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Getting into the spirit of the guitar

While reading to my  7 year old daughter Laurelyn the other day, we picked up a book on how to attract fairies. It was formatted by culture, and about halfway through we got to Spain where they describe a mischievous fairy called Duende. This is the second time I have encountered Duende, though the first time I held Duende more as a spirit, though I must admit I don't have a very developed idea of just what a fairy might be.

When I first started into building guitars, Michael Dunn, just returned from his apprenticeship in the Spanish tradition on the island of Mallorca, happened to mention the concept of Duende. This idea has resonated increasingly strongly in me over the years, and at this point I can find no better explanation for magical quality of the majority of my instruments. It is as though my instruments have a life of their own from the moment they are strung up, and while my work is not unique in possessing this quality, there are plenty of new guitars out there that do not seem so to me.

The idea as I got it from Dunn runs like this. When a musician has put a lot of time into a guitar, and has learned to love it, the guitar can become the home of a spirit which the Spanish call Duende. This spirit causes the guitar to have a feeling of life and enhances not only the musicians experience of playing on the instrument, but also the experience of the observer.

The Spanish belief however goes a step further. It is possible for the luthier who builds the instrument, with the right attitude toward his work, to create a home for Duende even before the instrument is completed. While I do not ordinarily think of myself as superstitious, it is true that a day rarely goes by that I do not think about Duende as I work.

Here is a further thought I have had on the subject. You may have heard that early guitars and guitar like instruments usually had a rosette that filled  in the sound hole, either carved in a wooden lattice, or made from layers of cleverly cut paper. The story is that this is to keep demons from inhabiting the guitar. I wonder if this isn't turned around, and the true reason was to keep the luthier installed Duende from escaping. This may have been an ungrounded fear. I have yet to see one of my inhabited guitars become  dead, though I have heard others speak of this happening  to other instruments. It can be termed "played out", but this usually ends up meaning it is time to renew the joinery as thing have gotten loose, and integrity of the joinery is essential.
Bruce Sexauer, copyright 2003
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