The Art of Alignment

How do you find the instrument for you? This is an interesting question and one I think about a lot as I make guitars for players around the world whom I am unlikely ever to meet. For me it is a question of alignment in which three variables are at work. Firstly there is my part as the maker. Then there is the instruments I make, and finally there is the player. Each of us, and I intentionally assign a persona to the instrument, has a role in addressing this musical question. The synergy between the three variables is what makes getting a handmade instrument so exciting and what the concept of alignment seeks to describe.

When I speak of alignment I am referring to the complex interplay between maker, instrument and player that occurs once an instrument is commissioned. This begins with the player’s initiation of the commission and continues to unfold over the duration that the player has the commissioned instrument. It is an on going process in which the maker is a mostly silent participant once the instrument is finished while the dynamic ‘meeting of true minds’, as Shakespeare once put it, is the musical life that emerges from the relationship of player and instrument. In this the player consciously seeks for the balance between their technical and musical potential and what it is that the instrument has to offer. The instrument in turn draws the player into it own unique world of sound and dynamic range. This involves the interplay of listening with a range of both musical and intuitive responses on the part of the player.

Now it must be noted that all my instruments are characteristically mine. This might seem like I am stating the obvious but when someone chooses to commission an instrument they are already in the process of alignment. This is so because either they have heard and or played one of my instruments or perhaps found out that a player of note whom they admire has one of my guitars. However this initial interest is stimulated, when someone makes contact it is because something has attracted them to my instruments and needs to be responded to. This gives me the confidence to make a guitar that is true to me and already an instrument that will engage and inspire the player to continue their musical growth through their relationship with their new guitar.

This new guitar in turn responds to the player and also grows over time into the instrument that its relationship with the player dictates. Handmade instruments should always possess this ability. As I point out in the Art of Listening no two players are the same. This uniqueness initiates a dynamic relationship with the instrument that finds in both player and instrument the fulfillment of a range of possibilities. These are determined by the instrument’s latent potentiality and the player’s musical vision as mirrored in his/her technical and musical ability. I must stress that this is a musical relationship between player and instrument and that it is two way. A player should not simply play an instrument but rather respond to it and through active dialogue align their playing with its potential. Similarly, the instrument is not passive, simply responding to the player’s intent, rather it grows to fulfill that intent and while doing so also leads the player to a unique understanding of the music they are playing on the instrument.

So when the player gets their new instrument the listening and learning that the new relationship initiates leads to the invigoration of their musical thinking. No doubt that is why they commissioned a handmade instrument in the first place. Yet the player is critical in determining how the relationship evolves. It is vibration that develops the guitar so it is how the player generates their sound that leads the guitar to develop. Now, as I point out in the Art of Listening, this hinges on the player’s experience and their innate temperament. Thus the colour and quality of an instrument’s tonal range and its responsiveness to a set of dynamic variations in turn hinges on the player’s technique and aesthetic vision. Again, it must be emphasized that the instrument is not passive in this affair but also engages the player in ways that are unique to their relationship. This means that alignment is about the player understanding the partnership they enter into when acquiring a new instrument. To fail to see this and to either seek to simply dominate or allow oneself to be dominated will result in a host of missed opportunities.

Alignment, of course, is a subjective process. It is dynamic and reflects the living nature of our learning. For the maker it consists of seeking the point of maximal alignment between the wood’s potential and their craft. For the instrument this point is found interactively as a balance between its innate potential as revealed through the player’s musicianship. For the player it is determined by the sonic palette that the instrument presents and their unique vision and technical range. Each of these points is represented in the figures below.

1 2 3
DV - Dynamic Variance
PMA - Point of maximum alignment

To calculate the point of maximal alignment is a subjective and dynamic process. To seek to do so is simply a way of understanding the relationship between guitar and player and thus helps me, the maker, find a relative answer to the opening question: How do you find the instrument for you? The answer is interactive and dynamic and revolves around the three variables described above. The guitar is affected by external forces such as the weather and the player’s mood while the player is affected by internal forces relating to emotional states and musical spontaneity. The maker must listen to the woods they craft and remain true to their craft. When we overlay the three variables charted above we find a calculus of maximal alignment that captures the uniqueness of each musical encounter while allowing for the dynamic relationships that set the context for these. To understand the overlay requires authenticity and openness on the part of the maker and the player. Bringing the three variables into alignment is not something any one variable does but rather emerges as the result of active listening and creative growth.