Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The aspiring guitarmaker's dilemma

I cannot thank you enough for your book and online articles. I have dedicated countless hours to those words of instruction. I wish to ask for your advice on a concern of mine, but first I want to set the stage from where my questions arise.
When I was considering building guitars I interviewed a guitar maker in San Francisco about what he thought of the craft and the business. His words were "Don't do it! You will lose your house and family, everything you care about... become a doctor or something." At the time I wasn't married nor did I own a house so of course I decided to move back to Southern Illinois to build guitars. I found a good day job to pay the bills and proceeded into seven years of learning to build acoustic guitars. My autodidactic nature proved to be a good fit.
I built guitars like tanks at first. They were not dreadnoughts, just dreadful. They did get better. After seven years of absolute gut wrenching euphoric devotion I discovered how little I knew and that it would probably take another 5-10 years of practiced learning before I could actually start selling them. But that's when my first daughter was born. My devotion to her won out over guitars and I stopped building so that I would not miss being a parent for those early years.
After almost six years of not being in the shop I feel it is time to return to building, but now feel the responsibility of caring for my family financially. Those ominous words I heard years ago from the disgruntled guitar builder still ring in my ears. My relationship to guitars has never been one of a side hobby. It is either all or nothing. The process takes everything I have. In doing so I, look forward to a possible day that I could make an income. I use to feel that I had a lifetime to devote to the craft, but with the family there is now a sense of urgency upon me to make the right choice. Now for the questions...
In these rather scary economic times is guitarmaking a viable choice? The market seems to be flooded with well-made guitars both factory and handmade. Is there still a market for all of them? Or is this recent golden age of instrument construction taking a downward turn in terms of sales. It seems a solid number of the luthier's websites have vanished. I wish I could give up all hope of fruition and just focus on the moment of building, but will that ever provide for the basics of food in mouth, roof over head. Of course it depends on whether or not I could be a highly skilled competent builder with something to offer, but lets consider that true for the questions at hand. I come from a long line of craftsmen and want to continue the tradition. There is a fork in the road here.
I respect your work and life immensely and am asking for some feedback as to the current state of affairs in the guitar world. Thank you.


Your dilemma arises in your viewing this as an either-or, all-or-nothing proposition. "Either I drop everything to become a prominent, successful, famous and wealthy guitarmaker, or cast this foolish, impossible dream from my mind forever and go back to making widgets for a living." Sounds silly when put that way, doesn't it?

Fact: given the required time and the required persistence you can eventually make glorious and coveted guitars.
Fact: at any given time there will be guitar makers better than you, that is, far more experienced and established.
Fact: luthier-made guitars are not a necessity like toilet paper or food. They are more like a sacramental fetish object, an object of desire and mystery. Only a subset--a surprising large subset--of the population can play a guitar. They live all over the World. There's a rising horde of millions of them in China alone. But within that subset, there is another subset that covets them, desires them, dreams of them. New people are daily joining that subset-within-a-subset. That subset will move heaven and earth to obtain the object of their desire.
Fact: within THAT subset, there's the fifteen people a year that are willing to pay you $5-10,000 for your guitar. Not a Taylor, not a Martin, not a Collings. Your guitars. 10-15 guitars: that's a living. And that is your potential market. You don't have to find enough buyers to buy 100 guitars a day, like Martin must; or 1000 guitars a day, like Goden does. Just 15 guitars a year, a decent living. Not getting rich, mind you, but enjoying a high-status, moderate income job. If you have have rich tastes and like to overindulge yourself. THEN forget it.
Fact: those 15 guitar cravers are looking for something different, something that they can't get from a Martin or a Taylor. It could be just a look, or a size, or a feel, a shape, a sound. You must be patient enough to wait until you find that market, and that market finds you. In other words, you have to find and work yourself into a sparsely-populated niche where you excel, and wait till those who find that niche attractive, find you. It's a lot like the music business, no? Or...just the business business.
Fact: You won't be able to create that coveted niche product by next week. Or the next. But given the required time and the required persistence you will find that niche and that niche product.
Fact: I know, easily, several dozen people with your same passion. And a day job. They see the day job as a valuable asset, because it buys them the time to incrementally find that niche and excel in it. They don't see it either-or. They've joined their dream with reality. They've made their passion, their calling, a practical pursuit. Sure, some of them have since thrown up their hands and went, naaaah--*&(^k -it.
But they were the ones that were not called.
You seem to express the similar "fire-in-the-belly" that I had when I began. But I began thirty-five years ago where virtually all the guitars being made and sold in the United States came from large factories. I also had the unlikely privilege as a 20-year old of being paid while I learned. Once on my own, my business grew with little competition. It was easy to stand out in a world that consisted of just a handful of individual builders working hundreds, if not thousands of miles separated from each other. Now aspirants to the profession face a completely different market, a market crowded with dozens of builders in every state who are more experienced than you are, many with a developed market and an efficient operation--which you have yet to develop, let alone just learn how to make a consistent and attractive product. So you are facing a different set of obstacles than I had to. But I had obstacles of my own to overcome, you can be sure of that. The world thought I was crazy and self-indulgent, for one. I had to suffer poverty for a dozen years, for another. But I persisted.
Having said that, as an artist, I'd be the last to urge you to abandon your passion for prudence. I developed as a guitarmaker while casting aside any care, notice or fear of the immense impracticality of it all. If I had thought of all the practical and prudent reasons for dumping this silly dream I could easily have persuaded myself out of it and would be retiring now, 30 years later, from an industrial design office (my degree was in Industrial Design) with a hefty pension (or maybe a string of layoff notices) and a heart problem. But I kept my blinders on and persisted. And the world rewarded me for that single-mindedness and persistence: I finally made a creative, self-directed life doing what I loved and received a measure of security, recognition and a lot of good will for it.

So I would have to tell you that there are probably as many good reasons today to drive you away from pursuing a career in guitarmaking as there were 35 years ago for me--just different reasons, unique to today's world. But knowing what I know now, if I started today, I would NOT set my goal to be independently wealthy and successful as a guitarmaker-superstar--but simply to educate myself in how to make unique and beautiful instruments, consistently and efficiently. Not to become Eric Clapton's guitarmaker, but for the sheer power that that knowledge in and of itself bestows--and the soaring feeling of accomplishment when you look back and remember those clunky dreadnoughts and what transpired between then and the sonorous, light and enchanting instruments which you will be producing. If indeed that is your goal--your self-transcendence as a creative artist--you will indeed find your unique niche in this now-crowded field.