Patrick Burke Fine Concert Guitars

Design Philosophy

From the time Patrick made his first guitar at the age of 14 he was fascinated by the qualities of different instruments and when possible inspected them closely on the inside. When he began again to make guitars 25 years ago, he rarely made more than two a year in the beginning, learning slowly and carefully the traditional principles of guitar making and French polishing. His design philosophy evolved as he drew on what he considered to be the best elements of classical guitar design from Torres onwards. He is as passionate about making a guitar in traditional Spanish style as in the avant-garde developments that have recently occurred in guitar making and his guitars fall into both categories.

Patrick is enthusiastic about the continuing development of guitar design. “It is certainly not a static instrument in terms of its development, unlike the violin which reached acoustic perfection at the beginning of the 18th century”, he says. “For over a century the guitar has been in a ferment of development, particularly in regard to the traditional fan-strutted guitar, although in recent years new concepts such as lattice-bracing, sandwiched soundboards and raised neck design have radically increased the available volume. Many artists use these powerful instruments for concerts and ensemble work.

“Several interesting developments have occurred as a result of these finely tuned avant-garde soundboards, such as laminated linings (sometimes in a carbon fibre sandwich) and carbon fibre supports to stabilise the edges of the guitar thus preventing excess pressure on the soundboard. Some of these concepts have been retro-fitted to the traditional guitar allowing the soundboard to work harder. My guitars take into account all these developments and try to draw from them to synthesise instruments of the best tone quality and projection.

“My soundboards are very carefully graduated in thickness and tap-toned which is helpful to establish where the resonances lie. Cremonese violin masters culminating in Antonio Stradivari developed a method of tap-toning the violin plates which I will explain briefly. The top plate of the violin was tuned to E above middle C by tapping obliquely at nodal points to determine the principle resonance, provided this note could be achieved within certain weight parameters, i.e. heavier wood might have to be tuned to a lower pitch. The back of the instrument was tuned a semitone higher at F to exert control over the top. Unfortunately when the F holes were cut out of the top plate the veracity of the tap-tone became blurred. By extremely ingenious ‘fiddling’ the early masters discovered that by gluing a bass bar under the bridge of specific dimensions and scalloping the ends of this bar, the top could be brought back to a true ring at E. I am astounded by the genius of this method and I have used it in the violins that I have made. Tap-toning the guitar is considerably more complicated because the soundboard generally has 13 bars glued onto it. Generally speaking, and to be brief, good guitars will have a transverse tap-tone between C and D on the second string and between F and G on the first string for the longitudinal tap-tone.

Regarding the Torres strutting principle, Patrick comments: “This evolved over a long period of time and some would say that it is very difficult to improve on this elegantly proportioned concept. Torres said that his secrets could not be passed on as they lay in a tactile feeling between his fingers and thumbs. For my part I would like to try and pin down this elusive divination to a more scientifically predictable method. Future ideas for research in my shop include energising the soundboard with a tone generator, to determine its principal resonances before and after the struts are glued on, and also to measure the elasticity of the soundboard before it is fitted to the body. By this means we could gather data to provide consistent parameters for producing successful soundboards.

“As has long been established, the body of the instrument is much less critical acoustically than the top and Torres even made a papier maché bodied guitar to prove that the soundboard was by far the most important component. The “plantilla” of the guitar, however, affects the balance of sound between bass and treble and must be correct in relation to the top. For me the crucial goal is to make sure that the back and sides support the vibrations of the resonating soundboard, which could be diminished in the case of a body which lacks sufficient bracing or rigidity of construction.

“The guitar is a complex instrument because the relatively large thin surfaces of its box support between 35 and 40 kg of string tension while at the same time being required to project the full range of the human voice from basso profundo to soprano. If all the parameters can be perfectly coordinated in the construction, the box can breathe naturally and maintain consistent volume, clarity of line and separation of voices throughout its range. The challenge of producing this balance gives impetus to the continuing search for perfection in guitar making."