Ryan Scott recently returned to hometown Louisville and set up his custom guitar shop at Mellwood Art Center. He repairs and custom crafts acoustic and electric guitars.
My son found a studio at the Mellwood Art Center that he dragged me to check out, saying it was super cool; he was right. In a world of computers, machines and robots, it's easy to forget some things still are finely hand crafted. Ryan Scott is a custom guitar maker, making instruments with a fine artistic process (one that does make use of computers from time to time). His cozy workshop certainly held enough curiosity to pull us in. His friendly personality and passion made the art even more fascinating. He told me about his background, the process that goes into each guitar, and the woods he uses.
How did you get into designing, making and repairing guitars? Did you apprentice? intern? Schooling?
Being a long-time bassist, I've always had a fascination with high-end exotic basses I could never afford. I can remember in high school drawing different bass body shapes in my notebooks all the time thinking, what would be involved in making my dream bass? Having little woodworking experience, I had no idea where to begin building an instrument of that complexity.
A few years after high school I ran into Aviv Niamani, an old musician friend I hadn’t seen in years, who turned me to the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix, Az.
After a lot of contemplation and research on the school, I became very inspired to make the move to Arizona in early 2005, with the notion that if I could build and repair instruments for a living I felt would never have to retire.
I attended the luthiery school in early 2005 getting an intense crash course on woodworking and string instrument construction. I had my intentions of building basses from the start but fell in love with acoustic guitar building along the way. As a builder, you have so much control of what the acoustic can sound like from choosing different woods, brace patterns and body styles. It’s a more intimate construction process.
Immediately after getting my certificate of luthiery in 2006, I stayed in Phoenix to apprentice under luthier Joe Corral, learning the ins and outs of classical instrument repair. He was heavy on traditional old world methods of string instrument repair emphasizing the proper use of hide glue, chisel and knife work and finish techniques using spirit varnish. I worked primarily on violins, cellos and upright basses in his shop while at the same time acquiring the necessary equipment to start my personal guitar repair and construction setup.
In the following year I began apprenticing under guitar builder and tool maker Al Inteso of AI Guitars in Mesa, Az. In his shop, I learned the 21st century techniques of guitar building with the aid of CNC [computer numerical control] machines and lasers. From there I became comfortable with creating my custom body shapes and templates with computer/laser precision. This allowed me much more freedom to experiment with different body styles and shapes, eventually finding a balance between form and function of my own designs.
You said you recently moved back to Louisville. When was that?
I decided it was time to come back and set up shop in home town Louisville in November 2011.
How long have you been doing this?
Professionally since January 2006.
What sparked your interest?
I've been seeking the golden tone since I can remember. I began modifying my own instruments with swapping my own pickups and hardware to constantly improve the tone and functionality. At the same time always considering what could make it a better mousetrap.
Do you play instruments? Which ones?
Bass guitar, acoustic guitar and the occasional baritone sax.
What do you make your molds out of?
Medium density fiberboard—usually referred to as MDF. [It's] found at any Lowes or Home Depot
What do you make the guitars out of?
Starting with acoustic guitars: Tops are typically made from spruce or cedar for their high strength to weight ratio, meaning they can be very thin to produce a good resonant sound while being strong enough to handle the tension of the strings. Back and side woods vary depending on what tone I'm looking for. Harder woods like maple or ebony provide a more tight crisp tone, sometimes louder, whereas most rosewoods lend a very warm and bass rich tone. So…back and sides can be Indian rosewood, Cocobolo rosewood, Brazilian rosewood, Hawaian koa, flamed maple, mahogany or Macassar ebony to name a few.
Electric guitars: mahogany, swamp ash, soft maple, alder for the bodies. For top woods I like to use anything with an exotic striking appearance like Flamed Walnut or Quilted Maple. Diseased woods like Spalted Maple or Burled Woods have a very unusual but beautiful appearance.
I make my acoustic necks out of quartersawn (much stronger) mahogany, and electrics from quartersawn maple.
Can you tell me a little about the step-by-step process that goes into creating a guitar?
I first acquire rough cut properly dried spruce for the top and some rosewood in this case for the back and sides of the guitar body. I run everything through my thickness sander until they reach the desired thickness to allow the sides to bend easier and the top and back to produce optimal tone.
I soak the sides with water wrap them in foil and put them in my bending machine with a high heat blanket. This creates a steaming effect while bending them to the exact shape of the guitar. Once dried the sides are put into an acoustic-shaped mold to retain their shape.
The spruce top and rosewood back receive specially shaped braces made of spruce to add support and deliver sound to the appropriate areas of the instrument. I use a standard x-brace pattern for the top typically seen on most acoustics which gives great support without adding much weight. Once braced I can glue the top and back to the previously bent sides. The guitar body now takes its final shape and can be sanded to prepare for a protective lacquer finish.
The neck begins as a large block of quartersawn mahogany that will be hand carved to a custom shape usually specified by the customer. A fingerboard made of ebony is slotted to later accept frets and is tapered to the appropriate shape. Before gluing the fingerboard to the neck block I install an adjustable support rod called the truss rod. This gives added support to the neck to handle roughly 105 pounds of string tension at the same time allowing for slight adjustments needed to make the guitar play its best. With the truss rod installed and fingerboard glued on, I carve away on the Mahogany block for hours until I'm satisfied with the shape and feel of the neck.
The neck and body receive light coats of a specialized instrument lacquer for protection and that glass like appearance. Once the finish has cured for a few weeks, it's sanded and buffed to a high gloss. The neck is fitted with string tuners and glued to the body and a string bridge is glued to the top of the body. Just add strings and… a guitar is born.
Were there any specific people who were big inspirations for you?
Instrument makers: Ken Smith basses, Fodera Basses, Carl Thompson basses, Ivin Simogi guitars, Olson guitars.
Musicians: Stanley Clarke, Vic Wooten, Bela Fleck, and my overly supportive family and friends that never once told me I should just get a real job.
What is your booth number at Mellwood art center, how should people contact you? Do you have a website?
What should people know about you and your work?
I am OCD by nature leaving me in the constant pursuit of perfection. I always make sure that is reflected in all my work. I feel that I have the of advantage being an experienced guitar repairman having seen so many custom and commercial instruments through the shop to analyze. I study the design elements that have worked (or failed) for decades for many builders and try to improve on them where I can. An example would be the recent addition of installing lightweight graphite reinforcement rods in all the necks I make. This small improvement stabilizes the neck creating lifelong reliable instrument with a fraction of the issues typically seen in commercial string instruments.
Illustration: Sara Lewis; Photos: Courtesy Scott Guitar Works