It’s being said that we are now in the midst of a new golden age of guitar making.
I’ve been involved in the guitar industry for 20 years now and during that time I’ve worked within different aspects of the industry. I used to work as a guitar specialist retail manager, a live touring technician and for the last 7 years as a full time professional luthier. I’ve seen a lot of guitars over the years, from entry level all the way up to bespoke hand built one-off masterpieces. And I can honestly say I don’t think there has ever been a better time to be looking to buy a guitar.
From the bottom up, if a Fender Squire or something similar is set up properly with a sensible action and good intonation, (best to buy from a knowledgeable retailer) you can do what you need to do on it. It’s a good platform for people starting out. When I worked in retail, I must have sold hundreds of them to eager kids who were desperate to get rocking. Some of them had already perfected the Pete Townsend windmill strumming before even getting a guitar!
The mid price is also full of good quality stuff for it’s respected price brackets, and if you are tinkerer, often these are good project guitars, suitable for upgrading or tweaking in someway perhaps. It can be fun and informative to play with changing out components. How much difference does a properly made bone nut make compared to a moulded plastic one? Or upgrading the pickups or the pots for example.
Up until this point we are talking about mass produced factory made guitars. I’m not slighting that in anyway, as I said it serves a purpose and makes learning guitar available to almost anyone. I think the biggest challenges facing the modern guitar-making factories are not so much questions of quality any more, but of sustainability and ethical production. In a world of diminishing resources and on going environmental damage, this is a huge consideration for the musical instrument industry. We will all have to play a part, in where we are sourcing our materials and also in starting to change our perceptions of what woods we expect musical instruments to be made from. More on that later.
As we reach the high end guitar market the landscape divides into two. On one hand we have the “custom shop” guitars made by the big brands and on the other hand we have a swathe of smaller makers building all manner of instruments.
I am not going to talk bad about the big guys. I’ve played and worked on some great Custom shop guitars from the big few. And they undoubtedly have a certain allure tied up with their history and artist associations. But it’s the smaller makers I particularly refer to when I speak of a new golden age of guitar making. There is a treasure trove of incredible talent out there.
Over the last 3 or 4 years I have got to know many more of my fellow small to medium builders. Both by becoming a member of the European Guitar Builders (EGB) Association and particularly from participating in the Holy Grail Guitar Show organised by the EGB.
If you are not familiar with the Holy Grail Guitar Show, it is a show organised by luthiers to create a perfect platform to showcase the art of the handmade guitar. All the luthiers must be present themselves, so the customer gets to directly interact and meet the makers. Also everybody gets the same exhibition space whether they make 10 guitars a year or 100. The ethos is, it is about promoting the whole community not just the individual.
That first year there were 115 exhibitors from 23 countries, I believe. The sheer quality of work on display was breath-taking. I’ve spent my whole life surrounded by guitars and I have never seen a collection of instruments like it. The variety of different approaches and choices of materials and styles was just incredible.
But also what struck me especially is what an amazing group of people this was to bring together.
The tireless work of the EGB staff to organise something like this for both, us the exhibitors and the public, shows their dedication to the cause. And all the other makers I have met were great people, all so enthusiastic and passionate about what they do. There was a sense of community bubbling excitedly under the surface that first year.
This years third edition of The Holy Grail Guitar Show is what prompted me to want to write something more about the subject of the handmade guitar and the new golden age of guitar-making I spoke of earlier.
This year there were 135 exhibitors I think, from 37 countries. Just at this one show that is 135 people minimum, who live and breathe building guitars. And in reality that’s probably not even scratching the surface. Trust me, this is not an occupation you choose if you just want to make money. It is often really hard for the smaller luthier to make even a simple living despite the quality of their work and the endless hours of dedication. So you can pretty much guarantee that if the person is doing a good quality of work that they are doing it with a huge amount of love involved.
I recently read a beautiful book called “A Year of Marvellous Ways” by Sarah Winman. In the story, a baker (Wilfred) is teaching his apprentice (Peace) how to bake bread.
“He told her something he had never told anyone: That his secret ingredient was the life he had lived.“ “What do you mean? she said” “Wilfred leant in close and whispered , Everything goes into my bread. Names. Songs. Memories. Every batch comes out different to the next but what we are looking for is not consistency but excellence. You have to risk failure to achieve excellence”
I thought it a poignant paragraph. And it paints a picture of what goes into your luthier-made guitar. A person, a soul, a character. Good days, bad days, real emotions, the old cliché of blood, sweat and tears.
The guitars being lovingly made out there are so much more than just another guitar, they are an expression of creativity and ingenuity but also of human endeavour. It takes a lot of unseen courage for anyone in the creative sphere to try and carve out a living. Every one of them has my admiration.
That’s where the power of the community comes in. Now when us luthiers all get together it feels like maybe we are part of something much bigger than just ourselves. This handmade guitar movement is well underway. The collective creativity and willingness to share knowledge with each other will absolutely no doubt have a positive effect on all our instrument building. We probably are all already building better guitars because of it.
I do feel there is a growing sense in general consumerism that bigger is not always better. In certain markets, people are becoming more conscious of the value of shopping with and supporting independent businesses. And I think this is starting to translate more to the high-end guitar market also.
People are looking further beyond the big brands and are discovering a wealth of absolutely amazing talent out there. You can find someone building almost any style of guitar you can imagine, to a very high quality. Someone who you can interact with, with who you can maybe share your ideas about what you need from your instrument. There has never been a time in history where so many talented people are building such an array of instruments to such a high level. It really is magical.
As I mentioned earlier, when talking about the challenges facing the guitar factories and the ethical and sustainability considerations, so it is also true of the smaller maker. Certain traditional “tone woods” are not always available or possibly not of the same quality as previously available in years gone by. There are also new regulations coming in this year with regards to the movement of certain woods. So the onus is on us, both the makers and the public to get behind the idea of alternative woods and sustainably sourced and certified woods if using tropical.
One highlight at the Holy Grail show this year was called the local wood challenge. Luthiers were invited to build guitars using only woods local to their location. I unfortunately couldn’t participate this year but I went to the presentation and the results were fantastic. Some really stunning and unique woods crafted into these beautiful instruments. It proved beyond doubt that you can build a great sounding guitar out of a huge variety of woods. It was a great success and a talking point. It will be part of the ongoing shows with even more of the luthiers sure to participate. I know I will be. And lots of great work is being done by the Leonardo guitar research project among others, into the use of non-tropical woods. It feels like it is moving in the right direction, and there are some very motivated people looking to bring it to the fore.
I think there is a movement happening in the guitar world. To me it feels quite powerful. The sense of community among luthiers is greater than ever and so mutually encouraging and inspiring, it will as I said before only lead to better guitars all round.
With our modern communication systems and social media obsessions it serves to strengthen the connection between makers and players also. It opens up once hidden workshops. Being able to share photos and insights into what goes on during the building process is fascinating and is gaining huge interest from players, collectors and the general public. You can literally follow each step of your bespoke build as it unfolds.
After immersing myself in not only my own guitar building, but seeing what my colleagues are doing also, I urge you to take the time when making your next serious guitar purchase to seek out an artisan or group of artisans. People who’s lives are dedicated to building you the best instruments they possibly can. People who are sharing part of their soul, who will fill your guitar with personality and life.
This truly is a new golden age of guitar-making; we are very lucky to be living, playing and making during it. I feel privileged for one.