As I have done a fair amount of public speaking on the subject of guitars, and as well answered countless questions of all kinds regarding guitars, I feel my ability to convey my knowledge is well suited to writing articles on the subject. So why start with lutherie as a lifestyle? In my experience there has been some misunderstanding about who is a luthier, and what they do. Also, this should serve as a fine introduction of who I am without selling myself. Bearing this in mind, I aim to explain who the luthier is, and what they do and why (at least why I do what I do), so let’s begin.
Luthier; from the French word Luth for Lute, another stringed instrument in the same family as (and often considered one of the parents of) the guitar. The title luthier is a conjugation of the word lute, and -ier a french suffix tying the noun to a trade. Much like a window glazier, or a farrier (horse show fitting). So the definition of luthier would mean somebody who works with lutes. This may already seem a bit problematic as the demand for lute music is limited at best these days. dictionary.com (the reference for the above etymology) gives the definition as somebody who works with stringed instruments, such as violins. So Luthier is reserved for a violin maker or servicer? Well, no. I would argue that the guitar has a family tree type relationship to the lute, so why not use it?
If the lute itself is looked at briefly it does resemble a guitar in the fact that the neck bears frets, the strings are plucked and it is held in what is now commonly called the Spanish style, across the lap when seated, and across the chest when standing. While there are many examples of violin family instruments that bear frets, the debate over the use of the word need not go on.
In the past I have received all manner of question or comment about the title Luthier. My sister claims she was asked if it had anything to do with a church (Luthier, Lutheran, I get it). I have been told that unless I am working on violins I should avoid the title all together, and a range of things in between. I have come to the following solution, in a move to improve the guitar vernacular. When asked if I know somebody who handles violin bow rehairings, I say “Yes, I know a violin luthier who offers that service.” I have at times referred to myself as a”guitar luthier” I find by making this distinction there is no gray area in which to get lost. Besides, Piano Technician may be an improvement over Piano Tuner, but “Guitar repair technician” feels a bit cumbersome in use.
This brings up the next point, what exactly is it a luthier does? Well they luth! really though, being that the word implies a trade attached to an object the luthier does just that, works with stringed instruments. In most cases it refers to somebody who builds instruments. Now admittedly there are quiet a lot of fine instruments that are produced partially if not entirely in factory settings, however I would be hesitant to say those factories have robo-luthiers. So the next question to ask, and perhaps to ask of the person handling your guitar repairs, do you build? Or, Have you built? A professional repair technician may not be currently building an inventory of instruments, but has built in the past. As well, another individual may assemble guitars from factory produced parts. Which one of these is a luthier? Tough to say, and I would rather avoid generalizing. In most cases somebody who did and/or does build instruments handles some manner of repairs as part of their work. Some folks focus on warranty work for the instruments they build, others handle repairs on all kind of instruments. The other side of this is that most people who handle repairs either professionally or for their bandmates want to build an instrument, even if it is only from parts, or a kit. Basically I see it this way; all luthiers repair, but not all technicians luth. The point at which the line is drawn between the two will depend on both the professional and her/his customers.
Now to the last question for this article, why?
Why not, would be my first answer. Having been a self taught guitarist I, like most people who play, found that I could make adjustments, or take my electric guitar apart, and even refinish the body (I strongly discourage anybody from trying that without first consulting many professionals, learning the heath risks, and investing in the proper supplies).
Love would be the real answer as I see it, as cheesy as it may sound, there is a certain amount of love involved in lutherie. This for some luthiers it is a love of music and musicians, and so their trade is rooted in a love of helping others. They provide great sounding and easy playing instruments and then get out of the way. On the other hand they may more often provide excellent repairs so somebody’s favorite guitar can be kept in regular use. A love of guitars as instruments may be the driving force. A love for innovation, as a single individual is equally capable of changing the guitar on a fundamental level, as the household names in the industry are. There’s an African proverb that says; any one who feels they are too small to make an impact never spent a night with a mosquito. Or it could be a love of fine skilled woodworking as a way to pay respect to the trees that stood silently guarding the forests long before our parents or grandparents were born.
For me, the love of, and the love for lutherie resides in all of these. Knowing that the wood I have used to build guitars came from something that was born long before me imparts a sense of responsibility. It almost feels like I owe it to the trees. The satisfaction a customer of mine has when whatever was their trouble slips away and they too slip into playing their instrument without being impeded. This is something that makes the repair work rewarding. The potential for innovation drives me to deeply consider the guitar as a whole. I have had discussions regarding things like string action geometry, inharmonicity, and a string’s envelope of oscillation, just to look at the strings alone. These discussions have lead me to desire innovations in repairs, and in building. And of course, I simply really like guitars. I have a soft spot for all guitars, especially some of the mid to low level arch top guitars of 50 to 70 years ago; Kay, Harmony, SuperTone(there’s something about them I just like). I also really enjoy my 1971 Guild D-25 (one of the first with a spruce top), and the first guitar I built; an ash bodied electric. At the end of the day, the guitar is my instrument.
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