Skip To Content

Tim Butler

Our monthly staff feature series highlights the diverse pursuits and hobbies of our studio members outside of the office. As an office, we believe that making time for our personal interests and activities re-energizes us, provides us with new perspectives and knowledge, and ultimately enriches our work as an architecture design studio.

Tim Butler is the Technical Director at MBB Architects. He serves as the Quality Assurance/Quality Control Specialist at the firm and has worked on projects such as PS 19, the Princeton University Art Center, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He recently sat down to tell us about his guitar playing. Below is an edited version of the interview.

When did you start learning guitar?

I first picked up the guitar when I was about 9. My first teacher was a woman who played in the folk mass at the Catholic Church on Saturday nights and she showed me how to play chords and strum. Pretty soon, I was able to play along to songs that people were singing and she quickly got me into the mass itself, so I was in a group of 10 people or so. I was this little kid and it didn’t matter if I made a mistake. It was nice because it quickly got me out in front of people and showed me that it’s doable playing an instrument.

My second guitar teacher was going to teach me classical guitar. Honestly, I wasn’t a very good student, but he was very open-minded. I would bring in Van Halen records or whatever I was interested in and he encouraged me. He taught me the importance of being able to learn things by ear.

Then I got an electric guitar and ever since, if I had to identify myself, I’m basically a rock guitarist. The guitar went away during architecture school. It went under the bed, untouched, but I had been keeping my eye on a method of teaching by an English rock guitarist named Robert Fripp. He was giving in-person seminars and I showed up for my first one in 2002. I’ve basically been working in this approach ever since.

Can you describe what this approach is like?

The seminars were called Guitar Craft. The easiest way to describe it is a martial arts approach to guitar playing: apply the right amount of force at the right time and the right place efficiently.

When most of us start playing, there are various problems to be solved and you solve them piecemeal as you go. You realize the pick is making a kind of scraping sound, so to get a better angle you turn your wrist a certain way and that solves that problem. Then you realize at certain tempos your hand starts to be unstable, so you brace the heel of your hand on the bridge of the guitar, and that solves that problem. This can get you pretty far, especially with rock guitar since there’s no set orthodox method, but what happens is you eventually reach a wall where it’s very hard to improve.

It really takes very little effort to press the guitar string down on the neck and let it back up. It’s such a minute motion, but usually we work too hard. We strangle the neck. We wrap our thumb around it and have it in a death grip for no reason. It’s the same with the right hand.

Robert Fripp’s approach was to find the easiest way to play the guitar. He looked carefully at each hand and devised exercises to give us new habits. They’re like calisthenics for our hands. I would say learning how to play this way has been learning how to let go of unnecessary motion, unnecessary tension.

There’s a quote from John Cage – he said, “a composition is like a house you can walk around in”. What do you feel like is the connection between architecture and music?

It’s a really interesting thing to ponder. Renaissance architects thought that you could use harmonic ratios, intervals of third and perfect fifths and such, for a room length, height, and width. It certainly does make handsome space. In my younger days I tried to think about these connections in a more formal way, but I really don’t think about it anymore. I’m sure they inform each other, but in ways that are probably too subtle for me to even understand.

How does playing guitar inform your work at MBB?

Mainly, it helps me follow through and to be able to stick with a process, even when it seems tough going. You start out with enthusiasm and then finishing up, it’s great – you can see the finish line. The toughest going is always in the middle, when you’re so far from the beginning and the end. As you know, architecture projects can go through a lot of convoluted changes as they evolve. To be able to stick with the process is really important. Before I did the Guitar Craft approach maybe I would have had a harder time with it. Now I feel like I’m able to have a certain objectivity about that process.