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Roger Sadowsky Shares Memories of Guitarist Jim Hall

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Master luthier Roger Sadowsky shares his memories of working with great Jim Hall on his signature model.

Roger Sadowsky: I first remember Jim Hall coming to my workshop in the early 80s, just for general maintenance. I always worked on his laminate D’Aquisto.  This guitar had a Guild Dearmond humbucker.  Jim would occasionally want to try a different pickup. I would put one in for him and maybe 6 months later, he would return and have me put his original back in.  This happened maybe 3 times over a 20-year period.   

Jim was frequently changing strings. He used flat wound 11’s but often bounced back and forth between a plain G string and a wound G string.

Jim Hall – July 30, 2003 in his NY apartment

One time, someone tripped on his cord and broke the side rim surrounding the jack, in a dozen little pieces.  That was a difficult repair….a bit like putting Humpty Dumpty back together again, but It came out well.  I bent a thin piece of maple to match the curve in the rim at that point, and glued it in from behind, to support the jack and the rim in the future.

In general, that was the scope of the work I did for Jim over a 20-year period. 

Roger Sadowsky in 2003

By around 2000, the archtop boom was in full swing, with many talented guitar-makers building instruments at $10,000 and beyond.  I often wondered how many working musicians could afford a guitar like that, and if they did, would they be taking it on gigs or flying with their guitar?  At the same time, I was not pleased with the quality of the better factory guitars at that time either.  So I kept thinking there needed to be a way to fill a void for an archtop for working musicians. 

I asked Jim if I could make a more affordable archtop that he would play, would he be interested in doing a Signature model?  Jim told me that he was getting afraid to travel with his D’Aquisto and even his students were having trouble finding decent guitars they could afford.  He encouraged me to pursue my project.

At that same time, my friend and colleague, Dana Bourgeois was making some lovely archtops in addition to his well-known flat tops.  He was selling his guitars exclusively through one distributor at that time and wondered if they might sell better from a smaller builder who sold direct.  We discussed it and my gut told me to collaborate with him on a laminate guitar.  Historically, the Gibson ES-175 was probably the most popular jazz guitar ever made. From 30 years of repair and restoration work, I had decided on several things I wanted to incorporate in this design.

  • I wanted the guitar to be acoustically alive, resonant, and light weight.
  • I wanted a set-in pickup.  I had worked with archtop players who had carved instruments in which the pickup was either mounted on the end of the fingerboard or mounted off the pickguard.  There were very limited choices of pickups that had a bracket from mounting at the end of the fingerboard.  All of the pickguard mount pickups had their own ways of attachment.  So in order to try another pickup always turned into a complicated and expensive experiment.  I felt the player should not have such a difficult time to try to find “their sound”.
  • I did not like how fragile the usual location of the jack on the rim was, and I did not like the combination output jack/strap buttons that were being installed in the middle of the tailpieces.  The contacts on those jacks were weak and they made for lousy strap buttons.  So I moved the jack as close to the end block as possible, as that was the strongest point on the rim.
  • For many years, I had hand-made compensated bridge saddles for archtops, with a separate contact point for each string for improved intonation.   All archtop bridge tops were either compensated for a wound G or was just a compromise angle.  I wanted to supply each guitar with bridge tops compensated for a wound G and a plain G. 

After several tries, we were unable to come up with a laminate that was thin enough and light weight.  I then tried laminates from Germany….they were 3 ply and the outer veneer was so thin, you could easily sand right through it.  I finally found what I was looking for in Japan, and with the assistance of my Japan production manager, Yoshi Kikuchi, we began to produce the guitar in Japan.   

Our standards are so high, we are only able to build a small quantity each year.

I had a Guild Dearmond humbucker from the same era as Jim’s and sent the pickup to my friends at DiMarzio to spec out and duplicate it for the Jim Hall model.  Sadowsky makes the tailpieces and the bridge tops, and supplies all of the electronics.  When the instruments arrive in our shop, we true the fingerboards, do all of the fretwork, cut the nuts, and do the final set-up.  

I designed the prototype from taking detailed specs from Jim’s guitar.  I built two prototypes.  One with the 5-ply maple laminate and one with a pressed spruce top.  Comparing the two in my sound room, we agreed that although the spruce top was a bit louder acoustically, it was muddy when amplified and had a much lower feedback threshold.  The maple laminate top sounded beautiful amplified and had a much higher feedback threshold.  

Jim Hall often turned his volume off and strummed his guitar acoustically and gradually raised the volume until you heard the guitar through the amp.  We did that test together, and the transition from “acoustic” to “amplified” was seamless.

Jim received his guitar, #001, in August of 2003.  It was his main guitar from that point on.

Jim Hall – Dec 18, 2003

And as the story goes…

In Feb of 2006, Bud Henriksen purchased a Jim Hall guitar #A147.  I remember him calling me to say how much he loved the guitar, but he could not find an amplifier he thought did the guitar justice.  He came from an electronics background and told me he was going to build an amp himself.  This resulted in the Henriksen Jazz Amp. Here is Bud at a NAMM show with his JazzAmp and his Jim Hall guitar.


READ: The Never Published Interview Of The Legendary Jim Hall

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