History of Eastman Guitars

History of Eastman Guitars

Eastman Strings is an integral part of the long and glorious history of one of the most fascinating musical traditions the world has known. Through their violin and bow making activities,  Eastman Stringed Instruments are attached to a tradition nearly 500 years old, and they strive to maintain a level of artistic and commercial achievement worthy of their predecessors.

The history of the violin family is fascinating and complex. It has all the elements of a great story, and our place in that story tells a lot about how we view the importance of what we do. There are many books and websites that offer extensive information and speculation about the history of violinmaking, and it is not our goal to repeat all of this information here. Let it suffice for us to pick up the story in the late 19th century, when economic and social factors came into play to influence the art of violin making and bring it into the modern age.

In the mid to late 1800's, the industrial revolution was well under way, bringing with it a rise of urban culture, increase in buying power for the middle class, and expansion of international trade. A generation of comparatively well-educated and affluent people turned its interest to music making, many as a pastime, and others as a vocation. No longer merely the entertainment of the noble and wealthy classes, classical and various forms of popular and folk music were embraced by ordinary people, and they wanted not only to hear it, but to play it themselves. Several different types of instruments grew in popularity—both mechanical devices such as player pianos, music boxes of ingenious designs, and other basically self-playing instruments, and more traditional instruments such as pianos, harmoniums, and violins. The violin in particular was the instrument of choice for more amateur and professional musicians than any other.
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Imagine the fficulty of would-be music makers who were faced with a severe shortage of instruments on which to play. The great master instruments of the 17th and 18th centuries were already collectible and unaffordable by this time, and modern instruments were also relatively rare and expensive. Several savvy violin makers figured out a solution: they created master workshops where they trained specialist wood carvers to do much of the time consuming work of violin making for them. The masters trained the workers, oversaw their work, and participated in the assembly and varnishing of the instruments. By putting much of the work in the hands of specialized workers who were not highly-paid masters, they were able to create high quality hand-made instruments at reasonable cost. As a result, violins were both available and affordable to musicians who lacked the budgets to buy vintage instruments, but who nevertheless wanted good quality violins on which to play. It sounds obvious to us now, but it was a major change for both violin making and for the world of music in general. In former generations, only a small caste of professional musicians, working primarily for the European courts and churches, were able to play instruments (which were often provided by their employers). Now, nearly anyone could acquire a hand-made violin or guitar and learn to make music.

Violins & Guitars became both available and affordable
to musicians who wanted good quality
instruments on which to play.

All of this was important not only for the future of instrument making, but also for music in general. Think of the creative power, not to mention the surge in popularity of music, that resulted from increased access to the instruments on which this music is made!

During this period, which lasted from the late 19th century until the middle of the 20th, hand-made violins and bows were available in a wide range of qualities and prices. The least expensive were really quite awful, but they served their purpose. Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward sold cheap outfits in their catalogs, while fine violin shops sold the better workshop instruments and bows, often relabeling them with their shop name, or with incorrect or fictitious maker’s labels. (Many a person, when cleaning out a closet or attic, has been thrilled by the discovery of a violin by the great Cremonese master Stradivarius. Thinking that they have made their fortunes, nearly all of these people are later disappointed to learn that the instruments they possess are inexpensive German or Czech copies with facsimile Stradivarius labels. The origin of the “attic Strad” is found in the practice of many makers who put cheaply printed Stradivari labels in their export instruments.)  

European workshops continued to hand-make instruments and bows up until the middle of the 20th century. Though it is far from the greatest tragedy resulting from World War II, the war brought about major changes in the business of violin making. Many violin makers were killed in the violence. Workshops were destroyed, as were entire towns. Europe itself was rearranged in the aftermath of the war. These facts combined to completely alter violin making in the late 20th century. First, many of the German makers who had been living in the German areas of Czechoslovakia, at one time major producers of instruments, found themselves no longer welcome in their former hometowns. They were evicted from their homes and workshops and forced to emigrate to the West. Much of Europe, including a large part of Germany, fell under communist Soviet rule, which had a bad effect on production and trade. May of the former East German and Czech makers who moved to the West set up a new violin making colony in the town of Erlangen, where they and their descendants work to this day. Along with their geographical relocation, another major change instituted at this time was the automation and mechanization of the violin making process.

Beginning after World War II, essentially all student stringed instruments were largely machine-made, with hand work comprising little or none of the process. This means that, among musicians who began studying after the war, nearly all started on machine-made instruments of questionable quality. Think about it: generations of string players never knew what it was like to play a good instrument until they were advanced enough to invest in an expensive old one.

In recent decades, several factors have revived the flagging violin craft. Very important in inspiring change was the huge success of the Suzuki Method in popularizing study of stringed instruments. The large number of string programs and private studios found today owe a great deal to this phenomenon.

The next big change that made a difference in violin making was the opening of China to commerce with the West. For many years, China had an isolationist attitude both culturally and economically. (Even so, a state-run factory supplied violin outfits in large quantities. The infamous “Skylark” instruments that they made have done much to damage the reputation of Chinese instruments, and the negative effects are still being felt by a new generation of talented, dedicated makers!)

Qian Ni, who had come to the United States from China to study music, founded Eastman Strings. In the beginning, he and his two musician colleagues bought instruments from Western-trained violin makers from their home town in China, but before long, they saw that a different approach was needed. Mr. Ni hired a group of established master violinmakers, and with their help, he established a large master violin workshop devoted to the handcrafting of instruments—one of the first the world had known since the first half of the 20th century. In the short time since this workshop was founded, the reputation of Eastman Strings’ instruments for tonal quality and craftsmanship excellence has become a worldwide standard. After establishing the instrument making workshop, Qian Ni went on to found a bow making workshop based on the same principals. In both workshops, master makers train and oversee talented woodworkers to create some of the world’s finest student, step-up, and professional instruments and bows.

An exciting new chapter
in the history of Instrument making
is being written in our own time.

Today, the instrument and bow making workshops at Eastman operate in precisely the same manner as late 19th century European workshops. They have virtually no power tools aside from the band saws used to cut out the necks and the outlines of the tops and backs of instruments. Chisels, knives, gouges, and scrapers, in the hands of outstandingly gifted craftspeople, are the primary tools used to create these modern instruments and bows, using methods centuries old. Thanks to Eastman, string players today have advantages unknown to earlier generations: quality Cellos, Violas, Guitars & Bows, available world-wide at affordable prices.

An exciting new chapter in the history of instrument making is being written in our own time. We at Ed Roman Guitars are excited to be contributing to it through our close association with Eastman and their revival of traditional Old World methods, and our pioneering of new materials and methods in the construction Guitars. We invite you to join us in the making of musical history.

Jazz Guitars, Blues Guitars, & Folk Guitars

The secret of Eastman's success is actually no secret at all. In fact, it’s old news. There are no computerized machines or industrial routers in their workshop. The devices they employ are good hands and sharp tools, just as in master workshops 100 years ago. Talented craftspeople, under the guidance of master luthiers, handcraft Eastman instruments from aged tonewoods in precisely the same manner as the famous German and French workshops did a century ago.

The story of every Eastman instrument begins with the tonewoods used in its construction. Eastman's master luthiers begin by selecting high quality aged spruce for the tops and maple for the backs, ribs, necks, and scrolls. The wood used to make an instrument will in large measure determine the final results, so they go to great pains to start every one of their instruments with select, seasoned tonewoods.

Corner and end blocks are fit into the rib mold. These blocks are the main structures that link the ribs, top, back, and neck together, and give strength to the finished instrument. Each instrument has a neck block, end block, and four corner blocks.

After the blocks are fit into the mold, they are carefully shaped with chisels and gouges. The shape of the corner and end blocks is important because it determines the shape of the ribs themselves. After the ribs are complete, the mold will be removed, but the blocks will remain attached to the ribs.

Ribs are shaped using heat, moisture, and gentle pressure to bend the thin wood. Ribs must be thin but strong. Ribs that are too thick and heavy will dampen an instrument’s resonance. The ribs’ curvature imparts structural strength, but they remain the instrument’s most delicate part. When they have been bent into their final shape, the ribs are attached to the blocks, perfectly fitting them around the mold.

Next, the rib linings are cut, bent and attached to the ribs. Without the linings, there would not be enough surface on the rib edges to create a secure glue bond with the top and back. The rib linings follow the contour of the ribs and dovetail into notches in the corner blocks.

After the ribs are removed from the mold, the exposed interior of the blocks is shaped and smoothed. This removes the excess wood that was holding the block in place in the mold. With this step, the ribs are complete.

Tops and backs are cut out from either single pieces of tonewood, or from book-matched pairs joined at the center. The exterior arching is shaped by experienced violinmakers.

The graduations (finely calibrated gradations in thickness) are completed from the inside. This requires expert handwork and frequent, careful measurements to ensure precision that no machine can match. Correct graduations are essential to the sound and response of an instrument.

Eastman uses only the finest components like Schaller & Grover Tuners, Seymour Duncan, Kent Armstrong, & Benedetto Pickups. Tone Pros Bridges, High quality hand made tailpieces & other componentry.

Because an Eastman Instrument is 100% handmade sometimes it is possible to find a slight imperfection on some of the instruments. These could easily be abolished but at an awful cost. The fact that this condition exists prove the mettle of these instruments. Each instrument has it's own distinctive tone and does not suffer from the cookie cutter mentality of the production world.

Mass production could easily solve these slight imperfections but mass production would destroy the soul and individuality of these fine handmade instruments.