Bruce Weber and Renegade Roundneck resonator (right). Photos by Dan Albright.
Manhattan, Montana, is Big Sky country—a place where the laid-back lifestyle, abundant natural beauty, and consistent humidity make a perfect setting for building acoustic instruments. Antelope and deer are a common sight from the windows of the 1920s brick schoolhouse where Sound To Earth’s luthiers are building their line of Weber-brand instruments, which includes mandolins, flattop, archtop, and resonator guitars.
Sound To Earth celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2007 and traces its origins to the Flatiron mandolin company (which was purchased by Gibson in 1987). Bruce Weber was the company’s general manager and head luthier when Gibson decided to move Flatiron to Nashville in 1996. As Weber recalls, “Not one [original Flatiron] luthier went down there. We all live in Montana for a reason. It’s not that we disliked Gibson; it’s just that we love Montana. That gave me a perfect opportunity to start my own business. My wife, Mary, and I were sitting under the stars one night thinking, well, we could do instrument building and repair—the sound part of the business name—and I also do pottery, so that’s where earth came in.”
Weber started Sound To Earth with just three employees, but now has 13 builders, all of whom have been building acoustic instruments for more than 20 years.
The company built its reputation on the Weber-brand mandolin-family instruments, which include flattop and carved-top A-style and F-style models as well mandolas, octave mandolins, and mandocellos. Prices range from $375 for the “Sweet Pea” flattop mandolin all the way to about $20,000 for the fanciest carved-top models.
One of the unique construction aspects of Weber instruments is its use of mortise and tenon neck joints, which consist of a “tongue” (the tenon) at the end of the neck that fits into a slot (the mortise) cut into the instrument’s body. Sound To Earth reinforces the joint using twin bolts that go through the headblock into two barrel nuts to ensure the tightest possible fit during the gluing process. “Over the past 20 years I have found the mortise and tenon to be superior in strength over the dovetail joint, and we’ve never yet had a neck-joint failure,” says Weber. Other Weber design innovations include cast steel and nickel tail pieces and the patented, all-wood “Brekke bridge,” which uses wooden wedges to adjust its height (instead of the more typical metal thumb wheels), helping to better transmit vibrations to the top and remaining adjustable under full string tension. All Weber instruments are finished with lacquer. “I don’t like a catalyzed finish,” says Weber, who feels that this finish type becomes too hard and brittle. “You could accomplish about the same thing doing a super glue dip. Lacquer will age and check over time, but I think it helps open up the instrument as it ages.”
According to Weber, expanding the line to include archtop and resophonic guitars (he’s even working on a flattop dreadnought for release later this year) was a natural evolution from making mandolin-family instruments. “We weren’t trying to hit any particular market niche,” he says, “but just wanted to give players something new to look at and a new sound.” As a result, Sound To Earth’s archtop guitars reflect the company’s long history of building mandolins. Bruce Weber designs and builds all their instrument prototypes and personally graduates the tops and backs of every instrument made. The company’s archtops can be ordered with either tone bars or X-braces, a feature Weber believes contributes to a deep, throaty, thumping sound with plenty of volume for rhythm playing. “Our X-braced [archtop] guitars have good punch and projection right out of the chute,” he says, but take a little longer to mature. “After about 50 hours of play, you’ll notice the difference. The X- braced models lend themselves to everything from bluegrass to backing up a fiddler and big band and jazz. Our tone-bar models develop a bell-like quality with nice, warm tones that work nicely with an individual voice or fingerstyle blues.”
The adjustable version of Weber’s Brekke bridge.
While it looks similar to an ordinary flattop, Weber’s “Stillwater” model guitar also has a carved top. Although less arched than Weber’s f-holed guitars, it follows the same basic construction method, with its braces fitted to the top’s arc. “It takes some tension out of the instrument by doing it this way,” says Weber, “but it gives it depth of tone and real personality in the midrange.”
In 2006, the company introduced a new line of resonator guitars. “I wanted to jump into it without many preconceptions, so we came up with our own system,” says Weber. “We call it a ‘carousel’ soundwell.” The design’s open soundwell (the area of the body that houses the actual resonator) is intended to maximize the flow of air and sound, and is created with two wooden rings supported by eight posts. The instruments are available in square-neck and round-neck versions.
As Sound To Earth has expanded its product line, keeping the instruments affordable remains important to Weber. “We have luthiers who really care about what they do, and we’re trying to give people the best possible instrument for the best possible price we can because we want people to play them.”