Inside the Musicians Institute Guitar Craft Program
For players looking to start down a career path that never takes them away from their first love, the Guitar Craft Program offers a foundational education that can open a lot of doors—no previous experience required.
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.
“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.
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.”
Paul Roberts, current chair of the Musicians Institute Guitar Craft Academy, was a student of the program in the early 2000s and studied under luthier John Carruthers.
To educate the uninitiated, MI has chosen some of the most experienced builders in the business, including Fender mainstay Dave Maddox, who spent 15 years overseeing the company’s Custom Shop and currently heads the team responsible for Fender’s limited-run line. In addition, there are builders from smaller custom outfits, like Isaac Jang, who worked for Westwood Music in Los Angeles for many years, as well as Jaime Sandoval, who worked for Matchless Amplifiers. The academy also regularly brings in an array of guest speakers, such as pickup guru Seymour Duncan, Benedetto Guitars CEO Howard Paul, and Ron Thorn, a custom builder and inlay specialist.
It’s not all woodwork and wiring, however. In addition to the classes in the guitar craft facility, students also take weekly lessons in music theory on MI’s main campus. “You do have to have a certain understanding of music theory and ear training in order to hear how notes relate harmoniously and pick out different tonal characteristics,” Roberts notes. “Being able to lay out a fretboard and set frets and get the intonation right, you have to understand how music works.”
Much like a small factory, the facilities at MI’s Guitar Craft program provide students with every conceivable piece of equipment needed throughout the guitar-making process. “We have a machine shop where we have vertical milling machines, drill presses, edge sanders, pin routers, drum sanders, a thickness sander, a spindle sander, buffing wheels, orbital sanding stations—all the types of tools you’d find in any production facility,” Roberts says. “Most of the stuff is the same make, so these are the types of machinery that the students will be familiar with wherever they go.”
All that being said, the program is not singularly dedicated to mentoring those who hope to work for the big names in the industry. Instructors also give students the tools and skills necessary to later operate independently. “I don’t know if you’d call them alternative construction methods … but something like a pin router is going to run you 9 or 10 thousand dollars. Anything you can do with that you can do with a plunge router or a table router that you can buy at Home Depot for $200. So we have the students use giant machine tools alongside irregular power tools, as well as hand tools like chisels, spokeshaves, and scrapers. They’re going to be familiar with anything they encounter.”
One of the more enticing aspects of MI’s Guitar Craft program as opposed to other similar learning environments around the country, according to program chair Roberts, is the freedom afforded to students to design and build truly custom pieces.
According to instructors, the most important thing the MI Guitar Craft Academy teaches students is the basic principles of guitar design, fretwork, setup, and finishing.
“We get some guys that have something really specific in mind,” he says. “I remember a guy who, instead of doing a normal f-hole—if you’ve ever seen the tire-flaps on an 18-wheeler with the lady reclining—he wanted to put in an f-hole of that shape. Some guys will be, like, ‘I wanna build a Telecaster,’ or ‘I wanna build a Strat-style,’ or they want to have a kind of hybrid. We do have templates and stuff like that here for them to use as a starting point, but we also get people who want to build something completely custom.”
Still, the program remains something of a regimented learning environment and, by necessity, there are some restrictions in place to keep students from getting too far away from the basic elements of guitar building. “To borrow an old cliché, you have to learn how to walk before you can run,” Roberts explains. “There are certain things that have to be made in a certain way, like your neck pocket has to have a specific depth, or the overall thickness of the body has to have a certain measurement, or if you’re creating a hollow or chambered guitar you should have a certain amount of material between the chamber and the edge. Other than that, the shape and the design is fairly open. We will direct the student by saying, ‘Hey, this looks weird,’ or ‘If you make something that pointy the paint won’t be able to stick to it.’ But as far as things like number of pickups or control configurations, we don’t have much in the way of restriction.”
The electric guitar courses allow for more design freedom, while the acoustic program’s scope is more limited.
Whatever a student might have in their mind to manufacture, Musicians Institute supplies the hardware and wood they need. “We offer a pretty general variety: alder, swamp ash Indian rosewood, spruce, African mahogany, basswood, walnut, maple—both flame and quilted—and African ebony,” Roberts says. “As part of their electronics class, they’re winding pickups for the instrument that they’ve built as well. They can do humbuckers, Strat single-coils, Tele single-coils, and P-90s.”
MI also has a program for those who prefer to go unplugged, but to avoid learning overlap, the electric course is a prerequisite. “The acoustic program is a little more straightforward,” says Roberts. “It’s only three months, so you literally start building on day one. It’s a bit more hand-tool oriented, with bending irons, all the braces are carved with chisels … it’s a lot more traditional in that sense.”
Another difference between the programs is that, while the electric-guitar program has a lot of leeway in terms of body aesthetics, the acoustic program is more formulaic due to the physics involved with creating a hollow instrument that can withstand all the attendant tensions. “We go over the traditional historic bracing patterns and the difference between high or low X-bracing or how scalloping affects the bracing. But the instruments they build in the acoustic program are all based around a dreadnaught,” Roberts says. “There’s a little less freedom in that particular program because—depending on the size of the guitar, or whether or not it has a cutaway—it’s going to have a completely different type of bracing or curving. So having everyone do something totally different would mean each person would need to have a one-on-one type of class.”
A Launching Point
Overall, the goal of MI’s Guitar Craft program is not to create fully formed guitar manufacturers, but rather to give people the knowledge and cachet to make a go at it as a career. “This is the beginning of a lifelong education,” Roberts notes. Alonzo echoes the sentiment: “The idea is that, when you leave here, you’ll be a beginner but you’ll know what you’re doing.”
Another requirement for building an instrument: patience. When learning how to build, you might have to invest hours of your time into something, yet one slip of the hand can set you back considerably.
To that end, MI has a proven track record of student success. “Since the program has been around, we’ve had people work for Fender, Jackson, G&L, John Suhr, PRS, Yamaha, Ibanez, Tyler, ESP, LSL—almost any large manufacturer you can name has a couple of our graduates working there,” Roberts says. Among the more notable graduates are Rafael Barajas, head painter for the Schecter USA custom shop, Steve Mathers with Collings Guitars, and Hector Villalobos with ESP.Given that many people don’t get to work in a job they love—for many, work means punching a clock, waiting for the hours to slowly tick by, and collecting a check every couple of weeks—lutherie and guitar maintenance is an increasingly attractive option for a lot of passionate players. “If you have to work, do something you really enjoy,” says Alonzo. “It’s fun work. It’s challenging—sometimes it’s frustrating as hell—but it’s also very rewarding.” For more information on the program, visit mi.edu.
Carruthers posing with Police guitarist Andy Summers who is holding his brand new acoustic built by the former Fender Custom Shop employee and pioneer of the Guitar Craft academy. Photo courtesy of carruthersguitars.com.
John Carruthers: Setting up School
When Musicians Institute founder Hisatake Shibuya began his search for someone to head up the new Guitar Craft program, not many candidates could top the credentials of L.A. luthier John Carruthers. Throughout his nearly 40-year career, Carruthers has worked with many of the biggest brands in the industry, including Fender, Yamaha, Ibanez, Martin, and Gibson, to name a few. “I helped design a lot of the guitars that are out on the market now,” he says, “like the Robben Ford model, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, vintage reissues, the whole acoustic line at Fender and at Yamaha.”
A native of Alberta, Canada, Carruthers first came to Southern California to live with his sister and help her train for the Olympics. A tinkerer at heart, he got a job at Westwood Music doing repairs and customizations for players who either were or would soon be household names. “When I first moved down here, it was the beginning of the rock ’n’ roll era and I did work for the Rolling Stones, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt. You name it, and I worked on stuff for them at one time or another.”
Originally, Carruthers was brought to MI to teach basic guitar maintenance and repair to students in the guitar performance program, but when the school’s founder decided to go bigger, he was a natural fit to get the expanded program on its feet. “Mr. Shibuya asked me if I was interested in running such a department, and I told him that I would be and I just started doing it,” he recalls. “I started writing the course materials, set up the shop, and got the thing going. I ended up teaching there for 17 years.”
As the program’s popularity grew, so did demands on Carruthers’ time—a fact that prompted him to arrange for former student and employee Paul Roberts to take over. These days Carruthers stays busy doing what he’s always done. “I have my own business with a 10,000-square-foot facility where I do service work and build custom instruments,” he says. “It’s nice having my own shop—if I want to work hard, I can. If I don’t, I don’t have to [laughs].”