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The Romance of the Individually Handmade Guitar

By William R. Cumpiano 1995 All Rights Reserved

It's no secret: we find ourselves in the middle of another acoustic-guitar boom. Everyone, it seems, has come un-plugged --albeit in a plugged-in sort of way. Once again, the mass musical culture seems to be escaping from a pervasive state of wired, hyper-loud adolescent self-indulgence and turning to the more serene, sophisticated sensuality of the acoustic guitar.

The last wave of mass-culture to subside peaked with very loud rock and roll, rat-biting, and huge arena performances filled with snarling electric guitars and adolescent intensity. Acoustic guitars were for wimps. Now, even the most extreme electric guitar slasher can be seen displaying their "sensitive" sides-- with acoustic guitars. Incipient burn-out, perhaps? MTV --arbiter of the musically worthwhile for the young masses-- has given the acoustic guitar its approving nod. Eric Clapton performs his once-screaming "Layla" on a Martin, at Valium tempo. Now acoustic guitar sales are rivalling electrics in virtually every shopping mall across the country. Something is going on here, but do you know what it is?

Ironically, the acoustic guitar had to be plugged in --for this new wave of musicians to play "unplugged." This all had to wait for acoustic-guitar pickup-technology to come of age. Nagging feedback and that shrill, honky sound which contact pickups used to make are gone from the scene.Transducers, internal microphones and onboard pre-amps have allowed these delicate wooden boxes to hold their own on stage with the more muscular electric guitars-- and still sound clear and true.

The expanding market for acoustic guitars has also provided fertile soil for a minute sub-section of the industry: the hand-crafting of individually-made guitars by independent makers. Coincident with the larger wave of interest in the acoustic guitar, the ancient trade of luthiery is experiencing an un-precedented resurgence. There are more-- and better--makers than ever before. They are selling more guitars to a wider variety of guitarists than ever before. "Finally, it's well-known that individually-handcrafted guitars are different from factory guitars, and that the difference has value," says Vermont luthier Michael Millard. "In the last ten years, it has become quite clear that there are small shops that are building instruments that are at least equal or superior to the best production instruments--and these are highly personalized in terms of voicing, ornamentation and function." Toronto luthier Grit Laskin adds, "performers are going to their local makers more than they used to, as evidenced by what they are seen playing on stage and in the media. Our whole culture is shifting values, moving away from over- produced, electric sound. People are tired of it. At the same time, in a recessive economy, people who still have money to spend, are forced to spend it differently. More often than ever, that difference entails going to one person to have something built, rather than to an arms- length retail store.

Another cause for this intensified interest in individually-made instruments, as archtop luthier John Monteleone puts it, is the fact that now "there are many more different sub-groupings of music, and the idea of musical boundaries is fading--so what you have is a more intense search for new and different tools by performers--for things that work for them and make them look good."

In the classical guitar field, Alan Chapman describes the boom from his own perspective: "There are more conservatory-trained instrumentalists, and a higher general level of playing. The proficiency level of the average recitalist has soared. There used to be only a few people playing the most difficult pieces, and now a far greater number of people are handling a far more difficult repertoire. The classic market is broader: non-classical artists such as country, and jazz cross-overs are using classical guitars, as are world-beat and improvisational New Age players. Teachers are better, instruments are consistently better: the field has grown up."

The slice of the larger market being cut away by the luthier trade is now significant enough to make the larger producers pay attention. Once dismissed as copy-cats and "woodworking lightweights," luthiers have come to hold a position of high regard and prestige within the larger industry. Like Michael Gurian, they consult with the largest factories on esoteric technical matters. Like Dana Burgeois, they develop acoustic guitars for electric guitar companies. Like Michael Millard, they are hired to design "luthier-inspired" guitars for large japanese and multi-national guitar companies. Like Danny Ferrington and Jimmy D'Aquisto, their signatures appear on big-factory guitars that are made by the thousands. Factory CEO's and shop managers attend guitar- maker's conventions now, interested in the latest from this small group of dedicated artisans. In growing numbers, hand-builders are being seen challenging the large producers for the high-ground--the avant-garde of the guitar industry. The growing interest in individually-made guitars points to a new sophistication on the part of the guitar-buying public. The way Toronto luthier Grit Laskin sees it, guitarists are taking the time to consider individually-crafted guitars "because they're smart. They've heard it from others, that a well-made, hand-built guitar can always supersede it's production-line cousin. Besides, the pleasure of dealing personally with the human being who is going to construct something specifically for you, is a significant plus..." What was once insider's lore is now out in the open, everyday knowledge: that yes, you can get a fine, professional-grade guitar from the top-name factories (indeed, Martin and Gibson are now making acoustic guitars as good or even better than they ever did), but if your own musical or playing requirements can't be met by what is generally available; if you want something that no one else has; if you want your instrument to be noticed; you must have one made--just for you, by a luthier. "They're tired of looking," say arch-top luthier John Monteleone, "for the most part, customers will express that they want the last instrument that they'll have to buy."

THE DAWN OF MODERN-DAY AMERICAN HAND-BUILDING

There are now far more opportunities for the average guitarist to come into contact with individually-made guitars, and more places to buy them. Not always so, however: thirty years ago, just before the first big acoustic-guitar boom, guitar-makers were a small, hardy, secretive, no-nonsense bunch of professional tradesmen. It wasn't art then, it was a living. Nevertheless, like Pinoccio's maker, Gepetto, they could make the dead wood talk. During the sixties, most of those musical Gepettoes worked within a single square mile in New York City. They built guitars exclusively for hard-working studio guitarists and recitalists--for a few professional insiders with a conviction that to get a really special instrument you had to forget about music stores. They were predominantly from immigrant stock: Michael Gurian, Armenian; Guillermo (William) Del Pilar, Manuel Velazquez, and Efrain Ronda, Puerto Rican; John D'Angelico, Italian; Jose Rubio, British; Freddy Mejias, Mexican. But they were some Anglo home-boys too, like Gene Clark and Lucian Barnes. It was the dawn of my own career. In my eyes, these men were magnificent, sealed vaults of guitarmaking technique, the keepers of the secrets. Nowadays, however, there are no more guitar-making secrets. Aspiring makers today have at their disposal a virtual avalanche of sources and endless pathways into their own field of dreams. In 1968, however, save for Irving Sloane's slender book and a few pamphlets, there was scant guidance to be found in libraries or bookstores. There were just two purveyors of string-instrument woods and tools in New York: curt and tight-lipped people who didn't want to bother with me. And as for the handful of makers in New York City (and the fewer still elsewhere): none had the time or cared to talk to me, either. So, I stalked Gurian and Del Pilar--much in the same manner, I later discovered, as Gurian and Larrivee had earlier stalked Velazquez and Rubio, Richard Schneider had elsewhere stalked Pimentel and Jimmy D'Aquisto had pursued D'Angelico. I appeared at my unwilling avatars' door and stared over their counters for hours trying to peek at what they did, trying to guess what the odd-shaped jigs hanging from the wall were supposed to do--until told to leave. Then I showed up again the next Saturday, and the next. I bothered them and their co-workers, ingratiating some, becoming a nuisance to others. Then, my break came: Michael Gurian had the notion to conduct a small guitar-making evening course at the Crafts Students League. I heard about it and signed up. A doorway into the rarified field of professional luthierie opened and let me in. Except for John D'Angelico and his small crew, the New York luthiers of the early sixties all made guitars in the "spanish style"-- what, according to the New York Classic Guitar Society, had been termed "classic" guitars on the pages of their magazine, the Guitar Review, for the first time barely a decade earlier. The Spanish Guitar hailed from a five hundred-year tradition of small shops and individual producers. In stark contrast, the steel-string guitar was a creature of the Machine Age, of the Industrial Revolution in the United States. "Steelstrings" were the province of the large shops like Martin, Guild, Gretsch; and the large factories, like Gibson and Harmony. Their clout was so enormous, that no one in their right mind would ever think of making them one at a time for a living. There was no tradition in America of individually-handcrafted steel-string flat-top guitars. At least, not until the mid-sixties, when several Tennessee woodworkers, some New York craftsmen, and a Serb from Chicago began one. In Tennessee, a furniture-maker and classic-guitarmaking buff called Hascal Haile began to make steel-string flat-top guitars using many of the Spanish-method techniques he knew.At about the same time, a small band of skilled craftsmen and guitar-freaks coalesced in New York's Greenwich Village. They started taking Martins apart, fixing them, changing them. They were named Marc Silber, Ivon Shmuckler, and Matt Umanov. Following San Francisco repairman Jon Lundberg's lead, they cut the tops off old arch-top Martins (oddball, unsatisfying instruments that these were) and re- topped them with X-braced flat soundboards. The result: an instrument magnificently suited for blues-ragtime music in the Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Reverend Gary Davis tradition. These guitars were picked up by popular blues-ragtime fingerpickers in New York City (the form was later recreated by Martin as their M-series). After having dissected, evaluated, and reassembled many, many Martins, these dedicated, Martin-loving craftsmen started, by the end of the sixties, to make finely-wrought, personalized recreations of Martin designs on their own work tables. About the same time, on Grand Street (also in New York), Michael Gurian began producing classically-inspired steelstrings in a small five-worker studio. Coincidentally, an immigrant yugoslavian instrument maker, working as a repairman in a large Chicago music house decided he could build guitars better than the ones he was repairing. His name was Bozo Podunavac. The field of flat- top steel-string luthierie had begun in earnest. Before long Gallagher, Randy Wood, Bernardo Rico, Michael Gurian (who had relocated to New Hampshire), Augie LoPrinzi, Stuart Mossman, Bozo Podunavac (who relocated to California) then others, were producing Martin-inspired instruments-- and novel new designs of their own-- in small production shops all around the country. None of these shops survive today, yet they paved the way for their now-well-established modern counterparts: Santa Cruz, Taylor, and Collings. Many workers who learned the ropes in those early shops, this author included, later peeled off and started building guitars on their own. Some who survived are among the most prominent luthiers today. Their numbers have proliferated, and there is hardly a state in the Union without at least one or two fine, individual makers selling steel-strings-- or classics for that matter-- to the general public. The individually-made arch-top jazz-guitar evolved in a similar manner, although the divergence of the craft from factory to small- shop/luthier industry occurred earlier. Orville Gibson, a shoe-store- salesman turned luthier, invented the arch-top after fusing cello and guitar. His successors evolved the archtop into a mass-produced, factory instrument. During the thirties and forties (as was to later happen with the steelstring), a small group of individual craftsmen, mostly trained violin makers, became inspired by this factory-oriented guitar design. They then "de-evolved" the form by making them like they once did in the Old Country. The Stromberg, Epi Stathopolous and D'Angelico workshops recalled many of the pre-Industrial-Revolution ateliers, such as the Staufer and Panormo workshops--the sort in which Martin had apprenticed in the previous century. Today, their heirs: D'Aquisto, Monteleone, Benedetto, Nickerson, Grimes, Anderson, et al, have taken the torch from these earlier giants. In their hands, individually-made arch-tops have come to rival the finest factory archtops Gibson--or any of the older luthiers--ever made. Best known among these makers is Jimmy D'Aquisto. Many would describe him as the fountainhead of the present-day scene. As Massachusetts arch-top maker Brad Nickerson notes, "there is a resurgence in interest in archtop guitars now, and a number of people building them. I don't think any of this would be happening if it hadn't been for Jimmy's perseverance and love for these instruments, and his belief in their versatility and viability for today's music." Although steelstring luthierie has been evolving in dramatic ways since the sixties, very little has noticeably changed for makers building in the Spanish Style. Save for one or two attempts to establish production lines in New York to produce classic guitars during the sixties and into the seventies--all which eventually failed--the field remained dominated, as always, by individual makers--and as it still is to this day. As classical luthier Alan Chapman puts it, "we have a long tradition of individual makers. Its a solo instrument-solo maker world, with a long-established rapport between the two." The ranks of notable classical-guitar makers have swelled, however, in recent years. A short list of the finest individual makers working today might include Manuel Velazquez, John Gilbert, Jeffrey Elliott, Dwayne Waterman, Tom Humphrey, Alan Chapman, and R.E. Brune. There are others, however. For the most part their gurus are dead guitar-makers: men with names like Torres, Ramirez, Fleta, and Hauser. These silent giants speak to their modern successors through the few instruments they made which still survive, or which have been documented. Classic builders working today have no living gurus, save perhaps for Manuel Velazquez. Don Manuel, of Puerto Rican descent, is in his mid-seventies and is argueably the greatest living classical-guitar maker. Productive as ever, he is still making among the finest instruments ever made in his one-man workshop in Florida, at a rate of one or two per month. Indeed, Puerto Ricans have long held a commanding reputation in the classical guitar field. Manuel Velazquez, Guillermo Del Pilar, and Fidencio Diaz started the tradition in the mid-forties, fifties, and sixties. Of these, Velazquez and Diaz remain active--and at the top of their form Their descendants, the current crop of younger, notable Puerto Rican luthiers includes Miguel Acevedo, Manuel Rodriguez, and German Velazquez, all working on the island, but selling instruments in the U.S.

HOW ARE THEY DIFFERENT?

So what, precisely, makes this special category of guitars so different from the rest? To start with, they are made individually, by individual artisans. The individual maker leaves a unique imprint on each instrument. Hand- work exhibits slight variations, intended or not, between each sample. The quest for perfect uniformity, although a goal in large production, is rarely the luthier's goal. Optimization of design usually is. Indeed, knowledgeable buyers of fine handcraft are not perturbed by small irregularities and inconsistencies. Rather than a sign of lower value, small char marks on the interior surfaces of sides bent over a hot pipe or small tool marks left on the interior braces are but irrefutable evidence of the primacy of the human hand in the process-- and thus valuable in and of themselves. Although cuts made by the hand-held tool are variable and inconsistent (compared to the ones made by the power-tool), a single mind behind conception, design, and execution brings to the guitar a special type of consistency, a unique integration of all the elements of the instrument. Luthier Grit Laskin puts it thus: "In terms of sound, one pair of hands guided by one experienced brain has the ability to pull more musical subtleties out of the material." This kind of consistency is unlikely to exist on instruments designed by a committee, and fabricated by the sum efforts of a dozen workers. Take wood selection, for example. A worker on the line in a guitar factory, will simply take a soundboard or a back off a stack to put on the next guitar. In contrast, consider arch-top luthier Brad Nickerson's approach: "I especially take to heart the idea that you need to work with and be sensitive to the particular piece of wood at hand. Its a difficult lesson. We like to arrive at formulas and think we've discovered something; but its really a different experience with each instrument. You can't do this in your sleep." Are individual-made guitars "better" than production-line instruments? This comparison can be tricky to make. Certainly, a veteran, skilled luthier can bring a degree of attention, concentration, and experience to the various crucial steps in the construction of a fine instrument--and thus a level of overall quality-- which cannot easily be equalled on a production line instrument. Twenty or thirty years of experience and skill is generally quite rare, in luthiery as it is in every other arena. The fact is too, that there do exist a number of smaller production lines in which the level of joinery and finish is probably as refined as can be achieved anywhere, on any level. A luthier's joinery and surface finish can be brilliant on one or several guitars, but less-so on the another. Personal stress, economic factors come into play. Certainly, individual makers are not gods and, as individuals, their work may not be as consistent as factory-mades coming off the production line. But is this necessarily the highest goal of guitarmaking--or is performance, responsiveness, musicality? Broadly speaking, it would be wrong to assume that just because an instrument is individually made, it will be less trouble-free than a similar production line instrument. Problems with cracks, neck angles, frets, dog individually-made instruments perhaps only slightly less frequently as on your average Martin, Gibson- - or Washburn-- for that matter. Does a Maserati spend less time in the shop than a Ford? Massachusetts Classical luthier Alan Chapman says, "factories aren't willing to take the risk to build as lightly, or the time to select materials as carefully, in order to successfully build lighter," implying that many hand-made instruments are more fragile-- and thus, perhaps, more breakable, than their production-line counterparts. The difference is that you know who is personally responsible, and that more often than not, that person is highly motivated to resolve your complaint: a reputation, in a word-of-mouth market, hinges on your good graces.

The personal interaction between player and maker is what makes the individually-made instrument most unique. The interaction you will experience varies with the style, approach and personality of each maker. There is no established common modus operandi, no set rules to the luthier/customer exchange. You simply have to ask the makers if they keep guitars on hand for sale, or if they make to order, as well as other ground rules--such as delivery, payment, and warranty responsibility --since they usually vary significantly from builder to builder. But, this often is the most thrilling part of buying a hand- made guitar: seeing the builder in his or her own work environment; talking to the builder, explaining what you want; waiting for the mystery to take place. Then, the guitar is born, at its own slow pace-- your very own exclusive instrument. It certainly is a relationship which exists on a different plane from buying a guitar from a salesperson in a store, plunking your money down on the counter and walking out with it. In some traditions, however, luthiers will not make one for you: Classical luthier Miguel Acevedo describes the interaction that occurs in traditional spanish luthieries. "A maker will make the guitars that he wants to make, in the style and manner most familiar to him. He'll build up a small inventory of instruments. Then the maker grades them and prices them according to quality of results. If you're shopping, you visit the maker, and he'll bring out Model A. You try it out, and buy it if you like it. If it doesn't suit you, he'll suggest that perhaps you might like Model B, a beauty that sells for a slightly higher price. You might be delighted. If not, how about my Model C? ...and so forth until you reach the very best model at the highest price. Come back in a couple of months, and there's likely to be a different crop." Likewise, a number of prominent american luthiers will only have you chose between several pre-designed models, or simply they will only build the instruments THEY want to make, and you may chose among them. On the other hand, most modern makers will make a guitar for you, Some will allow you a only a limited number of options: size A, B, or C; spruce or cedar soundboard; simple or fancy ornamentation; internal pickup or not. At that's it. Other luthiers offer extensive custom design services. They are familiar with a broad variety of guitar types and designs. They are willing to spend an hour or two with you, hammering out in thorough detail, an exquisitely precise form which, in an exemplary manner, fits your hand, your eye, and the instrument's intended musical environment. They are expert in ascertaining the kind of instrument you want, assuming you know what you want. If you DON'T know what you want, they're become very good at teaching you how to arrive at a choice which is most appropriate for you. Among the best and most perceptive custom builders working today is steel-string luthier Michael Millard. He describes the way he sets up a commission like this: "Most people see a guitar in the hands of a professional player, and then contact me, inquiring about the possibility of a guitar of their own. Usually, they end up coming to my shop. Most people have a limited knowledge related to the basic components of guitar design-- including very fine players. A lot of people just don't realize what differences exist between fundamental ingredients such as scale, wood selection, soundbox size. These must be explained. So, it becomes my job to explain these basic components of design, and distinguish them clearly from choices of ornamentation. I extract from them descriptions of what they like and don't like in other guitars. Soon, there is definition of terms that becomes common to both of us. People come to me because I can make them a guitar as good as the guitar that they envision. This requires high-grade communication and an approach to building which, in terms of design, is broad and flexible. Because production companies and small builders alike have generally built to fairly homogenized designs, most players don't realize the possibilities available in a true custom design process. Custom has come to mean ornamentation, rather than performance and function. I build a specialized instrument around a specific set of criteria, and the result is that the instrument is extremely satisfying to that player." John Monteleone, like Millard, builds pre-designed models, and custom builds also. Like Millard, he works to get custom clients to verbalize their preferences. "The first question I ask is, 'what are you playing now, and what DON'T you like about it?' Usually these are the kind of details they readily know. It's more difficult for them to describe what they're looking FOR. But regardless, in the end it turns are that what they're all looking for is pretty much the same thing: a guitar with balance, sustain, easy response, power and projection-- but with subtle differences. And that's where we come in. We're like tailors."

Usually, you must pay up front for a portion of the cost, and the balance is due upon presentation. In some cases, a third-third-third arrangement: One-third deposit up front to put your commission on the work schedule, one third when the work is actually begun, and a third when it's delivered. When you visit a luthier there may be a sample guitar or two available to try out. Don't be dismayed, however: just as often the maker has nothing to show, because "they leave the shop as soon as they are made." This may seem a little scary, but it is not at all unusual in the luthiery trade. If you're dropping three grand on a guitar, the background assumption is that you've already done your homework: that you've shown up in this particular maker's shop only after already having learned of his or her work, reputation, and style-- usually from other players. Grit Laskin describes how he interacts with his customers: "Private order buyers first contact me by phone or mail. Primarily they come to me because they've already seen or heard my instruments. Often they want something like they've heard, but just as often they have all kinds of specific needs. They ask, can you do these things I require? They inquire about neck shape, sound specifics, ornamentation, alternate wood species. Steelstring, Classic, and Flamenco players, each have different sets of needs. I explain what I can do, what they can reasonably expect from me--in terms of what I can deliver. There is an understanding that they are building upon my approach to instruments, or they wouldn't have come through my door." ...and they better be prepared to dig deeply into their pockets. Individually made guitars aren't cheap: expect to pay 15% to 20% more for a hand built than for a Martin or Taylor's LIST prices on a similarly-appointed instrument. Individually-made steelstring flat-top prices average from $2000 to $3500 with the very top makers commanding as much as $4000. Top-quality classics and arch-tops, perhaps due to their smaller markets, get more: $3500 to $5000, with the top makers commanding as much as $10,000. Before you assume that these builders a price-gouging, stop to consider how many instruments they make a year: 12 to 24 on the average. And what the overhead costs are to supply and maintain a studio: $20- $30,000 a year. As high as they may seem, these prices are still less than vintage instruments, and classics by dead makers, which can command $15-$25,000 and even higher. Remember, too that dead makers such as Fleta and D'Angelico, were once live makers, like today's crop of better builders. ...and they better be prepared to wait. I don't know a single professional luthier that can deliver a guitar to a customer today in less than six months. Indeed, the norm for many of the builders quoted here is over a year, and some people are prepared to wait five, six, even ten years for the many prominent luthiers. Please note, however, that the length of the wait often--but doesn't always--betray the quality of the instruments or the skill of the makers that you are waiting for. Other factors come into play. Sometimes lightning strikes a young luthier: recent media exposure of a celebrity playing a little- known-maker's guitar can swamp him or her with work. Some builders make their guitars in a leisurely, un-rushed fashion and thus produce no more than five or six instruments a year. Others may be far more energetic and efficient,

and produce two, or even three a month. Your turn is likely to come up more quickly with the latter, than with the former. So don't jump to conclusions. The work must speak for itself. But regardless of the unique beauty and playability of the instruments, and regardless of the fascinating interaction with the maker, many players simply do not find the wait and the uncertainty of paying for an unseen guitar as something they want to put up with. For them, going to a Martin dealer, or to an acoustic shop and picking up a Santa Cruz, or a Taylor, or a Collings is the better option--and for the overwhelming number of high-end acoustic-guitar buyers, the only option. But this is changing now too. More and more, stores are buying or consigning guitars from individual makers. The number of large-city music stores and acoustic guitar parlors hanging Millards, Nickersons, Laskins, and Chapmans on their walls--usually in separate, reserved areas or behind glass-- is growing at an astounding rate. Recently, a large mail-order musical instrument dealer has broken new ground. Elderly Instruments, one of the largest mail-order instrument-catalog houses in the U.S. has made a bold commitment to the luthiery craft: their recent catalogue is featuring, for sale, the work of several notable individual luthiers. From an arcane, esoteric craft to mail- order catalogue item: who would deny that the ancient luthier's trade has entered the mainstream, and come of age?

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Box Inset A: What's in it for them?

What motivates these diligent artisans to pursue such an exhausting, and elusive craft. The very best among them perhaps clears $30 -50,000 a year, barely a middle-class income nowadays, and this after dedicating a lifetime to the craft. So what's really in it for them? MANUEL VELAZQUEZ, after forty-five years of guitar-making, "It is like a poison that enters your blood and never goes away. I am still a student, still in awe of the instrument and it's possibilities." GRIT LASKIN explains: "It blends my two loves together: music and working with wood. Once I got involved in the challenge of creating music out of chunks of trees, I clicked in, permanently. After twenty one years, it remains addictive. Comparatively speaking, its not lucrative, but you can't stop. Always, the next one is going to be better." MICHAEL MILLARD explains his commitment to the craft: The idea of dealing with a broad range of skills which involve woodworking, communication skills, artistic skills and alchemy, remains continually challenging. I'm perennially rewarded by the directness of the process and the clarity of the results Most handbuilders like to pin a design down that works and clone it forever. What I enjoy, however, is sorting out a group of diverse and sometimes conflicting criteria that a player brings, and synthesizing a workable design which satisfies all those expectations, and more. I treasure the freedom that this kind of work allows. I get to make my own schedule, I come and go as I please. It affords me flexibility and freedom." ALAN CHAPMAN jokes,"I started off trying to be a player but my legs went to sleep in proper playing position. I like to move around a little more, and I like less cerebral activity: I enjoy the physicality. Yes, you do make sacrifices, it is not a big money-making proposition. But I like involving myself with the aesthetics, the sound, the looks, constantly revising, constantly thinking about it. I love the competitive aspect: I love seeing someone's really fine instrument, and trying to do it better." BRAD NICKERSON enjoys interacting with musicians. "I make guitars for players. On the level of the craft itself, it is tremendously satisfying to have an idea and see it through to completion, and then to have it appreciation by fine musician. A big part of my satisfaction with this work is feeling that I've created something that a musician can use to further his or her creativity." JOHN MONTELEONE says, "trying to take wood and translate it into a musical instrument is an enormous, satisfying, challenge-- a challenge that is ongoing. When I finish one instrument, I'm already thinking of the next. There's always a great anticipation. Guitarmaking is like great sex, like an unending love affair."

----------------------------------------------------------------------- BOX INSET B: Defining our terms

It was once easy, in common conversation, to differentiate "hand- made" instruments from all the rest. The rest were "factory" or "production" guitars. Everyone knew what you were talking about. Like other hot-button, selling words (like "natural," and "organic") "hand-made" has been appropriated--and mis-appropriated--by marketing and sales departments over the years to describe...just about anything. More often now than ever, luthiers are seeing their traditional right to use the term challenged by the industry--for some reasons, no doubt, that are justifiable--but for cynical ones as well. Yes, "hands" do make all guitars. Manuel Velazquez' hands build a dozen and a half guitars per year--hands aided by a table saw, band saw and a drill press. C.F. Martin's neck-carvers skillfully carve thousands of necks a year, by hand, for Martin guitars. For that matter, the workers who assemble and box fifteen thousand guitars a month in Korea do so...with their hands. Large factories, taking their cue from luthiers, are now setting aside parts of their production and giving it over to in-house "custom shops," where skilled employees work to satisfy customer's individual predilections--usually in detail and appointments. So the boundaries between "hand-" and "machine-made" are fuzzy indeed, and getting more so each day. So the term "hand-made" or "hand-crafted" to remain useful, ought to be more strictly defined. Here I propose that to be "hand-made," an instrument must be made in an environment in which the primacy of hand tools is un-arguable. Power tools, when used, are used only to ensure accuracy during certain crucial steps in the process--as long as their use doesn't determine, change or compromise the original design. I propose the term "individually-made guitar" to distinguish an instrument that is designed by its actual maker, and whose parts are made up from the raw material and then individually voiced, assembled, finished and strung by that maker or by assistants trained by the maker. Finally, by these standards, a "luthier" is a solo-artisan who makes individually hand-crafted guitars.