Santa Fe, New Mexico based guitar maker James Kath shares his recent Bob Benedetto interviews with Guitar Connoisseur. As an archtop builder himself, Kath is just the right person to get us better acquainted with a living legend.
Hi everyone, and welcome to my first “luthier” article. As a luthier myself, I think I have the insight needed to dig in and ask the questions that mere writers might miss. I know what it’s like trying to make a living in this field, and I know just how difficult guitar making is. If you disagree that it’s difficult, then you must be making kits as a hobby because if there’s any one place where Murphy’s laws will apply, it’s luthiery and the business of lutherie.
I started working on archtop guitars back in the early eighties before Benedetto was a household name. Nowadays, it’s hard to find anyone even remotely involved with guitars who haven’t heard of Bob Benedetto; not only a builder of the finest archtop guitars in the world but also a heck of a nice guy and a very generous teacher. Even when I apprenticed for five years, I felt that my mentor held back some of the best jewels– but not Bob. Five minutes into any of his videos, he gives you the keys to the kingdom.
For this article, I have had the great pleasure of speaking with Bob personally. Continuing via email, he was always gracious and giving in his knowledge and his feelings. Instead of asking all the typical stuff that one asks in an interview, I took a decidedly business-slant approach.
Learning guitar making is a craft mixed with art. But selling what you make is a completely separate kettle of fish. “Publish or perish” is what they say in the literary world. But in lutherie, it’s “Sell what you make, or call it a hobby.”
Guitar Connoisseur: Some people with whom I’ve spoken think I’m crazy for building archtops, with giants such as yourself, Tom Ribbecke, Ted Megas, etc., already at the helm.
What do you think of the archtop market today, and what do you think about any budding luthiers who are considering it?
Bob Benedetto: I think today’s demand for archtops is better than ever. But we have to deal with a bad economy and a lot more competition than ever before. I had an advantage back in 1968 when I started because there were only a few archtop makers, including *Sam Koontz, Jimmy D’Aquisto, Phil Petillo, and Bill Barker. They all made great guitars, and each had its clientele. I was a newcomer, had a lot to learn, and was very fortunate to have Cindy at my side. We were both extremely focused and determined. So, we stuck with it, and eventually, things fell into place.
I think budding luthiers have one big advantage today because there are books, DVDs, and schools where they can learn a lot in a concise period. And despite the stiff competition and uncertain economy, they will do fine if they follow a few basic rules; Make a good guitar, be competitive in price, and very importantly… be dependable. You have to know when to be a craftsman and, as importantly, when to be a businessman. When all is said and done, if the aspiring luthier wants to succeed as a self-employed guitar maker, he must be good in business.
I also think it’s important that aspiring young guitar makers understand that nothing happens overnight. They must work hard and have patience. It took me 1 1/2 years to make my first guitar. My second one was an order and took me a year to make. It was a 19″ archtop with European wood for the top, back, and sides. The neck was made from my family’s 30-year-old maple kitchen table. I charged my customer $600 … not a lot of money even for back then. But it was a sale, and I was the happiest guy in the world. It took 15 years until the struggle was finally over, and I became established. At one point, I had a 5-year wait.
GC: With so many archtop notches in your belt, do you ever get bored with them and wish to build flattops or mandolins or concentrate more on violins or something else?
BB: No, I still have no interest in making anything but archtops. Of course, now I’m semi-retired and have a staff of six very talented luthiers, so I don’t personally do as much as I used to. But it’s still fun getting up in the morning and looking forward to being around wood and guitars.
GC: Contrasting the process for archtop building and violin building, what parts of the process do you enjoy the most and the least for each?
BB: To be honest, I have always enjoyed the entire process … from selecting the wood right up to final set-up, and everything in between … even sanding! I never preferred one step over another.
GC: I haven’t built a violin myself but would like to. I’ve read several books on the topic & compared to making archtops, they seem to be a breeze (it always looks easier when someone else is doing it). What do you find to be extra challenging with the violin that you don’t face with guitars?
BB: Ha … you’re right! Although the violin community would rather not hear this, there is no doubt violin making is a lot easier than guitar making. The only exception is the varnish … that’s the challenge. Believe it or not, it’s much easier learning how to do a perfect high gloss lacquer finish than it is to reproduce the “old world” varnish of the old European violin makers. It’s not that the quality of the old violin varnish is better. It’s the way it looks … a warm transparent glow that was the varnish of the day. It was the same varnish used on cabinets and church pews. And it isn’t likely the old violinmakers viewed their varnish as having magical properties as we do today. Anyway, that’s another story.
GC: Are you a believer in the saying “If you build it, they will come”? Or do you try to cater to what’s going on in the music business at the time? I know that seems an odd question for someone who builds such wonderfully traditional instruments, but it’s a dilemma we face to sell guitars.
BB: From the very beginning, I not only felt, “if you build it, they will come”… but more specifically, “if you build it right, price it right, and do good business …then they will come”. As far as catering to what’s going on in the music business, the journey will always be easier if you make instruments that sell. In my case, I was fortunate that my preference was a traditional archtop guitar. And since my targeted audience was always the traditional archtop jazz guitarist, it was the perfect fit. Both the player and I shared the same passion for a traditional instrument. I was comfortable working within accepted and proven boundaries and never felt the need to redesign the instrument to make it “better.” My challenges were learning to refine a design that was already tried and true. Of course, I met some resistance when I introduced the solid ebony tailpiece attached to the guitar with cello gut. But within a few years, it became accepted by most players. Nowadays, most makers and players agree it’s a great idea. I have always felt, “Would you put a metal tailpiece on a violin or cello?”
GC: I have seen some experiments with archtops and have done some myself to make them into a hybrid. An example would be an archtop with a flattop back or a steamed and bent top versus a carved top. You seem to be a man that’s constantly thinking (my wife calls it an obsession). What have you tried, and why or why would you not recommend these modifications/innovations?
BB: Well, if you are making guitars for your pleasure, you have the freedom to experiment any way you like with no consequences. But if you hope to sell what you make (unless it’s a custom order), there is no doubt you will have an advantage if you make guitars that appeal to the masses. That means adhering to traditional tried and true structural, aesthetic, and acoustic designs. Sales were always a priority with me. When I was about 12 years old and carving miniature guitars, my mind was made-up to be an archtop guitar maker. And I knew very early on that I had to learn how to conduct good business if I were to succeed. That meant making a good guitar, pricing it right, and delivering on schedule … no excuses.
GC: What are your thoughts on what’s happening with the **Lacey Act and Gibson’s recent problems with the government?
BB: Well, if we discuss politics in-depth, my blood pressure may go up. So, we’ll keep it simple. I believe during good times or bad (as so many people are experiencing today), our American elected officials should be doing everything in their power to help Americans and American businesses. There was no reason our federal government had to raid Gibson as they did. The amended Lacey Act is a nightmare. It’s a mess created by politicians who are allowed to make big mistakes and are not held accountable for the “unintended consequences” they create.
GC: In the distant future, when exotic woods may be hard to come by, what materials do you think will take the place of wood? Do you think carbon fiber has a shot? Are we all using wood because it’s tradition, or is there a viable substitute?
BB: I think, for the most part, most of us follow tradition and would like to continue using wood, but there have always been accepted alternatives. I remember when Ovation first introduced their “plastic” body in the mid-1960s. That was a monumental departure from tradition, and there was … and still is a place for it. As environmentalists and politicians continue to make life difficult for us, we may find ourselves searching for more alternative materials. I think we can all appreciate the value of forward-thinking in considering wood substitutes, but wood is still best for me. By the way, I have never known a more environmentally sensitive group of people than guitar makers.
GC: What are your experiences with waterbourne finishes? Do you think there are viable alternatives to nitrocellulose?
BB: Oh yes. I think waterborne finishes are a good alternative, especially for the small one-person shop … working at home. This past year I experimented with Stewart MacDonald’s “Clear Gloss Waterbase Brushing Varnish.”
The application, buffing, and polishing techniques are very different from conventional nitrocellulose lacquer. Still, the result is a high gloss finish that looks like lacquer and is as good as anything I’ve seen. My test piece has been on the shelf for about eight months, and there is no sign of shrinkage any more than McFadden or Mohawk lacquer. I don’t know what it will look like a few years from now, but I can’t see a difference so far and wouldn’t hesitate to use it.
GC: Being a successful craftsman requires two diverse sets of skills: being superb at your craft and being a strong businessperson. Rarely can one exist without the other and achieve success, regardless of the product. You are a man who has tackled both areas and is at the top of their game. Building world-class instruments are hard enough. Having such a successful business in light of the big box stores and imports is quite impressive. I’m sure you have good people around to help, but ultimately it’s your name on the headstock. How do you manage such a herculean feat?
BB: I was very fortunate from the beginning to have Cindy working around the clock doing all that she enjoyed doing … correspondence, marketing, and paying all the bills on time. And she is a people person and has always been very instrumental in sales. I never had to worry about anything except making guitars … she did the rest. For the past 5 years with the shop in Savannah, my business partner, Howard Paul, is a world-class jazz guitarist and does everything administrative. So, between Cindy and him, I still am allowed to keep my focus on just making guitars. And nowadays, I also train and oversee my employees.
GC: Many luthiers have had to leave the business due to dust and lacquer’s health impact. How is it that you have lasted this long without major health problems?
BB: Good genes, a lot of luck, and a glass of Miner wine every evening.
GC: What’s next for Bob Benedetto?
BB: I don’t expect much to change. Cindy and I are enjoying our semi-retirement roles these days. We still enjoy everything related to making archtop guitars. We just slowed down a bit and spent a good deal of our time swimming and barbecuing in Florida.
In closing, I’d like to thank Bob for his time and thoughtful consideration of my questions. For you readers, if you’d like to know more about the man and his work, check out his guitar making videos, books, and other interviews. It’s time well spent.