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Featured Luthier: Jimmy Foster

by Ted Ludwig

Jimmy installing body binding.

Jimmy Foster is the most celebrated luthier in the New Orleans area. For the past thirty- three years he has made guitars for many of the finest players around the world. What makes Jimmy special among his contemporaries is that he is a brilliant 7-string guitarist as well as a wonderful luthier. He has been playing weekly gigs in and around New Orleans since he was a teenager. Jimmy's experience as a professional musician coupled with his intuition as a fine woodworker has helped him create some remarkable instruments.

Ted Ludwig: How did you get involved in making guitars?
Jimmy Foster: I spent a lot of time with my dad who was a body and fender man and could make anything out of a piece of metal or wood. Making things with my hands was something that always interested me. Being a guitar player since I was 11 years old, guitars had always intrigued me. I always knew that I was going to build guitars someday. When I opened my first shop I called it Foster's Custom Finishes and Repairs. I was doing body and fender work while taking some guitar repairs. I had two business cards made for that business. One had a picture of a guitar on it and the other had a picture of a car.

Jimmy in his Workshop.

Jimmy spraying a guitar.

TL: Did your experience with painting cars help you to develop some of the rich finishes that you use on your guitars?
JF: Sure, painting cars did help me to develop my skills. When I was a kid, about 15 years old, I was already doing guitar repairs and refinishing work for many of the local music stores. My dad would drive down to the music stores and pick up the repair jobs for me. I would do the repairs and would spray the guitars in a booth that I made in my backyard. When I got my first shop I did work on both guitars and cars and it got to the point where the guitar repair work overtook the car repairs. Back then, there was no one in New Orleans doing guitar repair, so I got called to do warranty work for Martin, Gibson, Ovation, and Fender. That was when I decided to just do guitar repairs and refinishing.

TL: Did you do any work on some of the hand-built custom guitars like D'Angelicos or Strombergs?
JF: Just about every kind of guitar that I can think about came through the shop. Being in a musically rich city like New Orleans, I have had players from all over the world come into my shop for guitar repairs. I have gotten to work on some of the finest guitars in the world. When I worked on an instrument that was especially good sounding, I would find out what it was that made that particular guitar so great. There was no one here to teach me how to build archtops, so I used the knowledge that I got from doing repairs.

TL: So you learned how to build guitars from examining other great guitars.
JF: Yes, For example I had several old Gibson L 50 guitars come into the shop. These guitars sounded so good. They were 16" guitars that didn't have an elevated fingerboard like an L5 or a Johnny Smith. No one wanted an L 50 because you couldn't get a floating pickup to fit on it, but it sounded great acoustically. I realized that because the fingerboard fits directly onto the top that there was more of an angle on the neck, which put more downward pressure onto the bridge and the top. On my guitars I use an elevated extension with a floating pickup, but I increased the neck angle to put more downward tension on the top of the guitar. This gives the guitar more volume. I have seen a lot of archtop guitars out there that have really high fingerboard extensions. By lifting the fingerboard extension it will decrease the angle at which the strings cross the bridge. This greatly reduces the tension on the top, which also reduces the volume of the guitar.

TL: The first time I played some of your guitars I noticed that your necks felt so comfortable. What are some of your philosophies on how a neck should be made?
JF: I have always liked a thinner neck than what is used on most archtop guitars. Being a 7-string player myself, I found that a large neck was detrimental to my playing. Of course, I have built many different size necks over the years. I tried wide necks, fat necks, and skinny necks and came to a consensus of what works best for me. On a 7-string I feel that the neck should be between 1 15/16" and 2" at the nut. The neck profile should be crescent-shaped and not round. A totally round neck shape with the increased width of a 7-string results in a baseball bat. I do however make larger necks for players who insist on it. But, after a while they usually come back to me and ask for a smaller neck. Another important aspect contributing to the playability of the necks is that I join the neck to the body at the 15th fret. I also extend the cutaway slightly deeper than most archtops. This coupled with the extended neck joint ensures better access to the upper register of the fingerboard.

TL: Do you also make 6-string guitars?
JF: Sure I do. I make 6-strings with various size necks. The customer usually will tell me what size they want their necks to be. My standard sizes are between 1 11/16" up to 1 7/8" at the nut.

TL: What percentage of your orders are 7-strings?
JF: They account for about 80% of my total orders. I build about 20 guitars a year and perhaps 15-16 of them are 7-strings. I tell customers that the 7-string guitar is really a 6-string with a bonus. You can do everything that you could do on a 6-string and more. Unlike many of the other luthiers, I do not charge extra for a 7-string. It takes the same amount of time to make a 7-string guitar as it does a 6-string. We are only talking about an extra tuning key.

TL: I noticed when playing your guitars that I didn't find any wolf tones or dead spots on the fretboard. Many of the guitars that I have played over the years have one or two weak notes on the fingerboard that do not sustain. How do you make your guitars so that they do not have dead spots?
JF: Many years ago I built an archtop guitar for myself. This guitar had some dead spots on the fingerboard. I tried to figure out how to fix this problem on my guitars. I noticed that on other guitars, whether factory or handmade, that some sounded great and some did not. I wanted all of my guitars to sound great. I realized that the guitar I had built that had the wolf tones was tuned to the note C. This made the body of the guitar absorb the string frequency of the note C. But, it also made the dominant and subdominant notes weak. So, on this particular guitar the C note was dead and the G and F notes were both weaker than the rest of the notes on the fingerboard.

When I tuned my guitar strings down a semitone or of a step, I found that these dead spots disappeared. When I tuned my strings up a step, I got the same results. The solution was to carve the re-curve so that when I tapped the body of the guitar the resonant frequency would fall between two pitches. Every guitar has a different tap pitch depending on the density of the wood or the size of the body, but if I carve the top and back re-curve, then the pitch of the guitar will drop. As long as that pitch is a semitone between two notes in 440, the guitar will not have dead spots. This also helps to reduce feedback when used electronically. That is why I feel that my guitars are so consistent.

TL: You have a really beautiful assortment of tone woods in your shop. Every piece of maple that I looked at had extraordinary figure. All the spruce that you use has tight, straight grain. What is your philosophy on tonewood?
JF: Well, I feel that all of my guitars should have beautiful wood. Making a guitar takes a lot of time and effort. I don't mind spending $100.00 or $200.00 more on buying higher quality tonewoods. When I have wood delivered to the shop, I like to pick the best pieces for my guitars and ship the rest of it back. I think that the customer will appreciate the beautiful woods that I use. Of course I do put the most figured pieces on my higher-end models. As far as types of wood, I have a variety of different woods that I use to get different results for the customer's needs. I like Sitka spruce for the tops. I feel that it is the best wood for the 17" guitar. I do use European spruce as well but I think that the Sitka makes a better-sounding guitar. I use western cedar for my 15" models because it makes the smaller-bodied guitar sound fat and warm. For the backs and sides I use mahogany on the 15" and the entry-level 17" archtops. I believe that mahogany is an excellent tonewood for the backs, sides and necks. I use highly figured or quilted maple for the backs and sides of my 17" higher-level archtops. I use Madagascar ebony for the fingerboard, bridge, tailpiece and pickguard.

Great tonewoods are an essential part of making a great guitar. But, it is the way in which the maker carves and works the wood that determines how the guitar is going to sound. [Robert] Benedetto said it and I think it is well stated- "Every piece of wood has different characteristics about it. The way a guitar is going to sound can be adjusted by the thickness of the top and the way in which the braces are shaped." If the wood for the top has hard, tight grain, then I like to make the braces tall and slim like a wedge shape and make the top slightly thinner. If the wood is softer I usually leave the top slightly thicker. In general I use wedge-shaped braces made from Sitka spruce. The types of bracing also will determine how the guitar will sound. I use X bracing and parallel bracing on my archtop guitars. With parallel bracing, I tilt the bass side out more than the treble side. This gives the guitar a punchy, bright high end while retaining a warm low end.

TL: What types of pickups do you use?
JF: I use Kent Armstrong pickups. Kent is a great guy and I think that he makes the best pickup on the market. I used to use the same pickup that Kent was making for Benedetto and I was having a problem with the B string being too loud. Kent said that he would make me a pickup if I designed it, so I had him make me a 6 and 7 string pickup with adjustable pole pieces. I had him place the screws consistent with the string spacing that I like to use. I received such enthusiastic responses from customers about these pickups that I decided to begin selling them individually.

TL: Do you make other types of guitars besides archtops?
JF: Sure, I make solid bodies, flattops, and electronic nylon-string guitars. All of my guitars are available as a 6- or 7-string model.

TL: How has being a player influenced your guitar designs?
JF: Being a player has been the most important asset to my guitar building. It helps me stay in tune with other players' needs. I have learned to make a guitar that has less feedback and no dead spots. I know how to make a guitar feel great to a player. I have learned how to make my guitars sound great electronically as well as acoustically. Most importantly I have learned how to make a guitar that will last a lifetime and hopefully give a player a lifetime of enjoyment.

TL: Who are some of the players that use Foster Guitars?
JF: Paul Simon, Howard Morgan, Fred Fried, Clint Strong, Steve Masakowski, Hank Mackie, Pat Practico, Alan DeMause, Ron Eschete, yourself [Ted Ludwig] of course, David Mooney, Rob Block, Todd Duke, Bill Solley, and Jim Lichens. I am currently making a 7-string for Howard Alden.

TL: You have several different models to choose from with prices ranging from $3,500.00 to $18,000.00. Can you tell us about some of your models?
JF: Sure, I have models to fit a large variety of budgets. First of all, I would like to say that all of my guitars are hand-carved. I do not use plywood on my guitars. My base model is called "The St. Charles Avenue". This model is available in 15" and 17" body widths and offers a large variety of custom options. The base price is $3,750.00. My standard full-size archtops are the "Crescent City" models. I offer three different trim levels and a variety of options and inlay packages for these guitars: "The Crescent City" starts at $5,500.00, "The Crescent City Classic" starts at $6,700.00, and "The Crescent City Elite" starts at $8,500.00.

I also have two premium models, which are made from the most highly figured woods and possess many of the premium appointments available: "The Fleur-de-lis Elite" priced at $10,500.00, and "The Royale" priced at $18,000.00. I make only one Royale every two years. All of my guitars come with a Kent Armstrong pickup and hard-shell case. The Standard models come with a TKL 3-ply case, and the premium models come with a custom Cedar Creek 5-ply case. All Foster guitars come with a limited lifetime warranty to the original purchaser.

TL: Thanks for sharing some of your time with us Jimmy.
JF: It was my pleasure. Anyone interested in one of Jimmy Foster's guitars may give him a call at (985) 892-9822 or toll-free at 1 (888) 317-4146 from 8:00AM to 6:00 PM CST. He would be happy to send you a brochure or a free 30-minute video that provide an overview of his guitars and shop. You may also purchase one his performance CD's for $15.00. Jimmy's website address is: www.fosterguitars.com.

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