lu·thi·er | \ ˈlü-tē-ər , -thē-ər \
Definition of luthier: : one who makes stringed musical instruments (such as violins or guitars)
Lutherie isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s not an easy job with a steady time clock. It isn’t easy on our family, friends, wallet, health or love life. I would bet most luthiers agree that they have had a harder than average time in these areas. We don’t choose lutherie to gain these things.
We do it because of passion for the soul of music, to provide the tools that allow others to create. We do it because the skills we’ve collected and the events we’ve encountered somehow matched up along the way. Regardless of the denomination or even religion of different luthiers, most attribute some divine guidance. An emotionally connected spiritual calling. A collaboration of many life circumstances that one day “clicked” and narrowed down the journey of life for us.
I can recall a countless number of things that brought me into lutherie. I remember growing up like many kids, wanting to be a rock star. I was always in some form of music program, project, or band. Over the years I played drums, piano, strange washtub basses and about anything I could get my hands on. I hosted open mics and community jams connecting me with a plethora of varied musicians of all types. I set up several makeshift recording “studios” in my living room, mostly of the analog nature, and made a handful of unusual albums. Most of my musical journey has been about experimentation; grasping that new sound or rhythm.
I credit the musical excursions of my life for the original curiosity leading me into lutherie. I have always loved to play and experiment with so many different instruments. The eccentric and extremist attributes of my personality drew me to the next new musical apparatus that I could get my hands on. The more my desire grew, the more the dilemma became obvious to me. On an artist’s budget, my wallet would never be able to afford the quantity and quality of instruments that I lusted after. I was going to have to make them myself.
Most people recognize me as a guitar builder. But my first trials in lutherie were more a direct reflection of my desire for new and different instruments. I remember acquiring old broken viols, toy guitars, horns, etc., to use in art projects, which never made their way into my artwork. I kept fixing them up, recognizing their worth– using them to perform or share. I remember one year on my birthday, we had planned some sort of experimental jazz jam party. This was the day of my epiphany! I had owned a commercial art and woodworking business for several years, and it was about to undergo a major transformation. I got the crazy idea that I should make some sort of electric upright bass for the jam that night. I grabbed a cajon box drum I had built earlier that year, some wood, a crappy piezoelectric pickup, some tuners and screws, and went to work. I quickly tooled the soundbox, a neck, bridge, tailpiece and more. As it all slapped together, a call to a neighborhood piano technician yielded some crude but usable bass strings. Within a few hours’ time, I was playing my first stringed instrument at the party. That night my entire life’s path flashed around in my brain, as I plucked away in pure elation with my creation. I had figured out where I was going all this time. I immediately dived in. Within a few short months I constructed a viola, a baritone banjolele, a few inventions of my own, and my first custom order: an ornate octopus-headed banjo.
No two luthiers are the same. I am certain my route into lutherie was very different from others’, but we all had one. Not a one of us found it looking in the classifieds with no experience, interest or knowledge of some facets of music and mechanics. We all have our own interests, reasons, styles, beliefs, methodology, and succeed in different ways and levels. But we are all “renaissance men”, wearing many hats and wielding many skills. A jack of all trades sort of people. The diversity of these traits is as varied as the instruments we each build. For me, the range of creativity is a huge part of the drive. I thrived in artistry, woodworking and the mechanics of engineering. In junior high, I was a top student in my mechanical drawing and shop classes. I studied sociology, religion, and mythology since very young. I remember taking mini summer courses on dream interpretation and psychology at East Central University, at the age of twelve, a thirst that was a primary mode of my schooling on into college. Throughout my time at Oklahoma State University I had two key jobs. One was at a local hardware store, where I did just about everything. Over a few years’ time there, I had built up a small workshop worth of tools and a bit of knowledge in the practical arts of construction and repairing. My other main career through those years was a computer tech. Self-taught like my lutherie, I built my first computer virtually on my own. I quickly thrived in the world of cyber creation. I soaked in a great deal of technological schooling, changing my major into hospitality information technology. There I learned how to utilize computer aided design, website development, internet marketing and many other abilities that shape the way I build and promote my guitars. Crafting a custom guitar business can make a person into a graphic designer, mathematician, accountant, webmaster, marketing executive, engineer, physicist, psychologist, lobbyist, public relations liaison and an unimaginable pile of other jobs depending on the nature of the lutherie involved.
More than a good fit, more than desire, it was a passion. Perhaps an affliction. It was a deep inner drive that consumed me. I have dreams about sound waves and unusual trees. I take an unusual amount of pleasure listening as a chunk of wood bounces in my hand. I find myself shirking the more common life pleasures to read about a new instrument, tool or technique. My closest remaining friends are made up of apprentices, customers and fellow luthiers. This affliction spreads too. My father and sister have taken a person level of involvement in my promotion and administrative duties. My eldest daughter helps with inlay design and the website upkeep. Even my 4-year-old daughter has taken a spin at tasks such as fretwork! I’m not sure I could tailor my life any differently. My passion for building controls my motives on a primal level. Lutherie is a virus that you catch, and can’t seem to get rid of. It’s a lifelong commitment of the mind, body, and soul.
Luthiers are the mystics of music. The mechanics of the muses. The “wood whisperers.” We rise to the challenge not to earn a white picket fence, but because lutherie runs deep in our blood. Perhaps it is a path chosen since birth, by the stars or God itself. No matter the source, we will bust our knuckles at the workbench for long, tiring hours to provide the tools for musicians to create with. From the metal-shredding weapons that pierce the ear, to the hum-shaking acoustics of a supernatural dreadnaught. We, the luthiers, are built by a lifelong bond; a pact with music, and the very soul of our universe.