Jol Dantzig's Esoterica Electrica: Hugs, Counsel, and Confronting Blind Spots
Here’s a blast to the past: a list of almost 10 things about the guitar-building biz that our columnist would have shared with his younger self.
As we slither into this relatively new year, many of us consider what we can do better than before. It’s natural to want to improve things for ourselves, our friends, and our families. And, in the case of guitar builders, our customers. No matter how old you are, there are always things to discover. But who among us hasn’t wondered what it would be like to have known back then, what we know now? Was there ever a point when the wisdom of experience was offered, but our child-brain chose to ignore it?
I recently stumbled across a video interview of John Mayer, during which the interviewer asks the guitarist what advice he would give to his younger self. To my surprise, Mayer responded, “I’d just give him a hug, I guess—there’s nothing you could tell that kid.” It was a delightful admission that cost Mayer nothing, and it’s so true for almost all of us. So, in the spirit of our inveterate desire to change what cannot be changed, I offer you a list of things I might impart to my own young self, should I have the misfortune to meet him. Please feel free to ignore these points, just as I did.
Practice your craft. Don’t mistake natural ability for excellence. This is the domain of the small-town football hero who gets crushed in college. If you are good at something, put in the time—I’m talking years—to get really great at it. You can’t download an app for mastery. If you don’t have the guts for that, here’s a spatula, because Burger World awaits.
Realize your strengths. I’ve always been a jack-of-all-trades sort of guy who was adept at a lot of things, but quickly tired of the routine (see above). If that’s your personality, you might make a good manager of those who are better than you at specific tasks. My favorite realization was that the best managers surround themselves with great people, set a direction, and then get out of the way. The conundrum here, of course, is that you have to avoid getting bored with learning to be a manager.
Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance. I know, this is starting to sound like a self-help column, right? Your natural ability will also trick you into thinking that you can figure everything out yourself, which really wastes a lot of time. If you are interested in doing inlay work, for example, offer to help a knowledgeable inlay artist in exchange for some instruction. It’s flattering for him or her, and every shop has work that needs to be done, so it’s a win-win. The time you donate to someone’s shop will be less than what you would have wasted trying to learn on your own.
Figure out how to be different in your own way. Realize that anybody can do what you do. No matter how great your skills are, there are others who are doing the exact same thing—and maybe better. The key is being true to your own personality. If you are a guitar builder, it’s the same as being a guitarist. Find a way to twist those tired, old riffs that you are rubber-stamping all over your reputation and get your own thing. The world simply doesn’t need another Firebird clone at the moment, so change more than the pickguard shape.
Learn to sell. The simple truth is that anyone can make a guitar, but not everyone can sell a guitar. It used to piss me off that salespeople were paid more than vice presidents (let alone builders), but if you want to make products that sit in a warehouse or your storage locker, go right ahead and ignore salesmanship. You can build the most kick-ass website, but that won’t close a sale like a handshake.
Learn how to sharpen your own tools. Even if you send bits and blades out to be re-tipped and sharpened, you won’t know if your vendor is skimping on you if you don’t know how to do this yourself. Also, it helps to speak the same language if you have a complaint about tools that don’t perform correctly.
Take some spray-painting classes. Most of the big automotive coatings companies have workshops to help sharpen your skills. I’d been painting—and teaching painting—for a long time when I took a series of classes at PPG. In a few weeks, I unlearned mistakes and problems that I’d been muddling through for decades. There is real science behind the art.
Don’t believe your own hype. Maybe you can be a politician with no real credentials, but if you try to fake your way into the guitar market, trust me, you won’t last long. I was unlucky enough to watch someone in my organization destroy himself this way, and it wasn’t pretty. Everyone loves a story, but if you push the envelope too far from who you are, you’ll implode. Remember: What you think is being clever and edgy, others just think “asshole.” It’s a small industry, so make your bed carefully.
Don’t feel compelled to finish everything before its time. Everything is a process, and when you pay attention, the work tells you what to do … like ending this list before reaching 10.
And here’s that hug. You’re gonna need it.