Talking with Luthier Neil Russell
Building Weissenborn guitars for two decades, In excess of 500+ hollow necks built and sold to date Neil Russell at Celtic Cross Instruments is quite possibly the most prolific post war Weissenborn luthier there’s ever been. With esteemed players Xavier Rudd and Ben Harper on his client list Neil has seen it all and could literally write the book on building weissenborn style guitars if so inclined. He may not be an author but he is a teacher and mentor and has already passed on his decades of experience to a new luthier journeyman and fellow Canadian Michael Rusen teaching him the tricks of the trade. We will be talking to Michael in part II of this double bill feature but in this section we spoke to Neil about his career and business as well as musing on numerous Weissenborn related topics.
When did you build your first Weissenborn?
My son was about 15 or so and was taking guitar lessons from a local music store. While he was taking his lesson I would sit in the store and play what ever they had on the wall. One day Doug Cox came in and was waiting for his student to show up. He and I would chat about guitars and music. I new he was a great slide player and had seen him many times in the past. Eventually the topic of slide came up. Knowing I was making instruments he asked me if I had ever made a Weissenborn. I told him no but a friend of mine, Dan Most collected them and I would speak with him about how I go about building one. Dan had a beater apart on his work bench in his shop in Tacoma and was kind enough to copy it and send me the plans. I then made my first copy of a Weissenborn and Doug owns it. A short time after that I made him a double neck that I believe was the worlds first. All this happened in early 1996
So how did you first learn how to build a Weissenborn, who taught you?
I have always loved making things. I built my first boat an eight foot Hydroplane when I was twelve. I took all the industrial arts classes in school and loved both wood and metal work. When I graduated I served an apprenticeship in a steel fabrication shop. In the early eighties my daughter came home from school and asked me if I would make her a Medieval instrument for show and tell. I made her a Psaltry which she took to school and played a tune on. At about this time I was working in the Navel Dockyard and met a fellow named Mike Horte who in his spare time at home was building electric guitars. I was hooked, he showed me all the finer things about guitar making and was always there to answer my questions. I then went on to make about twenty plus lap dulcimers, a Tele, a bunch of six and twelve string acoustic guitars, a banjo or two, harps, Mandolins, Mandolas, Mandocellos lutes and about seventy or eighty Octave mandolins. As for the way a Weissenborn was built, Dan Most was the man.
Do you still own the first Weissenborn you ever made?
No, I don’t keep anything I make. The first one was for Doug Cox and he still plays it. I don’t play slide so there is no real reason to keep one.
How many Weissenborns do you think you have you built in your lifetime?
I made a hundred plus instruments before I started using a serial number system I would think between 4 and 5 hundred. This includes Hourglass shape , Teardrop shape, baritone in both shapes, 7,8, and 9 stringers, double necks in both shapes and Konas.
Do you know of any other luthier who has built as many or more Weissenborns that yourself?
NO I don’t but I also don’t know every one making them . When I started there was no else or not that many doing it. It was a wide open field, now there are dozens of people building them I was making 4 a month for a long long time ,I guess the factories in China are the big producer now.
Most things change with time slightly but has the way you build your Weissenborns changed since you first started, techniques, tools, design?
That is one thing that has really changed. The method I now use is not anything like that on my first few. I would look at tone, body weight, woods, brace patterns, brace size and the time it took to make one. Over time I have come to realise that because Mr. Weissenborn did it one way did not mean that was the only way. I don’t bend my wood over a hot pipe anymore, I use steel moulds. I have never broken a side since then. I don’t say it is the best way but it works for me. I now use three different brace patterns depending on what the player will use the instrument for. I strive for a tonal balance unless a player wants more of the bass or treble and I brace accordingly. Because I spent most of my life working is steel fab and machine shops I was able to design and make many jigs, tools ,patterns and fixtures with CNC machinery and this helps cut down the building time. Patterns and jigs to cut peg-heads is a real time saver as are machines to cut linings. I also use a lot of machinery such as 24” thickness sanders for tops back and sides, Jigs to make my own bindings purflings and rosettes.
What are some of the most important attributes a great sounding Weissenborn should have?
One thing in my opinion is the player. I great player can make an “Apple Box” sound great. But I would say first the weight. If the box is too heavy the tone ,volume and balance gets lost in the wood trying to vibrate. Next is the wood that is used. If you want warm ,stay away from a Spruce top and stick with the the Koa and Blackwoods. I feel that Spruce is too bright for a hollowneck but that is me. Honduras Mahogany is a great tone wood. I like the warmth it will give and is a lot less money that Koa. H. Mahogany is getting harder to find, at least the good stuff. Sapele is a very common substitute for mahogany but seems to be a bit stiffer and must be taken into consideration. The nut and saddle are important. I use bone for the nut and either bone or wire for the saddle. It seems to me when I use a hard material for the bridge, a wire saddle is Ok where as a softer bridge wood like Koa or maple, a bone saddle works for best. But lets face it it is all boils down to the players preference and choice.
How close to the original design and specs of an original vintage Weissenborn do you follow.
The body shape is about the only thing I have never changed. The peg head is different on mine than an original. The top back and sides all are butted into the head stock were as on the original ones only the top and sides butt into the peg head and the back is not. A look at my head stocks and an original will show the difference. Also as mentioned before my bracing patterns very. I seldom use the transverse braces on the lower bout like Weissenborn did. I use a standard martin style brace or a fan brace system. I have tried a double X similar to the one Gibson used a number of years back. The original Weissenborn that Dan Most send me the drawings from had a square type of bracing. I used it for a few dozen and then stared to try different things such as a brace that was some what a pyramid shape in cross section. My string spacing is still the same as the my first one and I believe it is common through out the industry. My back bracing is in the same places as the original but have a pyramid or tapered cross section. My sides and back are about .075 – .085 in thickness and the top depending on the wood used is in the .100 – .120 in thickness. I only use Nitro lacquer. Some gloss and some Matte. My action is set at 3/8” which is a bit higher than an original. I had a very well known player here in Canada [Steve Dawson] that suggested I raise it as his bar was “bottoming out” some times. I have done so ever since. I use bone saddles in nearly all my instruments unless some requests a wire saddle. I tried Aluminium, Brass and Stainless for nuts and saddles but didn’t like it and went back to Beef bone
What different types of wood have you used down the years to build Weissenborns with, name us some of the most unusual ones?
Well I have used lots of Koa and Blackwood. But because of the cost of those two I have tried to find alternative species to replace them with. Some work and some in my view are not good. I’ve used Koa, Australian Blackwood, Paduck, Purple heart, Black Walnut, Sapele, Maple both Eastern and Big Leaf, Australian Lacewood, Yellow Sirus, African Mahogany, Philippine Mahogany, Queen Ebony and of course Honduras Mahogany. The top woods I’ve used have been Sitka Spruce, Engleman Spruce and Red Cedar. I guess the most unusual woods or uncommon ones have been Yellow Sirus, Queen Ebony and Lacewood. The Yellow Sirus and Lacewood to me equal Blackwood any day. As for fret boards I have used Koa, Blackwood, Maple, Red Heart, Purple Heart, Spalted Maple, Spalted Chestnut, Black Walnut, Lace Wood, Yellow Sirus, Ebony, Rosewood both Indian and Burmese, Cocobolo and probably some I can’t remember.
What’s been the most popular style (1,2,3,or 4) and wood choice down the years?
I have never referred to the Weissenborn copies I have made as 1,2,3,4. They have all but maybe four or five had bindings. I have always used wood for bindings and never plastic. I give the customer a choice of many different woods namely Maple, either curly or plain, Wenge, Walnut, Purpleheart, Koa, Blackwood or a myriad of other woods. I also offer rope bindings or a combination of rope and solid wood. As for body wood I have used Koa, Blackwood, Sapele Mahogany maple etc with the most popular being Honduras Mahogany with Sapele running a close second. Blackwood and Koa would be next with Walnut and Maple at the bottom. I try to steer my customers away from Spruce tops, I think they are away to bright for the warmth that is expected in a hollowneck instrument. But having said all that, it is really up to the customer and what they want.
How does it take you to build a typical style 1 and 4 Weissenborn?
The building of the box is the same for any model and as for putting on the bindings that may take a extra hour or two. I usually make my own rope and the making of it takes a bit longer than making plain wood bindings. When I cut binding stock, either Wenge or Maple, I make enough at a time for may fifty instruments.
Do you prefer to work with native woods to Canada over Hawaiian Koa?
I have no loyalties or preferences to one wood or another. The native woods from Canada are the Maples, Spruces and Cedars. Other than top woods are not in opinion suitable for Weissenborn type instruments. So to answer the question I like Koa over Canadian woods and if H. Mahogany grew here I would use it mostly.
Favourite Weissenborn wood and why?
I guess I would say Honduras Mahogany. I have found it a very forgiving body and tone wood. It never seems to vary in tonal quality. A plank twenty years ago and a plank today will generally speaking have the same quality’s that I look for in a tone wood. It is also easy to work, not hard on tools and takes a nice finish. Koa seems to have a lot of variables to it and it lacks consistence from plank to plank. I have made some exceptional sounding Koa instruments and others have sounded like dogs. The same thing seems to apply to the old ones. Some are fantastic sweet sounding instruments and others not so good. But Koa is traditional and there for in great demand which shoves up the cost and sometimes that extra cost is a deterrent to a player. But nothing can beat the look of a well finished Koa or Blackwood instrument.
Tell us about your vast private collection of vintage Weissenborns.
I guess I should start at the beginning of my collecting of instruments which were not slide guitars but bowl back mandolins of all things. I was at the Seattle Folk Life festival about 25 years ago and at that time they held an instrument auction on the last day of the festival. There were some Lyon and Healy Washburn brand bowl backs there and no one was bidding on them. I got three or four for next to nothing. I brought them home fixed them up and was really taken with their construction. At that time very little was written about identification of them. I then went on eBay and found a bunch more plus a lot of old counter catalogues. I was hooked and since then I’ve been able to get every single bowl back, flat back and carved top that Lyon and Healy made of the Washburn brand the 1880’s to the time Tonk brothers bought them in about 1926.This includes Mandolins, Mandolas, Mandocellos and Octave Mandolins. Others that I have collected or acquired are banjos, guitars, uke’s and many weird things. It wasn’t until I made a Weissenborn style four type that part payment was an original style one. I got to know a number of great guitar makers and repair guys as a result of the Instrument Auction in Seattle. One fellow was Dan Most. He and Tom Noe were writing a book on Knutson and wanted a photo of a Dyer style 7 harp guitar that I had. They wanted it to put in the book because of the Knutson connection. Knutson instruments are rare and any time I found one I would buy it. I think I have seven now, most being Harp guitars and Mandolins to a some convertibles and one hollow neck. Because I was making so many Weissenborn copies at the time I thought it might be fun to gather up as many slide instruments that were made in the twenty’s and thirty’s and put them on my web site. Some that I have been lucky to find are Weissenborn’s. Kona’s, Gibson, Dobro, Hilo. Schireson Bro.,Greenfield, Nationals both wood and metal body’s, Oahu’s, Regal’s, Bronson, Harlin Brothers and of course Knutson’s. It seems like every one was getting in on the slide guitar craze about then. I guess the collection contains about 200 plus instruments, I never count them if I did I may get sick at the amount of money that has been spend. But one can never have enough guitars. I like to buy ones that are not really in good shape as they are less money and I like to restore them. It is a break from custom building.
What’s your one favourite Weissenborn that you would run into a burning building and save?
I don’t know that the one I would save would be a Weissenborn but the A style Washburn Mandolin, Mandola and Mandocello, the three are very hard to find. But the question was what Weissenborn. I would be a Knutson hollow neck. It has a voice to die for and very rare.
I understand you let the Weissenborn artist Adam Bay recently have access to them while he was recording his new studio album. How did you meet Adam?
I had made a Weissenborn for a fellow named Bruce Rathie a number of years ago. He was a great singer song writer that played in a group called The Walter Bodega Band. Bruce passed away a few years back and his Weissenborn ended up in a local music store. Adam was in and saw it, played it and bought it. Some time later he met Mike Rusen and mentioned to Mike he had a Celtic Cross Weissenborn. As Mike had been working in my shop learning the craft he told Adam he knew me and would he like to meet me. Adam came over and started to drool over some of the old sliders I had. I have loaned lots of my instruments to different people for recordings over the years. Adam said he was doing an album and I suggested to him that a few old instruments would be nice on it. He used 7 or 8 different ones over the period a few months. I’m looking forward to listening to a copy of it
One claim to fame you have is that you made a very young Xavier Rudd’s first Weissenborn, now that’s a claim to fame.
There is a Dobro player here in Canada named Doug Cox. I’ve known Doug for many many years. Actually I made the first double neck Weissenborn for him. He used to live here in town but about twenty odd years ago he moved to a town call Comox. It seems there is a hotel there that holds an open stage night one or two nights a week and Doug host’s it. Xavier at the time had a girl friend there and the two of them went to the open stage to play I suppose. Doug had one of the three Weissenborns I’ve made him there and was playing it. He was really taken with the sound and asked Doug where he got it. Next thing he is at my shop door wanting to try one out. He placed an order and used it for a number of years. He was playing here in town eight or nine years ago and asked me to bring some new stuff down to the show. That is when he got his Baritone and yellow Siris Teardrop. He picked up the Teardrop, played a chord and said I want this I hear a lot of new tunes that want out.
Ben Harper also owns one of your guitars I believe, now that’s got to be a great story?
Yes Ben bought a double neck from me back in about 2006, I think it was number 268. I never dealt with Ben in person but with his guitar tech Randy Freedman. It seems Ben had heard or seen Doug Cox with his and thought it might be easier to travel with a double neck than two different ones for two tunings. It was an all Mahogany body with no bindings. There is a youtube video of him playing it on my web site. Click on his picture and up it pops.
Any other famous owners of Celtic Cross Weissenborns?
I guess all performers on stage or recordings think they are famous, but I have made instruments for some notable players. Mike Post in Burbank CA has a couple of my baritones, a six string and a nine stringer. Mike is the man that wrote all the music for the TV shows Rockford Files, Hill Street Blues, Law and Order, Hunter, Baa Baa Black Sheep, A Team and many many more. He got a Teardrop baritone and some time later wanted a nine string baritone. I suppose I’ve made the first Teardrop Baritone and first nine string Teardrop Baritone.
Another picker I made a standard scale, a baritone and a Kona for was Colin John. Colin was connected with the late B B King.. Colin is a fantastic blues man. Kevin Maul in New York has a Teardrop double neck with a six and seven string necks and that is another first. Steve Dawson has a couple, Doug Cox has tree, and list goes on.
Who’s your favourite Weissenborn luthier (apart from Michael haha)?
I would say a friend of mine named Michael Dunn. Michael makes some of the worlds best Weissenborns in my estimation. There are many many great makers out there and maybe some day I’ll have a chance to meet them.
Do you play Weissenborn much yourself for pleasure?
I don’t play slide at all. Never could get the finger picking down. I’m afraid I’m a Bluegrass and oldtimey flat picker.
Who are your favourite Weissenborn playing artists?
I don’t have any one player in particular but I do listen to Colin John, Steve Dawson, Don Bray, Bob Blair, Current Swell, Tim Tweedale to name a few.
Favourite Weissenborn tune of all time?
A song written by Tim Tweedale of the band Blue Island Trio called Rose and Thorn Entwinement Suite.
So how did you meet Michael Rusen?
I got an email from Mike about 8 or so years ago. He wanted me to make him a Weissenborn copy. I guess he had an off shore one and didn’t like the sound. Anyway he only lived a few miles away and he came over to pick out his wood. He chose a Cedar top with mahogany back and sides. He would come over a number of times during it’s construction to see how it was made. He told me that he would like to make one himself. It was about this time that he signed up for a guitar building course in Winnipeg. He took the course and made a 6 string guitar but wanted to make a hollow neck .It was then that he asked if he could hang around and watch what I did. As it turned out he would come over to my shop and spend a fair amount of time learning. The good thing about teaching Mike was the fact he already new about tools. That is a big step right off. He started to buy his own equipment and set up a shop in his Dads garage. I showed him how to make a mould, layout and thickness sides, back and tops, bend up the sides etc. He is a fast learner and does very neat meticulous work.
Was the plan always for him to graduate and eventually leave to build his own business making Weissenborns?
I don’t think in the beginning he thought he would like to make more than one but after it was finished and he saw some good results, his next one was better than the first. He would come over and I would critique his work. But now the bug has bitten him and he would like to make Weissenborn copies full time. Problem you have is to sell them.
Did it ever cross you mind you were teaching someone else how to make instruments in a close geographical location to yourself which would ultimately be in direct competition with your own business one day?
It never bothered me and still doesn’t that another maker lives so close. My market is not local [that was filled years ago]. I sell world wide.
So do you own a Michael Rusen Weissenborn in your huge private weissenborn collection?
No do not own one of Mike’s.
What was he like as a student? Was he a quick learner?
Mikey as I call him, was very fast learner. He is still learning and comes over quite regularly to pick my brain.
How long did you work together?
He was here off an on for a couple of years to get the ground work and now he will come over or call me when he has a problem or just to run things by me.
Do you still keep in contact, personally and professionally?
Mike and I have become very good friends both on a personal and professional level. More on a friendship level now. We do a number of things together such as going to Guitar shows or out for a Guinness together. I guess the times I took him back stage to meet Xavier Rudd was a highlight for him.
Any plans to train up another student?
I have taught other guys to make mandolins, guitars both electric and acoustic. I have no problem showing others or sharing with others what I know about making instruments. To me there are no secrets.
Did you enjoy the experience on passing down skills and knowledge to a younger luthier who could in turn one day pass them down himself?
Some one in the past has shown me or at least given me advice on doing what I do. I’m glad to be able to show others. After all why should the same mistakes be made by everyone when showing someone what works will only give them a better chance at improving themselves.
How much has basic price of a custom built Weissenborn changed over the decades?
When I first started building, my base price was in the $800.00 range. Now it is $1400.00. I keep it there because I know how long it takes to make one and I can live on that amount. No real need to gouge anyone.
Have the raw wood materials cost risen much over the years?
The cost of materials has increased maybe 25%, but a lot of that has to do with the Canadian dollar up against the US dollar and all my supplies come from the USA. This is why I sell in US dollars.
Have the sales of Weissenborns risen year on year within your business since you first started making them?
At my peak production, I was making 4+ per month and a waiting list of 12 – 16 months. Now it is about 3 per month and a wait list of 6 –8 months. This is fine as it gives me a chance to restore some of my own vintage instruments, and I have a lot of them.
What is your pricing policy on Weissenborns in today’s market, do you feel the need to be ultra competitive in price, is it something you are concerned about when you see other competitors instruments on the market at lower prices?
My pricing policy has not really changed in my twenty plus years. There is both a financial and spiritual reward to making instruments, and I would sooner have 100 players enjoying them selves with a reasonable good quality instrument than 50. The competition out there does not bother me one bit. I’m very happy doing what I do and so far seem to be surviving in a very competitive market. Many times people will buy a cheap off shore plywood models and then realise they made a mistake and want a custom made instrument they can be proud to own. I have had people ask me if they could trade in there plywood one as part payment on a custom one and my standard answer is “I don’t have a fire place”.
You have a very liberal/experimental attitude to thinking and building outside the box. Tell us about some of your more unusual Weissenborn hybrids you’ve made down the years.
Well I suppose it would be with the double necks. I have made a lot of them both in the standard shape and teardrop shape. I made my first double neck maybe twenty years ago and it was most likely the worlds first. I have never heard of any one making a teardrop double neck with both a six and seven string neck. I made one for Kevin Maul a few years back. I was also [I think] the first to make teardrop Baritone in a thirty inch scale. I had a request from Mike Post a few years ago to make him a teardrop baritone with nine strings. The first three to be octave strings like a twelve string that was different. I also made a Kona style for a fellow that was set up like a guitar, low action that he could play like a regular guitar.
What’s the strangest request you’ve been asked to incorporate into a Weissenborn.
I was once asked to combine a twenty five inch scale and a thirty inch scale into a double neck. I didn’t think it would be acoustically feasible with out pickups. Anyway it never came to fruition .
You seem to make quite a few Kona style instruments. Tell us in your opinion what is the attraction of this design over the conventional style of the hollow neck Weissenborn?
I have made a few dozen Konas over the years. Tom Noe was kind enough to loan me one of his to take all the patterns from and I thank him for that. Since then I purchased a style four for my own collection I use it as a comparison instrument to test mine against. I have found the Kona style to have a deeper, cleaner brighter sound with less warmth than most Weissenborn styles. It is a sound that many slide players seem to prefer. They is a little more involved in their construction, hence a bit more expensive. I have made them from many different kinds of wood such as Koa, Blackwood, Mango, Walnut, Ebony, African and Honduras Mahogany, Maple and Paduck. They all have their own tonal qualities.
Lacquer or oil polished finish, what’s you preference and why, and does it effect the overall sound?
I have only ever used Nitro lacquer. I have found a system that works for me and use it exclusively. As for tone, like any finish a heavy thick covering of the wood does hinder it’s response. Other builders use different finishes and that’s fine, I just do what works for me.
Bone or metal bridge? What are the differences in sound in your opinion (if any)?
Unless other wise asked, I use Beef bone for both nut and saddle. I have used bone, ebony, iron wood, brass, stainless and aluminium for nuts and bone, brass, aluminium, stainless and wire for saddles. I like the sound Beef bone gives for both nut and saddle. To me bone at both ends of the string give that warm balanced sound one would expect from a hollow neck instrument.
What tuners do you prefer on a Weissenborn?
I use generic individual enclosed tuners unless other wise asked to upgrade. I’ve used hundreds and hundreds of them and never a failure.
What pick ups do you recommend fitting to a custom built Weissenborn these days?
As for pickups, I get asked this quite often and I know what most players like but to me there are so many choices out there that it is an individual thing. It’s like asking what is the best beer or girls. We all have have personal favourite. I guess I have installed more Fishman Rare Earths and Sunrises than anything else.
Any after care tips to keep you Weissenborn in it’s optimum condition?
I always make a point of the R H (relative humidity) factor with any solid wood acoustic instrument. Mine are built in a 50 –55 percent R H and to go much below that, a humidifier should be installed when not in use. Cracks are no fun.
Is it true Weissenborns (especially koa ones) get better with age and playing? and if so how does that happen?
The “improving with age” thing has been discussed back and forth at many an instrument makers get together. And I don’t know if a true consensus has every been arrived at. Some say it is the crystallisation of the cells of the wood, others say stiffness improves with time. But something is or has happened, the old ones sound the best.
Should we worry about detuning our instruments when not using them?
I don’t think down tuning means much if you play every day, but if the instrument is not going to be used or if it is to be shipped, yes I would down tune it.
What countries do the majority of your sales come from nowadays, and what are the fastest growing territories for your business these days?
I have sold instruments all over the world. Most now are sold to both Canada and the USA. Selling a Weissenborn to China is like “selling coal to Newcastle” I have never sold an instrument to China.
Do you still experiment and tweak with your design every now and then or have you arrived at what you consider to be the best design based on decades of experience?
I will some times try a different take on mostly the bracing, but I think I have “arrived’. I have three quite different brace patterns that I use and each will give the instrument a some distinct tone. I ask a customer what they will use it for and decide then on what pattern to use.
What’s your experienced opinion on people (and builders) who totally fixate on building and owning exact copies of 1920’s Weissenborns. Is there any real added value to having a microscopic copy of an antique instrument over one that has differences arisen from development and improvements which in many cases sounds as good or better than an exact copy?
There are any number of makers out there that strive to completely duplicate an original instrument whether it be a Mandolin ,Guitar or Weissenborn and that is fine, more power to them. Many do make an instrument that sounds better than an original. If I were to buy a Weissenborn, I would buy an original not replication. The cost difference is not that much. I once attended a back stage chit chat with Doug Cox and a very well known Reso- player. Doug introduced me as the guy that made his Weissenborns and this ‘famous’ guy said “Oh You Will Never Make Them Sound Like The Real Thing”, and I replied I sure hope not, I want mine to sound better. It shut him right up.
How long do you think you’ll carry on building guitars?
Well my mind and hands still work in conjunction with one another and I enjoy creating new things, so it will be a long time. I have been getting into more and more restoration of vintage instruments and I really like doing that. Anyway I have enough wood stored up for years and years, can’t stop un till it’s all gone.