I graduated from college with a B.A. in music with an emphasis on recording about year ago, and I currently work at a production company here in L.A. This past year has been a trial for me as I have been constantly hunting for a career path that fully fulfills my passions in life. Their are few things that I am sure about, but what I do know is that whatever I do with my life it needs to revolve around music, creativity, beauty and being active. It is these four essentials that have led me to research the art of becoming a Luthier, as it fulfills every aspect of my needs. I have only recently realized this about myself and am currently sending out my feelers to see if it is actually something I would like to pursue. Naturally, I turned to the only Luthiers I have ever known, those at Gryphon Strings in Palo Alto, CA (Frank Ford's Shop). In the midst of research about the staff at Gryphon I noticed that a great majority of the house Luthiers had attended a school in Arizona named "Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery". Which in turn led me to the school's website. Now the whole point of this email is that before I jump into applying for the next class at Robert-Venn, I really wanted to get some advice about the career-path as a whole. For example, would it actually be worth moving to Arizona for 5 months to complete the Roberto-Venn program, or are there other schools close to me in California that compare and compete? Or would I perhaps be better off attempting to acquire some sort of apprenticeship with an already established Luthier as apposed to attending Luthier School? These are just two of many questions I feel must be answered before I throw myself out in the world of Luthiery. All I can say is that I have the utmost respect for the exquisite beauty everyone at Gryphon and other shops like is make, I have been ogling over the guitars at Gryphon since I was 10 years old and would extremely appreciate and value any input anyone could lend me about my dream. Thank you so much for taking the time to read this. I look forward to hearing back from you guys.
go apprentice dont waste your Money if you can help it
You don't mention what experience you have in the field now, but if it's very little I would say learn and do as much as you can using local sources and your own commitment to trial and error. Thank God Harmony made so many guitars way back when...they're perfect learning platforms today. Buy them cheap, take them apart, put them back together. Learn when they're worth restoring vs. when they're not, talk to local luthiers, they're pretty cool about talking, they've all been there. Do not offer your services to "customers"...only work on guitars that you can destroy for sake of learning. You can get a lot of learning without spend a dime on a school (this website is one resource).
Whatever you do, do not quit your day job. You may very well find that this is not for you. Plus, having income will help you afford those specialty tools you will slowly acquire. You are very fortunate to be gainfully employed in your field.
Then, months from now you may find that you have a knack for problem solving, and that you can apply the right solution to the instrument (remember you're thinking of this in business terms, i.e. not every instrument that suffers from high action is worth a neck re-set), and that you are not bored stupid by making tiny adjustments to pieces of bone for hours. You've done the math and figured out what it would take to earn a living, and you're ready to make that kind of move. Then look at schools to improve what you already know, to make yourself more efficient and to learn best practices for business...to get the most out of the money you're about to drop.
Lutherie is not an easy way to make a living, and you'll find any number of folks who will tell you, "Yeah, I used to do that, but had to quit." LIke playing music for a living, it's something you do because you're driven by some inner force, whatever that may be or mean.
How you learn isn't all that important - some do it by jumping in and giving it a try, learning from mistakes, etc. Others find it essential to have structured lessons. Regardless, the biggest hurdle is probably that of getting a job that pays a subsistence wage so you can practice the craft full time for enough years to really get it down. And years is what it takes.
We have four Roberto-Venn grads in our shop right now, and as the guy who hires them, I can say that their training there was significant. If John Reuter and the other instructors give their highest recommendation, it means a lot. Now, we don't expect newbies to hit the ground running, able to do all manner of work. Rather, we are looking for individuals who are serious about this godforsaken career path, and who are willing and able to learn. That's where the school comes in - it's a self-selecting screening mechanism.
Small shops like Gryphon don't often have job openings simply because we don't have a lot of employees or employee turnover. So it may well be a good idea to work for a factory like Collings, for example, to gain the day-to-day hands-on skills and expertise. One of our R-V grads put in some years at the Santa Cruz Guitar factory, and came to us as a master of lacquer finishing - a real asset for sure.
ANY training, such as community college courses in woodworking, machine tool metal work, all that kind of stuff, will be REALLY important as you go along. Lately, I've gotten into lathe and milling machine work, and I've just realized how much I had been missing for the last 30 years! Virtually any craft has crossover techniques and skills.
Before you go out on your own, it's a good idea to get a job in a busy shop to smooth out your skills, learn the intricacies of the craft and to get started networking in the industry. If your aim is to work as an employee of an established business, don't forget to take a look at what opportunities may lie ahead within that business.
If your interest is in becoming an independent instrument builder, do understand that while it takes a lot of effort to learn to build fine instruments, it can be even harder to market them successfully. Most of us know of companies that owe a good deal of their success to heavy advertising or the endorsement of celebrities rather than the specific quality of their product. One of the most difficult challenges a good luthier has is to become recognized for the quality of a previously unknown instrument. That's one reason why so many start out by making direct copies of the most desirable vintage models, whether Stradivari violins or Martin guitars. Many of the finest luthiers I know have continued their careers on that same path.
First off, thanks to everyone for their much appreciated input, it has been more than I ever expected and will be taken into extreme consideration for whatever my next move is going to be.
I'm pleased to announce that I bought a used Takamine EG230 yesterday for really cheap on craigslist and I aim to attempt to disassemble and reassemble it as a sort of Anatomy and Physiology learning experience. I must admit that I really have no clue how to do this or what tools I need, but I'm sure that with some more research it will be a doable project.
Griff: I probably should have mentioned my experience level in the field in my intro and although I wish I had an ounce of experience fixing/building guitars, or woodworking, or machine tool metal work, the fact of the matter is that I do not have any. I did use to be a boyscout growing up and at camps we did take some woodcraft lessons, but that was both a long time ago and the lessons were very basic. I also took auto class in high school and was even the T.A. (teachers assistant) for two years. Towards the end of high school I even got to be a fairly decent welder. However, my experience with Luthiery is very minimal. The extent of my knowledge ranges the basics, from changing tuning machines, changing strings, and playing the instrument. The fact of the matter is that I've been in school for a long time learning about the theory of music, and I had yet to unlock my passion for the theory of how musical instruments are made until very recently.
There are two things that know for sure. One: I am eager to learn about this field because it interests me, and for Two: I know for a fact that I could be extremely good at it; working hard and passionately is a big part of who I am.
My consensus is that finding an apprenticeship with a well established luthier would be the prefect gig. Learning hands on, and face-to-face from someone who has the experience would be amazing and probably the most insightful way of learning, however it isn't the most realistic of dreams. With the economy the way it is, and the abundance of other young passionate guitar junkies that have the same dream and more experience out there, it seems a bit impractical to pursue an apprenticeship at this moment in time. However, I do have the means to apply and attend a trade school like Roberto-Venn or the Galloup school, which seems like a completely feasible option.
Mr. Frank Ford: Your advice is amongst the highest of valued. I've looked up to you and your work since I was a youngster. Needless to say am honored to have your input. I do realize that being a luthier is not an easy trade by any means. Nonetheless, I have recently given life as a whole a huge rethinking. I grew up with the idea that money, above all else, is what makes a man happy in this world, until recently. This may sound cliche, but this past year I have read a lot of classic British poetry. One of the main concepts that I pulled out from all of the literature read was that of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He said that a man of "heroic heart" will "strive, seek, find and NOT yield". To me happiness is not yielding to what society has dubbed "happiness" (wealth), To me Uncontaminated joy emanates from the composition of the principality of human relationships, connections and passions, along with a perpetual thirst for a new sun, each and every day, by embracing the river of courage that runs deep in every breast, and letting free the societal assumptions and habitually influenced life and, instead, engrossing a more unconventional, pragmatic lifestyle. In short an appreciation for relationships and passions is for me what true happiness is. And because I know for a fact I have a passion for the art of luthiery I am going to do everything in my power to pursue it.
Having said that, i know the road is going to be a slow one and that if i do go to a school of some soft even then finding an apprenticeship will prove difficult. But every career path starts out at the bottom and most careers in our world today have little to do with passion and beauty like the world of luthiery. I agree with everything you said Mr. Ford and I completely understand why stores like Gryphon have such a small employee turn over rate, which is why I personally would me more than happy to put some years into a factory like Santa Cruz Guitar Co. to really learn a specialized field. I understand that becoming a master of something takes "10,000 hours" but I can think of nothing more fulfilling than being as close to that mark as possible.
I'm not really sure if any of this made sense as my thoughts just poured out. One thing that I hope is abundantly clear is that I am EXTREMELY grateful for all of your input and thoughts. Trust me, they will be taken into tremendous consideration for whatever my next move will be. I can't stress enough how happy and lucky I feel to have the advice of all of you.
- John Barley
I'm with Gary on this one: while I was fortunate enough to be very well qualified, financially stable and motivated to do the nuts and bolts of Luthiery the one thing that was more important than anything else was a knowledge of business and how to conduct it.
I am sometimes aware that my pricing and policies grate with the well meaning amateurs and some of the penniless musicians I deal with from time to time but after 15 years I'm still in business and enjoying it.
The customers know they get value for money and that my business will always be around when things go wrong of good work needs to be done - so I get to have loyal customers who also bring in additional customers (I have never advertised - never need to).
My recommendation to anyone contemplating making a go out of this very rewarding job is to first do a small business course (couple of weeks on-line work will do it) or work in an existing sucessful business to see how it's done and then go out and charge more than a motor mechanic or plumber. Rusty.
I'm a little late in on the conversation. A long time local instrument repairman, Dick Akright, is an amazing repairman (especially so for brass and wind) and brings in beginners to learn the trade and sends them into the wild, or sometimes has them stay on as techs. I'm 40 and was taking my cornet to him when I was 9. Everybody in the Oakland Public Schools for that matter, was taking their instruments to him (and still do). He was Best Music's exclusive repairman for a long time and got the school clientele. I don't think he would say any different that it is building a huge clientele of regular maintenance work that keeps the shop going, rather than the custom work that the big names bring in. His shop probably rehairs 1000 bows a year, restrings twice that many violins, repads who knows how many wind instruments. His custom work, great. He was the Akright side of Akright/Severinsen custom trumpets. They were amazing. Knew a guy who had one in highschool. Ran into him 20 years later, still has it. That venture is over, because the workshop was supporting it. I'd say, if you wanna do it full-time you have to take as much "little" work as possible because, not just Mr Akright, but most repairman I've run into have this as their business, and then possibly later on, get known as a "restorer" and do the cool, amazing work full-time.
That is true. Small work provides cash flow which in turn pays the bills and my salary. The bottom line is that with this business you need to sell your work as well as your customer service. I always try my hardest to make my customers happy. I provide a high level of work and I make sure that my customers know that I am not here to rip them off but that I need to be compensated properly for my time. I frequently have people that are surprised by the prices of some jobs but, in the end you have to establish the fact that professional work is expensive but in the end it will be worth it.
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