Thomas Humphrey, an American luthier whose innovative designs and building techniques helped increase the volume, sustaining power and projection of the soft-spoken classical guitar, and whose instruments were played by many renowned concert guitarists, died on Wednesday at his home in Gardiner, N.Y. He was 59.
The cause was a heart attack, his wife, Martha Costa Humphrey, said.
Mr. Humphrey’s best-known model, the Millennium, is a visually striking instrument with a gradually tapered body — deeper at the bottom, thinner at the neck — and a raised fretboard. The body shape, along with Mr. Humphrey’s experiments in internal bracing, gives the Millennium a large, richly resonant tone. Its elevated fingerboard lets players reach the highest notes more easily than on a standard instrument.
Mr. Humphrey had been making conventional guitars for about 15 years when he designed the Millennium in 1985, and his guitars were already popular among classical guitarists. But when several young performers — among them David Starobin, Sergio and Odair Assad, Eliot Fisk and Sharon Isbin — adopted the Millennium, he stopped making guitars in the traditional style.
Other prominent guitarists who have used Mr. Humphrey’s guitars include Dominic Frasca, Carlos Barbosa-Lima, the Newman and Oltman Guitar Duo, Lily Afshar and Roberto Aussel.
“I’ve always felt a freedom of experimentation, a kind of creativity which is a very American concept,” Mr. Humphrey told Acoustic Guitar magazine in 1996. “When I discuss guitar building with Europeans and Asians, they speak of the tradition of the guitar, but what I see as the tradition of the guitar is its evolution, the fact that it does change. And the reason it changes is because of the players, who say ‘Give us more.’ ”
Mr. Humphrey’s limited production — 20 to 40 instruments a year — increased the Millennium’s allure: guitarists who ordered it joined a waiting list of three to five years. In 1989 Ms. Costa began working with her husband, helping to double the shop’s output.
Mr. Humphrey also licensed his design to C. F. Martin, the guitar company, for a line of instruments that included one built to the specifications of the rock star Sting.
Thomas Humphrey was born in St. Joseph Township, Minn., on Nov. 13, 1948. Though he usually said he was a cellist, he played the guitar better than he let on, and he gravitated toward guitar-making soon after he arrived in New York City in 1970. After a year as an apprentice to the luthier Michael Gurian, he established his own shop, specializing in the nylon-string classical guitar.
He quickly found a clientele among young players, and his West Side apartment became a crash pad for guitarists from out of town. Mr. Humphrey also underwrote performance series and helped to make connections for talented new players.
In the early 1980s he began experimenting with ways to address what he saw as the guitar’s two biggest limitations: its poor projection and its lack of sustaining power. One of his ideas was to produce a guitar with a finger-operated lever that would be the equivalent of the sustain pedal on the piano. The idea for the Millennium came to him in a dream in 1985, he said. More recently he began collaborating with a painter, Tamara Codor, on a proposed series of intricately painted instruments.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Humphrey is survived by two daughters, Gabriella and Adriana; a brother, John Humphrey, of St. Cloud, Minn.; and four sisters, Rachel Fischer, Suzie Humphrey, Martha Lenz and Maryellen Fusco, all of St. Cloud.