Guitar maker Thomas Fredholm started making acoustic steel string guitars then dedicated himself to making classical guitars for two decades before coming full circle to creating his distinctive steel string acoustics again in the old C.F. Martin tradition. Artists like Steve Earle, John Leventhal, Andy Summers, Zac Brown, Dan Tyminsky, Will Kimbrough, Sofia Karlsson, Jim Salestrom, David Russell and John Dearman of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet number among his clients. And it is safe to say he is the only Swedish luthier who splits his time working on his craft between his shop Göteborg, Sweden and his second home in Sri Lanka.
“We first traveled to Asia in the mid-80s,” Fredholm says. “My wife is a teacher, which allows us a couple months during the summer to spend time there and for Christmastime as well. Normally, she leaves for Sri Lanka twice a year but this year was an exception. Unfortunately, we were there for the 2004 tsunami.”
“The country had a traumatic time recovering after that,” he says. “But people come together. We met this fantastic Sri Lankan family and it’s like I have a new brother and sister. It took me a year and a half to actually construct our own house after we got the property settled.”
Fredholm started making steel string guitars in the 1980s before he switched over to making classical guitars for the next twenty years.
“There was a crash in the steel string guitar industry,” he says. “I got into classical instrument making because I had a couple of good friends who were classical guitarists. Then I got stuck in that world for 20 years until about five years ago. A friend of mine, singer-songwriter Steve Eriksson, said, ‘I’ve got this Nashville contract now and I want to play one of your steel string guitars for that record,’ so there it all resumed.”
Fredholm’s steel string guitars are inspired by the early work of C.F. Martin, who followed what he firmly believes to be the techniques used by old violin-makers. “The old guys, like C.F. Martin–I’m sure he was checking out how violins were made,” Fredholm says. “I will probably land a punch on my nose from some guitar makers for saying C.F. Martin, along with many other makers from the 1800s, were influenced by the violin-making craft. In my thinking, it is simple and logical. All industries engage in some form of espionage to check out what others are doing to make their own instruments sound better.
“Violin-makers are like the Freemason world, very secretive,” Fredholm says. “I have a friend who worked with Stradivari violins and now he is working on making his own instruments in Australia. He came to Sweden a couple years ago to oversee some work I was doing on a certain part of the guitar, which I will not mention for now, and he said, ‘You’re working just like the old violin-makers!’
What makes a Fredholm guitar? “I build my guitars in the traditional classical way, upside down with the traditional Spanish peones (glue blocks) inside,” he says. “I make the body separately, like every maker does, but I do it with peones upside down in the Spanish building way. You attach the neck to the sides and you build the top side down. Instead of having kerfing in the top, you have little triangular blocks inside.”
“I make my steel string guitars in the same classical way,” he says. “I find this approach gives a slightly better tonal quality to the instrument because of the accuracy of the glue joints,” he says. “Part of the old beautiful sound of the dreadnoughts in particular, is due to the focus on building the guitar backs. I am working the way Martin worked in the 1880s. I think he probably encouraged his workmen to tap the soundboards a little bit more, sand a bit more and shave a bit more. It’s all a matter of fine-tuning the wood. I’m a tuning guy. All my wood is tuned.”
“In the guitar world, there is this belief that the top or the soundboard is most important and the other membranes are just kind of secondary. The old arch-top guitar maker, James D’Aquisto used to say–and I would have to agree with him but for a few exceptions—‘The whole soul of the arch-top is in the back.’ It’s usually not the way classical or flattop guitar makers approach construction. I make an instrument that sounds like a pre-war instrument. It’s as simple as that.
“Many good musicians prefer mahogany instruments for dreadnoughts because they love the clarity it offers while, at the same time, they also like the heavy sound you get from Brazilian Rosewood,” Fredholm says. “I’m working mostly with Indian Rosewood, which is my preference. When working with any wood, you do have to adjust the relationship of the wood to its density. Padauk, which has a red-orangey color, is a fantastic tone wood.”
For spruce top guitars, Fredholm uses European spruce, mostly Italian, finding it to be lighter in weight. He forgoes the use of any Sitka. “I just find European spruce to be outstanding in quality compared to Sitka,“ he says. “I’ve never tried to use Adirondack spruce as it was used on many pre-war guitars but I am sure that shares the qualities of European spruce.”
“There are so many ways of shaving wood to arrive at the tone you are seeking,” Fredholm explains. “You want to make the wood vibrate. I make the wood vibrate separately to get a rough idea of where I am and then I put the whole instrument together and start tap-tuning from there. I tap-tune everything. It is a technique goes all the way back to violin-making. After I’m finished, I French polish all my instruments.”
Fredholm is one of the ‘foreign’ guitar makers mentioned in the book The Guitar Makers of Granada, edited by John Ray, to have spent some time in the famous guitar-making city, absorbing the craft.
“After a couple of years of making classical guitars, a friend of mine recommended I meet with Jonathan Hinves, an English maker who studied with Antonio Marín Montero in Granada,” Fredholm says. “Montero is probably the only Spanish maker who had non-Spanish workers in his shop. In the early 90s, Hinves was the big shot guy who had the longest waiting list of them all for one of his guitars but these days, he is no longer into making guitars. He is now making grand piano renovations.
“I did not study guitar-making in Granada as much as I studied the spirit of guitar making,” Fredholm says. “I spent a week there, breathing the air, and I came back with a great understanding of the value in developing concentration, taking it easy and cultivating a much more relaxed approach toward making guitars. Hinves has a very calm personality while I’m the complete opposite, this way and that. I came back home operating at half speed. It took me about two years to return to my normal pace. So being in Granada was like going to an ashram in India. It was a fantastic trip. I met some colleagues and had a good time.”
At the moment, Fredholm is constructing on a new double top classical guitar along with a new 000-12 fret guitar.
“Sofia Karlsson’s 000-12 fret guitar impressed me so much that I am making a new one,” he says. “What really impressed me with making the first one is that it had all the beauty of the small guitars combined with a great midrange and a beautiful bass–pretty much the good gifts to mankind.”
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For more details, please visit Thomas Fredholm’s Facebook page.
[Note to readers: Grammy-winning Karlsson is known as the Emmylou Harris of Sweden. Below are photos of Sofia with her certified Brazilian rosewood guitar. Continue further down to view other artist videos.]
Will Kimbrough‘s “Lick of the Day for April 11, 2012,” which features
Fredholm guitar in drop-D tuning: