We first heard about Swedish luthier Michael Sanden through his post as design consultant on Tanglewood’s Master Design series of acoustic guitars. These instruments were very well received and garnered some very favourable reviews in these pages. But what about the instruments from Michael’s own workshop? When we laid eyes – and hands – upon the Roots Series dreadnought reviewed this month, we were suitably impressed and thought it was time for an in depth interview with the man himself. Our story starts 31 years ago…
When did you first become involved with guitar building?
I started to build guitars in 1982. I read a lot of American guitar magazines and one was called Frets; in one edition there was an article about the guitar builder Bozo Pandunavac. I saw that he took on apprentices and so I applied and learned to build steel-string guitars and mandolins. Bozo had a workshop in San Diego. Most of the things we did involved using hand tools, which was really good because I hadn’t any prior training with woodworking and so I learned the basics. The second luthier I studied with was Georg Bolin. George was the most well known luthier in Sweden at the time and three other guys and myself were the first to study with him. I stayed on for two years and then was offered a job as his assistant for a further two years, learning to build mostly classical guitars. The two luthiers I studied with had two completely different working styles and approached guitar building in different ways. Bozo was more refined and worked with a lot of hand tools and George was more of a machine guy. With the experience I gained from my two teachers I started to build my own guitars and over the years, and I guess I have found my way of building via those guys.
Are you personally involved in the building of all your guitars?
Today, Sanden Guitars is myself and my business partner Olof Nilsson. I mostly do all the building and Olof takes care of all the paperwork, the website, and other admin things. When needed, he helps out in the workshop, too. Because I do all the building I am personally involved with everything that concerns our guitars. Selecting and buying the materials is one of the most important things and over the years I have established a good working relationship with wood suppliers all over the world. The tops are the most important things for us – most of the time we use Sitka spruce and recently we have started to use Sapele and, in some cases, spruce from Switzerland.
Do you tone tap the tops?
I do employ tone tapping on my tops but in a limited way. I use it mostly to hear that the top has a clear sound with no buzzing. When I have glued the top and backs to the sides I sand the top and thin it out so I get the exact flexibility I want and for this I have trained my right hand to “feel” the top.
If someone wants a custom acoustic guitar built by you, how interactive are you in the design process?
Most of the time customers have a good idea of what they want and that is usually what we start with. Until recently we have only used our own body shapes and have not made any copies. So if a customer wants a Sanden guitar we start with one of our five shapes and work from there. We have our headstock shape, bridge shape, and logo that we always incorporate into the design.
There is an initiative among builders to use more sustainable woods – is this something you do with your instruments?
We know that most of the wood we buy has been harvested in such a way to preserve the forest. I wish we could go to the actual places they grow and buy there and then, but to some extent we have to rely on the sawmill owners that everything is okay. I also think that in the future we will need to find other species to build instruments with; some of the woods I used to use ten years ago obviously are not available anymore. I have been lucky, though; I bought a lot of Brazilian rosewood from Georg Bolin and that wood came to Sweden in 1958 and so it is old growth. At the moment we have enough Brazilian rosewood for about 20 guitars. We make one or two guitars with that wood per year, so I probably have enough for my lifetime as a builder. However, we could not find enough good Honduras mahogany and so we started to look for other woods for our necks. What we found was Sapele which is a kind of mahogany, but heavier and harder. I started to experiment with building our necks in another way and now we have a lighter neck that is more stable and generates no more than 2% waste, compared to 20% the way I built before. Sapele was also the start for our Roots Series. I wanted to try it for tops and it worked really great. Another very important thing is that we can get hold of really nice Sapele from a sawmill just an hour away from us. They supply wood for a lot of very exclusive boat builders around here on the west coast of Sweden, so the quality is very high.
All your models include a zero fret – what is your reasoning behind this?
Early on I found that I could hear an imbalance between open chords and barre chords. By using a zero fret there is always a fret under the string and this gives the guitar a better balance. The second thing is that the intonation improves, and the third thing is that it’s easier to push down the string at the first fret because a zero fret is rounded and not a sharp edge like a bone nut has to be to get the intonation right. When we fret our fretboards we put in all the frets except the zero fret first, and then we dress the frets before putting the zero fret in, giving us a perfect string height with no buzz. Another thing is that the zero fret does not wear down as fast as a bone nut does; I have not changed one zero fret yet, after 31 years and over 400 guitars! The nut we use behind the zero fret is ebony and this just guides the strings sideways. Our guitars also have a bigger angle on the headstock than what is customary and this makes the pressure on the zero fret greater so that our guitars have a very stable sound even when they are tuned down.
I was approached by one of the owners at a guitar show in Sweden seven years ago and our collaboration has grown over the years. This year we have added a mandolin to the Master Series.
Tell us about the new Roots Series…
We had customers asking for a more vintage look but with a Sanden sound and feel and when we found the very nice Sapele everything just fell into place. We use a tobacco brown sunburst on most of the models and either Sitka spruce or Sapele for the top depending on what sound the customer wants. On these models we use a more traditional bridge and headstock shape, but the butterfly motif and the zero fret are still there. We offer the guitars with either 12 or 14 fret necks, with a regular square or slotted headstock. At the moment we offer four different models: the dreadnought, DRB-R, the SRB-R, the SRB-D and the LRB-R. We have tried to make the guitars as affordable as possible; the retail price is just over £3,000 which we think is great value for money for a handmade guitar.
In your opinion, what sort of thing makes a really great acoustic guitar?
The answer would be to try and explain our philosophy. The most important thing is to make a guitar that fits the customer and makes them happy. For us it is always very important to get the best materials we can find – dry and perfectly quarter sawn. We aim for a perfect balance all the way up the neck, too; I make all our necks by hand and it is a very big challenge to make one that fits the customer’s hand. When all those things are combined in one guitar, then it is a really good guitar!