We have been generously loaned a guitar for practicing while we are here in the UK, but didn’t realize that it would be a fine handmade instrument, carefully crafted from local woods. The luthier, Les Backshall, has built forty guitars in the last decade or so and is now making ukeleles for his grandchildren (lucky kids!).
The top of this guitar is European Spruce, common in modern guitars as well as earlier instruments such as lutes and vihuelas. However, unlike most classical guitars which have backs and sides made of Rosewood (either Indian or Brazilian), the backs and sides of this guitar are made of Yew (taxus baccata). This yew is a tree that figures importantly in English history. Yew needles and seeds are also toxic to humans which has led to many references to it in mythology (think Druids – this is England!).
The Yew tree is indigenous to England. A slow growing conifer, it has a beautiful, distinctive grain and bright sound. It is perhaps similar to Maple, which is what one usually finds on the backs and sides of early nineteenth-century guitars, including ours. We came across a very old Yew at the Oxford Botanical Garden on a visit there last week.
Yew was a much favored wood for the making of longbows and lutes. It conjures images of King Arthur and traveling bards. As we’ve wandered castle ruins and cathedrals these past few weeks, adventure tales of Medieval England come to mind.