So, you want to be a guitar maker but don't have any idea where to start? Well, then this page is for you.
Here at Larrivée, we get phone calls and e-mail daily from persons asking how they can become guitar makers. It's a question that I have a hard time answering since guitar making is a process that could very well take years to learn. You can easily purchase wood & supplies from many places (and I will list some places at the end of this page), but learning how to build a guitar can be much more difficult. There are many ways to learn the trade, including: self teaching through books, classroom study, working in a factory, and apprenticeships.
Each of these has both advantages and disadvantages. Self study books are the most affordable way to learn guitar building but lack the insight of a professional to answer those little questions that pop up out of the blue. Classroom study is a very good way to learn because it allows you to learn through example, but this can be VERY costly. Working in a factory like Larrivée Guitars, Taylor Guitars, or Tacoma Guitars, can provide a very good learning environment because you can see see everyday the building process that goes on around you. I personally think apprenticeships are the best way to learn because you are effectively shown on a one-to-one basis but, unfortunately, I don't know a single Luthier who could take on an apprentice.
Self Teaching Through Books
There are probably more books out there on how to build guitars than there are builders. The hardest part is finding the right book. Many books on the market today show you how to do the procedures but don't tell you why they do them the way they do. In guitar building, because the most simple things can affect sound drastically, it's very important to have a clear understanding of why you are doing a task a certain way, .
There are a few books that start to deal with the "Why". One that comes to mind is "Tradition & Technology" by Cumpiano & Natelson. This book is very detailed with step by step instructions and explanations of theory. As the name implies, it teaches both traditional (hand) methods as well as more advanced methods that use common power tools. It follows the creation of a steel string dreadnought and a Spanish heel classical from start to finish. It's a very thorough introduction to luthiery.
If you are going to use this method to learn guitar guitar building it is STRONGLY advisable that you have some knowledge in power tools and have a small workshop or garage to work in. It's a good idea to have some basic tools like an orbital sander, a drill, and a small air compressor. Chisels and a sharpening block are great, as well as files & rasps, and a small table saw.
ALWAYS wear safety gear... especially if you are working by yourself.
Learning in a Classroom
If you can afford the cost and time, learning in a classroom can be invaluable. It gives you the knowledge of a well educated teacher and this can be be a great asset when you want to figure out how to do something. There are not as many schools as there used to be, so finding one will be tricky. Here are a few that come to mind:
One key feature about being in a Luthier school is that you learn the "Why" of guitar building. However, as the schools can be thousands of miles away from you, it's a good idea to learn more about the organization before you ship out and go.
Learning by Working in a Factory
This definitely has its advantages and disadvantages.
The biggest disadvantage is the time it takes to learn. Generally, when you work in a guitar factory, you do a few jobs (I.e. Neck fitting or Body Sanding) but you don't do the whole procedure. However, if you are observant and willing to take on new responsibilities, it is possible to learn many of the processes of guitar building. The nice thing is that you get to work hands on with both other people and many guitars, meaning you get to see many of the things that can go wrong and how to prevent them.
Learning in a factory can work very well if combined with self teaching. Here, at Larrivée, we have about 15 people who do just this. (Some are now respected builders in their own right.) Another wonderful advantage to working in a factory is that you have high tech machinery at your disposal that you couldn't keep in your garage (ie: A spray booth or Thickness Planer)
It can be a hard work in a factory, especially if you are building guitars to be your own boss, but it does have its good points.
Learning Via Apprenticeship
It's a real shame there are not more luthiers offering apprenticeships. This is truly the best way to learn because you're learning how to build, one-on-one, with an experienced luthier. Many of today's major guitar builders where taught by apprenticing. Jean Larrivée was an apprentice to Edgar Monch. In turn, Grit Laskin and Linda Manser were apprentices to Jean Larrivée. If you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to apprentice, then do it. It is a wonderful experience.
Places To Buy Materials
Good materials make a great guitar. On that note, good tools are hard to come by, which is why I listed some tools I recommend.
First, for handheld powertools, I recommend Makita (who make a really mean handheld router). For detail work, I suggest a dremmel (for the beginning luthier these can be invaluable). You can buy these at any reputable hardware store.
As for wood supplies, I recommend Stewart MacDonald Supply, and/or Luthier Mechantile. Stewart Macdonald sells only musical instrument parts and everyone is listed in their free catalogue. You can contact them at http://www.stewmac.com and ask them for a free catalogue. You may find them a little pricey, but that is because they cater to builders who only want to buy one or two of an item.
Links to online Resources
Below are some links and descriptions that I recommend checking out if you are looking into building guitars.