My latest guitar follows a similar lightweight design to the previous four, only this time I chose to use different tonewoods and opted for a slotted headstock. The soundboard is Western Red Cedar; back and sides of Cedar of Lebanon; a Bog Oak fretboard; Lime neck; and Walnut bridge, binding and head veneer.
The following recordings are unrehearsed pieces taken with my phone, played by Rob Johns. The strings are D’Addario EJ45 normal tension.
I especially enjoyed working with Cedar of Lebanon, Walnut and Lime. The Cedar of Lebanon is very similar to Cypress, the traditional wood for flamenco guitars. The density of my set is 503 kg/m3 and I thinned the back and sides to about 2mm. It bends well and has an amazing fragrance – not the same as Cypress but just as appealing and the colour is a close match, too.
Lime is a traditional wood for carving and was a delight to work with a chisel. It also polishes up well with an interesting, tight grain across the radius of the neck. This piece of Lime is a little more dense (604 kg/m3) than Spanish Cedar, the traditional neck wood for flamenco guitars, but not far off. I routed out the centre and replaced it with a hollow carbon tube for added stiffness and lower weight.
I have worked with Walnut on previous instruments. It makes a very light bridge (13g with bone decoration) and has a nice grain pattern but its relatively low density (630 kg/m3) means that it will suffer from string wear more quickly than traditional Rosewood. To prevent this, I inserted 2mm brass tubing into the string holes.
It was the first time I have used Western Red Cedar (WRC) for the soundboard and in many respects it’s a lovely wood for this purpose. It is a very low density wood (347kg/m3) and therefore enables the lightest, most responsive soundboards. It is similar density to the Engelmann Spruce top I used on guitar #2 (385kg/m3) and I will happily use both again in the future. I think the Cedar soundboard gives the instrument a warmer sound than my previous guitars and that it suits classical and jazz more than traditional flamenco, which I have focused on previously.
The Bog Oak fretboard (909 kg/m3) was a nice idea and looks great, but I doubt I’ll use it again. It has quite an open grain and tore easily when planing it. Still, it’s nice to think that you’re working with a piece of wood that is more than 5000 years old.
The overall weight of the instrument is 1288g. Were it not for the metal machine heads, it would weight about 100g less. Once I fitted the tuners, the balance of the guitar shifted noticeably towards the head.
As you can see below, the air resonance of #6 is very similar to #3, as is the weight, once the different tuners are taken into account. However, they do not sound the same, with #3 having a little more volume and a drier, more cutting sound – just what you want from a flamenco blanca. This instrument (#6) sounds different – more versatile – with rounded notes that are even across the fretboard. The different soundboard and neck materials no doubt contribute to this and it is set up with slightly higher action.
No instrument, whether it is a factory-made model or an individually built hand-made guitar, will sound exactly like another; there are too many variables, not least the individual pieces of wood that are selected which vary within species and from tree to tree.
One way of trying to ensure some consistency is to measure the density and resonant modes of the wood prior to building, following the calculations given by Trevor Gore in his book, Contemporary Acoustic Guitar Design and Build (Vol. 1, section 4.5)2. With these measurements, over time I should be able to establish the physical characteristics of each piece of wood, even within a single species, and then determine the thickness of the top and back plates according to the target frequencies I am aiming for. It will take a number of instruments before I can really start to make meaningful adjustments based on what I’m looking for and should also help me develop my ear, too, by having objective data to refer to when tapping the guitar during the build process and listening to the instruments being played. Neither the traditional intuitive approach (working knowledge), where the luthier taps, listens, holds and flexes, nor the scientific approach (explicit knowledge), which Trevor Gore has explained in his recent book, is exclusive from one-another, and in fact are complementary ways of understanding the relationship between the maker and the materials.
I have also removed the original comparison table from this blog post because it was too difficult to read. Please refer to the spreadsheet.
How do you learn to make a ‘Spanish guitar’? There have been a number of books over the years and at the heart of them is an instrument plan.
A milestone in Spanish guitar making outside of Spain came in 1954, with the publication in Guitar Review of a scale drawing of Torres FE26 by Theodorus M. Hofmeester (1897-1955). For the first time, the design features of the Spanish guitar were plain to see and widely available to guitar enthusiasts to study and copy. Hofmeester was an Architect and President of the Classical Guitar Society in Chicago. Although the authenticity of FE26 has been called into question,1 nevertheless, the drawing provided a useful level of detail for subsequent makers to learn and build from. Although published in the USA, Guitar Review had readers and contributors in the UK and the Hofmeester drawing laid the groundwork for subsequent DIY texts on classical guitar making in Britain.
There is understandably a lot of emphasis on ‘learning by doing’ and ‘tacit knowledge’ in craft activities, with the use of books and scale drawings often overlooked. Guitar-makers don’t just do and their knowledge is not only intuitive. They observe, think, measure, study, plan and document their work.
In my survey of classical guitar makers in the UK, I asked ‘to what extent have you learned from the study of other instruments?’ Over 55% of respondents said they had learned ‘a lot’ or ‘a great deal’. Only around 5% said they had learned nothing at all from the study of other instruments.
At some point, sooner or later, the student luthier will either study a ‘historic’ instrument (by which I mean, a guitar by an acclaimed, often deceased maker, whose instruments are prized by players and collectors) or, more often, study a drawing of a historic instrument.
Locating an instrument by an important maker is not always straightforward. They may be commercially available for tens of thousands of pounds or held in private collections. Occasionally they are held in museums, yet in the UK, there appear to be just two Spanish made guitars based on the Torres design in publicly accessible museums. Equally depressing, classical guitars made in the UK hardly feature in UK public collections either.
So, the alternative to an actual instrument is to study a scale drawing. There are a number of places to buy such plans and the detail and utility of them varies. Below, I evaluate six eight plans for flamenco guitars made by three influential Spanish makers, whose historic instruments sell for unadvertised prices today.
My objectives in evaluating the six eight plans are to compare them to the procedures described by Ray et al., discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each, and highlight what can be learned from the study of them collectively. I believe everything I have to say is applicable to plans of other types of guitar and possibly other instruments, too.
On the face of it, the instruments are very similar, being Cypress bodied flamenco ‘blanca’ guitars made by Spanish luthiers between 1933 and 1951. In fact, there were personal connections between each maker: Santos Hernandez worked alongside Domingo Esteso in the Manuel Ramirez workshop, and Marcelo Barbero was hired by Santos Hernandez’s widow to complete the instruments he left unfinished after his death in 1943. Each maker is revered and any collector of classical or flamenco guitars would be pleased to own any of these instruments.
The plans by Roy Courtnall are CAD drawings made in the early 1990s with permission from dealer, Ray Ursell. The Santos Hernandez plan is also published in Courtnall’s book, Making Master Guitars, which features an introduction to the maker and his work. The Barbero plan is not included in the book and includes no accompanying biographical notes.
By comparison, the plans by David Merrin are reproductions of hand drawings of instruments from the Granary Guitar collection in 2011. The Granary Guitar Collection is well-known among players and luthiers in the UK because the owner has held open days to visit the collection.
The Richard Bruné plan of the Barbero guitar is hand-drawn and accompanied by extensive notes on the provenance of the instrument. It was featured in American Lutherie #55 and regarded by Bruné as “the defining flamenco guitar of the 20th century” because it was played by Sabicas on his album Flamenco Puro. Bruné’s plan of the Santo Hernandez instrument was published more recently in American Lutherie #73 and is a CAD drawing, again with accompanying notes on the plan and a related article in the same journal.
Basic Measurements for an Organological Examination
Ray et al. provide a list of measurements and features to document when examining an instrument, which I list below in order to indicate whether the six eight plans provide that information.
I am not able to reproduce the rest of Ray et al.’s article here, but can say that it contains various illustrations and images to demonstrate the procedure to capture this information as well as the tools required. It is a very thorough, practical guide on what to document and how.
I should also say that Courtnall, Merrin and Bruné did not necessarily set out to document the instruments for the same purpose as Ray et al. are proposing, and this evaluation is not intended as a criticism of their efforts, which I have benefited greatly from in my own workshop.
As you can see, each of the plans provides a lot of detail for the guitar-maker and, from experience, I know that a guitar can be made with the information given in any single plan.
The evaluation reveals something about each author’s motivation and approach. Merrin’s plans are the most comprehensive drawings for the guitar-maker; Brune’s plans are also comprehensive and show more scholarly concern for the provenance and condition of the guitar – something which Ray et al. are concerned with, too. Brune’s plans are perhaps best seen as studies of the instruments, as well as workshop references. Courtnall’s plans are primarily intended for the workshop and provide suggested thickness ranges for top and back rather than specific numbers, recognising that each piece of wood requires an assessment of its own attributes. The layout of Courtnall’s CAD plans are clear and easy to follow.
No single plan meets every expectation of Ray et al.’s procedure for examination but it would not take too much additional effort for future authors of instrument plans to adopt their procedure in full. Merrin and Courtnall’s plans do not provide specific dimensions for the top and back outlines and they assume the back is the same dimension as the top. Indeed, it should be and for a workshop drawing, we do not need the back outline dimensions. Bruné provides back dimensions for the Barbero (D), probably because of the guitar’s historic significance and also because it appears the different top and back dimensions was intentional. Similarly for the neck relief on the Barbero (D) guitar, which is in fact convex rather than concave, or ‘negative relief’ as Bruné refers to it.
In my own experience of building four flamenco guitars, using the Courtnall (F) and Bruné (D) Barbero plans, I thought it would be nice to have the weight and the main air resonance (Brune provides the air resonance but not the weight) These are both objective measurements that are easy to obtain and revealed to the maker with the finished guitar. They result from the maker’s overall creative effort, rather than any single detail on the plan and allow the luthier to compare tactile and aural attributes of the original guitar with their own. Merrin’s plans (which I bought very recently) include the weight and air resonance.
Beyond the six eight plans
While learning to build flamenco guitars, I have also been guided by the information provided by Trevor Gore, where he analysed the weight and resonance of six eight classic flamenco guitars. Where flamenco plans include the weight, we should be aware that older guitars are likely to have had wooden pegs rather than mechanical tuners, and if the pegs have been replaced by mechanical tuners, the published weight is around 100g heavier than it would originally have been. John Ray has a useful article on this.
In addition to the six eight plans for flamenco guitars, I have found Sheldon Urlik’s book to be informative because of the detailed measurements given on 82 “fine Spanish guitars” including 21 flamenco guitars. I have calculated the average measurements for the flamenco guitars in this spreadsheet for ease of reference and comparison. (On a separate worksheet there is also data taken from guitars for sale on the Solera Flamenca website). Looking across the average data for those 21 guitars, reveals the design attributes which make a flamenco guitar sound and feel like a flamenco guitar. They are very lightweight, the plates and ribs are thin, and the bridge is low. If you know anything about flamenco guitars, you knew this already, but the numbers really emphasise the importance of building within those parameters.
Having six eight plans to study is better than one, but not because the plans are significantly lacking. Having six eight plans helps you understand that the work of a single luthier will vary and that there is not just one way of making the same type of instrument. For example, it shows you that the brace does not have to be exactly that height, because on other guitars, it is a different height. Having six eight plans shows you that there is room to relax and work with the materials and not just with the plan.
The truest end of life, is to know the life that never ends. He that makes this his care, will find it his crown at last. And he that lives to live ever, never fears dying: nor can the means be terrible to him that heartily believes the end.
For though death be a dark passage, it leads to immortality, and that’s recompense enough for suffering of it. And yet faith lights us, even through the grave, being the evidence of things not seen.
And this is the comfort of the good, that the grave cannot hold them, and that they live as soon as they die. For death is no more than a turning of us over from time to eternity. Death, then, being the way and condition of life, we cannot love to live, if we cannot bear to die.
They that love beyond the world cannot be separated by it. Death cannot kill what never dies. Nor can spirits ever be divided that love and live in the same Divine Principle, the root and record of their friendship. If absence be not death, neither is theirs.
Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass, they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure.
This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.
I finished another flamenco blanca guitar recently. It’s the fourth of this design and my fifth guitar.
Like the previous three instruments, it’s based on a Marcelo Barbero plan, has a Spruce soundboard and Cypress back and sides. It differs from the previous three by having an African Mahogany neck and Ebony fretboard. The particular piece of Mahogany was relatively lightweight, comparable to a dense version of Spanish Cedar, which I’ve used on other necks, such that I could hardly tell the difference. It was the first time I’ve used Ebony, too, having previously used Rocklite. The Ebony was kindly given to me by the luthier and author, Robert Welford, when I interviewed him for my research.
Shortly after I started working on this guitar in January, I bought Sheldon Urlik’s book, A Collection of Fine Spanish Guitars, which is a superb resource for luthiers because, in addition to photographs and descriptive text, it contains the measurements for each instrument; not only the exterior dimensions, but thicknesses at 14 points across the soundboard (including the strutting design), 9 points across the back (including the bracing pattern), and the thickness of the ribs (both bass and treble). If that wasn’t enough, the dimensions of each instrument’s bridge is also given as well as the wood species for each component. Highly regarded luthiers, Richard Bruné, Jeffrey R. Elliott and Cynthia Burton examined and documented the guitars.
There are 21 flamenco guitars in the book (and an accompanying CD of Richard Bruné playing them), so that’s a lot of useful data to learn from and music to enjoy. I put a summary of it into a spreadsheet for easy reference and also to see what the average measurements were across 19 of the guitars. I excluded a negra by Fernandez and also a blanca by Fleta, which was an outlier in terms of its weight and the assessment of it states that it sounds like a classical guitar, rather than flamenco.
The average weight of the 19 guitars, dated between 1883-1988, is 1172g. 14 of the guitars have wooden pegs and those average 1165g. Guitars made in or before 1948, when nylon strings replaced gut, average 1110g. Guitars after 1948, average 1256g. Scale lengths range from 646-660, with most between 650-655. Average thicknesses are:
Soundboard around bridge: 1.82mm
Bass side: 1.43mm
Treble side: 1.47mm
Bridge height: 7.82mm (this is an indication of saddle height (+0.5-1mm), which gives a flamenco guitar its characteristic feel)
Although I’m not advocating designing a guitar simply by numbers, they do consistently illustrate the build characteristics of a traditional flamenco guitar.
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.
Building a full-size guitar that weights around 1100g narrows down the choices of tonewood and build decisions, such that you almost inevitably end up with a flamenco blanca with wooden pegs. For my fifth guitar, I thicknessed the soundboard to around 1.8mm, the sides to 1.5mm and the back to 1.9mm. The neck, strutting, bracing and end block followed the Barbero plan (a 1948 Barbero guitar in the book weighs 1185g, 134g lighter than my #5). The density of the tonewood I used is:
Mahogany neck: 514kg/m3 (640)
Ebony fretboard: 1258kg/m3 (955)
Indian rosewood bridge: 848kg/m3 (830)
Cypress back: 646kg/m3 (535)
Cypress sides: 642kg/m3 (535)
Euro spruce top: 446kg/m3 (405)
The density of a species of wood varies from tree to tree, but if I compare these numbers to the Wood Database (given above in brackets), the neck is relatively light and the back and sides are relatively dense. The fretboard is relatively heavy with the finished fretboard before gluing weighing 60g more than the equivalent Rocklite. Clearly the way to reduce the weight of my guitar to that of Barbero’s (1185g), is to select lighter examples of wood and to use wooden pegs. For comparison, guitar #3, built to the same design, has a relatively light Spanish Cedar neck (448kg/m3), Rocklite fretboard (801kg/m3), Ebony pegs and weighs 1189g.
My latest instrument came together in a relatively straightforward way. I roughly shaped the bridge in January; prepared the neck and joined the head in February, and did everything else over 16 days in April when I had some annual leave. A further week of French polishing in the evenings, a week of waiting, and then a day to fit the pegs and set up the guitar.
It weights 1319g. The neck and fretboard woods added a bit more weight (about +100g) and the geared pegs weigh 34g more than Ebony pegs, so taking that into account it’s very consistent with number 3 (1189g), which has a Rocklite fretboard and Ebony pegs. The body resonance is E +47 cents (84.7Hz), compared to F# -42 cents (90.3Hz) of #3. The lower resonance is probably because the soundboard is thinner on #5.1
I expect more experienced luthiers will look at all this fuss over weight and think that I’m overlooking the importance of a subjective assessment of the materials and an intuitive approach to the build. I agree, but having made only 5 guitars (each about six months apart), it takes more repeated practice to develop that tacit knowledge. It is happening though, as I noticed the difference in the soundboard flexibility for this guitar, the crystalline character of the Cypress, which David Dyke had marked ‘OLD’, and carving the neck with a knife was easier and quicker this time.
Looking back over my workshop notebook, I wrote that, “I still refer to Roy’s book but more for process-related guidance, rather than what I should do. When not what.” I blame my tools a lot, or rather my use of my tools: the circle cutter blade is “crap”; the tape I use to clamp the binding kept peeling away and I resolved to find a better method, and the method of how I constructed the rosette was probably no more effective than how I had done it previously. When things go well, I note that it’s usually because “I took my time”; it’s not that I need to slow down, but that I am learning how best to use my time.
The next guitar will be of the same design but using Cedar of Lebanon back and sides, Western Red Cedar soundboard, Bog Oak fretboard, Lime neck and Walnut bridge. It’ll be interesting to see how it sounds using mostly local wood.
I was due to be in Berlin this weekend, attending the European Guitar Builders symposium and giving a talk at the Holy Grail Guitar Show. Of course, it was cancelled due to Covid-19, but quickly turned into the Holy Couch Guitar Show!
“How do luthiers learn their craft?
All of the luthiers at the Holy Grail Guitar Show had to learn to make their first guitar but what are the sources of guitar-making knowledge and how are the practical skills learned? For the last two years, Joss has been researching how guitar-makers learn and teach their craft. At the HGSS, he will discuss the results of a survey of guitar-makers from across Europe, focusing on their education, training and experience. He will also talk about what he has found from interviews with over 30 guitar-makers and his on-going study of guitar-making at Newark College, UK. In doing so, he will refer to the efforts of amateurs and DIY culture in the 1950s, the later development of college courses, and the professionalisation of guitar-making since the 1970s.”
Here’s a one minute video for social media, where I introduced myself and the ‘talk’.
Embedded below is my ‘talk’ for the HGGS, heavily annotated in the notes section of each slide (Download the Slides or a PDF version which is easier to read).
It’s an expanded version of presentations I’ve given before, this time incorporating more from an article that will be published later this year on the role of amateurs and autodidacts in the first decade of classical guitar making in the UK.
It also includes new survey data from March 2020. I issued a modified version of my original survey to EGB members and other makers outside the UK. The new data suggests my original data for classical guitar makers in the UK is fairly representative for guitar makers in general and now I’m writing up the surveys for publication.
If you have any questions, comments, want to talk about the research or participate in some way, please do get in touch. It would have been great to meet and talk with people in Berlin.
I’ll be going to Leicester MusicFest for the third year running. It is held 14th-16th February and is a friendly and supportive event with classes and competitions.
Roy Courtnall always makes a guitar to be given as a prize and there is some very good quality classical guitar playing at the Advanced Guitar Recital on the first day. I’ll be attending on the Sunday, when Rob Johns will be playing the flamenco guitar I made for him. Adrian Lucas will also be attending, as Rob will be playing one of his steel-string instruments.
Rob will demonstrate playing different styles on different guitars including classical guitar, authentic flamenco, and steel-string.
An eclectic mix from Bach to Blues, we will ask and try to answer ‘what is the difference between the acoustic guitars?’, and ‘are they really that different?’
So whatever your jam, come and join us for this friendly demo!
I joined Lincolnshire-based luthiers, Roy Courtnall Summerfield and Adrian Lucas, and musician and teacher, Rob Johns, at the New Monday Art Group. We were invited to talk about guitar-making and listen to pieces played by Rob on classical, steel-string and flamenco guitars made by Roy, Adrian and myself. We talked about the history of guitar design, my research into the teaching and learning of guitar-making and then listened to over half an hour of guitar-playing. It was a surprisingly popular event for a Monday morning, with over 50 people attending.
Thank you to Roy Courtnall for the invitation to contribute to the event and to Shan Dixon of the New Monday Art Group for organising it.
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.