LUTHIERS AND DEALERS
Some things have changed and some things have not.
The relationship between luthiers, instrument dealers, and the public has changed as a result of the media and the Internet.
The old paradigm
In the 1890’s (before radio, television, and the internet) luthiers had a limited set of choices in making their craft available to the public. It was a fantastic era for instrument builders. Everyone played an instrument. Music was a primary form of social interaction. Kids were trained to read music and most houses had a music room. Tin Pan Alley was building fortunes for publishers via a nationwide network for printed music distribution. Thousands were employed by the New York and Chicago instrument building industry to meet the constant demand for instruments. Major retailers (like Sears and Roebuck) fed the demand by making instruments available in all parts of the country, and at all price points, through their catalogs. ‘Branding’ became the norm as luthiers, whether in small shops or large factories, produced instruments carrying the name ‘brand’ of distributors. Music shops and instrument dealers could be found in all big cities and in most small towns. Gibson revolutionized a new distribution system by making their instruments available through music teachers. There was a handsome commission paid to the teacher for each instrument sold. The exception to the norm was found in several larger cities, where small shop luthiers built ‘custom’ instruments and could operate on reputation, selling directly to musicians.
Every builder or manufacturer wanted ‘famous’ people to be seen in public with their instruments, as endorsements meant sales. If Gene Autry appeared with his Martin D-45, it was clear to his fans that playing and singing was cool and Martin was the best. That is of course, unless you were a Ray Whitley fan – then a Gibson J-200 was preferred.
The new paradigm
A lot has changed over the years. Radio, television and HiFi, have given way to video, stadium concert tours, personal entertainment devices, mass transportation, and more expendable income just to name a few. Manufacturing is now global and distribution has shifted to ‘big box’ and Internet retailers. Music education is no longer expected for all children, as current day social interactions no longer requires it. There are so many ‘other’ options. The music room is a thing of the past; the garage is better suited to control the volume of our amplifiers.
Some things have evolved. For whatever reason, there are now hundreds of luthiers competing in today’s market. The craft has re-emerged from the ashes of change. Due perhaps to the availability of information and the ease of exchanging ideas, the ‘art of luthierie’ is at an all-time high, a renaissance if you will. The issues of exposure and distribution for these talented builders however, have not changed. ‘Branding’ is still the norm, but how do they make their ‘art’ available to be seen and experienced? This is especially true in the age of the ‘big box’ retailer, where the primary issue is price point.
Instrument dealers have evolved as well. There is, or should be I believe, a distinction between a music store and an instrument ‘dealer’. The music store’s primary interest is in stocking instruments that actually sell. They will try to respond quickly to trends and carefully select products that represent value for the dollar. In other words, choices are driven by price-point. They represent the important role of fulfilling the needs of families and schools, with different grades of instruments that can grow with the needs and talents of their customers.
Instrument ‘dealers’ on the other hand, view luthierie as an art form. Their shops are closer to the model of an art gallery than a store. Every instrument is researched, carefully considered, and viewed as an investment, before it is included in the gallery. Dealers ‘represent’ luthiers and their craft to the public.
Luthierie is a unique as both an art and science. The creation of a hand-made instrument brings together experience, an advanced understanding of acoustics, the physical and structural requirements of the instrument, a detailed understanding of the properties (advantages and limitations) of the natural materials, all coupled with a strong sense of design and of tradition. The results represent the highest form of the craft: it must look and sound wonderful, play well, and appeal to all the senses of the end user. By any measure, this alone is art – but it doesn’t stop there. The end user is almost always a knowledgeable player. In their hands, the instrument is an integral tool for their ‘performance’ art. This cannot be said for painting, sculpture, or most other crafts.
Instrument dealers usually start as players themselves. It may begin with a seemingly innocent, long standing passion for the instrument. Their obsession with the raw beauty and power of instrument, inevitably leads to an interest in their history and tradition. Trials and comparisons subsequently lead away from factory-produced products. Their resulting heightened sensibilities lead them to the investigation of hand-made instruments, the characters of their creators, and the broad range of possibilities that follow. For these reasons, dealers are usually collectors. Anyone who derives tremendous pleasure from their obsessions inevitably wants to share their delight. If they really get the bug badly enough, they end up as a ‘dealer’. At this time, there’s no known treatment for this disease.
Luthiers suffer from a similar ailment, as they love what they do and generally want to spent their time, energy, talent, and experience furthering their art. A good dealer will relieve the Luthier from some of the more stressful business issues (like actually selling the instrument) and offer encouragement and advice, through their experience and perspective. Luthiers and their dealers should be standing firmly on common ground.
Unfortunately, passion and obsession are not enough. Both dealers and luthiers have to make enough money to support themselves, so they can each pursue their obsessions. Therein lies the relationship between dealer and Luthier. In raw terms, the dealer provides the gallery for the art, the physical location where the instruments can be played and experienced. The dealer is the person, and personality, that has regular business hours and sufficient knowledge and talent, to properly represent the work of the Luthier, and has the ability to respond to the needs of perspective clients. When a dealer successfully represents a Luthier, both benefit. As the dealer helps to develop and expand the reputation of the Luthier, he also helps the value of their instruments to grow.
No two dealers are exactly alike, just as no two luthiers or instruments are the same. In a perfect world, dealers provide three primary services: Exposure, Service and Value.
Part of the cost of doing business for dealers is travel and attendance at events and shows around the country (and the world). Through these, the dealer builds contacts and relationships with performers and players. The object of this exercise is exposure – getting the Luthier’s instrument into the hands of appropriate and notable players. Knowledge, personality, and alchemy are involved. If the players look forward to spending time with the dealer, then they are more likely to spend more time with his instruments.
Good service falls into three categories:
Having enough instruments that are available during regular business hours, and an easy-to-reach location, making it a worthwhile destination so players will make the trip.
Having knowledgeable staff to be helpful to players – enough to be able to put the ‘appropriate’ instrument into their hands, and then to discuss it’s various merits.
Having a Luthier on hand to set-up the instruments for individual players and to make small problems to go away. The on-site luthier is critical as every instrument in the ‘gallery’ needs to be in top shape in order to be represented in the best possible light.
This is where market-forces come into play. In order for a dealer to build a strong reputation, they need to represent instruments and luthiers that have value. When a dealer represents the work of a Luthier, they are saying that the cost of the instrument is a worthwhile investment. There is some alchemy involved here. Very much the same sense as when valuing stocks or paintings. If a dealer represents work that ‘holds’ its value over time, they develop a reputation of understanding the market, and clients develop a relationship of trust. As the prices of hand-made instruments are high, clients must have confidence that they are making a wise investment. The incentives are all aligned as the dealer wants the values of the instruments to rise, so does the Luthier. Ironically however, dealers do not want to sell instruments above their market value, as it will not help the reputation of the dealer or the Luthier, to have expensive new instruments that sell for a fraction of their original cost on the used market. Basically luthiers and dealers struggle together, to help establish and maintain a healthy, realistic market value. It is in the best interest of all the parties involved, Luthier, dealer, and player, to have that value rise.
How to start a relationship with a dealer:
Consider where you would like your instruments to get exposure. Part of this determination is geographic and part of it is dealer reputation.
Approach the dealer via email with detailed pictures and descriptions of your instruments. On any normal day, a dealer’s time is distributed between the phone, email and customers in the store. If you call catch the dealer at a bad moment, you may not be received with an open mind and an opportunity can be missed. Email can act as a traditional letter of introduction.
Attend the appropriate Guitar Shows. Many dealers also attend looking for wonderful instruments. Dealers are always looking for undiscovered talent. Most dealers are not looking to buy instruments at guitar shows but are searching for new builders and the opportunity to open doors to new relationships.
Consider each new encounter with a dealer as a potential relationship based upon business, trust and long-term investment.
At the end of the day, the relationship between luthiers and dealers focuses on both business and art. Artists and art-lovers, immersed in and consumed by what they love to do. Struggling together to foster and expand the art of music and luthierie. It is a delicious, delightful, and mutually advantageous cycle.
Leonard Wyeth and Brian Wolfe
by Leonard Wyeth AIA of Acoustic Music .Org
Luthiers are musical instrument builders. More specifically: builders of stringed instruments. It is a rare combination of art, craft and science. Stringed instruments are unique in the world of art: The instrument itself is an art object and its intended use is for the performance of art as music.
Stringed instruments require the highest degree of craft in their creation. The builder needs to fully understand the structural and aesthetic potential of the materials used. Woods are selected and gathered from all over the globe for their special qualities: tonal, structural and appearance. In the 1700s, the French Luthiers of Mircourt brought rosewood from Brazil, maple from America, spruce from Germany and Italy, cedar from Spain, mahogany from Africa. It was a tradition firmly based in both trial and error as well as the best science of the day. These traditions and technologies came to America in the form of European Luthiers seeking opportunities and new markets for their skills.
Prior to the industrial revolution, the only way to become a Luthier was by apprenticeship to a Master Luthier: the Guild system of education, training and expanding the knowledge and traditions of the past. It was a remarkably good system. To be good at a chosen profession required massive commitment from a very young age followed by years of study and hands-on practice with the best minds within the profession. Good ideas prospered and succeeded. Bad ideas were quickly cast aside. It is amazing how many different methods to achieve the same goal can be tested by trial and error over a period of 600 years or more by people single-mindedly devoted to their cause.
Luthiers learned how different woods felt and sounded. They constantly tested different shapes, bracing methods, glue techniques and finish formulations. It was science, in the true sense: careful experimentation and documentation of the results. It was building upon each new successful development. Antonio Stradivari did not accidently stumble upon a method to build remarkable violins. After his advances, violins were never the same: his work is still studied today. He was one of many who contributed to generations of thoughtful improvements.
A stringed musical instrument is a balance of the special qualities of its materials. The vibration of the sound table of an instrument is the source of the sound. If the soundboard is too thick, it won’t vibrate freely and produce much sound. If it is too thin, it will not be able to withstand the forces of the strings working against it. To complicate matters, it has to be strong enough to withstand the hard playing of a spirited performer. Every component has a purpose and in almost every case, it contributes to the sound and feel of the instrument.
In the late 20th century, we have developed a better understanding of the science of sound and sound transmission. We have developed all sorts of testing equipment and methods to quantify what our ears tell us. A number of Luthiers have tried to use this new technology to improve the art of Luthierie. The goal, for example, might be a louder, better sounding and better feeling acoustic guitar.
Example No. 1
The following is an excerpt from Vince Meyer in 1997: The Kasha Guitar
“The Kasha Guitar represents a major effort to improve upon the traditional classical guitar. It uses modern physics, acoustical theory, and new materials for construction and finish, to go beyond the limits of an instrument which has largely reached the maximum of its design potential. The finest (that is to say the most sensitive, responsive and resonant) classical guitar converts only about 5% of the energy of a plucked string into sound. The rest becomes heat, as one’s guitar literally warms up with playing. The energy available for sound may be heard as great volume, or as great sustain, but not as both. This unfortunate trade-off is enforced by the limitations of a design basically settled upon in the 1870’s, with only subtle changes in internal structure and materials since then.
In the 1960’s, a physical chemist named Michael Kasha purchased a classical guitar for his son. Although he didn’t play guitar himself, Dr. Kasha thought it just didn’t sound as good as it could. Upon further examination inside the instrument he decided that some changes needed to be done so that every note was clear and strong. While he earned Doctoral degrees in three disciplines, Dr. Kasha’s astonishing intellect became focused on applying modern scientific theory, exact tools of measurement, and new construction materials, to develop a radically re-designed and potentially far more capable “classical” guitar. Richard Schneider, then a master builder of traditional classical guitars, began a 30-year collaboration with Dr. Kasha, resulting in a series of constantly evolving and improving instruments.
In an effort to create an instrument converting perhaps 7 or 8% of string energy into sound, and thus allowing greater volume AND greater sustain, while all the time insisting on perfect pitch and balance in all notes struck anywhere on the neck, the Kasha design focused heavily on 5 areas…
First, the neck was made very heavy and rigid, while keeping normal dimensions and a graceful shape. This prevented a loss of string energy into useless vibration of the neck. Subsequently, this saved energy helps prolong excitation of the soundboard via the bridge. The weight of the neck also increases treble response.
Second, the impedance dependent bridge, shaped like a wedge rather than the traditional rectangle, was designed to more efficiently transmit bass tones to the bass (left) half of the soundboard, and treble tones to the treble (right) half. It was made to have as little mass as possible to allow ready responsiveness.
Third, the soundboard was given a decidedly thinner bass half, and thicker treble half, again to respond more readily to bass and treble tones. The soundhole was moved from its centerline position to the upper-right area of the top, an area found to be almost “silent”, hence useless in sound production. This move tremendously strengthened the top and created a much larger vibrating area than in traditional designs. It also allows the braces that affect the midrange to be the appropriate length.
Fourth, a truly radical bracing system on the underside of the top became a crucial design element. Again, it was designed to reinforce production of bass tones by the bass half, and treble tones by the treble half of the top, while taking advantage of every possible square inch of the top surface for creation of a truly big sound. This system also allows the bridge to move more freely in a rotary as well as up-and-down manner, adding sustain and richness of harmonics.
Finally, for the back, an elegant and complex bracing system in conjunction with the use of tonewood allowed it to move like the diaphragm of a speaker, reinforcing the profundity of bass, middle, and treble notes.
These complex instruments are slow and exacting to produce, hence expensive and rare. Every part is hand-built and placed “just so”. They are solidly built to last virtually a century. When compared in play-offs against superb guitars of traditional design, they display a rich and profound tone sometimes compared to a grand piano. They lend themselves splendidly to true classical music. The recent recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations by Kurt Rodarmer makes this point brilliantly. These guitars enormously impressed Andres Segovia, and are today in the hands of some of the world’s finest players.”
Dr. Kasha brought a systems-analysis approach to the development of the guitar. He used advanced current acoustical theory and materials analysis to develop new joints, bridges and bracing to maximize the sound output and balance of the instrument. It worked – sort of. It was good science, but it didn’t necessarily make a better sounding or playing guitar.
Example No. 2
Dr. Dan Russell, Assistant Professor of Applied Physics at Kettering University in Flint, Michigan, took a slightly different approach. Dr. Russell did not try to create a better guitar. He has attempted to develop a scientific method of better understanding the physics of the motion of the instruments involved in projecting sound. He developed a testing method for tracking the physical motion of the instrument as it generates different frequencies. He has subsequently found a graphic way to express the motion of the instrument. These results can be seen on his website: http://www.kettering.edu/~drussell/guitars/index.html. Dr. Russell appears to leave the conclusions up to future Luthiers on how to use this data to improve the instruments.
In the end, guitars, violins, cellos, stand-up basses, mandolins, banjos, ouds, mandolas, ukuleles, weisenbourns, mandocellos, violas and similar instruments are still crafted pretty much the same way they have been for 2oo years or more. Some of the finest Luthiers of our day have learned their craft as apprentices to former ‘masters’. Others have learned the craft through years of research in restoration of vintage instruments. The old guys seem to know what they were doing. The science and the craft are one and the same.
Connecticut example of a Master Luthier:
1238 Boston Post Rd.
Guilford, CT 06437
As to how I learned Lutherie, I often tell people that I made it up as I went along, which is not that far from the truth actually. I had an academic background in Studio Arts and Anthropology when the notion of becoming a professional guitar builder first occurred to me. I had already been designing and building furniture and was working my way through college, in part, as an antique dealer. ( I’ve always loved old things, especially tools or anything that showed the application of genuine craftsmanship). And, I quite literally lived in a barn full of tools … “my studio”.
An early familiarity with acoustic guitars, mandolins, lutes, and such came from the fact that, for some reason, I was always surrounded by musicians. Although my focus in college was in visual arts with a concentration in three dimensional design, the music in my studio was just as important as what there was to look at … at least to me. It felt integral to the creative process. So, it was just a matter of time before my woodworking and sculpting tools were pointed in the direction of that first guitar… as a personal calling you might say.
Fortunately I was able to obtain the guidance of Michael Gurian in New Hampshire (one of the great builders of the late twentieth century). He, and a couple of other luthiers, gave me a set of standards to live up to as I invented my way through a dozen guitars … each one better than the one before. By “invented” I don’t mean what it should look or sound like but, rather, how to arrive at the end results. What procedures to use, what specialized tools? Nothing was standardized in terms of approach back then. Very few books were out on the subject and not a single College or University taught Lutherie. You were literally, on your own. Almost everything being built was being built in factories at that time. Although factory designs were tried and true, I couldn’t afford that kind of machinery. So I started looking into traditional Spanish techniques like bending sides over hot pipes instead of large steam presses. I was still in school at the time, pursuing a Masters in Cultural Anthropology. And, I guess this is where my research training came in handy. Ahhhh! those were the days, I was so excited. Lutherie in America was experiencing an incredible rise in public interest. It was also being resurrected as an American Art tradition after having been all but completely been lost to an industrial approach. Yes, It was not but a few decades ago that a genuine renaissance of instrument making (and restoring) occurred, and I, for one, was lucky to have caught the wave.
The different things that I am evaluating when I build an instrument are:
First, what kind of music the instrument is best suited for. For example, if a flat-top steel-string guitar is being designed for “fingerstyle” play, then one would use a piece of top wood capable of sustaining clearly defined notes (examples: European spruce or Carpathian spruce). If, on the other hand, one desires to build a similar guitar to be strummed or played with a pick, an Adirondack spruce is a better choice. Back and side sets tend to be either rosewood or mahogany or variations thereof. Actually I could name dozens of woods that have been regularly used over the years but suffice it to say that the closer one gets to the highest level of the art, the more consistently certain woods tend to be used. In short, the tone woods of choice have proven themselves ideally suited over time.
My original concept for the shop here in Guilford was to create a comfortable place where musicianship and the art and traditions of musical instrument making and design would come together. A place where there could be a mutually beneficial exchange of energy and knowledge. Wooden stringed instruments are not only sophisticated design solutions made from beautiful woods, but, they can also be an inspiring tool in the hands of a qualified musician. When a craftsman can observe that connection, and fine tune an instrument to suit the needs of its player, advancements in both music and craft are possible. It is in this way that design trends evolve and the tools of the musicians trade become refined. I strongly believe that the best of Luthiers are always listening to the expressed desires of musicians as well as the instruments themselves. Quality of tone is, after all, culturally established. We want instruments to sound familiar. That is, we want them to sound like something we have heard before, and liked, for reasons that run as deep as the music we play. This is one of the reasons why only certain woods are considered suitable for high-end instrument making. And it is the reason why design trends evolve more slowly at higher levels of workmanship.
So, please allow me to turn the page to the 1980’s when I left the Yale community and purchased a large colonial building and six beautiful acres of river frontage here in Guilford as the permanent home of Youngblood Music Workshop. Currently I am also providing space to Acoustic Music.Org in a symbiotic arrangement of commerce and craft. So for better than twenty years this place has been filled with music, musical instruments, history, and craft.
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