No Matter How You Spell It, Lutherie and MI Retail are a Good Fit

by Dan Daley • in
  • Last Word
• Created: February 14, 2017

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Singularity isn’t just a term used to describe the coming robot apocalypse (although we’re closer to that than you might suspect). The value of individuality in a musical instrument has deep roots, and the bespoke instrument has always maintained a special level of additional worth in the guitarosphere. Three years ago, NAMM noted a resurgence in demand for the custom­-made guitar, as well as an enhanced appreciation of those who make them.

“Sales of high­end, luthier­crafted and custom acoustic instruments are at a five­year high,” the organization reported then, noting further that sales of high­end acoustic guitars – a category that includes all guitars priced above $1,500 and the sweet spot for custom axes – had jumped 39 percent since 2009. “Guitar craftsmen and dealers point to a strengthening economy and growing pool of accomplished players for the increase in people searching for (and purchasing) their fretted Holy Grail.”

It’s an environment that suggests that the luthier’s trade is on an upswing, and the Internet has no shortage of educational resources, including degree programs, that teach the fretted­instrument maker’s trade. Yet we’re not bumping into those luthiers with anything like the frequency that we encounter, say, those who would pay the equivalent of a new Honda – and not a Civic, either – for a college certificate in running a record label or recording an album for one. At a time when the idea of “craft” – in the hipster/Millennial sense, the creation a unique example of anything – has attained such high regard, has the luthier benefited from that trend? And how do the guitar maker and the guitar seller interact today?

Robbie O’Brien, a Denver­area luthier who also teaches the craft, in person and through videos available from his website and on YouTube, thinks those who pursue lutherie – the term includes violin-makers, through an alternate spelling, “luthiery,” excludes them – are an underutilized resource, one that could be especially valuable for MI retailers.

“There is always a need for capable, competent repair people, which is exactly what luthiers are,” says O’Brien. “Even at the mom­and­pop retail level, someone with these skills can offer them and their customers real value.”

O’Brien began teaching the craft around the turn of the century, starting with a class at the Red Rocks Community College there. He says the course attracted a wide range of students, from avid guitarists who want to build their own to retirees looking for a new skill for their second or third life act. Whatever their motivation, O’Brien says newly minted luthiers can act as value multipliers for retailers.

The number of programs that teach lutherie skills has mushroomed in recent years, much the same as online and other video­based learning propositions have grown. “The Spanish used to say that you needed to build a hundred guitars before you get it right,” says O’Brien. “Today, with online tutorials, you don’t need to make that many to get to the point where you can make and repair guitars competently.”

The craft has at least two major trade organizations, the Guild of American Luthiers (GAL) and the Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans (ASIA). They had a sort of ideological schism some years ago, but both seek to promote their members’ commercial activities and knowledge base. The GAL, which according to its editorial director Tim Olsen has about 3,700 members globally, runs a periodic convention, which will take place this year in Tacoma July 19­23. It doesn’t have a formal apprenticeship program in place but Olsen says the organization relies on “an information sharing system” among its members through its publications and the convention. ASIA has close to 2,000 members, most in the U.S.

GAL seems to revel in a Harry Potter­like air of magical mystery: Olsen describes the organization as housed in a 125­ year­old Odd fellows lodge hall in Tacoma, with the GAL office downstairs. But, he adds in Lewis Carroll­like twist, “There is no interior staircase. At least there is indoor plumbing and electricity.” ASIA seems less elfin and more straightforward, presenting online articles and running its own biennial symposium, this year at East Stroudsburg University in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania June 7–11.

The luthier community is relatively small and often hard to see, but it’s also apparently growing – Musician’s Institute recently launched its Guitar Craft Academy in Nashville – and incorporating newer materials, technologies, and techniques. It’s a good fit with an MI retail industry. All they have to do is find each other.

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