The Ramirez guitar
Meeting an exceptional guitar and an exceptional player
Last spring at the Frankfurter Musikmesse my friend Burkhard Wolk (Albéniz Guitar Duo) heard Jan Akkerman playing a Ramirez Guitar. After the gig they talked to each other. For all his enthusiasm about Jan’s music and performance Burkhard noted, “The Ramirez has a wonderful sound but she’s not quite in tune.” In response Jan asked,“Do you know any guitar that really is in tune?” Burkhard simply said, “Yes, I do” and told Jan about me and my NoWoScale (NoWoMensur in German).
NoWoScale is my invention. It corrects the intonation of a guitar – and purifies the sound. Since 1999, Burkhard’s Fleta has been set up with the NoWoScale and he is a very happy man. Since then, the intonation of this guitar has been even in all positions. Burkhard says it is “like a well tuned piano”. After Jan heard the whole story he said, “Okay, if your friend was able to accomplish that, let’s see what he can do for me”, and gave the Ramirez to him.
Together with my business partner Uwe Lehmann I manage the guitar shop Wolf & Lehmann. We sell classic guitars with all accessories and have a workshop for every repair.
But before tackling this issue, many other problems had to be solved. Thirty years and some hundred thousand miles around the world left their marks. I wrote a letter to Jan to outline the situation:
Deine Gitarre ist ein sehr gutes Instrument, aber bei ihrer Herstellung ist ein Fehler gemacht worden. Der Halswinkel stimmt nicht (das ist der Winkel zwischen der Griffbrett-Ebene und der Decke). Es ist eine Klassische Gitarre mit dem Halswinkel einer Flamenco-Gitarre! Sehr wahrscheinlich war von Anfang an immer die Saitenlage viel zu hoch, und die Gitarre hat sich sehr schwer gespielt. Dadurch kam es auch zu den Intonationsproblemen, obwohl die Mensur der Gitarre recht gut ist… Die einzig sinnvolle Methode einer Korrektur besteht darin, das Griffbrett zum Kopf hin abzuhobeln… (und einen neuen Steg aufzuleimen)".
After we came to an agreement, the work began. First I measured the pitches and the scale exactly at that starting point. Then I corrected the neck and fingerboard angle. I re-fretted the fingerboard, and glued a new bridge to the top. Then I fixed the big cracks in the back, and glued the crossbar and braces. Many little cracks were glued too. In accordance with the scale data, I made a new saddle and a new bridge bone. Wherever necessary, I restored the lacquer. All along the way, I endeavoured to maintain the original condition of that instrument.
After all this work was done I had what was needed to correct the intonation. The starting point may clearly be seen in Diagram 1. It shows the mean values of four measurement series (440 pitch). I measured the differences between the pitches of all fingered notes and the theoretical pitches of the evenly tempered semitones.
You can see the “g-string problem” – which is horrible for every guitarist with sensitive ears (and often enough for the musicians with they are playing together!). Also visible are the negative pitch differences on the first five frets. Also note how the pitch differences increase at higher positions on the fingerboard.
NoWoScale is a way to bring these graphs as close as possible (± 1,5 cent) to the x-axis. Up to the 12th fret that works very well, but up from XII the pitch differences increase distinctly. That cannot be helped, but is not so important because the player himself causes considerable distortion by playing in the highest positions.
In case of the Ramirez there was a particular difficulty to surmount. Normally the fret positions are calculated by using a generally- known formula. This is the same formula you use to calculate the evenly tempered semitone frequencies. Some luthiers seem to use manipulated formulas. They try to minimize the typical intonation problem in that way. An example may be found in the older Gibson guitars.
The Ramirez in question has a manipulated scale too. In the lower positions the fret distances are too short. In the middle positions they are normal. In the upper positions they are a bit too long. One can say that every fret distance belongs to a different scale length. This causes negative pitch deviations in the lower positions and positive deviations in the upper positions (“positive” does not mean “good”!!!).
Some time ago I corrected the intonation of my Gibson ES 335 successfully, so I knew roughly what to do in case of the Ramirez. Nevertheless I had to be very careful and feel my way step by step. To make a mistake with such a fine and valuable instrument could cause irreparable harm. I did not want to ruin the beautiful Ramirez of Jan Akkerman – a guitarist whom I admire greatly.
It took time to find the solution. Diagram 2 shows the pitch deviations of the finished instrument. This is the mean values of the last two measurement series. NoWoScale does not require the luthier to change any fret position. It works by changing the string supporting points on saddle and bridge bone in accordance with the string action and the shape of the fingerboard.
Finally, it was time to arrange to meet Jan, and time to bring back the “beautiful old lady” to him. We met each other on a sunny afternoon at my friend Burkhard’s house. Because I grew up in the Democratic Republic of Germany, I had never seen Jan on stage. Nor had I met him. In my youth I knew FOCUS, and I remember some interesting pieces. I knew that Jan had developed further during the years. I also knew some of his new compositions through his DVD “Jan Akkerman live”, which I enjoy even more than the older ones. So I was anxious to meet him.
We got on with each other from the first moment we met. Jan asked me to explain what I did with the guitar. I showed him on my laptop the whole development in Diagram 1 and Diagram 2. He played the guitar and was amazed about the beautiful new tone and timbre. Then over coffee and cake, we talked about our personal histories, about our experiences and our hopes. I came to know a wonderful person who remains true to himself by constantly developing.
Unfortunately the afternoon was far too short. I had to say good bye and went off to a gig with my band. I hope it was not the last meeting with this exceptional man Jan Akkerman.
Norbert Wolf, Autumn 2005