Hello woodworkers, musicians, luthiers, and the like.
My name is Chris, and I'm an aspiring luthier. I've always loved music and guitars, but over the past few years I've come to realize that luthiery is something that I really want to do for a living. Though I've done a lot of research on the subject, I'm not going to pretend that I know anything about field or business of luthiery. I DO, however, know what I'm willing to give up to reach my goal. That said, there's no doubt in my mind that I'm meant to be a luthier. Whether I'll be any good is to be seen, but I have my goals set high and I'm willing to work hard for them.
Now that my childish dreams are exposed, I'd like to ask for any advice from you old and/or you not-so-old pros in regards to getting myself started as luthier. As it stands now, I've got no experience under my belt. I've taken apart and put back together one of my guitars several times, but I know that that's not really any kind of feat. I'm currently working on finishing one of those cheap DIY guitar kits you can get on eBay, but since those are very pre-fabbed, I'm not really learning as much as I'd like from it (which is fine considering I just bought it to start practicing painting/lacquering anyway).
I want to find a place where I can really study and get feedback from professionals, but I currently can't afford a school and I live in an area sans any decent access to resources for luthiery. What are some options into which I can look?
There's only one luthier within a reasonable distance from where I live. I've thought about asking him if I could apprentice under him, but I'm not sure if it would be particularly couth to ask a working man to donate his time to an endeavor with little or no return. Is there any harm in asking? If not, how can I approach him in a respectful way and let him know that I'm willing to work in exchange for an education? What can/should I offer in return for his time? Should I get some more experience with building/repairing instruments before I ask, or can I just jump right in the deep end and go for it?
Thanks for whatever advice you guys have. Cheers!
Welcome to the forum!
Most folks that I know, including myself, are far more keen to consider someone as an apprentice when that certain someone has at least a bit of a body of work to consider and evaluate.
Now you did not say if your interest in being a Luthier is more on the repair or the building side and that's important for whom ever might be considering you. It's also important in terms of the opportunity for you as well. Some builders make it, many and most do not when considered from the viewpoint of a day job and not a hobby.
What I did was build a bunch of acoustic guitars that were well received and came out good enough that folks liked them and professionals could see that there was hope for me.... :)
Because of the building I did I was considered and then offered an apprenticeship on the repair side which I did for three years. It was one of the best opportunities that I have ever experienced in all respects!
Taking on an apprentice is a huge undertaking for any Luthier if it is going to be done well where everyone gets the perceived value of the collaboration and no one feels wounded afterwards. You may also encounter non-compete agreements if who you study with lives in the area that you would open your own business someday. A lot can be said about non-compete agreements, most of it not good... but that's another topic.
Most of all though as someone who is a partner in a busy Lutherie shop number one on my mind would be will this guy do any harm to my very valued clients personal property. Having samples of your body of work, completed guitars made from scratch, not a kit, will go some distance with this question. Mistakes happen but as a Luthier our ability to recover from those mistakes will at the end of the day make or break if this profession is right for you.
You also have to know in advance that this life is not for everyone. The monetary returns are low considering that a kid can get out of a four year college now and start in some occupations for $50 - 70K.... You will never make big bucks so-to-speak and many of the other issues associated with being self employed come into play too such as affordable, available health insurance. On the health insurance front things have dramatically improved in the states because of Obamacare. All my life I had excellent health insurance from my employers from top companies, etc. My plan that I purchased off the Obamacare exchange is superior to any plan I have ever had! This one change in US law is helping many Luthiers who I know personally and is a very welcome thing.
From the perspective of the Luthier though there are changes in the works, such as the increase in minimum wage, stricter regulations about over time pay, employer requirements to provide health insurance, and other considerations such as unemployment compensation, etc. that can greatly impact even a non-paid apprenticeship from a liability standpoint for the Luthier. It's getting harder in the US to craft a winning and mutually beneficial apprenticeship because of some of this legislation but on the other hand who wants to have to subsidize McDonalds or Walmart employees because their employer lacks the vision and humanity.... to pay a living wage. See - some us us old guys are opinionated....:) so be sure too whom ever you approach for an apprenticeship has politics that you can stand because you are bound to be hearing a lot more from them if you ever work together.
I was fortunate on that front, my business partner and who I apprenticed with years ago is as liberal as I am if not more so....
Moving on.... Again from the standpoint of someone who would do the consideration of you I would want to know what your value proposition is or more specifically what you believe that you bring to the dance? Understandable at present the body of work is pretty non existent but once you have some good stories to tell and something to show folks will want to know what you bring to the table. Are you a tireless worker, tolerant of everyone being an expert even when they clearly are not...., able to listen well and then when you are done doing that listen some more because folks never tend to listen enough? Do you damage stuff or are you careful as NASA - this is an important one and would be high on my list.
Are you keen to dive in, work hard, and see things to completion, always? Are you able to know facts and truths but when encountering folks who think that they know it all and are clients able to also stifle yourself a bit when it's not important? I struggle with this one.... :) No Edith Bunker here..... :) Don't get me wrong I loved Edith and Archie too and still think that Glory was hot.....:)
Remember too that impressions are perishable in the sense that at times it's a one shot deal. What I mean more specifically is that if I were in your shoes I would go off and start creating that body of work while not quitting my day job. If a couple of years later with some guitars to show you still want to be a Luthier then craft your approach to who you have targeted and treat it like it's as important as a heart attack.
I know you mentioned that you lack the funds for formal schooling but if that changes and if I were to do this all over again I would have gone to the Galloup School here in Michigan. I know a number of folks who went to Galloup and all of them received superb educations in my view - highly recommended!
Although it is very hard work at times, lots of uncertainty as well with issues such as what if the economy tanks (again...) and folks no longer have the degree of disposable income that they once had being very important considerations.
The folks who seem to do the best at this in my view have the rugged individualism to go their own way. In fact many do not or will not participate on forums because it's all risk in many ways for working Luthiers with little return. This forum is different, clearly very different in all positive ways.... This may make more sense to you in time. Knowledge of how to run a proper business is absolutely key as well as is being the sort who values your clients enough to go the extra distance for them with no complaints. In my case it's pretty rare where I cannot find something that I like about a client and I completely enjoy my customers and look forward to as much interaction with them as is appropriate and possible.
Music stores can be a positive experience or a terrible experience depending on the organization and the individuals and their personalities. TJ Thompson used to work for Elderly, Frank Ford, our host works for Gryphon, Dave Collins my business partner worked for Elderly, etc.
Stores who understand the importance of the commitment to their clients to support their products in a professional manner are far more likely to develop a separate P&L center around the repair activity and staff accordingly. Some music store owners who prefer to let their daughter hack up your guitar with a poor fitting truss rod wrench so that the money charged to the client can be lunch at Subway (and remain off the books...) will never understand the benefits of providing professional service for their clients.
On a personal note wanna know how I know that I made the right decision for me walking away from executive management in corporate America? After a long day in the shop fixing guitars I find myself coming home and relaxing with one of my own guitars having not gotten enough in the day job. Now that's telling and never would have happened with the other jobs that I've done in my life except one - teaching 20 something nurses to windsurf....:) Now that was a great job!!!
Hope something here helps and the best of luck to ya!
There are a number of luthier schools that will help arm you with essential knowledge and skills, but most luthiers I know learned by doing. I worked on guitars for 25 years as a hobby before hanging out my shingle..
Lots of learning resources on the net. Stew-Mac has a nice video library of how-tos. Pick up a copy of Dan Erlewine's "Guitar Player Repair Guide." If there are luthiers in your area, get to know them, hang out in their shop if it's OK with them, and just watch and listen. But mostly just start working on guitars. Get $20 junkers at yard sales and make them playable. As your skills progress, work on your friends guitars. Be patient with yourself. Gaining the skills you need so that players will trust you with their treasures takes time and lots and lots of practice.
Hi Chris & again, welcome :)
I believe we've achieved a high water mark with Hesh's and Norm's replies.
They gave you ALL of the essential info and considerations with just two extremely well thought out responses. I can add nothing.
May you enjoy good fortune and success, both professional AND personal, with your passion.
Let me preface this first post of mine on this forum by giving a profuse thanks to Frank Ford, and to the community that populates this forum. I have read it for a long time, and cannot emphasize how much I've learned. The talent that digitally congregates here is very respectable, and it's a very special resource to me.
The previous posts are incredibly informative, and Hesh delivered an impressively detailed breakdown. He talked about deciding what you'd like to do in the field, with regards to building, repairing, etc, and this is very important.
I'll share a bit of my story because, 10 years ago, I was in a similar situation. Recently out of high school, in the middle of my first year of community college, living in an area with no immediate resources (there were nearby resources a short distance away in Los Angeles, but it was far enough away to be unrealistic for someone with no professional background). I decided that working on guitars was the life I wanted, but had no idea where to begin. Note that I don't feel my path is typical of the frets.net community; I am not a "luthier," though I have in the past and continue to "luthierize." I am, to be semantically correct, a guitar technician working within the guitar manufacturing industry. I won't mention the specific company, but we specialize in solidbody electric guitars. It's good to keep this in mind, because the choices I made that led me here probably wouldn't be the same choices you'd make if you wanted to be the next Somogyi or Matsuda.
I decided to attend a luthiery school, and I would recommend this. I chose not to pursue an apprenticeship because apprenticeships are complicated these days; Back in the day, folks would invest in developing a total novice into a professional, but it seems to me that these days folks expect a higher level of proficiency out of their apprentices right out of the gates. However, it never hurts to ask, especially if you are modest and humble when you do so. I went with Roberto-Venn, in Phoenix, Arizona, for a luthiery school. It was one of the best 6-months of my life, uprooting my life and going where I knew nobody, spending 8-10 hours a day, 5-6 days a week learning about that which I was passionate, then going home and studying more (partly because of my obsession, partly because I couldn't afford to do anything or go anywhere else). I also got to see Frank Ford refret an old Martin while lecturing us, like he was Bob Ross doing nothing more than painting happy little trees. It was great. I apologize for the use of all caps, but this also needs to be emphasized: ACCREDITED LUTHIERY SCHOOLS ACCEPT FINANCIAL AID. Loans, grants, scholarships, etc can all be used to develop the foundation of your education. I emphasize this because, if I didn't take advantage of financial aid, I would never have been able to afford luthiery school. And, looking back, not attending would have been the worst mistake of my life. Roberto-Venn, for one, has a very good placement program (Collings Guitars visited at one point and about 4 students were hired to begin after graduation before the class was even over), though I did not take advantage of it; I had already negotiated some contract repair work upon my return with a local music school/retail store in my hometown. I thought that I had something in the bag, and I was wrong.
Independent repair work is difficult when you're beginning. Personally, I found myself spending an inordinate amount of time wistfully looking at the front door, hoping the next job will walk through any second. I didn't have the funds to hit the pavement and drum up more business, and ended up getting a retail job to support my "dream job." I didn't give up though, and every few months would scour the internet for any job at any guitar company/manufacturer/luthier. At first I tried to keep it local, but soon I was looking for ads in New York and Boston, as well. Eventually, I saw a job posted with a guitar manufacturer. They were local! Even more exciting, one of the "quirks" of this company is that, despite predominantly being an import-guitar manufacturer, their protocol was that every single guitar gets a full setup, including fretwork, by an American tech. I saw the opportunity in that volume of experience; I get to do thousands of fret jobs a year, and I'm not held personally financially responsible if things go awry.
Long story short: It worked out well for me. Though I don't earn the respect of those peers that turn their noses up at instruments branded Made In Korea/Indonesia/China (of course, I could be self-conscious of this...), I feel lots of validation in my work. People these days don't have lots of money, and I have the opportunity to deliver them the quality instruments they deserve at prices that blow their minds. I get a regular paycheck, a good deal of which I use to expand my personal workshop at home, and benefits. Despite the context of my employment, I've always had an almost psychotic focus on work, and a cussedness about myself when it comes to quality; "Good enough isn't." I don't know if it was because of these qualities, or in spite of them, but I was promoted within the company after a few years. I still do independent contract work, but it's subsidized by my "day job." I'm 10 years into my career, and love it; I keep learning and improving every day, and oftentimes find myself stopping and thinking, astonished, "Hey, I actually get a salary for doing this!" And every day I get closer to my dream of getting my personal shop rounded out to the point that I can churn out acoustic builds in my free time and follow some other fantasies (I want to build my own Banjola!). Even then, though, I don't see myself quitting what is now my day job. It is my personal opinion that this is a fantastic path for someone who wants to break into the field these days; Go for a job in the instrument manufacturing industry, trying to follow your passions as genuinely as possible in doing so. Keep in mind that the skills you will develop may be constrained by the protocols of the manufacturer, so don't expect your job to "round you out" on it's own accord. Think of it as a way to subsidize your obsession and learning in your off time, while being lucky enough to make it so your paid-time still contributes to your personal professional development.
Pursue the possibilities of a local apprenticeship if you can. However, I would say that anyone getting into this field today should be prepared to relocate. I feel relocation as a luthier is a potential fact of life; Companies fold, populations dry up (or explode elsewhere), and you may find yourself presented with a situation where you have to go where the work is. Chances are good (though not absolute) that if there aren't many luthiers or techs in your area, there may not be a sufficient enough population to make it a feasible occupation. Make an honest assessment of how successful your business might be in your area. You might find that you feel you'll have to relocate at some point regardless of your present situation, and that realization can lead to having a more full appreciation of certain opportunities. Keep in mind that the more fruitful the location is, with regards to work, oftentimes the competition will be proportionately stiffer.
As far as specific resources, there are plenty of online guitar building resources. Crimson Custom Guitars has a fantastic forum, oriented towards boutique-quality solidbody electric, and has a subscription "guild" that includes instruction on building guitars and discounts on tools. O'Brien Guitars has great instruction for building acoustics. LMI and StewMac both have fantastic informative video sections with tech tips. YouTube isn't ideal, but there are some very fine folks doing very fine work. In addition, never forget about books. If I find a book I don't own that goes into some technical detail of instrument work, whether it has to do with electric guitar fretwork or jawari work on a sitar, I buy it. Nothing is quite the same as first-hand experience, but the value of learning from the experience of others should never be underestimated, as you are clearly aware due to your excellent questions. In addition, never pass up a free or close-to-free instrument; The problems you can find in a $25 Garage Sale Special can give you hundreds of dollars worth of lessons, if you evaluate them carefully enough.
I sincerely hope this post has some value for you.
First class post, Todd! Very well said and and impressive description of the "real-world" of Lutherie for those starting out.
After reading your story it reminded me that we all have to be willing to have a great deal to do with not only finding our place in the Lutherie world but being prepared to "make" our place in that world too.
We also share a bit of a different view, perhaps not so different in reality though with many Luthiers who will understand. It's easy to bash imports and get into how the competition is fierce, etc. But at the end of the day imports, especially the ones that are set-up in the US for ultimate playability serve an important place in the market.
Why? Because everyone deserves to have great music in their lives and working on budget instruments can be as rewarding as working on a pre-war Martin, perhaps even more so if at the end of the day someone replies to you "awesome" I can make that chord that I never before could do well!
Not to get too philosophical here but I also admire anyone who pursues what's going to make them happy, their respective dream so-to-speak. I didn't do that until after I was 50 and am very sorry now as I wonder if I would be taking medication for hypertension had I been a Luthier most of my life. Then there are Ov*tions.... so maybe I would still have hypertension anyway.... :) Or Rickenbackers..... where's my Lisinopril!!! :)
Strangely I could care less most of the time what I am working on and everyone and everything gets the very same level of attention. These days going to work for me relaxes me and I joke to folks that I come to work to unwind but it's true! :)
Thanks for that, Todd, very well put together post!
I've met lots of people that play high end guitars. I doubt if I've every met anyone that started out that way.
Hello Chistopher, welcome aboard.
I have been busy and I commend the list of "usual suspects" for their lengthy and comprehensive breakdowns of what they gathered over the last 20 plus years. I doubt that you will get the equivalent amount of quality knowledge in your next twenty years - very generous comrades. So much so that it's an easy add: The two things that I know contributed to my own sense of achievement are specializing and learning how to run a real business.
Specializing, to me, means choosing a profitable and achievable process to do with the type of guitars you deal with. In our case we build electric guitars, vancecustomguitars.com so we lean in that direction with our repair section/division. In the case of electrics I have a qualification in electronics so that one goes on the billboard, however, I also chose re-fretting and associated neck work (major breaks etc) to go on the list of advertised specialist services .
These specializations are particular in that they are satisfying to do, profitable and hard for the back-yarders or hobby guys to do well. They also require a fair amount of knowledge, good tools and jigs, and a fair skill set.
Also, when the hobby guys "steal" our business by doing set-ups and pickup changes for nothing or little charge we don't feel the pinch as we have a full dance card with the big earners. More work than time works for us.
Secondly, the decision to become a full time player in this trade should be made on the basis of whether it can support you with a living wage or salary. To work this out you need to know exactly how much your business will cost to run and how much you need to make in an hour, week and year.
If as is or has been the case with most of us here, you find you are working for less than the guy up the road serving at Macca's, you might like to think about whether you wish to go down the path of luthiery/guitar services. Either way, you should be as good at doing business and making the efficiencies and hard decisions as you are at doing the skilled hand work that earns the money.
So, that's my take on how it should look when it's up and running. But the small steps you will start out on are different: work for nothing for a month in any luthiery/repair shop that will have you, you mentioned one in the area: put together a resume or short appreciation of what you could bring to his business and then phone him up and make an appointment . If you don't take this bold step you will never know - nothing bad can come of this even if he cannot offer you anything - its a lot worse getting knocked-back by super-models and we all keep doing that.
Alternatively, design a program like working for a couple of years doing whatever it takes to save enough money to go to an acredited luthiery school or course in a few years time, and in those years spent working start consuming as much information as possible form all sources you have available. Dan Erlewine's "Guitar Player Repair Guide" is a good place to start as are the Stewmac "Trade Secrets" series - good basic stuff that works and will keep you safe. I'm OK with YouTube, but only because we can sort out the good stuff from the rubbish and BS that prevails there.
Give me a PM here or Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will give you my must have reading list.
This is a bit of a ramble Chris, but I hope it adds to the already sterling advice you have been given here by my revered colleagues.
Hers my best advice. Don't do it. Become and electrician or a plumber and play guitar and work with wood for fun.
Don't get me wrong, I love what I do and I've done it for over three decades but there are easier ways to make a living.
We have not heard from the OP for a while so maybe he decided to take that job at Google starting at $70K with a gourmet cafe with in 25' of every office and company provided laundry services, automotive oil changes in the parking lot, a two wheel scooter to ride around the halls, and a benefit package that has everything imaginable included....:)
Thinking back... I suspect that there are two main reasons why one would be come a Luthier.
1) We love the work
2) stupidity.... :) (present company excluded of course...:) )
Without music the world would be an ordinary place and their are few things that engender such a wide span of emotional responses from such wide demographic/cultural audience. We need our entertainers and we need our musicians and they will remain long after Ipods have become drink coasters.
To be part of that and to provide the necessary support to make this music the best it can be we have us. It's a job that pays about the same as fixing lawnmowers and less than plumbers, but nobody cares about that stuff - and nobody calls those guys back to thank them for helping them and their instrument do what really matters.
Nobody gets off on hearing a lawnmower start up but, to me, there is no better feeling than hearing the first chord bang in on stage at the start of a tour set when its your stuff that is part of making this soundscape happen. It's real and it matters and it is important and if you happen to be your own boss as well it just gets better.
You could work for Google, or be a stockbroker or some corporate flunkie (been one myself), but who wants to die not knowing or fat and rich without knowing what it's like to do something both hard and useful.
Must have taken my esoteric pill this morning...might just go have another.
I tell people that I became a Luthier as compensation for having rhythm not unlike Steve Martin in the film The Jerk....