My Mission: to build concert quality instruments at an affordable price
Chances are I'm a lot like you. I've played classical guitar for many years, but coming up with the cash for a first rate, concert-quality instrument has been an investment I could seldom justify. More often than not, I settled for something less and milked that guitar for all the volume and tone it was capable of producing.
Once I began building guitars, it was as if a curtain had parted onto a tableau that I'd only dreamt about before. My very first attempt sounded better than most of the classicals I owned. This was an extremely encouraging turn of events for me. For one thing, it meant that I need never buy another classical. I would build what I wanted instead. But what I also realized was, as long as I followed proven building techniques, it wasn't really all that difficult to build a great sounding classical guitar. My first guitar had convincingly proved this to me. In fact, the greater challenge was building a nice looking classical. Accomplishing that goal proved that there really is no substitute for experience and careful attention to detail. To be perfectly honest, it is still a goal I strive toward. I wonder if any luthier not overcome with pride will admit to building a "perfect" guitar.
Michael with 10-string Concert ModelHow I Got Started
I've been interested in the craft of guitar building since I was fourteen years old. In junior high school, I took a woodshop class, hoping to learn enough to build my own guitar. My shop teacher was not exactly an encouraging sort. He ran the class like it was a Marines boot camp, and was, to put it mildy, unsupportive when I told him of my goals. I came away from the experience, thinking that guitar building must be an arcane, exclusive, and super-specialized craft, requiring years and years of training and a shop full of expensive tools just to be able to build anything halfway decent at all. This mindset stayed with me for many years.
As I grew older and (hopefully) wiser, I came to realize that I was good with my hands when it came to making things out of raw materials. I would design concept cars and airplanes and fashion them out of modeling clay, just for entertainment. I built various projects from wood, from toy boats to bookcases. I carved birds and fish out of wood. In the early 1990s, I took a year-long class in machining, and learned how to run a metal lathe and milling machine, both hand and CNC versions. That was a lot of fun. I had the opportunity to utilize my math skills (mathematics is a hobby of mine), plus the class taught me the importance of accuracy and precision (and the difference between the two terms). By the late 1990s, I started getting interested once again in guitar fabrication. I bought Cumpiano and Natelson's book, Guitarmaking: Tradition and Technology, written over twenty years ago, but still considered by morst luthiers to be The Bible of acoustic guitar making. I used it and other references at first as a guide to help me get started in guitar repairs. At the time, I owned about fifteen guitars, some of which were in need of attention. So I started working on my own guitars, and realized quickly that it wasn't nearly as difficult as I had assumed all those many years. But I was still a bit put off and intimidated over the idea of actually building an instrument from base materials.
In early 2004, after having dabbled in guitar repair for several years, I decided to get serious about lutherie. I realized, however, that what I needed at that point was a good teacher -- somebody who could show me the basics, so I wouldn't spend an excessive amount of time reinventing the wheel, so to speak. After a bit of ressearch into the subject, I met Brian Burns, a master woodworker and guitar builder for over 40 years. Brian specializes in lutherie instruction in addition to building guitars, and is an outstanding teacher. So, I took the plunge, made the sojourn to Ft. Bragg, California, and spent two weeks with Brian in his fantastic shop, where I learned the basics of the craft, and many of the traditional methods used in building classical guitars. It was a life-changing experience for me, and was just the sort of thing I needed to get me started. After returning to Houston, I began building in earnest. I soon realized, however, that I would not be able to build guitars using Brian's methods because he has evolved a rather specialized approach in many ways. So I dusted off Cumpiano's book, and combined the two approaches. Gradually, with each successive build, I developed my own method of guitar construction as I gained insights into the process.
I have found that my past experiences as a guitarist, an artist, and as a machinist have stood me in good stead. I employ my playing abilities and trained ear to evaluate the tonewoods I select, and the way my guitars feel and sound. I use my artistic side to continually improve the cosmetic details of my guitars. And my training in the use of machine tools -- and the use of a milling machine during the construction of my guitars -- has given me the ability to maintain extremely tight measurements and tolerances on my instruments.
My Pricing Strategies
My first guitar was pretty rough-looking cosmetically, but it played great and sounded even better. I had used a Master grade European spruce top and Master grade Indian rosewood for the back and sides. Some folks say that a beginner should start off with cheap woods with their first guitars. I didn't go along with that. My attitude was that I should get used to building guitars with the woods I would be using should the day come when my guitars were good enough to put a label in and sell. So anyway, my first guitar had a great sound, but I realized I had a way to go before I'd be willing to show one of my guitars to anyone.
So I continued. By my third guitar, I had improved my skills in fine detail enough where I felt it looked nice enough to show to a few players, which is what I did. Everybody who played it liked the guitar a lot, and started asking me what I wanted for it. Honestly, I hadn't thought that far down the road. I didn't want to sell it because I felt that, while it was a nice looking, sounding, and playing guitar, its looks were not yet good enough. But it caused me to wonder: what is a guitar worth that is only the third instrument built by a luthier with novice skills and no reputation?
And therein lay the dillema, which I pondered repeatedly as I continued to build guitars and improve my abilities at the craft. I know very little about marketing, but I know enough to realize that people aren't going to know about me unless I start showing my guitars around. So I began to visit guitar shops with my guitars, asking for opinions (every one of which were positive, by the way). I began bringing them to Guitar Houston (Houston's classical guitar society) meetings, asking for opinions there. Again, they were well received. People started asking me for business cards and whether or not I had a website. I was caught off guard. I had neither. I had been so busy building guitars that I hadn't given any thought to the basics of marketing my business. Clearly this trend couldn't continue. My house was beginning to fill up with guitars I had built in addition to the ones I already owned, and I could see the day coming soon when my wife would start to complain about having to maneuver an acoustic obstacle course.
Out of necessity, I began to consider the issue of pricing. I did a lot of soul-searching about where I was in terms of my skillls as a luthier and where I wanted to be. I realized that I could put a competitive price on my guitars, and justify it. But simple market realities also suggested to me that my guitars would most likely hang on the racks, getting shopworn, as people bought those made by makers with established reputations rather than risk their hard-earned dollars on the guitars built by an unknown luthier like me. The only way I knew to get around this problem was to offer my guitars at such an aggressive price that folks would be willing to consider them in terms of value. And this is what I did.
Shortly after this, I attended the 1st International 10-String Guitar Festival, where I met Janet Marlow and several other outstanding players, and where I also had the opportunity to show and play my first 10-string guitar, and have it played by other 10-string artists. The comments I received from this outing were very encouraging, and it led directly to Janet Marlow and I entering into an agreement where she would endorse an entry-model 10-string. This one event is what really set things into motion for me as a luthier, and I have been busy building commissioned instruments every since.
So in case you're wondering why my guitars are priced as low as they are, it is quite simple -- to gain market share. As my skills continue to improve and my waiting list lengthens, one thing is certain: my prices will go up. I can make ends meet -- barely -- at the prices I'm offering my guitars, but some time in the not too distant future I will decide to give myself a raise. Today's increased energy costs have resulted in the price of everything going up, not just fuel and electricity. Hopefully by the time I feel compelled to increase prices my reputation will be established well enough that they will not result in loss of business. Personally I don't think they will.
From the beginnings of my foray into lutherie, one of my strongest desires has been to innovate. I have no interest anymore in building copies of guitars that were constructed by the great masters. Don't misunderstand -- there are some outstanding luthiers who build superb copies of the guitars of Torres, Hauser, Rodriguez, and others. I'm just not interested in being one of them. But if one is to blaze his own trail, one must first learn a bit about trailblazing before striking off on his own. So from the outset, I followed the building methods and designs of the greats, such as Antonio De Torres and Hermann Hauser, but quite soon after, I began working on ways to refine and further develop my attempts to emulate the impressive work that had come before me, trying out new ideas with almost each successive guitar I built. Some worked better than others; I retained the innovations that worked and discarded those that did not. It has been worth the time, expense, and effort because I believe I have achieved some modicum of success.
Without experimentation and innovation, there is stagnation. The classical guitar community is an exceptionally conservative one, with a tendency to be very resistent to change. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it insures the purity of the instrument we all love. But there is always room for improvement, although most improvements that occur are evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, in nature. Occasionally, however, truly innovative ideas occur, and survive the tests of time. I have found that those innovations that do survive are ones that do not significantly affect the character of the instrument. Classical guitarists want their classical guitars to sound like classical guitars. No surprise there. They just want them louder, fuller, brighter, etc.
Before any innovation can occur, however, one must begin by selecting materials that will give the innovations a proper showing. There is no substitute for good wood. Given the major investment of time that goes into each guitar I build, why should I even bother, unless I use the very best tonewoods? Thus, I select only the best sounding tonewoods for my guitars, and frankly, while the woods' cosmetic appearances are important to me, I do not pay undue attention to them. I would rather build a great sounding and playing guitar than a great looking one suitable to be used only as a wall-hanging.
The radial soundboard bracing pattern I have developed and use on my guitars is a design that has proved its worth when compared head-to-head with instruments costing many thousands of dollars more than mine. It is an example of an innovation that is evolutionary, not revolutionary. Radial bracing patterns are not new. What sets mine apart from the rest is I have combined certain elements into my design, all of which have been employed by masters of lutherie before, but none of which have been incorporated into a single pattern before. Sometimes, this sort of "catch-all" approach works; sometimes it doesn't. Fortunately for my design, it works, and by all accounts, works very well.
I have also developed a few other innovative approaches to the instrument, such as my unique Zen model, based on research I've conducted, combined with good old trial-and-error, and I continue to push the envelope. To me, that is where the fun is. Yes, I believe one should have fun doing what one loves to do.
July 15, 2006