The educational and career path to becoming a guitar builder or repairman is generally a much more organic one than a traditional education. By this, I mean that it is less books, and more hands on. Like a surgeon, you're not just good to go after your classes. You'll need an internship period of practice, which you will seek out on your own. It may be an apprenticeship, it may be starting on simple repair work. Although you have learned some very advanced techniques in training, you may have only physically applied these techniques to one or two instruments. It may take hundreds of more before you've perfected your game. But once you have...
Let me paint a picture for you somewhere down the road. Imagine yourself slowing waking up no longer needing an alarm clock, taking a breakfast at your leisure, having the time to read the paper every morning not just on Sunday, strolling into your workshop in the back yard, basement, garage, spare room, or commercial workspace. You're agenda for the day? Maybe a drive to the hardwood supplier to hand pick the choicest bird's eye maple. Back to the shop, the smell of cut maple, and the glue pot warming up. Spending the day in old world tradition, with cutting edge technology.
Maybe you're a people person, and you work for the highest quality esteemed guitar company in the country. Or just do repair in a small shop, knowing half of your area's local musicians by name.
Whether you're the independent type or relationship-oriented, whether you're old world, or cutting edge, the perks of a career in guitar building/repair, are vast, but the road there can be demanding, even with an education. Reputations must be built, experience and efficiency must be developed. Learning from a seasoned artisan's vast knowledge may be different now than the apprenticeships that were more common in the past: They have evolved into a higher learning system of schools and programs, and they are crucial for a start down this road.
What To Ask Yourself
Guitar Building is an Art, Science and Tradition. It requires multilevel learning, and although it is a specialization in itself, it requires a vast number of talents and finely-tuned skills. The Art, from start to finish, requires you to be a designer, architect, structural engineer, carpenter, finisher, machinist, jeweler, and sometimes electrician.
Although you may have previous experience in one or more levels of any of these, you may be submerged into a whole new world of precision that you never dreamed existed - unless, maybe, you double as a watchmaker.
As a designer, you may have aesthetic sense, but will your designs support 100 psi on a 1/4 inch piece of spruce, which is not much stronger than balsam wood?
You may be an architect, but can your drawings on paper be created in wood, and if so what does a drawing sound like? Same with structural design, strength doesn't always mean tonality.
You may have good working skills, but can you spray finishes, rub them out, and level them? Can you cut patterns in 1/4-inch pieces of sea shell and inlay them into a fret board?
You may be an excellent cabinet maker, but have you cut to 1000th of an inch tolerances?
There are many variables, and many orders of doing things that are crucial. One false move and you're set back a week. All this you will encounter in a guitar building or repairing career.
Finding The Right School
If you are truly interested in pursuing a career in guitar-making and/or repair, then I would suggest that you take six months to a year out of your life, find the right school for you, and walk away with a finished instrument of your own design and creation. You'll also walk out with a resume and knowledge that you may not get anywhere else.
When looking for a program, you should understand that guitar repair is taught at a less comprehensive level than guitar making, and can be found in shorter courses and workshops, but also in associate degrees, and at tech or trade schools. Guitar making is more comprehensive, will take much longer to master, and will require more education.
When making the decision of where to go within the field, consider your future goals. The better your education and the more experienced your instructor, the better prepared you will become. If you're planning on working under another seasoned repairman, you can start on a basic level and pick up skills one by one. It's highly unlikely you'll be able to be the sole repairman for a high-end guitar or music shop, right out of training, but the more extensive your schooling and the more experienced your instructor, the sooner you'll be qualified to be out on your own. The big issue is practice, and that can't be learned by training alone.
Here are some key factors to consider:
Price and Per Student Attention
The two biggest issues in deciding a school are price and personalized instruction. The benefits of attending a school with fewer students is that you will have more one-on-one time with the instructor(s) - but that time may come with a higher price. A school that services more students per term usually also has more instructors, giving you a broader perspective, but the one-on-one time may be less.
Most guitar-making schools will teach Acoustic Guitar making. You will walk out of most schools with your own instrument. You will want to consider and inquire about Electric Guitar making, and Arch Top making. Many large commercial builders and some high-end, top of the line custom makers use CNC machines, which stands for Computer Numerical Control. It is a versatile form of automation that can create very exact sizes and shapes in minutes as opposed to hours.
My advice: If wanting to work for a larger commercial company, make a list of the companies you'd like to work for, contact them, and ask what training is required.
Old World and Cutting Edge
Think over the possibilities of traditional guitar making, and cutting edge technology.
Centuries of tradition go into the art of guitar making . But new advances in technology are advancing daily. Again CNC training is not very traditional or old world, but is used by some companies. Special certifications such as the Buzz Feiten tuning system are used by companies like Washburn Guitars.
For the amount of time spent in actual learning, you may encounter sticker shock. For a half-year of instruction, you could pay in the tens of thousands. You must keep in mind, though, that you may be walking out with one to three custom-made instruments - these are not only your resume, but yours to enjoy as well. The materials may also be provided for this.
Again, your price must be weighed against students per teacher, specialists in their field, their expertise, the weight of their certification, accreditation, reputation, amount of actual instruments made over the duration, etc. Find someone doing what you want to do, or a company that you want to work for post education. Ask them what a certificate from the institution of your choice will do for your career.
The price may seem high for the amount of time, but considering the actual education, and what it prepares you for, it may seem, in perspective, quite fair.
Remember I said an organic experience? This is where you may really realize you're not at your local state school. I have heard that there could be little to no assistance here. My friend had to fly with his parents at age 19 to the city of his training school and have his parents co-sign for an apartment lease. Be prepared for a challenge. Take your time on this, ask the school for advise. They do it all the time, with people from all over the world, and every school, and city is different, so do your homework.
Here, you'll usually compensate for the traditional school experience. The cost of books (if there are any) will be light. Most schools also provide a majority of tools, but it is customary, and advised, to have your own small collection of chisels, metal rulers, and various hand tools. Each school may have its own requirements, so check in advance.
The number of schools that teach Luthery is small. You will be incredibly lucky if you find a school within commuting distance. You may wish to think about what you want to learn, and how you want to learn it. This may not coincide with where you want to learn it.
If this is something you love, though, you'll be around others with similar interests. The concentration of the course may not leave time for much of a social life outside your fellow Luthier friends, but remember that this isn't a four- or six-year school - it's a half-year. The location may not be as much of a factor, when you compare it to what you want to learn.
If location is important, you may have to sacrifice student-per-teacher ratio, the number of instruments you build, or price.
Acceptance is usually guaranteed, depending on the school. There's generally not an ACT or SAT for this.
You may be asked for some kind of woodworking experience, and for those still deciding, it is strongly recommended that you take some workshops at your community civic center, YMCA or a local craft store. Instructors are adept at making sure you're up to what their asking you to do. They have your safety in mind, but you'll smoothly adjust to your new surroundings if you have some prior experience.
If you've never worked with commercial power equipment, remember that a wrong move can end your career in a split-second and deform your appearance for a lifetime. Most of us who have worked in such an environment and are guitarists watch in respect and fear as our fingers pass by a saw blade spinning at 3500 rpms, and think about which chords we won't be able to play depending on which finger hits the blade. Don't let this scare you, but don't take this lightly either.
Again, it is usually not required to have woodworking or musical experience, but that is advised. Take some guitar lessons, if you haven't before. Hang around your local music shops, ask about the best guitars, best quality, finish, woods, hardware, the works. Buy guitar magazines, play guitars, and find out what makes them sound the way they do. Remember your first guitar is your first resume: The better it is, the better your resume will be, and the better first job you can get.
Both woodworking and sound quality are the key factors in your guitar. A well-built guitar may feel and sound like a piece of furniture. A beautiful sounding guitar not made correctly, but could break under its own weight.
These concepts will be taught to you, but the more prepared you are, the better you'll do.
It's difficult to fail, if you give it your best shot, but it is possible. If you don't do you work or are indifferent to quality standards, this could harm your chances. Keep a good rapport with your instructors. Ask them what you could be doing better and act on their feedback. They will most likely give it to you anyway. Some schools actually have a grading system.
The Actual Learning
At most guitar schools, your education is centered around your building of one or more guitars. They are your thesis and your future resume.
The curricula vary from there. Some have specialists that give different seminars for the different skills, such as electronics, spray finishing, French polish, inlays, fretting, etc. At some schools with a smaller student-to-teacher ratio, you'll work closely with a smaller number of instructors.
You will learn to use the tools needed, and get history lessons on the art as you go. There is very little paper work, outside design, and homework is considerably less than a traditional education. Most of what you do is in a lab format, which is the actual guitar shop, that consists mostly of a woodworking shop and spray room. It is a step by step education, where you learn each step in the order of how it must be done.
Basically, the core of your education is the making of your own guitar that you get to keep.
Don't look at your certificate as an end, but a beginning. You will need some self-motivation afterward, and consider your next several years as an internship period. You may start out in repair, even if you're a builder. The person working over you may not have ever built an instrument, but has done some of the things you've done once or twice, hundreds of times. Learn from anyone you work with and save your knowledge that you don't use in repair for your next step up the ladder.
You may work in factory guitar building environment, and be doing just one part of the whole. It takes years of practice to get to be seasoned as a builder, experience and repetition, to have consistent quality.
Build Up Your Desired Goals
You didn't spend nearly as much on your education as you could have at fours years at a traditional school. Set aside those finances to start building your career. Try to gradually increase your tools and machines. Your first guitar typically will not reflect the craftsmanship of an experienced builder. Build more instruments in your spare time. Each will improve, and better your chances for a top job, because that instrument is your proof of what you're capable of.
It's a high paced world, where large corporations are swallowing up our music, our radio, what we see, hear, and taste on almost every level. Fortunately, Old World business practices still exist in Guitar Making and Repair. Human working schedules, and good solid provable skills, still reign supreme. Wealth is not always the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a Luthier, but if you love guitar playing, and you're good with your hands, you're a good candidate for a successful future Guitar Builder or Guitar Repairman.
If you lack music skills, but are a great woodworker, or vice versa, develop your weak sides. Get whatever kind of experience you can - because neither ability can work on its own. The equal combination of expert knowledge and experience of both is necessary to be excellent at the art.
Get an education and a certificate. It's a political world, and your word of experience only goes so far. You'll have the last word when you produce your certificate, open your guitar case and say " Here's what I can do."
Chris Holm is a Music Writer, Guitarist, Studio Bassist, Multi-instrumentalist, Producer, Manager, and Recording Engineer for the band Cardinal Points. He is also a guitar builder hobbyist, musical activist, and radio host for of an internet radio station at www.live365.com/stations/295691.
Guitar Tool Photos Courtesy of Stewart MacDonald Stewart MacDonald