An Interview with Richard Schneider

During the recent (1978) Guild of American Luthiers Convention in Winfield, Kansas I had the pleasure of a brief interview with the renowned luthier, Maestro Richard Schneider, known for his development of the radically innovative Kasha Design soundboard guitar. He delivered several mind-blowing lectures and demonstrations on the physics-based theories behind the" guitars. The original concepts for the new system of building was developed by Dr. Michael Kasha, Director of the Institute of Molecular Biophysics at Florida State University. Working together over the last eleven years, they have brought the guitar to a new level of development not seen in the world since Torres introduced his new bracing pattern over a hundred years ago. Having apprenticed to one of Mexico’s most-famous luthiers, Maestro Juan Pimentel, Mr. Schneider now makes Kalamazoo, Michigan his home, where he is employed as a consultant to Norlin Music Inc., Gibson’s Parent company. Those who were able to attend the beautiful concert by the extremely talented artist, Jeffery Van, performing on two Schneider long model concert guitars with Kasha soundboard and bridges.

I would like to ask the question concerning the Kasha design that most guitar makers who are interested would ask. How does someone obtain information and drawings so they can try building such guitars?

There are several sources that I can think of that explain the concepts and have a soundboard drawing. The first I would recommend would be the Britannica Yearbook of Science and the Future, 1974: ADVENTURES IN THE PHYSICS OF STRING INSTRUMENTS From Model Physics to the Modern Instrument, by Michael Kasha. That article conveys the principles very clearly. For available blueprints, the best source would be the Builder’s Manual, Guitar Edition, Copyright 1972 by Michael Kasha. Unfortunately, this is no longer available, and even more unfortunate, many people who sent for them didn’t receive them due to contract commitments with a large corporation. ~ However, some were mailed out and several members of the G.A.L. do have copies.

It’s just a matter of sharing, I suppose. There is also another article available in SCIENCE NEWS, Vol. 98, 180, August 29, 1970, by Alan PerImeter which describes some of the theories and has a soundboard pictured

I was thinking of the way you describe the various areas of the, top bracing and wondered about the bridge being divided into only two separate parts. Wouldn’t a three-part bridge be more ideally suited to your needs?

At this time, we are very happy with the present bridge. I’ve had actual tests done in the early seventies at the Martin Factory that proved conclusively to me that the Ultimate Impedance Matching Bridge is functioning extremely well. We have thought of a three-section bridge, but mid-range driving would probably suffer. Another idea would be

to have six bridges – one for each string. However, it would be such a deviation from traditional bridges, I don’t think anyone (guitar artists) would accept it. It’s taken almost ten years to get this one accepted and still many major artists won’t event talk to us because of it – won’t even listen to an explanation as to why it is the way it is.

Last night at your lecture you performed a listener test. It was very surprising that in a hall full of people who spend most of their creative energies trying to make instruments that sound good, over fifty percent could not hear the difference between the two guitars.

It wasn’t surprising to me, and the purpose of that particular comparison was to show some of the tricks the ears play on us. As I said last night, the test has to be blind, because if we see the instruments being compared, we will not only favor the one towards which we have a prejudice, but will probably hear it "as better". So, we turn our backs to eliminate that phenomenon and then another problem imposes itself. The first guitar generally doesn’t have a chance unless 1) it’s much superior to the second, or 2) testing has been going on for a period of time. I had helped that second guitar, the cheap Japanese one, in two ways. One, I installed new Savaraz strings the day before, while the Papasian had old strings. And secondly, by introducing Maestro Van just before the actual test started, allowing the applause to wipe out everyone’s ears. The vote was a little more than

50 percent in favor of the Japanese. A few moments later it was virtually unanimous for the Papasian, as it should be.

Several people leveled with me later, saying they voted the opposite of what they heard because they felt I was trying to trick them.

Do you think there is a hearing improvement in individuals in the test as they listen with more and more concentration?

Yes, I think that’s true. One might call it a hearing adjustment. The ear is a very delicate device and as a famous acoustician says, if the eyes were as sensitive, we would be able to see a 50 watt lightbulb shining in L.A. from Chicago. The ability to adjust is what keeps us from going crazy when a jet goes over, or attending a Rolling Stones concert. The moment things go silent, one can hardly hear someone talk, a whisper ‘would be out of the question.

I heard a famous harpsichordist explain once, that in between pieces, he liked to pause a few minutes and talk to the audience rather softly, so as to settle their ears from the applause of the last number.

Exactly! If not, they won’t properly hear the first ten measures he plays.

Now, to get back to the listening test. It’s essential to make it blind to combat personal prejudices brought in from visual contact. How do we beat the problem of the second instrument always being favored?

That’s quite simple. Basically, by always making A,B – A,B comparisons. The second time around you’ll find that "A" doesn’t sound so bad, and that you may have to add another A,B to resolve the doubt.

Is there anything else that must be done?

Actually, Mike, this problem of listening can become a full discussion in itself. I’ll mention a few other important things we’ve learned in regards to listening tests. Make sure the test piece is short. Three to six bars. The auditory memory is very short and more than that can ruin the whole business.

Another thing is don’t try to evaluate more than one thing at a time. Do a test between instruments for just treble range, using a short treble passage and

then one for bass. Listen for quality (timbre) or balance, but only for one thing at a time. Always test only two in a given comparison. Three or more may be compared, but test 1 vs. 2, and then 2 vs. 3, and then 1 vs. 3, and so on.

I notice you haven’t said anything about volume.

I always save that for last because its what always gets our guitar in trouble, and it is one of our strongest areas. I’m not apologizing for the power of the instruments that we compared last night. They were only four months old the day before yesterday, and I would, certainly welcome another test against any of the other instruments when they have had some playing and some aging (drying) time.

There are some really interesting facts about hearing regarding volume, however. One is, the ears will not perceive one instrument as louder unless it is a full 24 percent louder than another, in a listening test, blind if you will, it will not be perceived as louder. The best way to find out is to just start walking away in a huge auditorium until it becomes apparent. As instruments A, B – A, Bare being played, the loud one will noticeably reach out farther than the weaker one.

I have never been successful in getting a major artist to try that test. It’s hard enough to get close enough for autographs! Can you imagine saying to Julian Bream, "please, Maestro, take a walk with me and check out my guitar compared to yours"?

Another problem with projecting guitars is that they do not sound loud around or behind the instrument like non-projecting guitars. So, the illusion of loudness is not present to the performer. This is generally not the case in large halls. A guitar that knocks the walls off a small hall will just fall flat on it’s face in the large hall. A player easily perceives its impotence, but a projecting instrument that didn’t seem particularly loud in the smaller area becomes a piercing, driving musical machine, giving the performer a great deal of confidence due to its power. I tried to show in the listening test that it is easily possible to perceive something as louder than something (else) which is in fact much louder. This area of testing is much better left to expensive scientific equipment made for that purpose.

Are you tired of listening about listening?

Is there more?

One last thing. The voting for A or B should be done by secret ballot. The raise of hands will prejudice some to follow others who should be "in the know." Preferably, after a particular part of the test is completed, say for example, the treble comparison, the vote ballots can be turned in and evaluated then or later by whoever is conducting the test.

Last night in your lecture you seemed to share pretty much everything you’ve learned so far. Even the inside of the last two guitars you had were projected on the screen, not to mention the design of the next one which you had available in actual sample form. It seems to me that you are very interested in letting folks know what you’re doing.

My real purpose in being here, Mike, is to stimulate young instrument makers into trying something new. But in a sensible way. Not to waste time building miscellaneous ideas in a random trial and error fashion. That’s beating one’s head against the wall–defeating their purpose. Find some rational concepts to work with. Little changes won’t even be apparent. Total conceptional thinking is required to make any real improvement.

Acoustically, I wasn’t qualified and I didn’t have time to take that kind of training. So, a collaboration with someone who was, worked out perfectly for both of us. I’ve even managed to learn some simple physics. Here in Kansas I’ve just tried to show everyone what we’ve learned in eleven years. I’ve tried to provide some tangible ideas. Stiff undivided bars running under the sound bridge do not encourage, enhance, or should I say allow the bridge to rock as well as divided bars do. Thicker plates (soundboards) vibrate at higher frequencies than thin ones, so making the treble areas thicker should improve the treble response.

Those are solid concepts. They should improve instruments. Radially placed tone bars (abanicos i.e. fan bars) may not be the only or best way to develop a bass, mid-range and treble area on the soundboard. It’s just the way the design evolved for us, as I showed last night.

Michael Kasha may not be the only physicist around who understands modes of vibration of a clamped circular plate or coupled oscillators. There may be dozens of others. Right now, he seems to be one of very few who are willing to devote time and a great deal of money to improving the guitar. I’m just here trying to encourage folks to do something different. To try and improve the instrument acoustically and aesthetically. Why should everyone’s guitars look the same because traditionally it’s done that way? It was so refreshing to see some of Max Krimmel’s instruments and some others. New ideas – a new look – Marvelous!

How many of the Kasha-style guitars have been built in your shop?

With my signed label in them? About thirty. For over ten years, about half my time has been spent on pure research. The instruments themselves have been extremely time-consuming due to constant modification and refinement. Now, at a time when the design is sort of frozen and only minute changes are taking place, it’s not quite so time-consuming. However, I can probably build four traditional guitars to just one of these, not to mention that both material cost and overhead easily quadruples.

The one thing that doesn’t quadruple is the value in the customer’s mind. Five thousand dollars is a break-even wholesale cost and everyone wants a discount. I include Leaf cases which are presently running well over two-hundred dollars–and well deserved dollars, I might add. Also, a non-contact type pick-up I developed with Dr. Eugene Watson and Mi-chael Wurn, which alone is $600.00 in labor and materials. And I include an air-fare to Kalamazoo, round trip from anywhere in the U.S., for final adjustment and delivery in that price.

What about outside the U.S.A?

Only one way.

It would be really interesting to see what other guitar makers would do with these ideas if they got ahold of them.

As I pointed out, they are easy enough to get ahold of if someone is interested enough. Dr. Kasha and I would really be delighted to see what other guitar makers could do with these ideas.

A hundred years of history really hasn’t done much to the Torres design. How has your career at Gibson been since you began working on the Kasha guitar with them?

It’s been good. They have spent a great deal of money doing research and many of the questions that Michael Kasha and I have had, both collectively and individually, have been answered. Interesting things are going on there now.

I work a certain number of days a year for Gibson, and I try to give them the best ideas I can. We don’t hold back anything from them. A lot of other ideas filter their way into Gibson production because of our input. Ideas applicable to solid bodies and banjos, mandolins, and the like.

We implemented a program of grading soundboard material way beyond their former methods. After first visual screening for blemished material, wind checks or unacceptable wide grain, we would test it for stiffness (Visco-elastic co-efficient) by doing a simple deflection test. This would put wood into four catagories–three usable and one rejected. Rejected for being absolutely too soft to use – What we call "rubber" in the industry. These get used as reinforcements underneath soundholes or any other places where thin pieces of spruce are called for.

The remaining three piles, graded as stiff, medium and soft, are then graded visually again, with only the stiff and medium, with fine grain going to the best instruments and the open and softer grains going to the bottom end of the line. This way, someone buying a "top of the line" instrument doesn’t run into someone with a J-45 with a better top. Quality sort of seeks its own level.

Ultimately, we hope to actually brace the stiffer tops with lighter bracing than we use for the softer tops, in order to optimize the acoustic resonances of our soundboards. With as many models of flat-top that we make at Gibson, that’s a costly adventure.

I’m amazed at the brightly colored purflings and bindings you use on your guitars. Do you dye them yourself?

Yes, I do. I use an alcohol-water soluble aniline dye and cook them eight to fourteen days depending on color.

What kind of wood do you use?

I used to use holly, but have changed, to poplar. The holly is so clear that when color is added and then high gloss finish put over it, it takes the appearance of plastic. Nothing really against plastic because it has several advantages over wood. However, acoustically I believe it has a dampening effect so I prefer to use wood. The clients in the classical guitar world do look down on plastic. Poplar has a grain that shows through, making a strong statement about it really being wood witbout hurting the effect of my dyed (colored) binding.

Your purflings are wild colors also. Are they done the same way and are they also poplar?

No to both questions. My purflings are usually .015″ to .032″ maple. I either cut them myself or get them from various German suppliers. I roll them up 50 to 100 sticks at a time and put them in a pressure-cooker. Some colors like yellow and green can be done in 20 minutes to an hour, and difficult colors like red can be dyed in 4 to 8 hours. In normal atmosphere. the red can take 9 days at 8 hours a day. That’s a drag because you get busy and forget to add water and you burn them up. That used to happen a lot.

Noticing your raised rosettes, I couldn’t help but wonder what led you to use such a different design?

What led to such a different design is that aesthetically I try to make each guitar quite different in design, in wood choice, color of art woods, and of course the sound hole adornment is a place that can be drastically different each time.

Like the acoustic design, the concept of the sound hole "ring" has been evolving also. At first, it was a small ring going into the guitar placed in the center of a traditional mosaic. Then the mosaic got modern. Then the ring got larger and the mosaic disappeared, with the exception of a colored purfling or two, similar to the Mark guitar, but placed over the guitar top. Then the ring went underground, so that the outside edge is flush with the top and the entire business becomes finished along with the top. Simplicity and elegance at its finest in design, but the world is just not ready for something that futuristic.

Yes, I noticed that the guitars last night had quite beautiful but very complicated rosettes.

Yes. I’ve retained the flush ring and moved the rosette inside the ring itself. The redwood guitar has a traditionally made mosaic but in a modern motif, and like a traditional mosaic, it really can’t be perceived past about ten feet. The spruce guitar has a completely different kind of rosette – what I call a crossed multiple laminate which when carved on the lathe, turns up a most incredible design which displays an interesting woven pattern up-close, and has quite a different appearance from 8′ and out. And by "out", I mean up to 30 or 40 feet if under a spotlight. It’s probably the only rosette in the world that can make those claims.

It’s probably the first Op-Art rosette in existence.

I wouldn’t say that. My Maestro Juan Pimentel, did a number of mosaic rosettes that did optical tricks and they were quite nice and tasteful also. And I’m sure others have done similar.

Mine is just a completely new technique and the consequence is that it reaches out and includes a great deal more of the audience than traditional rosettes do. It does take its toll in hours, however, to include such a design as part of the aesthetic system.

Is the raised rosette based on acoustic principles?

Oh, I don’t really know about that. There seems to be two theories. Some of the steel string folks here talk about “sound hole flutter” as a real problem and an undesirable thing. I’ve not been able to find it helpful or unhelpful acoustically. I like the way it looks and I like the ways it leads to more different artistic expressions.

How many apprentices have you had?

Seven, no eight.

What kind of relationship have you had with them?

What kind of relationship have you had with your wife? Or your parents? Or anyone you see daily or have to work with daily? I’ve had good and bad experiences with all of them. In general, I think I can say that for the most part, my experience has been good for both them and myself. I’ve had better work relationships than social relationships with some and just the opposite with a couple others. I have a very warm relationship with Jeff Elliott and his family, and if you’ve seen his work, you know I have nothing to be ashamed of. I’m very proud of not only his work, but of Jeff as a person.

Yes, I know Jeff personally and I certainly agree. He’s one of the Guild’s most prestigious luthiers. How long does it take to train someone?

I generally figure on two years. What I try to do is have two apprentices at once. After a year or so, a student becomes a senior. It’s then that I like to bring in a new apprentice so that the senior apprentice can sort of bring up the new one.

After we get him in the shop, he is taught about the tools and where they belong and how to keep the shop clean by the senior. At that point, the senior starts his first instrument.

Do you have a set number of instruments that you like your students to build?

No, that depends on them. I just don’t like to let them build an instrument too soon. What I try to teach is principles of woodworking applicable to the art of guitar making. I can baby anyone through a guitar with a reasonable quality results. I’ve done that with several apprentices and several friends. However, the friends didn’t lose their heads over their success and run off to quit their jobs. The apprentices became quite independent and ranoff to make guitars for the world without really having a grasp of the many processes and principles. In those cases, I failed as an instructor and we both lost in the process.

Now, I try to slowly work them in so that I never actually touch a single part or do a single operation on an apprentice guitar. If they can get through it by themselves in their second year, I feel that they graduate with distinction. Anything else they make is bonus. The important thing is learning to use the tools skillfully and safely and learn traditional and modern guitar making processes and more than anything, how to solve problems.

The difference between a professional and an amateur is that the professional never makes errors he can’t correct, and the amateur will: That’s problem solving.

Have the Kasha theories held up under your building experience?

I make both types of guitars, traditional and Kasha style, and I can’t get a traditional guitar to function as well as one with the Kasha soundboard. All I can say is that there are other people building the Kasha guitar and getting excellent results. You have much more control with tone color and balance and of course power. The ideas are definitely working. I don’t think the ideas have been fully developed. Michael Kasha has applied many ideas from physics. Some of the stuff is way beyond me and some can probably be found in any ninth grade physics book. I don’t know if we should call it a Kasha idea, but it is an appropriate idea applied by Dr. Kasha. He did alert us to many fine ideas to which we should be appreciative rather than angry. So now I make the treble side of my soundboard thicker, and Jim D’Aquisto said he does also, and pretty soon everyone will be doing it.

The idea is getting around and instrument makers are building better guitars now because they are applying principles of physics; and that includes Gibson, Guild and Martin.

Do you hand graduate the thickness of your tops?

Yes, I do. And I do quite a bit of tap toning and graduation sanding. I have arbitrarily set parameters which are flexible and altered to suit any given piece of wood. The novice is better off to follow some guidelines as to plate thickness and learn to make changes to adjust for different material temperments. One will learn to accomplish this without changing the relationship of the different areas of the soundboard. The treble area being most thick, the bass thinner and the perimeter much thinner.

Was the research work you did at Gibson under laboratory conditions most of the time?

Of course our environmental chamber is operated under strict “laboratory conditions”. Our acoustical testing is done in recording studios and dead chambers, and our listening tests were-conducted in big rooms, small rooms, live rooms, dead rooms, and they went on and on. Four hours at a session. It gets to the point where you get very perceptive and actually begin to recognize each guitar. ‘And then you go kind of batty and you start to hear voices; the voice of Albert Augustine coming off the nylon-screaming to be let out.

How do you think cedar might work for a steel string guitar?

I think that the cedars and redwoods are better materials for all guitars, but if you build steel strings with cedar tops, you better have a damn good bracing pattern or there will be trouble later.

Do you find people skeptical at this scientific approach to guitar building?

Yes, some people are still skeptical. I tried to point out last night that any time you try a different method or process, you are acting scientifically. I don’t know if we have proved or disproved anything. I believe we have improved the instrument–time will tell. I’ll feel much better about all of this when some of these guitars have four or five years of aged playing on them and can be compared with other instruments on a fairer basis.

Would you like to see this idea in the hands of the public?

Yes, I would like to see more people using it. The reason Michael Kasha sold the design was because this was a way to popularize the concept. It’s not working out too well because it’s a difficult instrument to make. So, at the moment I don’t know how it is going to work out.

As a professional luthier, when Michael Kasha came to you with his ideas, did they gel for you, or did you think he was in the wrong ball park?

I was smart enough to see that the principles made sense.

You said in your lecture, though, that it put a hole in your head and you did not go to sleep for three days afterwards.

Yes, it’s an old Negro blues expression: “Talk a hole in your head.” It means being very convinced. I got very, very excited about it and then when we made the first guitar, it just stunk. I just could not believe it, I was so sure that it was going to be super. We had a lot of failures, but each one taught us something.

The difference between an ideal concept in any field, until an idealized model is realized, amounts to a lot of work. That’s an important realization. Since the first guy had an idea of an instrument with a string on it, played with a bow, until the first really functional violin made the scene might have been an incredible period of time. There’s always a lag from the moment a man has an idea and a universal use of it. However, two or three people just can’t make the lead time shorter, like say a thousand working on it. Do you know how many people it took to put a man on the moon?

Didn’t you say in your lecture that you thought that the guitar is just in its childhood at the present?

Right, I feel the guitar is in its infancy compared to its potential. Now, if we develop this design for a hundred years like we did the Torres design, it may end up four times as loud. Who knows? It could become an even more beautiful thing, but we will never know unless we can interest guitar makers all over the world enough to start experimenting. I don’t think of this as a static design. I think of this as a growing evolving thing. I think it will be forty or fifty years before this idea peaks out as a design. Right now, everybody seems to want a recipe. With a recipe you have the same thing time after time and there is no improvement. No personal growth in the man. If you cook by principle, you don’t need recipes,and you experiment. That’s how great dishes are created.

Thank you, Richard, for taking time to talk with us today.

You’re quite welcome, Michael, but you forgot something.

What is that?

You forgot to ask me if I had anything I might want to add in closing.

Do you?

Yes, I do. I thought that since the book I recommended at the end of my lecture was not on the bibliography I passed out last night, it might be a good idea to mention again what it is. It was an extremely important book in my life and has sort of turned into a "manual for creativity" or maybe a "designer’s handbook for reluctant luthiers". It’s called, “The Act of Creation” by Arthur Koestler. It can be found in any library in hardback, or as a Dell, Laurel Edition in soft-back.

BIBLIOGRAPHY ON PHYSICS OF MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS M. Kasha–Florida State University.

Works on Theoretical Physics

1. AN ELEMENTARY TREATISE ON THEORETICAL MECHANICS, by Sir James H. Jeans, Dover Publications, Inc., New York (1907 orlg. ed.), 1967.

“…a clear presentation of first principles that is almost a pleasure to read"

2. VIBRATION AND SOUND, by Philip M. Norse, HcGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc., New York, 1948. A complete text of physical principles needed to understand musical instruments theoretically.

Experimental Vibration Physics

3. GHLADNI FIGURES, A Study in Symmetry, by Mary Waller, G. Bell and Sons, Ltd., London, 1961. An experimental study of normal modes of vibrations of plates of various shapes with elegant photographic summaries of vibrational eigen-function patterns.

Works on Musical Acoustics

4. THE ACOUSTICAL FOUNDATIONS OF MUSIC, by John Backus, W.W. Norton and Co., Inc., New York, 1989. A non-mathematical text by a physicist. Meticulously detailed, for the non-technically trained reader.

5. THE PHYSICS OF MUSICAL SOUNDS, by C.A. Taylor, American Elsevier Publishing Co., New York, 1966. A detailed test by a well-known crystallographer. Very complete treatment of wave-form analysis. Does not correlate theory with the descriptions of instruments.

Acoustics and Psychophysics

6. MUSIC, SOUND, AND SENSATION, A Modern Exposition, by Fritz Winckel, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1967. Excellent on nonlinear effects in mechanics, and on psycho-physical aspects of audition. . .

Instrument Design and Function

7. BOW INSTRUMENTS, Their Form and Construction, by J.W. Giltay, William Reeves, London (ca. ‘1920). The most meticulous and detailed commentary on the action of bow instruments, a penetrating analysis by a critical physicist.