Known for tonal excellence, meticulous craftsmanship, and top-notch materials, Bourgeois guitars have played a prominent role in the American steel-string guitar renaissance for more than two decades, helping shape acoustic music’s most recent rise in popularity.
What makes Bourgeois guitars unique? Why do they sound the way they do? How did Dana Bourgeois become a recognized authority on tonewoods and instrument design? Let’s have a look at the instruments’ history, explore the concepts behind their designs, and learn how they’re built.
Photo by Kevin Kinnear
In the Beginning (The Spark) 1970
Dana Bourgeois’ interest in acoustic guitars came about after watching the momentous appearance of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. Inspired by Irving Sloan’s “Classic Guitar Construction”, he built his first guitar while attending Bowdoin College. By 1977, he had established a one-man guitar repair and restoration shop and had received his first commission for a hand built guitar.
The Schoenberg/Martin Connection 1980
Dana found a kindred spirit in fingerstyle and ragtime guitarist Eric Schoenberg. Through Eric’s connection with a music shop called The Music Emporium Dana had the opportunity to hear, play and repair many rare vintage instruments.
The Minimal Cutaway 1980s
Responding to Schoenberg’s interest in a cutaway OM, Dana built several prototypes with what they believed was the perfect shape for a cutaway bend.
The prototype built by Dana in the early ’80s, and its eventual use on the Schoenberg Soloist, inspired a class of cutaway now considered an industry standard and used on countless makes and models of guitars.
Return of the Orchestra Model 1984
Dana and Schoenberg struck a deal with C.F. Martin and Co. and the renowned Schoenberg Guitar was born. The Schoenberg led to the reintroduction of the OM model into Martin’s own regular line. Today, the OM is offered by most builders and trails only the dreadnought in popularity.
Reintroducing Adirondack Spruce
Prior to over-harvesting after World War II, Adirondack “Red” spruce had been the soundboard of choice for guitars built in the golden age of the 1930s and ‘40s. Learning that Maine held some of the largest remaining stands of Adirondack spruce, Dana independently processed some of the first “Red” spruce guitar tops that the industry had seen in 40 years. Today it is once again the soundboard of choice for many players.
The Dreadnought’s Allure 1990s
Inspired by feedback from flatpicking legend Tony Rice, Dana set out to build a balanced yet powerful dreadnought, experimenting with nearly every element he could think of including woods, bracing, finishing, construction techniques, and truss rods. In the late 1990’s bluegrass great Ricky Skaggs and a young flatpicker by the name of Bryan Sutton began playing Bourgeois guitars. Their influence helped introduce the Bourgeois Dreadnought to a new generation of bluegrass players.
Bourgeois Guitars Founded 1992
Dana founded Bourgeois Guitars in Lewiston, Maine in 1992. With a small team of talented builders, he was able to apply the innovative theories and techniques he had developed over the last decade.
Bourgeois Production Method
Dana combines the best of both worlds. Working daily with his small, highly trained team in a hands on manner, his method of production ensures a level of consistency and predictability required in this modern age of guitar building, while allowing each guitar to realize its highest potential as a unique, individually created instrument.
Voicing the Steel String Guitar
Bourgeois’ unique voicing method helps insure the high level of responsiveness and string-to-string, note-to-note balance that is the hallmark of his guitars, while showcasing the personalities of individual tonewoods.
The Sound of Wood
Bourgeois has put considerable thought into the design details of his guitars, creating a framework that delivers a consistent signature voice.
He maintains that, without question, wood selection has a direct impact on a guitar’s individual tonal signature. “I try to match up the woods with the function of the guitar,” he explains, quickly dispelling the idea that there is a magic bullet that will be “best” for every guitar and every player.
Architecture & Engineering
So what gives Bourgeois guitars their unfailingly balanced tone and distinctive voice? As with all instruments, there’s no single answer, but several design elements contribute to the sum of the parts. One thing is for sure: while many Bourgeois models may look a lot like vintage instruments, they are far from replicas.
A Different Neck Joint
“The bolt-on neck just made sense,” says Dana, referring to his most radical innovative departure from vintage guitar construction. He strongly believes that his bolt-on neck design will allow for easy adjustability and great precision and for consistent tone and playability as the years pass.
While many makers bolt the neck but glue the fretboard extension to the top, Bourgeois guitars use bolts for both neck and fretboard extension, allowing complete removal of the neck with nothing but a set of hex keys. One of the easiest necks on the planet to reset is a benefit to first and secondhand owners of Bourgeois guitars.
A Truss Rod and Then Some
Another innovation found on a Bourgeois guitar is the use of a double action truss rod. The steel rods are close in weight and resonance to the non-adjustable T-Bars commonly found on guitars from 70 years ago. In another departure from tradition, Bourgeois necks are reinforced with a unique high modulus carbon fiber – the same high grade used in the masts of America’s Cup racing yachts. The additional rigidity increases clarity, responsiveness and sustain.
Scalloped and Non-Scalloped Bracing
Dana worked for years with a singular dedication towards a goal of delivering a new guitar with a rich, but well-defined, bottom end, and strong, singing highs. After exploring Tony Rice’s suggestion that he try making his dreadnoughts sound more like his OMs, Dana concluded that scalloping only the bass side of the X-brace, leaving the treble side tapered but full would help him achieve the desired end. The results impressed the likes of Doc Watson, Bryan Sutton, Ricky Skaggs, Dan Tyminski, Ron Block, Keith Sewell, Bob Minner, Scott Fore, Scott Nygaard, Courtney Hartman, and countless other high-level flatpickers.
The Orchestra Model Lives On
Dana says: “With its unique combination of balance, responsiveness, tonal complexity and clarity, the OM became my Platonic ideal, my idea of what every steel string guitar ought to sound like,” he says. “If you get a good one, or even an average one, you can fingerpick it, flatpick it, play bottleneck, whatever—any musical style sounds good.” He believes the best dreadnoughts share similar qualities to the OM, and can do so without losing their identity as dreadnoughts. “In many ways, I’ve applied this concept to every model I make. I think of them all as different sized OMs,” says Dana. “Balance, responsiveness, tonal complexity and clarity: This is what I want out of every guitar.”
Bourgeois guitars stand out for their innovative construction and for original decorative motifs, inspired by, as opposed to being copied from, classic design. But none of this would matter if the results weren’t welcomed by discerning guitarists. Working with and listening to the needs of virtuoso players since his early days of building has paid off for Bourgeois, and today he counts many of acoustic music’s finest players among his customers.
Aged Tone™ Guitars 2012
Dana’s drive to innovate continues to this day, with the Aged Tone™ Series, which uses a torrefied top, Aged Tone™ Finish, and hide glue, to create a guitar that fuses the best qualities of a modern instrument with the previously inimitable qualities of a decades-old vintage guitar. Torrefaction accelerates the natural aging process, promoting vintage-like responsiveness and expansive tonal qualities in right-out-of-the-box instruments. In addition, Bourgeois devised a new, hard and extremely thin finish,which, although it’s based on modern cyanoacrylate, exhibits desirable properties achieved by traditional nitrocellulose finishes after 50+ years of curing, including increased hardness, lower mass and appropriate flexibility.
Bourgeois guitars, are still made in Lewiston Maine. Dana currently leads a team of a dozen or so highly skilled guitar makers. Working in a former textile mill constructed in the 1850s, they build about 400 instruments each year. And while Dana Bourgeois could easily stick to his proven formulas, he’s constantly looking for the next challenge. It’s a fair bet that future plans do not include abandonment of this lifelong quest to build a better guitar every day.