Friday, April 18, 2014

It's not easy being a luthier

I suspect that most instrument-making hand-builders have always been more than a bit jealous (and maybe even a bit resentful) at the way the large factory firms have always been able to command the lion’s share of the guitar-buying market. For years, many of us have had to struggle for the fickle attention of those few guitarists who remained unimpressed by the extraordinarily persuasive ballyhoo, shameless claims, image-manipulation and artist-endorsement ploys spread throughout the guitar media (and echoed compliantly inside music stores) by large guitar-making firms and their mass-produced instruments.

The irony is that many of us builder-technicians have had to correct, on a daily basis, the consequences of the bad judgment, failed design and shoddy workmanship of these same factory instruments. We are often dismayed at the customer’s passive resignation when told that they must now pay for the downside of mass production.

Indeed, what is most ironic is that such resignation is rare when customers of hand-made guitars spot a tiny rub-through or a little dot of glue squeeze-out, or other such oversight on their handmade instruments, and then proceed to nail luthiers to the wall for these sins.

That, perhaps, is as it should be. Yet, it all seems so colossally unfair when luthiers are nonetheless obliged to peg their prices to the price-ceiling of the factory lines, and not to the amount which the luthiers need to survive and prosper as they make these things at the slow, deliberate and careful pace that such strict standards require. It is interesting to note that professional violin-making luthiers, who largely don’t have to compete with a mass-produced product (and whose instruments are far smaller, less complex and require less expensive materials than guitars) commonly command over twice the fees that their equally-experienced guitar-making counterparts charge. If you want an excellent (new) hand made violin by a highly-regarded, expert maker, be prepared to pay $20,000 and up. If you want an excellent hand made guitar by a highly- regarded, expert maker, be prepared to pay between $5-10,000. Add to the asymmetry the fact that violins are made of maple, and fine guitars are expected to be made of distant, expensive exotics.

But I digress. Perhaps, once they’ve shelled out their hard-earned cash, customers find it far easier to hold the luthier's feet to the fire because there they are, the actual makers, in the flesh, standing right in front of them. On the other hand, large factory instrument-makers are more effectively shielded from their mistakes behind their sales staff, the store managers, the warranty restrictions, and a battery of lawyers on retainer. All these stand between the new-instrument buyer with the non-operative truss-rod, the elusive rattle, the misplaced bridge, or the new guitar in need of a neck reset—and the individuals whose mistakes, bad judgment, or expedience actually caused the problem.

Not for us, though. Rather than complain that we are a much abused, dying breed, we should take note of some heartening new developments in the market. A book published by a group of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reveals how the market is increasingly turning to small production handcraft and losing its unquestioning loyalty to large factory mass-production.
The book, "Made in America: Regaining the Productive Edge," resulted from a study of American manufacturing trends. According to that study, the decline of American productivity and losses to foreign competitors is a reflection of "dinosaur strategies" such as the continued adoration of mass production."

Mass production has, until recently, insured the preeminence of American industry. Jobs became increasingly specialized and innovation in machinery was substituted for the skill of workers. A hierarchy was created, putting great distance between the person who designed the product and the person who assembled it, and both of them from the buyer.

As it did during the Industrial Revolution, mass production largely wiped out all other forms of production, such as craft-type manufacturing. At present, luthiers represent the few who remain, trying to recall, recreate and relive a bygone past.

True, mass production insured that things could be made cheaper by less-skilled workers, but it resulted in a reduction of the quality and variety of products available in the marketplace. This systems has worked fine, as long as store-bought meant status and people wanted precisely what their neighbors had. But things have apparently begun to change, and in a big way.

People now want products that suit their individual taste, needs, and self-image. Luthiers are poised, as a group, to best supply this need for personalized instruments, and although the large firms are taking note and are beginning to diversify their lines (witness Martin’s recent "new-guitar-model-of the-month" policy and factory "custom shops"), individual guitar-making artesans are best equipped to offer the unique and the one-of-a-kind better than they.

According to the same study, the world is coming around to what we always  figured: if you put your heart into your work; put excellence foremost among your intentions; keep a close watch on your checkbook balance; and hang in there, the world will beat a path to your door.