U.S. 7 String Guitar Maker/Mark Wescott
| Mark Wescott was born in Somers Point, New
Jersey, USA in April 1957. He still lives there and has his workshop, where he
makes his eye-catching seven-string "Intrepid" acoustic guitars, at 411
W.New York Avenue. There was a good deal of woodworking tradition in the
Westcott family. Mark's father and uncles were all keen woodworkers; his
father having a small woodshop in the basement of their home that Mark had access to from
a very early age. two of his uncles were also tool designers. This early
exposure to the woodworking craft carried on into public
school. Although Mark is largely self-taught, the school had a
fine woodworking curriculum beginning in 7th grade and continuing
through high school. It was whilst at high school that he attended a vocational school
where he studied cabinet making. In 1980, once high school had finished, he
enrolled in a guitar building school. But the real start came when, from 1983-1987,
he was apprenticed with classical guitar builder Richard Schneider. Mark
continues, "Although I was already building acoustic guitars before I worked
with Richard, I must credit this as the time I learned much of how
I design guitars today. Also, being in a professional setting,
I was able to interact with virtuoso artists,
which is the best way to really know how good your
Mark plays the guitar to a limited standard. His mother plays piano and cello and taught music in the public school system. His father plays the violin. So there were numerous instruments lying around the house when Mark was growing up, including guitars and mandolins. He himself played brass instruments from the age of six up until he was fourteen.
As a teenager, the type of music he listened to was mostly rock by the likes of Frank Zappa, Jethro Tull, The Allmans and Jimmy Hendrix. His musicals horizons over the years have expanded to include new age, jazz and classical music.
Although he had attended the cabinet making course whilst still at school, Mark decided that cabinet making wasn't for him. But he did want to build something different. His first thoughts, perhaps not unnaturally, turned to violins and cellos, having grown up with these instruments in the house. But this wasn't the kind of music he really enjoyed and so eventually he turned towards the guitar. Mark says, "My interest in guitars has always been in flat tops, both classical and steel string. Though I do not rule out ever building archtops, to me, applying the principles of the Kasha asymmetric soundboard bracing design allows me to build guitars with consistent predictable tone qualities that I prefer over archtops and that I do not feel are as easily achieved with archtop designs in their current form. This is not to say that a totally new radical approach to archtop design would not produce the tone quality I am after."
Mark Westcott has not followed the path trodden by many of the other makers today. He has never been a repairman, has never been into solids and has never made a solid guitar of any description. Having served an apprenticeship with a top clas maker, he took the step of branching out on his own straight from that background. His first commercial client was classical guitarist Kurt Rodarmer, the guitar that he made being actually a collaborative project between Richard Schneider and himself. "Kurt needed a 6-string bass classical guitar for a recording", he recalls. "Richard and I designed the guitar, I built it and Richard put a very unique fingerboard on it that had nylon frets. Every aspect of this guitar was experimental and new to us both. The project was such a success that it totally changed the way I design and build guitars today."
Mark continues, "The guitar I built for jazz guitarist Fred Fried is an example. Fred got in touch with me after reading an interview I'd done for 'Guitar Player' magazine. Fred, an accomplished 7-string player, was looking for a new guitar and sound to replace the 7-string archtops he had been playing for years. I invited Fred to my shop to try a couple of 6-string and he decided right away that my guitars had the sound he was after and had plenty of bottom end to support an extra bass string. Later, I drew up an idea of how I thought the guitar should look and sent Fred the blueprints for his input. All details of the design were worked out and the building began."
Details of the design were as follows.......
The guitar was to be tuned to standard pitch with the addition of a 7th bass string tuned to low A. This required that precise bridge saddle compensation be figured out ahead of building for true intonation of the 7th string. Joining the neck to the body at the 12th fret allows the bridge to be positioned for optimum full bodied sound. The offset soundhole allows for the largest sound producing area of the soundboard to be uninterrupted allowing for great power as well as superior structural integrity. All Wescott guitar designs incorporate the Kasha asymmetric soundboard bracing and bridge idea. Also featured is a trapdoor access panel installed at the tailblock of the guitar. All electronics, volume control, preamp and battery are mounted through the interior of this door. this makes adjustments, intallation or removal very easy.
Mark chose to wire Fred's new guitar with the 'Highlander' integrated pickup and preamp with volume control because "Fred wanted the natural acoustic sound of an under-the-saddle pickup. The 'Highlander' has proved to be totally reliable, easy to install and it sounds great."
Mark unusually prefers to build one guitar at a time. As he says, "I prefer one at a time with each being designed around the unique needs of each player. Although it varies, it takes approximately three months once all of the details of the design are worked out with the client." The Wescott approach to guitar building is one of constant rethinking of the mechanics of the soundboard design. He has, as he points out, three goals in mind (1) To improve the overall tone, volume and playability of the instrument as judged by virtuoso artists (2) To utilize whatever material, traditional or non-tradtional, to meet this end and (3) To improve the overall longevity of the instrument, providing professional players with a lifetime of service i.e., no eggshell guitars. As he says, "It is my firm belief that the best guitars have yet to be built and that they will not be built using traditional designs and strictly traditional materials."
For the past twelve years, Mark Westcott has been building guitars using the Kasha bracing technique that he learned while apprenticed to Richard Schneider. Mark explains, "This technique seeks to manipulate the soundboard in a very direct and logical way by the use of an asymmetric soundboard bracing design which in essence divides the top in half with long bass coupling braces and short treble braces. The internal braces radiate out from the profile of the asymmetric bridge sort of like the spokes of a wheel."
As far as future designs go, Mark is always eager to try out new ideas. He believes that the current role of the independent luthier is to provide instruments not commercially available elsewhere. He points out that "Little by little, the small independent luthiers have been challenging the large guitar companies with high end products. The big guys have repsonded well by improving their own quality controls and widening product choice. I see this trend continuing , though I believe guitars with the best sound quality, like violins, will be those coming out of the small shops. Unfortunately, the independent luthier will never be able to match the production numbers of the large manufacturers.
Finally, with an eye towards the prices of these handbuilt instruments today, Mark comments "I am happy to see that prices have risen to a level where fine craftspeople are better able to make a living building custom guitars."
One thing is certain, in a field where there are not too many 7- string makers, the Mark Wescott "Intrepid" certainly stands out as an 'individual' instrument. How good it sounds can be judged on hearing the three Fred Fried CDs currently available. Although by no means what one would think of as a jazz guitar in the normal mould, when in the hands of a player such as Fred, few could dispute that it performs the role admirably. I for one look forward to any future Wescott developments with keen interest.
Chris Burden/Revised September 1997