Why A Handmade Guitar?

If you wanted a really exceptional pair of shoes, you would buy a hand-made pair built by a shoe-maker who would make them to fit your foot precisely, using a last (mold) based on your foot. Actually feet, because your left and right feet are different sizes. The result would be a perfect fit, be it size 10 1/4 E+, or 9 3/16 D-, or any other size your foot happens to be, and for which exact size (yours) there is no mass-manufactured shoe available. Furthermore, you would have your exact choice of leather, color, sole and heel materials, dimensions and design, lacing scheme, and decorative accessories. The shoes would be built to last you a lifetime.

What does a hand-made guitar offer?
So it is with hand-made guitars, but with an added dimension. Not only are the physical shape and dimensions chosen to your exact physical needs and playing style, but in addition the maker takes steps to match the tone and acoustic responsiveness of the guitar to your preference, technique, and choice of musical material. Furthermore, if you sing, steps can be taken to match the guitar to your voice, both loudness and timbre, so that the result, when you practice or perform, is a transcendently harmonious whole.

The Golden Age of guitar making
So why doesn’t every serious guitar player have a guitar built especially for them? Perhaps because most people do not know that this is an option. Good shoe makers are rare and, when you do find one, apt to be expensive. Mass manufacturing has succeeded in making shoe-making a dying art.

By contrast, and this is little known, we live in the golden age of hand-made guitars. There are more independent guitar makers (called luthiers) today than there have ever been in the history of the world. It is likely that there are several near where you live. Furthermore, and for a secret reason revealed below, the cost is apt to astonish you in its affordability. Your luthier, especially if he or she is not yet world-famous, is likely to work for surprisingly little, and nonetheless be absolutely delighted to have you as a customer and to do everything within their power to please you and deliver to you a beautiful guitar.

Why is this? Guitar-making is an exacting and time consuming art. However (and this is the secret), for the right person it is one of the most gratifying activities it is possible to undertake. A survey of occupational stress actually found lutherie (stringed instrument making) to be one of the lowest stress jobs that exists. In fact, if you are so inclined, you might want to consider building your own guitar under the guidance of an experienced teacher. It will change your life! However, building your own is not for everyone since it will take you perhaps 200 hours! And when you are done, you will \par want to build another! Soon you’ll be a luthier!

Your custom-made guitar
You will be able to visit your maker’s workshop, play the guitars, see work in progress, be fitted for your own, and make periodic visits as the work unfolds. Furthermore, since most independent luthiers give lifetime guarantees (their lifetime, not yours!) you will know exactly where to go for adjustments, maintenance, and repairs.

If you have a guitar built especially for you, the ways in which it can be customized are infinite, but let’s focus on one for now – choice of wood. Wood, unlike plastic or metal, is an organic material, which means that no two pieces, even if they are of the same species, or even from the same tree, are identical. This applies especially to sound quality. Prove this for yourself by going to the guitar store. Play a number of guitars of the same body style, made by the same manufacturer, of the same species of woods. You will discover that they sound quite different. Most of this is due to the inherent differences in the properties of the individual pieces of wood!

What about factory-built?
Mass-produced guitars, in order to save labor and production costs, are built to standard physical dimensions and specifications, irrespective of the sound-carrying properties of the individual pieces of wood that by chance happen to make up, say, instrument number 121 that rolls off the factory assembly line that day. In consequence, the sounds of a large number of identically manufactured guitars will span a wide spectrum. Most will be average, some few truly exceptional, and another few quite dead, simply as a result of natural and random variations in the sound-transmitting properties of the raw materials, namely pieces of spruce, redwood, rosewood, or whatever. The large manufacturers make no attempt to compensate for the sound qualities of individual pieces of wood; they neither alter the construction of individual guitars during manufacture, nor do they alter the pricing based on how good the guitar sounds once it has been built. Pricing is rather determined based on cosmetics (how visually perfect the wood looks), on the amount of decoration (such as mother of pearl inlay), or the fame of the celebrity endorser of that particular model of guitar. And this is how it must and should be, in a world that values manufacturing efficiency and cost control.

A guitar specifically made for you
Now what, by contrast, does the individual luthier do with the handful of guitars he or she builds each year? First, he or she will select your tone wood individually and primarily on the basis of its sound-enhancing properties. This will be determined either by tap-tone testing or resonant frequency analysis, while the piece (soundboard or guitar back) is still a raw sheet of lumber. And very interestingly, the most perfect looking piece of wood (tightest, even- est grain) is almost certainly not the best sounding. Accordingly the luthier will consult with you to select the tone woods that the two of you agree will make the best guitar. Furthermore, during construction the luthier will make modifications to the physical dimensions of the guitar (such as soundboard thickness and bracing placement) to get the best sound possible out of your particular, individual pieces of wood. This, of course, carries the luthier back to pre-industrial revolution days, before the invention of interchangeable parts. Or to state it more simply, it makes lutherie an art, rather than an exercise in mass production.

© 2010, John Whiteside