This is a reprint of a full review of Mottola's Cyclopedic Dictionary of Lutherie Terms. Written by music professor, guitarist, and luthier James Buckland, it originally appeared in American Lutherie #140, Summer 2020.
Last updated: June 01, 2022
[Originally published in American Lutherie #140 , Summer 2020]
Copyright © 2020 by James Buckland and American Lutherie
Before commencing my review of R.M. Mottola’s “Cyclopedic Dictionary of Lutherie Terms”, a brief preface is in order. Shortly after beginning my study of the guitar at the age of 7, I decided to go against the advice of my teacher and switch from playing right handed to my natural proclivity as a southpaw. It was the fall of 1971, and the influence of the recently deceased Jimi Hendrix, perhaps the most famous lefty in the guitar world, was very much alive.
Having neither money nor professional guidance, and with only the image of Hendrix and his flipped over Strat, I knew I was going to have to figure out how to modify my guitar on my own. The next of our regular family outings to the library turned up a couple of the few printed resources (Sloane, A.P. Sharpe, etc) of the day. I figured out how to reverse the nut, tapping it out with a wooden mallet and gluing it in backwards with some Elmer’s white glue.
From there on, playing the guitar was intertwined with fixing, modifying and eventually building guitars. One of the keys, besides my Dad’s workshop, was the resources at our local library. Most of you that are old enough know the familiar authors of the day: Hideo Kamimoto, Don Teeter, Irving Sloane, Craig Anderton, to name a few. What was lacking was a definitive resource that offered quick, reliable, and succinct factual information whether working on the fly, or planning in advance. Having the privilege of proofing an early draft of “Mottola’s Dictionary”, as well as reading the final printed version, my initial thought was, “This seems like a good idea, but I sure wish I had it years ago when I could have used it.” As it turns out, it wasn’t too late for an old dog to learn a few new tricks.
And, in the interest of full disclosure, my personal input from the draft stages should be understood from the standpoint that I was only one of many individuals offering proofreading and technical consulting services. In keeping with the ethics of a dedicated academic, the author strove to justify the content of his efforts according to the doctrines of peer reviewed publication.
The format of the book is a hardcover, glue bound edition 8.5"x8.5" (square) in size, numbering 181 pages in length. It’s big enough to read easily, yet takes up minimal valuable space when used on your bench while working. The pages are a fairly thick grade of non-reflective paper, showing very minimal traces of print-through. The paper choice allows for handwritten notes in pencil, that can easily be erased without leaving an unsightly mess. The book is liberally enhanced with supporting images, mostly photographic, but with some computer graphics. The photographs are mostly black & white. However, there are many color photographs, and for these an attractive hue has been chosen that closely resembles old fashioned hand tinted photographs. One especially appreciated feature of the binding format is that the book easily lies open on a benchtop, whether opened in the middle or the ends of the pagination, without losing one’s place. Taken together, these are all features that lend themselves to a reference work intended for practical use.
To that end, I kept the Dictionary on my bench for a month or so, regularly consulting it as related terminology popped into my head. Often, I would find myself engrossed in slight digressions from my work. (One of the hazards of an academic.)
So, who is the intended audience of the “Dictionary”? What are the nature and scope of the entries? In the Forward, the author provides much of the answers. A brief “About the Dictionary” entry describes the importance of acquiring a usable body of vocabulary in order to efficiently learn the art and craft of lutherie. Subsequently, the author provides a “Class of Entries” list which provides a short description for each of the following: “English Translations”, “Adhesives”, “Component Parts”, “Electronics”, “Finishing Materials & Techniques”, “Flattop Guitar & Ukulele Sizes”, “Guitar Top Bracing styles”, “Hand Tools”, “Instruments”, “Lumber & Sawing terminology”, “Luthiers”, “Planes”, “Science & Engineering”, “Solvents”, and “Wood Species”. Bear in mind that a number of entries fall outside of these categories. However, in many ways, any of these entry classes could be spun into its own exhaustive independent stand alone text. But, that would defeat the intended purpose. In the words of the author, “Although it is certainly possible to include a lot more terms than currently appear, doing so would make for a larger and more expensive book and it would make looking up terms more time consuming.” To put that subjective statement into perspective, I would offer a comparison to The New Harvard Dictionary of Music edited by Don Randel. Numbering close to a thousand pages, and measuring approximately two inches thick, consulting this reference is a task best taken while sitting down. In my work as a collegiate music professor, I can assure you that the “Harvard Dictionary” is a regularly cited (and plagiarized) reference for students, faculty, and others. However, there is a big difference between the dubious art of padding a term paper and trying to locate an informational nugget so you can get your customer’s guitar off your workbench and out the door. If you are a regular reader of American Lutherie and keep up with R.M.’s monthly “Questions and Answers” column, you already have a good idea of the wide ranging topics fielded and the depth of expertise offered by R.M.’s broad panel of lutherie experts with whom he regularly consults.
As an example of the practical field test to which I subjected Mottola’s Dictionary, I regularly find myself looking up the specific value for the 12th Root of 2. This is the common fret placement constant conventionally used to lay out fret positions. Due to my early exposure to contradictory values appearing in print (Donald Brosnac, for one, cited it as 17.85) it’s just one of those things I keep forgetting. Case in point, I didn’t feel like looking online, and my usual bookshelf references would have made for a time consuming endeavor. So, grabbing the “Dictionary”, I looked up “Rule of 18” (my default fret position value for historic instrument construction) which, in turn, made reference to “12th root of 2” and “fret placement constant”. In less time than it took to read this paragraph, I had the (correct) value: 17.817.
Speaking of specific entries, it is worth noting that with a professional career background as an engineer, R.M. Mottola’s writing style is ideally suited to such a text. The entries are to the point, factually based, and largely free of flowery embellishment or subjective value judgment. As an illustration, I am often annoyed by supposedly scholarly writing that imposes unverified, and often incorrect, value judgments on technical aspects of the guitar where a simple factual descriptive is all that is called for. One well known “scholarly” work on the history of the guitar refers to 19th century style bracing (aka: “ladder bracing”) thusly: “it also assured non-uniform swelling and contracting...thereby making the likelihood of cracking and deterioration...very great”. By comparison, Mottola offers a to-the-point paragraph describing the essential characteristics and application of the bracing style: “A bracing pattern that makes use of braces that are parallel to each other and perpendicular to the instrument centerline. Ladder bracing was commonly used on all flattop stringed instruments before the use of fan bracing and X bracing...”. References are made to other related patterns, each having its own entry.
As an example of a type of entry which may be characterized as possessing some level of disputable veracity, there is this partial quote for “de-damping”: “Controversial mechanical treatment of an instrument intended to improve its tone by vibrating it with an external device. Efficacy of the process has not been definitively established.” Yet, where hardcore data is concerned, right above it, there is this partial quote for “decibel”: “Ten times the logarithm to base 10 of the ratio of two power quantities.” Thanks to the plentiful quantity of photographs and illustrations, “Mottola’s Dictionary” also provides considerable recreational value, whether that be intended or not. Many attractive and intriguing instruments, and components thereof, are depicted throughout, compelling readers of various backgrounds to investigate further. I recently passed my copy amongst a group of guitar students and was gratified with the lively conversation that ensued. As an academic instructor, it is always interesting to observe the relationship between intellectual inquisitiveness and general productivity/work ethic. I couldn’t help but wonder if one or more of the students, confronted with a guitar related issue, might decide to take the plunge and attempt the work themselves, knowing resources for guidance do, in fact, exist.
As I made an effort to keep Mottola’s Dictionary at arm’s length, not only in my workshop but also my practice studio, I ended up periodically playing a game, sort of a luthier’s Trivial Pursuit. A term would pop into my head, and I’d see if it was listed. My list of words not found is quite short, and to be honest, often of dubiously obscure value. Often though, I ended up stumbling on several other terms with which I was not familiar.
As mentioned earlier in my review, the author suggests that the intent of the “Dictionary” is to serve the novice luthier in their quest for a workable body of terminology. However, I feel that this somewhat undersells the book. Many other real world scenarios come to mind that would benefit from this resource, such as a desk reference in retail music stores, a non-circulating reference in collegiate/university music department libraries, offices of music teachers offering applied strings instruction, any library possessing more than a few shelves in the 700-799 range of the Dewey Decimal System (ie: fine arts and recreation), a reference copy in any business serving the string instrument or supplies industry (for example, a dealer in fine lumber). And, as with any dictionary, it is an essential resource for anyone writing or editing text related to string instruments. In summary, Mottola’s Cyclopedic Dictionary of Lutherie Terms is just what the title describes, being quite comprehensive, succinct, and authoritative. That it is also an engaging read is a perk not often associated with the word “dictionary”. If you also have any of the GAL “Big Red Books” in your reference collection, you would likely find the “Cyclopedic Dictionary” to be a worthy complement.