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Small Shop Guitar Builders & Luthiers

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Larson Brothers: First Refined Flat-Top Steel String Guitars

Steel strings for the guitar were inevitable. They had found their way onto mandolins and banjos. In both cases they made the instrument much louder. Bands include drummers and horn sections – they are loud. Stringed instruments needed to be able to hold their own and compete for both rhythm and lead.

Metal strings date back to brass and iron wire used for harpsichord type instruments. Around 1800, pianos were becoming more popular for composing and performing which put pressure on the wire industry to produce better products. In 1834, the Webster & Horsfal firm of Birmingham, England developed piano wire made from cast (high carbon) steel that was so superior to iron wire that the firm soon had a monopoly. That lasted for about six years until the Viennese firm of Martin Miller created a more uniform version. International competitions followed. In 1858, a patent on the Bessemer Process for the mass production of steel opened up all sorts of new possibilities. This coincided with the need for miles of wire for fencing as the America Western Expansion following the California Gold Rush. Methods of steel extrusion and cold-rolling were quickly refined. One small result: the ability to make very controlled strength and diameter steel wire for musical instruments.

Gut strings had to be hand-made. Even under the best circumstances they were prone to breaking and terribly subject to temperature & moisture; they wouldn’t stay in tune. By 1890, the industrial revolution and postal distribution had made stringed instruments available and affordable. In the 1912 Sears and Roebuck catalog 124, a full set of gut strings for a guitar cost almost $5.00 (US dollars). The same catalog offered 4 different steel string guitars for under $5.00 (with strings) including 50 lessons from “the best Correspondence School of Music in America”. At that time, a new set of steel strings from the Glendon String Company cost $1.20 and better quality from the Bell Brand cost about $2.86. In summary: steel strings were louder, more uniform, had better quality control and were less expensive to make and sell. They were inevitable. They just needed guitars strong enough to support them.

Steel strings are roughly twice the tension of gut strings. As Master Luthier Ervin Somogyi so eloquently points out: the ladder and fan bracing of the Spanish technique of building simply isn’t strong enough to maintain integrity. Putting steel strings on a guitar designed for gut strings results in bent necks, distorted tops and bridges that dramatically fly off the face of the instruments. The solution: better bracing, bigger bridges and reinforced necks. The easy way to build a guitar that can handle the added stress of steel strings is with parallel or modified “V” bracing, like a Gibson Archtop (1900+/-) or “X” bracing for a flat top similar to that developed by Christian Fredrick Martin in the 1850s (Some argue that Martin was not the first German immigrant to develop the “X” brace, but he was definitely the one to refine and apply it to all his flat top instruments of the day). Ironically, the new bracing method would only be used on Martins with gut strings for the next 40 years +/-.

Sears & Roebuck issued their first catalog for wide distribution in 1893. Chicago, Illinois was the center of distribution for most all products in the US for many generations. It was centrally located, accessible by land and water, and a central rail hub. It is no surprise that many companies manufacturing items for wide distribution would locate in Chicago. Harmony Musical Instruments was one example of a company that had about 125 employees by 1915 and, by 1923, claimed annual sales of over 250,000 units. They were bought by Sears & Roebuck in 1916. Harmony was one of the companies building early steel string guitars. They did it using plywood, heavy braces and structural tailpieces to help prevent failure under the steel string stress. The little guitars were sturdy, but mass production didn’t yield great sounding (or playing) instruments.

Starting in the late 1890s, Orville Gibson followed a different course: he took lessons from the violin, cello and concert bass models of supporting the strings on the heal of the instruments with trapeze tail pieces. This design yielded only downward pressure from the steel strings (not rotational). The tops were carved into a dome shape like violins (inherently strong) and modified “V” or parallel bracing supporting each end of a floating bridge. The design worked wonderfully. The guitars could support very heavy strings, be played aggressively and were indeed loud. They were loud but not terribly warm sounding like the softer gut strung flat tops. This only increased the pressure on the flat top builders to find a way to strengthen their tops in order to compete.

C.F. Martin Sr. died on February 16th, 1873. The company was handed over to Christian Frederick, Jr. C.F. Jr. died suddenly in 1888 and the company went to Frank Henry Martin. Frank involved his son Christian Frederick Martin III early in the family business. Though they were involved in making steel string guitars for other brands (Like Ditson), they did not strive to innovate much until around 1928: one year before the Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. In the meantime, Gibson had solved the warping neck problem in 1921 by a patent for an invention by employee Thaddeus McHugh: the adjustable truss rod.

In the 1890s, the challenge of finding a way to structure the flat top guitar to withstand steel strings had been taken up by Robert Maurer and the Larson Brothers. They started with the Martin “X” bracing system: to increase strength they tried laminating the braces using spruce with rosewood or ebony center laminates. This system was patented by August Larson in 1904. The tops and backs were slightly arched, also for strength. They described this as “built under tension”. The bridge size was increased for better gluing surface. They also increased the bridge plate size (under the top, under the bridge) and experimented with maple, ebony, rosewood (& other) hard woods to better withstand the pull of the ball-end of the steel strings. They refined the bridge pin design to force the strings to pull up on the bridge plate and not the bridge. They experimented with laminated neck blocks and steel bars in the body to allow adjustment and resist upward warp from string tension. They also tapered the “X” bracing to maximize the resistance to the rotational pull of the strings without getting too massive to kill tone. Basically, it worked.

By 1899 they were comfortable enough with their design refinements to be creating presentation grade instruments at relatively high prices. It would be another 29 years before Martin would delve fully into the steel string market under its own name.

Leonard Wyeth AIA
© 2017, Leonard Wyeth

Bourgeois Guitars

Pantheon Guitars was formed in October 2000 when Master Luthier Dana Bourgeois and a set of business investors came together. Dana Bourgeois and Bourgeois Guitars have existed in one form or another since 1978 and have crafted over 1,000 acoustic instruments played by musicians around the world. Having designed and built guitars for more than a quarter century, Dana combined forces with Pantheon Guitars for their strong business resources, marketing capability and organizational skills. Together, Dana Bourgeois and Pantheon Guitars are working to be the best “shop” acoustic guitar builder in the world. Dana now has the opportunity to focus on designing and building instruments of the highest quality and making Bourgeois guitars the best they can be.

All Pantheon guitars are handcrafted in an 1840’s mill in Lewiston, Maine and carry the Bourgeois headstock signature. Dana and his fellow craftsman, most of whom have been with him for years, build about 30 guitars a month. Every instrument is tweaked, shaved and prodded by expert hands. It starts with the wood selection by Dana, a respected authority on the voicing, selection and use of acoustic tone woods and ends with each guitar “singing” to the entire shop.

Bourgeois Guitars have become a favorite of many professional country and bluegrass players, such as Ricky Skaggs, Bryan Sutton, Martin Simpson, Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek, Steve Earle, Ron Block, Dan Tyminski and Marshall Crenshaw.

Dana selects and matches the woods for each guitar at the beginning of the production process, directs the luthiers in the shop throughout the process and, once the guitar is complete, checks that it is aesthetically ‘right’ and sounds and plays up to the shop standards.

Dana Bourgeois’ career began when he built his first guitar in his dorm room at Bowdoin College in Maine. He spent many years in repair and restoration of instruments, gaining knowledge until he launched into Lutherie on a full-time basis in 1978.

Eventually he received a request from Eric Schoenberg to build an OM cutaway in a traditional design. This initiated a decade long partnership with Schoenberg and the engagement of Martin Guitars in the final assembly of instruments designed by Dana and with individually voiced tops. Over 300 guitars were built bearing the Schoenberg label and carrying the signature of Dana’s design and sound. Dana then worked with Paul Reed Smith Guitars in 1990 to help develop acoustics for PRS. He later worked with Gibson Guitars to assist in construction and setup of their new production facility in Montana. With this experience and knowledge Dana went on to establish his own small-shop production company, Bourgeois Guitars in 1995. In 2000, he co-founded Pantheon Guitars and currently oversees and participates in the design and annual construction of about 400 guitars.

Santa Cruz Guitars

Richard Hoover began building guitars and carved-top mandolins in 1972. By 1976 his focus was on the steel string guitars. Becoming a master Luthier is a lifelong pursuit, and Richard has patiently refined his craft and knowledge as the company has grown. Richard Hoover’s intent is to translate his skills and sensitivities to an exceptional team of craftspeople. Richard’s style of allowing his apprentices to interpret his vision has helped propel Santa Cruz Guitar Company to the forefront of guitar making.

Each Santa Cruz guitar receives an extraordinary amount of individual attention, where each worker not only perform his own specialty, but also reviews the work of those who have completed stages before him. Over half of all the instruments that built at Santa Cruz Guitars are custom orders, reflecting the personality and unique playing needs of the buyer. Every guitar top is graduated and tuned by hand for maximum resonance and sustain. The balance, tone, volume, and response of a Santa Cruz guitar are established before the guitar is strung. By limiting the number of instruments built, they practice a style of Lutherie born from a genuine love of the guitar.

The intent of the Santa Cruz Guitar Company is to create a uniquely sophisticated instrument that will inspire and challenge its owner throughout a lifetime.

Huss & Dalton

Located in Staunton Virginia, an area rich in the tradition of acoustic music, Huss and Dalton are makers of fine hand-crafted instruments capturing the spirit of the time-honored music played here for generations. Huss and Dalton began in 1995 when Jeff Huss and Mark Dalton developed the idea to build the kind of guitar that they would want to play.

Huss & Dalton guitars feature two distinct construction styles. On the standard series models, we employ the use of a 25′ radius built into the guitar top, which is achieved by milling an arch into the braces and preparing the sides with the same radius to accept the soundboard. A positive by-product of the radiused soundboard design, besides it’s load-bearing properties, is a boost in the mid-range. This helps our guitars to have a more balanced tonal quality than traditional designs.

Our Traditional series features the same 25′ radius prepared into the braces, but the sides are left flat for a more traditional build style. This build style tends to have a more traditional tonal character, emphasizing a bit more bass.

All Huss & Dalton guitars are braced with hand split Appalachian Red Spruce, which has a greater strength-to-weight ratio than other brace woods. All bridge plates are made from Honduras Rosewood, selected for its superior tonal properties and resistance to string ball wear. We use AAA grade top woods, which are checked individually for load bearing abilities, and are thickness sanded to achieve the best balance of strength and flexibility.

Huss & Dalton uses bone nuts on all instruments and fully compensated 1/8” bone saddles on all guitar models. Every string scale is compensated for proper intonation.

Necks are quarter-sawn Honduran Mahogany, Maple, Walnut, or Spanish Cedar and all employ the use of a single acting steel truss rod. Each neck is carved to a sleek comfortable feel, and custom shapes are available.

All fingerboards are Ebony. Fingerboards are bound on every guitar model. Those needing an unbound look are bound in Ebony. Binding all fingerboards means no fret- ends are seen or felt. In addition, the finish tends to chip away at the fret-ends on unbound boards.

Goodall Guitars

In 1972, James Goodall built his first guitar: a curly maple jumbo which took over three months to complete. With a borrowed table saw, bandsaw, router and little help he taught himself how to work with wood. “I woke up one morning in 1972 with an obsession to make and play a musical instrument. Being a seascape artist, I traded one of my oil paintings to make my first guitar. Since guitar construction books were not available at that time, I had to teach myself luthierie.”

James makes many of his own tools, jigs, and sanders to complement his large shop full of woodworking machinery. He builds several guitars at a time and each one receives the same attention to detail.

James uses no plastic or celluloid on his guitars. He does use a wide variety of woods for the binding and purfling, from curly koa and maple binding on the Indian and Brazilian rosewood bodies, purpleheart and vermilion on the maple, to rosewood on the koa and walnut bodies.

Tone is top priority and a wide range is offered to suit every playing style and preference. There are many things James does to achieve great tone on each guitar. He has described it as an orchestration of all the little things that give each one of his guitars exceptional tone. Everything from the selection of the top and back woods, to the cavity size, to the quartered, split, and shaved bracing, to the bridge design and mass, to the type and thickness of the lacquer finish. All these things and many others matter.

Collings Guitars

Starting in a garage in Austin Texas in the 1970’s, shared with fellow luthiers Tom Ellis and Mike Stevens, Bill Collings indulged in his interest of stringed instruments and working with his hands. Quite literally from that one car garage came the early instruments – and they were well received. His reputation for quality and attention to detail quickly spread. In 1989, he rented a 1000 square foot space and hired two helpers.

That same year, an order for 24 custom “Gruhn” guitars helped to establish Bill in the national market. In late 1991, a 3200 square foot “feed store” was purchased, on the outskirts of Austin, and was occupied in the spring of 1992. By 2005, the size of the shop has tripled and he has 50 full-time employees with ground being broken for a new 22,00 square foot shop. The addition of CNC technology has helped to add a level of consistency, accuracy and safety to parts production that was previously unimaginable.

In 1999, Bill Collings started production of the first Collings mandolins, which, like his guitars, quickly caught on. Collings mandolins have expanded to include seven models in both lacquer and varnish finishes.

His work is widely respected by musicians. A short list of supporters includes: Pete Townsend, Emmylou Harris, Andy Summers, David Crosby, Chris Hillman, John Prine, Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap, Joni Mitchell, Don Felder, John Sebastian, Lou Reed, John Fogerty, Tim O’Brien, Pete Huttlinger, Keith Richards, Lyle Lovett, Kenny Smith, Brian May, Joan Baez, and Steven Spielberg to name a few.

Morris Guitars

The Morris Guitars Company has been building handcrafted instruments in Nagano, Japan for over 40 years. Toshio Moridaira, the founder, was the first distributor in Japan to carry both Fender and Gibson lines. In 1964, due to his working relationship with Gibson, Mr. Moridaira was able to visit the Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan. An employee at Gibson nicknamed him “Mori” at that time.

In 1967, he founded the Morris Guitars Company. Morris Guitars produced dreadnought and small jumbo models based on early Martin and Gibson designs. Eventually their designs morphed into more unique refinements complimenting the tradition of woodcraft practiced in Japan for over 3,000 years.

Since then, Morris Guitars have enjoyed an outstanding reputation in Japan and other countries for making high quality handcrafted guitars, of select tone woods. Each model has unique body bindings, purflings, and inlays from Koa & Padauk to Lapis and Blue Paua. Their recent line of Luthier built models are played by some of the world’s finest fingerstyle guitarists.

Unique to their design, Morris guitars have a rounded wood back, curved vertically and horizontally, and Double XX braced top for a truly warm sound that projects very well.

When Acoustic Music.Org originally collaborated with the Morris Company, we became interested in the uniquely Japanese aspects of the instruments. They have developed particular approaches to the scalloping of braces and ornament of the instruments. They have worked with us to develop a unique line of instruments that we refer to as the “Dancing Crane”.

Merrill & Company Guitars

Jim Merrill has been a master luthier for more than 20 years and his experience shows in the attention to detail on every instrument. Merrill & Company guitars are renowned for their vintage tone and craftsmanship.

From exacting reproductions of traditional Martin designs: C18’s, C28’s, and OM’s; to outstanding harp guitars; and to Jim Merrill’s original designs, Merrill & Company invites you to take a step into the past.

Merrill Guitars come as closely as any we have seen to the feel and sound of pre-war Martin Guitars. They are light, dynamic and have the vibe of the originals without the problems associated with older instruments. The craftsmanship is beautiful and the details are accurate. If you cannot find or afford a pre-war Martin Guitar, you should seriously consider a Merrill Guitar.

Baden Guitars – T.J. Baden Music

T.J. BADEN, formerly head of sales and marketing for Taylor Guitars, has introduced a new line of acoustic guitars under the Baden brand. The instruments are the first product offering of T.J. Baden Music, a company he co-founded with Errol Antzis, a former investment banker with an overriding passion for the guitar.

Everything about the new Baden guitars, from their design and ornamentation to their country of origin, is distinctive. The product lines include an “auditorium” style body with a cutaway and a “dreadnought” style. They available in a variety of finishes and woods. All of the instruments are solid wood and the design is spare and elegant, characterized by subtle wood binding and rosettes. The designs are the product of a collaboration between Baden and Antzis, and Andreas Pichler and Ulrich Tueffel, two noted European guitar designers. “We aimed for a guitar that was unlike anything else on the market, but at the same time was in keeping with traditional guitar design,” said Baden.

The new Baden guitars are handcrafted at the Ayers factory in Viet Nam, an enterprise that Baden says is unlike any other guitar factory in Asia. “At the core of the operation are six French-trained Master Luthiers,” explained Baden. While most high-end acoustic guitars made in the U.S. are the product of automation and handwork, instruments coming out of the Ayers plant are hand built from start to finish. Each instrument has its own soul.

Baden guitars are being distributed through a limited number of specialized guitar dealers. “We will make sure that there is a financial incentive for presenting a new brand into the market,” he notes. In addition, the instruments will be have extensive website support.

Eastman Guitars

Through their violin and bow making activities, Eastman Stringed Instruments are part of a long tradition.

World War II brought changes to the business of violin making. Many violinmakers were killed in the war. Workshops were destroyed, along with entire towns. Europe was rearranged in the aftermath. Many German makers who had been living in the German areas of Czechoslovakia, at one time major violin and cello producers, found themselves no longer welcome. They were evicted from their houses and workshops and forced to emigrate to the West. Much of Europe, including a large part of Germany, fell under communist Soviet rule. This did not help production or international trade. Many former East German and Czech makers moved to the West and set up a new violin making colony in the town of Erlangen, where they and their descendants work to this day. Another major change was modernization: the automation and mechanization of the violin making process. Following World War II, student stringed instruments were largely machine-made, with handwork comprising little or none of the process.

An inspiration to change was the success of the Suzuki Method in popularizing the study of stringed instruments. The large number of string programs and private studios found today owe a great deal to this teaching method.

The opening of China to commerce with the West followed. For many years, China had an isolationist attitude both culturally and economically. (Even so, a state-run factory supplied violin outfits in large quantities. The “Skylark” instruments that they made have damaged the reputation of Chinese instruments, and the negative effects are still being felt by a new generation of talented, dedicated builders.)

Qian Ni, who studied music in the United States, founded Eastman Strings. In the beginning, he and his two musician colleagues brought instruments from Western-trained violin builders to their hometown in China. Mr. Ni hired a group of established master violinmakers, and with their help, he established a master violin workshop devoted to the handcrafting of instruments—one of the first the world had known following the War. In the short time since this workshop was founded, the reputation of Eastman Strings’ instruments for tonal quality and excellent craftsmanship has become a worldwide standard. After establishing the instrument-making workshop, Qian Ni went on to found a bow-making workshop based on the same principals. In both workshops, master makers train and oversee talented woodworkers to create student, step-up, and professional instruments and bows.

Today, the instrument and bow making workshops at Eastman operate in the same manner as late 19th century European workshops. They have virtually no power tools aside from the band saws used to cut out the necks and the outlines of the tops and backs of instruments. Chisels, knives, gouges, and scrapers, in the hands of outstandingly gifted craftspeople, are the primary tools used to create these modern instruments and bows, using methods centuries old. Thanks to Eastman, string players today have advantages unknown to earlier generations: quality Cellos, Violas, Flattop and Archtop Guitars, mandolins & Bows, available worldwide at affordable prices.

Augustino LoPrinzi Guitars

In 1972 brothers Augustino and Thomas LoPrinzi founded the LoPrinzi Guitar Company in New Jersey. They started to sell stock in the company and soon had a successful business going with 17 employees. In 1973 his instruments caught the attention of Maark Corporation (a subsidiary of AMF); the firm began buying up a controlling interest in his company as a way to move into the guitar business. Three years later, LoPrinzi Guitars, Inc. was producing 80 guitars a month for customers in five countries.

The 1970’s were an important period for guitar production. The 1960’s surge in interest in acoustic instruments had stretched the ability of the major manufactures to meet the demand. The general quality level of instruments available was at an all time low. Gibsons and Martins from that period are among the least sought-after instruments by players and collectors alike. A void was created that was filled by small shop producers like LoPrinzi Guitars, Inc. These shops were producing instruments that lived up to the standards of instruments from the finest periods. They found a market and a strong following of devoted players.

Augustino LoPrinzi, after growing tired of overseeing production and fearful of the direction the company was taking, Augustino sold his interest to Maark Corporation. He felt the demands of mass production would jeopardize the quality of their instruments.

Augie’s philosophy of work and success is a traditional one: If you’re only out to make money, you’ll never get anywhere. You have to disregard the money part. “Do good work and the money will come,” was the theory instilled in Augustino by his father.

Refusing to sign a “non-compete” clause with Maark, he opened “Augustino Guitars” two weeks later—and literally moved next door to his original plant! He continued to produce guitars there until 1978, and then moved to Florida. The AMF-owned LoPrinzi company continued producing guitars for a number of years, and finally closed the doors in 1980. Years later, Augustino contacted AMF/Maark Corporation to request his old trademark back. Working with vice president Dick Hargraves, Augie finally had the trademark transferred back officially.

Currently Augustino LoPrinzi Guitars includes a full line of steel string guitars, classical guitars and ukkuleles. Augie continues to build instruments full time with his daughter, Donna LoPrinzi.

Weber Fine Acoustic Instruments

Sound To Earth (Weber parent organization) traces its origins to the Flatiron Company in Bozeman, Montana. Many of the employees started at Flatiron in the 1980’s, before Flatiron became a part of Gibson. From May of 1987 to December of 1996, all of the luthiers and most of the support personnel worked for Gibson building Gibson and Flatiron mandolins. The “Montana Era”, of Gibson / Flatiron, is remembered for the consistent, high quality of the instruments that were built there and for the great customer service from Bruce Weber and Paula Jean Lewis.

In 1996, Gibson moved Flatiron to Nashville. Many of the staff were not willing to move. Montana living with the scenic beauty of the mountains, fresh air, and the natives were too strong a reason to stay. Bruce Weber, the general manager and head luthier of the Flatiron division, founded ‘Sound To Earth, Ltd.’ to continue to build the instruments in the midst of the country that they enjoyed.

In late January of 2004, Weber moved to their present location in the old red brick school house in Logan, Montana. It was solidly built in the 1920s and provides more room to spread out than the Belgrade location.

Special thanks to Bourgeois, Collings, Baden, Eastman, Goodall, Morris, Weber, LoPrinzi, Merrill & Company and Santa Cruz Guitars for history and model details.