Born and raised in New York City, Sherwood “Woody” Phifer was one of those kids who took everything apart for some reengineering and improvement. On his high school track team, he modded his competition outdoor shoes into indoor flats to the envy of his teammates, so it’s no surprise to see what happened when he turned his attention to guitars.
In 1971, Phifer headed to West 48th Street, Manhattan’s Music Row, and got hired at Guitar Lab, then the center of the developing new wave of guitars and pickups. Repairing during the day and gigging at night, he scratch-built solidbody electrics for his own use, evolving and tweaking his designs and honing his skills as a craftsman. Working in a basic little shop that was just this side of primitive, he was able to fulfill his vision, realizing sophisticated, unique instruments to very high standards.
Phifer set up his own workshop on 48th Street in 1976, and seven years later—realizing that the overhead was getting in the way of him fully developing his ideas—he moved the shop to upstate New York. Since then he has built full-time and developed new designs, including his bold reimagining of the traditional acoustic archtop. His fresh thinking and artistic touch combine to make his instruments both striking and familiar.
Phifer and I have been inspiring and learning from each other ever since we met in our 20s on West 48th Street in 1978, when I was stoked to find another young builder who was stretching out and tackling the big challenges in guitar design. A friendly competitiveness has always been a part of our enduring friendship. I recently checked in with Phifer to reminisce and share the thinking behind his lutherie.
Here we are again, chewing the fat about guitar making one more time! If memory serves, we started this behavior as brats on the West 48th Street in Manhattan in 1978, right?
Yes, it was a very exciting time and 48th Street was buzzing with activity. The vintage market was in full swing, and the music industry had us all very busy. That was the beginning of our friendship, long before there was anything called Facebook or Instagram [laughs]!
You were completely immersed in building beautiful one-off carved solidbody guitars and basses back then, with an impressive client list, and I was completely obsessed with designing and building newfangled acoustic archtops that nobody was buying. I guess we already knew who was smarter.
I don’t think I was smarter, just clueless as to the finer aspects of building anything acoustic. The archtop didn’t fit the narrative for me; I was a solidbody player with all the pedals and gear needed to play funk and R&B. I didn’t come around until I got hip to George Benson and then went further back to Wes [Montgomery]. Both of these giants are my idols.
Well, now that you’ve come around to building responsive archtops, we’ve been having some new discussions in recent years. Why not start off with your latest thinking about your unique archtops, and help folks understand what your goals and passions are?
For me, the archtop represents the next frontier of design and building. It will challenge any builder to understand the acoustic potential that lies within a given structure or shape that utilizes carved tone plates, as opposed to what you would find on a flattop acoustic. Both instruments might share some constructional aspects, but the archtop has an additional variable to work with, and it’s a major contributing factor in how these two instruments differ.
Carving a top and back requires the utmost from the builder’s skill set, and over time one can develop an intuitive feel for proper carving and tuning. The same can be said for creating the bracing members and determining how they will be configured, whether X or parallel—or perhaps something new and imaginative. The precise fitting of the bracing is extremely important and, if done correctly, very little clamping pressure will be necessary. The bracing members are major contributors to the way in which the bridge and string energy is distributed throughout the top. Their shape, width, height, and taper are critical factors in how they do their job.
At present I am using two bracing methods—a modified X bracing and a modified parallel bracing, depending on the instrument’s intended voicing and the user’s pickup preference. My neck and tailblock are proprietary in design and work in conjunction with the shape of the instrument, adding additional rigidity without lots of weight. The bridge and tailpiece are also my own designs, and attention to the details of fit and finish are apparent at their attachment/mating surfaces.
In today’s world of amplified music, the acoustic archtop guitar has come into its own, no longer relegated to an accompanist’s instrument, but aimed at the virtuoso. It is the lead solo instrument, and as such commands your attention to listen. Its voice is changing to make this transition for contemporary players. The modern archtop has become more acoustic in its voicing and a little less percussive. I have moved the bridge to a more central place on the lower bout, and I have my own thoughts about this important placement and how it works towards building an exceptional guitar.
Your designs have always had such a strong identity; they are impossible to confuse with others. Want to speak to this issue, both as a designer and a tone seeker?
When I designed the body shape for my archtop I had a few things in mind that were paramount. The shape as it relates to the bridge location in the central area of the lower bout was of great concern to me and my attention to this aspect played a big part in the design. I decided it was important to use an asymmetrical shape to help the bass/treble balance, both acoustic and amplified.
I draw upon an analogy that pictures the great portion of the acoustic top as a pond, a still body of water. The string’s energy driven through the bridge is represented by a rock which will be tossed into the pond. Because of the bridge location on the body, it produces its own series of cascading ripples. Those ripples or vibrations will travel in an even pattern to the shore or perimeter of the instrument. Here’s where I think the asymmetry helps: At my chosen bridge location, the ripples or vibrations will have a more even distribution of the energy/vibration throughout the pond/top. Now the notes will retain more fundamental energy, i.e., presence and articulation. These vibrations vary, as one side has a shorter travel distance than the other. These are two different acoustic signatures with marked differences in attack, decay, sustain, presence, and articulation.
Ever wonder why some large archtops for all their size never seem to project well or lack presence and articulation? One problem with some of the larger and longer body instruments is that they outgrow the scale length and misplace the bridge. In these cases the pond has grown longer in one direction, making the vibrational string energy travel even further and lose energy, often apparent in a Gibson Super 400–size archtop.
One important effect of this bridge location is the change in note character from a more percussive to a more transparent acoustic nature. Note quality is one of the most important aspects of any instrument and is number one with me. The volume of an instrument is important, but articulation and presence are what make a great instrument. The ability to produce notes which contain all of the fundamentals, to blossom and fill their assigned space in the music—that’s the goal.
It’s so important that while playing a chord, the guitar must offer a pianistic string separation response. String separation is crucial to sophisticated players; it’s really impossible to overstate, and lots of archtops fail here and just sound like mush when you play close voicings or big chords.
Note character is the holy grail for me. I’ve spent thousands of hours over the past 45 years playing, practicing, and listening to the nuances of what happens under your fingertips. How the body of the instrument resonates and conveys the vibrational conversation to the player can be a magical experience if all things are right. Whether an instrument is forcefully played using a fair amount of left-hand pressure and aggressive right-hand attack or a light touch and attack, it should be equally up to the task and complementary to any input throughout its sonic range.
When I build I am very aware of the weight of each component to create an instrument in a very specific weight range. Finishing at optimal weight maximizes the instrument’s response at every part of the dynamic range, so it’s a huge deal. Again, whether your touch is aggressive or light, the instrument should retain its note presence and articulation. As a designer/builder I find that my inner-ear note value continues to grow as my understanding of note production and its complexities is better understood.
So I deliberately designed an asymmetrical body shape in order to control the balance between treble and bass response and output. This choice changed the feedback threshold, giving the player the ability to reach their required playing volume before they hit a critical feedback level. All acoustic instruments will feed back, but this shape offers a little more headroom warning as the threshold is approached.
Yeah, that’s a big one, trying to discourage feedback. Yours is a unique approach, to be sure. We’ve had lots of talks over the years about the role of the neck and headstock in tone production. Want to riff on that?
The headstock is a key player in sound and tone, an additional tone plate that has a role to play. Its size, shape, stiffness, and weight have an influence on note quality. I wanted to incorporate a headstock string length of the E and B strings to something in between a Fender and a Gibson to help control string tension, and the same goes for the D and G strings; hence the four-and-two headstock. I take the trouble to taper the head in thickness, both to reduce mass and to allow it to be a better acoustic partner to the whole of the instrument.
I know you worked for years to develop your solidbody instruments, and that later, you built semi-hollow and chambered guitars. What were the most interesting things that you learned from those projects, and how did they bring your understanding forward to today’s work?
Creating an instrument that was user-friendly and downright inviting and compelling to play was the goal. My original solidbody design served as a test bed for things to come, and I played that guitar exclusively for the 20 years of my professional gigging career.
As my design began to take shape, I found myself paying closer attention to the acoustic aspect of this electric design and started looking for ways to increase its acoustic signature. Much was learned about various types of wood and their specific weight and vibratory properties in those early years, but there is so much more info on that topic I look to absorb and put to use. The electric period gave me a strong foundation in the art of carving and extracting the most out of a solidbody concept. In essence I took the aspect of carving my particular body shape to a point that it became a tone plate with internal tone structures and gave me a greater understanding of carving that I now apply to the carving of the tops and backs of my archtops.
At this point in my career I am still excited about exploring the new nuances that will make themselves apparent in the next build or design idea that comes to completion. As I continue to evolve as a designer and builder, I am inspired by what I have created thus far in my life and the work of my fellow luthiers that drive this side of the industry.
Woody, it’s been a great hang! I’m so proud and happy that we’ve been friends and co-conspirators all these years.
It’s been a pleasure once again having this exchange with you on our favorite topic. We’ve been friends and comrades for almost as long as I have been involved in this journey of sound. I look forward with great anticipation to what’s next in the evolution of our designs and instruments—and the music they will inspire.
Ken Parker, the founder of Parker Guitars and designer of the Fly electric guitar, now builds unique archtops in his Gloucester, Massachusetts, workshop. kenparkerarchtops.com