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.

Making classical guitars: A bibliography

A variety of classical guitar making books for the autodidact.

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. 

The craft

Bogdanovich, John S. (2007) Classical Guitar Making: A Modern Approach to Traditional Design

Courtnall, Roy (1993) Making Master Guitars

Cumpiano, William and Natelson, Jonathan D. (1994) Guitarmaking: Tradition and Technology

Cuzzucoli, Giuseppe (2015) Classical Guitar Design

Doubtfire, Stanley (1983) Make Your Own Classical Guitar

Friederich, Daniel (1998) The classical guitar soundboards and their bracing 

Gore, Trevor and Gilet, Gerard (2011) Contemporary Acoustic Guitar Design and Build (2 vols.)

Guild of American Luthiers (1985-2005) The Big Red Book of American Lutherie Vols. 1-7

Hofmeister Jr., Theodorus M. (1954) Torres. The Creator of the Modern Guitar, Guitar Review

Hoing, Clifford A. (1955) Making a Guitar, Woodworker

Huttig, H. E. (1965) Guitar Construction from A to Z, Guitar Review no.28

Huyn, Peter et al. (1966) A Guitar Manual 

McLeod, Donald and Welford, Robert (1971) The Classical Guitar. Design and Construction

Middleton, Rik (1997) The Guitar Maker’s Workshop

Oribe, Jose (1985) The Fine Guitar

Overholtzer Arthur E. (1974) Classic Guitar Making

Ramirez III, J. (1993) Things about the guitar

Ridge, Eric V. (1956) The Birth of a Guitar, Guitar News

Romanillos, Jose L. (2013) Making a Spanish Guitar

Romanillos, Jose L. (1979) The Classical Guitar. In: Ford, Charles (Ed.) Making Musical Instruments: Strings and Keyboard. London: Faber & Faber.

Sharpe, A. P. (1957) Make Your Own Spanish Guitar

Somogyi, Erwin (2010) The Responsive Guitar (2 vols.)

Sloane, Irving (1966) Classic Guitar Construction

Wallo, Joseph F. (1965) How To Make a Classic Guitar

Williams, Jim (1998) Guitar Makers Manual

The science

Bader, Rolf (2005) Computational Mechanics of the Classical Guitar

Bucur, Voichita (2016) Handbook of Materials for String Musical Instruments

Caldersmith, Graham (1995) Designing a Guitar Family

Catgut Acoustical Society Newsletter and Journal

Falk, Robert H. (2010) The Wood Handbook

Fletcher, Neville H. and Rossing, Thomas D. (1998) The Physics of Musical Instruments

French, Richard Mark (2008) Engineering the Guitar

French, Richard Mark (2012) Technology of the Guitar

Gore, Trevor and Gilet, Gerard (2011) Contemporary Acoustic Guitar Design and Build (2 vols.)

Hurd, David C. (2004) Left-Brain Lutherie. Using Physics and Engineering Concepts for Building Guitar Family Instruments

Jahnel, Franz (1981) Manual of Guitar Technology

Jansson, Erik V. (1983) Function, Construction and Quality of the Guitar

Jansson, Erik V. (2002) Acoustics for Violin and Guitar Makers

Kasha, Michael (1971) The Scientific Development of a New Classical Guitar

Lewney, Mark (2000) The Acoustics of the Guitar

Pavlidou, Maria (1997) A Physical Model of the String-Finger Interaction on the Classical Guitar

Richardson, Stephen Jon (2001) Acoustical Parameters for the Classical Guitar

Rossing, Thomas D. (2010) The Science of String Instruments

Taylor, John (1978) Tone Production on the Classical Guitar

Walker, Gordon Peter (1991) Towards a Physical Model of the Guitar

White, Tim (1979-1982) Journal of Guitar Acoustics

The history and culture

Archee, Ray (2014) The Australian School of Lutherie: Origins and AchievementsInternational Journal of Humanities and Social Science

Bower, Rudi (2009) Between Scylla and Charybdis: a South African perspective on guitar building

Busch, Otto. V. (2012), Man–machine–music: Resonances of craft and technology in a study of guitar building, Craft Research

Button, Stuart (1984) The Guitar in England 1800-1924

Coates, Kevin (1985) Geometry, proportion, and the art of lutherie (Original PhD thesis)

Coelho, Victor Anand (2011) The Cambridge Companion to the Guitar

Dawe, Kevin with Moira Dawe (2001) Handmade in Spain: The Culture of Guitar Making, in Andy Bennett and Kevin Dawe (eds.) Guitar Cultures.

Dudley, Kathryn Marie (2014) Guitar Makers. The Endurance of Artisanal Values in North America.

Evans, Tom and Mary (1984) Guitars: Music, History, Construction and Players from the Renaissance to Rock

Greenberg, James B. (2016) Good Vibrations, Strings Attached: The Political Ecology of the Guitar, Sociology and Anthropology 

Grondona, Stefano and Waldner, Luca (2001) La Chitarra di Liuteria—Masterpieces of Guitar Making

Hanusch, Christoff (2011) Guitars by Richard Jacob

Huber, John (1994) The Development of the Modern Guitar

Kies, Thomas J. (2013) Artisans of Sound: Persisting Competitiveness of the Handcrafting Luthiers of Central Mexico, Ethnomusicology Forum

Kies, Thomas J. (2008) Aesthetic Judgements of Luthiers: A Case Study of Mexican Guitar-MakersThe Galpin Society Journal

Martin, Darryl (1998) Innovation and the Development of the Modern Six-String Guitar

Martinez, Alberto (2018) 34 Classical Guitars in Life Size

McCreadie, Sue (1982) Classical Guitar Companion

Morrish, John (1997) The Classical Guitar: A Complete History

Nex, Jennifer Susan (2013) The Business of Musical-Instrument Making in Early Industrial London

Ray, John (2014) The Granada School of Guitar-Makers

Ray, John et al., (2016) A review of basic procedures for an organological examination of plucked-string instruments, Journal of Cultural Heritage  

Rodriguez, Manuel (2010) The Art and Craft of Making Classical Guitars

Romanillos, Jose L. (2002) The Vihuela de Mano and The Spanish Guitar

Romanillos, Jose L. (1997) Antonio de Torres, Guitar Maker – His Life & Work

Schott, Howard (1975) Instrument Makers-1: Luthiers. Howard Schott Visits the Workshops of David Rubio and Michael Lowe

Schramm, David (2005) The Definitive Elements of the Hermann Hauser Spanish Guitar

Sharpe, A. P. (1954) The Story of the Spanish Guitar

Southwell, Gary (1983) The Panormo Guitar and its Makers

Suwa, Kazu (n.d.) Interviews with classical guitar luthiers

Turnbull, Harvey (1974) The Guitar from the Renaissance to the Present Day

Tyler, James and Paul Sparks (2002) The Guitar and its Music. From the Renaissance to the Classical Era

Urlik, Sheldon (2015) A Collection of Fine Spanish Guitars from Torres to the Present 

Usher, Terence (1956) The Spanish Guitar in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Wade, Graham (1980/2012) Traditions of the Classical Guitar

Wade, Graham (2001) A Concise History of the Classical Guitar

Westbrook, James (2009) Investigative Methods for the Study of Historical Guitars: A Case Study of the Work of Antonio de Torres. MA Dissertation. London Metropolitan Univesity.

Westbrook, James (2013) Louis Panormo: ‘The only Maker of Guitars in the Spanish style’


Orfeo (2013 – )

Classical Guitar (1982 – )*

American Lutherie (1985 -)

Soundboard (1974 – )*

Guitar News (1951 – )*

Guitar Review (1946 – 2009)*

Banjo Mandolin & Guitar (BMG) (1903 – 1976)*

*Primarily focused on classical guitar playing but often contain profiles of luthiers and articles on the history of lutherie.