My Luthier’s Creed

phjlFor the guitar is the most unpredictable and least reliable musical instrument in existence…and also the sweetest, the warmest, the most delicate, whose melancholic voice awakes in our soul exquisite reveries
Andres Segovia

Ever since I came upon this quotation from the Maestro years ago, the wisdom of his words has become more and more evident to me.  I have never met anyone who disliked the sound of a classical guitar.  Who would be offended by music that is “the sweetest, the warmest, the most delicate,” words that suggest elegant, nuanced musical refinement.  My primary day-to-day preoccupation in my workshop has always been with material objects and substances—tools, woods, tuners, finishes—but increasingly my greatest satisfaction has come to be the musical enjoyment guitarists create using my instruments for themselves and others.

“[M]ost unpredictable and least reliable” is another matter.  Every guitarist who has ever played in public knows about the tiny waft of warm air from the lights as he walks out on stage that makes it necessary for him to re-tune those nylon strings before he starts his recital.  And haven’t we all heard—or experienced—the horror story about the soundboard that cracks from dryness far away from home?  A second way to think of “delicate,” not so commendable, has to do with the reality that guitars, unaided by electronics, just aren’t very loud.  No amount of tweaking the construction variables can gainsay the physical reality that a plucked string contains only so much energy and no more.  For a luthier to pursue loudness über alles will inevitably mean sacrificing something else.  As a young luthier, I imagined that the guitar was infinitely improvable; now I recognize that reality imposes some limitations, and I accept that.

When I made my first guitar many years ago , I was bursting with new ideas even before I got out of the starting gate: I was going to reinvent the guitar, starting with number one!  When I took it to a prominent guitar teacher in Kansas City, he wanted so much to find something praiseworthy so he wouldn’t have to watch me walk away crestfallen.  The words I remember from that occasion are, “Uh, it’s not loud.”  I, uh, still own that guitar.  It’s falling apart at the seams, literally.  It’s been unplayable for years.  I love that guitar.  It hangs in an honored place on my studio wall.  It contains all my youthful hubris, on display for the world to see.

When I abandoned my one and only attempt to reinvent the guitar, it was not just because it entailed some bad ideas but because I came to the conclusion that reinventing itself was not going to be a fruitful path for the remainder of my career.  I made a commitment to learn all I could by examining every excellent guitar I could lay my hands on; I spent lots of time with a mirror and a fifteen watt light in those early years.  I came across a number of details over time that seemed to  me to be good ideas, so I integrated them.  Many of them worked out well; a few of them turned out to be failures, and I abandoned them without hesitation.

During my career a number of sweeping, global reinventions of the guitar from other workshops have come to my attention.  I examined all of them carefully and considered their merits vs. drawbacks.  I never found a single one I thought was worthy of imitation.  In fact, it has never been my goal to imitate another luthier’s work.  This is not because the world lacks luthiers worth imitating but because I’m convinced it is impossible for one luthier to imitate another’s work in anything like a comprehensive, objective way.  I believe any guitar builder’s work has very little to do with “secrets” and everything to do with established work practices, most of them not purposively planned.  For me to learn some construction details from examining a Hauser guitar is practical and makes sense; however, I consider trying to imitate a Hauser guitar so I can offer the world a “Hauser model” to be a fool’s errand.

Nowadays I am thankful for all the great guitar makers who came before me—people like Torres, Ramirez, Hauser, etc.  Hey, those folks knew something, didn’t they?  I think we normally call this “tradition.”  I would include a small number of contemporary builders on that roster as well.  John Gilbert particularly influenced me, even though my guitars are quite different from his.  I see my own work as a few minor innovations that make it mine, resting on the very large back of the past masters’ monumental accomplishments.  I view making a guitar like writing a sonata: working within a form defined by usage and history, I get a chance to exercise a little creativity, and that can be very enjoyable.  It is also enough.

I am motivated above all in my work as a luthier, as in everything else in my life, by my Christian faith.  This is what keeps me plugging away when things get boring or when disaster strikes and I want to say “arghhhhh!” (or worse) and throw down my chisel and stomp out of that workshop forever.  Just as Jesus Christ was a servant to me, giving His life so I could be reconciled to God, so I see myself, in my guitar maker’s role, as a servant to the lovely music of this charming instrument and especially to the people who cause it to happen.  On the soundhole label inside my guitar, you will see my signature, and above my signature the letters “sdg.” That’s Latin for “soli deo gloria” (the glory is all God’s).

My faith has also been my best friend in coping with criticism and rejection, which every luthier has to deal with at one time or another.  If Jesus Christ, by his sacrificial death on the cross, has taken on Himself all of God’s rejection that I deserve for my sin, how can rejection or criticism from people destroy me, even if it hurts when it happens?  This has enabled me to avoid a career benighted and retarded by sheer inability to integrate valid criticism in constructive or even creative ways.  It has also helped to keep me from pursuing bad luthiery ideas doggedly into the ground because of inability to face the reality that those ideas worked better in my own mind than in reality.

So, just as I am grateful for all the guitarists who over the years have greeted my work with approval by their words or their actions—like purchasing one of my guitars—I am every bit as thankful for those who were not too quick to praise, especially earlier in my career.  Such ones were more helpful to me than they could ever know.  For this very reason, I have never directly solicited endorsements from prominent artists nor made it a practice to give away guitars to gain such endorsements.  If I did that, how could I ever know if my instruments were genuinely meritorious?

That brings me finally to one more item of Segovia lore.  I once heard a story from a guitarist friend who attended a post-recital reception for Segovia in the home of a patron.  A luthier presented himself and asked to show one of his guitars to the Maestro.  Segovia strummed it a couple times, then handed it back to the maker with the words, “Keep working.”  When I first heard that story, I thought Segovia’s response was gratuitously unkind…though I must confess there was also a twinge of Schadenfreude in my heart.  Then later I thought about a guitarist who had picked up one of my guitars at a guitar festival, strummed it a couple times, and then slunk away without saying a word.  Who was more helpful?  Would I want that guitarist to murmur a few empty but pleasant words of insincere praise?

No.  I choose, even in the senior years of my career, to “keep working.”

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