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Old 11-20-2016, 04:15 PM
Howard Klepper Howard Klepper is offline
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Default Wabi-Sabi Guitar

I have recently been reading about wabi-sabi, which is a traditional Japanese aesthetic that is linked to Zen Buddhism. And I have been thinking about how it can be applied to guitar making.

The basics of wabi-sabi are not hard to write down, but it has a spiritual meaning that is said to be hard to put into words, especially in English. In contrast to the dominant Western aesthetic prior to Modernism, which has its roots in the ancient Greek search for formal and timeless perfection, wabi-sabi acknowledges that all things are flawed and impermanent, and embraces this rather than fighting it. Wabi-sabi design stresses naturalness, lack of artifice, and simplicity; it treats the degradations of time and use as enhancing the beauty of objects rather than as something to avoid.

It is apparent that contemporary guitar aesthetics stand in opposition to wabi-sabi. The standard of workmanship keeps moving to ever higher degrees of refined regulation. We accept no unevenness in form. We strive for perfect miters and flawless surfaces that are like plate glass. Threads appear on AGF in which people post about the unacceptability of any visible runout on a guitar top, or of visible glue squeeze out in a place inside the guitar that can only be seen with a mirror. Guitar owners try to maintain the finish of their instruments in a perfect state, polishing them weekly (or daily) and grieving when they get any scratch. The wabi-sabi approach treats this as a vain (in more than one way) struggle to thwart the nature of things.

The wabi-sabi designer must grapple with a certain paradox involving on the one hand the intentionality of all design, and on the other hand an aesthetic that questions the imposition of form onto nature, and rejects the idea that natural beauty can be improved on. To my mind distressed or relicked finishes are not at all wabi-sabi; they are another kind of artifice that tries to make the object into what it is not, rather than allowing time to do its own work. Neither, I think, is purposeful use of inferior materials, such as pallet wood. Wabi-sabi does not stand for low quality, or poor function. So the wabi-sabi designer has to tread a narrow path--not rejecting natural features that might be considered flaws, but not ostentatiously seeking them out, either.

I've decided to take on the challenge of building a guitar that, if not what a Japanese traditionalist would call wabi-sabi, can at least be said to be wabi-sabi inspired and faithfully executed. I am beginning the guitar today, and will post photos and explanations of my choices in this thread.

While it now is acceptable for non-sponsors to start threads in Custom Shop showing their work (it was not a few years ago), I am not comfortable with that, so I have also renewed my AGF sponsorship today.

Last, a verse by Leonard Cohen I heard for the first time a few days ago, that I think captures the spirit of this venture:

"Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in."
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Last edited by Howard Klepper; 11-22-2016 at 09:12 PM.
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Old 11-20-2016, 04:25 PM
JSDenvir JSDenvir is offline
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Thanks Howard. A really interesting project. How does one balance the market's demand for perfection with an appreciation of natural flaws and decay?

I'm thinking perfectly laquered, spalted maple :-)

Joking aside, I look forward to seeing where you take this.

Steve

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Old 11-20-2016, 04:28 PM
Pippin Pippin is offline
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Thanks Howard, a very much needed perspective. Pip
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Old 11-20-2016, 04:38 PM
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Thanks Howard, a very much needed perspective. Pip
Completely agree. Can't wait to see the build!
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Old 11-20-2016, 04:52 PM
random works random works is offline
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Coming from an upper level builder, this is refreshing. A novice might use something like this to make allowances for lack of skill in finishing.

People say, 'It's all about the tone'....this is sure true when playing ( well action counts too )

I saw a table made by an Asian furniture builder. He used the natural structure and appearance of wood with a result that was more organic and interesting than perfect boards.

Seems a great way to produce some true one-of-a-kind guitars...looking forward to how this comes out.
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Old 11-20-2016, 05:40 PM
Zandit75 Zandit75 is offline
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Very interesting concept!
I guess, you'll be building something like Willie Nelson's guitar then?
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Old 11-20-2016, 06:45 PM
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It is apparent, Howard, that you find the persuit of aesthetic perfection distasteful, as you've made clear here and in other threads. I certainly appreciate the quality and tonality of your guitars. I don't, however, believe that the pursuit of aesthetic perfection is either 1) a bad thing or 2) at odds with the pursuit of great tone. I'm not sure if that was your implication. Perhaps not. But there are many great builders who pursue and achieve both. I appreciate that aesthetic. I also appreciate yours. Very much. As I've spent countless hours enjoying my Klepper. I look forward to this thread, but the tone associated with the OP doesn't sit right with me. I hope you achieve the aesthetic you are going for.
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Old 11-20-2016, 07:07 PM
Jeff Scott Jeff Scott is offline
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This is a great concept and philosophy. I am looking forward to seeing the final product (the first of many, perhaps).

One request, can it be finished in wasabi green? When I first read the thread title, that is what came to mind!
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Old 11-20-2016, 07:31 PM
Howard Klepper Howard Klepper is offline
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Originally Posted by justonwo View Post
It is apparent, Howard, that you find the persuit of aesthetic perfection distasteful, as you've made clear here and in other threads. I certainly appreciate the quality and tonality of your guitars. I don't, however, believe that the pursuit of aesthetic perfection is either 1) a bad thing or 2) at odds with the pursuit of great tone. I'm not sure if that was your implication. Perhaps not. But there are many great builders who pursue and achieve both. I appreciate that aesthetic. I also appreciate yours. Very much. As I've spent countless hours enjoying my Klepper. I look forward to this thread, but the tone associated with the OP doesn't sit right with me. I hope you achieve the aesthetic you are going for.
Thanks for commenting, Juston. I want to see some dialog here and welcome disagreement.

Regarding the pursuit of aesthetic perfection, the question I see is, whose aesthetic? The Wabi-sabi aesthetic is credited in good part to Rikyu, a 16th Century tea master. It often is explained by metaphor. The story is told (with variations) about how Rikyu asked an apprentice to clean his garden. The apprentice cleaned and raked until everything was "perfect." When Rikyu saw this, he shook a cherry tree so that some leaves and blossoms fell into the garden at random. Then he was satisfied that the job was complete.

I can assure you that I have no plan for any purposeful sloppiness in this guitar. And certainly no plan for any functional shortcomings. No, I don't think great tone (or great playability) is inconsistent with the pursuit of an aesthetic of high regulation (to rephrase a bit). My clients need not worry that I won't be striving for my cleanest work on their instruments {;->.

I don't agree that there are builders (any builders) who achieve both aesthetic perfection and great tone, because no one achieves the kind of perfection you are talking about. What many achieve is what David Pye calls "high regulation." I'm exploring here an aesthetic that does not take the highest degree of regulation as its goal. I haven't stopped doing the other--I like that pursuit, too.
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Last edited by Howard Klepper; 11-22-2016 at 11:02 AM.
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Old 11-20-2016, 07:44 PM
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Larry Pattis Larry Pattis is offline
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Give me a great sounding guitar (with all my specs and structural requirements) that has some finish sunken into the not-quite-filled pores (etc.) and you'll find me a happy man.
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Old 11-20-2016, 07:51 PM
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I really look forward to where you are going with this - I agree that there has been too much emphasis on technical perfection - mechanical and mathematical concepts carried over to craft in excess, much like some of the digital looping and pitch correction has been carried so far into modern music, forcing us to redefine artistry - and I'd add the expectation that only the most visually perfect material is worthy of consideration by too many for a fine instrument, which is so odd considering the entirely non-visual art these tools are expected to create -

I can understand and appreciate the concept as it applies to used guitars - I've frequently found heavily used and very well maintaned tools actually more desirable than brand new ones - but that sensibility will test your skills in creating a brand new object. Its a challenge I am sure you are quite capable of, and I eagerly await your documentation of this journey - and I hope you can awaken this sensibility in others at the same time -
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Old 11-20-2016, 07:52 PM
Rudy4 Rudy4 is offline
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Howard,
I found your post very interesting as I have been studying some of the Japanese concepts that you are referring to. In my pursuit of building instruments I've purposefully went more and more to a simplified aesthetic.

My daughter-in-law is of Japanese descent and we have talked occasionally about the meaning of some of the Kanji and what exactly they represent. In that vein I discovered Shibui, and it's much closer to the definition of what I want represented by my instruments. If you are unfamiliar with the term I think you'll find a bit of research very enlightening. Probably the easiest to grasp would be the Wikipedia topic:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shibui#References

I think the Kanji that represents the concept is lovely, and I've considered incorporating it into a logo:

渋み
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Old 11-20-2016, 08:09 PM
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Howard, I'll be watching this one to see where you go with it. As I always enjoy seeing your work, I'm sure this will be great as well.

I'm finding it interesting how "aesthetic perfection" is being discussed. I've heard a builder talk about how aesthetic perfection does not require "flawlessness". That sort of appreciation of a design/execution can make a lot of sense, but thinking in that way does not come naturally for many of us.
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Last edited by ChuckS; 11-20-2016 at 09:04 PM.
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Old 11-20-2016, 08:10 PM
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Smile Very Interesting indeed

Perfection has its faults... haha

Not least the vain hope to maintain that perfection. If an instrument is to be used to make music it will eventually show some wear. If it is used to make thousands happy daily for 50 years, eventually it may resemble Willie's Trigger!

One interesting fact is that the more it is played, the better it will sound, until it is eventually too beat up to function properly.

I find myself a bit tired of the "Absolute Mint" used guitar lust. If it is used and perfect it has not been played enough, IMHO.

I too will be very interested to see where you go with this as a build concept!

Go for it!

Cheers

Paul
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Old 11-20-2016, 08:18 PM
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I believe I have seen guitars that are perfect in the colloquial sense of the word. They are executed without flaws - at least none that I can see. A flaw being something that happens to the guitar that's counter to the builder's intention.

Regardless, a great guitar is a great guitar, and you build some of the best. But I don't see the need to disparage those who value "highly regulated" guitars as vain or smug. I judge each guitar I play and own on its own merits. I keep my Klepper in like new condition, even though I play it often. I don't consider that pursuit vain (in more ways than one). I am also pretty anal about construction details. Maybe I'm exactly the person you describe. Ha ha. I probably am. I agree with you that guitars don't have to have a high degree of regulated perfection to be considered great guitars. But a guitar with a low degree of aesthetic regulation has a higher barrier to overcome with me. So is a builder supposed to try hard but not TOO hard to execute their guitar with a high degree of regulation?

Last edited by justonwo; 11-20-2016 at 08:33 PM.
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