I met Michel St. Pierre from Montreal at Django in June 2012. He had this great old guitar with him, honkin’ bold sound, light as a feather and cool inlays inside the bindings. Clearly Parisian from the 1940s, but no identification. Our initial discussions centered around who might have built it and this led to six months of informal research, pictures, emails, forum posts, etc. trying to figure it out, but to date we have not. Some say Busato, some say DiMauro, some suggested Henri Miller. Michel had a picture of Felix Leclerc playing a similar guitar and I added a picture of George Brassens playing one too, but eventually the trail went cold and I had begun to forget about it when Michel emailed saying he wanted to make the guitar more playable. Michel is very experienced and knew just what he wanted: Thicker neck, better intonation, minimal change in bridge height, minimal disturbance of the vintage finish. He shipped the guitar to me in Maryland and off we went.
When I first received the guitar and played it, I thought Michel was exaggerating the problems, but after a while I began to agree. I measured the fingerboard fret spacing and found many to be off, some by as much as 4mm, making for many sour notes. The neck was somewhat uncomfortable to play with a rather sharp edge at the top of the fingerboard.
It was decided to replace the fingerboard and to make it as thick as practical. We settled on Indian Rosewood as a light fretboard wood so the added thickness did not add substantially to this 3.0 pound guitar. The frets and fingerboard came up easily enough, but it was quickly apparent the neck was being held on more by the fingerboard than the neck joint itself. The picture below shows a blade inserted into the joint a couple inches immediately after taking fingerboard off. It was equally loose from the bottom and appeared to be holding only in the middle. There had been some patching of the joint from the outside edges over the years. Michel and I agreed on a neck reset and conversion to a bolted attachment which works well on this butted socket type joints common with the French builders in the 40s and 50s.
Michel had mentioned there might be some loose braces and sure enough, while looking around inside the guitar, I noticed five of the six brace ends were loose from the top for the last two or three inches, so this was added to the list.
Once the problems were figured out, the project was straight forward. Reglue the brace ends. Fortunately, the sound hole is a little over size, just enough to fit my hand inside. Level the neck shaft, add two carbon bars for stiffness, make new fingerboard, convert the neck joint, fret the fingerboard with jumbo frets as per Michel, install the fingerboard, level frets, rework the nut and bridge, string it up and voila! I played it for a couple weeks before delivering it to Michel, exactly one year later at Django in June 2013. I have to say this is one of the best guitars I’ve ever played. It has a huge and distinct voice, clear and strong. The voice was there all along of course, just needed a little help after seventy years.
I love this kind of job and especially when working with someone as knowledgeable and decisive as Michel. I hope our efforts have made this guitar so that it can be enjoyed for another seventy years.