How respected builders Dana Bourgeois, Roger Bucknall, Isaac Jang, Kevin Ryan, and Kathy Wingert practice the high art of creating top-tier instruments.
High-quality handcrafted acoustic guitars don't grow on trees.
Well, they do—sort of—but it takes more than a magical harvest to end up with one. Handcrafted acoustic instruments require months of labor, patience, and quiet determination to assemble. They aren't mass-produced. They can't be. And that explains why they cost so much. For example, the starting price, sans bells and whistles, for the instruments featured in this roundup is between $5,000 and $14,000. Lutherie is a test of endurance and not for the impulsive or easily distracted—leave that to the musicians. Builders are focused, careful, and long-term thinkers.
They also have strong opinions.
No issue, at least among the builders featured here, shows greater disparity than their embrace of machines and technology. Some builders rely heavily on CNC (computer numerical control), CAD (computer-aided design), laser-cutting and engraving tools, and high-precision tooling. Others use a band saw and router, preferring to do most of their work with hand tools and simple sanders. But despite their preferences and opinions, they aren't in the dark about alternative viewpoints. As U.K. builder Roger Bucknall of Fylde Guitars puts it: “It's difficult nowadays to draw a hard line between hand-making and machine-making."
Our featured builders also disagree about bling. Some build instruments that glisten with museum-quality artwork, intricate inlays—on fretboards, headstocks, rosettes, bindings, and backs—and elegant curves and bevels. Others offer simple, no-nonsense workhorses and have no intention of doing otherwise. Their business models differ as well and range from modest, 17-person factories to simple one-person operations. Most, at some point, have tried both.
For the most part, these differences are superficial. The art of guitar making has much common ground.
One shared skill is voicing tops, backs, and sides. Most builders don't choose wood just for its grain pattern or color, although aesthetic considerations are usually considered. Wood's most important component is sound. A skilled luthier will spend a good part of a day gently taping an unfinished top, listening for fundamental pitches and accompanying overtones, and then handcarving and reshaping its braces to bring out its resonant frequencies. What's more, every piece of wood is different. Discovering a material's—and ultimately an instrument's—unique sonic qualities is what makes playing a rich and rewarding experience.
It's also what distinguishes one builder from another.
The builders featured here also share an obsession with wood. They buy wood, usually more than they'll ever need—even whole trees, when possible—and store, age, dry, cut, and acclimatize it, usually for years and years, until they feel it's suitable for a guitar. To paraphrase instrument luthier Isaac Jang, “most builders suffer from wood acquisition syndrome."
We spoke with five builders about their instruments, techniques, building philosophies, opinions, and innovations. Their dedication and passion is palpable, and their hard work is obvious in the instruments they make. Brace yourself (pun intended) and get ready to learn, mostly in the words of the builders themselves, about a world you might know little of, but which is essential to the music you make.
Dana Bourgeois left a career in the art world for a career crafting tools for the music world.