Innovation in guitar making and the future of luthiery

I started to write this article last year after the HGGS 2015, but somehow I couldn’t come to a conclusion, I needed to read a post recently on Reverb to make the wheels turning in my head again.

The 2015 Holy Grail Guitar Show has proudly demonstrated the quintessence of European luthiery, seasoned with some Japanese and American spices.

First of all, I was amazed by the quality and the refreshing diversity there. All (and I really mean ALL) guitars were exceptional, way beyond the most you can find in your nearest “brick and mortar” shop.”Boutique”, “Masterbuilt”, “Fine handcrafted” – those words have almost utterly worn out by the frequent use in marketing bullshit. This show however, justified their sense again.

I could clearly distinguish a few type of guitars of the show.

– Traditional builds, like acoustics and jazz guitars
– Variations of the well known brand models (Strat, Tele, Les Paul, Explorer), lightly or heavily altered, with obvious indications of their roots. Special wood combinations, carvings, hardware, features beyond the usual.
– Custom and unique builds with added functionality and/or unusual styling, experimental technologies.
– “Statement” designs, with magnificent (sometimes extreme) features and distinct genuine styling attributes (although it’s hard to imagine them as everyday tool of working musicians).

All in all, I was overwhelmed by the incredible experiences of staring at dozens of breathtakingly beautiful guitars and jaw-dropping know-hows, it was the greatest honour talking and shaking hands with those legendary luthiers (Jens Ritter, Nik Huber, Linda Manzer, Kathy Wingert, Michihiro Matsuda, Juha Ruokangas, TAO guitars, Alquiler Guitars, Ulrich Teuffel, Adriano Sergio and many more…) learning about new improvements and artisan guitar builders.

Jens Ritter

Jens Ritter

 

Alquier Guitar

Alquier Guitar

 

Teuffel guitars

Teuffel guitars

ERGON guitars
ERGON guitars

 

Nik Huber

Nik Huber

 

Ruokangas

Ruokangas

 

Michihiro Matsuda

Michihiro Matsuda

 

TAO guitars

TAO guitars

 

Kathy Wingert

Kathy Wingert

Why I still feel a tiny, yet disturbing lack of satisfaction?
No question, those elite luthiers are able to do literally anything with wood, metal, composites and plastics, their skills, craftsmanship and creativity is unbeatable. Many of their creation can be considered as great examples of modern industrial art.

Though most of the electric guitars yet rely on the same old foundations laid by the budding American guitar industry in the fifties, although those design principles and constructions represents the much limited technology and experiences of their age, with different approach to manufacturing.

I’ve seen and played dozens of improved and updated guitars created for working musicians and used frequently in studios and stages and they are superb- in the meaning of improvements on numerous particular technical details and quality while basically they implementing 60 years old principles and engineering adapted to today’s standards backed by state-of-the-art technologies.
Don’t you feel it’s like producing autonomous cars with titanium/composite chassis in Rolls-Royce quality powered by a dirty old coal-burning steam engine?

On the other hand those instruments crafted to be really shockingly different are visually mesmerizing and the same time often sadly impractical to be an everyday tool of a musician, they aren’t comfortable enough for daily use and difficult to manufacture, maintain and repair. They are rather a kind of “l’art pour l’art” demonstration of the artisan’s brilliant skills and creativity, they might be rather preferable for collectors or shows instead of working musicians. They sound awesome despite the dividing look because beyond a certain level of pro skills and creativity artisans can do “The Magic”.

What I’m missing here is the real pioneering invention and “out-of-the-box” design (like, for instance, Ned Steinberger and Ken Parker), targeting the the tone, ergonomic properties and affordable master grade quality in first place instead of fancy look and exotic details.

Steinberger Transcale Synapse

Steinberger Transcale Synapse

 

Parker Fly Mojo

Parker Fly Mojo

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a great admirer of all luthiers mentioned above and I’m totally impressed by their inspiring guitars and innovations. I just have doubts about the future of artisan luthiery in that form outlined by the show.
Yet covering, altering, styling, modding Strats, Teles and Les Pauls seems to be a “downbound train” for me even if the quality and craftsmanship is superior. Shifting, cutting, tapping those iconic curved outlines to change them isn’t a big deal. I did it often myself. You can think “it’s not a …., my one is sharper at the horn, more narrow at the waist and has an angled part near to the neck… I have my own shape now”. Well, in some way that’s right, but doesn’t it feel just a desperate attempt to become slightly different from the several hundred another altered popular shapes? People will think “Yet another a variation of a Les Paul/Strat/Tele. Not bad.” Is that you really want to be known?

Okay, you might have beautiful stained birdseye maple top combined with engraved metal parts, exotic laminated neck, inlaid wooden pickup covers, magnetic cavity covers, custom inlaid controls, semi-hemispheric fret ends, etc. Awesome. Does it make a significantly better instrument to play and a strong brand for your business? Nope.

On the other hand, building radically unconventional “statement” instrument to proudly show the free soaring of one’s fantasy is surely something that an artisan cannot miss, despite the presumably limited usability. This way leads to self-expression instead of systematic innovation.
So you have a guitar that looks like an alien spaceship from another universe with aluminum sub-frame instead of conventional body, color shifting metallic paint and LED position markers? Cool, bro. Would you play it for two hours on a gig several times a week and practice three hours a day? No way.

Since the mass production guitar industry (the big F, G & I) dominates the market while they are feasting in their once great former glory like pig in the mud, their lack of genuine innovation clearly shows where independent luthiers should challenge them. Artisan guitar making needs a paradigm shift. Don’t sponsor the “lazy pigs in the mud” by restyling their designs in higher quality.

Dorian Rondo by Sophie Dockx

Dorian Rondo by Sophie Dockx

Look at the holistic approach integrated with engineering mind and many years of methodical research that resulted an original coherent system in the form of the Dorian Rondo guitar shown at the 2014 HGGS by Sophie Dockx. It was a refreshing breeze of thorough innovation focused precisely on offering upgraded vintage tone, universal ergonomy and masterbuilt quality. The same time its design hit the golden mean: anyone can see at the first sight that it isn’t just an another tapered clone of the popular guitar types while it avoided to become over-designed “art for art’s sake” extreme.

No, I’m not talking about the rejection of conventional guitar design or restricting the designers fantasy. They have deserved position in artisan guitar making and the musician’s world would be forsaken place without them. There will be always place for such instruments and customers to buy and play them. Besides it’s enjoyable to build, it can either make a good basis for doing research and to gain publicity.
The R&D  I mentioned above should be an add-on, not a replacement.

I’m absolutely sure, those luthiers showed their masterpieces at the HGGS can do it better than I can ever imagine, they can achieve more, especially in collaboration.

Unfortunately, the biggest hindrance to innovation are the customers (and sadly, some luthiers) themselves – with the common myths circulating in guitar players community, supported by them (and the marketing departments of big brands to help to sell their outdated instruments). Most of the guitar players stubbornly insist to the old constructions and the familiar tones instead of being open to embrace innovations and experiment with new designs, gears and tones. To make a living from building guitars means it’s not enough to build exceptional instruments, luthiers need to sell them. If musicians can’t accept innovation, those visionary builders should either remain oddballs with constant financial problems or restrain their creativity and build rather “boring” mainstream guitars with some minor tweaks that the mass would hail as sign of originality or innovation. (Sorry, if my words sound too mean).

We have to face to an another challenge: how to educate customers, how to help them be more open minded. Spreading common myths, denying scientifically proven facts or using oversimplified explanations to describe the guitar (that is actually a very complex acoustical-mechanical-electronic system) will be definitely unreasonable. Educating the young generation is our task to help the future players become less superstitious and more welcoming innovation.

Keep calm and make guitars!

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