The making of ‘concert’ classical guitars in the UK began after World War II and at the same time, methodologies and techniques were explored and codified by amateur instrument makers. I am currently writing an article that will discuss this at length but in the meantime thought it would be of interest to some people to learn about another one of the artefacts I have come across during my research.
I have previously written about Theodorus M. Hofmeister’s plan of the Torres FE26 guitar, which was published in Guitar Review in 1954. I have also written about Clifford A. Hoing’s series of articles for Woodworker magazine in 1955. A similar series of articles by Eric V. Ridge was published in Guitar News in 1956-7 and later republished as a single publication in 1959.
Eric V. Ridge was a Committee member of the International Classic Guitar Association (ICGA) and an amateur instrument maker, having already made a few violins. He was encouraged by Wilfred M. Appleby, the Editor of the ICGA’s ‘official organ’, Guitar News, to make use of the Hofmeister plan to construct a guitar and write about his experience. Appleby had previously encouraged Clifford Hoing to write his series of articles for Woodworker and the Hofmeister plan may have been available to him, too.
In The Birth of a Guitar, Ridge writes:
“Owing to the dearth of information available to prospective guitar makers I was forced to the examination of existing instruments, both good and bad and the perusal of short articles which had appeared from time to time in various publications, combining my knowledge of woodworking, instrument making in particular, with a certain amount of commonsense.
I commenced therefore, after months of contemplation and experimenting, with a firm idea in my mind as to how I intended to proceed with my first instrument, free and untrammelled by the experiences and writings of past guitar makers, and if some of my ideas seem revolutionary, let me say here and now that at no time during the making of the instrument was anything done without due consideration and forethought.” (p.5)
“The best modern concert guitars are all based more or less on the model designed by the great Spanish guitar-maker, Torres, who has been called ‘the Stradivarius of the guitar’. I was fortunate to have the detailed plan and measurements of one of his finest instruments so I used these in planning my guitar”. (p.6)
Here are the first couple of ‘chapters’ from the 1959 reprint of Eric V. Ridge’s series of articles (click to enlarge):
The original series ran over six issues of Guitar News, from Oct/Nov 1956 to Sept/Oct 1957, coinciding with A.P. Sharpe’s book, Make Your Own Spanish Guitar, which was published in early 1957. An advertisement in Banjo Mandolin and Guitar (BMG) magazine in June 1957 claims that over 1000 copies of A.P. Sharpe’s book had already been sold.1 It was A.P. Sharpe’s book that Jose Romanillos used to make his first guitar and is also the guitar-making publication from that formative period that is most widely recognised today. To his credit, Romanillos also mentions the Hofmeister plan and Ridge’s series of articles in his book on Antonio de Torres, which is what led me to look for them in the Bodleian Library (Guitar Review) and British Library (Guitar News).
These four publications by Hofmeister (1954), Hoing (1955), Ridge (1956-7) and Sharpe (1957) constitute the foundational instruction on classical guitar making in the English language. It wasn’t until a decade later (1966) that Irving Sloane would publish Classic Guitar Construction, which Wilfred Appleby described as “the sort of ‘De Luxe’ book on the subject which we dreamed and hoped would eventually appear.”2
Guitar makers often work from detailed drawings of instruments made by earlier makers. In his book on Antonio De Torres, Jose Romanillos refers (p. 58, 125-6 & 187 of the first edition) to a plan of Torres FE 26, drawn in 1953 by Theodorus M. Hofmeister, and published in the 1954 issue of The Guitar Review magazine. Romanillos writes that this was “a landmark in guitar construction of the Torres school because, for the first time, guitar makers, professional and amateur alike, could have an insight into the work of Torres and more importantly, into the dimensions to draw upon for making a guitar.”1 In the catalogue section of his book, Romanillos cautions the reader that there are doubts about the accuracy of the drawing and in fact the authenticity of the guitar itself, but nevertheless it offered aspiring guitar makers the first opportunity to construct a classical guitar along the lines of that of a legendary luthier.
I have acquired2 an original copy of The Guitar Review 1954 and scanned the Hofmeister article/plan, which can be downloaded as a PDF. I don’t know where this guitar is currently held or whether its authenticity was ever resolved, but in the history of classical guitar making it marks an important moment in what was to become a widespread practice (e.g. here and here) of creating scale drawings to study and be guided by in the workshop.
As part of my research into the education and training of classical guitar makers in the UK, I am beginning to review the Do-It-Yourself literature on the subject, much of which is aimed at autodidacts with little or no experience of lutherie. I am reviewing the literature fairly systematically to compare the different methodologies of construction as well as the written style, use of language and idiosyncrasies of each book. I also make use of the books when making my own guitars, especially when I lack the confidence in my own experience or have made a mistake and want to take the advice of several teacher-authors. On the whole though, I stick to a single methodology and book, written by Roy Courtnall, the luthier who taught me locally.
I recently conducted a survey of 102 classical guitar makers in the UK and of the 61 who responded, all but one said they had used one or more of the books available and the majority consider themselves self-taught to a significant extent:
Most of the books listed above will be well known by classical guitar makers. Two books I neglected to include but were listed several times under ‘other’ were Jose Romanillos’ Antonio Torres (1987) and Making a Spanish Guitar (2013). I hadn’t thought to include the 1987 book about Torres among instructional DIY books, but I do understand its significance as a source of learning for classical guitar makers. Not including Romanillos’ 2013 book was simply an oversight.
Readers of Romanillos’ books and various interviews will know that he first learned lutherie by following A. P. Sharpe’s book, Make Your Own Spanish Guitar (1957). What is less well-known is that an earlier set of instructions for making a classical guitar were published in Woodworker magazine (Jan/Feb/Mar/May/June, 1955).
HOING, Clifford A. (1903-89). A distinguished modern maker who worked at High Wycombe, Bucks. Originally trained as a wood-carver but became during his lifetime one of the most respected violin-and viola-makers. Credited with about 150 handmade instruments with choice wood. Followed classical Italian modelling with one or two of his own features. Diploma of Honour, The Hague, 1949. Instruments signed and branded. See Alburger, and Strad (July 1990), 558. S 11/92/240, 1958, £1,705.
Harvey, B. W. (1995) The Violin Family and its Makers in the British Isles: An Illustrated History and Directory.
It is worth repeating that Hoing’s series of articles in Woodworker magazine pre-dates the better known book by A. P. Sharpe, Make Your Own Spanish Guitar (1957) by two years. In his first article of the series, Hoing makes an implicit reference to another book by Sharpe, The Story of the Spanish Guitar, which had been published the previous year. Quoting (but not naming) Sharpe, Hoing seems to suggest (see 2nd paragraph in the image below) that the few passing details on guitar construction in Sharpe’s 1954 book were “ignorant” and this motivated Hoing to write the series for Woodworker. I own the 1963 third edition of The Story of the Spanish Guitar and can’t find anything ‘ignorant’ written about the construction of the modern Spanish guitar. Perhaps Sharpe revised it after the first edition. In a 1965 reprint of Hoing’s articles in Woodworker, his criticism was removed.
Apart from wanting to address Sharpe’s ‘ignorance’, I suggest there are at least two reasons why Hoing’s article appeared when it did, one specific to the introduction of the classical guitar in Britain and another to do with a post-war culture of DIY.
The popularity of the classical guitar in the UK was established in the 1950s through its commercial promotion, the growth of guitar societies and the emergence of players like Julian Bream and John Williams. It seems that instruments were difficult to come by at first. Chapter 5 of Stewart Button’s 1997 biography of Julian Bream quotes a series of exchanges by letter in 1946 between Bream’s father, Henry, and Wilfred Appleby, the editor of the Bulletin of the London Philharmonic Society for Guitarists (PSG), concerning what type of guitar Bream should perform and record with. The letters illustrate how even among enthusiasts in the UK, there was still some confusion over what constituted a ‘classical guitar’ at that time and how to obtain one. This is not surprising, when we consider the direction English guitar-making had taken in the first half of the twentieth century:
Guitar construction in England rapidly deteriorated [in the late 19th c.] as indigenous luthiers abandoned the mainstream instrument in preference for what Appleby euphemistically termed ‘novelty variants’. English luthiers diligently experimented with the guitar’s physiognomy in an attempt to enhance sound projection by introducing resonators, additional soundboards, unusual bridges, fingerboard keys and extra strings. These were often pretentious inventions, exhibiting inferior aesthetic form and unable to preserve a position in the fretted instrument hierarchy. Moreover, English luthiers failed to acknowledge – or ignored – the metamorphosis occurring in guitar construction. Crucial innovations, pioneered by Antonio de Torres Jurado (1817-92), were disregarded.
Button (1997, 47)
According to Button’s biography, Bream’s first classical guitar in the Spanish (i.e. Antonio Torres) style, was a Clifford Essex ‘Hauser’ model given to him in 1947 by Terry Usher. Usher is a pivotal figure in the introduction of the modern (i.e. Spanish) classical guitar in Britain. Button writes that Usher began playing the Spanish guitar in 1945 “and announced in 1948 his ambition to ‘establish the classical guitar in Britain as a legitimate instrument by composing, lecturing and giving recitals’. (BMG, February 1948).” (Button, 1997, 68) Usher received a grant from the Arts Council to promote the instrument through a series of lectures and recitals in 1949 and published in 1956 what I believe is the first English-language, organological article on the classical guitar. In that article, Usher writes about a number of specific instruments, including a Clifford Essex guitar from 1953 and a Harald Petersen guitar from 1955.
At that time, Clifford Essex was run by A. P. Sharpe, and published the monthly Banjo, Mandolin and Guitar (BMG) magazine. The luthier at Clifford Essex was Marco Roccia, whose work Sharpe celebrates in Make Your Own Spanish Guitar (1957). Roccia had worked for Clifford Essex since 1927 and after serving in WWII, resumed his job and began making classical guitars. Usher writes enthusiastically about Marco Roccia in his 1956 article (p.33) which Sharpe quotes in the Introduction of his 1957 book.
Harald Petersen was a Danish luthier who had moved to the UK and sold his instruments through the Spanish Guitar Centre, a business established in 1952 by John William’s father, Len.
Bream and his father first met Terry Usher when they eagerly travelled to Manchester in July 1947 because Usher had “a very good Clifford Essex guitar” (quoted in Button, 1997, 68). In fact, according to Button, Usher’s Clifford Essex guitar was “was actually constructed by the influential German luthier Hermann Hauser (1882-1952)”.1 In a letter for the Bulletin of the Philharmonic Society of Guitarists (1947, no.13), Usher refers to the guitar as “my new concert Hauser model”. Bream’s father wrote that Usher “considered this guitar to be the finest he had ever heard or owned… [Julian] played the Clifford Essex which was certainly a very nice guitar, particularly sustaining and very sweet tone. Better than anything else Terry had there and in perfect condition.”
Bream borrowed the Hauser guitar but two weeks later came across a “dilapidated” model by Spanish luthier, Jose Ramirez, in a shop in London. Bream and his father compared it to the Clifford Essex/Hauser and found the Ramirez to be a better instrument. Once restored by Bream’s father, Bream used the Ramirez to perform for a BBC recording on 30th August 1947.
What this activity highlights is how difficult it was to find a quality Spanish guitar in the UK at that time, let alone one made by a British luthier. There is some evidence that Clifford Essex were making a ‘Spanish Guitar’ in 1947, because for several months, Usher placed a ‘Wanted’ advertisement in BMG offering to buy a ‘Clifford Essex ‘Maestro’ Spanish Guitar’, although I can find no other reference to the instrument. It is not until August 1951 that Usher reviews the Clifford Essex ‘concert guitar’ (purchased in November 1950) made by Marco Roccia and claims that it is “The first true concert guitar to be produced in this country… a landmark in the history of the guitar in Britain.”
In addition to all of this activity around the emergence of the classical guitar as a concert and recording instrument in the UK, it’s also important to recognise the growing popularity of DIY more generally and therefore the wider context that magazines like Woodworker were part of. Andrew Jackson’s PhD thesis, Understanding the Experience of the Amateur Maker, provides a useful summary of amateur making in post-war Britain (p.22). At that time, there was a shortage of housing and labour and between 1941 and 1951, the only furniture available was through the government’s Utility Scheme. The war had resulted in “an unprecedented level of self-help and resourcefulness” (p.23) Home ownership was being encouraged by banks and building societies and so new owners were faced with having to furnish and manage repairs on their homes rather than ask their landlord. A labour shortage made it difficult to find a tradesman to carry out repairs and so people were encouraged by television and magazines like Woodworker to take up DIY.
Looking through the issues of Woodworker from 1955, this social context is made very clear: Along with Hoing’s first article on making a guitar, readers were shown how to make a window seat, bookcases, cupboards, a ‘ladies’ mobile work box’ (to hold sewing materials), and sharing the same page as Hoing’s article were instructions on making a fishing float.
So, in 1955, a growing popularity for playing the classical guitar, a lack of reasonably priced and good quality instruments, and a popular culture of DIY was the context in which Hoing, a reputed violin-maker wrote five articles (12 pages in total) for Woodworker on how to make a guitar, at a time when there were no other published sources of information available.
The first article focuses on the back and ribs with Hoing stating that “full instructions will be given which will enable anyone with a fair knowledge of woodwork to make a good example of the classic guitar.” (January, p.19). A half plan of the plantilla is provided. Having established the drawing and measurements of the back of the guitar, there are then three paragraphs about making a mould for the ribs. Options are given for making it out of laminated or solid wood and a lightweight wood such as obeche is recommended. “It is important that a good job be made of the mould, because a good guitar cannot be made on a bad one.” (p.20)
Although instructions are very brief by comparison to later books, Hoing offers a range of advice including measurements, making of jigs, choice of wood, how to plane thin pieces of wood, and how to make and work with a bending iron. Illustrations are provided for the rib mould and bending iron. The first article covering the back and ribs amounts to eight paragraphs (two pages including illustrations and plan).
The second article covers assembly of the back and ribs, jointing of the soundboard and installation of the rosette. The brevity is remarkable and assumes a significant amount of experience and confidence of the maker. Here are the full instructions on making and installing the rosette:
The methodology for the rosette is unconventional by today’s standards. Cutting the soundhole out before inlaying the rosette and deciding which face of the wood to use makes later thicknessing of the wood more difficult. Cutting of the circle with “a small cutting gauge” assumes that the maker can fashion a suitable tool. ‘Purfling’ is referred to for the first time and we are left to work out that it must be thin strips of wood suitable for inlay. This example is typical of each step in the building of the instrument. It assumes a level of resourcefulness, confidence and, in a sense, individual ‘freedom’, that gradually disappears with each subsequent guitar making manual since 1955. However, we should also recognise that it is part of a magazine where the techniques of tool and jig making, inlaying, design and measurement are written about on a regular basis, so the article should be seen as a complement to the variety of instruction and learning that the reader is assumed to gain with each issue. A. P. Sharpe’s 1957 Make Your Own Spanish Guitar, although very brief by today’s standards, is almost three times longer (32 pages) than Hoing’s series of articles and, while still assuming some experience and resourcefulness, stands alone as a book and therefore has to provide more detail to the maker than a periodical.
The rest of the series proceeds along similar lines: Part three is about ‘Shaping the bridge and fan-strutting’. Anticipating some errors, Hoing states that “it is usual to insert one or more strips of inlay at the centre of the ribs at the bottom of the guitar. This will hide any bad joint at this point. If the bottom joint of the ribs is good, you need not bother to do this.” (March, 58)
It is suggested that the bridge be made of rosewood but failing that another dense wood can be substituted, such as English Walnut. If a softer wood is used, then the bridge should be made thicker to “compensate for the difference in density” (58). Hoing writes that, contrary to other luthiers, he prefers to “rough out” the bridge and glue it before doing the final shaping when the instrument is almost complete. Even in 1955, this seems to have been an unconventional (and irrational?!) approach to making and fitting a key component of the instrument. However, more generously it is again a sign of Hoing’s acceptance that the reader can make up their own mind and use their own judgement and he cautions us that whatever decisions we make, “it must be remembered that work on a musical instrument must be more carefully done than if it were merely a piece of cabinet work, otherwise the tone will be far from musical. There can be no faking of joints in this kind of work.” (58) As such, Hoing establishes lutherie in a hierarchy of practical skills that stands above more domestic DIY projects in Woodworker.
Like the back of the instrument, the soundboard is domed and Hoing suggests achieving this by curving the underside of the bridge, such that when the bridge is fitted, it bends the top with it. Relatively detailed instructions are given for carefully gluing the bridge to the soundboard, with tips such as “Wipe off the surplus glue with a rag that has been dipped in hot water and wrung out tightly. This simple operation will save much bother later.” (59)
A plan for the soundboard is given with sufficient detail, including the direction of grain for the struts and the reader is told to curve the braces to the curve of the top.
Finally, the box is closed with warnings about being sufficiently organised, having the right clamps to hand (instructions and an illustration is provided for making such clamps), and ensuring that a good join is made all the way around.
There is no article in April 1955, but the May issue focuses on the neck and fingerboard. A diagram is given to show the position of the frets as well as a full column on how to calculate their position. The neck joint is a dovetail, perhaps because Hoing used this method when making violins. He offers little in the way of instruction on preparing the joint, presumably because readers will be able to refer to articles elsewhere in Woodworker, or know someone who can show them how to approach it. He offers some advice on fitting the joint, which I cannot follow. Perhaps with more experience it will become clearer to me:
The final article, published in June 1955, focuses on ‘Fixing the frets, banding, purfling, and varnishing’. It is two and a half pages long, including illustrations. When installing the frets, Hoing advises us that “some makers notch or burr the bottom edge of the tongue so as to make a better fit. Others run a little painter’s knotting into the cut before fitting the fret.” (June, 121). What is interesting here and found occasionally elsewhere in the series, is how Hoing draws on his understanding of others’ work, presumably having studied their instruments or seen them at work. How else would a maker of fretless instruments (violin, viola) know about notching the tongue of the fretwire?
Following instructions on levelling the frets, the machine heads are fitted and the head and heel are shaped with reference to the illustration given in the previous article (above). Assuming this is the first of many guitars, Hoing suggests that “when you have more experience in guitar making you may wish to design your own special pattern head.” (122)
As with a number of specialist tasks, an illustration is provided for cutting and fitting the purfling and banding. This is a difficult task to do well and the instructions are too brief but, viewed more sympathetically, it suggests that Hoing has confidence in his readers’ abilities and willingness to learn from their mistakes.
Next, we are instructed to brush on shellac varnish (“no stain should be used on stringed instruments”) and once dry, it is lightly sanded with fine sandpaper. This is followed by a further coat, then two clear coats of varnish, a coat of linseed oil, a coat of amber varnish, then a varnish diluted with meths is polished on.
Finally, the guitar is set up and Hoing warns us that “there is no economy in using cheap strings as they break more quickly and do not do justice to your efforts as a maker or player.” (123).
Having read through Hoing’s series of articles a few times now, I have got over the brevity of his instructions and admire what he attempted at the time. Presumably given a limited amount of space in a popular, monthly magazine, he, like Usher and Sharpe, were contributing what they could to promote the classical guitar to a wide audience and support a growing demand for the instrument. In my interviews with luthiers so far, I know of one person who used Hoing’s articles to construct their first guitar, having already apprenticed as a carpenter, and he went on to make highly regarded instruments and co-author a DIY book for classical guitar making. I don’t think we can criticise Hoing for what he attempted, even if his instructions appear brief and some of his methods are unconventional today. He did for the classical guitar, what no-one else in Britain had done. Given his experience as a violin maker, I am now curious as to what books or magazine articles were available to British readers at that time for making violins and how his writing compares or departs from an established genre of written lutherie instruction, if there was one.
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) and a top resonance of 189.76 (F#3). 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.1 However, the finished setup is a saddle height of 10mm and an action of 2.25mm.2
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 aims to be comprehensive but never complete. 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.
I am new to guitar making (I play a bit) and am being taught one-to-one by Roy Courtnall, author of Making Master Guitars. I expect it to take 20-30 days in total and have so far spent just four days with Roy. My time permits only one or two days a week working with Roy so it won’t be finished until early next year. It will be walnut back and sides, cedar neck and a lattice spruce top.
Needless to say, it’s a fantastic experience and education and I am documenting it as a reminder of my learning; what to remember, look out for, and to do when I come to build a guitar on my own. I intend to publish a separate blog of all the photos (there will be hundreds!) with descriptions and cross-references to his book when the guitar is complete. Click on the image below to see some highlights or follow this forum thread where I post updates at the end of each day.