by John Schroeter, Fingerstyle Magazine, Jan/Feb. '96
ames Goodall approaches guitar making in the way he approaches most things in his life -- with perfectionism, intensity, resourcefulness, persistence, and vision. At one time, he set out creating and building modern symphony flutes. He wasn't content to build fine instruments though. He had to raise the state of the art in the process, working out his ideas to improve the various mechanisms involved. He has also built and plays Baroque oboes, recorders, English horns, dulcimers, hammered dulcimers, mandolas, as well as other instruments of his own invention.
"When I have a desire to do something," he says, "I'll go down to the library and read everything I can about it, and then I'll teach myself how to do it. I think sometimes my drive for perfectionism is a curse, though, because I tend to notice too much detail, and yet, I have to be that way to produce the product I make. It's just so exacting." Fortunately for us guitar pickers, James Goodall has settled on applying his gifts to guitar making.
In addition to his mechanical, woodworking, design, and business talents, James is also an accomplished artist. In fact, in 1972, he traded one of his
Today, Goodall is amazed to observe the unfolding careers of his numerous instrument building friends who lived in the area: Greg Deering, Geoff Stelling, and Larry and Kim Breedlove. "When we were kids," Goodall recalls, "Larry and Kim took art lessons from my mother. Kim Breedlove and I were on the same little league team, and his father was the coach."
When Goodall undertook his initial guitar building project, it was without any previous wood shop experience, and with minimal assistance. His father, though, was a wood carver and picture framer and loaned James a table saw, bandsaw, and router. Confidence gained from working with his hands making surfboards throughout his high school years also helped.
Spurred on by the success of that first guitar, James was inspired to continue in his new-found craft. Soon, orders from friends began to build a backlog. "By the mid seventies," he says, "I needed to make a decision: was I going to be a seascape artist or a guitar maker?" By 1978, Goodall had painted his last painting, and the guitar making operation was in full swing.
Guitar building is very labor intensive. James set out to teach himself metal machining and metal fabrication. He purchased a metal lathe and other metal working tools and began to design and build numerous machines, jigs and fixtures to aid and streamline his production.
In '81, Goodall relocated his operations to Mendocino, CA, where he would turn out about 40 instruments each year. In '92, he moved again, this time to his current location in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, where he now has thirteen employees, and ships ten instruments per week. James' wife Jean does the shipping and books.
Despite the increase in production, though, Goodall remains driven by a singular quality goal: "I want every guitar to come out as if I made it entirely by myself," he says. "I want it to be perfect. My intent is to have every one be consistent to my ideal-to have that same quality of Goodall tone across the board."
So just what is Goodall tone? "Tone is really the signature of the maker," James answers. "You can almost pick out what kind of guitar you're hearing just by its tone. I'm looking for something that I would describe as lyrical-a word used in classical music meaning very musical. For example, someone can play a concerto, and while it might be technically perfect, it might not have a musical depth to it-it doesn't move you inside; it's not lyrical. With regard to our guitars, I'm excited because we're very close to capturing what I hear in that sense: a full, rich harmonic sound. When someone records our guitars in a studio with high quality mics, I like what I'm hearing. I hear music. I don't hear guitar. I don't hear bass, mids or treble. This is what I strive to build into each of our guitars."
The unique shape of Goodall's instruments is yet another outgrowth of his independent streak. Dating back to his first guitar, he chose to modify the Jumbo pattern he obtained from the American Dream Guitar design. "It was similar," he says. "I took measurements of the length and the width, but I made my own shape. On the Standard model, I had no desire to copy the Martin dreadnought shape. Our's is a little more rounded-not as much as a classical guitar, but in that direction.
Goodall's guitars are as unique on the inside as well. Owing to the influence of Arthur Benade, the author of Fundamentals of Musical Acoustics, and one of the foremost figures in acoustic engineering, Goodall's soundboard and bracing design takes a sharp departure from the traditional X-brace approach.
Goodall refers to Benade's concept of 'the hinge' the point at which the top meets the sides. "It's like a drum," he explains. "The tighter the drum head, the higher the pitch. Conversely, as the drum is loosened, the head vibrates more toward the edge of the drum, and the resulting frequency is lowered."
Goodall emulates that effect by graduating the thickness of the top in specific areas to allow the top to flex more near the edges, and hence, gain more of a deep, fundamental tone. On the treble side of the equation, Goodall explains, "The fact that I don't scallop the braces allows the bridge and the saddle and the pin plate to transmit treble throughout the top more efficiently. In that sense, the top is a little tighter. But I don't have a lot of meat on the bridge, so I'm not dampening tone in that area. And the pinplate inside the top isn't overly thick or overly large."
"But it's not too small, either. There's a balance that needs to be realized at the input of the strings going through the saddle. If you have too much rigidity in that area, you lose power and fundamental, and end up with a bright, nasal sound. But if you have too little, it doesn't transmit the midrange and the treble harmonics properly throughout the top. So I'm gaining the warmth and the richness around the edges of the top in the belly area, and also by not having too much mass in the bridge and pinplate, but just enough to transmit overtone harmonics in the right manner."
The result is a combination of brilliant harmonic overtones, but not overly bright-a quality of tone that Goodall likes to describe as a three dimensional '0' sound. By way of contrast, he describes the sound preferred by many blues players as an 'E' sound. "A lot of blues players like that eeee," he says. "It's cool for them, But there are plenty of guitars around with an 'E' sound. I think of an '0' sound as lending itself to music that has a more serious tone to it. Classical music would be a good example. I really like to hear our guitar played in the manner of a beautiful, well-written piece that has a depth and richness to it."
With regard to tone woods, Goodall strives to find the combination that will best complement the player's music, style, and playing technique. In getting to a common description of sonic qualities, he's most likely to talk of focus: ("...each note on each string plucked individually having power and penetration to cut through a mix. For a fingerstyle player, it means you can get more volume, power and fullness, as well as string to string balance." brightness: ("midrange/treble response and clarity"), and brilliance: ("lots of harmonic overtones").
Practically speaking, "If the player is primarily a flatpicker," he says, "I will almost always recommend rosewood. That seems to be the darkest in the midrange, but is also warm and full and responsive, and the top will be the most flexible Sitka spruce I can find. Mahogany is also a great choice. For the sensitive fingerstyle player, I might pick a cedar top Grand Concert cutaway. For someone with a more aggressive fingerstyle approach, the Standard would probably be the better option. For this person, the woods could vary from koa to rosewood for the back and sides, with a harder Engelmann or Sitka spruce top. It depends on what gauge strings one uses. If a person has a light attack and uses light gauge strings, then Engelmann would be an excellent choice, or even possibly redwood or cedar. But for the one who is going to use light or medium gauge strings, or isn't sure, then it's best to go with Sitka; it's stronger, and will probably hold up better over the years. Sitka spruce, for its weight, is one of the strongest woods in the world."
Goodall notes that the choice for the back and sides really comes down to personal preference "If you want more focus and crispness, I'd say koa. If you want sweetness, I would say walnut. If you want more richness, I would say rosewood. If you want an even response from the bass, midrange and treble, maple is an excellent choice. And there are always exceptions to guidelines like these. Doug Smith, for example, is a fingerstyle player, and he plays a rosewood Jumbo!"
In discussions about spruces, Goodall recommends Sitka spruce for most players, but does use a significant amount of Engelmann spruce. "Engelmann is a softer wood, generally, so I try to find the hardest Engelmann I can, but I also like the sound of a slightly more flexible Engelmann for certain applications, especially on a small body with light gauge strings. There's more of that '0' sound with Engelmann, I feel. I can generally find somewhat of a crossover between Sitka and Engelmann, depending on the stiffness-to-weight ratio. If it's stiff and light in either of those, there's going to be an overlap there. Sitka seems to have more midrange and midrange harmonics, and perhaps more balance across the board. Also, for the larger models, I tend to prefer the pieces with the highest stiffness to lightest weight ratio for clarity and treble balance".
With regard to cedar and redwood, "That's a whole different story," James says, "I like to find the stiffest cedar and redwood I can, first, because of strength concerns, but also because I'm gaining a whole other spectrum of sound that some fingerstyle players like. It's very focused and very clear and very filled with harmonics, but again, coupled with our design, you're also getting that lyrical, fundamental tone. It's a very impressive sound, But you've got to be careful with cedar, because it is a soft wood, and you cannot use medium gauge strings on those guitars."
Living in Hawaii, Goodall enjoys a particular guitar maker's advantage. "Koa only grows here in the Islands," he observes. "It's getting harder to find, but we've got a good selection. I feel that koa is good across the board with respect to bass, mid, and treble, but it has more clarity than rosewood. Koa can be obtained, but it's very expensive. I'm patient, and hunt for the premium quality that I need."
When not used for the back and sides, Goodall likes to utilize koa for its visual impact in trim and binding. He uses no plastic or celluloid on his guitars, working instead with a variety of woods, orchestrating them to create a visual work of art, in addition to being aural works of art.
This was a feature article written and published in the Jan.-Feb. 1996 issue of Fingerstyle Magazine by John Schroeter [publisher and editor]. Reproduced by permission.