Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Luthier Built Guitars, Part Four

Why buy from a luthier? I suppose most of us value the notion of a handmade guitar in a world of consumer driven products. We can appreciate the great care and skill that it takes to build a fine instrument as well as the creative promise it represents. From the fine tonewoods to the hand rubbed finish, the luthier built guitar seems to have a presence that speaks quietly of high purpose.

In a more practical sense there is the likelihood of better sound, playability and strong value inherent in a handbuilt classical or Flamenco guitar. If you choose to work with a luthier, you can be assured of an instrument that is just right for you, a unique creative partner for your music.

Why would it be that handmade guitars possess all of the traits suggested above? To be sure there is a lot of romance surrounding the tradition of a dedicated craftsman laboring over a workbench to produce what some might call a work of art. In reality, building a guitar takes a lot of training, hard work and committment; a mix of technique, science and intuition resident in one person. To control the making of a guitar from design to execution focusing on hundreds of critical steps that must be integrated with sound and player objectives is an all-consuming effort. And this is precisely the reason why a luthier will usually produce an instrument far superior to a factory full of machines and specialists. The luthier can more accurately balance all of the factors influencing the completed guitar because he or she has the ability to make material selections and adjust thicknesses intuitively. An assembly line simply isn't designed to accommodate variations. Moreover, guitar factories can't walk that fine line of performance that luthiers always do, rather they seek the low road of warranty return percentages instead…it's a profit deal.

How can one locate candidate luthiers to work with? Start by asking around at music stores or repair centers; inquire of other players or guitar societies and finally let your search engine loose on guitarmakers having websites. In an evening you should be able to visit dozens of websites illustrating ideas that will find some appeal for you. Additionally, you'll find other details on the conventions of working with luthiers to acquire your guitar. Another option is to ask around at various classical guitar chat rooms and often you'll receive recommendations that will pay off.

If your budget isn't up to hiring the most experienced luthier, then you might take some time to locate the luthier just starting out on a career. Often these builders will have several guitars on hand at very reasonable prices…and the guitars can be surprisingly good. Expect some joinery and finish flaws and perhaps some action issues to iron out but this is also instructive for you. Additionally, it may well be that you can put a second guitar on order with this luthier after buying something on hand. This would give you the excitement of watching your own guitar come to life while still finding the experience very affordable. Beginning luthiers acquire skills very rapidly and don't be surprised if the second guitar from your builder is amazingly improved in many ways.

Just a brief primer on the conventions of working with a luthier:

  • Emailing questions to prospective luthiers has become a contemporary and effective way to interview your builder and it also gives you a good idea of how communications might progress on an order. Speaking from experience……..give the luthier a break, if you're just window shopping and not serious about entering into an order, be aware that the luthier is taking valuable time to be courteous with you and you should return the favor.
  • You should be able to receive client references from your candidate builder and this can provide insight as to the type of person you're thinking of working with.
  • Many luthiers require a non-refundable deposit when entering an order. I find in my own case that I have typically invested several hours of email interview time and phone calls to identify objectives and preferences followed by time to put the customers order into shape to be produced.
  • You may expect that individual luthiers request some level of payment when construction commences and payment in full before the guitar is shipped.
  • Most luthiers provide for you to have approval of your new instrument. If it's not right you should be able to send it back for a full refund or correction. Exceptions to this convention may be when you have specified features that would make it difficult or impossible for the luthier to resell.
  • There are a variety of options and upgrades that you can specify and it is smart to make sure you have a working record of all options and specifications to avoid misunderstandings.
  • Luthiers offer a variety of guarantees with their instruments. Be aware that since these guitars are made of wood and the builder can't be assured of how you and your environment will impact the instrument, humidity damage often isn't covered. Workmanship always is covered.

Don't be surprised if your luthier has a wait list numbered in years. This is one indication that you're entering into a world that doesn't offer instant gratification! Arrange to have periodic updates from the luthier if possible in order to keep your interest up. How do you know that the guitar you receive after such a wait will have been worth it? I assure you that taking possession of your new handbuilt guitar is not unlike the time when your first child comes into the world. You lose the idea of good, better, best comparisons with other guitars and you find that you treasure it for what it is, a great lifelong friend. Good Luck!

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