Soundboard: Western Red Cedar
Back and sides: Birds Eye Maple
Fingerboard: Ebano Rocklite, bound in Ebano
Bridge: Ebony with bone saddle
Headstock facing: Macassar Ebony
Neck: Reclaimed Brazilian Mahogany
Bindings: Rippled Mahogany
Tuners: Waverly Gold and Ebony
Mads approached me 2 years ago, visiting the workshop from Denmark with his wife Noémie. Initially he was looking for a more traditional Celtic sounding bouzouki, with a lot of mid cut and a rich sounding instrument. We were going to make this out of Cocobolo and potentially cedar or spruce. However, over the 2 years as we discussed and thought about it, we conclude that his playing style wasn’t predominantly Celtic accompaniment, as he also branched into playing bluegrass and various other styles. Therefore, we decided that we didn’t want something which was in the traditional vein, we wanted something that was a bit more all-round. This influenced the decision to go for maple and cedar. This usually may seem to be a strange combination of woods, however it was perfect for Mads because; the maple gives you a dry, bright punch- which works well with bluegrass but with the sweetness of the cedar it could be played more traditionally. It was really about making something which was more versatile and this is where the choice of materials came in.
Mads went for a slightly longer scale bouzouki. He is a very accurate and incredibly powerful player, hands down one of best bouzouki players I’ve had the pleasure of being in the company of. He wanted it to play tunes as well as accompaniment and therefore we needed to separate the sound within the instrument. This meant that the tuning of the cedar soundboard was a really interesting part of the build. We had to get the balance between separation and power for tunes but also keeping it together for accompaniment with a solid low end. There’s a real danger with Bouzouki’s that they can become very ‘jangly’ and it tends to be that the lighter they are the more jangly they are. However, we needed it to be light because there needed to be a good bottom end response. Mids were also important, however there was a focus on the bottom end response due to Mads’ style of playing. That led to a development in the back profile. The back on any instrument has a huge influence on the bass presence. By increasing the radius of the back and making it really light, it made a more reflective back that was able to vibrate as well. We managed to make it not jangly, but still light and powerful with a lot of bottom end response.
Mads also decided he wanted a V profile in the neck, which is an interesting take on the Bouzouki’s neck profile. This sat very well in the hand and is something which I would definitely consider doing again. For the string spacing we chose 34mm at nut and 44mm at the saddle as this was a good balance between strumming and tune playing position. The fretboard was curved with Evo gold frets to aid playability further. Individual Waverly tuners with gold and ebony buttons helped to keep the balance of the instrument by keeping the weight of the neck down, it also made the aesthetic of the headstock long and suited the whole instrument. All in all, a great build!
One of the big parts of the product was the finish of the instrument. Mads mentioned that his wife Noémie is an award-winning violin maker. Her work is breath takingly good. She works predominantly with maples and spruces in the violin world, so she suggested darkening the maple down to match the colour of the cedar. This was a great idea as there was quite a stark contrast between the white maple and the red cedar. So, after a lot of phone calls with both Neomie and Mads, we decided to use a ground which is a base coat in Violin varnish finishing. Neomie’s grounds are handmade and absolutely beautiful. She makes them by boiling rosin at up to 200 degrees for 100 hours and then add some turpentine when it's cooling down. I used this on the wood after applying a sealer coat. This brought the beautiful grain of the Birdseye maple out. The issue with this process was I don’t usually varnish instruments, I use a melamine lacquer. So, on the application of this, both finishes had to work together, which took meticulous testing. One thing you can find with finishing is that initially it seems to have worked very well. However, external factors such as moisture and UV can massively affect it. Therefore, all the samples had to be put through rigorous testing, putting them through all the extremes; hot, cold, low humidity, high humidity, impact and wood movement. We managed to get a combination which worked really well. Cedar is a very soft wood and therefore the top needed to be protected with lacquer to make it durable. This worked really well and aesthetically made the woods matches much better.
This was an amazing collaborative project between myself, an incredible musician Mads and another instrument maker Noémie.
Many thanks to them both for such a wonderful opportunity.