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Ralph Novak

Philosophy of the Luthier
Philosophy of the Luthier

I first met Ralph Novak in 1980, when he was working at Subway Guitars in Berkeley, California. I’d assembled a kit Strat and it needed a refret. My monstrosity was painted Shell Pink in tribute to Strats from Fender’s surf era. Little did I know what was to come of Ralph’s distant future. He was the fret guru in Berkeley, and his work was astounding – the best I’d ever seen! Ironically, VG columnist Stephen White was also working at Subway at the time. So began our journey into luthiery madness!

Fast forward to 1989. My association with Stephen led full-circle back to Ralph. Since they worked together at Subway, I had a bird’s-eye view, so to speak, of the progress and evolution of Ralph’s guitar-making artistry. Every week, it seemed, I would witness a new Novak idea undergoing various states of metamorphosis!

In the years since, Novak has built the instruments of choice for the likes of musicians like Charlie Hunter, Phillip De Gruy, Joe Louis Walker, and Henry Kaiser, to name a few. As time passed, he experimented with a variety of design ideas involving the use of non-traditional woods. At times, he was viewed as downright crazy from many a purist’s standpoint. But he turned the other cheek, seeking the solutions that would satisfy his own personal playing requirements.

As a guitarist with a complete understanding of the vintage instruments he worked on, Novak wasn’t completely comfortable with what any one instrument was capable of delivering. He wanted to combine all the features of his old favorites while adding design twists that would give him everything he was looking for in an electric guitar. This led to the invention of his patented fanned-fret fingerboard, which gives an instrument combined scale lengths.

We spent some time with Novak, exploring his unique approach to uplifting the art of luthiery, sharing an odd story or two in his ever-evolving saga.

Vintage Guitar: Before we get into your auspicious beginnings, you wanted to discuss your ambitionvision for the guitar builders of today to document all the changes going on in the the luthiery world, for future reference.

Ralph Novak: Yeah, I think that’s very important and I think that years from now, people are going to look at this as valuble information. They’re going to want to know where all these things came from and who originated them and what was the force behind the creative inspiration.

Are you saying builders of today can lessen that gap of information?

No, it’s not so much about lessening the gap but just about having some kind of documentation. Because years ago, when Leo Fender started doing what he was doing, when any of these other people started doing what they were doing, there wasn’t the interest there is now. So there wasn’t the documentation neccesary, nobody knew how big it was going to get and how interested people would be. So at this point I think it’s wise to be taking a sort of informal poll, in a sense of what current builders are doing and why, and what direction people have chosen to work in, because the guitar is such a varied and large concept in a sense.

It seems like a simple little thing at one end, but on the other other end there are so many variables that interact; no one person can say they know everything about the guitar, that would be impossible because new things are being discovered all the time, and so finding out what different builders have chosen to concentrate on, what areas they need to work on and develop and what successes they’re having in those areas might be something really worth documenting!

Basically, it seems like you want to take a bunch of builders, view them as a “family tree,” and look at it geneaologically?

In a way, yeah! Because a lot of builders have things in common, even though they may not know each other. You have a guy in one part of the country who’s maybe working on something another guy in another part of the country is working on, and they may be going in different directions or the same direction, but if they knew of each other or if they both arrived at something that has a positive outcome, you could relate back and say “Oh, I can see this guy was working on this and he went in that direction.” Comparing the accomplishments and discoveries of both tells you something about how the guitar works, and why!

Okay, its time to take it from the top – your auspicious beginnings…..

(laughs) In terms of my interest, when I was 14, I wanted to get a guitar! It was 1965, The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan and all of this big to do about rock and roll was starting to happen. I was a teenager and I was in it, so it was natural for me to get an interest in guitar… I had piano lessons since I was in third grade and had an interest in an instrument [other than] the piano. I thought guitar would be the best thing, so I saw this nice red Stella in the window of this local music store. Eventually, I convinced my dad to buy it for my birthday.

(laughs) Bless his soul! Alot of kids wouldn’t have had that opportunity!

(laughs) I convinced him to get me the guitar and a little bit of sheet music, and I began teaching myself. And what was interesting for me is, because my dad was a woodworker and had a nice wood shop, I started looking at “Well, what is it made of?,” and how and why. And I started taking it apart and doing things! Within a year, I was working on my friend’s guitar and doing things for other local people, taking things apart and experimenting, going down to the dump and getting speaker parts and magnets and wire and building things…experimenting with making pickups, doing funny weird things that eventually had me actually working for a local music store and a lot of my friends in the neighborhood. It started that way!

How did your own Stella turn out through your experimentation?

It wound up going through many, many permutations – with a lot of different kinds of strings, initially, changing the bridge around for different actions, eventually putting on nylon strings and even getting to the point of completely stripping and refinishing and refretting it, like doing everything possible to it even though it was a piece of junk!

Is it true you ended up working with Charles LoBue at Guitar Lab in New York City?

Yes, I think I started working for him in around 1970, down on Bleeker and Thompson Street. I worked for him part-time doing wiring and setups. I’d just come in on a Saturday – and this when Woody Feiffer was still working for Charles – Larry DiMarzio had left at that point. After doing setups and fret mills for about a year and a half, I kind of recognized it was something I really enjoyed doing. I then started working with Charles full-time until around 1974, when he moved up to Alex Music, which had an interest in buying out LoBue Guitars. Alex and Charles eventually worked out an agreement where Charles closed up his shop and Alex bought him out. So we worked at Alex for about a year.

At Alex, I was working full-time – eight hours a day, five days a week – doing general repair, all types of re-fret and refinishing, and a lot of the custom work. At the time, we were building the Guitar Lab guitars for Alex, but Alex was making a guitar called the “Alex-Axe,” which was actually manufactured by Gretsch to Alex’s specifications. He would get them as essentially carcasses – just blank bodies and necks that were finished but had no hardware, pickups or anything – and we would do any custom work to them if they needed a little inlay, special pickups or anything like that.

Speaking of Guitar Lab, didn’t you make a Custom Explorer for Rick Derringer, which was featured on a Guitar Player cover in the ’70s?

We made several guitars for Rick, and that Explorer on the Guitar Player cover was made by Charles. We also made a doubleneck (six and 12-string) for Rick, as well. Rick really liked the sound of birch, so those guitars were made from birch, as were most we made for him. His Explorer-style guitar was made before I worked with Charles, and it featured Larry DiMarzio’s pickups before Larry actually formed his company. At the time, Larry was just someone who was working out of his basement making custom pickups and wiring. He was making special pickups for Charles LoBue’s instruments and I was there when we made the doubleneck guitar for Rick. I wired that guitar myself. As I recall, Rick may have had that guitar stolen.

Yeah, I remember that story. I think that happened towards the end of the ’70s. Did you ever work on Derringer’s vintage guitars?

When he brought them in, yeah. In addition, at Alex Music we were continuing to do that same type of stuff. We worked on Rick’s stuff, we worked on all of Johnny Winter’s stuff, John McLaughlin from the Mahavishnu Orchestra. We worked on George Benson’s stuff, just about anyone who had been to New York was through that repair shop.

Let’s talk about John McLaughlin. What did you do for him?

He had these doubleneck Rex Bogue guitars which in some ways were really futuristic and some ways had some problems. One of the problems with them was the inlays were falling out. I also recall Rick Laird (bassist for Mahavishnu) and Miroslav Vitous (Weather Report) having the Rex Bogue basses.

You’ve had quite a journey. You went from your local music store in Queens to working with Charles LoBue and Alex Music in New York City. Then you and Charles moved your operations to San Francisco. From there, you migrated to Subway Guitars in Berkeley, until around 1984, when you launched Novax Guitars.

You are known for several things – unique combinations/laminates of wood in the construction of your guitars, and your Novax Fanned-Fret Fingerboard system. Let’s begin with your observations about wood and just how it affects the final sound of the instrument?

Wood-wise, I offer a variety of woods because my primary focus is that in building instuments, even in a solidbody guitar, it has to have the tone you expect to hear without plugging it in. Acoustically, the instrument has to have the tonal parameters you want to hear. If you want a tone that is bright and snappy, that should be built into the instrument, and of course woods have a lot to do with that. If you wanted a tone that was warm and rich, with a slow, round attack, you build that into the instrument with the woods and the contruction. Pickups can, of course, influence tone. But pickups can’t turn tone 180 degrees.

What I’ve always believed, and have functioned as a guitar-builder, is that you should be able to not plug in and play the guitar in a quiet room and hear the level of bass and treble, the attack and the type of sustain it has. So, that’s the premise I’ve always worked on – and it’s very important when somebody comes to me for an instrument, because basically I’m trying to find out what they specifically want to acheive in that instrument – getting the tones they want to hear.

You can see that I build out of a lot of different kinds of woods; I use walnut and lacewood for bodies, I use birch and laminates like pauduk and maple, or walnut and maple, and all of these woods and wood combinations give you different tonal effects. Then, when you combine that with a various type of neck or fretboard woods, you can control the tone, sustain and the attack, along with the frequency response to have an instrument that’s very mellow or sharp and cutting. Even the hardware can affect the tone, but again, if you can hear what you want to hear without plugging it in, you’re 99 percent there! A good-quality pickup will give you a faithful tonal reproduction without too much attenuation. There are, of course, pickups that will give you a thicker more distorted tone or a thinner more trebly tone. My own approach to pickups on these guitars is to use about as much of a Hi-Fi pickup as I can get, which is why I like the Bartolinis. They have a very wide frequency response so you can hear the wood tones and not just the pickup tones.

Can you tell us what you’ve learned from examining and working on vintage instruments? What are your observations regarding just how the wood in vintage instruments creates this mystique about them?

There are two types of attack for different woods – fast and slow. Let’s use an example of a slow-attack guitar, say like a Les Paul Custom with an ebony fingerboard from the late ’50s that had a solid mahoghany body, without a maple cap. Or say a Les Paul Jr. or Special. Those guitars have this nice round attack that tends to build or swell up in volume after you have picked the string. That is what I call a slow attack, as opposed to a vintage Strat having a swamp-ash body and a maple neck/fretboard that has a more crisp “zingy” attack. I also want to qualify something else, even though I used the example of a Strat with a maple fretboard. Typically, maple-fretboard necks, while many players tend to say they are trebly, I feel, in a sense, it’s kind of a misnomer or misunderstanding. The way I view it, a maple neck with a maple fretboard isn’t [so] trebly-sounding, [but] it doesn’t have the bass and it doesn’t have the crisp top end you get with a Pao Ferro fretboard. A maple fretboard, in some ways, has a lack of tone that some players refer to as sort of a trebly tone. I think that in conjuction with the body wood that Fender uses – alder or ash – it’s easily perceived as that. But, typically, if you listen to a maple neck with a Pau Ferro fretboard on that same Stratocaster that you’re used to hearing with your maple fretboard, you would see what I mean by the neck having a lack of tone!

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, it’s just a different sound. Most electric guitars have a very pronounced midrange response. Our guitars have a lot of bass and a lot of treble, while the midrange is fairly flat in that region. Therefore, our guitars are very good for recording because they are designed with that application in mind. They really sit in the mix very nicely, even if you’re going direct.

Any other observations about vintage instruments of note?

One of the things about the vintage market is that people are starting to relate to brands of guitars other than just Fender and Gibson. They’re also looking at Supros and Danelectros for the sounds those guitars produce. And people are beginining to appreciate them for what they are, they aren’t just looking at the high-end stuff anymore! It’s also increasingly popular to be using clean tones. It isn’t about screaming rock guitar sound anymore, and in the player’s mind it’s the tone the instrument makes that can be useful in other ways!

Now, I must ask you just what it was that led you to the vertigo-laden (laughs) creation of your Fanned-Fret Fingerboard System?

The fanned-fret idea actually started out from a very simple and very selfish notion (laughs)! As a blues guitar player, I liked to do a lot of note-bending and at the same time I liked to have a crisp, crunchy sound on the low strings. My initial idea was to create a guitar that had a Les Paul-type of sustain and sweetness of the trebles and had the kind of crunch and definition of a Tele or Strat on the basses. From doing repairs for a number of years, I knew it wasn’t the construction, the stiffness of the neck, or the types of wood causing these tonal things. And it wasn’t the pickups.

I’m not saying these things don’t influence tone, but they don’t influence tone the way I was looking for. I realized scale length was the answer and started to come up with ways of combining the scale lengths such that I could still bend notes. Rather than having discontinuous frets, I wanted the fret to continue all of the way across so you couldn’t fall off the end of the fret when you were note-bending, so the fanned-fret system kind of arose from that very selfish idea of wanting a guitar that did what no other guitar did!

How clever (laughs)! Selfish notion, yes. That’s the birth of creativity!

(laughs) It was something I never envisioned would have any commercial value. I wasn’t looking at it in that way, it was just something I wanted that I knew couldn’t be acheived in any other way and I set about to make it for myself.

Looking around your shop, I see a lot of new-fangled instruments. Can we discuss some of your new projects?

Well, besides some other makers of note using the fanned-fret fingerboard, such as Steve Klein and [Canadian bass designer] Sheldon Dingwall, R&D is always happening here, something that doesn’t always show until it’s done because I might be getting a patent on it and I have to be sure it works right. I’m working on a new eight-string acoustic/electric model for Charlie Hunter that’s coming along pretty well. We also completed a custom 17-string Harp guitar for Phillip De Gruy that turned out very well. In Charlie’s case, his new instrument will include features such as a maple arched top with maple sides and back. Because Charlie is both the guitarist and the bassist, and because he’s playing at pretty high volume levels, that low-end can be a real killer for him, so we couldn’t make the top too sensitive by carving it too thin.

We also made some prototype instruments for Rick Huff, inventor of the new Skyway tremolo system. I had the great pleasure of making him a couple of things for the 1997 Nashville NAMM [last] summer. His system operates on a very different principle than most tremolos – I was just blown away by his new technology, and not being a big fan of tremolos, Rick’s system really changed my entire outlook. We will be featuring his systems on our instruments as soon as we can, and we will be proud to incorporate them into what we’re doing now. I’m also working on a new piece of hardware that I’m not at liberty to discuss right now.

So R&D is really the lifeblood of what I do here. As well as just building the instruments, I’ve got to research new things, there are ideas that come to me that I just have to find out if they’re going to work the way I want them to work or not. I think that this is what is driving guitar development these days.

Plus, we have always been involved in the restoration and repair of vintage instruments, and Glen Jordan assists me in this aspect of the shop’s services. I have every confidence in Glen, and it has taken me a long time to find someone who had just the right qualifications, who could expertly handle these things in the way I would have done them myself. Glen has been here for about ayear, so I have much more time now to concentrate on the actual building of instruments without having to handle the repair work at the same time. He has been an invaluable asset to the shop and to myself.

A Martin D-28 the company sent to Novak for study and possible implementation of the fan fret system and custom bridge. The concept was ultimately deemed too radical. Photo: Terri Novak.

This interview originally appeared in VG‘s March ’98 issue.

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