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Norwalk Plus magazine : Norwalk Plus Summer 2008 Published: Jun 4, 2008 - 5:18:26 AM


The Chazz

By Chandra Niles Folsom


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When guitarist Marc Huberman stepped onstage at Manhattan’s famed Cutting Room, it was with a one-of-a-kind archtop guitar — handcrafted by South African native Charles Pritchard, of Norwalk.

The graceful bodylines of Pritchard’s custom guitar — dubbed the Chazz —with meticulously carved back and front plates from book-matched sitka spruce and quilted maple, attracted a great deal of curiosity among musicians long after Huberman left the stage.

With ebony fingerboard, tailpiece and headstock, the shapes incorporated in his design were purely inspirational and went through numerous variations before a final shape was selected. A Maori influence can be seen in the hand-carved bone tailpiece insert that is the centerpiece of its design — a remnant from Pritchard’s days living in New Zealand where he was a partner in a state-of-the-art boat manufacturing company and developed a first-of-its-kind vacuum-formed kayak.

Pritchard will provide a custom design service to create all types of guitars from electric to acoustic — the archtop, being more of a construction challenge, will be the main line of production. Local music legend Jose Feliciano, who occasionally jams at the Georgetown Saloon with his two sons, expressed a keen interest in the possibility of obtaining a Pritchard classical guitar.

“I played violin as a kid in Cape Town,” says Pritchard, a product designer with a rich background in the creative arts and an innovator in the use of composite materials in architectural, industrial, theatrical and aeronautical design. “Back then, my teacher gave me a violin which, unbeknownst to her, turned out to be a very valuable instrument. I’ve always had it with me in the different countries where I’ve lived.”

But when Pritchard moved to the United States four years ago, baggage handlers at the airport appeared to have accidentally crushed the cherished violin. Heartbroken, Pritchard brought his childhood instrument to a renowned luthier located in Danbury, best known for repairing a $4-million Stradivarius violin later sold to famed violinist Joshua Bell. The luthier informed Pritchard that his violin was, indeed, one worth saving.

“Ed Wicks was his name,” says Pritchard. “He told me that he was unable to repair the violin immediately, but, because of my background in product design and woodworking, agreed to teach me some of the procedures on how to repair it.”

When Pritchard returned to Wicks to show him the fruits of his labor, the luthier was astonished by the workmanship he witnessed.

“This led to an exchange of the methodology of repair, and he suggested that I think about delving deeper into the craft,” Pritchard says.

So, picking up a how-to-book on the building of archtop guitars — very similar in design to violins and cellos — Pritchard began designing and crafting the celebrated Chazz, which took him about four months to complete.

Pritchard, no stranger to woodworking, had crafted many of his childhood toys by hand.

“My dad was a wooden toy designer,” recalls Pritchard. “I believe that to make a stringed instrument, one needs to understand what sound transference is all about. I have experimented with many different materials — including carbon fiber — to enhance or suppress the tone and volume of sound from an acoustic instrument where it is necessary. It’s a bit like flavoring wine!”

That’s where old-school methodology meets with new-school technology —much like how modern winemakers use high technology to bring out the desired flavors. After spending years learning the craft of woodworking, Pritchard began marrying it with new techniques and materials. While there are still traditionalists who would never dream of changing tried-and-true methods, Pritchard likes to experiment in order to obtain the best possible sound in his instruments.

“The hand skills developed in early days took me through an astounding career from stage sets to film sets and special effects,” says Pritchard. “This, in turn, started a new career in product design, which calls for the ability to plan an idea with production in mind. From the onset of making a guitar, I was thinking about production, so I designed and made all the hand tools myself.”

Pritchard’s primary intention with guitar making is to incorporate the design ideas of clients to create one-of-a-kind guitars for specific musical styles and individual tastes. The mold he creates for each guitar is destroyed after completion, rendering it one-of-a-kind.

His custom Chazz guitar is, in many ways, a lot like a Stradivarius violin. But there is another unique artifact Pritchard is working on that has also been called a Stradivarius — a 110-year-old steamboat, docked in Norwalk.

“An eccentric gentleman who lives in Westport bought a 30-foot steamboat that needed to be restored,” muses Pritchard. “Its previous owner had found it somewhere in the Great Lakes with a tree growing out of it.”

The steamboat had been partially rebuilt when Pritchard took over the restoration project.

“We took it on a test run up and down the Saugatuck River, and people came out on the banks just to have a look,” says Pritchard.

With Pritchard’s background, restoring the wooden vessel wasn’t much different from restoring his childhood violin.

“It’s woodworking combined with old steam technology that I’ve learned about,” explains Pritchard. “It was like going back in time and figuring out how people did things in the past using wood and metal and then creating parts that are authentic for an antique wood-fired steam engine.”

The project began two years ago, and the restoration process is ongoing. Not only the engine but also wood and brass fittings are being restored to their original purpose and luster.

However, while a steamboat must be seaworthy, a guitar must make good music.

“I’ve experimented with different materials in order to create various tones,” says Pritchard. “The process of creating tone begins with the material — in this case, wood. Right from the start, with a raw block of wood, you begin tapping it as you carve and shape it to create the proper tone. This tap-tuning goes all the way through the process until the end, where fine tap-tuning creates the most specific sound.”

Even the varnishes and lacquers used on the finished product add to the overall tone of the instrument. Stradivarius claimed that his special varnishes were key in the sound of his violins.

A musical instrument is truly a reflection of the craftsman who creates it, and like the Stradivarius, Pritchard’s Chazz may one day be defined as the ultimate guitar.

“I’ve always made things out of wood — and it’s stayed with me all my life,” says Pritchard. “Actually, when I built my first guitar it came so naturally, it was like falling off a log.”

For further information, contact beachcomberkayaks.com or chazzguitars.com.




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