From the December 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY ADAM LEVY
David Eichelbaum has a reputation as an instrument restorer who’ll do as little as possible. No, he’s not lazy. He’s as meticulous and hardworking as any luthier can be. His M.O. stems from one simple tenet—one that should be familiar to Buddhists and medical practitioners alike: Do no harm. “Sometimes,” says Eichelbaum, “due to the limitations of past repair techniques, some of the originality of a collectible instrument may be lost, but it’s important to appreciate the fact that most of today’s collectible instruments were once just old guitars without much value. I’ve mostly worked on guitars from collectors. With instruments like that, anything I do to it is going to affect its value. I have to be conservative.”
One recent example of Eichelbaum’s conservative work was a repair he did for Anthony Wilson—a player, not a collector. (You may know of Wilson from his own jazz-inspired projects or from his tenure with vocalist Diana Krall.) Wilson recently bought an immaculate 1923 Martin 0-18 from Folkway Music in Ontario, Canada, and had it shipped to his home in Los Angeles. When the guitar arrived on Wilson’s doorstep, it was clear that it was damaged in transit. Some unknown object had pierced the packaging and the case, and
had poked a hole in the guitar’s side. Eichelbaum was able to do a structural repair that is virtually invisible to the naked eye. However, he did not refinish the area, since he felt it wasn’t absolutely necessary to the repair.
Eichelbaum can do some amazing things, but he knows that there are things that can’t be done. “It does nobody any service,” he says, “to tell a customer ‘I can make that go away’—and then I give the guitar back and not only is the original problem not gone, but now I’ve refinished the whole guitar. It’s much more effective to say, ‘I’m really sorry this happened, but this is going to be there and it’s just part of the guitar now.’ Then they’ll go on with life. Anyway, the human eye is the most accurate instrument on the planet. When it comes to finish issues and color issues, if I don’t think I can fool you, I’m not going to try, because it will only look worse.”
Eichelbaum is also a builder, offering original designs inspired by classic models—including the Grand Auditorium (“000”), Grand Concert (“00”), and OM. While our interview took place at his Ojai, California, workshop, he happened to have a couple of guitars on hand, awaiting customer pickup. One was a gorgeous 13-fret Nick Lucas–style guitar, featuring the sort of wider string spacing that fingerstyle players tend to prefer. The other was a Martin-esque 000 model with a spruce top and koa back and sides.
‘As much as you think you have it figured out, it’s still a little bit of a mystery for anyone who’s being honest about it.’
While these two guitars bear cosmetic resemblance to prewar Gibsons and Martins, respectively, things are less traditional under the hood. For example, he prefers to use laminated tail blocks over solid wood because they’re lighter in weight and more supportive. “I want to lock down the neck area,” he says, “and I want the sides to be fairly stable. That gives me a lot of freedom to keep the top and back pretty light. Also, I’m a big proponent of not putting stuff in the neck. I don’t use adjustable truss rods anymore.”
Eichelbaum has taken apart—and put back together—enough vintage Martin flattops to know what the special ones are supposed to sound like. Generally, though, it’s not his goal to replicate or mimic that voice in his own builds. Only once in his career has he built a slavishly accurate Martin clone. His interest in building such a guitar was piqued when a client brought in an early-’30s 00 model that was badly broken. “After some extensive repairs,” he says, “I got the guitar together and I was so taken with it.” When the client asked Eichelbaum if he’d consider building one just like it, he decided to take on the challenge. “I did it as an experiment. I wanted to see if I did every single thing the way that Martin did it in 1931, would it sound like a Martin, or would it still sound like one of my guitars? I wanted to see if I could remove myself from the equation, so to speak. I deviated from many of the things I’ve learned over the years—even my tried-and-true red spruce bracing.” He used Sitka spruce braces instead, because that’s the way they did it in Nazareth. “It turned out to be a really great guitar. It’s as close to sounding like a vintage Martin as anything I’ve ever heard. At the same time, I think it does have some element of my sound. I still couldn’t take myself out of it, though I’d done so many things differently.”
This experiment reinforced what Eichelbaum already believed—essentially, that the guitar is always a reflection of the builder. “It’s hard to remove yourself,” he says. “It’s like learning to play a cover song. I can learn all the right notes but I’ll never sound exactly like that other guy. We’re all striving to achieve something that inspired us. If you’re lucky, somewhere along the line, you find something of your own in that process.”
Though he has learned a whole lot, over the years, about what makes guitars tick, Eichelbaum says there’s always some x-factor involved in building. “As much as you think you have it figured out,” he says, “it’s still a little bit of a mystery for anyone who’s being honest about it. You never really know what a guitar is going to sound like until you’ve strung it up. I think that’s part of what draws a lot of people—including me—to it. Beyond that, you never know what it’s going to become. Different guitars end up with different people and take on new personalities. It’s fun to see that.”
In the end, says Eichelbaum, one of the key things that make a guitar memorable is the way that it plays. “We don’t have the capacity to remember sound,” he posits. “If I asked you what a guitar you played ten years ago sounded like, you couldn’t tell me. All you could tell me is what you thought of it, or what you remember feeling when you were playing the guitar. There are guitars out there that sound great to the player but don’t project very well. There are guitars that project well, but don’t sound all that impressive as you’re sitting behind it, playing it. Some guitars, for reasons that I don’t really understand myself, are just more inspiring. I’ve run across thousands and thousands of guitars. There’ve only been a handful that made me think ‘Wow, I wanna keep playing this one.’ That’s what I hope, as a builder—to build a little bit of that into my guitars.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.