Looking for a handmade acoustic guitar?
If so, you’re in luck, because the U.S. is crawling with builders. The Guild of American Luthiers claims more than 3,700 members and those members live everywhere. They’re in major cities, suburbs, and rural outposts—although many seem to congregate in areas like central California, the Pacific Northwest, and along the East Coast’s Acela Corridor [an area stretching from D.C. to Boston served by Amtrak’s commuter rail line].
But “congregate” is a relative term. Just because many builders live near each other, it doesn’t mean they socialize. Of the builders we spoke to for this roundup, most are happy to work alone at home and meet up with other builders at trade shows. That doesn’t make them loners, it’s just the nature of the work they do.
And a lot of people want to do that work, which in 2018, is easier to do than ever before. “There are too many builders and they are too good, right out of the gate,” legendary Sonoma-area builder Steve Klein says. “That’s partly because of the tools and materials that just weren’t available when I was building at the beginning. The ability of builders to make amazing things now is pretty amazing in itself. But I would still tell people to keep their day jobs if they’re interested in making guitars. Making a guitar is not all there is to making a living at making a guitar. You’ve got to sell it.”
Oregon builder Steve Kauffman agrees that there is an overabundance of new builders. Kauffman has worked with Klein for decades and now builds all of Klein’s acoustic models, in addition to his own line of guitars. “There are still a few excellent builders,” Kauffman says. “Where the market is saturated is with some of the second-tier builders—who build a lovely guitar. Many of them have graduated from one of the guitar-building schools and that has enabled them to enter the marketplace with a very professional-looking presentation.
But it takes experience and intuition to reach that top tier. I think where the market is saturated is with the appearance of top-level builders who still need to get their first 100 guitars under their belt before they really have their chops. It’s not that they’re not going to make it, it’s just that they’ve got to gain the experience and that’s probably a little bit more difficult to do.”
Guitar building, despite changes in technology and easier access to materials, is still a labor-intensive, time-consuming, detailed process. Most of the builders featured here are one-man operations with an output of 10-12 guitars a year. That doesn’t sound like much, but given that these instruments are handmade and complicated builds, one-guitar-a-month is the most a builder—especially one working without an apprentice or assistants—can handle.
But that modest output also makes good business sense. As Seattle builder Steve Andersen tells us, “I only have to sell 10 guitars a year and all I have to do is take care of myself. I don’t feel like I have to worry too much about being able to build enough guitars.”
That’s also true given the impact the 2008 financial crash had on the boutique guitar market. Orders didn’t come to a halt, although things slowed down. The market was flooded with used acoustics and, according to many builders, still hasn’t recovered. “That’s the first thing you’re going to sell if your kid is sick or you have to send them to college and you lost your job,” Santa Cruz builder Ed Claxton says about the drop in sales. “I think that is still affecting sales today.”
Despite those challenges—not to mention the headaches the Lacey Act and recent CITES regulations have added to the acquisition of exotic tonewoods—acoustic guitar building is in good shape.
But don’t take our word for it.
We spoke with five established old-timers and discussed the health of the current acoustic luthier scene. We also discussed the models they’re working on, their various innovations and contributions to the craft, their local building communities—including the lutherie guilds they may or may not belong to—and, most importantly, the stories and friendships they’ve acquired along the way.