Custom guitar makers work with clients to create their dream guitars.
They handcraft each instrument individually.
The Guild of American Luthiers (GAL) has 3,700 members across the U.S.
and 40 other countries, with the majority of them residing in the U.S. A luthier
is a maker of stringed instruments, but the majority of GAL members focus
on the guitar.
Custom guitar making is predominantly a man's world: less than one percent
of GAL's members are female, and most of the clients are men as well. Women
working in the field, however, say gender is not an issue. Linda Manzer has
been building guitars for over 30 years.
"In general, this is a great group of [people] who have a sense of community
and humor," says Manzer. And guitar maker Judy Threet points out that since
women in the field are fairly unusual, they are easily remembered -- a definite
Making Guitars Until the Money Runs Out
"What would you do if you won the lottery?" asks a running joke in the
luthier community. The answer: "Make guitars until the money runs out."
In the past, many custom guitar makers relied on salaries from second jobs
to supplement their income. But an increased use of the acoustic guitar in
popular music has improved the market.
According to GAL president Tim Olsen, this trend has made it possible to
make a decent living working exclusively in guitar making and repair.
"I think a person could enter the field with some reasonable expectation
of making a living within a few years, which has not been the case until now,"
Handmade guitars start at about $3,000 in the U.S., and the best-known
American makers typically sell their guitars for between $6,000 and $10,000.
If guitar makers produce 10 or 15 a year, this sounds like a significant income.
But overhead costs are high: materials alone can run roughly $400 to $1,000
The wood and the tools are the most expensive components of guitar making.
Wood must be invested in years before it is used so that it can age properly.
To save on expenses, Threet suggests sharing a shop with someone in a related
field, such as a guitar case builder.
This enables someone starting out to share a workspace, tools and other
costs. Repairing guitars is an option that can provide aspiring builders with
valuable learning experiences as well as additional income.
Custom guitar making is still "a tough way to make a living," according
to Abe Wechter. "Basically, [you should] plan on starving for a while."
After becoming successful at handcrafting guitars, Wechter has opted to
go into manufacturing.
"It's very gratifying for me to be making wonderful musical instruments
available to players that normal working musicians can afford," he says, since
the high cost of his handcrafted guitars prevented some potential clients
from purchasing them.
Breaking Into Building
Successful guitar makers need both building skills and business expertise.
People who actually play the guitar have an obvious advantage, and a love
of guitars and music is a must.
You need woodworking skills, good hand-eye coordination, good eyesight,
a steady hand, and confidence using sharp tools, since there is potential
Being a detail-oriented person is also essential, according to Cyndy Burton,
a guitar maker in Oregon. "Visual discrimination, a sense of proportion, patience
are all qualities that come to mind."
Business skills are equally important. "Most people don't think about the
business skills needed for running your own shop," says Threet. She estimates
spending half her time on building and half her time on the business aspects
of guitar making.
There are two primary ways to learn guitar building: by attending a school,
or by working as an apprentice. A training program or specialized school can
help beginners entering the field to master the long learning curve, and end
up with a custom guitar in the process.
Since schools vary greatly in style, size, and duration, prospective students
should request a syllabus and talk to former students to get a feel for how
Alternatively, apprenticeships provide one-on-one learning opportunities,
but these situations may be difficult to find. Wechter obtained his apprenticeship
out of "sheer dogged, don't-give-up attitude" after he called and wrote for
Besides researching more formal education options, potential guitar makers
should investigate information available in books, magazines and videos.
Kits are also available from suppliers of guitar making materials. Kits
contain partially completed guitars, so beginners can learn without investing
in a complete set of tools.
Advice for Aspiring Luthiers
Trying out hand building guitars is an important first step. Paul Jacobson
worked at guitar making for over 10 years before he quit his job to do it
full time. He recommends doing it as a hobby first, to determine both skill
It's a competitive field, he warns. "It's almost like being a rock musician
-- there are a few who make it and a lot of wannabes."
Wechter also advises trying it out, by working in a custom shop or even
a manufacturing company. What if you can't find that kind of job? He suggests
volunteering, if necessary, since the experience will provide potential guitar
makers with a clear concept about what's involved.
Threet recommends starting with a large nest egg, enough to cover living
expenses for the first three to five years. "It takes a long time to become
known, to build a reputation in the field," she says.
Olsen believes keen interest, dedication and perseverance are among the
keys to success. Burton echoes that sentiment.
"I believe the most successful people are the ones who really love what
they do, and are in for the long haul," she says. "There is nothing better
than doing what you love."
Guild of American Luthiers
Learn more about the organization
Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery
Offers a five-month course covering construction and repair
Summit School of Guitar Building and Repair
Offers two-, four- and eight-week courses, as well as longer
classes of four to six months
Classical Guitars by Paul Jacobson
Advice for aspiring luthiers, technical articles, and a Q and
Info on Linda Manzer's guitar making business, audio and video
of her guitars being played, plus answers to frequently asked questions