Some things about myself
I was born in Budapest in 1944 and am American by naturalization. My family and I arrived in this country when I was fifteen. Besides Hungary and the U.S. I have lived in Austria, England, Cuba, Mexico, Peru and Spain.
As a child I was a puttering, craftsy, nerdy kind of kid who played with clay and wood and made model airplanes, etc. Moving around as much as we did, and being uprooted so often, I learned to be the source of my own stimulation and entertainment. I made my first guitar out of a cigar box when I was a Cub Scout, at about age eleven: it collapsed at first stringing. This was, technically, my start as a guitar maker.
Having lived in many places I’ve managed to go to lots of different schools; I eventually graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 1966 with a degree in English. Upon graduation I entered the Peace Corps, which sent me to Peru for two years. Then, after returning from South America I attended graduate school in Wisconsin, worked in a mental hospital in Illinois, studied guitar in Spain, and for a time made my living as a flamenco guitarist in the Midwest and in California. In the late 1980s I went back to graduate school to study clinical psychology. I’ve also branched out from lutherie to become an artistic wood carver.
My becoming a professional luthier wasn’t planned; in fact, lutherie didn’t exist as an occupation in this country when I started, so there wouldn’t have been anything to make plans around. Europeans have been making instruments by hand for centuries, but the model for such work in the United States was the Factory one . . . until a few skinny young hippiesI started the outlandish work of making guitars by hand in the late 1960s. I became a guitar maker in 1970 when I made a guitar as a hobby project: a friend had made a guitar using Irving Sloane’s seminal book, and I decided I wanted to make one for myself too. A lot of things start like that, I think.
I am unusual in lutherie in that I make both steel string and Spanish (nylon strung) guitars. Most people stick to one or the other. Being a flamenco guitar player, I started out making flamenco guitars: I quickly found that the flamenco network is too broke to support a guitar maker. Then I tried my hand at making classic guitars, which are very similar to flamencos. However, since I didn’t really know what I was doing in those early days I found the classic guitar crowd impossible to please. After a few years of this, when I’d finished with the steepest part of the learning curve and gotten past my worst mistakes, I became interested in making steel string guitars. Because I’d learned from five years worth of “nice tries” and assorted failures, my steel string guitars were surprisingly good. And they had individuality. I became somewhat of a pioneer in this, as steel string guitar making in this country had previously been, as I said, pretty much exclusively the province of factory production; the model of what a guitar should be was exactly a Martin or a Gibson.
I am at this point, after 50+ years of instrument making, one of the leading American authorities on the principles of acoustic guitar construction. It may sound a bit grandiose to say, but I’ve been called a luthier’s luthier. These assessments are based in a lifetime of experience in making both Spanish and steel string guitars, and also in my years of teaching and writing. I’ve taught classes in guitar making, design, voicing, and repair both privately and in schools, lectured and given workshops and hands-on demonstrations at many national conventions and lutherie symposia. I’ve also participated in more than a hundred lutherie and craft shows and exhibitions, and written and published dozens of articles on different aspects of lutherie over many years. I have, in a real way, taught and influenced many of the younger generation of American luthiers, and trained some of the new rising stars.
As far as my body is concerned, you can figure out how old I am from my birthdate. I have had open-heart bypass surgery, and I have a pacemaker installed. Sooner or later, those rising stars will replace me and carry on the tradition that I’ve been such a pioneering influence on.
Having been an English major in college turned out to be a help, strange as that may sound. What I mean is that my English classes and teachers gave me training in how to think critically. I got practice in looking at something that someone had created to examine it closely, to identify which of its elements worked and which ones didn’t, to think analytically about the connections of its parts, and to compare it to other work. The skills of analyzing written material has been useful toward my being able to understand and being able to make better soundboxes. It also saved me from a professional life of basically making copies of copies of copies of copies of guitars that were originally designed to be mass market products – an approach which was pretty much the only one available when I was starting out and which is still widely in use today. No less importantly, my English teachers taught me to write good, a skill I’ve used in every article and essay I’ve wrote J.
I also learned some valuable things from John Gilbert, who was for a time the premier classical guitar maker in this entire region, and who lived about an hour away from me. He got me to start thinking about how one part of the guitar might affect another; and about efficient vs. inefficient transfer of energies from one material to another, or one form to another (as when kinetic energy becomes mechanical energy and that then becomes sound energy); and how string energy might be lost at inefficient coupling points; and about just what, exactly, might the use or function of this or that part, or this or that materials quality, or this or that dynamic element might be in the overall picture. I owe him.
As far as my personal life goes, I have a daughter who also has a degree in English. Her mother — my ex-wife — died of cancer in the year 2000. My daughter aspired to become an author and got a book of biographical fiction published – a success story indeed, although she also learned how difficult it is to make a living at writing. She eventually went to law school and became a lawyer, and seems happy and secure in that life. I live in Berkeley, California, where I periodically track wood shavings through the house that I share with a friendly female human, rabbit, some fish tanks, and some nice cats.
I find that there are four rules for professional success that, coincidentally, are the same as the four rules for domestic success, no matter where you are or what you do. First, try to find the humor and the good in everything you do. Second, be prepared to work hard at it, at least some of the time. Third, never reveal everything you know.