Thoughts from an old sumbitch regarding getting into guitar making in 2019

Discussion in 'Luthier's Guitar & Bass Technical Discussion' started by Terry McInturff, Jan 25, 2019.

  1. Terry McInturff

    Terry McInturff 40th Anniversary of guitar building! Gold Supporting Member

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    Hello,

    I am contacted semi-regularly by younger folks wanting to get into the guitar making business. Im always delighted by these calls/emails!

    I received one of these calls again today.

    There's so much confusion about how to get into this career. I think that the internet has been a confusing agent.

    Some even think that one should purchase a CNC as a primary piece of the initial shop gear!!!
    NOPE !!!!!!!!!! What? you mean that you can't be bothered to acquire the skills that meet/exceed CNC using trad analog tools????? CNC later... analog woodworking/handskills are #1 to master.

    Becoming an ace CNC programer is farther down the list of needs than many seem to think...unless of course one seeks a career doing that for a major mfg as part of the job description. I have a tremendous amount of respect for CNC setup/programming skills (which I do not possess) and I do not mean to critique of the use of CNC is guitar making, far from it!

    But, you DO want to know how to be an ACE by hand/by analog tools...right? There's not only a TON of honor in that, that body of knowledge would make you better all around including designing for CNC.

    My suggestion is always the same...serve an apprenticeship. And you need to be choosy about whom you trust to teach. Things to look for include reputation and length of experience...and personality.

    Luthiers schools are of value it is true. I view them as being proof-of-passion. There are many things of value being taught in schools and I have hired a number of graduates. I'm always a tad more interested in a graduate since the passion is shown....the tricky bit being that they need to ditch close to 100% of what they learned at school day-one at TCM. And they need to be naturally OK with that.

    Working in a totally pro, busy repairshop (i.e., urban area) for 6-8 years is an invaluable training ground. If you are lucky enough to serve in one, it's the best training ground as regards how the instruments actually work. If I hadn't been full-time/14 years in that world, I'd never stand a chance of knowing where to go with my guitar making, except to copy what had been done before. I'd be copying how to build a neck, etc, and the trad problems would follow from the original to my work. I'd be on the search for the right truss rod instead of the right neck design.

    Learn from somebody with old-skool chops and ignore any easy-way-out via digital tech for the first chunk of your learning; you HAVE TO understand how wood and sound works from the ground up.

    And whilst my main advice is to learn how to deal with things hands-on/analog, there's IMO an important study to be made on the side: the study of SOUND. That right there is of course an entirely separate career ala recording engineering but you need not take it that far.

    But, seeing-as-how music is all about sound, do you understand why a basic grasp of how the basic frequencies sound is...umm...kinda important? We guitar makers tend to think more about technical matters more than we do about sound and that's a drag.

    Wood species A + pickups B + hardware C does NOT= specific sound D


    How on Earth can you "build a custom sound" without a knowledge of the basic frequencies involved in guitar design...be able to hear them in your head at will? You will benefit greatly by training yourself to identify the basic 1/3rd-octave spread between 80 Hz and 10Khz.

    "What I don't like about this guitar in general is the way it sounds in the 800Hz range" would betray person who can go one step further in hers/his "minds eye" as regards what could be done more satisfactorily. IMO you HAVE to study sound.

    And you HAVE to study guitar history...what went right, what went wrong. Learn the classics like the back of your hand...and do not assume that they are the pinnacle.

    Finally, the goal IMO is to build for the ages. Or at least, to build for a world tour "with the truss rod cover on, no worries" LOL!

    Just an old skool sumbitch rambling on....
     
    Last edited: Jan 25, 2019
  2. Killed_by_Death

    Killed_by_Death Member

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    The CNC thing reminds me of SMT for electronics, Surface-Mount Technology.
    The same applies, it's better that the person who is designing the circuit path for the components knows how to do the job the old-school method.

    We had pro CAD guys build up the circuits, but then had the engineers running the SMT line to look over the designs before getting the board printed.
     
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  3. Terry McInturff

    Terry McInturff 40th Anniversary of guitar building! Gold Supporting Member

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    Don't get me wrong, I am not anti CNC! IMO its the best method for cutting fret slots, any number of inlay operations, holes and routes, roughing-out a top carve, etc.

    I will say that I have a prob regarding neck work, in that despite looking at it from every angle possible, and consulting with multiple CAD pros, including those in the guitar biz, it seems like the TCM neck cannot be made via CNC. And I regret that GREATLY. More than I can say. I do know that a more trad schedule would be doable though
     
    Last edited: Jan 25, 2019
  4. weevilcaster

    weevilcaster Member

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    Thank you Mr. McInturff for your post! I’ve worked with wood for the past 30 years or so & everything you say is spot on! Learning to do things by hand, using traditional tools can’t be substituted. I grew up in a rural area where there were many small lumber mills around. I learned from listening to the “old timers” who where kind enough to share their time & knowledge of wood with a young person who listened & wanted to learn.

    Apprenticeships are such a valuable experience with the right Master Craftsperson & Apprentice. I was lucky enough, in a former line of work, to be able to have such an experience. It took working with a few different people to find the right one, but when I did, the experience was invaluable.
     
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  5. Gclef

    Gclef Member

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    Terry,

    It is great to have sources like you, mr suhr, and others on the forum. It is nice to hear and learn fact based info from guys that not only played thousands of guitars, but built them.

    Coming from the construction instruction industry, I get and understand most of what you guys say.

    My question today, since I have heard you reference it many times, is:
    How are your necks different from everyone else? It seems like there are not many variations to it.
    1pc/2pc
    Single or double truss rod
    Wood grain direction
    Straight vs angled headstock.
    Fret material and size
    Scale length.

    I know g&l saws their necks in half lengthwise and reglues for added strength.

    Without giving trade secrets away, is there anything you can share with us?
     
    Last edited: Jan 26, 2019
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  6. John Coloccia

    John Coloccia Cold Supporting Member

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    FWIW, I had a CNC machine. What a PITA it was, and I have a very strong background in automation.

    Wood moves...

    Seriously, I can't imagine how anyone could ever possible build a quality guitar on a CNC machine if they hadn't first build guitars by hand. Machining metal is easy. Machining wood to any sort of precision requires some pretty serious understanding what wood likes to do. It's second nature once you've lived it for a while, but it's all about process and understanding what can move, what really shouldn't move, and how you rig it all up so you don't end up with a ton of hand work (or trashed parts) at the end.

    edit:
    Anyhow, building guitars by hand is fun.
     
    Last edited: Jan 26, 2019
  7. doc

    doc Member

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    I'd find it very handy to have the skill set of a good luthier and have a keen appreciation for those that have it and are willing to help with my projects. I've occasionally toyed with the idea of diving in, but it just doesn't make sense for me. I'm glad to hear we should have some young people available in the future. I worry for their prospects of being able to make a reasonable living at it though.
     
  8. Timtam

    Timtam Member

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    That's a fascinating thought (although somewhat depressing too). Is that because schools teach the wrong stuff or that things are done so differently at TCM to what everyone else does ? What sort of things they've been taught do graduates need to ditch ? ;)
     
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  9. frankencat

    frankencat Guitarded Supporting Member

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    Terry +100000000!
    Thank you for posting that. These are exactly the things I strive to be better at every day and what I teach/preach to my apprentices. First comes passion then desire to learn then knowledge and finally skill. The old saying "experience is the best teacher" is true but it depends on what you have spent your time learning. Making guitars from scratch with hand tools is a GREAT way to get started as a builder and is a mandatory part of being a Luthier. Luthery school can be a good way to go but understand that you are learning a specific methodology and you will have to find out what transfers in the real world. Whatever the case, this life is not for everyone and it is difficult to make the numbers work financially, but it is do-able. One piece of advice I would emphasize is to study the work of the masters and contemporaries like yourself. I love that experienced guys like you, Ron Thorn, John Suhr, David McNaught, Paul Smith and others are available and accessible and I have learned a great deal from you guys which helped to solidify myself as a Luthier and builder and I thank you for that. -Franklin Slamo
     
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  10. Deed_Poll

    Deed_Poll Member

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    Very interesting post and - I'm sure we will all agree - from a singularly reputable source!

    For me this is a very complex question indeed and where I might disagree with Terry on some aspects it is with great trepidation, for one disagrees with a seasoned expert at great peril even in matters of opinion!

    First of all, we are all tired of hearing it but it bears repeating. An instrument, musical or otherwise, is a tool. A CNC machine, pin router, pantograph, ruler etc. are therefore reasonably to be understood by the guitar builder on some level as 'meta-tools'(or tools for making tools).

    Just as our own opinions and philosophies about what guitars seem to be the 'right' way for us (as musicians) to make music inform a subjective standard for how a guitar 'ought' to be; so our opinions and philosophies about what seems the 'right' way to construct the instrument inform a subjective standard for how we 'ought' to go about designing and maintaining the process by which we go about making them.

    It is in designing this process that I can perhaps best explain why I as a new builder have chosen to fully integrate CNC processes from day one.

    My professional background is in parametric design. For those who are not familiar with the term, it can be thought of as designing using flexible dimensions that can be keyed in at a later date to produce a CAD model, a piece of machine code, quotation or other metric that can be fairly rapidly deployed to produce a bespoke product. These 'dimensions' as designed are algebraic formulae which might just as easily reference existing parametric equations as absolute values.

    A simple example might be this. Let's say your company manufactures tables. Kitchen tables, coffee tables, desks, console tables, the whole lot. You could set up your machinery to produce one of each style, in a specific size, based on what is popular.

    But when customers come to you and want something else because their space is a few inches too small, they're out of luck without a tremendous amount of reprogramming or bespoke hand work to modify the best-fit table the machine 'wants' to spit out. You just can't do it without incurring so much additional cost that the final product will not present value for money to your customer at a price that makes it worthwhile to produce.

    However, if you put a bit more thought and perhaps investment in designing the manufacturing process, you can make just one model that is parametrically flexible. In this system, you key in the exact dimensions your customer requires - height, width and depth, say - and that goes straight to each machine producing the components for that design to be assembled.

    If you design the process carefully enough, you can still produce tables in 'popular' sizes at a competitive price to add to your inventory all the time you don't have a bespoke order on the books. And you can use the flexibility of the software to more efficiently prototype new designs, because you are always building on the 'shoulders' of what came before.

    The example of a table is deliberately a simplistic one, but I hope you get my point. I've designed my CNC system for producing necks to introduce as much flexibility as possible into what a customer can specify to produce a truly bespoke product. I have a CAD model for a neck and fretboard that will let me key in

    - scale length

    - distance from neck pocket to bridge (which will determine the number of frets) and an override to have a fretboard overhang.

    - nut width

    -heel width

    - three different parameters to configure neck profile (depth, shoulder and 'slab') from two separate places (at the nut and at the 19th fret)

    and these are just the continuous variables. There are other variables like heel shape, set or bolt-on neck, headstock shape, tuner ream, etc.

    I can even introduce a multiscale fretboard with parameters for the bass-side scale, treble-side scale, and the offset of the two (angle of the nut / bridge).

    I'm sure you can imagine what a challenge it poses to accommodate all of these options into the design of the manufacturing process I will be using as regards jigs, vacuum clamping systems, streamlining the toolpathing etc. to make this all possible. It must be a supremely finely tuned and versatile system, and it does not come without its challenges!

    And I understand that much of the time, the customer would be better advised to trust the opinion of a seasoned professional like Terry, and to let that experience and dedication of the master builder inform their choice, than to specify every detail themselves. All of us who have built 'parts guitars' understand that there can be such a thing as having too many options - and too little wisdom - as to how those options should best come together and embody an instrument which is greater than the sum of its parts. I can only hope that in time my own wisdom might approach even a portion of that which is so clearly evident in many of the incredibly helpful, knowledgeable and kind spirited members of this sub-forum.

    The enemy, as always, is reductivism. We must always tread carefully as there are two cliff edges, one to either side.

    One side is the belief that the traditional means and methods embody perfection - that there must always have been a reason why things were done a certain way, and that this reason is above critical enquiry.

    The other side is to deny the possibility that there might be some as-yet unquantifiable embodied wisdom in the traditional means and methods, to fall in love with our own revolutionary, new or novel ideas; to assume our own metrics and perceptions of the successes or failings of those methods are infallible; and to instead make a god of only that which is measurable and, in so doing, turn our creative powers only toward maximising or minimising those attributes which will bear our means to analyse them.

    I'll end with another cliche (but a true one) that it is not the quality of the tool that matters but the quality of what it produces in the right hands. I think many of us as we have improved musically have returned to our first guitar only to find that it seems to have miraculously improved in the time since we replaced it with the next, supposedly 'bigger and better' thing! And perhaps some have found that we overreached with our second guitar, idolising features we would never transpire to use to their fullest.

    Perhaps we are best served starting with the art itself, that which we imagine in our heads, and choose an instrument to produce that. I think that might apply equally to the tool as it does to the meta-tool.

    ;)
     
    Last edited: Jan 27, 2019
  11. Laurent Brondel

    Laurent Brondel Supporting Member

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    I don't mean to speak for Terry, but schools typically teach the use of tools, power tools and safety, which is all very good, and instructors may teach one or several ways to build guitars -all probably at least good in the context of learning-, but in professional life and especially production, the latter knowledge probably goes out of the window.
    Every guitar builder has her or his own methods, production flow etc. and the key attribute for any apprentice/employee is adaptation and being a quick study. Both qualities not typically taught in schools (any school), where dogmatism is probably the main attitude, with exceptions of course.
     
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  12. whoismarykelly

    whoismarykelly Oh look! This is a thing I can change!

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    A couple years of school and then a few years apprenticing in a repair shop is a luxury very few can afford in the current economic climate. Especially people under 30. The folks I know here in Baltimore that are building interesting new instruments are too busy working other jobs to pay the bills to set aside half a decade to learn what is posited in this thread as "the right way." However, they can spend a couple hours a week honing designs in software and running tests in open maker spaces with free-to-use mills and CNCs to get a repeatable design that can be manufactured at scale for a price the people they are interested in building for can afford. Both ways can be right as long as the end product works and makes the buyer happy. The method outlined in the OP tends to result in $5000 guitars that are fantastic instruments but that very few can afford. The way I see my friends starting up companies leads to an affordable high quality instrument in the hands of a working musician in a reasonable amount of time. I'm glad both methods can exist in the market.
     
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  13. Terry McInturff

    Terry McInturff 40th Anniversary of guitar building! Gold Supporting Member

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    Many thanks for your question!
    I'd love to get into specific detail regarding my neck methods and design, but doing so wouldn't be fair to those who hire me to teach the methods and design (I do consultant work occasionally). Having said that, I am considering writing a book sometime in the future at which point these methods would be available. Maybe several years from now.

    Broadly speaking, the design always comes first and then the methodology to make it happen. The goal is to build a neck that contributes to the overall sound exactly the way that a fantastic trad neck does, but which defeats some trad problems regarding stability...which is vital since we are building "for the ages" and in addition eliminating warrantee problems, rework, defects, and head-scratching.

    The TCM neck is built via a series of steps that is never varied from and which (if performed correctly) yields consistent results every time. You never end up with a neck that is unstable, off-spec, or a problem in any way. It starts stable and stays that way. There is seldom/never a point later in the build when a problem shows up.

    As the build proceeds through the schedule, naturally occurring internal stresses are relieved and compensated for, intentional stresses are introduced, as we work-down to a series of tight specifications at the end. Managing the various stresses is one key to a neck that is reliable for a lifetime. We are all familiar with necks which never seem to "settle down", or which have dead spots, or which develop a COS curve, etc ad nauseum. These are things which have been defeated. A hint: the design does not involve a lot of additional reinforcement via carbon rails etc etc.

    There's a pivotal point in the schedule at which the neck is very relaxed and happy in it's state; we then "tell it what to do" and the neck is almost powerless to argue for the rest of it's life. I want to tell the neck how to behave, rather than the neck feeling like it can behave any way that it wishes. Parenting? LOL
     
  14. Terry McInturff

    Terry McInturff 40th Anniversary of guitar building! Gold Supporting Member

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    Very well put my friend Laurent sir!

    It's always "safety first" and while Im delighted that attention is paid to safety in the schools, I can't trust anyone else's training. It's more than safety glasses and keeping your hand out of the tool path!

    And as you mention there are proprietary methods involved, which can conflict with methods taught at school. Big topic!
     
  15. Terry McInturff

    Terry McInturff 40th Anniversary of guitar building! Gold Supporting Member

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    Fantastic comments, I really appreciate them!
    You raise excellent points, as usual.

    The open maker spaces that you mention are an incredible resource and I champion 100% those who utilize them for training and R&D. A fantastic resource where available!

    Again, I offer no critique whatsoever regarding the use of CNC, and at this time I wish I had more knowledge along those lines (Ive considered getting a small one for certain operations).

    I suppose part of it boils-down to what the desire of the individual is. If ones has a burning passion to become a good guitar maker, it's my opinion that acquiring great hand skills and learning how wood works from the ground-up is the way to go.

    Again, gaining great skill as a programmer is a wonderful thing to do!! And CNC machines are incredibly valid and useful. My concern being that a person will miss learning a tremendous body of knowledge that constitutes the whole of an accomplished guitar maker.

    Taking one basic skill as an example: truing a fretboard surface in prep for fretting.
    Goal: to fabricate a sanding tool that is straight +/- .001" and then to use that tool to generate a fretboard surface that is straight +/- .001" along it's length, the radius being accurate to the same spec.

    Think of the skill set that's acquired to make that happen
    - learn the right time in the build schedule for this step, and why it is the right time (huge topic that involves the complete neck design why's and how's)
    - learn how to choose the correct measuring tools and the care of same
    - learn how to measure
    - learn how to "see" (YES, 80%+ of the folks Ive trained CAN see .001")
    - learn "body english" as it pertains to fabricating, then using the sanding tool
    - learn to think stepwise
    - learn how to generate a straight surface ("lower the high spots to meet the low spots" is harder than it sounds)
    - learn the characteristics of various abrasives
     
    Last edited: Jan 28, 2019
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  16. whoismarykelly

    whoismarykelly Oh look! This is a thing I can change!

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    This definitely dictates a massive amount of what goes down. The guy I record with is starting a company to build aluminum-neck guitars because he wants an indestructible instrument that has loads of power and clarity. His goal is exclusively to build that instrument and then more for other people, but his motivation isn't to become an incredible metalworker. That part is necessary, but not the main focus. On the other hand, I could see someone getting into building Alembic-style instruments with the goal of producing the finest joinery possible with natural materials.

    All that said, he has gotten a lot of help from another guy who went to school for guitar building and runs a repair shop so its not like my friend is achieving his goals in a vacuum. There will always be a foundation of knowledge and experience that people building guitars in a punk rock way will come calling on.
     
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  17. whoismarykelly

    whoismarykelly Oh look! This is a thing I can change!

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    And don't get me started on sanding and surface prep. Not that Im a pro in any respect but I've had a handful of VERY expensive handmade instruments where it was clear from flaws left in the wood that the builder didn't know how to properly use a random orbital sander. Little slinky scratches all across the top.
     
  18. Terry McInturff

    Terry McInturff 40th Anniversary of guitar building! Gold Supporting Member

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    While Ive hired a number of graduates, they all came from the same school and so I do not know what's being taught elsewhere.

    What have these graduates had to "ditch"?
    Practically everything, because everything that I do is based upon a strict series of steps, or a slight modification of them. The order in which these steps are performed, and the techniques involved can vary from a little to a massive difference vs what was taught at the school.

    They came prepped with fairly good sanding skills.
    They came prepped with a pretty good idea as to the basics of dimensioning raw lumber...but there was always plenty to teach them in that regard.

    But in reality, pretty much everything had to be trained, since I have a method for every step of the process. The basic build schedule and more is in writing and each person receives copies of these "production manuals".
    A typical example being one reaches the step at which it is time to "fit truss rod in neck" there is only one right way to do this that fits within the TCM neck design and I'm willing to bet that there's not a school that teaches the way I do it...exactly.
     
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  19. Terry McInturff

    Terry McInturff 40th Anniversary of guitar building! Gold Supporting Member

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    As a founding member of one of the first punk rock bands in NC I totally champion the "punk rock way" as you describe it! :)

    Aluminum necks? Cool!
    We all remember the first of those, Travis Bean and Veleno. I always wanted a Travis Bean.
    When I worked at Hamer I was informed one day that whole stream of early Travis Beans would be arriving for me to restore in addition to my usual workload (I wasn't enthusiastic). They belonged to the collection of Bill Kaman II. But despite the frustrations involved (these were early ones and the specs etc weren't tight) I did gain an appreciation for them!

    The prob with aluminum necks is that they can feel COLD (as in burrrrr!). Kramer's aluminum necks had wooden veneers inlaid on the shaft and perhaps a better version of that would be something for your friend to investigate?????
     
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  20. whoismarykelly

    whoismarykelly Oh look! This is a thing I can change!

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    I've never had an issue with the temp feel of an aluminum neck. Aluminum is such a good conductor of heat that they usually get to indoor temps pretty fast anyway. The Kramer necks were cast aluminum and those wood inlays move with the weather while the rest of the neck doesn't Every time I pick one up nowadays those inlays have swelled a few thousands past the rest of the neck which is an odd feeling for the back of a neck.

    Did you work on that one odd koa V-shape body Travis Bean that was supposed to belong to Bill at some point?
     
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