by Ervin Somogyi
When I began making my first guitar in 1970 I was more or less a hippie — that is, a bearded (but clean-smelling) young man who was living outside of mainstream culture. I embarked on that first project casually; as far as I knew it was going to be a hobby-project to tide me over until I got “a real job”. I didn’t know any American guitar makers in those days; I had not even heard of anyone outside of Spain or Germany to be making guitars by hand. Still, I’d spend a Summer in Spain and hung out around some of the guitar shops in Granada; and later, when I went to grad school in the late sixties I met a man, Art Brauner, who had built a guitar with the help of Irving Sloane’s pioneering book Classic Guitar Making. I was impressed; having been a student much more than anything else in my young life I’d not produced much of anything other than lecture notes, papers, essays, reports, and test results — but this fellow had made a real object! A real guitar made an impression, in spite of the fact that doing this kind of woodworking. was an odd way indeed to spend one’s time in those days; no one in my family had ever puttered with hobbies, done woodwork in the basement, welded, built models from kits, made furniture, or anything like that. Eventually, I built my first guitar — a classic guitar — using Sloane’s seminal book. I think all of us young American guitar makers used that book to get off the ground. And speaking of American guitar makers, I might mention the curious historical fact that of the handful of guitar makers who were working in California in the early 1970s, half were from some other country. American lutherie culture was in its very early stages.
I opened up a small guitar repair shop in 1971. One year later I took over retiring guitar maker Denis Grace’s larger shop, and for a long time made my living principally by doing all kinds of guitar repairs. It’s amazing that I survived, because I had no training, no experience, no knowledge, few tools, no teachers, no work discipline, no professional standards, and marginal skills. Still, I survived, and made a few guitars each year. Because I played flamenco I was making mostly Spanish (classic and flamenco) guitars, as well as lutes and dulcimers. I had made a few steel string instruments but, not knowing any better, I was merely making big Spanish guitars. I felt more or less pleased to think of myself as a luthier; I think the romance of it kept me going. It most certainly wasn’t the income; I remember that I grossed $1800 the first year and $2500 the second (I had a part-time job teaching, on the side, to help me pay my bills). But I didn’t really face up to how inadequate and amateurish my work was until 1977.
In that year I was invited to display my guitars at the Carmel Classic Guitar Festival, as one of seven luthier exhibitors. I’d been building guitars for five or six years by then and felt happy to be invited to show my work. I can tell you that while my parents could not begin to fathom what I was doing making guitars when I could have had such a promising career doing something reasonable, my friends had been unfailingly supportive and encouraging to me in my guitar making efforts. (Guess which set of people I put my faith in?) In any event, I went to Carmel feeling a little cocky and smug, thinking to impress the people there just as I had wowed my friends.
Carmel is an upscale vacation community four hours’ drive from San Francisco, The guitar festival — the first one I’d ever gone to — was a prestigious event that drew important people from all over this country and even a few from overseas. It had been organized by a prominent local classical guitar teacher, Guy Horn, to whom I remain indebted to this day. Among my fellow exhibitors were Jeffrey Elliott, Lester DeVoe, Randy Angella, and John Mello — all of whom went on to support themselves by making Spanish guitars.
The festival was a catastrophe for me. My work, in its full and splendidly careless amateurishness, was the worst of anyone’s there. Worse yet, this was revealed to everybody. The three-day long event was a disastrous, humiliating, and sobering experience and I came back from that event severely shaken and depressed. My friends had, in fact, been no help to me at all with their uncritical kindness: I hadn’t learned anything. I stared the fact (that I had been more or less wasting my time living out a hippie fantasy) in the face. It stared back at me.
Understandably, I experienced a crisis. It became clear to me that I had two choices: quit making guitars and do something else, or buckle down and do better work (I’d been to college, after all, and I could figure this kind of thing out). It took me several weeks of re-evaluating to realize that I actually liked making guitars enough to stick with it, and that the path was open to me if I wanted to apply myself and do professional-level work. That was my real starting point as a guitar maker. And it was within a year of that decision to do the best work I could, and not let things slide, that I started to make steel string guitars. The timing worked out: I was starting to meet serious steel string guitar players in that period — and specifically the first of my Windham Hill contacts. (NOTE: The timing was fortuitous in a much larger sense: that was when making [hopefully better] guitars was beginning to make a blip on the cultural radar; the folk (and rock and other) movement(s) of the sixties and seventies had certainly sparked the playing of them, but all the famous folk and popular singers, duets, and groups who used guitars — such as Peter, Paul and Mary, the Mamas and the Papas, the Kingston trio, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Weavers, Dave van Ronk, Johnny Cash, Elvis Preley, Simon and Garfunkel, Roy Orbison, Ricky Nelson, the Limelighters, the Everly Brothers, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Kate Wolf, the New Christy Minstrels, Phil Ochs, Ian and Sylvia, Joan Baez, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. — were all using store-bought guitars, not handmade ones; the appearance of these was still waiting in the wings, as it were.) In any event the Windham Hill door, it turned out, was one of the most important ones that had ever opened up for me. And one of that would have happened without my disgraceful showing at the Carmel Classic Guitar Festival.
I should explain my reference to Windham Hill a bit. My relationship with the Windham Hill music label in the late 1970s and through the ’80s was, along with and aside from the Carmel Classic Guitar Festival, a second significant turning point for me in my work. The timing was, for all the above reasons, and historically speaking, perfect.
The Windham Hill label introduced solo steel string guitar music to the public. Windham Hill’s impact on this specific music, and contemporary guitar music on the American and world scene in general, was phenomenal. The guitarists who recorded on that label were leading points of musical inspiration and reference for many young guitarists, both compositionally and acoustically — in part because, for the first time, the guitar was being recorded and listened to at the level of fidelity of sound previously occupied by classical music alone, and in part because no one before them had composed interesting and complex music for the steel string guitar alone*. And this acceptance of better-quality guitar music also became my point of entry into the world of serious lutherie. I was lucky to have met the Windham Hill guitarists when the Windham Hill phenomenon was just getting off the ground. That was the point in time when factory made guitars were showing their limitations and guitarists were for the first time needing genuinely better instruments.
(* This isn’t 100% true, but it’s close. The very first strains of solo guitar music came from John Fahey, Leo Kottke, Clarence White, and Doc Watson. They were pioneers and inventors; they just simply weren’t mass market successes in the way that Windham Hill was.)
I was also lucky to be living an hour from Palo Alto, which was the epicenter of that musical ferment. It helped that I’d figured some things out about guitars by then; I’d had six years of experience which I finally began to pay serious attention to after my disappointing showing at the Carmel Festival, and my instruments were by then finally good enough that people could consider playing and buying them. My steel string guitars performed well not only acoustically but also did exceptionally well in the recording studio; the players very much appreciated being able to make better recordings; and my word-of-mouth reputation grew. But none of this — other than the incidental fact of my living an hour away from a group of talented steel string guitar musicians — would have happened had I made a good showing at the Carmel Classic Guitar Festival. I would probably have continued to make classical guitars and my life would have gone off in a very different direction.