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The origin and development of the double top guitar

By Chris Kamen, Classic Guitars International
A brief discourse on the origin and development of the double top (sandwich top/composite top) classical guitar.

As a guitar lover, and guitar dealer, I have a fondness for a wide range of building styles and techniques concerning the classical guitar. I love all styles of guitar. Each guitar of course has its own personality, and even guitars constructed by the same builder vary widely in this way. Likewise, each building style has a ‘character’ that is recognizable and if you play and compare many guitars built in the various styles, you can fairly easily hear the differences that each building style has to offer. Traditional fan braced guitars, modified fan braced guitars, lattice braced guitars and double top guitars are the main building styles used today. While some builders attempt to blend these styles, for example a lattice braced double top as opposed to the more generally utilized fan braced double top, generally the building style is fairly ‘pure’ within a category and thus there is some definition between the styles that is discernable.
While I love all styles of guitar, much has already been written about fan braced guitars and lattice braced guitars and it is not my purpose to reiterate all the information about those systems here. What follows is intended to bring some clarity to the development of the double top guitar, and while I love double top guitars, this article in no way diminishes my equal love of the guitars built in the other styles.

First a word about nomenclature. While this style of guitar is most commonly referred to as a ‘double top’ guitar, a more accurate depiction would be implied by the use of the phrases “sandwich top’ or ‘composite top’. Double top implies that there are simply two components to the soundboard, two independent soundboards glued together under pressure. In actuality all double tops are actually three layers, the inner top, the outer top, and a middle core which at this time is usually composed of wood, Nomex, or a blend of the two. But the phrase that has caught on is ‘double top’ and so I use that freely here.

In my years of working with clients around the world I have noticed that there is a fairly clear and accurate awareness among guitar aficionados of the origins of the different building styles. The fan braced style as we now know it is generally acknowledged to have reached its current iteration through the efforts of Torres, and the lattice braced concept is generally understood to have originated with Greg Smallman and so on. However I have noticed a significant level of misunderstanding and misinformation regarding the origins of the double top guitar. I thought it might be helpful if I could clarify the origin and development of the double top classical guitar for those who might be interested.

As I noted the fan-braced style, in it’s current iteration, is widely credited to Antonio de Torres, while the lattice braced style is properly credited to Greg Smallman. Likewise, the double top concept has a clear and undisputed ‘inventor’: Matthias Dammann. Matthias joins Torres and Smallman in this trio of incredibly visionary and creative builders who literally took the guitar in an entirely new and exciting direction. There are many fine and talented builders who have made their own contributions to the guitar, but none so far has created the seismic shift in guitar building, style, and character as these three.

While Torres is widely considered to be the father of the fan braced classical guitar as we know it today (to the purists I said ‘father’, not ‘inventor’), Smallman with his lattice style, and Dammann with his double top invention are definitely considered the ‘fathers’ of the modern classical guitar.

Today it seems that many of the major concert and recording artists are playing a modern style guitar, generally a double top or lattice braced style.

Matthias Dammann was born in 1957 and he fell in love with the guitar and taught himself to play in his late teens. After intense preparation and private lessons he attended the music academy in Frankfurt where, upon completing his studies he became a lecturer for guitar there.

Matthias Dammann played and loved his own guitar, a 1968 Daniel Friederich, and was also highly inspired by the guitars of Antonio de Torres, Miguel Rodriguez, and Robert Ruck. Inspired by these great builders, Matthias had an image in his mind about aspects of the classical guitar that could be enhanced, not to ‘change’ the sound necessarily, but to make it ‘more’ of the beautiful thing that it already was.

This restless quest for a combination of volume, projection, response and tonal beauty all present in one guitar, resulted in Matthias experimenting with altering guitars in an effort to achieve the results that he envisioned in his mind. Early on he would institute small experiments on his own guitar, for example manipulating the diameter of the soundhole. This penchant for experimenting and testing the limits and abilities of the classical guitar continued, and at one point Matthias began to experiment on inexpensive ‘factory built’ guitars to see if he could improve them. After some very successful efforts exchanging the tops on these guitars he decided in 1984 to settle in Eastern Bavaria and to devote all his time and energy into creating guitars that he himself would want to play. Even today, when I speak with Matthias, he remains guided solely by his own internal concepts of what a guitar could and should be. He has told me many times “I build guitars that I myself would want to play, so I really appreciate that so many players and artists love my guitars also”. This unwavering commitment to listening to his own inner muse has resulted in some of the finest guitars available today.

At one point Matthias, ever the perfectionist and always striving for improvement, became dissatisfied with the quality of soundboard wood that was available to him. He realized that the qualities and character of the traditional soundboard had inherent limits that would continue to impact his ability to realize the qualities he had in his mind for his guitars. This resulted in the conclusion that at that time really nobody else had reached: “what if I create my own soundboard material: a ‘sandwich top’ with two light tops, and a central core, functioning as one soundboard that is light and strong, and that will allow me to gain even more control over the qualities of the tops acoustic behavior”.

Thus in 1989 Matthias Dammann created the very first double top guitar.

His earliest double tops were constructed of two light and thin Cedar tops with a central core comprised of thin strips of cedar and then glued together under pressure. These early double tops were ‘all wood’ and his decision to utilize Nomex would come later as we’ll see. The interface between the opposing surfaces of the inner and outer tops, the so called ‘core’, was an area where Matthias realized that he could also increase his ability to control the acoustic qualities of the soundboard movement and character. With the double top, not only could he control the top in the usual manner, which he accomplished using a wide variety of experimental fan bracing designs, but additionally, he could quite literally control the actual characteristics of the un-braced soundboard itself by varying the way in which he designed the interface, or core, between the two tops. I am aware of at least three very different concepts that Matthias used in the core between the tops to achieve his goals.

These guitars were highly successful and Matthias was moving ever closer to the sound and qualities that he envisioned in his mind. Word spread quickly about these amazing new guitars and by the early ‘90’s Matthias already had a waiting list that exceeded ten years.

In 1993 Manuel Barrueco became the first internationally renowned guitarist to play a Dammann double top, and he continues to play a Dammann today. David Russell acquired a Dammann double top a few years later, and now many well-known concert artists trust the expression of their art though a Dammann guitar.

True to his nature, by mid 1995 Dammann was looking to take his guitars to the next level, as fine as they already were, and he began to contemplate ways to achieve more control over the weight and actions of the soundboard. At this time an acquaintance mentioned a material called “Nomex”, a very stong, light, Kevlar based honeycomb patterned material.

Through intense and highly creative experimentation, a process that continues to this day, Matthias was able to discover ways to incorporate the new Nomex material between the soundboards, using extremely careful technique when applying a glue so as to avoid any additional weight. In mid 1995 Dammann added the Nomex layer between the two soundboards, applied with a special glue, and glued the two tops together under vacuum pressure to achieve the result we know today.

Thus, in 1995 Dammann created the first double top with a Nomex core.

Eight years after Dammann invented the double top, and two years after Dammann successfully incorportated the Nomex core, an acquaintence, Gernot Wagner, built his first double top guitar, and following Dammann’s lead, used the nomex material as well. Matthias had generously shared much information about his practical experiences with Nomex and this detailed information greatly assisted Gernot Wagner in building his first nomex double top guitar. I was the first dealer to represent Gernot in the USA and I personally saw his first double top, a Cedar one, when we attended the GFA convention in La Jolla in 1997 together.
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For the next 17 years Dammann exhibited his tenacious quest to discover the maximum expression of the Classical Guitar, endlessly experimenting and refining and always improving his Nomex core double tops, reaching what many consider to be the ‘pinnacle’ of what a modern Classical Guitar could be. However, never content with the best, but always striving for ‘more’ , Matthias continued his extensive and complex acoustic experiments during 2011 and 2012. In 2012 Dammann confirmed his theory that new core materials, if properly utilized, would bring major new dimensions to his double tops and allow for significant refinements in the entire system of the guitar.

Thus, in 2012, Dammann created the first double top with the new “non-Nomex” core material.
This newest version is sometimes referred to as ‘Dammann 3.0’ indicating that they represent the third major evolution of his instruments from wood core, to Nomex core, to new material with related system refinements. These guitars set a new standard by which all composite tops will now be measured. In these instruments Matthias has captured an angelic, refined, complex and emotional voice, emanating from an instrument that is supremely responsive, capable of the widest dynamic range possible , and which also possesses extraordinary power and projection. Due to Dammann’s feeling that the particular material used with the top construction is not so important, and that he views the guitars as an ‘entire system that works synergistically together’, his latest guitars are usually referred to as ‘composite tops’ instead of double tops, a phrase which perhaps better describes the systems in use, and which other fine builders such as Robert Ruck, seem to prefer.
Today many fine builders have followed in Dammann’s footsteps with their own interpretation of the double top guitar, including Robert Ruck, Michel Brück, Dieter Müller, Jim Redgate, Andreas Kirschner, and Jaokob Lebisch. As time goes on, others are joining the quest in this exciting direction of the classical guitar, each builder now adding their own ideas and concepts such that there are some very fine double tops being created by some superb builders at this time. Not surprisingly all the builders noted here, who excel at making fine double tops, continue to build fine traditional fan braced guitars and one can note a sort of ‘synergy’ that these builders bring to their guitars such that attributes of their double tops can be noticed in their traditional guitars, and attributes of their traditional guitars can be heard in their double tops. A fortunate and delightful enhancement in both instances.

I have noted before that I am in the very fortunate position of playing and hearing more double tops from a wider variety of builders than anybody in the world that I am aware of. I think I understand them well, and I think I can delineate between superb double tops and lesser efforts.

What I can share from that experience are three things.

First, I think most would agree that Matthias Dammann’s experience and knowledge have established him as the builder of double top guitars that are the standard by which all other double top guitars are currently measured.

Second, a few builders have followed Dammann’s invention,who have the talent, experience,persistence and technical skills to create very fine double top guitars at a very high level. Often they differentiate themselves, as we have seen over the years with traditional fan braced guitars, by enhancing various attributes within the guitar that the builder feels sets him apart from the others. In this way we now are enjoying a flowering if you will, of the double top concept as more and more artists, players, and builders, embrace this style.

Third, I have had the opportunity to play many double tops from builders who are attempting to learn the many secrets that one must discover to build a world-class double top, and while they are on the path, there is much remaining to be learned. It seems to take many years of experimenting and actually building double top guitars before a builder unlocks the true potential inherent in this very challenging building style. Another way of stating this is that in my opinion, a moderately talented builder can often build a darn decent traditional fan braced guitar, but they would be unable to build a fine double top. Building a world class double top requires Herculean commitment, an exceptional skill-set, and years of effort that only a few very talented builders have exhibited at this point.

There is no doubt that the double top concept will figure prominently in the future of the classical guitar for decades to come. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Matthias Dammann for inventing these magnificent guitars, and to the talented builders who have embraced this style and are now striving to take it to even further heights.