibson still markets a somewhat updated version. A signed Loar L-5 from 1924 was on the market a while back for $43,818.

Bill Monroe, the premier bluegrass musician, played his 1920s F-5 mandolin until his death in 1996. Charlie Christian, the great jazz innovator of the '30s and '40s whose solo style still inspires guitar players, played the L-5 guitar.

Master craftsmen

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