Friday, February 15, 2008

Guitar of the Week: Hollenbeck Jim Nichols Signature Archtop

I recently attended a vintage guitar show and ended up spending the bulk of my time learning about the art and science of guitar building from Bill Hollenbeck of Hollenbeck Guitars.

Bill Hollenbeck specializes in archtop guitars that feature fine artistry as well as an intense focus on chamber tuning or the physics of the guitar. What caught my attention in the first place was a partially carved backplate displayed in his booth with pencil markings all over it.

I learned that he works with tolerances to thousandths of an inch and angles down to half of a degree as he carves the soundboards and neck. He continually measures the thickness of the soundboard using a micrometer and marks where further carving is needed in order to achieve the even response he is looking for, especially where the bridge and saddle attach on the top. He zeros in on this even response through use of a tuning fork. The payoff for this level of detail is exceptional sustain and evenness of sound at all points on the fretboard.

One of the guitars he is most proud of building is Ebony-n-Blue, shown at right, for Scott Chinery's Blue Guitars project, which was in homage to Jimmy D’Aquisto, considered America’s all time greatest luthier. Bill Hollenbeck is featured in the book, Blue Guitar by Ken Vose and Ebony-n-Blue was displayed at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in 1998.

Some interesting anecdotes I picked up during my visit were that violin makers do not make good guitar builders and vice versa. While violins share the archtop design, the physics are completely different and “physics is physics.” Seems violins do not have sustain where that is something you want a lot of in a guitar. Another interesting tidbit was Bill Hollenbeck describing some of Les Paul’s early experiments with multi track recording. He would record takes directly to the wax disk. Then, for the next track, he would record over the first take and get a multi track effect. Needless to say, any mistake meant starting with a new disk!

I’ve included a photo of my favorite, the Jim Nichols signature model as well as a photo of a partially carved soundboard displayed at the show. You can visit for more information on the full lineup as well as on Bill Hollenbeck.

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