I finished making my fourth guitar just a couple of days before Christmas. It is, in many respects, very much like the previous two. It’s based on the same Barbero plan, has Cypress back and sides, and this time a European spruce top and walnut for the bridge, head veneer and bindings. It’s 650mm scale rather than 660mm. I built it for a friend, Andy, who heard guitar #3 and wanted one like it. The only instructions I received from Andy were to use mechanical pegs (I opted for Wittner pegs) and that he liked the square head shape of my previous two guitars.
Overall, I am pleased with the outcome as it is very consistent with guitar #3. The air resonance of #4 is 90.3Hz (F#-42 cents) compared to 90.2Hz (F#-44 cents) of #3, and the weight is 1247g compared to 1189g of #3. The mechanical tuners weigh an additional 34g over the ebony turners used on #3, so taking that into account, the overall total weight difference is just 24g.
I used hide glue for the first time which was difficult at first but became easier as I got used to it. It gels very quickly and needs to stay quite runny (i.e. warm) to achieve coverage over large areas. I didn’t feel confident enough using it to joint the top and back, nor to glue the bridge with it after having french polished the guitar, but I’ll definitely continue to use it for certain tasks such as making the rosette and gluing the linings, purfling and binding, when the quick grab time is useful.
My workmanship is slowly improving. Throughout the build process, I’m often reminded of David Pye’s concept of the workmanship of risk vs. workmanship of certainty, whereby the use of jigs and machine tools can increase the the certainty of the outcome, compared to workmanship that relies more on hand tools, individual judgement and the maker’s skill and is therefore more risky. I work in a very free manner but a few more jigs and templates would be helpful and improve the accuracy of my work. When I interviewed luthiers in their workshops during the course of my research, it was very common to see a variety of jigs and a small number of machine tools. Machine tools are mainly used to reduce the labour required, whereas jigs improve the accuracy and consistency of the work. One of the reasons apprenticeships in lutherie are so rare is that machines have replaced the labour that apprentices used to be employed for. The labour time that I put into an instrument is of little consequence because I’m not trying to make money and I enjoy the physical and leisurely pace of work, but I do want to make some more jigs before I make the next guitar (which will also be a flamenco guitar for another Andy).
There was a point while making this guitar that I felt like I was achieving more autonomy in my work. I wasn’t constantly referring to the DIY books or previous notes quite so much and I am beginning to intuit what comes next in the process; not entirely – not like the luthiers I spoke to who have all the measurements in their head – but I’m experiencing a growing sense of taking the lead, rather than being led. As someone who only makes a couple of instruments a year, I think it will be a while before I fully embody the process of making.
On Saturday 5th October, I took part in Lincoln Fun Palace.
“Fun Palaces is an ongoing campaign for cultural democracy, with an annual weekend of action every October. The campaign promotes culture at the heart of community and community at the heart of culture. The weekend of action uses the combination of arts, craft, science, tech, digital, heritage and sports activities, led by local people for local people, sharing their own passions and skills, as a catalyst for community-led transformation, with active participation for all ages.”
My contribution was ‘How to Make a Spanish Guitar’.
“Do you know how a guitar is made? How do you learn the knowledge and skills to make a guitar? Where do you start? This session will show you how an acoustic guitar is made and discuss the different ways people teach and learn the craft of guitar-making.”
I took a range of items from my workshop, including specialist tools such as bending iron, circle cutter, go-bar deck, hide glue and small planes as well as all the tonewood needed to make a guitar. I also took the first two guitars I made and a range of books and magazines that I’ve accumulated while doing my research on classical guitar-making. A series of images from my research looped behind me on a display as I talked about the different items I had brought with me.
The two demonstrations were very different: the morning was busy with young children and their parents. There was lots of curiosity and interest from children who didn’t realise you could make glue from animal bone (yuck!) or bend wood on a hot iron (don’t touch!). They stuck wood together with hot hide glue and saw how quickly it grabbed. I planed a bit of Cypress so they could smell wood that had come all the way from Turkey. I showed them spruce felled from old trees in the Italian Alps and demonstrated how to glue struts to the soundboard with a go-bar deck. One of the dads played both the guitars I had brought with me and noted how different the flamenco felt compared to the classical (there’s about 500g difference in weight). I told them about Newark College, which is near to Lincoln, and gave them brochures for the courses in musical instrument making.
In the afternoon, I had just two people visit: a retired couple who had recently moved to Lincoln. Like me, the gentleman had made a few guitars and we swapped notes. He’d learned a different methodology based on Trevor Gore’s books. I showed him how a Spanish heel is made and how the body is assembled around the neck, whereas his method uses a bolt-on neck, so the neck and body are made separately and then joined in the final stages of the build process. It took us both a while to realise that we approached the joining of the body and neck in a completely different way – a reminder that the design of the instrument and the methodology of making it are intrinsic to one-another. Learn one structural design and you learn a methodology that it requires; you make the jigs that make the methodology more efficient, and you learn the hand skills and knowledge that are required to practice the methodology. It’s so obvious, it goes unacknowledged until you come across a different way of doing something and have to deconstruct the process in order to explain it. In doing so, I was reminded about the benefits and limitations of each method compared to the other and in the back of my mind, I was thinking about what it would take to switch approaches.
There are the practical and economic considerations such as having to re-tool in order to change the build process and learn a new method when I still don’t feel like I’ve fully embodied my current approach. There’s also a decision about which of the different craft traditions you want to align your work with. Is it the 19th century workshops of Spain, or Austria, where Johann Georg Staufer used a bolt-on neck, or the C.F. Martin (German and earlier Staufer) method of using a dovetail joint?
When I interviewed guitar-makers across the UK, some people felt quite strongly about maintaining the continuity of the Spanish methods, not only advocating the practical and musical benefits but also identifying with a cultural history of making, an admiration for the instruments it has produced, and identification with past luthiers. Not all makers expressed a strong cultural affiliation though. For some, there’s an appeal to sticking with what one knows best and continually refining it. The word ‘efficiency’ was used sometimes to express such refinement that it had become an art. In the example of the Spanish heel, some makers prefer its elegance and the way it joins the body and neck into a single, undetachable whole.
I went to the Fun Palace simply wanting to share my love of lutherie and the research I am doing with people in my city. I left the Fun Palace having been reminded of the rich conversations that can be provoked by a single technique, tool or piece of tonewood.
My research into the ‘rebirth’ of classical guitar-making in Britain (1947-57) has led me to read around the literature on the ‘amateur’ and ‘autodidact’. There is not much literature to work with, especially concerning the latter, but it has been useful to help understand that early period of twentieth century guitar-making and some of the key people involved.
That amateurs were at the heart of the early classical guitar world and, indeed, classical guitar-making, is evident from the literature of the period and has been asserted by John Huber (1994, 69) who wrote that “completely in keeping with its amateur legacy in performance, the guitar has proven to be without prejudice of any kind against amateur makers.” Huber makes the important point that many professional players, such as John Williams and Julian Bream, have performed on “instruments that would in any other profession be defined as amateur made.”
Reference to the role of amateurs can be found in BMG magazine, too. For example, in BMG November 1949, an unidentified author rejects the criticism of amateurs being ‘dabblers’ and argues that often the only difference between amateur and professional guitar players is the way they present themselves to the public and that the amateur can achieve the presentation of the professional through repeated practice and challenging themselves.
An extended defence of the amateur, written by Jacques Barzun, the French-American intellectual, was published in Guitar Review (1955 #18). In his essay, ‘The indispensable amateur‘, he argues how the amateur (a ‘lover’ of something) exists in “dialectical opposition” to the orthodoxy of the professional. He claims that the “The role of the amateur is to keep insisting on the primacy of style, spirit, musicianship, meaning over any technical accomplishment.” Yes, the amateur “wastes time, rediscovers what is known, and makes colossal blunders” but their achievements outweigh such characteristics; their faults are “harmless”. Yes, the amateur draws most of his knowledge from the institutions of professional society but he/she gives more than they take. He concludes by saying: “We may complain and cavil at the anarchy which is the amateur’s natural element, but in soberness we must agree that if the amateur did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.”
The relationship between the amateur and professional and the legitimacy of their respective knowledge is discussed by later writers, such as Pierre Bourdieu (2010) and Edward Said (1994, 82-83). Bourdieu categorises the self-teaching that takes place outside of the formal educational system as ‘legitimate’ or ‘illegitimate’ types of autodidactism, referring to whether the “extra-curricular culture” (i.e. autodidactism) is attributable to the individual’s existing academic qualifications or not. For Bourdieu, the cultural measure of amateur knowledge is accredited professional knowledge. Said argues that the amateur intellectual is motivated by “care and affection” rather than “profit and selfish, narrow specialization”. They have a different set of values and prerogatives to the professional intellectual, who would do well to adopt the “more lively and radical” spirit of the amateur; “instead of doing what one is supposed to do one can ask why one does it, who benefits from it, how can it reconnect with a personal project and original thoughts.”
This dialectical opposition between the professional and amateur is useful at a conceptual level, but in reality, as all authors recognise, we can find characteristics of the amateur in the professional and aspirations towards professionalism among amateurs. When studying guitar-makers and no doubt other artisans, the weakness of this dialectical opposition is quite evident to me and better explained by Robert Stebbin’s theory of ‘serious leisure’ (1992), which recognises the contribution the amateur makes both in intellectual and materials terms, without necessarily making it their livelihood.
The common distinction between the professional and the amateur is that the professional earns the majority of their income from the activity while the amateur does not. In my survey of over 100 classical guitar-makers in Britain, I asked:
“Is lutherie your main occupation? i.e. do you rely on lutherie for all, or the majority, of your personal income?”
Of the 60 luthiers who replied to the question, 43% said it was not their main occupation, suggesting that ‘amateurs’ have a significant role in British classical guitar-making. However, the number of individuals is probably less important than the number of instruments made and as we would expect, where it is their main occupation, luthiers make about ten-times more instruments (and this takes into account the number of years they have been making).
Finally, I want to add that the literature on amateurs vs. professionals frequently refers to the ‘freedom’ of the amateur, compared to the regulation of life that full-time work imposes on individuals. Andre Gorz’s distinction between heteronomous work and autonomous work offers a way of understanding how people could choose to spend their time, whether in professional or amateur pursuits. For Gorz, the objective is to reduce the amount of necessary, unavoidable, heteronomous work as much as possible thereby allowing one to autonomously volunteer our free time to things that are socially fulfilling and that we love. For Gorz, and for Marx before him, wealth is not simply measured by money, but by how we spend our time. What is interesting to me is that among the 30 guitar-makers I have interviewed there seems to be an implicit understanding of Gorz’s distinction as many have chosen lutherie because it is a way of overcoming the exclusive distinction between regulated, heteronomous work and free, autonomous activity. Yes, professional makers depend on making an income from their productivity, but for the most part, they retain the amateur’s love of their craft and the relative freedom that self-employment and hand craft give them. They spend most of their time doing necessary work that they love and continue to learn from.
My third guitar is a 660mm scale flamenco blanca and like the last one, it’s based on Courtnall’s Barbero flamenco plan, with an eye on Courtnall’s 1933 Santos Hernandez plan and Brune’s 1951 Barbero plan, too. Like the previous two, it took me about six months to complete during evenings, weekends and holidays. I was asked to make it for Rob Johns, my guitar teacher, who liked the previous instrument that I had made for myself. As it happened, I loaned him #2 for much of the time I was working on #3, so it was nice to deliver his guitar and have my own back.
The back and sides are cypress, the top is engelmann spruce, the neck is Spanish cedar with a rocklite fingerboard, and the bridge is Madagascan rosewood. It differs slightly from #2 in that the back braces and end block are spruce, rather than Spanish cedar and the previous fingerboard was rosewood. I tried to advance my decorative skills a little more with #3 by making and inlaying a red/green/white purfling and back inlay that carries onto the heel. The rosette is a copy of a Barbero rosette. Overall, the workmanship is an improvement on the last guitar although not at the level I am satisfied with.
The sound of the instrument will change as it is played in, but first impressions are very satisfying. My hope is to make flamenco guitars that have similar characteristics to the sound of this wonderful Siguirilla, played by Paco del Gastor. Turn up your speakers and listen to the first minute (or more!)1
My guitar has a very punchy ‘cut’, decent bass and clear trebles, and just a little sustain – more sustain than the previous guitar. Notably, the instrument is very loud. I’ll try to get a recording of it after it’s had a few weeks of being played.
The overall weight of the instrument is 1189g compared to 1119g for #2. I deliberately chose a pale, lightweight piece of cedar (with graphite rod and beech peg bushings) for the neck (448kg/m3) and adjusted the thickness of the back, sides and top according to the % difference in density compared to #2, but it still ended up being 70g heavier. The rocklite fretboard (801kg/m3) is around the same density of some rosewoods. The back and sides (626kg/m3) are 1.8mm and 1.6mm respectively, and the top (424kg/m3) is 2.2mm around the lower bout gradually moving to 2.5mm in the upper bout and 3mm around the soundhole. The very low profile rosewood bridge (980kg/m3) weighed 16g with the bone on the tieblock attached. The bridge measures 6.1mm in front of the saddle with 1.7mm wings.
My obsession with the weight of the instrument is partly because of the success of the previous guitar in terms of how it sounds and the weight of that instrument was influenced by an observation in Gore & Gilet’s books on the characteristics of classic sounding flamenco guitars, which they observed were around 1100g. My obsession with weight is also because without the cumulative intuitive knowledge, based on the experience of making dozens of instruments, I’m relying heavily on the basic material properties of the wood that I can easily record and adjust. For my next guitar, I intend to measure the stiffness of the wood as well as the density.
The body resonance of the previous guitar is 92.189Hz (F#2 -6 cents) and a top resonance of 191.78 (G3 – 38 cents). The new guitar has a resonance of 90.17Hz (F#2 -44 cents) and the top is 191.78Hz (G3 -38 cents). Almost identical. The body resonance on #3 guitar is in the middle of two fretted notes (F and F#) which is the ideal place for it to be so as to avoid ‘wolf’ notes.
Action and saddle height
In addition to the weight, another technical consideration was to improve on the action for this guitar because I ended up re-fretting guitar #2 to eventually achieve what I wanted. First, I looked for what data I could find and compiled a spreadsheet of 55 flamenco guitars, recording the saddle height and action at the 12th fret. The data came from the Solera Flamenca website. Here’s a summary of the data:
Mean action and saddle height: 2.66mm and 7.78mm
Median action and saddle height: 2.6mm and 7.8mm
Mode action and saddle height: 3mm and 7.6mm
I realise that the data on each guitar is not necessarily how it left the workshop, but reflects the set up by the seller. I’m also assuming the data is accurate because people are spending large sums of money to buy instruments online and unseen, so when they receive them, the set up needs to be as described. I believe the action on that website is recorded with the bass E string.
Data on the weight of those guitars is not often recorded but looking at the weight of 16 cypress guitars from famous makers, the numbers suggest that Gore and Gilet’s sample of six guitars of around 1100g were slightly lighter than average:
Mean = 1200g
Median = 1210g
Mode = 1290g
The scale length across the 55 instruments is consistent:
Mean = 655mm
Median = 655mm
Mode = 655mm
The nut width is pretty consistent, too:
Mean = 52.9mm
Median = 53mm
Mode = 52mm
I was interested to see whether there was anything characteristic about the set up of older instruments.
For the seven pre-WWII guitars, the average action is 2.5 and saddle height is 7.6mm.
For 28 guitars up to 1969, the average action is 2.6 and saddle height is 7.8mm.
For 13 guitars made after 1980, the average action is 2.8 and saddle height is 8.1mm.
Again, the action and saddle height may have been adjusted and it’s quite possible that the nut and saddle have been replaced on some of the older instruments, but there does seem to be a trend towards a slightly higher saddle and action.
In the journal, American Lutherie, Richard Brune discusses flamenco setup and writes:
“Originally, all Andalusian Torres models had a low action, about 1/8″ or considerably less between the 12th fret and the string. In the 20th century beginning around the 1930s and continuing after WWII, due to the influence of Segovia and other classical players who were playing larger halls, the standard ‘classical’ action began to increase, culminating in the impossibly high actions seen on Ramirez instruments from the 1960s to the present. However, action is always a matter of individual preference. Many modern flamenco players use a very high action, as did Ramon Montoya for precisely the same reasons, to avoid buzzing. More important is the consideration of neck angle and setup with negative, neutral, or positive relief (back bow, straight, or up bow) which greatly affect the ‘percussive’ quality of the traditional flamenco guitar. Corollary to this is the height of the strings above the soundboard at the bridge, which again was always very low for all Spanish instruments until the advent of nylon strings in the 1950s. This relates to torque on the top, which directly relates to how thin the top can be made, and how lightly it can be braced. Again, traditionally the Spanish guitars were all very lightly constructed, but since the 1930s, beginning with Hauser, classical guitars have gotten thicker and more substantial, with higher actions, taller bridges, and heavier bracing.”
Brune, R. (2000) American Lutherie #61.
So, with all of this in mind, I wanted to more accurately design the action and saddle height into the build of guitar #3, aiming for a saddle height of 7mm and action at the 12th fret of 2.5mm, which I know Rob would appreciate. Just as importantly, I wanted the string height at the 1st fret to be as low as possible, too, without the open strings buzzing. This involved setting a neck angle of 1.5mm into the solera, tapering the underside of the fingerboard slightly between the 12-19th frets to fit the angle, and gluing the slotted fingerboard onto the neck. I then made and temporarily fitted the finished bridge, nut and saddle and planed the top of the fingerboard until a straight edge was 3.5mm above the surface, which would result in action of 2.5mm above 1mm fretwire. I also had to take into account the 2mm dome of the soundboard (which collapses to under 1mm without string tension using my chosen bracing pattern) and anticipate the amount the strings would pull the soundboard upwards. This put me in the region of where I wanted to be so I had enough room to make adjustments to the saddle and nut when the instrument was finally strung up. The finished instrument has a saddle of 7mm and action of 2.5mm, as I had planned.
Although a seemingly trivial thing, the golpeador or tap plate is something that I’ve spent a long time trying to figure out a method for fitting. There are basically three methods: using self-adhesive plastic sheets from luthier suppliers; using blank plastic sheet (0.15mm) from craft suppliers, cutting it to size and shape and gluing with white PVA glue; or using epoxy rather than PVA. I’ve tried the PVA and epoxy methods before on mine and other people’s guitars and prefer the epoxy method that Aaron Green outlined. The PVA never dried thoroughly for me, whereas the West System epoxy bonds slow enough to get all the air bubbles out and position the plastic perfectly, and then dries hard to produce a nice glassy tap. I like this approach, also, because it feels like the fitting of the golpeador is part of the build process – something I make – rather than an accessory that I fit. Incidentally, gluing the golpeador didn’t change the overall air resonance of the guitar, whereas gluing on the bridge lowered it by about 70 cents.
The next guitar
My next guitar will be another flamenco blanca but this time using non-tropical and local wood. Flamenco guitars are traditionally made from cypress because, as Richard Brune argues, it is the only suitable tonewood native to Spain and was therefore cheaper to produce instruments from. In the mid-to-late 19th century, when the Spanish guitar design was established by Antonio de Torres, most players were Gypsy flamenco players who required cheap, loud, percussive guitars to play in the cafes. The flamenco guitar is therefore basically a folk instrument and I want to see what I can produce that is faithful to my own context. I also want to see what a Western red cedar top will sound like using the same Barbero design. The back and sides will be aromatic Cedar of Lebanon, which is light and strong and looks similar to cypress (the set I have is 503kg/m3 and comes from a tree cut in the UK). The neck will be lime from the UK (545kg/m3), the fretboard will be English bog oak (922kg/m3), and the bridge (630kg/m3), bindings and head veneer will be English walnut. The WRC top I have is 347kg/m3. I’ll report back in 6 months!
My research looks at how luthiers learn and teach their craft. In addition to documentary research, I am talking with experienced guitar-makers across the country about their learning and teaching experiences and conducting a case study of the Musical Instrument Craft degree at Lincoln College (Newark), the only course of its kind in the UK.
The photograph shows Manu (left) and Adrian (right) working together in a race to build a guitar. To save time, they are sharing the task of scraping the sides of a guitar smooth. The race between two teams is held early in the academic year to enculturate new students and promote peer learning. It is tiring but fun, too. New students can observe more experienced students and participate in the making of an entire instrument in just a few days, whereas it could take them a year to build a guitar of their own.
I recently finished making my second guitar, a ‘flamenco blanca’, or a traditional, lightweight, nylon-stringed guitar made from Cypress, Spruce and Cedar. It largely follows Courtnall’s 1950 Barbero plan, but with an eye on Courtnall’s 1933 Santos Hernandez plan and Brune’s 1951 Barbero plan, too. Studying the three plans offered a great deal of information about what makes a traditional flamenco guitar sound the way it does and the different design choices available to the maker.
I also studied Gore and Gilet’s books for any references to flamenco guitar design and found their analysis of six vintage flamenco guitars to be extremely useful. It gave me a couple of key design goals: to build an instrument that weighs around 1100g and with air and top resonances within the ranges they identify.
Finally, I wanted the sound of the instrument to be very dry and percussive with a loud, short, ‘cut’ when appropriately played. I also like to hear the strings buzz under the control of the player. This video of luthier, Richard Brune, playing a 1970 Manuel Reyes guitar has been a constant source of inspiration:
I built this guitar for myself, wanting to learn to play flamenco but not having an instrument designed for that style of playing or sound. The first guitar I made, a contemporary classical design, is completely unsuited to flamenco. As Gore and Gilet write in their book:
“The flamenco ‘cut’ is provided by the high mobility of the top, which contributes to high excursions of the soundboard and the necessarily low sustain relies on air damping and energy diffusing into the low mass sides and back via an impedance matched top and sides junction; exactly the opposite of our objective for all other types of guitar.” (p.1-91)
Based on their analysis of six vintage instruments, Gore and Gilet suggest that a good traditional sounding flamenco guitar will have an air resonance below 100Hz and a top resonance of around 180Hz (between F and F#) or around 190Hz (between F# and G). They suggest a bridge of no more than 15g, back and sides that are no thicker than 2mm and an overall weight of around 1100g.
Throughout my time making this guitar, I kept an eye on the weight and density of every piece of wood, as well as the overall weight as it came together. The soundboard is made from Engelmann Spruce, thinned to 2.5mm in the lower bout area. The bridge is Madagascan Rosewood, weighing 15g, the Cypress back and sides are 2mm and 1.5mm respectively. The beautifully figured fretboard, head veneer, binding and pegs are all rosewood. The finished instrument with strings and golpeador weighs 1119g, has an air resonance of 88.15Hz (F2 +16.62 cents) and a top resonance of 189.76 (F#3 +44 cents). 1 Here’s a graph of the tap tone data:
And here’s the finished instrument.
I’m pleased with the outcome and the instrument sounds as I had hoped it would. Of course, the workmanship could be improved and I made a number of small mistakes along the way that needed rectifying, especially early on. The main thing I wish I had rectified in the build process is the saddle height. I had drawn out the guitar beforehand to determine the string height and neck angle and opted for a flat (no angle) neck, a scale length of 660mm and no fretboard tapering. I calculated that I could get a saddle height of 9mm and action at the 12th fret of 2.25mm.2 However, the finished setup is a saddle height of 10mm and an action of 2.25mm.3
The whole experience made me realise that although it was my second guitar, it was in fact the first guitar I was making on my own without direction and supervision from a teacher. In craft work like this, the experience of having to think for myself, face my own errors of judgement or execution and learn how to correct or live with my mistakes, was part of the process of learning, as well as a useful source of humility. Even with all of the detailed plans and scientific information at hand, I still had to rely on my own intuition and relatively inexperienced feel for the wood and tools. Fortunately, I’ve been asked to make the same guitar for someone else and so have the chance to improve on the same design.
This is a selected, English-language bibliography of literature about or directly relevant to classical guitar making (lutherie). It relates to the making of the modern classical (‘Spanish’) guitar, i.e. the design of instrument going back to Antonio de Torres in the mid-19th century, not the steel-stringed (‘folk’) guitar (although I acknowledge the overlap, but want to keep it focused). There is a lot of literature aimed at or about players of the classical guitar, much of which is not included here unless it is likely to be of interest to luthiers. Finally, there is a constantly growing number of articles published in scientific journals that could also be listed here but on the whole have not been included. Books in the ‘Science’ section offer a sufficiently in-depth discussion of acoustics, and structural engineering and make reference to the peer-reviewed literature.
Suggested additions from enthusiasts, luthiers and organologists are very welcome in the comment box below. Thank you.
Over the past six months, I’ve been making a classical guitar. It’s been a really wonderful experience and perhaps the most satisfying educational experience of all, to have learned a complete process of making that results in an instrument that I can use and enjoy. I’ve learned how to make a concert-level instrument, one-to-one with an experienced luthier, teacher and author of the established reference book on the subject, Making Master Guitars.
A desire to ‘work with my hands’ has been a recurring impulse over the last decade or more but circumstances hadn’t been right until recently. For the last two years, I have been receiving tuition from Rob Johns to learn how to play the classical guitar and earlier last year I began to notice a series of new instruments pass through my teacher’s studio. They were experiments in a new structural (internal) design of concert guitar that he and luthier, Roy Courtnall, were co-designing and I was privileged to be able to play them each week and discuss their musical attributes and craftsmanship with Rob during my lesson. Then, one day in the Spring, it occurred to me that I had to make a guitar for myself – there was no question about it – I lived just minutes away from a highly regarded luthier/author/teacher whose guitars I’d been playing for several months. From that point on I started to make the arrangements and borrowed £5000 to pay for it all: tuition, tools, wood and a thorough clear-out and refurbishment of my garden shed workshop. From July, I visited Roy’s home and spent, on average, a day each weekend working in his workshop on my guitar. 26 days (over six months) later, it’s now finished and I’m planning my next one – this time on my own. I documented the process thoroughly the first time around, and with that experience and his book, I feel a mixture of excitement, apprehensiveness and sufficient confidence.
Apart from learning to make a guitar, I also learned from Roy something about the tradition of classical guitar-making in the UK; enough to make me want to find out more when I wasn’t in the workshop. Again, I found myself in a rather unique position, being taught one-to-one by a luthier who was the author of a standard reference book on the subject and who established the UK’s premier guitar-making course at Newark College, just a half-hour drive from where I live. Roy was an autodidact who had carefully researched and beautifully written a book for other autodidacts; he had established a formal, accredited programme of lutherie within an institutional setting, and was now teaching one-to-one in the style of a traditional apprenticeship. When I started to look around, I found that one or more of these three approaches were typical for all classical guitar-makers. Here’s a list of UK luthiers I have been compiling and a corresponding map I am plotting.
This preliminary research has identified what we might think of as three categories of ‘vocational training’: Self-taught (at home), one-to-one (in a professional workshop) and as a group (in an institutional setting), or rather:
autodidacticism (where individuals learn alone by trial and error with the use of published books and instrument plans);
an apprenticeship model (where a student works one-to-one with an experienced luthier for an extended period of time); and
college programmes, where cohorts of students learn as a group on accredited and non-accredited courses.
This is interesting enough in itself, but then I was listening to the radio while in my refurbished workshop and there was a programme that discussed some recent research about ‘endangered crafts’. I wondered where lutherie stood on the list and found that it was deemed ‘currently viable’. That was a relief, but a number of issues relating to education and training have been identified as threatening the tradition. These include the difficulties of continuing training after completing a college course; college education only prepares individuals for further on-the-job training and self-directed learning. Securing such a position after college is difficult because it’s often not economical for experienced luthiers to take on apprentices/trainees; luthiers struggle to make a living and cannot afford to be spending time teaching someone as well as providing them with an income. Consequently, the traditional apprenticeship model is now very rare. Also, college courses are at risk because the numbers of students required to make them financially viable means that they are closing or accept too many students which, according to Radcliffe, has a detrimental effect on the quality of training.
Reading more broadly, I learned that according to research by the Craft Council, since 2008 there has been a significant decline in the number of young people studying crafts at school and in further education; there are persistently low numbers of formal apprenticeships; there has been a rapid decline in the number of craft-based HE courses; and there has been an increase in BAME students and non-UK domiciled students studying craft in HE.
So, I am embarking on a relatively new area of research for me. Of course, there are some, mainly conceptual, continuities with the work I have been doing on ‘Student as Producer’ and the pedagogic relationship; craft approaches to technology in higher education; non-alienating forms of work and ownership of the means of production. My work on co-operative higher education will continue, but as part of the Co-operative University Forum and Co-operative Higher Education Network.
In terms of my new focus, there is a range of related literature but no academic study of the teaching and learning (i.e. development and transmission of the tradition) of lutherie in the UK has been undertaken. I am interested in the history, but also very much on the different contemporary modes of lutherie education, the variety of pedagogical models, syllabi and institutional and non-institutional environments where the teaching and learning takes place.
The questions that I have in mind are:
How has the experience, knowledge and skills (i.e. craft) of classical guitar-making in the UK been transmitted since the early 20th century? Can a ‘genealogy’ of luthiers be established?
What has been the role of colleges/institutions in the education and training of aspiring luthiers? What are the current risks and challenges that such institutions face?
What is the contemporary experience of lutherie students on formal programmes of study? Who are they? How are they taught? What are their motivations and aspirations? What challenges do they face after graduation?
What role has autodidacticism (i.e. self-taught luthiers) played in the development and maintenance of the tradition of classical guitar-making? What can we learn about the experiences of autodidacts and the literature (e.g. books, magazines, internet forums) that they draw upon to teach themselves.
Clearly it will require a study of historical data and literature (archives, books and trade magazines) to understand the 20th century history of UK classical guitar making, how the knowledge and skills of the craft has been transmitted, the role of institutions, and who the significant teachers have been up to the present day and the reasons for their significance.
The historical research will inform biographical research of luthiers who are still working or living, with an emphasis on how and from whom they learned, who they may have taught, and further issues relating to the teaching, learning and transmission of the craft.
A third part of the research will be a case study of the guitar-making course at Newark College. The aim here is to understand the nature of teaching and learning in this setting, the design and content of syllabi, and the issues and challenges of lutherie education in an institutional setting.
Well, that’s the initial plan. While you’re here, why not watch a fascinating film of José Romanillos, one of the most important luthiers of the 20th century, making a guitar in Wiltshire in 1980. He taught himself with a 32 page book by A. P. Sharpe, published in 1957, which is very modest by comparison with more recent texts, to say the least.
Among us, he was known as ‘Piatigorsky’, not Alexander or Professor Piatigorsky. During my time as an undergraduate at SOAS, he left an impression on me – his remarkable breadth of scholarship and irreverence for the profane – that I am grateful for.
Piatigorsky was a professor at the London School of Oriental and African studies (SOAS) until his retirement in 2001. (Sir Isaiah Berlin had intervened to ensure his appointment after he fled the USSR.) The topics on which he wrote ranged from the failures of totalitarian communism to Buddhist thought and even to Freemasonry. Piatigorsky was also a talented linguist – he compiled the first Russian-Tamil dictionary – and a novelist. Source.
Piatigorsky disliked traditional academic jargon and for most of his life he upheld the principle that scholars should publish as little as possible on the grounds that publishing interrupts thinking. His lecture style was lively and distinctive: he was able to speak with considerable effect about the most abstruse and difficult concepts. Pacing back and forth, smoking, when it was still permitted, he sometimes stopped to observe his cigarette as it burned, pausing before making the next point. He was never known to consult notes. Source.
a man who was widely considered to be one of the more significant thinkers of the age and Russia’s greatest philosopher…
Sasha joined Soas in 1975 as a lecturer, initially in the history department. Sasha loved Soas; and, to an extent, Soas loved Sasha, although his eccentric dress-style, bohemian manners, thick Russian accent and overt intellectualism bewildered many of his colleagues. But Soas in general, unsurprisingly, did not really know what this Russian, Jewish, Buddhist, philosopher, historian, intellectual, linguist (he knew Sanskrit, Tamil, Pali, Tibetan, German, Russian, French and English) and writer was all about. From his obituary (2010) in the Guardian:
There is no doubt that Piatigorsky was a brilliant lecturer. He never referred to written notes, but delivered what always appeared to be carefully crafted and absorbing talks in a fluent, almost literary form of English. He spoke loudly and clearly, but with a thick, drawling Russian accent, as he paced animatedly about the room. Source.
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