Amateurs, Autodidacts, and the First Decade of Classical Guitar-Making in Britain

I have recently had an article on the early history of classical guitar-making in Britain published in the Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society (JAMIS). The journal is available to purchase in hard copy from the American Musical Instrument Society and a ‘post-print’ version (peer-reviewed but without the journal layout and page numbering) is available to download from the University of Lincoln’s research repository.

Download the article.

I welcome any comments on the article, which has, among other things, occupied me for over two years. It’s the first of several articles related to the knowledge, education and training of classical guitar-makers that I am working towards. The abstract and brief profiles of some of the people I discuss are summarised below.

“This article explores the first decade of classical guitar-making in Britain (1948 – 1957) and discusses the efforts of amateurs and autodidacts in the recovery, codification and instruction of craft knowledge and skills. The research for this article draws on two sources of primary data: guitar magazines and the first three attempts in the English language to codify the practical knowledge of classical guitar-making into instructional texts. I begin by identifying the instrument in its historical context. Next, I present biographical summaries of key advocates and outline the work of the first luthiers. I then discuss the Do-It-Yourself texts and argue that classical guitar-making at that time gradually gained cultural legitimacy through the efforts of autodidacts who established the requisite knowledge and skills that were later adopted and validated by educational institutions.” 

“If the amateur did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.”

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.

Small gauge

Sometimes I find myself returning to film, wishing I still had my Bolex, Beaulieu or Nizo. Wonderful, mechanical, precision engineering you can hold in your hands.

Bolex SBM 16mm camera

Beaulieu 4008 ZM4 Super 8mm camera

Nizo 801 Super 8mm camera

The cost of film stock, processing and transfer to print or digital video is relatively expensive compared to digital video (approx. £70/3mins). However, artist films needn’t be long. Why not make films that are just a minute or two long?

Recently, while day-dreaming of Bolex Rex-5 cameras, I came across, a critical film-maker’s haven, for laboratory facilities, telecine, and educational programmes. A wonderful looking past project brought Jonas Mekas to London to talk with young adults about “working with the diary film form as a cinema of free and poetic self-expression.”

It reminded me of a similar workshop I took part in at Image Forum, Tokyo, over two weeks in 1999. Each of us made a short film on 100 feet (2:45mins) of 16mm film. Mine was an exercise in film form, and a couple of years later the film ended up slotted into a longer film as shown below at 9:01 mins.

My workshop film is very simple. The camera remained static on a tripod and six different people took it in turns to stand in front of the camera. I started off by filming one frame of each of the six people as they rotated in front of the camera, and then two frames of each of them, and then three frames, and so on, up to 24 frames. The last time you see each person is for exactly one second or 24 frames. Or rather, it would be if you were watching the original projected film; the transfer to video changes the form temporally as well as materially. What should be exactly 75 seconds (1800 frames) becomes 72 seconds because PAL video runs at 25fps not 24fps.  Given its entire purpose was to explore the exacting, mechanical and temporal attributes of film, its temporal form is technically destroyed when transferred to video.

It’s been over a decade since I worked with film, but I retain a strong attachment to small gauge (8, Super-8, 9.5 and 16mm) film and its social history. It can be the most beautiful and poetic of personal, artistic mediums. You may disagree, but have you seen films by Stan Brakhage, Peter Hutton, Nathaniel Dorsky or Jonas Mekas?

Take, for instance, Brakhage’s hand-painted films, or his more visceral ‘The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes‘, or ‘Window Water Baby Moving‘, or this extract below from Mekas’ ‘Walden/Diaries, Notes and Sketches’.

To show you these films as video, streamed on the web, is to offer you the content disembodied from the form. It is a lie. We know what the film is about but we don’t know what it is to see. This is no more obvious with Peter Hutton’s ‘At Sea’, which may be watched below, but not seen.