Luthier Profile: Paul McGill

by

John Schroeter

Paul McGill was driven to be a guitar maker-literally. In 1976,at the age of 18, he thumbed rides from his home in Georgia to make the 1200-mile trek to Charles Fox's now legendary Earthworks School of Luthiery in South Stafford, Vermont. The next six weeks would see not only the crafting of his first instrument (a mahogany/cedarclassical that he still owns), but the launching of a career that is now celebrating its 25th year.


But to understand McGill's unique approach to the craft of guitarmaking, one needs to go back a little farther. It seems that all things musical and mechanical amused him even as a two-year old when he figured out how to spin and play his brother's 45s on the front wheel of his tricycle. Those fascinations would remain with him and serve him well as he set out to synthesize his muses into something would bear his very personal imprint -the hand-crafted guitar.


Following his watershed sojourn in Vermont, McGill returned toGeorgia, where he was determined to pick up where his initial experience left off. Working two jobs to support his burgeoning guitar-making ambitions -a cabinet maker by day and dishwasherb y night - he set up shop, turning out a handful of instruments there, and later, in Wisconsin, where he really began to hit his stride. "That was my real development period," he says."So many of my skills were developed during those years."Having all but exhausted the local demand over the next few years, though, he began to seek out new opportunities. "I came across an ad," he recalls, "in Frets magazine for a repairman at Gruhn's shop in Nashville. I called George Gruhn on the phone, and he asked me to discuss the opportunity with Kim Walker, his shop manager. After sending a guitar to review, I went there for a trial week of work and was offered a permanent position."

From the time he arrived, though, his attentions were already focused on finding a way to hang his own shingle. Renting an apartment from guitar dealer/enthusiast Jerry Roberts, who also offered him the use of the basement for some of his larger tools, McGill set to work in his off-hours. "I covered my living room carpet with Masonite and set up my workbench right there," he remembers with a chuckle. In fact, it was in that apartment that he built the rosewood/cedar and rosewood /spruce classicals that Earl Klugh used on his seminal project Solo Guitar. Returning to his experience at Gruhn's , McGill describes the period as a rite of passage. "I wanted to find out what I knew, " he says , "and how much more there was to learn . Of course, I learned that there never is an end to what I can learn . But, more importantly, I learned that there were a lot of different people who had different kinds of talents and gifts . That caused me to start looking at myself in terms of what I was good at, and what I should be doing as a guitar maker, and not worrying about what everyone else was doing."


McGill certainly found himself in some strong company at Gruhn's: Matthew Klein and Kim Walker, for starters. "When I arrived at that shop," he continues, "there was a legacy. People who worked there before us had left a lot of knowledge, techniques and tricks. Kim and Matthew were great storehouses of that knowledge-things you wouldn't find just anywhere in such a short space of time.And I got drenched in that legacy." At those legendary workbenches, he had occasion to participate in an amazing array of repairs on some very special instruments. "We tore instruments apart and put them back together - whatever we had to do. We saw a lotof pre-war Martins in that shop, a lot of intriguing representatives of the history of American guitar making. And I got to see how things held up, what things worked, what things didn't. It was very enlightening to be around that. I am grateful to George for having made that experience possible through his business. It brought alot of talent together to explore the work of the past."


Though steeped in such traditional Americana, McGill became restless with visions of how the guitar might advance beyond that tradition."The guitar," he says, "can have many aesthetics-its shape, its sound, everything people have come to expect from the instrument - especially in the traditional sense. So much is known and established. And I think because of that, I began to explore and take on things that were not so well known, or not well understood, and then try to find some resolution. And I started with new approaches to repairs."


McGill describes an ambitious restoration of a 1927 Martin 00-28 as a case in point: "A guitar came into Gruhn's , that hada great big hole where the bridge had been. We were ordered to repair the top. And I thought , ' Why? The instrument is essentially destroyed! Even if repaired , it wouldn't be very functional .'So I convinced Gruhn that replacing the top was the thing to do. He was concerned that if I did that, it would be evident . When I told him that I could do it without removing any of the binding,he gave me the go-ahead to try. When it was done, it was pretty hard to tell that the guitar had been restored . I found old topwood that looked like it belonged , took the rosette out of theoriginal and put it in the replacement top. But the real trick was putting the new top back into the original bindings perfectly without removing the bindings. I finished it in a matching vintage French polish aesthetic , and I believe I distressed the top a little. The instrument was sold in two days. Experiences like that helped me out a lot as my career became more experimental. There was a natural competitiveness in that shop; everybody pushed everybody else to see how far they could go. And that was a good thing."


He found, though, that balancing the tradition with innovation in terms of new designs was another matter. "That's the hard part," he says, "because the guitar is an aesthetic based intradition. But fortunately, the guitar is not an instrument like the violin, where we're stuck with something that is the holy grail. No one would build a violin without all of the aesthetic details that have been established over the centuries of its development. It wouldn't be accepted. And though the guitar - whether it 's aclassical or a Dreadnought - is rooted in a traditional set of aesthetics,there is so much more room for experimentation and augmentation of that tradition. And this is where a guitar maker can find the freedom to entertain his audience: designing instruments that are uniquely desirable in the presence of everything else that has come before - designs might inspire an artist to do something that is more creative."


Interestingly enough, McGill's work with non-traditional designs has advanced his traditional instruments, as well. Whether it's Earl Klugh recording with McGill's traditional and extended access classicals, Muriel Anderson performing with her McGill signature model, Chet Atkins extolling the tone of his Del Vecchio-inspired McGill resonator, or Peter White and Mark Antoine performing with big bands on their innovative Super Ace acoustic-electrics, McGill has certainly entertained myriad artists' needs for unique sounds.


"I learned from building my resonators," he says,"that if you build something that is really unique and has a useful function, people will knock your door down. I don't think I need to build more of the same guitars - I think I need to build guitars that are different. But I also realize that it's not an easy task.It's a hard place to be, because a lot of people out there are not going to look at it that way until they hear it. People like their Dreadnoughts, their OMs, their J-185 steel strings. So how do I appeal to somebody who already has figured out in their mind what they think they want, and then get them excited and intrigued by something different? They almost have to have it in their hands.When they can touch it, play it, hear it, they get inspired by it.That's what this was really all about!"


"Years ago there was a little boy named Jimi Hendrix who sat around learning how to play blues guitar. If he hadn't figured out how to take the blues to a Stratocaster, plug it into a wall of Marshalls and blend the two into something no one had ever heard before or since, no one would have given a darn about him. But he presented something that had an aesthetic to it that inspired people, made them want to go out and learn to play - and be something more. I long to be a part of that process for a musician, even if I never have the opportunity to be as significant as Fender and Marshall were to Jimi."


McGill tips his hat to the many outstanding guitar makers working today. "And," he says,"those who, like myself, are trying to push the guitar forward, in a sense are entertainers, too. We entertain people with our work and designs. Guitar players come to people like me because they want to own something special. And during that period of time that I am working with them, they are greatly entertained by the whole process. They love the fact that someone is paying attention and responding to them and their needs. And at the end, when they pick up the guitar and play it and it sounds fantastic, they are in some way more deeply gratified."


Unlike many builders who offer a narrow, standardized set of models, McGill builds a fairly wide range of designs. "What works for me is that I like to develop knowledge that will be applicable over many differing kinds of instruments. I've made steel-string guitars, classical guitars, and resophonic guitars, and in recent years, I've also been building acoustic-electric stage instruments, which I think are quite unique. However, some things cross over from one design to the next. Having developed some understanding of the guitar that is consistent in the basic function of the instrument, I apply that ethic to a lot of different designs sot hat they all work better." A review of McGill's work exemplifies that achievement.


To fully appreciate McGill's newest leap forward, though, a familiar analogy is in order. Explains McGill, "In the early 19th century, piano builders had a hard time dealing with the load factors of all those strings.The stresses caused tuning problems, but more importantly, the overall instability of the structure under load was draining a lot of the string energy out of the piano. It was like stringing a spring. But when Steinway built his heavy cast piano string frame, he solved the problem. Suddenly the string energy created a louder and more powerful instrument."


With that in mind, McGill set out to discover how the guitar might make better use of its string energy, with the goal of creating a louder, more powerful instrument. "My interest was piqued,"he says, "when I examined the work of some of the Australian classical makers who are world-renowned for building very loud instruments. I wondered why they were so loud. They usually feature lattice-braced tops reinforced with graphite. I had seen a lotof guitars with lattice-braced tops over the years, but I've neve rseen them produce that much volume. So I began asking myself where the volume was really coming from. And I concluded that it wasn't necessarily just the top that was doing it. Rather, it was how the top is allowed to work that really creates the power. The power comes from the string and the string's efficiency in driving the guitar."


McGill, thus inspired, developed a system of his own (patents pending), in an effort to capture more of the strings' energy. "I wondered if my idea would really make a difference," he recalls. "And the only way to find that out was to first build it into a design I was already very familiar with; if something I understood sowell was enhanced, I would certainly detect it. So when I applied the new system, my old design was transformed. It became something bigger, louder, more powerful, and yet it still had all the tonal characteristics and sound properties I would expect, only more dynamic. Since then, I've made quite a few classical instruments this way, and I've incorporated it into my acoustic-electric guitar,the Super Ace, as well. There is quantifiable difference in output electrically through the pickup, which is driven almost entirelyby string energy. The greater the string energy, the greater the signal produced by the Piezo crystal."


With the new structural system, McGill has dramatically improved the overall efficiency of the string energy. And hearing is believing, particularly with the Super Ace - a small bodied guitar that when played acoustically is just astonishing. A surprising volume level of warm, character-rich tone from such a small instrument had all of us on the review team struggling to find adequate adjectives.They still elude us! That McGill's discovery, aptly dubbed the "Turbo,"coincides with his 25th year anniversary as a builder makes the occasion all the more significant.


As such, his 25th Anniversary Collectors Series instruments feature rich sets of appointments that can be applied to any of his models, and also feature the Turbo system. "Each guitar in this special series will be unique," he adds. "Whether it be a classical, a resonator, or an acoustic-electric, there will be commemorative artistic appointments above and beyond what I normally do, as well as other details to enhance the character of the instruments."If you want something truly special, Paul McGill is ready to entertain you. Contact him for more information at: Paul McGill Guitars, 808 Kendall, Nashville, TN 37209, E-mail: Conecaster@aol.com,Tel. (615)354-0070. Visit his website at www.mcgillguitars.com.