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Bracing Styles for Classical Guitars 3 SUBSCRIBE FOR FREE

BY GUEST ON FEBRUARY 7, 2015 FEATURED, GUEST POSTS, LUTHIERY & DESIGN, POPULAR ARTICLES Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, RSS, or
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This is a guest post by luthier Marcus Dominelli, Victoria, BC, Canada. this is classical guitar

Id like to discuss the basics of bracing used in classical guitar making. This article is intended for those who
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know little about how classical guitars are made; however, some experienced luthiers and musicians might
nd it of interest as well. Its not possible to overview every type of guitar bracing in existence, my goal here
is to briey examine the common types, and some of the forces that have pushed the evolution of the
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classical guitar in new directions.

The soundboard bracing basically does two things. First, it stiens the soundboard so as to minimize
distortion of the top from string tension. Second, the bracing aects the sound of the guitar, and the string
response.
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The neck, back and sides, scale length, box size, string type, and many other elements aect the volume
and tone of the guitar. But the intent of this article is to focus on the soundboard and how its braced,
because it is this area which has the biggest aect on the over all sound. It is, in the truest sense, the heart
of the guitar.

Ladder Bracing

Around 200 years ago, most guitars had what is often called ladder bracing. Its probably the simplest
form of bracing, consisting of struts glued in perpendicular to the grain of the soundboard. The guitars
made by the famous French luthier Rene Lacote had ladder bracing. Here is a photo of an 8 string Lacote
style guitar I made for the guitarist Murray Visscher.

8 string Lacote style guitar (Photo Credit: dominelliguitars.com)

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This photo shows the inside of the same guitar.


You can see how the two braces that cross the
lower bout are not parallel. Instead, the braces get
further away from each other toward the bass side
of the soundboard. (Photo Credit:
dominelliguitars.com)

Many luthiers believe thatasymmetricalbracing, such as pictured in this guitar, will resonate to a broader
range of frequencies.Ive found that excellent guitars can be made with either symmetrical or non-
symmetrical bracing. As always in guitar making, a number of things are required to make a great sounding
guitar.Well made ladder braced guitars like the ones made by Lacote had excellent clarity and projection,
and could ll a concert hall as well as any modern instrument.

Many lutes also have ladder bracing. Here is a bracing photo of


an Arabic lute, or oud that I recently made. It has many cross
struts. Lutes and ouds are made with very thin soundboards,
usually 1mm to 1.5mm thick, which gives them their
characteristic tone. The best sounding ouds are made under
the brink of collapse, with just enough bracing to keep them
from imploding. It is said that they sound their best when made
to these ne tolerances.
The best sounding ouds are made under
the brink of collapse, with just enough
American steel-string acoustic guitar manufacturers used ladder
bracing to keep them from imploding.
bracing as well, although it was slowly phased out after the
(Photo Credit: dominelliguitars.com)
Martin Guitar Company invented X-bracing in the 1850s. Ladder
bracing did not withstand the high tension of steel strings very
well. X-bracing was not only stronger, but produced a warmer tone and an all around better sounding
guitar. Still, ladder bracing continued to get used on less expensive makes and models well into the 1950s
despite its shortcomings when used with steel strings.

Fan Bracing

Antonio de Torres (18171892) is generally given credit as the father of the modern classical guitar. He
radically redesigned the instrument, giving it a larger body, lighter bracing and a thinner soundboard than
did his predecessors.

The bracing pattern shown here, or slight variations of it, is the most widely used pattern in the classical
guitar since the time of Torres. It is now commonplace, but 150 years ago it was truly revolutionary.

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Fan Bracing (Photo Credit:


dominelliguitars.com)

You can see from the picture how the braces are now running more in the direction of the soundboard
grain, and not perpendicular to the grain like in the lute and many of the early 19th century guitars such as
those made by Lacote.

This change in brace orientation is signicant to the musician. Combined with the larger body and the
thinner soundboard, fan bracing makes for a warmer, earthier sounding instrument with a much stronger
bass response than the ladder braced guitars of the early 19th century. Simply put, Torres guitar had a
greater dynamic range of tonal possibilities, and was a more versatile tool for making music. This image
shows some variations in fan bracing patterns.

Fan Bracing

The Modern Concert Guitar

By the 1950s, thanks in large part to Andres Segovia, the classical guitar had made its way into the concert
hall. This really marked the beginning of the separation between the classical and the amenco guitar, the
latter evolving very little over the next 50 years to the present. Until around 1950 it could be well argued
that there was little dierence between amenco and classical guitars in terms of design. I will not discuss it
here, but this could be the subject of a future article.

The other signicant change that happened in the mid 20th century was the advent of nylon strings. The
nylon polymer was invented in the 1930s by The Dupont Company. Prior to around 1950 virtually all
classical players were using gut strings, and guitars were built with gut strings in mind.

Gut is about 20% denser than nylon, the net eect of which from the point of view of the musician is that
nylon does not sound as bright. The problem for the luthier is how do we get that brightness back? One
way is to increase the height of the bracing to stien the soundboard, thus enhancing the treble
frequencies of the guitar, which many luthiers did.

Nowadays we have access to carbon strings, some of which are even denser than gut, but these have only
been available for a few years. In the 50s guitarists did not have a plethora of string choices like we have
today, so luthiers they had to increase the stiness of their soundboards to compensate for the mellower
sound of nylon strings.

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Further compounding the problem is the fact that the fan-braced Torres guitar tended to be more bass
heavy in terms of balance. A good concert guitar needs to sound bright, clear, and articulate in order to
project to the back of a hall.
Most luthiers will admit that its relatively easy to make a guitar with a strong, lush bass response, but
making one with strong penetrating trebles is a much greater challenge. This was as true 60 years ago as it
is today.

This switch from gut strings to nylon, and the need for a louder, bigger sounding concert instrument forced
many luthiers to change the way they built their guitars. Lets look at how one famous luthier responded to
these challenges.

Jose Ramirez 3rd

Many will know the Ramirez name because it was Andres Segovia who played and endorsed Ramirez
guitars for much of his career.Jose Ramirez 3rd had an interesting approach to making the concert guitar
louder and brighter. He tried a number of things:

1) First, he stiened up the treble side of the soundboard by introducing a new brace which, not
surprisingly, has become known in lutherie lexicon as the treble bar as you can see in this diagram of his
bracing pattern:

Ramirez Bracing

Ramirez Style Bracing (Photo Credit:


gidsguitars.com)

2) Second, Ramirez was the rst manufacturer to widely use Western Red Cedar for soundboards, as you
can see in the photo above. Cedar has some advantages over spruce, the main one being that cedar is on
average about 15 -20% lighter in weight. Jose Ramirez 3rd believed so strongly in the superiority of cedar
over spruce that he wrote in his book Things about the Guitar that Stradivari would have used the
American wood had he known about it. The top in the above photo has a cedar soundboard with spruce
bracing.

Prior to the 1950s European spruce was the standard material for guitar tops. Nowadays cedar is more
commonly used for classical guitars than spruce, although spruce remains an excellent soundboard
material, many still preferring it to cedar for its tonal complexity.

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3) Third, Ramirez commonly started using longer scale lengths on his guitars in an attempt to increase the
volume. Scale length simply refers to the vibrating length of the string. Torres commonly used scale lengths
of 640 to 650mm, which have become the standard. Ramirez guitars often had scales of 660, 664, and
668mm.

The physics of string length is fairly simple. A longer string is heavier than a shorter one. It takes greater
tension to bring a heavier string up to the same pitch as a shorter string. The greater string tension of a
long scale guitar equals more energy to drive the soundboard. If this energy is optimized with the design of
the soundboard, it has the potential to make a louder guitar.

Although Jose Ramirez 3rd clearly made some progress in the evolution of the Concert Guitar, none of his
developments can really be considered great departures from his predecessors. His addition of the treble
bar was still only an improvement within the context of fan bracing; he did not truly invent a new type of
bracing.

Also, it could be argued that his use of longer scale lengths was a backward step, if you consider how much
more dicult longer scales can be for the player. Longer scale lengths dont always translate into greater
volume or projection in practice like they do in theory.

But to give Jose Ramirez 3rd credit, he pioneered the use of western red cedar and made it standard, and
his use of the treble bar is still widely used today.

Radial Bracing

Im not sure who to give credit to as the inventor of radial bracing. Ive seen it used on Yamaha guitars from
the 1970s. The luthier probably most well known for radial bracing is the late Richard Schneider, who
worked in conjunction with Dr. Kasha, an American Physicist during the 1970s and 80s. There are many
types of radial bracing. It is not commonly used compared to other bracing styles and I cannot make any
generalizations about how radial bracing sounds, but many have used it with success.

This photo shows a simple form of radial bracing, which refers to


any bracing pattern where the braces radiate outward from the
bridge area. (Photo credit:reynoldsguitars.com)

Lattice Bracing

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In the late 1970s, an Australian guitar maker named Greg Smallman popularizedthe lattice braced guitar. It
was truly revolutionary, and his guitars to this day can be found in the hands of many of the worlds nest
players. The basic physics behind how the lattice works is very simple:

Since a lattice structure is inherently sti both with the grain and across it, the soundboard can be made
much thinner and still be strong enough to withstand the string tension, thus substantially reducing the
total weight of the top. The energy of the strings is more eciently transmitted into soundboard vibration,
the net result being a guitar with greater volume, and faster string response.

Another benet of Lattice bracing is greater ease of playability and dynamics. By dynamics I mean the
ability of the guitar to respond to both aggressive and gentle right hand techniques.

Playability is more than simply a function of adjusting string action at the nut and saddle. Although string
height has an eect on playability, how the soundboard responds to every subtle nuance of the strings and
hands is probably more important to the musician than action height alone.

Here is an example of a lattice braced soundboard. The braces are made with laminated balsa wood and
carbon bre. The soundboard is spruce.

lattice braced soundboard: braces with laminated balsa wood and carbon bre (Photo
Credit: nicholas-scott-guitars.co.uk)

The picture below shows some of the design features you might nd in a lattice braced guitar made in the
Smallman style. The sides are laminated, and much eort has been made in the way of bracing and
reinforcement to keep the rim and upper bout of the guitar as rigid as possible. The goal is to send all the
string energy to the soundboard and minimize leakage to other parts of the guitar, like the sides, back,
neck, and upper bout of the body.

(photo credit: schrammguitars.com)

Criticisms of the Smallman Lattice Guitar

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Many players have criticized the Smallman lattice as sounding too bright, nasal, or perhaps banjoey in
quality. Its increased volume and ease of playability cannot really be challenged, but manyplayers will
arguethat the tonal quality of the traditional fan braced classical guitar is still superior.

Carbon bre is sti, lightweight, and dimensionally stable, making it an excellent structural agent, but the
more carbon bre utilized in the design, the more the tone quality seems to suer. This has led to
renements in the lattice concept over the past decade or so.

Nowadays there are almost as many ways to make a lattice braced guitar as there are luthiers making
them. Some makers have simply combined the lattice soundboard with the traditionally made classical
guitar body, using a wood lattice with traditional hide glue. Others see nothing wrong with using carbon
bre and epoxy resin in their constructions. The soundboard can be made very thin like the Smallman
model, or thicker if the luthier wants the guitar to have a more traditional sound.

Today, the combinations are practically endless; making generalizations on how lattice guitars sound, as if
they were all made the same way, is virtually pointless. You might love one and dislike another, as with any
instrument.

This soundboard is lattice braced as well, but the bracing has no carbon bre, often being referred to as an
all wood or a hybrid lattice.

all wood or a hybrid lattice (Photo credit: demosguitars.com)

Double Top Guitars

It should rst be understood that a Double Top Guitar does not denote a particular bracing pattern per se.
In fact any type of bracing pattern could be used with a double top fan bracing, lattice, ladder, radial, or
whatever. Double topping refers to the way the soundboard itself is treated. The bracing will be glued on
after the double top is made.

Gernot Wagner and Mathias Dammann of Germany are credited as the luthiers who rst used nomex
laminations in classical guitars.

Double tops are made by laminating a material called nomex, between two skins of solid wood, usually
spruce or cedar, or a combination of each. Nomex is a kevlar-polymerhoneycomb product originally
designed for use in the aeronautical industry, although it now has more applications.

This photo shows what Nomex looks like. The luthier laminates (glues) nomex between two skins of wood,
using either epoxy of polyurethane glue.

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Nomex (Photo credit: lmii.com)

The picture below shows the rst layer of wood, or skin with the nomex on top. Another layer of wood will
be added to the nomex, thus sandwiching it between the wood layers. If done correctly, the result is a
stier, lighter soundboard, although not nearly as thin as a Smallman style lattice top.

Double Top (Photo Credit: dominelliguitars.com)

Conclusions

As you can see, the history of the classical guitar is one lled with innovation and change. The materials and
technologies available to us open up new possibilities. And as musicians put new demands on the classical
guitar, luthiers are ready to adapt, always trying to make the ultimate instrument.

The traditional Torres fan braced guitar, including all its variations has been with us over 150 years, and is
still going strong. I have every reason to believe that it will continue to prove itself relevant.

The Early Romantic guitar, made by Rene Lacote, although not nearly as popular, has been around even
longer, and musicians are still having these early 19th century guitars made or, occasionally restored so
that they can play the music of this period on historically correct guitars.

The lattice braced guitar has always been a subject of debate among musicians, yet it has endured for over
30 years. More luthiers are nding ways to rene the lattice braced guitar so that its sound will appeal to
more players.

Double top guitars have a shorter history. Although they were rst made over 20 years ago, theyve only
been made in signicant numbers in the last 5 or 10 years. I believe that double tops will go through a
process of renement over the coming years in the same way that lattice braced guitars are.

Superlative concert guitars seem to defy categorization, and no one type of guitar continually dominates
over another type in the concert hall. Ive been to many classical guitar listening events where concert
guitars by some of the best luthiers are all played in succession by great players, in a concert hall.

The Guitar Foundation of America and the Guild of American Luthiers Conventions are good places to hear
these comparisons.

Out of 30 or 40 guitars there are always half a dozen guitars that stand out from the others. And in that mix
of best sounding guitars there are always some traditional fan braced guitars, lattices, and double tops. Its
almost as if the best guitars are born, not built.

I hope you enjoyed the article.

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