A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by a client and asked if I could tidy up an old acoustic guitar, which had belonged to his girlfriend’s father. He wanted to have it cleaned up as a surprise for her birthday this weekend, so I asked him to drop it in for me to take a look. I’ve had to wait to post this blog entry so I didn’t risk spoiling a surprise! This is what my client pulled from the back of his van when he arrived at the workshop:
A somewhat battered looking Radiotone archtop. While it looked quite sorry for itself, it was immediately obvious that it was a very good quality guitar - for a moment I thought I was being handed an old Gibson L7, such is the similarity.
This guitar, like a lot of Radiotones, was built in the 1930s in what was then Schönbach, Czechoslovakia (now Luby in the Czech Republic). The town had been a centre for violin making and luthiery for two centuries before the Second World War - so strong were its ties to the craft of instrument making that its new name after the war is claimed to come from the Czech word ‘ruba’ - the rib of a violin.
With such a wealth of instrument making knowledge in the town, it’s no surprise that this is also a very serious guitar, with a proper carved spruce top, carved beech back, solid beech sides and a bridge and fingerboard made of such tightly-grained, jet black AAA grade ebony that you’d be forgiven for thinking it was carved from stone.
“My girlfriend doesn’t play guitar,” my
client conceded, “but it would be nice to just have it as an ornament and a reminder of her dad”.
Now, it’s a risky thing to make a guitar look playable, without actually making it so. It only takes one person to tune a solid looking ornament up to pitch and it can all go horribly wrong. So, I promised I’d go one better and make it completely playable. We agreed that it would be right to perform a sympathetic conservation, repairing and replacing only what was needed to make it playable, and leaving every scar it has earned in its life right where it’s original owner had left it.
Once in the workshop, my inspection revealed a number of significant problems, plus a cool tuner modification/repair which serves to make this guitar absolutely unique.
Using my inspection camera, I found a loose and damaged top brace. Normally I’d aim for a repair through the f-hole, but the back had previously been removed at some point and put back with a severe overhang, so would need to come off anyway. The top was loose in several places, as was the celluloid binding, the back had some cracks and separation in the seam, and there were several pieces of rosewood purfling missing.
I would deal with all of these problems once I’d got the back off - which proved to be a bit of a pain as the previous repairer had used white PVA, which can be a nightmare to separate. Please don’t use it to fix instruments!
All these problems were repaired using hot hide glue, so my repairs can be easily undone. I then gave the whole instrument a good clean and buff by hand, using a lightly tinted instrument polish to soften the severe appearance of the deepest scars and bring out the shine in the remaining paintwork.
A new buffalo bone saddle, fresh strings and a service later, and it was ready to go, but not before a quick trial.
This old guitar sounds like it looks - it has travelled the world, told many stories, and has more still to tell. It’s rich, warm and resonant, very full and musical, and not at all jangly like some archtops can be. It is also a joy to play - the flawless ebony board feels like silk, the neck is thick but not overly so and feels comfortable in the hand, arrow straight and with a low action of 5/64 low E, 4/64 high e at the 12th, with a little room in the original, unmodified bridge to go a little lower too.
If I could keep just one guitar I’ve worked on in the last year or so, it would be this one, no question.
Perhaps best of all, my client dropped me a message on his girlfriends birthday to tell me she was over the moon with the guitar (and her nan liked it too), which really made my day.