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Old 07-15-2019, 04:56 AM
TaranGuitars TaranGuitars is offline
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Default Working with Martin Simpson


Hi everybody, just wanted to share this project with you all. It has been a journey that has pushed my making into new territory. Hope you enjoy, next instalment to follow soon!


This adventure has no end point, there was no brief, no requirement for an instrument to do x. I build guitars for players, I listen to their playing and try to understand what it is they are looking for in a guitar, and then work out how to deliver that. Martin has dedicated his life to playing. He has played all over the world on the world’s best instruments. This, as I know now was the beginning of an exploration that pushed everything I thought I knew about making guitars. What if?

I’ve been fortunate enough to know Martin since I was based in Edinburgh more than 8 years ago, introduced by our great friend Ian Brown during a road trip guitar tour. It wasn’t until thirty months ago that this all started though. Martin met up with one of my clients at a gig who showed him his new Tirga Beag in Cocobolo & Adirondack. I got a call from him the next day.

I had recently completed an Ulladale in Belizean Rosewood, the most beautiful wood. One of only two sets reclaimed years ago while raking through stacks of wood stored in an ex-vet’s basement in Edinburgh with Stefan Sobell. This tonewood was just like old school Rio; its straight brown grain shimmered under lacquer and rung like a bell. When I spoke to Martin that day we agreed I’d send it down to him to try before I journeyed south to visit, so that we would have something to discuss after he had played it for a couple of months.

Between Christmas and New Year I got a call, the words spun around my head for days…. “Its great, I love it. Such an exciting start!” My days, a start, a start of what?


The day came and south I went, so nervous I arrived at Edinburgh Waverley an hour early so I didn’t miss the train! Martin welcomed me with great coffee and chat about birds and politics, then rushed off to his studio and came back with the Ulladale. He sat, said nothing and played. In that moment, two things happened; the first, a wave of emotion that one of my musical heroes was seated in front of me playing a piece of my work. The second and this I’ll never forget. I heard all of the extremities of that guitar, the highs, the lows, the good bits and the bad bits, its limits. All this in 4 or 5 bars. Martin thought highly of this guitar, but me being the questioner I am, I pulled it to bits. Every guitar has its own character, but when you hear it laid out in front of you like that you can decide which elements you like. The question is: what would make them better, and how far can they be pushed?

At that time, Martin had just got a 00018 from the 30’s. This instrument blew my mind, you know one of those Martins that is just how it should be from back then? Imported just after it was made so in great condition due to never being dried out. So light with so much power and spit at the start of the note and then this really mature tone ringing behind it! I had never heard anything like it, still haven’t! The Ulladale had spit and we both agreed that this was important in any guitar that might visit Martin. The other thing I liked in the 000 was the fullness behind the note. It meant Martin had the richness when playing softly and then tremendous power when it was needed too; a heady combination. I also listened to him play his Sobells and other guitars including strats, slide guitars, another Martin, a Fylde. I listened and every time came back to similar thoughts on fullness of tone behind that first initial spit of power. I wanted this but I also wanted to hear definition, not metallic, brash, forced definition but a more orchestral sound.

Lets face it, I’m not going to recreate a 30’s Martin and I’m not Stefan Sobell, so where was this going to go!? Head whirring overtime, I headed home, Ulladale in hand.

The Ulladale (now sold) continues to remain a high in my building, it has the separation I like to hear in my work. There is a lot of power with a richness that you can get from high quality rosewood and a super responsive soundboard which in the Ulladale’s case was Adirondack. However, I wanted to hear all of this with even more definition, even more life and fullness.


Being a self taught guitar maker I have had to learn what does and doesn’t work. Because of this experimental approach, I have a bank of knowledge that I can draw from when building a certain sound that I have in mind. Whether it be a very light response finger style guitar with lots of overtones and sustain, or a powerful but rich accompaniment instrument with good but not over the top separation.

The sound I had in mind for this project however, I had never tried or achieved. How would I make an instrument with orchestral fullness and definition behind a note with great separation, power and spit?

The answer is in all of the guitars I’ve made and in all of the research in sound I was about to embark on. But back then I felt that I had to start right at the beginning! You might ask, why not just push your current work? Why does it have to be totally different? My answer is you have to move away before you can come back afresh to it. It’s that “can’t see the wood for the trees” analogy.

A month passed before I settled my thoughts on the direction to go. Obviously influenced by the 000, I wanted to build as lightly as possible, stripping everything to its minimum. So, I chose single sides in old mahogany with the same for the back and neck, old spruce - German for a little warmth. I used the Ulladale’s 12th fret soundboard bracing pattern to have a constant. Materials sorted, soundboard/engine sorted; the next thing was to look at the shape.

Years ago, I built for a short time the Tirga Mhor Mk1 which was a larger version of my most popular model, the Tirga Beag. This seemed like the perfect time to revisit the model but all the variables were getting a bit out of hand. I decided to keep the Beag size and extend from the waist to the 12th fret just as Martin & Co did the other way to get the OM way back when. To my mind, shape is more important to the visual and comfort of a guitar rather than sound. Size changes sound though. If I went bigger I’d get more power and more bottom end because the soundboard has a larger vibrating area. While I wanted these things, I was aware from previous experience I’d lose definition, and my fear was that I’d lose the spit too. Two elements were key to moving forward. Increasing the depth of the Tirga Mhor to 120mm from the Tirga Beag’s 115mm. This, along with the increased upper bout size added air to the box but kept the soundboard at a width I felt I could control. At this point, it did feel like I was recreating the wheel, or in this case the 000 piece by piece, but in my mind I had to understand all of the design choices inside out before I was going to move in a direction somewhere close to forward.

The first Tirga Mhor in Mahogany went to Martin in August 17. I was really pleased with it as a start for the model. It was super light and gave us the spit we were looking for. It was really responsive and proved that the 12th fret position worked with the size and depth of the guitar.

I knew that there would be more trips south and felt real excitement in knowing that this guitar was the start. It was tangible and a different guitar to anything I’d made before, and because of the approach to designing it, I knew why it sounded the way it did...
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Old 07-15-2019, 05:24 AM
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Haasome Haasome is offline
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Great story and a very thoughtful process used to build beautiful guitars.
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Old 07-15-2019, 07:39 AM
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Erithon Erithon is offline
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Great read! I'm looking forward to hearing more of the journey.
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Old 07-15-2019, 08:00 AM
jaymarsch jaymarsch is offline
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Since I have heard wonderful things about your instruments and I am a huge fan of Martin Simpson, I will be following this thread with great interest. Thanks for taking the time to include us in this adventure!

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Old 07-15-2019, 08:43 AM
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Mayfair Mayfair is offline
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Absolutely beautiful guitar and I'm sure working with Martin was an incredible experience.

I'll shoot you a PM. Avalon is currently building me a custom model and I'll be visiting Scotland soon. Would love to get together if we can work out the logistics.
“You can play a shoestring if you’re sincere.” - Coltrane

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Old 07-15-2019, 08:54 AM
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RodB RodB is online now
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Hi Rory,

Quite a journey - an interesting read!

My 'Taran' gives me first hand confirmation on a daily basis of what wonderful instruments you produced before getting far down this road - and there I was thinking it had permanently satisfied any lingering GAS I had! Now I must get on with selling off my electrics and...

Thanks for sharing this. I too look forward to hearing more.

'The 100th Taran', two McIlroys and some others.
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Old 07-15-2019, 09:02 AM
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David Wren David Wren is offline
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Great story ... and great looking guitar taking shape Rory!
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Old 07-15-2019, 09:19 AM
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Guitars44me Guitars44me is offline
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Smile What David said

Originally Posted by David Wren View Post
Great story ... and great looking guitar taking shape Rory!
I am a big fan of MS! And of OLD Martin 000-18s, too. (Even though I do not have one, sigh...)

This will be most instructional and FUN too!

Carry on and enjoy!

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Old 07-15-2019, 09:20 AM
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Deft Tungsman Deft Tungsman is offline
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What thrilling project, man! To embark upon it with such consideration must provide plenty of self-doubt or second-guessing, those little hindrances you work through and learn from as the build progresses. Thanks so much for giving us a glimpse of your growth as a luthier.
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Old 07-15-2019, 09:35 AM
jmagill jmagill is offline
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Can you talk a bit about what you mean by 'spit'?
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Old 07-15-2019, 09:54 AM
M Sarad M Sarad is offline
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After playing a half dozen Martins from 1930 to 1937, I know the magic inside those boxes, from the OM 18, 28, 45 to the OOO 18, each one was wonderful, with the guitars from 1930 having the most Mojo.

I prefer a lighter build. When I was first going down the custom road, I contacted Sobell. He let me know he built thicker and heavier than what I was looking for. A friend bought a Brazilian Sobell that he picked up from Simpson in New Orleans. When I played it, I couldn’t get what I wanted out of it. When my friend played it, it sang like a choir of angels. It was all about the projection.

The old Martins put my ears in the middle of that choir. The 1930 OM 28 Jim Baggett handed me three years ago was simply amazing. It had a deep and wide sonic landscape, with far more of everything I want from a guitar than my Merrill OM 28 of Brazilian and Adirondack. As they say, “ Close, but no cigar.” I had the $38,000 he was asking, but my house was getting AC and a new deck. Prudence prevailed.

I am in love with the sound of Sobell, NK Forster, and now I am smitten by the possibilities presented by Taran.
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Old 07-15-2019, 10:08 AM
Silly Moustache Silly Moustache is offline
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Hi Rory, this was a great read - you communicate your excitement and passion very well.

I'm a fan of 12 fret guitars and the image of the unfinished guitar is remarkably similar to a guitar I designed to be built by a friend, maybe 25 years ago, however the project coincided with my first ever period of unemployment for me so it was still-born.

I'm interested in your description of tonal qualities and your use of the term "spit". Am I correct in interpreting that as "attack" and/or, perhaps "velocity of sound"?

Anyway, it is delightful to read of a luthier and his passion. Keep up the story.
Silly Moustache,
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Last edited by Silly Moustache; 08-20-2019 at 02:28 AM.
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Old 07-15-2019, 06:19 PM
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TomB'sox TomB'sox is offline
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As everyone else has said, excellent story and very well written. I feel like I was in your head there myself. I can't wait to hear more and to meet you in person this Spring!!!!!!

Beautiful stuff here boys and girls!
PS. I love guitars!
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Old 07-16-2019, 02:52 AM
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Michael Watts Michael Watts is offline
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Nicely done Rory, I look forward to hearing the music martin will make with thsi guitar!
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Old 07-16-2019, 07:02 AM
gitarro gitarro is offline
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Hello Rory

That read like the exciting start of a great novel and you left us in a cliffhanger as at august 2017 so there will be a lot more to the story left to tell so keep them coming!
In the end it is about who you love above yourself and what you have stood for and lived for that make the difference...
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