Is making a guitar body nothing more than woodwork?

Discussion in 'The Small Company Luthiers' started by fernmeister, Apr 27, 2005.


  1. fernmeister

    fernmeister Member

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    On another forum, in response to this question;

    "Am I right in assuming a guitar body would not be a very good first woodworking project... "

    A new "luthier" responded by saying,

    "Actually it's a good project provided you take your time researching and planning accordingly. The only important bits are the neck pocket and bridge position for an accurate scale length and corect intonation. What goes on outside the centre 'plank' is primarily for aesthetics and balance (we're talking solid body electric)."

    This new luthier, despite having only built 4-5 guitars and having no training in luthiery, is charging in the range of $2500 to $5000 for guitars. The justification seems to be lots of experience in woodworking.

    I'm posting this here, because this seems to be the most knowledgeable forum on small guitar luthiers on the net. To me this new luthier is troublling. I've done setups on guitars for close to 20 years and had a go at some repair work. I've also done quite a bit of woodwork and carpentry. To me, whilst some skills overlap (the ability to use power tools, etc), other skills and knowledge are unique to luthiery.

    So it worries me to see someone like this charging so much for guitars. I guess I'm old fashioned enough to worry about this bringing disrepute to the luthiery business. Am I overreacting?
     
  2. Scott Peterson

    Scott Peterson Staff Member

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    Well, in reality it really is just about woodworking to *build* a guitar. Don't undercut the amount of skill that actually entails. It is a combination of art/science and access to some pretty exacting skills with your hands. And some nice tools.

    The art of luthiery comes from choosing the correct woods and having the end result a greater sum than the parts. Getting the frets done to the level that would justify that kind of money is a tremendous skill; also cutting the nut. The finish is a huge part of it; and the electronics are a whole 'nother part of the receipe. You already noted the setup; no woodworking skills there - that takes some serious knowledge to really nail it.

    As for *anyone* paying somebody up to $5000 to make them a guitar that only has "4 or 5" guitars under his belt, well, there is a sucker born every minute. IMHO, it takes more to understand the player's needs to deserve that kind of money.

    But every luthier started somewhere. (Though I doubt they could get that kind of money early on!)
     
  3. george4908

    george4908 Member

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    Anyone got a link to this guy's stuff?

    As for woodworking chops, I can offer the following story. I've done some woodworking on and off since high school. Nothing terribly fancy -- end tables, cradles for my nieces and nephews, that sort of thing. A dovetailed hardwood cabinet for my Deluxe Reverb. Never built a guitar in all that time because I was intimidated by the high degree of precision that would be required to satisfy my own standards of what I wanted in a guitar. I didn't want to go through all that effort to build an unplayable shitplank.

    Last year, I hooked up with my friend Norm. He's been a very serious woodworking hobbyist for years, building at a very high level -- ornate carvings and inlays, etc., he built half the furniture in his house and it's to a very high standard. He knew nothing about guitars, never played, but when he got a look at some of mine, and appreciated the craftsmanship, the light went off in our heads at the same time and we decided to each build a guitar together in his shop, starting with Teles. We figured that between my knowledge of guitars and his woodworking skills, we'd be able to pull this off.

    My guitar was pretty simple -- slab of alder, no arm or tummy cuts, solid color, dot inlays, etc. Made some mistakes along the way, was able to fix most of them and keep going. Overall, it came out great -- it wouldn't fool anyone that it was CNC perfect, but most important, it sounds and plays well. It's a good guitar, I play it all the time and couldn't be happier. While I realize now that I could have done it by myself, there's no question that without Norm's assistance at a few key points, it wouldn't have come off nearly as well.

    Norm's guitar was somewhat more involved -- bookmatched maple cap, tricolor sunburst finish, semi-hollow routs, arm and tummy cuts, plus little details like insetting the jack plate flush to the body. These were things that he had no hesitancy in tackling because he was fully confident in his ability to pull them off, whereas I kept mine as simple as possible so I wouldn't be throwing stumbling blocks in my own path. His guitar came out great, and yes, it was finished to a higher standard than mine. But my role in Norm's guitar was important, too. Woods, hardware, fret choices, etc., were my department. And not being a player, he had no intuitive feel for what a neck should feel like. So he'd carve and whittle a bit, hand it over to me, and I'd tell him where there was too much shoulder, where it needs to be rounder, etc.

    I'm going to be starting my next one shortly, and it will be more complicated than my first. Meanwhile, Norm's hooked -- he's already completed six, including a carved top, setneck LP with binding and fancy inlays, and he's now building a guitar to his own design. He's getting deeper into what makes a guitar really good, including learning about tonewoods, electronics, and how to build to achieve a particular sound. (And he's taking guitar lessons!)

    So let's see, where was I? If this guy you know has only built a handful of guitars, it is certainly possible they're great instruments -- as long as knows what makes a great guitar, as opposed to simply knowing how to be a great woodworker. It's not rocket science, but there is an accumulated wisdom that a builder ignores at his own peril. Or his customer's. Whether his guitars are worth the coin he's charging, well, try putting one on the used market and see how it holds up! Someone may be in for a surprise.
     
  4. Ian Anderson

    Ian Anderson Supporting Member

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    To add to what Scott said,

    Woodworking is the easiest and a very small part part of building a guitar.

    The internet has allowed these guys who have built a handful of guitars to put up a website and solicit work on the level of professionals. Without having to spend years working on vintage guitars, doing set ups, restorations, repairs, becoming a journeyman finisher, machinist, patternmaker, electronics expert, etc...

    There is a maturity in this business as any other that comes from time, experience, and talent.
     
  5. BCR Greg

    BCR Greg Member

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    Yeah, that pesky fretwork is CAKE compared to sanding the edges.

    As if.

    Building a guitar properly is giving life to a pile of components, enabling musician's to make the world a better place.

    Woodworking is making chairs for grandma.
     
  6. erksin

    erksin Member

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    I've built two guitars myself - made both bodies and bought the rest of the parts.

    My first was kind of Tele-ish - and the most frightening/difficult part of the project was aligning the neck pocket and determining the proper bridge placement. After measuring 27 times, I finally settled on the proper placement and wound up being too close to the neck by about 1/4". The guitar plays great and intonates fine (god bless adjustable saddles) - and unless you get right up on it you'd never know.

    The second one I built was a chambered body 12-string. This time, I got the bridge placement about 1/8" too far from the neck.

    I figure I'll get it perfect next time out...

    The only thing I farmed out was the nut work, fret dress, and final set-up/intonation.

    Go for it - it's really fun, and it's awesome to play an instrument you designed and made yourself.
     
  7. angelo

    angelo Member

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    I guess, unfortunately, that may be right.



    If someone has their skills together, everyone would be talking about neck gap and fret work, finish and feel. A few "special" ones (even by luck) and an internet reputation might be made.


    In the end, though, we'd like to think it is about finding "good" wood --- vibrant and alive. Crafting sweet instruments. How many great guitars have you played with some sloppy work and how many other "perfect" instruments sounded flat?


    Great post and great topic.

    In the end, you gotta play 'em.
     
  8. dot-dot-dot

    dot-dot-dot Guest

    The quote is specifically about building a body though - I've not seen many guitars with frets on the body.
     
  9. Schroeder

    Schroeder Gold Supporting Member

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    I would disagree with him that:

    "What goes on outside the centre 'plank' is primarily for aesthetics and balance (we're talking solid body electric)."

    In my experience, wood affects tone. Everythig affects everything right?

    I don't think that the issue really BEGINS with new luthiers coming in and deminding too much money for guitars. The market would have corrected that problem and no one would be interested. I think that high prices for custom shop guitars by major manufacturers are creating niche markets for guys who can make similar instruments for less money and in less time.

    Bottom line though, if someone is making a cruddy guitar that looks good but sounds bad and is set up poorly, they won't be receiving repeat business. In my opinion, the internet makes this a very small world.
     
  10. robmarch

    robmarch Member

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    I've been offered money in the range he mentioned for a fully custom guitar several times after people have checked out my last guitar and my current project. I told the people that I couldn't build them a guitar for that large sum of money in my current situation, and forwarded them on to people who would make great use of their several K. custom luthiers don't get rich building high end guitars.

    lots of people view fully custom guitars as pieces of artwork as much as instruments, and are willing to pay for special and unique features. most of these high end custom guitars don't cost appreciably more than a factory gibson. I think they're a steal.
     
  11. Rob DiStefano

    Rob DiStefano Member

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    Decades ago, I - along with my Dad (who scratch-built acoustics as well) - used to build guitars ... these dayze I assemble'em.

    Before the guitar parts industry took off, you had to roll yer own or pay big prices for stock bodies and necks for solid body bolt-on neck gits. It's a huge chore to bandsaw and rout out a body and making a neck from scratch is not for amateurs. Aside from having the proper tooling, you need to have the proper smarts before you start measuring and cutting wood.

    The advent of readily available (and cheap!) CNC'd bodies & necks totally eliminates the need for the DIY build-from-scratch method of guitar making. Unless yer going commercial or are nutz enuf to have that large a guitar making ego.

    Since those scratch building dayze, I've cut out at least a few solid bodies. And every time I completed one in the raw I questioned my sanity (and ego) for even starting.

    Anyhoo, that's my take on solid body guitar building and assembling - as always, YMMV.
     
  12. robmarch

    robmarch Member

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    assuming you're a bolt on guy, buying parts is definitely the most cost/labor effective way to go. through body or set neck people still have to roll their own, for the most part.

    I'll admit that I was motivated as much (more) by "ego," or at least testing my skills, as I was wanting another guitar. Going through the building process really made me appreciate what goes into a guitar, and gave me a much more critical eye.
     
  13. davesee

    davesee Guest

    i apprentice with a small custom electric builder and i can tell you... it's not easy. although the body is probably the easiest part to create, the number of steps and detail and tools involved in making a basic strat is are enough to boggle the beginner's brain.
     
  14. fernmeister

    fernmeister Member

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    Interesting responses. I've been thinking a fair bit, since starting this thread. To me my discomfort arises from what I see as the difference between skill and craft.

    Let me explain. Woodworking is intially about skill, but when you push to the highest levels of function and design, it rises above that, to the level of craft. For example, I can make a chair with my woodworking skills, but i do not have the craft to choose the right woods and work to the tight tolerances of the original shaker chairs. The differece is not just about looks or finish, but rather, lightness, balance and finally function. It takes a master craftsman to build a chair that is simultaneously so light and so strong.

    Returning to guitars, I guess any competent woodworker could make a guitar body that looks good, because from one perspective the skills required are genric; cutting, routing, sanding, finishing. They could probably choose great looking woods and produce something that would look very impressive.

    However, the craft is in making a body that performs the functions of a musical instrument, not just those of a decorative object. For example, the curve and carve of a body is not just an aesthetic thing, but also relates to the playability of the instrument. Same holds true for the layout and placement of controls. Moreover, the choice of woods and shape relates directly to both the tone and the balance and playability of an instrument. Finally, it goes without saying that an instruments nees to play in and keep tune.

    So to me, guitarmaking is luthiery. You need good woodworking skills to be a luthier, but you also need a craftsman's attention to the act of playing guitar at the highest levels. I just can't see how one can short-cut this, or claim that it is an easy leap from woodwork to luthiery.
     
  15. robmarch

    robmarch Member

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    leo fender is a great example.

    a skilled woodworker can build a functional guitar, even one that sounds decent.

    however, like the difference between the fender factory and the fender custom shop, there are certainly intangibles that can make the difference between a good guitar and a great one, and the pursuit of characterizing these differences is what I'd consider Luthiery, over woodworking.
     
  16. george4908

    george4908 Member

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    >>So to me, guitarmaking is luthiery. You need good woodworking skills to be a luthier, but you also need a craftsman's attention to the act of playing guitar at the highest levels. I just can't see how one can short-cut this, or claim that it is an easy leap from woodwork to luthiery.<<

    If you're talking about going from hobbyist woodworking to world class luthiery on the level of a Lentz, Benedetto or similar -- of course, you can't make that leap over night, and a lot of people won't ever make that leap no matter how many guitars they build for however many years. I know I won't.

    But if you're talking about having decent, but not extroardinary woodworking skills, then going out and scratch building a decent guitar -- decent, not world beating -- yes, it can be done, people do it all the time. Good sounding, playable guitars.

    The basics of building a functional instrument is not rocket science, and shouldn't intimidate someone with average woodworking skills. The difference between that and the top guys, well, that is rocket science because they're doing it at a very high level that mere mortals will struggle to attain.

    Whether the new luthier who inspired this thread is quite at that level yet, I seriously doubt it, but also it's possible he's making very nice guitars. $7k nice? That's a different question entirely. I sure wouldn't pay it.
     
  17. scott

    scott Supporting Member

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    Its possible to make a guitar with good woodworking skills if you have some knoledge of guitars. When I first saw the tittle of this thread I laughed out loud. You could say its a little more than just woodworking. There are so many little details and skills involved that I could write all night long and still not even scratch the surface. It took me more than 10 years and more than 100 guitars for me to get just where I am. When i look back now its rediculous that I even thought I knew anything after my first 10 guitars. I still feel like i know nothing sometimes. Especially since I got the CNC. I encourage anyone who thinks its easy to try to build one. It will be an eye opener for you no doubt.


    www.heatleyguitars.com
     
  18. Lex Luthier

    Lex Luthier Member

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    A big can of worms has been opened here, huh? ;)

    There is a builder whose guitars are highly revered here on this board who came from a furniture building background. He also has a vast understanding of what made old vintage guitars what they were. His guitars have a strong vintage vibe and are really sweet.

    I have a buddy who had zero woodworking skills build a really sweet guitar on his first try. He is a great player and also did a lot of research before he built the guitar.

    On the other hand, I recently checked out a $20k guitar from a builder with a fancy website that had a 400 piece inlay on the fingerboard, great workmanship, and it was a total turd as a guitar.

    What makes a great guitar?

    Let's look at a vintage Les Paul sunburst. Some of the workmanship on them would be roasted by guys here on this board if they were build by a boutique builder, but yet a lot of them sound like the voice of God when plugged in thru an amp. Same thing with a lot of vintage guitars. I wonder how much the guys building those guitars really knew about building them? They were probably assigned one or two tasks and did that all day long. You had housewives winding pickups. Look at Ted McCarty, the guy couldn't even play guitar, but yet he designed some really cool things like the ABR1, 335, and the korina guitars. The same with Leo Fender.

    Something to think about...
     
  19. AJ Love

    AJ Love Senior Member

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    I think that the level of custom guitar making has skyrocketed over the last decade or so...we are seeing better and better made guitars and the bar has been raised

    when you see the level of guitars made by folks like Suhr, Lentz, John English and others it really boggles the mind...the same is true in the bass building world with builders like Sadowsky and Fodera

    it takes years and years (decades really) to be able to make instruments with the playability and tone that these builders make....to me, thats what its all about: playability and tone. Looks are icing
     
  20. PlexiBreath

    PlexiBreath Member

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    The most important thing about being a world class luthier is playing skills.

    After that it's woodworking skills.

    A versitle, top knotch player with a very developed, highly trained ear, who is an expert wood worker, will make the best luthier because he/she will be able to adjust the design to perfection to meet his/her demanding playing skills, as well as have the ability to decern the best tone woods.

    John Kelley Brown
     

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