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Meet Wilson Burnham, Luthier of the Prize Guitar

Updated: Jun 3, 2021

Marisa: How will the prize guitar you made facilitate the career of a young guitarist?

Wilson: Every guitarist needs a really good guitar because that's how you can grow as a musician. My guitars inspire people to want to play and to continue to play. For example, a young guitarist who is studying at the University of Colorado Boulder bought a guitar from me. A month later, he wrote to me and said he had no idea that a guitar could be capable of such nuances and subtlety. I saw him two months later and said, “You’re so good now!” He replied that it was because of my guitar. That's one of the reasons why I am donating a guitar to the Twisted Spruce Symposium and competition for a second year. Everybody needs a good guitar to continue to grow.

M: Absolutely! I agree that having the right kind of instrument will help to launch your career.

W: You have to continue to grow and to move. You can’t just be a guitarist — you need to become a musician.

M: What makes the guitar you’re building this year unique? Also, in general what makes your guitars unique?

W: The way that you can modulate sound with them. As a guitarist, you are the one who is actually creating the sound, so guitars need a depth of beauty in the sound, this extreme power that you can work with. After having played other guitars (such as) double tops, I noticed that my guitars always play beautifully.

My inspiration (for this comes from) when I was younger. (I had) an older cousin who could play any form of music on the guitar. He picked up a Hernandez y Aguado (guitar) when he was in Madrid back in the 60s, and he played flamenco for me one day (when) I was about 10 years old. I was hooked! The sound of that old Spanish guitar still haunts me. Now that’s what I strive for, the sound rolling out of the guitar with projection, depth and beauty. When I had a masterclass with Chris Parkening when I was 18, he repeated (advice from) his dad to me: 'Make it beautiful. Make it beautiful. Make it beautiful. If it’s not beautiful, it’s not music.'

M: I couldn’t agree more! All the subtleties that you’re describing in an instrument really make a difference in how the sound is portrayed. It’s not only about power and strength but also beauty. (Specifically) what makes this guitar that you’re building for the Symposium different from your others?

W: I don’t know if it’s (different) from the others because I’m still shooting for the same standards. I am using really old wood that I have for top, western red cedar that is over 30 years old. It was split by hand in British Columbia. The back and sides are East Indian rosewood that I purchased from Lin Weissenrieder. His son, the late John Weissenrieder, was a guitar maker in Italy. The wood was milled in Milan, Italy, which was really cool. I’m pouring a lot of passion and love into it because I want to make this a truly outstanding guitar.

M: We’re all looking forward to this prize!

W: I remember I got a call from Colin McAllister when he found out I was donating a guitar (last year). He told me that he wished he could become one of the competitors to have a chance of winning that guitar. Of course I replied that he could just buy one from me!

M: What other woods have you chosen to use, and what decorative elements are you incorporating?

W: The neck is Honduran mahogany. It will have an ebony fretboard, and the bridge is also East Indian rosewood. The bindings will either be rosewood or ebony for contrast. I started using a different technique to bind the guitars, one that was popularized by Arthur Overholtzer, a guitar maker (located) south of where I grew up. You take three different pieces of binding. When you put it in, you have a binding that’s almost a quarter of an inch wide. You can round over it, so it's a lot easier on your arm to play. You don’t need to have an armrest put on the guitar.

Most of the decorations are going to be pretty simple like many Spanish makers. As Henry James said, 'In art, economy is always beauty,' the simpler the better. Most of the decorations you can put on the guitar are around the bindings and rosettes. I usually don’t make my rosettes. I purchase them from a gentleman in Russia, who makes these astounding copies of historical rosettes. That will be very similar to the one that will be on the top of this guitar.

M: What made you decide to choose these woods and decorative elements for this instrument?

W: I wanted to make a really high quality guitar. Cedar guitars always surround a player immediately, (allowing for) immediate feedback. This top is wonderfully stiff and has a great tap tone. When you have a spruce top guitar, I think you have to be willing to work with it all the time. The spruce top will tell you if you’re having a bad day or if you haven’t practiced well; however, the cedar top is a lot more forgiving. I have noticed that many guitarists prefer a cedar top over a spruce top. But that being said, that can also be a generalization, which depends on the guitar and the maker. The rosewood is also a great way to honor John Weissenrieder and to pass along some of the great wood that he purchased.

M: There’s a lot about guitar making that many guitarists are not very familiar with, so it’s really great to hear some of the specifics about spruce versus cedar and even the (other) woods too. Can you tell me a little more about the sound that the wood you chose, the rosewood, will produce?

W: Rosewood will sparkle a lot more. In some ways, it almost makes the music more crystalline, giving it wonderful projection. As a player, you will be able to hear a lot more subtleties in your music from rosewood back and sides. The audience may not hear it, but the player will, which (enables them) push the guitar. That’s something I've noticed about my guitars. (Given) that they’re modern traditional instead of contemporary, my guitars tend to scare some of the players who aren't as strong. (Contemporary) guitars are easy to play because the response that you get is immediate. But when you realize that you have to push yourself, that you can’t rely on the guitar being louder, you actually have to get in and do the work.

If you have a guitar with maple back and sides, it will be a little mellower. You won’t be able to hear all the little sparkles yourself as a player, but you can still make an awesome guitar out of it. I made one guitar out of mahogany, and I burned it because I didn’t like it. I don’t like mahogany. If you pick a guitar, you have to listen to how it sounds and how you react to it. The top is what is the most important. You will either like a spruce top or a cedar top. I also happen to have a knack for making good guitars with redwood tops.

M: I’ve never heard of a guitar with a redwood top. That's interesting!

W: Back in the 60s and 70s, they were a lot more prevalent. Jose Oribe, one of the first makers to use redwood tops, said that over 15% of his orders were redwood tops. Some people don’t like the sound of redwood; however, for me, it (sounds) like combining spruce and cedar. You get a little more clarity than you can get from cedar. It’s a great (type of) wood!

M: What’s your favorite kind of wood to use for the back and sides?

W: I probably would say ziricote due to the sound it produces. It’s a very expensive wood. It’s kind of hard to work with at times because it has a tendency to split a lot more than East Indian rosewood. I like East Indian rosewood because it works and bends well, just like myrtle. I really don’t have a favorite. I tend to lean more towards ones that I grew up with in northeastern California. I still think the best guitar you can have made is a guitar has a European spruce top and East Indian rosewood back and sides.

M: Why?

W: The combination. I have yet to have a European spruce top that didn’t sound phenomenal. I think that using the European spruce and the East Indian rosewood is very traditional, so there’s just something about the combination that works well.

M: What are you most looking forward to about the Symposium this year?

W: I want to hear what collaborations come out. (Playing new music) is greatly needed in the world of classical guitar. Everyone is playing the same old war horses that I heard when I was 12 years old. I’m a firm believer that classical guitar needs to step away (from the traditional). I’ve heard so many people bash Andrés Segovia. Then, I have to ask them why they are playing the pieces that he popularized and why they aren't moving forward. That’s what Segovia would want them to do.

Also, it will be nice to watch the competitors too. It’s not about the competition as much as the camaraderie and getting to know and work together with other people, which is the point of Twisted Spruce.

M: Thank you so much!

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