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How to Become a Luthier

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Road Monkey has found out about luthiers and guitars over the past 20 years or so and loves listening to the beautiful music they make.

Guitar With Inlay

Inlay work on a custom acoustic guitar

Inlay work on a custom acoustic guitar

What Is A Luthier

Before finding out how to become a luthier, it may be as well to find out exactly what a luthier does. Luthiers work at lutherie or luthiery, which is the craft of making musical instruments with strings, such as violins, mandolins and guitars, basically, any stringed musical instrument. I will concentrate on guitars, using photographs that I have collected over the years but the same information refers to any stringed instrument.

This job requires selecting sound woods (that is, woods that sound good when used to make an instrument) and shaping them into a configuration that helps enhance the sounds and that is also easy to handle and play.

Many guitars also look beautiful. The backs, especially may have wood with a unique grain running up them, so that they are as beautiful to look at as to play. The front part of a guitar has to be made of sound wood but it will also be polished and configured to look beautiful - a real work of art.

Inside the guitar, even though this is not usually seen, the luthier will add bracing. These are pieces of wood that strengthen the guitar but even more importantly, they also contribute to the sound the guitar makes and each luthier will have their own special methods of adding bracing to their guitars. Most luthiers will not allow photographs to be taken of their bracing, as they consider this to be an important commercial secret.

Acoustic Guitar Back Showing Wood Grain

guitar back showing beautiful grain

guitar back showing beautiful grain

Custom Electric Guitars

Of course, luthiers do not work only on acoustics, they make electric guitars and bass guitars also. Many of the electric guitars are made of highly polished wood with a hard shiny finish. This can also be highly customized, known as a custom job and these guitars can be highly prized.

Electric Guitar

Electric Guitar

Other Guitar Parts

In addition to selecting and fashioning the sound wood and shaping and manufacturing the main guitar body, a luthier also needs to add a neck nut, which is placed at the top of the guitar neck and where the strings run through to separate them out before they are attached to the tuning pegs.

In the photos showing the tuning pegs, the nut is seen in the top photo as a white band across the neck. It has grooves cut into it, through which the strings run.

The tuning pegs are as beautiful on the back as the front.

Guitar Head

front view of nut and tuning pegs

front view of nut and tuning pegs

back view of tuning pegs or machine heads

back view of tuning pegs or machine heads

Guitar Bridge

At the other end of the guitar is the bridge, into which the strings are fixed. This also generally has grooves through which the strings run before they are fixed to pegs. The bridge is part of the saddle on an acoustic guitar. The strings are stretched between the tuning pegs or machine heads and the bridge. In an acoustic guitar, they run across the sound hole, the hole in the front of most (not all) acoustic guitars.

Many guitars also have a pick guard. This is fixed to many guitars to avoid scratches on the wood from enthusiastic picking, or even guitarists with very hard finger nails, who pluck very hard. The pick guard is often bigger in an electric guitar than in an acoustic but can also be customised to add another element of beauty to the guitar. It is also possible to buy pick guards separately to fix to guitars if the luthier did not add one. These are generally glued on, so once on, they are not removed, as this would damage the guitar's surface.

Guitar Bridge

Bridge on an acoustic guitar

Bridge on an acoustic guitar

Neck Frets and Fingerboard

For any guitarist, the neck and the fingerboard are vital parts of a guitar. The neck in a guitar will usually contain frets, between which the guitarist will press down on the strings. The frets then mean the length of the string is shortened because the string is pressed onto the fret. This makes the note made by the string when strummed, plucked or picked, higher. By pressing different fingers on different areas of the fingerboard, the guitarist can play different chords.

In an acoustic guitar, the sound made by strumming these strings comes out at the soundhole. In an electric guitar, the sound is picked up by the pickups and transmitted through an electric amplifier (a separate piece of kit).

Electric Guitar Fretboard And Neck

Electric Guitar Neck

Electric Guitar Neck

Guitar Shapes

Guitars, especially acoustics, come in many shapes. They can be jumbo or small, flat tops, arch tops, dreadnoughts and many other names. Each guitarist will have a preference for a size and shape of guitar, often depending on their own size and how far their arms can stretch!

Guitar Customization

Many of the guitars made by the large manufacturers are factory made. The original design will have been by a luthier but so many are sold that they must be made by machines in order to meet demand. A luthier will make a custom guitar especially for a customer and it will often be completely unique to that customer.

Customizations can consist of special paint jobs, logos, arch top shapes and inlays of shell, stone or metal. Inlays and paint jobs can be added by a specialist after the luthier has produced the guitar.

The fretboard on a guitar can be customized with position markers, an inlay design may be placed at the start of the neck or around the soundhole, the headstock may have a logo or other inlay design. Parts of the sides on an acoustic guitar can be cut out.

Check out the video below. This shows a short clip of a custom, hand made acoustic guitar, played by guitarist Michel Gentils, that was shown at a Montreal exhibition in 2011. Take note that the guitar does NOT have a sound hole but the sound comes out of the ears of the guitar. It is called the "Mickey" guitar. It also does not have any position markers on the fretboard and the headstock features a cutout, rather than being solid..

The best hand made guitars will be tailored to the customer and will depend on what they want, as interpreted by the Luthier's professional judgement and experience.

Mickey Guitar

How to Become a Guitar Luthier

There are many routes to becoming a Luthier. There are schools of luthiery (lutherie) in America and Australia and there are other routes too. Graduates of those schools may have started off as carpenters or construction workers and moved into luthiery. If you search for these schools, you can read their stories. The luthier who designed the "Mickey" guitar, Balazs Prohaszka, learned his trade by first learning museum grade restoration work on old stringed instruments and moved from there onto becoming a guitar luthier.

Comments

RoadMonkey (author) on November 16, 2020:

It's not a term that you would be likely to come across if you were not interested in guitar manufacture.Thanks for visiting and commenting Denise.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on November 16, 2020:

Nell is right, I never heard the term before either. I thought it was a biblical or religious term referring to Martin Luther before I read the article. Isn't that funny?

Blessings,

Denise

RoadMonkey (author) on November 09, 2020:

Thanks for visiting and commenting Nell Rose. I am glad you learned something new.

Nell Rose from England on November 09, 2020:

Really interesting. I hadn't heard the term before, so I learned something new.

RoadMonkey (author) on October 30, 2020:

Thanks for visiting and commenting Denise. The inlays look even better in real life.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on October 29, 2020:

The inlay work is so beautiful. I can't imagine cutting thin layers of shell, stone, and wood to make them fit that perfectly. I used to know a woodworker who did inlay tables using different kinds of wood from all over the world to create patterns and mosaics on the tabletop. He showed me his workshop once. I am still amazed at the skill it took to fit all those pieces together.

Blessings,

Denise

RoadMonkey (author) on September 30, 2020:

Thanks for visiting and commenting, Jeremiah. I am glad you like the article. Good luck with becoming a luthier, it's certainly an interesting job.

JEREMIAH MWANIKI KILUNDA from Nairobi on September 29, 2020:

A very nice article. I'm looking forward to becoming a guitar luthier. Im in love with this article.

RoadMonkey (author) on September 07, 2020:

Thanks for commenting Denise. Electric guitars have "pickups" which "pick up the sound". This is then amplified through an amp (amplifier) which increases the volume of sound. Acoustic guitars can also be fitted with pickups and played through an amp to produce a greater volume of sound.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on September 07, 2020:

It's the electric guitars that mystify me. They don't seem to have the same hollow construction for the sound to echo out of so how it works is a mystery. I love the old construction of the mandolin and the banjo. They seem to have an old-world sound to them.

Blessings,

Denise

RoadMonkey (author) on August 24, 2020:

Thanks for visiting, Flourish. I am glad so many people are learning about what a luthier does.

FlourishAnyway from USA on August 23, 2020:

How fascinating! I didn’t know what the term meant and learned so much from your article here.

RoadMonkey (author) on August 19, 2020:

Thanks for visiting MG Singh and I am glad you now know what a luthier is.

RoadMonkey (author) on August 19, 2020:

Hope you enjoy playing it again, Liz. It's a great hobby or pastime or even a job!

MG Singh emge from Singapore on August 19, 2020:

I didn't know what luthier is but your article sure educated me. Wonderfull post with a lot of information and guidance.

Liz Westwood from UK on August 19, 2020:

I found my old guitar in the loft recently. I think my electrical tuner is packed up there to.

RoadMonkey (author) on August 19, 2020:

Hi Liz, thanks for visiting. My husband uses an electronic tuner to tune his guitar. Sometimes, if the guitar will not stay in tune for any length of time, the strings may need changed or they may be slipping a bit. A luthier can help you if the strings are slipping: they may need to tighten something.

RoadMonkey (author) on August 19, 2020:

Oh, yes, indeed, Denise. Making the guitar is one part and that is both an art and a science, then customizing it is a separate job. Some luthiers cannot play the guitars they make! I knew of a fiddle maker who could not play the fiddle, yet his fiddles were sought after. Thanks for visiting.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on August 18, 2020:

This would be a fascinating job for any cabinet maker to transition into. I didn't realize there was a market for them. But I guess I am shortsighted. The making of the instrument is just as much an art as the music that comes from it.

Blessings,

Denise

Liz Westwood from UK on August 18, 2020:

As someone who always struggled to tune their guitar, I am in awe of luthiers. Theirs is a great skill and your article explains it very well.

RoadMonkey (author) on August 18, 2020:

Hi Bill, no I am not a luthier, though I would always have loved to work with wood but I have known a couple of luthiers here in Northern Ireland and visited their workshops. Beautiful smell of wood and so many different species of wood. The two workshops were very different but each of the luthiers had his own methods and his own bracing systems and people who bought their guitars loved them for their individuality and the lovely sounds they made.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 18, 2020:

I have never heard of that word, which is amazing, so thanks for the education. Do you do this? I didn't see in the article where you said this was something you do, but I assume it is since you wrote about it. What a fascinating job/hobby/pastime. I don't play the guitar, but I marvel at the craftsmanship on a quality guitar.

Anyway, thanks for filling in the gap in my knowledge. I may have to use "luthier" in a novel one of these days. :)