Custom Guitar Maker The Buzz


Custom guitar makers work with clients to create their dream guitars. They handcraft each instrument individually.

The Guild of American Luthiers (GAL) has 3,700 members across the U.S. and 40 other countries, with the majority of them residing in the U.S. A luthier is a maker of stringed instruments, but the majority of GAL members focus on the guitar.

Custom guitar making is predominantly a man's world: less than one percent of GAL's members are female, and most of the clients are men as well. Women working in the field, however, say gender is not an issue. Linda Manzer has been building guitars for over 30 years.

"In general, this is a great group of [people] who have a sense of community and humor," says Manzer. And guitar maker Judy Threet points out that since women in the field are fairly unusual, they are easily remembered -- a definite advantage.

Making Guitars Until the Money Runs Out

"What would you do if you won the lottery?" asks a running joke in the luthier community. The answer: "Make guitars until the money runs out."

In the past, many custom guitar makers relied on salaries from second jobs to supplement their income. But an increased use of the acoustic guitar in popular music has improved the market.

According to GAL president Tim Olsen, this trend has made it possible to make a decent living working exclusively in guitar making and repair.

"I think a person could enter the field with some reasonable expectation of making a living within a few years, which has not been the case until now," he says.

Handmade guitars start at about $3,000 in the U.S., and the best-known American makers typically sell their guitars for between $6,000 and $10,000. If guitar makers produce 10 or 15 a year, this sounds like a significant income.

But overhead costs are high: materials alone can run roughly $400 to $1,000 per guitar.

The wood and the tools are the most expensive components of guitar making. Wood must be invested in years before it is used so that it can age properly. To save on expenses, Threet suggests sharing a shop with someone in a related field, such as a guitar case builder.

This enables someone starting out to share a workspace, tools and other costs. Repairing guitars is an option that can provide aspiring builders with valuable learning experiences as well as additional income.

Custom guitar making is still "a tough way to make a living," according to Abe Wechter. "Basically, [you should] plan on starving for a while."

After becoming successful at handcrafting guitars, Wechter has opted to go into manufacturing.

"It's very gratifying for me to be making wonderful musical instruments available to players that normal working musicians can afford," he says, since the high cost of his handcrafted guitars prevented some potential clients from purchasing them.

Breaking Into Building

Successful guitar makers need both building skills and business expertise. People who actually play the guitar have an obvious advantage, and a love of guitars and music is a must.

You need woodworking skills, good hand-eye coordination, good eyesight, a steady hand, and confidence using sharp tools, since there is potential for injury.

Being a detail-oriented person is also essential, according to Cyndy Burton, a guitar maker in Oregon. "Visual discrimination, a sense of proportion, patience are all qualities that come to mind."

Business skills are equally important. "Most people don't think about the business skills needed for running your own shop," says Threet. She estimates spending half her time on building and half her time on the business aspects of guitar making.

There are two primary ways to learn guitar building: by attending a school, or by working as an apprentice. A training program or specialized school can help beginners entering the field to master the long learning curve, and end up with a custom guitar in the process.

Since schools vary greatly in style, size, and duration, prospective students should request a syllabus and talk to former students to get a feel for how schools differ.

Alternatively, apprenticeships provide one-on-one learning opportunities, but these situations may be difficult to find. Wechter obtained his apprenticeship out of "sheer dogged, don't-give-up attitude" after he called and wrote for a year.

Besides researching more formal education options, potential guitar makers should investigate information available in books, magazines and videos.

Kits are also available from suppliers of guitar making materials. Kits contain partially completed guitars, so beginners can learn without investing in a complete set of tools.

Advice for Aspiring Luthiers

Trying out hand building guitars is an important first step. Paul Jacobson worked at guitar making for over 10 years before he quit his job to do it full time. He recommends doing it as a hobby first, to determine both skill and interest.

It's a competitive field, he warns. "It's almost like being a rock musician -- there are a few who make it and a lot of wannabes."

Wechter also advises trying it out, by working in a custom shop or even a manufacturing company. What if you can't find that kind of job? He suggests volunteering, if necessary, since the experience will provide potential guitar makers with a clear concept about what's involved.

Threet recommends starting with a large nest egg, enough to cover living expenses for the first three to five years. "It takes a long time to become known, to build a reputation in the field," she says.

Olsen believes keen interest, dedication and perseverance are among the keys to success. Burton echoes that sentiment.

"I believe the most successful people are the ones who really love what they do, and are in for the long haul," she says. "There is nothing better than doing what you love."

Links

Guild of American Luthiers
Learn more about the organization

Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery
Offers a five-month course covering construction and repair

Summit School of Guitar Building and Repair
Offers two-, four- and eight-week courses, as well as longer classes of four to six months

Classical Guitars by Paul Jacobson
Advice for aspiring luthiers, technical articles, and a Q and A section

Manzer Guitars
Info on Linda Manzer's guitar making business, audio and video of her guitars being played, plus answers to frequently asked questions