Newsletter #3, January 14, 2003
When I first opened my shop in January 1970, the state of guitar making was vastly different from the current scene. The market was dominated by far fewer manufacturers than today -- Martin, Fender, Gibson, Gretsch and Guild. Martin was and still is an independent business, but at that time Fender was owned by CBS, Gibson by Norlin, Gretsch by Baldwin, and Guild by Avnet. Martin had greatly increased production and quality standards were not as good as those of earlier years. The holding companies controlling the other manufacturers were run by people who did not appear to know a guitar from a boat paddle but were run by bean counters who were intent on cutting expenses to maximize profit. In my opinion, the 1970s were a low point in the history of American musical instrument manufacturing. I consider the new instruments made by major American makers today to be far superior to those made during the 1970s.
The number of independent small manufacturers and luthiers producing handmade instruments was extremely limited in the early 1970s. When I was first in business I used to joke that if I lost a finger on my left hand for each independent craftsman I encountered who produced fine professional grade instruments, I would still have as many functional digits left as Django Reinhardt, although regardless of how many digits I had, I certainly wouldn't have been able to play like him. The market of 1970 was dominated by the previously named major American makers and Japanese imports. Harmony and Kay of Chicago and Danelectro of Neptune, New Jersey had been the major suppliers of student model instruments during the 1950s and 1960s, but they were out of business by the early 1970s. Japanese imports dominated the market for student model instruments but their quality was very low compared to what is produced there today. Korean, Indonesian and Chinese instruments had not yet appeared to any significant extent in the USA marketplace. Charles and Elmer Stromberg died in 1955 and John D'Angelico died in 1964. Virtually no one had appeared in the market to take their place. In 1970 the art of independent luthiery by individual craftsman appeared to be almost extinct.
In many ways the state of independent luthiery in 1970 reflected overall trends in hand craftsmanship. Prior to World War II craftsmanship was passed from generation to generation in a time honored system of apprenticeship leading to master craftsman skills. During the 1950s and 1960s production of virtually all items ranging from guitars to furniture and virtually everything else which had previously been handcrafted shifted to mass production in factories. The older craftsmen gradually retired and died without passing their skills on to future generations. By 1970 when I opened my shop, hand craftsmanship seemed to be nearly extinct. It was difficult to even buy good hand tools. Today it is possible to order a wide variety of materials and tools from many different sources, but in 1970 simply buying well made files, rasps, saws, and planes was quite an ordeal. If one wanted a good set of engraving tools, the best way to obtain them was to make them yourself.
Today we seem to have entered a new age of craftsmanship ranging into a wide variety of fields such as glass, pottery, woodworking and musical instrument making. Even going to art and craft fairs, the difference is immediately apparent. While in the 1970s there were some artisans exhibiting at craft fairs what I would call the 'hippy-dippy' school of workmanship, today one can find numerous highly skilled makers. Many of the current artisans have been perfecting their craft for twenty-five years or more. When they started out, they had to virtually reinvent the wheel and learn from scratch. Today they have enough years of experience to have perfected their skills.
It is my opinion that the art of hand craftsmanship is almost a Lazarus story of resurrection from the dead. Today these skills are being passed on to new generations of craftsman. The Guild of American Luthiers now has over 3,000 members and The Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans is also very active. There are more good fretted instrument makers today than ever before in the history of the instruments. Today we have available not only find hand tools, but the computer age has profoundly changed the nature of manufacturing for large makers and even small time builders. Numerically controlled routing systems are capable of producing large quantities of products cut to very exacting specifications, whereas the equipment in guitar factories, when I opened my shop in 1970, would have been very familiar to manufacturers in the late 1930s. The numerically controlled equipment used in virtually all factories today did not even exist in people's imagination twenty five years ago. While the equipment used in large scale factory production is very expensive, even small scale makers are able to afford numerically controlled routing systems which are capable of performing operations far more efficiently and to closer tolerances than the equipment used by major manufacturers in 1970.
While it is my opinion that major manufacturers and independent luthiers today are producing instruments which are far superior to those of the 1970s, I remain firmly of the opinion that the finest vintage acoustic guitars of the 1920s and 1930s and the vintage electric guitars of the 1950s remain unsurpassed in quality and continue to be the standard by which virtually all other instruments are judged. I started out as a vintage instrument collector and dealer and my admiration for these instruments remains undiminished. In spite of the fine quality of new instruments on the market today, it remains my opinion that none of them equal and certainly do not surpass a 1930s Martin flat top, early 1950s Stromberg or D'Angelico archtop, Loar-period F-5 Gibson mandolin, mid-1930s Gibson flathead Mastertone banjo, early 1950s Fender Telecaster, 1950s Stratocaster or late 1950s sunburst Les Paul Standard. Most of the new instruments produced today are consistently better in quality than those of the 1970s, and the better new ones are without doubt fine instruments well-suited for professional use onstage or in the studio, but there remains a special magic in the finest vintage instruments which, in my opinion, has yet to be equaled by any current maker.
Great instruments all share fine design, fine materials and fine craftsmanship. In my opinion, design is perhaps the most important consideration. Without proper design, fine materials and fine craftsmanship will still not produce a great product. Historically some makers who had very fine designs but not the best of materials or the finest of workmanship have still produced instruments which sound and play remarkably well, but needless to say, when combined with good materials and fine craftsmanship, the end result is better yet. Today we have the advantage of being able to review all previous historic designs. We have no shortage of good designs available currently. Modern builders are free to copy any historic pattern, modify patterns with concepts of their own, or introduce totally new concepts.
Workmanship can be divided into structural and cosmetic considerations. It is my opinion that good structural workmanship is far more critical than cosmetics in producing a fine instrument. No matter how well designed an instrument may be, if the structural workmanship is poor such that the result falls apart, the instrument will never realize its potential. Virtually all historic builders who have achieved any recognition produced instruments with fine structural workmanship, but some were cosmetically far neater than others. Needless to say, a sloppy looking instrument is harder to sell than one which is meticulously neat, clean, and aesthetically attractive. It should be noted, however, that many very fine vintage instruments have binding, inlay and other cosmetic details which are far less meticulous than many new instruments. Handcut pearl can look quite funky compared to laser cutting techniques available to mass manufacturers today. Meticulous binding work and glass-smooth finishes do not necessarily ensure great playability or fine sound. If one looks at the inlay and binding on original Loar F-5 mandolins, D'Angelico or Stromberg guitars and even pre-World War II Martin and Gibson instruments, one may be shocked to find that in many cases they are not as neat and clean as many new Korean instruments today. The same can be said for extremely fine and highly sought-after Italian violins of the 1600s and 1700s, many of which sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars and in some cases even over a million dollars.
It is clear, however, that standards of workmanship today are very high. We now have many hand craftsmen with excellent skills and major factories are turning out large quantities of instruments with fine design work and good craftsmanship. Whether a piece is cut by hand or on a numerically controlled routing system does not necessarily effect its utility or aesthetic appeal. In some cases the machine is able to do a task better than the human hand, but ultimately human judgment must go into the design process and final inspection and set . upWhile I have great respect for historical makers, I am firmly of the opinion that human judgment and craftsmanship are alive and well today. What human hands and minds did in the past, they are equally capable of doing today.
During the period in which the great historical vintage acoustic instruments of the 1920s and 1930s and electric instruments of the 1950s were produced, raw materials were readily available. Major manufacturers used air-dried, well-seasoned wood and were able to buy Adirondack red spruce, Brazilian rosewood, mahogany, curly maple and ebony in quantity. Today Brazilian rosewood is protected as an endangered species on Appendix I of the CITES treaty (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). Importation of Brazilian rosewood cut after June 11, 1992 is strictly prohibited. Indian rosewood is a relatively good replacement tonally, but is not physically as attractive as most Brazilian rosewood. Ebony is increasingly more difficult to obtain and Adirondack red spruce is no longer available commercially in quantity. Current makers of acoustic guitars use primarily Sitka spruce which, in my opinion, is tonally not nearly as good. Mahogany is becoming increasingly threatened and is being considered for upgraded status in the CITES treaty. Maple and other woods are still available but well-figured curly maple brings premium money compared to even a few years ago. Virtually all the wood used today is kiln-dried rather than air-seasoned over a period of years. While the kiln-dried wood can quickly be brought to acceptable moisture levels, in my opinion, it is absolutely not equivalent to air-seasoned aged material. While air-seasoned wood aged ten years or more is remarkably stable and has done virtually all the warping and cracking that it is likely to do, the kiln-dried material is very susceptible to changes in humidity and is far less structurally stable. It is currently extremely difficult to purchase air-seasoned wood. Major manufacturers need more wood than ever before to meet their increased production schedules. They are in no position to purchase wood and season it for five or ten years. They need material now. Small time builders are more able to stockpile what limited supplies of raw materials they may need. One log can keep an independent luthier stocked with materials for years, whereas the large scale manufacturers need truck loads of material on a frequent basis.
In addition to wood it should be noted that prior to World War II, hide glue was the standard in guitar production, whereas today white glue and a variety of synthetics are used. The hide glue was messy and smelly and in some cases not as strong as the new synthetics, but the tonal results of instruments produced with hide glue, in my opinion, are generally better, and instruments constructed with hide glue are certainly more easy to repair since this glue is heat and moisture sensitive, facilitating taking joints apart when necessary.
Finishing techniques have also changed over the years. At the turn of the century acoustic guitars were generally finished in shellac-base French polish or varnish. By the late 1920s nitrocellulose spayed lacquer finishes were standard. Although Fender went to polyurethane finish in the late 1960s, other makers continued to use nitrocellulose lacquer and many continue to do so today. It should be noted, however, that just because a finish is called nitrocellulose does not mean that it is the same formula as in the past. OSHA requirements have forced makers of finishes to change their formulas over the years. While the new formulas may be less toxic, in most cases they simply don't produce the same appearance or tonal results as the earlier formulations. Today quite a few manufacturers are using modern UV cured finishes which dry almost immediately. While finishing techniques at the turn of the century could take a matter of weeks, today some makers are able to cut the process to a day or two. While the new finishes can be smooth as glass, it is my opinion that they lack the richness of appearance of the earlier style materials and are not nearly as conducive to bringing out the best tone and volume.
Since there are now dozens of large scale manufacturers producing professional-grade instruments and many hundreds of independent luthiers, it is not possible to make any generalization which applies to all of them. Some instruments by major manufacturers are indeed of really fine quality, in my opinion, surpassing those of most independent hand builders. It is my opinion that too many builders, both major manufacturers and independent luthiers, spend a great deal of time on design work and fine woodworking only to rush the finishing process thereby not achieving the maximum total potential of their instruments. It should be noted, however, that each maker is different and for those customers willing to pay the price, there are builders who are willing to take the time. While I have yet to play a new instrument which in my opinion beats the best vintage acoustics of the 1920s or 1930s or electrics of the 1950s, I am keenly aware that what human hands and minds did once, can be done or even exceeded now or in the future.
With as many fine luthiers currently on the scene and newcomers learning the craft, I have no doubt that there will be very fine and even inspirational instruments for many years to come.