Why Lutherie?

by Ervin Somogyi

I’ve been a luthier for some 30 years. I’ve seen and done lots of things in the field, made a place for myself in it, and I’ve watched a good many changes come and go. Every now and then I stop and try to look at the bigger picture that I’m a part of and get new perspective on some of the influences and forces which brought me here.

When I began, there were only a few independent guitarmakers around. They were generally creative, not able or willing to work within the mainstream system, and personally rather eccentric. The mainstream system, as far as guitars were concerned, consisted of American factories such as Gibson, Guild, Harmony, Martin, Gretsch, and Fender. The Japanese and Taiwanese guitar factories were turning out ornamental crap, and the only real luthiers people had ever heard of — like Ramirez, Torres, Orville Gibson, Santos Hernandez, C.F. Martin, Simplicio, Hermann Hauser, the Larson brothers and John D’Angelico — were all long since dead. This was not a lutherie environment rich in promise. Those very first independent guys really had a hard time fitting in. They paid a high price for being trailblazers, too: not a few of them fell by the wayside into craziness or simply disappeared, unable to make a living at lutherie. Their legacy to us is that they formed nuclei of interest for newcomers who also wanted to work wood with their hands, to create something that had beauty and gave pleasure, and to have a life which offered a different flavor of meaning than that of American pop culture. We, who came later, owe them a lot.

And we have come a long way, by several measurable standards. First, whereas thirty years ago a luthier was mostly an object of curiosity and an anachronism, handmade lutherie (whether you are making two guitars a year or forty) is now a more or less familiar and accepted part of the American landscape. Consequently it is now more possible for a luthier to make, if not a living, at least some money at it. Second, the guitars which are being produced now are, on the average, much better than the average instrument produced then. Third, a generation of instrument makers has evolved which is not made up only of hardcore mavericks, but rather of established professionals and intelligent amateurs who take their work seriously and with a great deal of justifiable pride. Fourth, an entire (and continually growing) body of literature has been created by us, where there was none at all before. Fifth, we have preserved, refined and extended an originally European tradition of woodworking which had lain moribund with disuse in this country, and made it viable. Sixth, we’ve created the conditions which have made possible the rise of two national luthiers’ organizations; furthermore, these not only provide active forums for free exchange of information to anyone who has interest in this craft, but are in fact the leading sources of information for young instrument makers overseas. And, lastly, we are part of the first generation of American luthiers who are ranked as being world class. Not bad, for a bunch of guys who started out as self-taught hippies.

Lutherie itself has changed as well. It’s grown from the romantic passion of the slow, carefully working amateur and enthusiast, to the serious business of making a living — with all the jigging, tooling up, scheduling and paper/office work this requires. But the focus and intent of the luthier — that is, the willingness to make something as excellently as he can out of a mindset which values personal creativity, personal involvement in the work, an appreciation of the beauty of what is created, and independence — has held constant. At least, so it seems to me. I have always valued lutherie for its having given me the opportunity to pursue excellence to the limits of my ability.

Still, even after all these years, non-luthiers have little sense of what a remarkable activity lutherie is, of its complexity, or what a miracle of hard work and dedication the above described renaissance represents. The time required to master the woodworking skills alone is long. One must also simultaneously master enough skills to function as a designer, acoustician, materials and strengths engineer, office manager, finisher, salesman, repairman, clerk/typist, delivery man, wood buyer, accountant, production foreman, tool maintenance man, time-motion expert, advertiser, and CEO of short-range and long-range planning. One has to find or create the infrastructure (tools, workbenches, jigs and molds, office, electrical service, etc.) which will support all this activity. There are years of long hours, little money, no paid vacations, no medical or retirement plans. And all this is increasingly carried out in an environment where one competes with well-equipped factories which do all this, and more, in 1/128 the time. Seen in this perspective, one has to think that attempting this work under these conditions is nuts. What are the reasons anyone would be attracted to this? What drives us? What drives me?

I think that the reasons luthiers make guitars must be almost as varied as the makers themselves. The satisfactions to be gotten from lutherie derive from traditional values such as being independent, being creative, and doing work that is enjoyable and which actually seems meaningful much of the time. But also, there is an array of pleasures, interests and little obsessions specific to each of us. You might get the sense from the roster of pertinent skills I listed above that lutherie can be a total-immersion pursuit which is really about Living A Life at least as much as it is about Making A Living. Or, that it is largely about making a living as opposed to making money. And you’d be right. For those of us who feel more dedicated than the average, I suppose lutherie could be accurately described as a calling — a concept which, if it rarely gets mentioned these days, certainly fits the bill. In all fairness, but with neutrality and also some humor, I should add that drug or compulsion can also fit the bill. The difference between these possibilities, I think, is metaphysical. That is, it has to do with how high you aim, or can aim, as a human being. This includes concern with things such as excellence, living ethically, or participating in a tradition which one can pass on to others.

One’s metaphysic also has to do with how one is shaped as to what they aim at, and why. My own early shaping included growing up fairly alone and isolated. This being so, I had to learn to be the source of my own stimulation and amusement. I became a bookish, nerdy, inward kind of kid. I read extensively, whittled things in wood, sculpted in modeling clay, built models of all kinds, etc. It is not hard to see that this might form a basis for later life activity. I think I am still sculpting and making models, only with strings attached.

The metaphysic I bring to lutherie has to do with the fact that my family and I are Holocaust survivors. This is an experience impossible to describe adequately through use of cognitive language alone, so I’m not going to try. Suffice it to say my parents coped with their losses, in part, by imposing an impossibly high standard of academic achievement on me. But, after college, the pressures to be perfect at something not of my own choosing paralyzed me badly. I coped with this stress in a time honored manner: I dropped out. I quit my job as a mental health worker in the Midwest and headed for that great magnet, Berkeley.

It was easy to get by in the Berkeley of the 1970s if you were single and lived simply. The calm spot I’d created by retreating from adult obligations left me with time on my hands. I’d met a man while in graduate school who’d impressed me deeply by making a guitar following the directions in Irving Sloane’s book. I’d played guitar since high school and I thought that it might be fun to make one for myself, strictly as a hobby project. So I bought Sloane’s book, some woods and tools, and waded in. This was my start in lutherie.

It wasn’t exactly what I’d call planned. But it was hardly a strange choice, given my history. I think it’s natural for people to gravitate to an activity from a simple love of the work or materials. For myself, I do love wood: it is so visually gorgeous, and, without intending to sound kinky, sensually tactile. Working it with hand tools is pleasurable for me, in the same way that I’ve liked to use my hands to shape things since I was a boy. I’m sure many of you can relate to this. There’s no thrill, for me, to putting wood into a sanding machine — although this is the smart way to go if making money is your goal.

If my choice of occupation has been shaped by serendipity and love of puttering, it has also been shaped by some strong limiting factors. One is that for most of my life, up until the last few years, I’ve been tempermentally unable to tolerate much contact with people. Another is that I’m subject to periodic depressions which interfere with normal work flow. These are, unsurprisingly, legacies of my early life. I’m not complaining: these are just the facts. From early on, guitarmaking seemed an answer to my conundrum in that it gave me something I couldn’t get anywhere else: a haven. I could work alone and have a little world I could be entirely in control of. I was the expert; I was in charge; it was my shop, my work, my turf, and I wasn’t accountable to anyone whose agendas and priorities differed from mine.

Another important reason for my being drawn to lutherie has been, and continues to be, that it is an outlet for my creative energies. Creativity is an interesting thing because its nature is a genuine mystery — like gravity, or consciousness. I’ve studied clinical psychology at both undergraduate and graduate school levels and I can tell you that while there are stacks of books written on every conceivable human function, dysfunction, feeling, urge, motivation and desire, there’s virtually nothing on the subject of human creativity. The mental health world simply doesn’t have a handle on it: they label it as something to do with Art or something as immeasurable as God, throw up their hands, and head for something they can measure. The single exception to this I know of is The Dynamics of Creation, a wonderful, thought provoking and entirely accessible book by British psychiatrist Anthony Storr. For me, the creative act is not so much subjective [as in: gee, isn’t it neat to do this?] as it is metaphysical, the gateway to the searching for something large and worthwhile outside of myself — and sometimes finding it. At its best, it is an experience of the sublime and the transcendent. There are people who have a great need to somehow find values and activities that feel worthwhile, and hang on to them, at the risk of otherwise having rather painful and bleak inner lives. The creative impulse, viewed as something that provides this prop, certainly fits the bill. I mentioned one’s little obsessions above, and I think that a normal corollary to one’s creative impulse is a measure of compulsiveness and perfectionism — because One Wants To Get It Right. Compulsiveness is an appropriate and useful quality to bring to lutherie because it helps you make more saleable instruments. However, next to sheer joy of creativity, the perfectionism is a pain in the butt. It needs to be managed, if possible, just like any other tool.

I love wood, as I said above. But there’s more to it than that. Perhaps because the Holocaust has populated my life with relatives I’ve never seen and never will, I can relate to working wood as an act of reclamation and a sacrament: it is, for me, a bringing of things from the past together with things for the future. Also, it is an act of symbolically bringing dead things to life. I don’t believe that you need to have traumatic life experiences to see wood for what it really is, though: it’s the skeleton of a life form that once lived, took in nutrients, grew, adapted to its conditions, participated in the cycles of the seasons, propagated itself, lived a long life, and then died. Actually, was probably killed. Every piece of spruce or cedar I’ve ever made into a guitar top has been [count the annular rings in your own wood] some 125 to 400 years old — and that’s just in the eight or ten inch wide slice I normally use. It seems remarkable to me to work with a material which was alive when the philosopher Benedict Spinoza ground his lenses for a living, when William Shakespeare and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were expressing their creative genius, when Francisco Pizarro conquered Peru, when Anton van Leeuwenhoek made the first microscope and discovered his little beasties, or when our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents were courting — and which was furthermore alive until within our own lifetimes. The phrase about not seeing the forest for the trees comes to mind in this regard, although it’s more like not seeing the tree for the wood. I feel that by working with this unique material I’m able to participate in life in a larger, deeper and more intimate way than by having a normal job.

I want to say something about how I work. When I am in my shop, making guitars, I primarily relate to the woods in a hands-on, somatic way. I feel them and look at them a lot. I’m continually scanning the materials for information available to my fingers, arms, eyes and ears. I bypass entirely, in the moment, reliance on more linear sources of information such as weights, measurements or the salesman’s account of which woods are the best. I function this way directly, automatically, without thinking with words, and very quickly: I register qualities, properties, etc. by feel, look and sound. It’s exactly what any good craftsman who has a feel for his tools and materials does. For years I couldn’t explain to anyone how I did this, and felt embarassed about it since I’m generally an articulate fellow about many other things. But it is a skill which can be learned, and which over a long time I have been able to find words to describe. Because I have found this method so unerringly useful in my own work, I teach an occasional hands-on intensive course on tonewood selection in which I show students what enormous amounts of information are directly available from each piece of tone wood, to the faculties nature gave us. There are more than twenty qualities (mass, fibrous texture, graining, tap tone, stiffness, sustain, chatoyance, density, silk, etc.) freely available to the touch, eye and ear, if one only makes an effort to notice. Experience over time, of course, is essential for making sense of this input. And, please don’t misunderstand: I do weigh and measure my woods at certain stages: it’s very useful. But, because weighing and measuring happens once or twice, while hands on work is continual, I believe it is mostly because of my somatic relationship with my woods that I’m able to get the results that I do in guitarmaking. Even if I’m in error about this, my experience of lutherie is enriched. And, I do think the rudiments of my approach can be taught and learned in formal teaching situations.

By temperament and capacity I can do hands-on creative, artistic, focused, in-the-moment, tunnel-vision detail work all day long. It’s my strength and best talent, and working at this level energizes me. However, this is also my weakness. We all know that serious lutherie is complex, multiprocedural and multileveled, and demands a wider applied focus than this. Looking at the big picture and holding a multiplicity of tasks, materials and organizational processes in mind, and constantly switching gears from one to another, while accomplishing the detail work, is very hard for me. I occasionally I give in to the envy of seeing someone else make several times the number of guitars I can turn out, and feel that I’d like to make that much money. But the blunt fact is that I do not seem to be able to build the same guitar over and over again, in quantity. My innate, best method is too slow. And I’m happiest when innovating, trying to better my understanding of the guitar’s dynamics, and finding ways to refine my work. Because I fear work burnout, this is how I improve the work and keep myself interested in it at the same time. In effect I give up repetitive efficiency for satisfaction and longevity.

A final element that I’ve brought to my lutherie work comes, not from my early life, but rather out of the academic life I abandoned and which I briefly touched on earlier. I really do like to investigate, teach and otherwise share my thoughts through writing. Consequently, I’ve written articles on many aspects of lutherie for a variety of publications over the years. At conventions or lutherie events I’ve attended, aspiring American, European or Japanese luthiers have, from time to time, told me that they’ve found something I’ve written informative, useful or thought provoking. The truth is, it means something to me to be able to look back and know that I’ve influenced and helped to shape some of the younger generation of my professional network.

(reprinted from American Lutherie, #58, Summer 1999)