You are currently viewing “Down Home” BACK PAGES 9/1/03

“Down Home” BACK PAGES 9/1/03



I’m writing this on Labor Day. It’s raining.

Out of the window of my study I can see the branches of the trees bowing down under the weight of the water-logged web-worm nests that have turned almost all of the foliage surrounding Highgrove into some B horror-movie landscape.
I hate those critters. Within a week they have stripped almost every leaf from the trees that they’ve infested. It’s like instant Fall happened, overnight.

My wife, Linda, and I live about twenty miles away from the Breezy Ridge® company offices, almost in the shadow of Blue Mountain in a tiny hamlet called Low Hill. Our house, Highgrove, was built, eccentrically, by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. Like his mentor, the student had a wonderful vision, but little sense of the actual mechanics of architecture — so, like Falling Water, our decks are constantly trying to leave their moorings and tumble down the hill into the Jordan Creek. Also, like Lloyd Wright, the architect designed a kitchen that would be considered tiny, even in a camper – did the Wrights ever cook, I wonder? – and, for some unknown reason, the laundry area is built directly above the suite of offices that inhabit the lower level. (Of that, more later!)

However, Highgrove IS lovely. Built into the side of a soft, rolling, hill-top and surrounded by trees and some six acres that abutt the PA Game Lands. These acres we leave untamed as a refuge for animals during the hunting season.

At the moment I’m writing this in my study because six weeks ago the sensor in the washing machine, that lives in the laundry area above, decided not to work – and, as a result, many hundreds of gallons of water overflowed the washer and cascaded through the floor into my office and into the recording studio. Acoustic ceiling tiles bulged then melted, raining a thick slime, rather like cold oatmeal over everything. Computers, papers, filing cabinets – all disappeared under the onslaught of the water and its attendant debris. Now, six weeks on, my office area is still in chaos.

I have discovered that contractors are as slow in turning up to do the job as they are fast in offering quotations. Luckily most of my most important design documents are at our place in France, but we are still rather dislocated and shall probably remain so until the mess in cleaned up and I have a new ceiling, computers and carpet.

As many of you know, prior to 9-11 Linda and I spent much of the year in France. Every three months we would fly over, with our (then) eleven-year-old Golden Retriever and our (then) two year-old English Setter, to a tiny house in a small fishing village on the south coast. There I could work on new string and accessory designs, unhampered by phone-calls from buddies ‘just passing through town’ and the distraction of television that I could understand.

By the end of the three months I would have sufficient new potential projects lined up that the next three months, back in the States, would be nicely occupied, getting them through prototyping stage and into the pipeline. That way we would have at least one new thing to introduce at each NAMM Show.

9-11 put a stop to that. Whereas, before, we could fly direct to Barcelona from JFK, then drive up, across the border, to our house in Port Vendres — now all direct flights to Barcelona have been cancelled. That, plus the extra delays occasioned by all the added security measures at each stop-over, means that instead of the journey taking twelve hours, now it’s closer to twenty! There’s no way that we would subject the animals to a journey like that, so here we stay…with the bulk of my files and prototyping equipment languishing in France.

Surprisingly I’ve been very productive. Sitting around with no access to my files has made me cast about for new types of musical accessory avenues to explore.

John Pearse® KingPins™
Just recently I came up with a bell-brass bridge and tail-pin set that we call John Pearse® KingPins™. There has been so much hype in the music press about the efficacy of ‘fossilised’ bone saddles and bridge-pins. It’s correct that a TRUE fossil ivory or bone saddle will aid in vibration transfer and thus give a better response (not necessaily a ‘better’ tone) but fossilised bridgepins, honestly, do not add very much more to the tonal mix than good ol’ ivory pins. (You should also be aware that much of the so-called fossilised bone or ivory is not actually fossilised. To be ‘fossilised’ the bone or ivory must have become agatised – in other words, become turned into stone. A lot of the stuff that I see at guitar shows is just ordinary bone which has been steeped in coffee for a while to get it to adopt a brownish tinge. So Beware!)

To really affect the tone of a guitar by switching bridge-pins, one must replace the existing pin with a material that is extremely dense and hard. There ARE other brass bridge pins on the market, but many are made from machinist’s brass. This has a good density, but it’s too soft for our purposes.
I use what, back in England, we call ‘brittle-bronze’ – and what the Germans call ‘glocken-messing’… true Bell-Brass! Brass that is so hard, so dense, that if you hit it really hard, it will shatter. (See what happened to your Liberty Bell!) This is the grade that bells MUST be cast from. When a brass is that hard it will sustain vibrations – and that is what we want; to ‘store’ vibrations and return then back to the string to accentuate the string’s sustain.

So, we make the KingPins™ out of glocken-messing. Then we inlay them with a beautiful Parisian Eye, made from ebonite and pearl. (This is the final touch that European violin and cello makers would add to their finest bow-frogs in the Eighteenth Century. They did it to show how proud they were of their craftsmanship. We do it for the same reason.) Then we package the pins embedded in a block of solid Indian rosewood.

In the plastic case that holds the wood-block you’ll see a small vapour-tab. It’s there to prevent the pins from tarnishing while they’re in the dealer’s showcase.

When you get your set home and installed on your guitar, just pop that vapour-tab into the spare string packet in your guitar case. That tab will keep those strings fresh for months. How’s that for a useful Freebie?

On the subject of keeping strings fresh and making them last longer when they’re on a guitar – or banjo, or whatever – I get a great deal of mail and email from folks who want to know if John Pearse is coming out with a coated string.

Right now, the answer is No.

I really don’t think that the technology is anywhere near developed enough, plus I have a basic aversion to making a string that doesn’t sound as good as one that is not coated.

Like every stringmaker, however, I keep an open mind. The day that I think I can make a coated string that sounds as good as an uncoated string – then for sure, I’ll do it. In the meantime I have decided to go a different route to achieve the same result.

What is it that kills a string? Just two things, actually, corrosion/oxydation and metal-fatigue.

Even a coated string will eventually suffer from metal fatigue.

ALL strings will eventually fail because of metal fatigue.

So, seeing as you can’t eliminate that, what can you do about the corrosion and oxidation? Well, some manufacturers have decided to apply a plastic coating to seal the string and protect it from harmful acids, salts and exposure to the air. It’s kind of like shrink-wrapping the string.

Well, that’s their solution. It’s not mine. My way is to come up with a small, fabric tab that is impregnated with a benign solution that you rub on the strings both before and after playing. Not only does the solution neutralise skin salts and acids, it also eliminates oxydation…plus the microscopically thin protective film that it leaves on the strings acts as a lubricant — so you find that your fingers move more easily and finger-noise is reduced.

I call these little wonders John Pearse® String Swipes™.

After all, why switch to a shrink-wrapped string, when you can keep playing on your favourite strings, and have them last…and last…and last…and…?

Finally, since I have a real love of old parlour guitars – I still have my first Martin, a 1927 0-18 that I got for my seventeenth birthday – I decided to find a way to make a bridge-pin set that echoed the ‘vintage’ look of these charming little instruments.

I felt that straight black or white pins looked just too blatant in the bridge of a nicely-aged, smaller, guitar. What I wanted were pins that looked different, but which looked as if they were meant to be there; had been there since the day that the guitar was made.

The material I chose came from a most unlikely source…milk!

If you pass a low-voltage electric current through a solution containing milk and a mild acid a substance called CASEIN is produced. This is quite dense, moderately hard, very easily machined…and bears a very startlingly close resemblance to tortoiseshell!

We decided to machine up a few and inlay a pearl-dot into the top of each one…and, wow! what a pretty set of pins we had!
We figured that there were probably a lot of people out there who loved parlour guitars and would also like a set, so we put them into production….and now I have a set of these lovely John Pearse® Faux Tortoise Shell™ bridge-pins in my ’27 0-18….and in all my other parlours. Beautiful!

John Pearse® Faux Tortoise Shell Bridge Pins

So…just what is in the pipeline now is difficult to say. I have a dozen or more ideas in various stages of development. Just which will be the next to pop out of the pipe? Well, you’ll just have to wait and see.

Now I’m going to try to hurry along the ceiling and carpet contractors so I can get back into my office…and get to work.
From Highgrove…and the web-worms….Goodbye!

John Pearse

Graphics and logos on this web site are trademarked, copyrighted, or registered by Breezy Ridge® Instruments, Ltd., Mary Faith Rhoads-Lewis or John Pearse, Center Valley, PA 18034, and may not be reproduced in any form without the written permission of Breezy Ridge® Instruments, Ltd.

Leave a Reply