How to Become a Luthier
Guitar With Inlay
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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.