October 13, 2015
“I was alive in the forest, I was cut by the cruel axe, in life I was silent but in death I sweetly sing.” — Inscription on an Elizabethan lute.
Samir Karnik is a luthier. The word comes from “lute”, the guitar’s medieval cousin, and at its most basic definition refers to a person who makes or repairs string instruments; but Samir describes it differently. “I bring life to dead pieces of lumber. The guitar as an instrument begins its journey as a little seed rooted in the forest ground and grows to towering heights with the help of the sun, rain and soil. The tree, assassinated for its natural perfection is cut into little dead limbs which then come into my hands. I must execute a painstaking surgery to re-stitch these dismembered pieces and give them another chance to live. If I am successful, it will live on for decades singing a song for anyone that cares to hear its tune. In its totality, the guitar is an instrument that contains aspects of the sun, moon, stars and the soul.”
Having picked up the guitar at the age of 10, Samir has had a deep relationship with the instrument. This, combined with a love for making things with his hands merged seamlessly into the craft he took up over two years ago. Under Enzo Guitars, Samir has made 8 guitars to date, experimenting with alternative forms of wood and techniques to make his art more environmentally friendly.
The enzo (Japanese: ensō) is a circle drawn with one uninhibited brush stroke to express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create. In its form, it represents the principle of controlling the balance of composition through asymmetry and irregularity.
What makes the perfect guitar?
While all acoustic guitars share the same basic construction and design elements, there are important differences that affect their sound and feel. Certain characteristics that guitarists look for in an acoustic guitar broadly encompass tone, playability, shape/design and various aesthetic aspects. For a guitar maker, the objective is to ensure that a critical efficiency is achieved when a guitar string is plucked and the energy from the string’s vibration is transformed through the guitar body and amplified as sound. Of course, the instrument must also feel comfortable in the hands of a guitar player.
Perhaps there is no such thing as a perfect guitar – but a guitar that inherently inspires an individual to not only pick it up and play but also to take care of it – a companion at best, a friend until the end. A great guitar is a little like exquisite wine, that matures with age and stands the test of time.
The luthier’s task then is to isolate specific quirks of a guitar player, while attempting to integrate them into a design that is safe, sound and snug. A guitar complementing the playing style, attitude and individuality of the guitarist, is ideal. This perhaps allows the player to focus more on creating music than the medium through which it is created – i.e. the guitar – and that is where magic is truly experienced.
Tell me about how you came to learn to make a guitar.
While I was working at the bank, which involved spending a lot of time on a computer, I decided I wanted to build things with my hands using wood in particular with the eventual objective of making a guitar someday. For that, I would have to learn the intricacies of wood work. I would go after work and sit with carpenters till late at night working on little projects. They taught me how to use a hand saw, a planer, a set square and a bunch of other basic tools and techniques that are essential to crafting wooden things. My first project was a foldable chair that looked like a robot. After I was a bit confident with the basics I took some time off work to enrol in a guitar-making course in Goa under Chris Horton, an experienced luthier. After about 15 days, I had made my first acoustic guitar with Chris.
For someone who has grown up amongst skyscrapers in an increasingly cyber world with no real experience or exposure to woodcraft, the feeling of crafting an acoustic guitar with my own hands was empowering. His ethic was to use the most basic available tools and techniques while making an acoustic guitar. He is a great teacher and a gem of a person and provided me with the right guidance. I would party the night away and wake up early morning and head to his workshop at the end of Baga beach and work on my guitar till late afternoon. By the end of this program I had made my first ever guitar. This experience had a huge impact on me as I had discovered the forgotten joy of working with my hands. I promptly came back to Mumbai and quit my job to begin my next adventure, into a space that I had never dared to venture into.
Once my brother got married and moved out of the house, I converted his room into my little guitar-making factory. Initially I spent a few months making little tools, jigs and establishing a supply chain for all the materials that I would require to make a guitar. YouTube lessons helped me make a machine – a drum sander at almost 1/10th the cost of what was readily available – an invaluable tool in the making of a guitar. Since then I have spent countless hours watching videos online on various guitar-building techniques that have guided me at my craft. Instagram has also been a great resource, as luthiers from across the world put up work-in-progress images that I am able to learn from.
Traditionally, guitars have been made using a select few species of tonewoods such as Spruce, Rosewood, Mahogany and Maple, that are said to be the most resonant, resulting in the best possible acoustics. There is heavy deforestation in countries where these species are available. Brazilian Rosewood, found in the Amazon Rainforest, is known as the ‘holy grail’ of tonewoods, and is a threatened species. There is a blanket moratorium that prevents anyone from accessing this lumber and legal restrictions on its trade and transport. Instrument makers have resorted to shifting their supply lines to other developing countries in Southeast Asia and Africa where there is no implementation of environmental laws. India is now the largest exporter of Rosewood and a significant exporter of Ebony, both of which are in high demand from the instrument making industry. This results in indiscriminate and unsustainable logging within the country.
What are the things you do to keep your craft environmentally friendly?
I am currently on a quest to find alternative, sustainable species to work with. There is a lot of indigenous wood available in the country that is generally being used to make low value products like furniture, doorframes and packaging. My experiments with Tamarind, Jackfruit, Mango, Indian laurel and Neem have been promising. Not only do these guitars look unique because of their different grain patterns and the wood colour, they also tend to have their own individual sonic signatures. After all it is not only the wood that determines the acoustic quality of a guitar, but the construction and design that also has a significant bearing.
With all the waste wood that is generated from building a guitar, I try not to throw it away and recycle it into something useful – some wooden jewelry, bird boxes, inlay material, Christian crosses etc – anything that can be further used by someone, anyone. I now offer little recycled knick-knacks with every guitar using the waste generated from that same guitar to the client, as an add-on. It could be anything, so it’s sort of a surprise!
Also to offset the lumber that I use to make a guitar, for every Enzo Handcrafted Guitar that is built, a small portion of the profits are reinvested towards planting 10 trees through GrowTrees, an NGO recognized by the UNEP and WWF, at one of their aforestation projects in India. Clients also receive a certificate from GrowTree that mentions this contribution and the specific location at which trees will be planted on their behalf.
How long do you usually take to make a guitar?
It takes me about 2 months.
What tools do you use?
I use all kinds of tools. One of the first things that I made was a drum sander, which is a machine that thicknesses pieces of wood. It cost me nothing, as I used scraps from an old doorframe to make its structure and mounted a cheap second hand motor to power the spindle. While I have recently stocked up my workshop with power tools, I try to avoid using them for every task.
How has making your own guitar changed you as a musician?
Playing guitars is something that I really enjoy and while it allows me to find my own creative expression, it also permits me to lose myself to the moment and its sounds, which is simply magical. Making guitars is an extension of the guitarist in me.
What inspires the creation of anything, whether a song or a guitar, however abstract or concrete; is the ability to unfold your own myth. It is a form of endless self-discovery. As a guitar maker, I have learnt the value of failure, the significance of searching for alternative approaches to problem-solving, the prominence of fresh beginnings and to accept chaos as a natural function of an uncertain existence.