MI’s Guitar Craft Academy employs a hands-on teaching approach.

Musicians do what they do because of the invigorating and rewarding feeling that comes with creating something from scratch. For a guitarist, this may stem from a new idea for a riff, melody, or an entire song. But there’s also a sizable contingent of players who get the same fulfillment from selecting wood, combining it with some hardware and magnets, and building a complete guitar from the ground up. For many, though, there’s a more clear-cut path toward making a career playing music than there is for those who wish to make instruments for a living.

At the outset, most of us don’t have the skill set, the know-how, the experience, or the connections it takes to get our foot in the door of the guitar building and repair industry. But with more educational programs being established in recent years, you can actually attend schools like the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles to learn how to build guitars. “We want to break it all down and take the mystery out of it,” says Paul Roberts, chair of MI’s Guitar Craft Academy. “We want to give people the experience and a starting point for a career.”

MI’s Guitar Craft program was established in 2000 by school founder/owner Hisatake Shibuya, who also happens to own ESP and Schecter. L.A. boutique guitar builder John Carruthers was tapped as the program’s first director and quickly put together a curriculum with the stated goal of giving students the essential skills needed to build a guitar.

“We want to break it all down and take the mystery out of it.” —Paul Roberts, Guitar Craft chair

“His whole idea was to teach everything,” says former student and current instructor Lance Alonzo. “It was all about learning how to use the tools, basic woodworking, basic principles of design and fretwork and setup—which is probably the single most important thing that we teach here—and painting. The idea is that when you leave here, you’ll be a competent beginner.”

Roberts, another of the program’s early students, says the program has evolved significantly over the past decade. In the first few years, everything was new and had a laid-back vibe. “It was fairly informal at the time, with small classes. When I was in the program, there were about six people in my class,” he remembers. “Over the years, it’s gotten more popular and the class sizes have expanded. As a result, we now have more formalized classes on specific aspects.”

The curriculum has tightened up as the years have worn on, too, but the basic essence of the program remains rooted in giving students the best opportunity possible to get their hands dirty. “We give as much lecture time as we have to, but the most effective way to learn something is to do it,” Alonzo says. “They’re basically going through a custom-shop environment where they design a one-off. They cut it out, shape it, paint it, and assemble it.”

Building an instrument doesn’t leave much room for error, and students must be meticulous in their daily tasks,
and the faculty must lead by example.

Building Blocks
That hands-on approach isn’t just critical to the learning process: It is the process. “The only way you’re going to get better at doing something is to do it over and over and over again,” Roberts says. “That’s probably one of the hardest things for the students to overcome, because it’s a difficult thing to build an instrument and pull it off well. They’re here to learn how to do this and make their mistakes here and now so that when they go out into the world they won’t make as many. You have to be patient, you have to be open to constructive criticism, and if something doesn’t work out you have to be willing to go back and do it all over again.”

In that respect, building an instrument doesn’t leave much room for error, and students must be meticulous in their daily tasks. “If you’re taking a guitar [performance] class or a bass class and you’re running through a scale and you make a mistake, you can go back and do it all over again,” Roberts explains. “But when you’re building an instrument you have invested hours of your time into something, and if you run it the wrong way through a machine or make a slip with your chisel, that might set you back another several hours of work.”

As daunting as building a guitar from scratch might seem, Roberts insists no prior knowledge is required for a student to succeed. “Some of our best students have no previous experience at all,” he says. “Experience can be kind of a double-edged sword: You might have skill at a particular technique, but you might also have learned how to do something the wrong way. A lot of the time it’s harder to unlearn things that you’ve learned before. So if you do have some experience coming in—and experience is all subjective—we advise students to set aside that experience at the door and try and learn the techniques that we’re teaching here.”