On Critiquing Other People’s Guitars

March 5, 2011

I remember that, when I was starting out, years ago, I spent a lot of evenings backstage at different concert halls or clubs hoping to show that evening’s guitar player an instrument that I’d made. Some evenings were a complete waste of my time, but I learned two things from those efforts. One is that there is constructive criticism and destructive criticism (partially stemming from a set of values that various guitar-playing subcultures learn to apply differently; I describe this at length in Chapter 32 of my book The Responsive Guitar). The other thing is that if you are ever asked to render an opinion of someone else’s work — and you agree to it — you should give the guy something. The guy has a right to expect a few minutes of your honest attention; he’s earned it by having put 100-plus hours into the guitar he’s showing you.

It’s easy to spot the inadequacies in someone else’s work, especially if they’re more or less new to it. The thing is, though, effective criticism — and certainly constructive criticism — requires some real experience, thought, and standards. At a minimum, it involves the learned skill of simply looking and seeing — and getting the other person to look and see equally dispassionately; it’s possible that he had been so focused on following the instructions that he didn’t notice the details. Constructive criticism is also a learned social skill that borrows heavily from the Salesman’s Handbook: a little tact and generosity go a long way. Even the worst guitar has some good things in it, and an intelligent critic will do well to find them and acknowledge them. To do otherwise is tantamount to giving the man a business card with your name on it followed by the word “asshole.”

When asked to comment on someone else’s work I find it useful to ask them what their assessment is. What do they think the pluses and minuses are? What did they learn from this or that? That will give me a good starting point for giving feedback. I mean, if they think that they are showing me an object of transcendent beauty that they can’t imagine will receive anything but high praise, and I see only an amateurish mess, I have to be a bit tactful in turning their focus to some of the things that are not yet obvious to them. Take it from me, even experienced guitar makers can be surprisingly touchy about real or perceived negative input. On the other hand, once you ask for advice, listen to it: it is your job as a maker to learn your work and get past your fantasies, blind spots, and pet beliefs about it.

Regardless of how skilled your eye and ear might be in finding the pluses and minuses of a someone else’s work there are two main things that I have found it useful to be aware of. The first of these is easily overlooked, even though it’s actually more obvious* than the specifics of a guitar’s construction. It’s the fact that the person who is showing you that instrument actually made it. Consider that there are more people on this planet who would like to make a guitar, intend to make a guitar, plan to some day make a guitar, wish they could make a guitar, have thought about making a guitar, or at one point actually started to make a guitar but didn’t finish it… than there are people who begin such a project and carry it through to completion. Period. That simple fact counts points and needs to be acknowledged. And it’s not really (only) a simple fact: it’s a complex one made up of effort, dedication, and focus — and, not least, expended time and energy. The person you are talking to has crossed a significant threshold and has paid certain dues. If ‘the expert’ whose opinion is being asked isn’t aware of this, he’s not much of an expert.

Making a guitar is a complicated process: anyone who has made a guitar or even read a book about instrument making knows this. It’s far easier if you’re building a kit, of course, but unless you’re working in a fully automated shop the work involves literally hundreds of discrete steps, substeps, procedures, operations, and multiple materials. And besides all the time and effort it takes, there’s a learning curve loaded with twists, mistakes, dead ends and switchbacks. So, for someone to comment on the end result of such a demanding and complex project, as though it were ONLY a collection of nice tries… is to devalue the work. I repeat: find a few of the hundred things that were well done in that guitar and mention them. As a bonus, if you do this, the recipient’s opinion of you will be higher because he’ll recognize how perceptive you truly are. NOTE: I’m not suggesting an ego-stroking-compliment-fest; I’m suggesting sugar-coating the pill.

The second area of critical mindset is also one that is normally unrecognized by most people; yet, it vastly enriches the conversation if one is simply aware of the fact that a handmade guitar carries information. It is a veritable repository and warehouse of embedded (but invisible) information — in a way, moreover, that a factory made guitar is not. In fact, in a handmade guitar, the invisible information at least matches the amount of visible information. Let me explain what I mean.

A handmade guitar is, in a sense, like a photograph: something that has been frozen in time. It includes not only the woods, glues, lacquers, ivory, metals, etc. that it’s made up of, but also the engineering, physics, woodworking, acoustics, art, design, and tradition that it embodies. In addition, the guitar contains the intent, energy, focus, planning, skill, knowledge, priorities, interest, hopes, judgment, and intent of the maker. The fact is that the guitar would not have gotten made without these. One might argue that these quantities might have been “insufficient” because the guitar falls short of some standard of perfection — and that assessment may be “factually true”. But this brings us to the next important fact to consider: that guitar that you’re looking at is simply what the maker has accomplished at this point in time. If it’s not the maker’s first guitar then it ALSO contains the progress that’s been made since the previous one — and the seeds of the next, better guitar as well. As I said, it’s a frozen part of a process or progression, and the fact that you might be oblivious to this doesn’t mean it’s not any different. These things are most definitely “in there” because the maker put them in there. The instrument embodies all this.

I repeat: every item and detail in that guitar (including every lack of detail) speaks to one or more of these considerations. In case you’re thinking that I’m being fanciful, there is precedent and a reality basis to this kind of thing. Archaeologists can adduce the most amazing things out of a bone or a piece of pottery. The detailing of the formation of any aspect of an object, the fracture lines, its position in the ground and its location in relation to other things, the wear patterns, the age and composition, etc. are all clues that tell some story. Archaeologists understand the usefulness of geographic, geologic, technological, developmental, historical, meteorological, chemical, dendrochronological, etc. context. They will have some idea what came before or after in that same tribe or species and/or their neighboring tribes or species. Each clue has a part of the greater story to contribute.

Why should it be any different with the details and micro-details of a handmade guitar? Why should the visible sanding scratches on an interior surface not suggest something about the care, workmanship, prioritizing, awareness, experience, technological sophistication, etc. of the maker? Why should the straightness of the neck (or lack of it) not speak to his level of skill and conscientiousness, or even to prevailing lutherie theory? Well, they do. And speaking of context, is it surprising that someone working out of, say, Podunk, North Dakota, might be making less sophisticated guitars than someone working out of Seattle? It’s fair to assume that we’re looking at an example of the best that the maker knows/knew how to do. But why might we assume that the guitar in question does not represent, along with everything else, a point on an active learning curve? It most certainly does. It contains that information along with everything else I’ve listed. I think one’s analysis of a handmade guitar is made richer by appreciating such larger context, and any luthier will appreciate your recognition of the fact that every guitar (except the last one he’ll ever make) is, in part, an expression of Hope and Aim. Seriously. And that last guitar just might be an expression of a culmination.

As they say in Joisey, it never hoits to see past the woist in something. And, I underline: this is about nothing other than giving useful information. One goes to a doctor for medicine, not friendship. Give him the pill, but don’t make it a bitter one. I mentioned that hand made guitars contain information in the way that factory made ones do not. I’ve written at length about ‘the differences between handmade and factory made guitars’ in an article on this same website. If you’re interested in further discussion of this issue, please go read that.

* (By the way, the word obvious is interesting. It’s from the Latin “ob”, which means against — in the sense of close proximity (as opposed to contrariness) — and “via”, which means road. Something that’s obvious is something that is on the road right in front of you — in other words, something that’s so in your face that you can’t miss it.)