Tag: Acoustic soundboard

So, You Wanna Be a Luthier? Part 2: The Scoop on Lutherie Schools

In my previous column, “So, You Want to Be a Luthier?”, I talked about the types of people attracted to lutherie training programs, some of the possibilities and options these individuals have at their disposal, and discussed both long-term and short-term training, either of which have their place for primary or supplemental training. But the question remains, what school should you choose for your lutherie training? And what might a school have to offer that would best suit your educational needs?

Here’s some good news: While the guitar itself is of European ancestry, since we are a guitar-crazy culture, many of the premier schools for fretted musical instrument making and repair are right here in the United States. In fact, many international students travel to the U.S. to learn here and typically comprise up to one third of our student body.

With all schools, there’s not one that will check every box and perfectly meet everyone’s criteria. Students have different learning styles and personalities that flourish in various types of training programs. For example, my school, the Galloup School of Guitar Building and Repair, focuses on hands-on training to make sure students leave with a premium amount of time physically building and converging with musical instruments. But for some, this type of training may not be as flexible as they would like. So, let’s look at some of the options available in the world of lutherie schools.

Short-term training is geared toward students who want to quickly advance their skills and resumé in a reasonable timeline. At Galloup, we do offer short-term training, but it primarily focuses on bread-and-butter skills and problems that are commonly encountered in guitar repair and restoration. Additionally, the Galloup School has been authorized by Taylor Guitars as a Silver and Silver Plus Level Warranty Certification training facility. However, Galloup does not offer short-term training for guitar making.

Students have different learning styles and personalities that flourish in various types of training programs.

For those looking to build a guitar in a short amount of time, one of the most established short-term programs is the American School of Lutherie, operated by Charles Fox in Portland, Oregon. This is an incredibly well-balanced program focusing on the quality construction of a flattop steel-string and an electric guitar. Another great program is operated by Robert O’Brien in Parker, Colorado. O’Brien Guitars offers an all-hands-on-deck operation wherein students build a flattop instrument in roughly one week. For short-term archtop guitar training, Dale Unger at the Nazareth Guitar Institute does a great job. Students move through building 17″ L5-style archtops to completion in the white (no finish applied) in one week. I’ve spoken to many students who’ve taken Dale’s class and they were more than happy with the experience. These are great options since they’re short and the training style is typically more personalized.

Long-term training, on the other hand, is a completely different situation, where classes can range from a few months in a private trade school to two years in an accredited college-based program. At Galloup, we offer long-term training that can extend to more than 2,000 training hours if a student wants to take all classes available. But although we are a licensed private trade school, we are a non-accredited program. So, as with all non-accredited programs, students must finance it themselves or secure a loan through a private lending institution.

Minnesota State College’s Guitar Repair and Building program in Red Wing, Minnesota—often called the “Red Wing school”—is a great example of a two-year, college-level course of study. Another medium to long-term option is the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix, Arizona. To my knowledge, it’s the longest-running lutherie program in the United States, and it has produced many fine luthiers over the years. Roberto-Venn offers an 880-clock-hour program that allows students to take part in more of the design elements of guitar making. With both Red Wing and the Roberto-Venn schools, their accredited backing makes it easier to secure financial aid for those in need of assistance.

There is no one right answer. It’s up to the individual to determine what school and curriculum best meets their needs and financial preferences. In fact, many students choose to attend multiple programs to fulfill their education requirements.

For a full list of lutherie classes offered worldwide, you can check the Guild of American Luthiers at https://luth.org/resources/lutherie-schools/lutherie-schools-usa/. Not only do they offer a full listing, but the Guild is also a great source of information for inspiring luthiers.

Guitar Prices: An Inflation Study

After two-and-a-half years of Covid-created mayhem, who doesn’t want to celebrate? And what better way to celebrate survival and better times to come than with a new rig? The bucket list of guitars you’ve wanted for months or even years is long, but this is no time to start at the bottom. Whether it’s a guitar, that otherworldly octave mandolin, or an amp or boutique pedal, it’s time for a reward that only you can deliver. The top item on your list is finally available, you’re ready to buy, but suddenly you notice the price: What the …? Are they kidding? You check other sources but it’s not a misprint, and certainly not a joke. The price of your reward to yourself for sticking it out and staying safe has gone up, and not by just a few bucks. You’ve been eyeing this gear for quite a while and the price hadn’t changed much­—until now. What’s going on?

Welcome to inflation, the killjoy that punishes you for not having purchased something months earlier, perhaps before you could afford it. In retrospect, a few months of additional interest on your credit card would have been a bargain compared to the price increase you’re looking at now. Unless you’ve been living in a cave in the wilderness, you’ve heard about inflation, of course, and noticed it at the grocery store, and you’ve certainly felt it if you’re putting gas in your car. But when inflation hits your music budget, it feels personal, more insulting, and unfair.

The shock a price hike delivers depends more upon your age than you might think. For geezers like this writer, the recent price increases of guitars don’t seem that horrible. But those who started buying guitar gear less than 30 years ago usually began their shopping in a very different pricing landscape, so some time-machine data crunching might help ease the pain. Rather than wade into the Wall Street weeds of charts and graphs tracking inflation over the last several decades, we’ll use the cost of Martin’s venerable D-28 acoustic, partly because it’s so well-known but also because the model was essentially unchanged for so many years.

When inflation hits your music budget, it feels personal, more insulting, and unfair.

C. F. Martin had been forced to raise prices every year in the late ’60s, as labor costs in the U.S. were rising steadily. But inflation hit especially hard in the early ’70s. The cost of building an acoustic guitar like the D-28 was almost all labor—the prices Martin paid for Sitka spruce, East Indian rosewood, mahogany, plus a set of Grover Rotomatics and a case were a small percentage of what you were paying for when you bought a polished and playable dreadnought. Martin’s list price of a D-28 first crossed the $500 line in July 1972, when it went from $495 to $570. The next price increase came only nine months later and was even more painful, going up to $660. Then came two more price increases, and by September 1974 the price had jumped to $770. Those numbers represent a price increase of more than 50 percent between early 1972 and the fall of 1974. No wonder a popular parody of Janis Joplin’s humorous “Mercedes Benz” began:

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a D-Twenty-Eight
My friends all have Martins, how long must I wait?
The prices keep rising, I fear I’m too late,
So Lord, won’t you buy me a D-Twenty-Eight

Yet 20 years later, inflation in North America had long since cooled. Price increases throughout the ’70s and ’80s had taken their toll, and Martin’s D-28 crossed the $2,000 line in 1993 (to $2,060), but then leveled out. Ten years later, the MSRP of a D-28 was still less than $2,500 ($2,469 in 2004). That’s an increase of 20 percent over more than a decade. Needless to say, the young guitar-picker who’d been saving for a D-28 in the late ’90s, when the price was unchanged for five years and then went up only $69, didn’t feel punished for saving. But during the high-flying inflation of the early 1970s, even folk-rockers and the bluegrass faithful, at least when shopping for a new D-28, were singing the blues.

The takeaway from all this? Financial forecasts suggest that inflation isn’t going to back off in the near future. Buying that dream rig now rather than later is probably a good idea, especially if you put it to good use!

A Zillion Strings!? How To Talk to a Luthier About a Custom Build

You’ve visited countless websites, played as many guitars as you could lay your hands on, and zeroed in on the luthier that resonates most with you. You’re ready to take the plunge and your next step is to have a conversation with the builder. You’ll both have lots of questions. Be sure to listen and let them guide you through the process. This is when the fun begins.

From my end, I try to find out why a client has come to me for a guitar. Was it one of my instruments they heard in a recording, at a concert, or one they had the chance to play? I need to learn what they’re looking for. Are they firm on a size, the materials to be used, a particular feel and tone? Can they reference qualities of other recognizable instruments? What guitar do they currently play and what do they like about it, and what don’t they like? Inlays? A zillion strings? Or do they just like the idea of letting the luthier do their own thing? The list grows….

Of the over 500 guitars I have built, pretty much every customer has had a slightly different vision. My job has been to bring that to life, which is why it’s important for clients to communicate their wishes as clearly as possible. Describing how something sounds or feels can get tricky. I once had two clients in the same week use the word “syrupy” to describe sound. What does that word mean to you? For one it was good, for the other it was bad. A word meant completely different things to each of us, so in each case, we had to establish a common language.

“When Pat Metheny asked me to make him a guitar with ‘as many strings as possible’ I had no idea what that might be, but I immediately said ‘yes!’ because I knew he trusted me, so I ran with it.”

By going through my questions, I’ll get an idea about a player and form a profile in my mind. I’m gathering details—preferred body materials, neck, fingerboard, nut widths, string spacing—which will end up in a file with a client’s name on top. For those who don’t know the exact measurements, don’t fear, we can guide you. Luthiers have tried-and-true models we build as a reference, and a custom guitar is often a simple variation of these standards.

Most luthiers give clients the option to select woods from their stock, and I strongly advise letting your builder make the final selection because they know their materials and their history. Each builder has a unique alchemy around which wood combinations work best, so listen—and learn, too. Should you insist on a wood species that the builder has not combined before, he or she may have reservations and need to explore before moving forward. If I’m the builder, and if no immediate alarm bells ring, I try to keep an open mind and will do the research to either proceed or hit the brakes.

After the structural and material details are locked in, decorative options like pearl inlays, marquetry, painting, and finish colors come next. You will have to trust your maker in this department, because artwork takes on a life of its own. If you’ve seen examples of the builder’s work, you know what to expect, and you may have some ideas of your own which the luthier can flesh out later.

Luthiers are generally a polite bunch, and our goal is to make our clients happy, but sometimes we are asked to do things that are outside of our wheelhouse. One example is a client asking a luthier renowned for their archtops to build a harp guitar. One luthier might totally embrace this, while another might not. When I started making guitars, I had to be a “jill of all trades”—see what I did there?—and would build whatever I was asked to, just to keep a roof over my head. This often meant stepping far outside my comfort zone. When Pat Metheny asked me to make him a guitar with “as many strings as possible,” I had no idea what that might be, but I immediately said “yes!” because I knew he trusted me, so I ran with it. The result was the Pikasso guitar, and I am forever grateful for his faith in me and that I grabbed the opportunity to expand my knowledge.

Many folks ordering a handmade instrument are like expectant parents, wanting updates and photos at every stage. We understand your enthusiasm, but please remember that most of us work solo and we literally and figuratively have our hands full, so we can try, but please be patient. And don’t be concerned by our silence, it just means the dust is flying and magic is at work.

The way I look at it, this is your guitar and not mine. My hands are building it, but you will be the one playing it. My job is to deliver you a guitar that will inspire you to create for years to come. We instrument makers are honored that you have entrusted us with the task of making you a guitar. There is nothing we’d rather be doing and we’re deeply grateful for that trust. Enjoy the journey!