Like a lot of relationships these days, Laurent Brondel and I began talking through the internet, and our first conversations were about guitar making. We initially agreed to meet at an open mic that my wife Shanti and I were hosting in Lewiston in 2006, and have been friends ever since. Laurent is an amazing musician, master craftsman, and supremely talented guitar maker. His instruments are gorgeous and inspirational, and his aesthetic and sound are uniquely his own. It was a pleasure to officially interview him for Work & Worry.
W&W : You are originally from France. Where did you grow up and in brief, what is your musical background?
I grew up in Paris and spent a lot of time with my grandparents in rural Picardie, 100 miles east of Paris. Nobody played or listened to music in my family, but when I was around 5 or 6, I insisted to get Beethoven 5th symphony, don’t ask me why. My Godmother bought me the 6th, the Pastorale, maybe the store was out of the 5th, who knows? I had to wait a year to get an old tube record player from the ’60s, the ones with the speaker in the cover. My father’s Godmother gave it to me. So the Godmothers were really active and involved in my family.
That was great, I listened to that record to death, it’s the only one I had for a long time. My parents worked in a gas station and in the ’70 the company gave 45’s to customers. You get 10 gallons of petrol, you get a 45, and so on. That was the era of 8-track cassettes, too. I was given all the surplus of that stuff, and some of it was awesome: Tom Jones, “Paint It Black” by the Stones, Sly and the Family Stone, and those weird records, Jacques Loussier plays Bach, a sort of soft-jazz / Bill Evans like version of Bach sonatas. It was great. I pretty much listened to everything except pop, I also discovered Bartok and Stravinsky at the time. There was that guy from New-Zealand, Graeme Allright. He was really popular in France, he sang French versions of Leonard Cohen songs mostly, with some Joan Baez, Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel etc. thrown in. That introduced us to that scene back then, and we could understand what the lyrics were about.
I went to London in the summer of ’76 part of a student’s exchange and that was it… the punk scene was just starting with the Pistols, The Damned and so on, and I discovered Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Gong, Jimi, all in one shot. I brought back a suitcase of records. I really wanted to play guitar at this point, electric guitar. That was out of the question in my house, but my mother bought me an acoustic guitar, a Yamaha FG-180 if I recall. I took one lesson, and my father kicked the teacher out of the house because he had long hair and looked like a “hippie”. That was the ’70s…
Anyway, that was enough, I knew how to tune a guitar and a couple of chords, and I started picking out songs from records, right away. I bought my 1st electric guitar, amp and pedals a couple of years later with money earned working in the gas station during the summer, and I started a band. I was really hooked and played all the time, I brought my guitar with me everywhere. I also started to learn the violin when I was 15. I got kicked out of school at 16, and that was one of the most beautiful days of my life. My first tour was in Germany, I was 17 and struggled on. My musical revelation was a French band called Magma, the brainchild of drummer Christian Vander. Absolutely original and high energy, high performance music. Sort of Bartok meets Coltrane meets Orff meets Miles… that led me to listen to Coltrane almost exclusively for a few years. I even picked up the whole sax parts on “A Love Supreme” and “Crescent”. I was practising 14 hours a day when I could, I was obsessed with music and the guitar.
By the time I was 25, I earned enough money playing and teaching guitar that I could stop working dead-end jobs on the side. That was great, I had a great gig teaching guitar at the MAI in Nancy a few days a month, and good year or bad, I could count on that as a minimum. I did some studio work in Paris for a short time in the ’80s. I even recorded a whole day session with Billy Cobham on drums for a French bass player jazz-fusion CD. But I was mostly playing rock, a bit in the Killing Joke idiom. I was also fascinated by the music and playing style of Allan Holdsworth and picked up on that too. I was playing clubs in Paris a bit, touring a bit, recording a bit. But I was more and more producing music at home, and my last gig in France was to produce 3 tracks for the African singer Geoffrey Oryema, who was at the time on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label. That didn’t go anywhere, Geoffrey eventually signed with Virgin France and they totally mismanaged his career. I had met my wife at the time, in New-York, and we couldn’t decide if we wanted to live in Paris or New York. I was sick and tired of my musical career stalling in Paris, so I moved to New York. At the time I was heavily involved in electronic music, that was the mid-’90s: drum’bass, trip-hop, electro, techno. I released one CD and a few vinyls on US and UK labels from 2000 to 2003, I also produced/engineered CD’s for other artists, and that’s when we moved to rural Maine. The grass was greener and the trees healthier.
W&W : Were you exposed to acoustic guitar making while you lived in France?
Not really, except for one guitar repair guy who was starting at the time, Nicolas Petitbon. He had a tiny shop in the suburbs of Paris. I brought him my guitar to fix a broken peghead, and asked what he did to learn luthiery. He showed me a few books, probably Irving Sloane and a few others, but they were all in English and my English was nonexistent at the time. I had tried after middle-school to get into the Mirecourt school of luthiery in the Vosges mountains, even though they were mostly oriented toward violin-family instruments. To be accepted in Mirecourt, you had to pass the ultra-difficult entry test for the Boulle School of Cabinet Making in Paris. Needless to say, I failed miserably: I had no background in woodworking whatsoever, nor in drawing! I was absolutely clueless and not prepared. But I was always fascinated by luthiery. Before I bought my 1st electric guitar, a Gibson Marauder Deluxe, I even tried my hand at building an electric: a crude affair made of parts stolen by friends in some projects basement. It was pathetic, the paint was all sticky, the neck angle wrong, the frets filed flat. What a mess!
Yes, absolutely. First, the tradition of steel-string guitar making is from here and factory oriented. The explosion of builders is very recent, and in typical American fashion, very free. Information flows constantly between builders and is also available on books and the internet. So it was very easy to start out when I built my first guitar, and I was able to learn a lot just communicating with builders on the internet and reading every book I could find on the subject. Things are changing in Europe, but luthiers tended to be very protective of their techniques. It’s been a very exclusive, closed world. It was like the guy is performing some magic in the back room of the shop and nobody can watch.
I am not sure I would have started this whole endeavour if I was living in New York, or Paris. In fact I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have. We live in a very rural area, so shop space, noise and dust are not really an issue, and real estate is incredibly affordable. I have a very low overhead compared to somebody in a city.
W&W : What inspires you to build guitars?
Music. Pictures of ancient instruments, the desire to improve in certain areas, or to try something. The beauty of wood, the quietness in the shop sometimes. It’s a never ending process.
W&W : How has being a fine guitarist/musician influenced the designs or playability of your guitars?
Before I built my first guitar I had a tone in mind… a very specific tone and a very specific way in which the guitar should respond. I wanted a rich, bass-heavy, overtone-ladden sound, yet clear. I also wanted a strong, fast attack, and avoid that mushy washed out tone. Since I mostly came from the electric guitar, I also needed an instrument easy to play, with low action, ready to respond to a light touch, but also ready to roar.
Finally, even though I do not really have perfect pitch (I have good relative pitch), I hear frequencies. I think it comes from my work as a sound engineer, all the electronic music I made and all that time spent behind a mixing board. I find it very useful in guitar building as I can analyse what I like and don’t like in a given tone, whereas it’s the frequencies or the envelope, or both.
W&W : Have any guitar makers from the past or present informed or inspired your own guitar making? From a structural and/or aesthetic stand point?
Without a doubt! CF Martin of course, especially the pre-OM/pre-dreadnought late 19th / early 20th century period. Stefan Sobell, Dana Bourgeois, Bruce Sexauer, Rick Turner, a French gamba maker from the 18th century: Michel Colichon, Howe-Orme, Panormo, Lacôte, Torres of course, and others I probably forget. Instruments from centuries past always have a moving quality.
W&W : Does any music, outside of guitar oriented music inspire you to make guitars?
To say the truth I rarely listen to “guitar music”. I love Martin Simpson, Nick Drake, Bert Jansch, John Martyn, Michael Hedges and others, of course. I listen to a lot of different music. A lot of gamba, Ste Colombe, Marin Marais, Antoine Forqueray, Schenk. Bach, Shubert, Mahler. But also eastern music, Nizar Rohana, Naseer Shamma, Sœur Marie Keyrouz, Nikhil Banerjee. Flamenco is always present, Paco, Camaron, that’s timeless. I do not listen to contemporary music much, although I love Joanna Newsom. She could be the new Joni Mitchell, I love Joni’s sensibility. Sometimes I listen to Killing Joke, Swans or Magma very loud, it has a cleansing effect, almost like going to war without losing a limb.
W&W : Can you briefly explain the overall aesthetic that defines your guitars, and is there a particular voice you are trying to achieve with each guitar?
My aesthetic sense is definitely rooted in simplicity and what I hope is graceful and pleasing to the senses. Form follows function, but I spend a fair amount of time on the curves until they look “right”. I make all my purfling decorations, they’re unique and never the same guitar after guitar. I’ve not used shell yet, which doesn’t mean I won’t at some point, but I’m just not naturally attracted to it. I try to design a “theme” for each guitar where the woods and colours complement each other. It’s always exciting to start a new guitar and to get everything out on the bench, to blend purflings and bindings with the top and back & side woods, see how it looks, find a good match for fretboard, bridge, headplate and so on.
At this point I think my “voice” is pretty much established, and every guitar is a variation on a theme. I want to keep it that way, I am very happy with the tone I get. It allows me to concentrate on the small details that will singularize a particular guitar tonally, depending on what I am asked to build.
W&W : Do you have any favourite wood combinations?
In a way, yes, but I am not set on any “magical” combo! These days, my preferences would be for a very stiff red, German or Carpathian top and some hard rosewood or something rosewood-like for the back and sides. I really like cocobolo, Honduran RW. Braz and EIR also, of course. But I am also very fond of Macassar ebony or Malaysian Blackwood, and maple and sapele for something different. It all depends on what is expected to come out of the guitar.
W&W : Do you build only on spec, or do you take custom orders?
I do both, and would love to keep it that way. Building a guitar for an individual player is always a challenge, but building “on spec” once in a while allows me to continue exploring.
W&W : You are an advocate of Varnish finishes. What appeals to you about Varnish and do you feel that this type of finish has an effect on the voice of your instruments?
In my opinion, oil varnish gives wood depth and beauty that no other finish can match. It refracts light in a unique way, it’s very organic. Oil varnish feels great to the touch on the neck, even buffed it doesn’t “grab” like lacquer does. Also unlike lacquer it does not degrade with time, it actually gets better! It keeps hardening, but it remains flexible enough, it doesn’t crack. Finally, for me the builder who applies the finish, it is one of the least toxic finishes you can work with. String instrument makers used a softer version of it centuries ago. Oil varnish is not an evaporative finish, it hardens (polymerises) with exposure to oxygen and light. There’s no nasty toxic solvent gassing out in the shop and case forever. The main solvent for oil varnish can be pure turpentine, pine pitch traditionally. It’s an acquired taste, but I love the smell. The only downside is that an oil varnish finish is more labour intensive. It can take up to two weeks to finish a guitar, as some varnishes need two days to cure for each coat. But I’m not in a hurry, nor my customers, usually.
I can’t say if it has an effect on the voice of the guitar. Theoretically it should, but the finish is so thin, typically between .003″ and .005″! It’s the only finish I’ve used on my builds and I would be reluctant to change… it would have to be a better finish, and I just don’t see that happening.
W&W : You mostly building six string acoustic guitars at this point. Do you have an plans for making other exotic stringing instruments?
I’ve wanted to build a 7 strings bass viola gamba for some time, also a vihuela in G with a fluted back, perhaps a theorbo. I’d also love to build a Flamenca, “La Canastera”. But those are all personal projects and I’ve not had much time to dedicate to any of that.
I’ve had requests for 12-string guitars, and I’m looking forward to it. My friend Kevin Kastning is also talking about an 8-string guitar and that will be a fascinating project. Apart from that, I have an idea for a kind of a harp guitar, with sympathetic double-course strings on a second fretless neck and a scalloped main neck with 7 strings. I’ll call it the Banerjee, when I have time…
Buck Curran has written for Acoustic Guitar magazine and Fretboard Journal. He also produces albums, and plays in the spectral folk duo Arborea.