A couple of years ago, the San Francisco-based luthier Tim Frick got an excited call from a friend who lives in El Granada, California, a small coastal town not far from the city. The friend had been keeping an eye on a massive log floating in the ocean and noticed that a storm had pitched it onto the rocky beach. Though not aware of the wood’s species, he thought that Frick might be able to put it to good use.
Frick went to the coast and—to the wariness of some locals, but with the blessing of the harbor patrol—cut into the log. “It was nearly two feet wide at the base. From the first whiff, I knew that it was Alaskan yellow cedar—a very stiff wood that would be great for the back and sides of a flat-back archtop guitar,” he says.
Cedar might seem like a curious choice for the back and sides of an archtop—as they are traditionally made from maple—but for the last decade Frick has quietly been pushing the envelope on the design of the archtop, once considered a jazz instrument but now being reappraised for use in a range of styles. “With flattops, everyone has an OM model, but with archtops it seems that you can do whatever you want,” he says.
Having noticed Frick’s instruments online, I visited his shop to get a closer look at his work. Frick, a soft-spoken and thoughtful man in his early 40s, had just completed a guitar for the Santa Barbara Acoustic Instrument Celebration. It was laid out on a workbench, an overhead light emphasizing the complex sheen of its fresh French polish. “It’s just pure ethanol and shellac. You can apply it without a respirator, in your shop or even bedroom or kitchen. It doesn’t make your heart start beating fast, and it’s not going to kill you,” he says, referring to the hazards of working with nitrocellulose lacquer.
Frick holds up the guitar and points out its most nonstandard feature—one that he’s been using on most of his guitars—an ice cream cone–shaped neck heel whose purpose is as much functional as aesthetic. He explains that the guitar is made with a bolt-on neck and that the heel has a dial for easy adjustment of the neck angle: “For years I did mostly repair—including a lot of neck resets—and I like the idea of not ever having to do that on one of my guitars.”
‘With flattops, everyone has an OM model, but with archtops it seems that you can do whatever you want.’
Frick, who grew up in the Bay Area town of Moraga, took up the bass as a freshman in high school and formally studied the instrument at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts). Having tooled around in his father’s wood shop, he made himself an electric bass before becoming inspired to make an archtop guitar. “I just thought they looked cool and thought that they’d be fun to make,” he says. “Around 1995, I took one of Tom Ribbecke’s archtop classes, and that’s how I got into making them.”
Somewhat uncommon for a luthier, Frick is also a professional musician—until recently he played bass in the house band for the NPR storytelling series Snap Judgment—and, with a penchant for extended harmony, he enjoys playing jazz guitar as well. His musical life has informed his work as a luthier; he builds based on what he wants to hear. “I’m trying to move away from the traditional archtop sound to one that’s less harsh and more bass-rich—an instrument that still has the projection of an archtop and can be played fingerstyle,” he says, quietly picking a complex chord progression on the Santa Barbara guitar.
This sound has dictated Frick’s modifications to the contours of both the guitar’s soundboard and back. When he first started building, he copied the dramatically carved arches of the prototypical example, but his own interpretation has evolved into a much subtler top arch, with widened X-bracing for a refined sound. Frick explains that he has recently been favoring flat backs on his archtops as well. “It’s almost a hybrid between a flattop and an archtop,” he says, playing a walking bass line. “You’ve still got that high-end clarity you don’t normally get from a flattop, that articulation, but with a little more bounce. You play [a flat-back archtop] fingerstyle and you feel the body jump when you hit those low notes.” As Frick talks shop, I can’t help but wonder what it’s like to work as a luthier in San Francisco, one of the world’s most expensive cities, with a median home price of $1.5 million and rising. Frick makes only a small handful of guitars per year, and with prices starting at $7,200 he must hardly be making a killing. I brought this up delicately. “It’s true that more and more artists are leaving the city,” he says, “and the high-end guitar market isn’t what it was, say, before 2008. But luckily, no matter what the economy’s like, people are not going to stop needing repairs—or booze.”
I mention that the repairs must not only be a reliable stream of income, but beneficial to his work as a luthier as well. Frick agrees, explaining that he’s learned about what works and what doesn’t in thousands of guitars of all types and makers. Further, it’s caused him to consider future repairs in his own work. “I finish the neck and body separately [to make neck removal easier],” he says, motioning in the direction of finished guitar components awaiting assembly. “You want to plan ahead for the work that’s inevitably going to happen later on—you want these guitars to be around for a long time.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.