Professional & Academic Perspectives of Guitar Making and Repair: Interview with Wes Lorber

Wes Lorber is a custom guitar builder, and designer of his own guitars and other instruments. He has built classical, steel string, 12 string, and electric guitars, as well as dulcimers, and an arch top mandocello. Wes has a Luthier certificate from the Roberto Venn, School of Luthery, and is is a Certified Buzz Feiten retrofitter. He attended Brookhaven College for Classical Guitar, and has taught guitar.

At the time of this interview, he was working for Music Technology in the D.C. area as the guitar repair technician, but he now has begun down the road of self-employment and custom guitar building.

You & Your Career

Where did your interest in guitar making begin?

When I was young, like any other kids, we used to play adventure games, fighting with toy swords, and shields. The difference was I used to make my own from wood. This began my woodworking craft. Later, I got interested in music, but still had my love of woodworking. Guitar Making was the natural combination of the two.

I was a bit of a fanatic, to the point where my parents would try to ground me from my tools, and guitars unless I did my school work. At some point they just gave up, and we all figured out, it was just what I wanted to do.

How did you arrive at where you are today?

After high school, when I was 19, I attended the Roberto Venn, School of Luthery. I took the course and got certified. I walked out with an electric and a 12 string guitar. I then got a job at a local "ma and pa" music store, called Frets and Strings, in Dallas until they went out of business.

I went back to school at Brookhaven College and took classical guitar.

I learned a lot from A guy named Sam Swank, in Dallas, who's a professional guitarist, and one of the best repairmen in the city. He taught me guitar lessons, and I learned a bit about repair. I took some positions doing cabinetry, and antique restoration. They weren't the most savory positions, but they really added to my skills, and knowledge.

All the while, I was building my own instruments, including one cold winter in my parents garage, building a six string that I would later bring to Collings Guitars in Austin to try and get a job there. The owner, Bill Collings, was impressed by my work, but thought I was still too young.

I went back to Dallas, started teaching lessons, and building instruments word of mouth for people, doing repair, and customizing instruments. I Built several of my own instruments, and taught guitar lessons on the side. When I moved to D.C., I starting working for Music Technology. Early on, they sent me to take the Buzz Feiten Tuning System certificate, and I do quite a lot of retrofits.

What are your goals in this field?

I hope to be successfully sharing my time between my repair for stability and my building and playing for artistic satisfaction.

The Actual Work

Describe a typical day at work for you.

I start around 10:00, avoiding the heavier part of rush hour. If you work for music shops, this could be as late as 11 or 12, which is nice if you double as a musician, which most of us do.

Again, in my current position, most other duties are taken care of, so I just fix guitars. It might be a refret, or it might be a broken neck, or some customization, or a Buzz Feiten retrofit, which is gaining in popularity right now, and I do alot of. I may be making a new bridge here, or a new nut there, it changes from day to day. My building is extracurricular at the moment, but in the past when it was nearly all I did, it was quite free form. I worked on it in the wee hours of the morning, or afternoon, no set plans.

A typical day could be ordering parts, shopping for hardwoods, it could be six hours of hand carving, or running up to Kinkos to have your drawings made to scale. Whatever step in the making process was next. Unfortunately, sometimes it's redoing something that got made incorrectly, but that's all part of the learning process.

What are the tools of the trade that you use the most?

Belt sander, bandsaw, table saw, buffer, sander, router, drill press as far as power tools go. Chisels, planes, scrapers, spoke shaves, and extremely fine measuring instruments, like the digital calipers I use now for intonation's sake. It's a whole new world of machine like tolerances nowadays. I also use an HVLP spray unit, for finishes, and a whole bunch of other hand tools, many specially designed for Luthiers, for cutting fret slots, and trimming the fret wire. Some tools I've even made myself.

What are some common myths about Guitar Making?

In my opinion, tradition isn't everything. Sure many ideas have evolved and become standards for good reasons, because they work, but that doesn't mean there isn't a better way that no one has thought of yet. I personally feel it is an art form, and relish the old world part of it more that anything, but, I believe technology can hinder that, or enhance that. New tools, methods and innovations can be used artistically as well, and save time, and improve accuracy. The best guitar is the best guitar, regardless of how you make it.

How does guitar-making differ and how is it similar to other forms of woodworking and technical occupations?

As far as cabinetry goes, cabinetry requires an object to be aesthetically pleasing, utilitarian, and durable. All these things are applicable to Guitar Making, but go on from there.

Both are utilitarian. A table must endure if spilled on. Guitars are played in bars, and clubs, have alcohol splattered on them. They must endure finger sweat, string tension, a good bump now and then, but where cabinetry stops at long and short 16ths, Luthery can extend into the thousandths.

Some things can only be glued in Luthery, so there's not always shortcuts, like dropping a dab of glue, and pinning it together with a nail gun. Strength must exist, but not at the expense of sound.

Woods are chosen for sound and strength. Shape and thickness must be considered, and bracing is your means of strength in acoustic instruments.

Carving experience is always useful, and can be relative to guitar making. An electric guitar, made without CNC machines, is most labor intensive in this area. Neck's almost always need carving despite the type of guitar, but are more like tool design in the fact that the neck must fit well in your hands, and be conducive to comfortable playing, not just appearances.

Electronically, for electric guitars, it can be quite similar, depending on your expertise to electronic technicians. Generally electric guitars are quite simple, relatively. If you know about capacitors, and volume pots, grounding, etc, there's not much more, although you will run into some pretty technical new guitars, with pc boards, and chips. Custom wiring jobs can get technical. Multi-option controls can be challenging, but still are within the realms of basic electrical training.

Finishing can be a challenge. It is more similar to Car finishing than furniture. You're not dealing with just flat surfaces. You're usually dealing with much thicker finishes, both for aesthetic, and durability's sake.

Is it important to have contacts with other collegues in the field? How have your professional collaborations benefited your career?

There is some competition, and some people sort of keep to themselves, but I feel it's good, and have friends in the business. I have a good friend that works with Mallia Lutherie in Australia. I haven't kept up with too many people from my school. We're generally so spread out. Until you build a substantial name for yourself, your work stays fairly localized.

What are the pro's and con's of your position?

Pros, I'm doing what I love. It's like a car enthusiast test driving Ferrari's all day. I work musician's hours. I am accountable to the owner of course, but I'm not under anyone as far as guitars go.

Cons, I'm around guitars all day. When I get home, I don't even want to see a guitar sometimes. I'm a musician, so that's not that great. The work comes in as it comes in. If we're swamped, it's difficult to take time off, you're kind of pinned to your responsibility. It's also hard to find good help, so learn the trade, and come help us out.

Education Information & Advice

What did you like and dislike about your Luthier education?

The informal aspects had their positives and negatives. Overall, it was quite good. It stuck to the point. It was focused, and I was well trained. The teachers knew their subject matter, and it wasn't like being in boot camp, it was very human.

I wasn't in a dorm, so I had to go grocery shopping, and take out the garbage. You had to balance your self-preservation and school, and transportation back and forth. The homey aspect did follow through in some quirky ways like doing chores in exchange for weekend shop time. That had it's draw backs. There wasn't any business training which is very important if you're going to become a self employed businessman.

As far as the Buzz Feiten certification went, I thought what they were asking me to do was impossible and unnecessary. But it raised the bar on my perception of tolerances, and my quality standards are at an all time high.

How can prospective Guitar Making and Repair students assess their skill and aptitude for Guitar Making and Repair?

Basically through all the things I've mentioned, here are some of the questions that you might ask yourself:

  • Did you take woodshop in school, and were you good at it?
  • Do you play guitar?
  • Is it something that is interesting enough for a hobby, or for a whole career?
  • Do you have patience with minute details?
  • Do you have patience with your own level of progression?
  • Are you comfortable with that fact that expertise doesn't come overnight?
  • Do you have any physical problems like Carpal Tunnel, that would be amplified through the repetitious hand work that is required?

Jobs, Career Information & Advice

What is the average salary for Guitar Builders/Repairmen? What are people at the top of this profession paid?

There are many variables, and one could write a book on this, but to summarize, it depends on reputation, how well a businessman you are, and how fast you work.

For Builders, when you're new, you may not be able to ask the same price as a well recognized maker. You may be able to charge in the thousands for an instrument, but it may take you a month. The more times you have to redo something, the less money per hour you make. And how long is it before you have another instrument to make?

If you own a shop, with employees, which takes a long time to cultivate, you can have a decent career. If you make inexpensive basic guitars you make less per instrument, but can make the instruments much faster, and make more of them. The higher the quality, the higher the asking price, but the more time intensive.

For repair, some of the same rules apply. A shop owner can't charge a customer more, because a new slower worker is taking more time. This comes out of your dollars per hour ratio. If you have to divide your time between answering phones and selling sheet music, it can also become an issue.

How is the job market now for the Guitar Making/Repair industry? What do you think it will be in 5 years?

Situations like what I mentioned, and as more people find out about it, the need for more trained professionals will grow. This creates more work, thus creates more jobs. We need help right now.

Also the demand for custom made instruments is on the rise. People are realizing that if you're going to spend $1500 on an instrument, you might as well spend another thousand for one that is perfect to your hand size, scale length, one with perfect intonation, the color, shape, size, and has your choice of type of wood, etc.

What specialized machines do Guitar Makers typically use? How important is it for graduating students to be well-versed with these machines?

CNC machines, are computer controlled machines that replicate a certain motion. Similar to the machines you see that make cars. It can carve out an unlimited amount of the same exact size and shape pieces. The ones used for guitar making, are simply a router attached to one of these, that creates whatever shape you program into it.

CNC machines are used mainly in production shops. If you plan to work in that environment, you will need to learn the in's and out's of them. As a repairman, or independent custom builder, building a different instrument for every person, or if you're just one person, it's not that cost effective.

From your experiences, what advice can you give someone interested in heading down a similar road?

Basically, if you're going to do it, do it whole heartedly. The rest is all subjective, and will be a personal, and a different experience for everyone.

Regarding my experience. My first job was repair. It was good experience, but it was in a small music shop. In my opinion, the down side to that I was sometimes that I was the only one there. You may want to ask what responsibilities will be required of you for your first job. I had to answer phones, and questions about sheet music, and put down soldering irons, stop and start what I was doing all the time, it was hard to focus, and get anything done.

After that closed down, the other guitar shops had repairmen in place for years at each prospective shop. You may find you're waiting for someone to die before you can get hired. You should look into the job market and be flexible with where you want to live, or be willing to take jobs such as antique restoration or cabinetry. If you're lucky, you might have a nice boss, that will let you use their shop on the weekend for making new instruments.

Now, the business I work for has a receptionist who does purchasing; I just give them a list of what I need, and it's taken care of. It allows me to focus on the very detailed work I do, uninterrupted.

As far as becoming excellent at being a guitar maker, you have to know what an excellent guitar is like first. Find out some of the best names in Guitar Makers, like Collings and find out where you can see, feel and play one. Guitar shows are a good place for this. If you've only seen factory made instruments, you may have no idea how high the degree of quality can go.

Secondly, you're going to need to practice and hone your skills, and this will take time. There's so much to know about the art. You can make a beautiful instrument that sounds wonderful, but will it hold up under the rigors of time? This takes a lot of experience, and trial and error.

To be well rounded, you should have experience in guitar playing, building, repair, and new technology.

Industry Trends

What are some of the trends that you see in the field of Guitar Making/Repair, which could help students plan for the future?

The latest that has effected me is the increase in perfection of the instrument. It has long been accepted that the fretted guitar was just an imperfect instrument. Now with certification training like the Buzz Feiten tuning system, a guitar can be as equally in tune as a piano.

The Buzz Feiten Tuning system applies machine tolerances to wood, and the end result is an immaculately precise intonation. Washburn is now offering it, and word is spreading.

Since this hasn't been a popular idea in the past, or a common original installation, many people who thought their guitars were as good as they could be are bringing in their old guitars and having them redone. I have 80 instruments on my shelf right now.

Has the popularity of the Internet affected your profession?

Yes, especially for the custom builder. You can at least get your name out. It doesn't really add to your reputation, though. That you have to earn.

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in guitar building and repair?

Do it wholeheartedly. You can make or repair instruments your whole life, and be in a constant state of improving. There's no end to making a better guitar.

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