Lutherie: Lifelong Learning

The Guitar Building and Repair Program at Southeast Technical has trained many of the world’s most talented luthiers and technicians, and Nashville-based Andrew Jellison is certainly one of them. After graduating from the program with certificates in both guitar and violin construction and repair, Jellison worked for three years under the wing of celebrated luthier Ross Teigen before moving to Nashville to work for George Gruhn at his world-famous vintage guitar store. For 20 years, Jellison has contributed his expertise and devotion to Gruhn and his customers. We recently spoke with Jellison about his time at Red Wing and the skills he learned there, and also about lessons learned outside the classroom.

How has real-world experience helped you grow in your field?
Like most people graduating from school, I thought I had it all licked. I figured that I was ready to take on the world, and that I’d get a job doing what I went to school to learn how to do. But what I discovered really quickly was that I wasn’t prepared to face projects with so many inconsistencies. I certainly knew a lot of skills that would work in a lot of circumstances, but they rarely covered all of the circumstances completely. Every situation—even something mundane like, like a bridge re-glue—has unique characteristics that you have to watch out for. It’s especially true with older instruments with wood that has had years to deflect and turn into what it is now. It took me a while to realize that wood changes, just like people.

Did you come to that realization by the time you moved to Nashville and started working at Gruhn’s Guitars?
When I left Ross Teigen after three years and came to Gruhn’s, I thought that because I had some experience—as well as being young and naïve—that I was going to repair every broken guitar they had there. And after working on over 600 guitars in about 28 years, I know that was a completely ridiculous notion. Every repair and build has the potential for lots of unique variables—the problem is that you don’t know what they are until you dig in and start to work on them.

Are there skills or lessons that you learned at Red Wing that you still use in your career today?
Oh, sure. I can look back now and still remember things that both David Vincent and Elizabeth Butler taught me that are still very useful and significant to this day. Elizabeth had two mottos that have stuck with me throughout the years, the first being, “the light is your friend,” and the other is, “flat and square.” Knowing those two things have carried me through more tasks working with any material than anything else that I’ve ever learned. If I’m trying to join two pieces of wood, for example, using light effectively will give me a very good indication of whether or not they’ll match and work together. And if they’re not flat and square, I’m most likely going to have a problem.

Obviously, not everything that either myself or other techs might work on is going to be flat and square—one example might be working on a backside-radiused bridge for an older Gibson acoustic. In those types of situations where it’ll boil down to having to hand-fit something, I really appreciate how much Elizabeth made us work on small details by hand. She forced me to use my eyes to notice details that I didn’t think I could see.

Those types of skills are becoming scarcer as technology progresses.
Technology is a fantastic thing, and it’s been really great for a lot of manufacturers in terms of their instruments’ costs, consistency, and quantity. There’s a Catch-22 to it, though. The instruments that are especially significant to me were built in the late 1800s, right around the time when Martin was really getting started in building their flattops and Gibson was ramping up their acoustic production. They didn’t have CNC machines, of course, but they had a lot more than just a simple set of tools. Those guitars had more hands touching them and putting them together than a CNC-made guitar being built in a factory today. It doesn’t necessarily make them better, but it makes them special. Many of these guitars have several people’s blood, sweat, and tears put into them. They were learned skills that those people prided themselves on. And those guitars have souls.

So the school strengthened your perception and abilities to see less-noticeable imperfections?
Yeah, it did. It gave me a good place in which to start and many things that I still rely on. But there’s much out there to see. Even after all this time, I’m still learning new things every day, personally and skillfully.

Can you give an example?
It wasn’t until many years after working in this field that I had a moment to sort of, “step away” from what I’d been doing and look back on it. I realized that it had become more than just a job, and more of a philosophy for me. When I’m working on an instrument, I try to lock myself into a mode in which I’m focused solely on making it the best it can ever be—and when I figured out how mentally to remove myself from the equation and work for the instrument instead of on it, that had more significance than anything I was taught in schools.