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December 2016
December 2016
In this issue:
Ekko Park, Ill Semantics, The Broken Heartbreakers, Lisa Crawley, Valere, Fragile Colours, No Broadcast, Hikurangi Schavarien-Kaa, Skinny Hobos, Heroes For Sale, The Lucid Effect, Chris Priestley, Delaney Davidson in Europe
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On Foreign Soil: A Tale of Luthiers and Lutherans

Author: Gene Bennett

Gene Bennett was the guitarist in Auckland fun popsters Rubicon, the wacky threesome featuring on NZM's August/September 2002 cover. All the guitars Rubicon used were made by Gene and in the years since he has pursued his guitar tech skills, established G-Spot Guitars, repairing and building stringed instruments from scratch. He has been the side-stage guitar guy for local and international acts as widely divergent as Johnny Marr, Steriogram, Bic Runga, the Finns, Opshop and Eddie Vedder. Gene has made a few guitars but is keen to progress, so in June he flew Stateside to further his luthiering know how.
If you want to become a guitar luthier in New Zealand you pretty much need to figure everything out yourself, maybe import a few books and, if you're lucky, work with one of the very few established local luthiers. Other avenues to pick up trade tips are these days dotted all over the wonderful interweb, which is where I discovered the Guild of American Luthiers.
The Guild, which members affectionately refer to as 'GAL', publishes four issues yearly of a magazine made up of luthier-submitted articles, in the quest to spread knowledge and keep the craft of instrument building alive. I have been pulling guitars apart since I first started to play guitar at age 10 and have been building guitars for over 12 years now, so I have a pretty solid understanding, but I am always curious of new methods. In June I set out to see how other luthiers across the world do things at the Guild of American Luthiers bi-annual convention.

After a 35 hour ordeal of confined seats, airports and missing connecting flights (quick travel tip: pay the extra $300 and get a direct flight!), I finally arrived in Seattle. Nestled in the evergreen state of Washington, Tacoma is a 40 minute drive south of Seattle, with the five day convention held at the picturesque Pacific Lutheran University. No, becoming a luthier is not a religious thing, but this is certainly an inspirational environment. The campus is more like a woodland park than university, lined with tall cedar trees and complete with squirrels, birds, and rabbits. June is the university holiday season so most attending stay on the campus in true USA dorm style.
During the week 30 or more lectures were presented by top luthiers on various topics like repair, bending wood, tap tuning tops and more scientific matters like measuring modal resonances. A typical day included breakfast, two seminars, lunch, exhibit time, another seminar or two, dinner, a concert and then an open mic session at a few of the local cafes.

What do a formation of luthiers look like? Rather as you might assume I fear. The stereotypical luthier there was aged in his 50s with a slightly unkempt grey beard, salt and peppered hair and thick glasses - not too dissimilar to Rolf Harris in appearance really. I guess in another 20 years I will look much the same - I am already sporting an at times unkempt beard.
The exhibitions were a big part in the draw for me to go to the GAL convention. Although it had less of a 'trade show' atmosphere than I expected, there were a myriad of opportunities I'd never get at home. Not only displays from 97 of the 250 attending luthiers, but the opportunity to hand select sets of wood and tools from lutherie supply companies also exhibiting. One long time GAL member displayed his rare and highly collectable stringed instruments dating back to the 1700s - including some made from armadillo shells.

Stand out presentations for me included Frank Ford's demo in which he re-fretted an old Gibson acoustic in a little over an hour (which he would charge out at US$450). Charles Fox, who runs the American school of lutherie as well as building amazing acoustic guitars, demonstrated his side bending machine and demystified the art of bending wood.
On the more scientific side of things lectures by Joseph Curtin provided some fascinating insights and new developments, mainly in violin making. He had some interesting resonance measuring methods, consisting of a contraption that suspends an instrument then taps it with a specially calibrated accelerometer which is then analysed via microphone in a special computer program. He is currently using it to catalogue 'great sounding' instruments in his quest to discover the whys and hows that make them sound so good.

One very cool aspect of the whole convention is that even among those lecturing no one claimed that their way was the correct and only way to do something. Instead luthiers would put their ideas across as "… this is how I do this", promoting an open forum of shared ideas and so helping others refine their methods, without seeming to tell them how to do anything.
The whole concept of sharing the craft rather than holding on to it and keeping things a 'trade secret' really made me appreciate the special side of luthierie, especially in this age where material items are made and replaced so cheaply.
It was reassuring to realise that I didn't learn a whole lot at the seminars. That's certainly not to say I didn't learn anything, but I found out this mostly self-taught luthier from little old NZ does actually know what he's talking about. The guitar I took over showed that I can build instruments that are just as good as the 'competition'.
Another valuable realisation for me was that being in the niche guitar making industry needn't be as limiting as it sometimes feels in NZ, particularly given today's global economy. There are many people who do actually want handmade guitars, I just have to look a little further than my own backyard.