By: Dan Koentopp
Imagine you’re looking for a piece of art to hang in your home. You have an idea of a certain style you’re looking for, the size and colors you think might look nice. You might even have specific details in mind regarding the pieces subject matter. At some point in the purchasing process you decide to go the route of a facsimile from a home supply store and, though it isn’t an original, it ends up being not all that cheap.
The piece of art fills the void on your wall or mantle, but the more you look at it, the more generic it seems. In the near future, you meet a local artist at a street fair and realize that, for a slightly larger investment, this artist could have made exactly what you had envisioned, with the added personal touch that is missing from the facsimile.
This scenario occurs more often than not when people are shopping for a new guitar.
Guitarists often fantasize about owning their dream guitar, and in today’s market filled with young guitar makers, this dream can be a reality more than ever before. When shopping for a new guitar, keep in mind that the goals of an individual maker and those of a factory are completely different when it comes to design and value. When you decide to cross the line from factory made guitars to an individual maker, you are being handed a menu of unlimited choices in the design and build of your instrument.
A musician’s connection with their guitar is very personal. This relationship is strengthened when they develop a relationship with the person who made their instrument. A good hand-made guitar has qualities, some hard to verbalize, that set it apart from those that are mass-produced in giant factories at home and abroad. A well-made guitar is very sensitive, has balance from string to string, a complex palette of color, and overall aesthetic appeal.
While factory made guitar companies are bigger than they’ve ever been in history, never before has the world experienced a greater number of individual makers advancing the future of guitar design, something that deserves a closer look.
The main difference between guitar-factories and custom makers are their goals. Even though large makers perform tedious quality checks and produce an end product that was well thought out, the main attention is focused on speed, repeatability, and durability.
Some factories claim that they have more handwork than other companies that rely on computerized machinery, but this factor really isn’t important to the company unless they are fast and efficient, while working at an accepted standard of precision.
This means that each guitar top, for a particular model, that is braced by a worker is done in exactly the same manner. As well, in order for these companies to prevent instruments from being returned, they must overbuild in order to ensure that they will be able to withstand fast delivery to any destination.
An individual guitar maker works with the notion that no two pieces of wood are the same. More of an artist than an assembly line, they apply their love of wood and craftsmanship to every step taken when building the guitar, from the beginning of the design process, all the way through to polishing out a finish. This enables a person’s work to grow over time in both quality and efficiency. Starting from picking out wood, the maker has their hands on the project at every stage. They can see, hear, and feel how the wood is developing over time.
One main goal of a guitar maker is to produce a very sensitive instrument that will perform at its greatest potential all the time. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of minute details that enable the maker to add slight changes to the guitar in order to achieve their envisioned goal. Depending on how a top feels and sounds, they will adjust how they thin the top, how the braces are shaped, how thin the ribs are, etc. A factory doesn’t have time to work this closely with the materials from start to finish, and even if extra attention is paid, these details are often kept within a wide range of factory specifications.
When a painter paints, there is an overall style in which they work. These styles change and develop as the artist grows, and they become the easiest way for someone to recognize their work. It’s the same for an instrument maker. A handcrafted guitar will have a sense of connected style and form throughout its parts, while leaving a fingerprint of the maker’s work on the overall design of the guitar.
Many people ask why 17th century Italian instruments are so magical. The allure of their sound and history are indeed magical, but the distinct style of the Cremonese makers set them aside. These string instruments were brought to life at a time when form was paramount, and mathematical relationships and golden rules were the backbone of design and construction.
When you order an instrument from a custom guitar maker you are gaining a very important relationship. The sole purpose of a private luthier is to make guitar players as happy as possible. Most handmade guitars are guaranteed for life against workmanship and can be repaired quickly and at no cost to the owner. As long as the maker is alive, and in business, you have a qualified doctor who cares about you and your guitar.
A custom guitar maker usually develops a personal relationship with their customers. On the other hand, a factory made guitar comes with a 1-800 number to a company’s customer service representative who knows nothing about the guitar you purchased. Forming a friendly relationship between maker and player provides the maker a way to understand you and your needs. This helps to ensure that the buyer gets the exact guitar that they desire, and not just a slight variation of a factory blueprint.
Many people do order custom guitars from a factory, and sometimes they turn out to be very good guitars. But, with the number of guitars that these companies crank out every week, it puts the odds in their favor of producing some level of good sounding instruments once in a while. However, it would simply be a stroke of luck that a particular piece of wood gets paired with another, and reacts well to the construction standards it goes through, producing a world-class guitar.
When these parameters line up and everything is in place, the result can produce a great instrument. But beware, a custom ordered guitar from a company will follow the same design guidelines that the company stands by, but with special do-dads and maybe better wood selection. The factory molds cannot be broken, and your specifications must lie within their custom options.
Right now is the golden age of guitar making. More and more young people are choosing to follow their heart and embark on a career of instrument design. The educated consumer benefits from this, because it opens up the opportunity for creating a better sounding, and better functioning guitar at a very competitive price.
Instead of redesigning a factory made product, young guitar makers are taking new ideas, both good and bad, and creating their own distinctive styles. The relationship between you and a guitar maker is very important. By begging the question, what is the best guitar for you, you are already starting the journey that will result in bringing your dream guitar to life.
Why not take advantage of the golden age of guitar making?