Builder Profile: Citron Guitars and Basses
Working out of a oneman workshop in Woodstock, New York, Harvey Citron has been a respected member of the boutique luthier community for close to 40 years. Though best known for his hollowbody basses, Citron’s distinctively handcrafted instruments include solidbody basses, as well as a variety of guitars and baritones that have drawn the attention of artists across the genre spectrum, from Steve Swallow to John Sebastian to Doug Wimbish, among others.
With a background as both a guitarist and an architect, Citron is able to draw on his passion for both music and design when creating his absolutely unique offering of instruments. Aesthetically unique, yes. But he is also part of a very small group of guitar craftsmen with expertise in making their own pickups, and he winds, voices, and positions each one to complement the individual instrument. A true innovator, Citron’s distinctive, piezo-loaded and intonation-adjustable wooden bridge defines the combination of science and art.
Citron got his start as a luthier in 1974. Co-founding a partnership with Joe Veillette the following year, Veillette-Citron had an eight-year run during which a few hundred handcrafted guitars were produced. But eventually, Citron felt like a factory worker in his own business, putting in too many hours just to pay the bills. A desire to return to designing his instruments led him to set up shop as an independent luthier.
Premier Guitar recently caught up with Citron as he prepared to exhibit at the 2012 Montreal Guitar Show. Here he discusses his background and building philosophies, gives insights into modern lutherie trends, and even shares his thoughts on building a traditional acoustic guitar.
As a working musician and former architect, which of the two was the biggest inspiration for your getting into building guitars?
It’s actually very hard to separate the two. I grew up being interested in tools, working with my hands, building things since I was very little, playing guitar by age 11, and loving music completely. I attended Brooklyn Technical High School where I studied drafting and engineering, and then studied architectural design at City College School of Architecture. I was incredibly frustrated as I started out working as an architect, since I was not really doing anything more than producing working drawings of others’ designs. I was very young, but had a fire burning inside to create. I was creating through my music—and my furniture and interior design—but not through my job. Then the opportunity came to build a guitar. Because of all my years drafting and studying design, I knew I could look at a guitar, understand how it was built, and could actually build it! I could explore to my heart’s content. So what better avenue for a musician and a designer? I was able to meld these two areas of creativity that I loved.
Built for renowned jazz bassist Steve Swallow, Harvey Citron’s AE5 Swallow bass is an acoustic/electric 5-string with a 36″ scale length using Honduras mahogany for the body and neck, spruce for the top, and rosewood for the fretboard and bridge.
Which has had the biggest influence on your work?
Again, it’s very hard to say which has been the larger influence. As a designer, I have always been seeking out what hasn’t been done yet, or to solve a problem. Each of my instrument models sets about creating something new sonically and/ or physically—they are not just pretty boutique instruments. Because I am a designer, I can play with woods, construction, electronics, and shapes. Because I am a musician, I can use those elements to explore new tone.
What were your formative influences insofar as guitarists, bands, and instruments?
I started playing guitar in the 1950s at a very early age and was listening to people like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. But I only had an acoustic guitar at the time. We were poor and my mom bought the cheapest Martin you could buy—a 00-17 with a mahogany top and no binding. I did everything with that guitar and amplified it with a DeArmond pickup and an Ampeg Rocket amplifier. Even later on, I was using that same guitar for soul music. Developing my own style back then, I was pretty much a rhythm guitar player for a long time, but later on became a lead player, too.
Eventually you began building basses as well. Was your attraction to the rhythm side of playing part of the reason for that?
I just love instruments and playing. Building basses for me was always part of the deal from the beginning somehow. Veillette-Citron’s first prototypes were a 6-string neckthrough electric guitar and 4-string neck-through electric bass. Our first batch of instruments was also mixed, and I’m sure we built more basses than guitars over the years our company existed from 1975 to 1983. With the exception of Alembic, bass design had not really been explored that extensively in the mid-’70s. While in process of building our first two prototypes in 1974, I visited the Alembic woodworking shop in Cotati, California. It was a mind blower. I was enamored of their work, and followed their lead somewhat in construction at Veillette-Citron. I have always noticed that bassists are a little more open to new sounds, and are already hi-fidelity minded. So many guitarists are looking for the sound that a hero of theirs made some time ago, and they are under the illusion that it if they have the same equipment, they can recreate that tone. I never had the desire to build what has been made before. It also seemed like there were more orders for basses.
Why is that?
It’s always been my impression that there are far fewer bassists than guitarists. Therefore, the chances of a bassist working are much higher than that of a guitarist. And the quality of the bassist doesn’t even have to be as good necessarily, because you need them and there aren’t that many around. [Laughs.]
Can you tell us about your pickups and how you got started making them? Was it a matter of wanting to be involved in all components of building? Was it out of necessity or just an interest in electronics?
Citron’s intonation-adjustable rosewood bridge on the AE4 Swallow features bone saddles and six EMG under-saddle piezos.
Pickup making and guitar making came about simultaneously for me. I knew some pretty serious players in the guitar electronics field way back, found out how to wire a guitar, and then how to build pickups. It was very exciting to build a pickup. The person who taught me how to build them was Sal Palazolla, who worked with Bill Lawrence making pickups downstairs in Danny Armstrong’s shop on LaGuardia Place in New York City. This was in 1974. The first guitar I built had some pretty strange pickups, and people started asking me to modify their guitars with my pickups and different switching arrangements. Veillette-Citron started building prototypes in late 1975 and those instruments included my humbucking pickups. We liked the idea of having a part in virtually every piece of the instrument, from making our own pickups to the bridge hardware and strap pins. Though when I started Citron Guitars and Basses in 1994, I had no desire to build my own pickups, except for one very unique single-coil that I began to make for some models. As time went on, I felt that my pickups would make my instruments more unique, so I currently build several kinds of single-coil guitar pickups, guitar humbuckers, bass humbuckers, and J-bass-style pickups. They are extremely popular and are, in fact, used in other luthier’s instruments.
What makes your pickups unique?
One of the unique aspects of my pickups is the multiple gauges of wire in each pickup using my own recipe. Each gauge of wire has its own intrinsic tone and I call my pickups “custom blended.” I also voice each pickup for its placement. Pickups closer to the neck require less resistance as there is so much string excursion. Pickups closer to the bridge require more resistance since there is so much less string movement in that position.
What do you consider to be one of the coolest or most important advances you’ve made with Citron Guitars and Basses?
The greatest and coolest thing I’ve done has been the development of my hollow instruments. They are unique in construction, electronics, and most importantly, in their tone. They are huge sounding, spatial, deep, and possess incredible sustain.
Like the AE5, the body of the AE4 Swallow bass is hogged out from 3″ thick Honduras mahogany and utilizes x-bracing for its spruce top.
Can you walk us through the evolution of your hollowbody instruments? What was your “I gotta do this” moment, and how long did it take to get there?
My inspiration actually had a lot to do with the Unplugged show on MTV and having a number of different instruments in my hands. I had this idea that I was going to have a hollow bass, and initially, I thought I was going to bend the sides on it and have to make it headless so it wouldn’t be neck heavy. As it turned out, I ended up deciding to hog out a piece of mahogany for the bodies instead, but the first three or four were headless. I then came up with an intonation adjustable wooden bridge using saddles with brass shims. With it, you could move the saddles but it would still actually react sonically like a wooden bridge with bone saddle. But this didn’t allow me to use any traditional piezo elements, so I was using an undertop transducer. It sounded okay, but it fedback a lot. Additionally, by building the headless instruments, I realized I was limited with the hardware, string spacings, and nut width. The body was actually heavy enough that I didn’t need it to be headless, so I moved to putting the head back on the instrument.
So here I am, going back to a traditional piezo. I called up an old friend who’s a wellknown specialist in the field and told him I wanted to build an intonation-adjustable wooden bridge with piezos in it. He told me: “It can’t be done and no one cares.” [Laughs.] He knows a lot about this stuff but I wasn’t willing to just put a single 1/8″ bone saddle in the bridge. I made the saddle 5/16″ and made the whole bridge able to move with the piezo in it. That was the least I could do as far as I was concerned, and I left it at that for a while.
Since this model’s inception, I had been thinking this bass was going to be great for Steve Swallow. Steve tried the one with the 5/16″ bone saddle, loved the sound of it, said he had to have it, and that he’s always wanted a wooden bridge with piezo. But he also said that an intonation-adjustable bridge would be a great plus if I could do it, because he’s such a nut about intonation. For some reason or other, that was all the impetus I needed to get this new bridge together. And it was then I realized how close I was to making it work. The idea came to me that if I considered my 5/16″ saddle a sub-saddle, I could put moving parts (bone saddles) on top of it with piezo underneath. This led to my first intonation-adjustable bridge and it had a single piezo under the leading edge of what I call the sub-saddle (made from ebony). I put slots in it and made bone saddles with little pins in them so the saddle could slide.
There have been improvements since then—the subsaddle is now 3/4″ deep and the saddle pins have been replaced with brass tabs. Also, the underside of the sub-saddle is segmented so each string acts as if it has its own individual support. This provides less likelihood of problems with warpage of the sub-saddle, which would cause uneven string pressure.
LEFT: 5-string bass pickups- the coils have been wound, and the pickups put together with their magnets, just before being placed in fully shielded covers and potted in epoxy. CENTER: Pickup coil being wound. RIGHT: The interior of an AE5 Swallow bass.
Is there a particular current or recent trend in lutherie that you see going away in 15-20 years and is there one particular current or recent trend in lutherie that you see having a major effect on guitar makers in 15-20 years?
The unsustainability of many of the beautiful hardwoods is an ongoing problem in the guitar business. I use Honduras mahogany for my hollow instruments, and also for the necks of other models. Honduras mahogany is the material that has been used primarily and traditionally for acoustic guitar bodies and necks. It’s very stable, machines easily, and has a wonderful tone that’s sweet, warm, crisp, and delicious. It has become harder and harder to obtain, and the quality I see has been going down. The trees that are being harvested are much younger, and who knows how long the supply will last. I think guitar makers are going to have to start using other woods. I have been resisting the change, but I expect it is inevitable.
In your 40 years of building, what is one of the most important advances you’ve seen in lutherie or guitar manufacturing?
I think one of the most important advances in guitar manufacturing is the widespread use of CNC machines. These machines make reproduction very accurate and time efficient. Also, polyester finishes are great because they are extremely durable, as opposed to nitrocellulose lacquer and acrylic urethanes.
Do you utilize CNC?
A number of boutique luthiers are hesitant about using CNC, feeling that it may take away from the handcrafted aspect of a build. Is that your reasoning as well?
I’m open to having someone else do particular things for me on CNC and I don’t see any shortcoming in that. The problem for me is that I’m a small builder. For instance, I’m building a batch of five basses right now— two of them are 34″ scale, one is a 35″ scale, one is a 36″ scale, and the other is a prototype for Steve Swallow. They’re all different, both internally and externally. How would I pay for the tooling when the whole mechanism of CNC is geared towards production? That’s the only thing that’s held me back as far as that’s concerned.
LEFT: A top being glued on to an AE series bass. RIGHT: Harvey sanding one-piece Honduran mahogany AE5 Swallow necks.
There is one part of my hollowbody that is incredibly painstaking and there’s no advantage to how I do it. It’s just the only way I can, shy of using CNC. Imagine a hollowbody instrument that’s been hogged out a 3″ piece of mahogany that has a waist cut. Trying to make that material on the inside parallel is a handcarving job for me. It’s time consuming, it’s not fun, and it’s not necessarily better. It’s just the way I have to do it [laughs]. That’s okay, I can do it, but CNC would be great for something like this.
What’s the ratio of guitars to basses that you build? Is it market driven or do you build what’s inspiring you at the time?
Except for a prototype that I’m currently building for Steve Swallow, everything is order driven. As far as the ratio, it’s almost all basses right now. What I’m most known for are my hollow basses and they require a lot of time to build. Steve Swallow is out there playing them, and while his audience may be small, they are loyal. People have been wanting those instruments—either what he plays, or what he plays modified to be a hybrid between his bass and my regular A-series basses.
An AE5 Swallow bass after it has been shaped on the pin router. “This one features Steve Swallow’s very narrow neck—it might be the last body I made for Steve,” says Citron.
How many instruments do you produce in a year and how can people find out more about them?
My website has beautiful, detailed photos of all of my models, as well as a price list, photos of the shop, upcoming events, and videos. Many of the guitars and basses I build are customized to the preferences of each musician. I will often change the string spacing at the bridge, the neck dimensions, and tweak the electronics, among other things to suit my customer’s needs. I generally build between 12 and 20 instruments per year with the Swallow bass being my most popular model.
Given your expertise with hollowbody instruments, have you ever had the desire to build a traditional acoustic guitar?
Yes, yes I do [laughs]. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. But as you get older, I think life gets busier somehow and the opportunities for messing around get harder to squeeze in. What I need to do is learn more before I do it. Unlike many other builders, all this stuff has never really been about the craft of building for me. The craft is my vehicle to hear what I imagine. For some reason, I don’t really have the desire to build a Martin guitar. That said, my favorites are the Martin D-35s from the ’60s, the dreadnought Guilds of that period, and the huge Gibsons. But I feel that before I build an acoustic guitar, I want to really understand what made those guitars sound the way they do.