You will not be surprised to learn that I am frequently asked questions by aspiring guitar makers like: How can I learn guitar making?; How can I “make it financially” as a luthier?, and (most frequently); “Will you take me as a apprentice?” My website has led to many such inquiries over the years. I welcome these inquiries and enjoy them, but it occurred to me that it would be helpful to post some information right here on the website itself.
I am not seeking an apprentice and don’t ever expect to, but I am presently reaching out in my senior years to connect with younger luthiers and aspirants. This is the time when I really will have learned something about this demanding craft, at least all I’m ever going to know.
My mentor, a local self-taught guitar maker whose name was Macario Breseño, took me into his workshop as a student, refusing to accept compensation of any kind, and I hope to be able to use his example as a basis for applying my God-given talents nowadays. My plan is quite different from Macario’s, however; today I have digital resources—this website, Facebook, email, etc. that enable me to make instant connections worldwide.
Actually, an “apprentice”, particularly one who is not a family member, is nowadays little but a burden for a practicing luthier, and for this reason it is difficult for an aspirant to find an apprenticeship. In times past, the guild systems that prevailed in European countries enforced work discipline and long-term commitment on aspirants so that a master could expect to eventually get some real work out of an apprentice in return for his investment of time and energy (while the apprentice could expect little but abject penury and near-slavery under the master). Today every practicing luthier knows that an “apprentice” will pick the luthier’s brains until he has learned all the “secrets” he thinks he can and then fly the coop. When a luthier takes on an “apprentice” nowadays, he’s probably just lonesome and wants some company.
Here’s some advice I have given to a number of aspiring luthiers:
1.) Start with this Undeniable Truth #1 of luthiery life: There are far too many luthiers in the world. Because the guitars they make don’t wear out for decades, there is an overwhelming glut of luthier-made guitars available on the market today, and things are only going to get worse. Does that mean there’s no room for a newcomer in the field? No, but it does mean that you have to resolve to be the best, whatever that requires, if you’re going to make a living at it. (This is true for guitar players, too.)
2.) Don’t waste years of your valuable time doing a lot of “apprenticing.” There is a plethora of written, image-rich learning material available about the basics of guitar making; just do your own research on the internet, you’ll find it. If you put in an extended time with any one luthier, you may gain some worthwhile knowledge, but you may end up with somebody else’s bad habits, too.
3.) I don’t doubt that there are some estimable schools of luthiery in the world, though I have never attended one and really don’t know much about them…except that the tuition and collateral costs (materials for your first guitar, which will probably be unsalable, travel, meals and lodging away from home, etc.) are very substantial. Will your future luthiery income ever allow you to amortize these costs? Hmm.
4.) Don’t give up your day job until you have accumulated most of the capital you will need. Plan to work on your guitars and your workshop before or after you’ve put in a paycheck day. The economic return on luthiery activity never gets very large, and this makes it difficult to capitalize your business while trying to make a living from it. I worked afternoons as a railroad switchman for almost twelve years. The work was a bore, but it paid well and was not particularly stressful. It gave me my mornings for guitar making, the time of day when I function best. Live in penury, so you can save as much as possible to plow back into your business. This is hard, and you will have to endure it for many years