Guitar Makers: The Endurance of Artisanal Values in North America

Guitar Makers: The Endurance of Artisanal Values in North America

by Kathryn Marie Dudley

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It whispers, it sings, it rocks, and it howls. It expresses the voice of the folk—the open road, freedom, protest and rebellion, youth and love. It is the acoustic guitar. And over the last five decades it has become a quintessential American icon. Because this musical instrument is significant to so many—in ways that are emotional, cultural, and economic—guitar making has experienced a renaissance in North America, both as a popular hobby and, for some, a way of life.

In Guitar Makers, Kathryn Marie Dudley introduces us to builders of artisanal guitars, their place in the art world, and the specialized knowledge they’ve developed. Drawing on in-depth interviews with members of the lutherie community, she finds that guitar making is a social movement with political implications.  Guitars are not simply made—they are born.  Artisans listen to their wood, respond to its liveliness, and strive to endow each instrument with an unforgettable tone. Although professional luthiers work within a market society, Dudley observes that their overriding sentiment is passion and love of the craft. Guitar makers are not aiming for quick turnover or the low-cost reproduction of commodities but the creation of singular instruments with unique qualities, and face-to-face transactions between makers, buyers, and dealers are commonplace.

In an era when technological change has pushed skilled artisanship to the margins of the global economy, and in the midst of a capitalist system that places a premium on ever faster and more efficient modes of commerce, Dudley shows us how artisanal guitar makers have carved out a unique world that operates on alternative, more humane, and ecologically sustainable terms.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226095417
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/10/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
File size: 11 MB
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About the Author

Kathryn Marie Dudley is professor of anthropology and American studies at Yale University.

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Guitar Makers

The Endurance of Artisanal Values in North America

By Kathryn Marie Dudley

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-09541-7


Crossroads of Knowledge

Standing at the crossroad, I tried to flag a ride
Didn't nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by
The sun going down, boy, dark going to catch me here
Boy, dark going to catch me here

—Robert Johnson, "Cross Road Blues" (1936)

At ever-larger and glitzier guitar shows across the United States and Canada, a common refrain can be heard: none of this was imaginable forty years ago. Asked to reflect on the history of the lutherie movement, "old timers" will shake their head in amazement and recall a past when customers refused to give "homemade" instruments a second look. Why that changed, and how a vibrant market for the artisanal guitar emerged, is the subject of much speculation and mythmaking. In these "origin narratives," luthiers offer a selective recall of history that renders market exchange and their place in it sensible in moral terms. What they seek to account for is less a matter of historical record than the miraculous emergence of a social movement committed to the value of manual labor in postindustrial society.

Unlike origin stories that attribute the founding of a new field of knowledge or creative endeavor to an influential ancestor or school of thought, builders rarely lay credit for the current renaissance of guitar making at the feet of particular individuals. To be sure, key figures are lionized for giving others their start in the business. Michael Gurian and Jean-Claude Larrivée stand out in this regard, and their "patrimonies" are often identified as a guide to who's who in the lutherie world. But this pathway into the profession was not the norm. Far more common, as Portland-based luthier Charles Fox observes, was an experience of social isolation and independent invention:

Because we had no instruction, there was no way that we could follow; there was no tradition that we could consult. We all had to figure it out for ourselves, and because we didn't know each other, we were literally on our own. I was figuring out some methods to make this happen, and someone else I didn't know yet was doing the same thing. So already there were many ways coming down, you know? There were all these parallel approaches to the same problem developing, and developing rather quickly. Quickly enough and completely enough to produce a first instrument, however misguided our approaches were. That's influential in many ways. One way is that today we have thousands of people practicing this craft here in North America. That would never be the case if we had a "tradition" of guitar making. With a tradition, there would be one way to make a guitar, and if that didn't suit you, you wouldn't enter the craft. But in our country, there was a way for everybody. You could practice this in any way that suited you, so long as the product was a valid instrument. And that is unheard of in craft, certainly in any previous European culture.

In this popular account of the movement's origins, democracy and free enterprise allowed North American luthiers to break decisively with their European forebears. The opportunities available to them in the 1960s and 1970s were a recapitulation, in this view, of the continent's colonial history, a period when craft apprentices were able to slip free of the shackles on entrepreneurship imposed by the old guild system. Unfettered by "tradition," builders felt at liberty to explore uncharted territory in whatever "way" they wished, with only the discipline of the market to constrain them. Much as the ingenuity and independent character of early settlers is popularly imagined to be the result of an unmediated encounter with "wilderness," luthiers attribute the success of their collective enterprise to their pioneering spirit and willingness to take economic risks.

Yet builders' sense of freedom and national exceptionalism glosses over their complicated relationship to history and the political and economic shifts under way at the time they entered lutherie. As a countercultural project, the lutherie movement sought to revive a craft tradition that was both "preindustrial" and "industrial" at the very moment that North America was careening toward a "postindustrial" future. Employment in basic manufacturing was in precipitous decline as corporations took advantage of new technologies and increasingly probusiness policy to outmaneuver organized labor and move production facilities to low-wage zones in Mexico and overseas. Deindustrialization, not unlike the closing of the western frontier at the turn of the twentieth century, marked the pursuit of new forms of corporate profit in foreign markets. By highlighting their departure from the "closed" guild system in Europe's past, guitar makers tacitly "forget" the eclipse of opportunity for manual laborers in the United States and Canada over their lifetime.

If builders' origin story downplays the political economy within which their movement developed, it accentuates the uniqueness and complexity of the craft object around which it coalesced. Not only could practitioners devise their own way of making guitars, Fox observes, but they could approach that challenge from many directions:

Guitar building is one of the most multidimensional crafts that I'm aware of. There's art, there's science, there's philosophy, there's the spiritual aspect to it; they're right there if you want to go there. It's sociologically significant. It's aesthetic. It's all very balanced. And actually, it's all required to do the work. That richness, both of the fulfillment and of the richness of the challenge, that's very seductive, certainly to a young man still feeling all his powers, you know—wow! This is a craft that you can enter from any angle and be working from your personal strength to get the rest. Even back then, that's perhaps why it could appeal to so many people—because there are many handles, many doors into that building. It was a source of fulfillment on many levels and from many directions. That can't be underestimated. This was not like "I think I'll be a craftsman, I think I'll turn pens," or "I think I'll make leather belts and go to the weekend art fair." Yeah, that's technically craft, but [lutherie] was a whole different thing. Perhaps a way of saying it is, it was a challenge worthy of anyone who accepted it. And one that would never run out—you'll never get to the bottom of this thing or hit the wall at the other end. This was always deeper and deeper, if you were up to it.

As a "building with many doors," lutherie is imagined to be a space of self-actualization not unlike the nation itself. Just as citizens are said enter a democratic polity from different walks of life and build on their "personal strengths" to realize their potential as human beings, builders come into guitar making "feeling their powers" and eager to prove themselves worthy of their national birthright as autonomous economic actors. As if drawing a sword from the stone, they "accept the challenge" of lutherie not as an idle hobby but as a test of moral character and their ability to contribute to the greater good. Yet the conditions of national belonging that luthiers embrace reflect deep ambivalence about their participation in a capitalist society. The success they have enjoyed, I was repeatedly told, is a sign of their resistance to market competition. Fox puts it this way:

All of this [the renaissance of guitar making] is a result of the sharing of information. Again, when we began, no schools or notebooks or anything. But the times were about being supportive, not exclusive. Competitive was what this whole thing was anti—or at least that was a strong aspect of the world that this was the antidote to. Of course it was enlightened self-interest: we all needed to know what anyone could tell us, and we were happy to share what we knew. That principle of the '60s, you know, that information is free, was very clear. You would see that written: information is free. That is one principle—at least in this craft—that is alive and well. The value of the commitment to those few words is what you see [at guitar shows]. They are proof of what that can be.

Contrasting their ethical stance to the tight-lipped practices associated with Europe's guild system, guitar makers cleave to the mantra of "information sharing" in order to affirm their countercultural origins as well as explain their present economic success. The tension inherent in this position—that a noncompetitive exchange of technical knowledge is what enables a vibrant consumer market to flourish—has dogged the notion that "information is free" since the 1960s. Even Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and vociferous champion of information sharing, acknowledged that information also "wants to be expensive," given that it has great value to those who access it at an opportune moment.

Information sharing among luthiers also has a double-edged quality. Although it was a source of solidarity during the early years of the movement, it now causes friction when parties to the exchange are not in agreement about what should be done with the information and who should profit from it. The idea that everyone benefits from swapping shop secrets as a matter of "enlightened self-interest" may have made good sense to a small group of isolated builders who would otherwise have been left in the dark. But whether this principle continues to operate as an "antidote" to economic competition remains an open question today.


Richard "R. E." Bruné "dabbled with guitar" as a teenager growing up in Dayton, Ohio, in the 1960s. Unable to afford the flamenco guitar he wanted, he built one from the dining-room table his parents had when they married in the 1930s. When he was fifteen, the death of his father, a German immigrant, prompted him to take his guitar playing seriously, and he began playing in nightclubs and coffee houses to earn money. In 1967, immersed in flamenco music and culture, he traveled to Spain, where the symbiotic relationship between luthiers and players reignited his interest in guitar making.

Attending college in Mexico City, he began making classical and flamenco guitars while "knocking his head against the wall" trying to make a living as a musician. "Any blond, blue-eyed, northern European-looking fellow who tries to go out and present himself on stage as a flamenco player," he says of this time, "has a big, big marketing problem." Eventually he discovered that guitar making generated more income than guitar playing—relatively speaking. "What was it that Groucho Marx said?" Bruné jokes. "He said, 'I started with nothing and after ten years, I worked myself up to an extreme state of poverty.'"

Having bluegrass banjo as a "sideline endeavor," Bruné accompanied a friend to a muzzle-loading rifle meet near Dayton, where evening sessions of "parking lot picking" lasted late into the night. At this event he met dulcimer and harpsichord maker Jerrold "Jerry" Beall, a Newark, Ohio, native who was selling dulcimers from his truck. "Jerry appealed to me because he had a lot of the old American medicine-man huckster in him," recalls Bruné. "He was a really clever guy. He had the all these production techniques and engineering things that allowed him to crank dulcimers out, as he called it, 'by the bushel-basket full.'" The two men became friends, and in 1972, when Beall decided to create an organization for stringed instrument makers, Bruné was among the first to hear about it:

Jerry called me up one day and he says, "R. E.! I'm going to make a guild!" "A what?" "A guild. We are going to make a guild of American luthiers." He said, "We'll put out a newsletter and we'll charge them admission, and we'll get them to submit articles, and we'll get all this free information. It will be great!" I said, "Oh man, that sounds like a lot of work." He says, "Oh, I'm going to get some people out in Tacoma to do the newsletter." He says, "We won't have to do anything!"

The idea of harnessing the ingenuity of social networks to produce information for profit was fast becoming a mainstream enterprise by the early 1970s. From World War II through the Cold War, military and industrial research laboratories developed a cybernetic understanding of physical and social systems that encouraged collaboration and the leveling of hierarchical management. In the late 1960s, as historian Fred Turner writes, "the cybernetic notion of the globe as a single, interlinked pattern of information" also took hold among countercultural youth longing for a harmonious, interconnected world. Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog, published from 1968 to 1972, demonstrated that pooling information on a wide range of subjects and consumer goods could foster research and education as well as entrepreneurial activity. Turner uses the term network entrepreneur to describe Brand's legendary ability to link people through meetings and publications into "network forums" that, in turn, produced their own social networks.

In similar fashion, the North American lutherie movement was catalyzed by the efforts of network entrepreneurs. When Beall announced his intent to start a lutherie organization in a 1972 letter to the editor of Guitar Player magazine, he hoped to tap into a growing community of practicing and aspiring guitar builders. In the early 1970s, the idea that stringed instruments could be made by hand was circulating beyond word of mouth through national left-leaning and antiestablishment publications. During this period, Charles Fox advertised his Earthworks guitar-making school in Mother Earth News, and Michael Gurian placed an ad for his guitars in the Last Whole Earth Catalog. Like Brand, these luthiers recognized that social networks were incipient markets in the making, whether the object of exchange was information, instruction, or material goods. But if Beall's vision of a network forum for lutherie was prescient, his claim that it would require no work was self-interested bluster.

Eighteen-year-old Tim Olsen was among those who responded to Beall's ad. The year before, Olsen had started his own guitar-making business and repair shop in Tacoma. "I soon discovered that I didn't have nearly the knowledge or skills that I thought I did," he admits. Enclosing a small contribution for a newsletter, he urged Beall "not to forget about electric guitar makers." Observing that Olsen "seemed like a go-getter," Beall asked him if he would like to make the Guild of American Luthiers a reality by producing the newsletter. Olsen accepted this mission in 1972. Forty years later, he continues to serve as the founding editor of the guild's quarterly journal and other publications.

Today, membership in the world's largest professional lutherie organization far exceeds the list of forty names that Olsen received from Beall. Yet the guild's purpose, Olsen says, remains the same:

The role of our organization has been to create a framework for information sharing. A wonderful thing was that all these hippies had the idea of sharing information, but it was really the idea of getting information because nobody had any. So if there was any source of it, you'd run to it and try to get some information. Since everybody was in the same boat, it was sharing because you would gladly tell anything you knew, and not in a cynical way. It was just like "There's another guitar maker! Oh, this is so great!" And you'd just spill your guts. We've institutionalized that and it's still going strong. Other countries and cultures don't have this because they started with established, trained makers with their markets, their customers, their techniques, and it's been a matter of controlling access to the market through apprenticeships and guilds and that sort of thing. But in our case, it was "Everybody join the party, because this is so great! We found out that there is such a thing as hide glue! This is so great!"

The social dynamics of the early lutherie community bear a striking resemblance to what anthropologist Marshall Sahlins called the "original affluent society." Sahlins was referring to small hunting and gathering bands in which people adapt to conditions of resource scarcity by engaging in "generalized reciprocity"—that is, sharing what little they have without immediately expecting something in return. These societies, he argued, enjoy a greater sense of well-being than ones in which resources are abundant but distributed unequally. Likewise, young builders were all "in the same boat," Olsen says, because everyone was equally ignorant. Sharing what little they knew meant they could learn more collectively than they could on their own. In a situation of "information poverty," everyone could feel rich, exult in new discoveries, and invite others to "join the party."

The historical circumstances that underwrote this situation—a lack of publicly available information and the low economic value of this information and its product—were ideal for the formation of an organization based on interpersonal trust. "We were eager to share any kind of information that we had," Olsen avers, "because nobody felt like they had anything to protect. There was no market for handmade guitars, so there was no market to protect. There was nobody who was established and protecting themselves against people coming in." Unlike trade associations, which create social hierarchies by restricting access to knowledge and markets, the guild could conceive of itself as a "framework for information sharing."


Excerpted from Guitar Makers by Kathryn Marie Dudley. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Geppetto’s Dream

1 Crossroads of Knowledge
2 Stories of Making
3 Politics of Authenticity
4 Scenes of Instruction
5 Guitar He roes
6 Ghosts of Empire

Conclusion: Pinocchio’s Body


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