What the Heck is a Hand Made Acoustic Guitar?
That's the big question. And in a way the hand made acoustic guitar doesn't really exist.
Everybody that makes guitars uses some kind of tools. Nobody's carving necks and bridges with their bare hands. So what are people talking about when they say hande made acoustic guitar? And is the " hand made acoustic guitar " really better?
MAN VS. MACHINE
Most people refer to any small shop guitar as being a hand made guitar. When they use that term they are suggesting that it's a better guitar than a big manufacturer's insruments. In some cases they are right. In some cases they aren't.
As a general rule, guitar builders who build a small quantity of guitars do spend more time and care in the construction of their guitars.
If they didn't have a passion for building guitars they wouldn't do it. That passion tends to carry over into every aspect of the instrument.
In some cases the passion exists but the skill to make something special doesn't. Everybody knows someone who loves to sing. That love doesn't mean that a they're a great singer, though.
But let's say that a particular luthier makes great guitars. Just how hand made are they? Hand tools are the norm in most guitar making facilities.
Any shop that you visit contains planes, sanders and chisels. But in even the smallest one man shop you'll frequently find carving duplicators and CNC machines.
Why? To speed up the building process and to save wear and tear on the guitar builder.
To paraphrase arch-top guitar builder Steve Grimes in an interview in the August 2007 edition of Just Jazz Guitar Magazine, "After carving 30 tops by hand back in the '70's, I realized my right arm wouldn't last forever at that rate. In 1978 I had a duplicating machine built...I now have the plates computer routed...all I have to do is carve and shape them, not to hog out massive amounts of wood."
Does this mean that Grimes' guitars aren't hand made? That the quality isn't as good as a guy who uses hand tools for the entire process?
George Benson and Larry Coryell must not think so. They both own Grimes guitars.
Now let's look at the hand made guitar question from a different perspective.
Think about a guitar built in the developing world. These guitar builders may not have access to the resources that luthiers in places like the U.S. and western Europe might have.
The skill level and ability of the luthier might be extremely high.
But he may not have the resources to properly condition his woods before building or to keep his shop at the proper humidity or temperature.
He might make a completly hand made acoustic guitar but the end product might not come out as well as a Grimes or similiar guitar.
So "hand made" shouldn't be the only question when looking for a high end guitar. What should you take into account when buying a nice guitar?
The biggest factor is the one that's the hardest to nail down.
That factor is, does it hit you in the gut?
When you hold it in your lap and start to play, do you feel at ease with it and like it's an old friend. If the answer is yes, then that's the right one for you. What else is there to consider?
WHAT THEY'RE SELLING
Let's think about what the high end hand made acoustic guitar luthier is selling.
He's selling attention to detail, premium materials, a high degree of knowledge about guitar building and very high standard of quality.
In a high end, small shop guitar, you have every right to expect all of the components to be perfectly shaped and assembled.
The labor that goes into shaping everything perfectly is part of the premium price. And it's probably all done by hand.
Here's an example: A friend of mine is a Collings dealer and he told me this story.
He took a trip to Austin and toured the Collings facility. After the tour a group of them went out to lunch. One of the craftman declined the invitation to go.
He said that he'd eat lunch when he got through working on what he was currently doing. He had a jewelers loop in his eye and was sanding the volute on the back of a headstock. When they got back from lunch nearly 2 hours later he was just finishing.
Maybe he was really slow, but I doubt it. After handling and playing dozens of Collings back in my retail guitar shop days, I would say that that attention to detail is what makes them consistently flawless.
Another consideration in any acoustic instrument is the material that it's made from.
As traditional tonewoods become less available the price of what's left becomes more and more expensive.
For example Brazillian rosewood was once the norm for guitars with rosewood sides and backs. If you want a guitar using Brazillian rosewood now expect to pay a high premium for it.
Even if there isn't a big upcharge for a premium wood, the quality of woods used is usually some of the the best available.
The hand made acoustic guitar luthier will use the best woods from both a sound producing aspect and from a visual aspect.
The small shop luthier can afford to use the best materials. He may produce less than 100 guitars a year. This means that he can reject anything that doesn't measure up to a really high standard.
If you are a large manufacturer making thousands, maybe 100's of thousands of guitars a year you can't really afford to be that picky.
There's another factor to what makes a hand made acoustic guitar special.
That factor is the builder's knowledge of how to do what they do.
Some luthiers started out working in guitar factories and then went on their own to make guitars under their own brand name.
Michael Millard at Froggy Bottoms Guitars falls into this category. He began working for Gurian guitars and worked for them from 1970-1974. At that time he began building on his own.
Then you have someone like Bob Taylor who started making guitars on his own and who has built a large company from that beginning.
The point is, that both of these guys have been consistently involved in guitar building for 20+ years.
They've both developed a huge store of knowledge on how to do it.
While Froggy Bottoms would probably be closer to a hand made acoustic guitar than a Taylor would be, the Taylors are certainly nice instruments.
Both brands have developed their reputations by being high quality.
The quality is there because of the knowledge of the builder and his staff and the standard of quality that is acceptable to them.
MAKE THE RIGHT CHOICE
How do you know if a high quality hand made acoustic guitar is right for you? Basically, if it brings enjoyment to your life, you should go for it.
Plenty of people spend way more than the purchase price of a nice guitar on their hobbies.
Have you priced boats or motorcycles lately? And it's a lot safer. Nobody's ever wrecked a hand made acoustic guitar.
The thing that you shouldn't expect is for it to be more than it is. Some people get buyer's remorse when they find that a new instrument doesn't really make them play better.
Only practice can help with that.
Some people can't really hear much difference between guitars. The only way to help with that is to consciencely listen to your new hand made acoustic guitar and compare it to other guitars that you have.
HOW TO BUY A HAND MADE GUITAR
A big consideration when buying a high-end hand made acoustic guitar is whether or not you have a dealer nearby. If not, you'll have to travel to where there's a shop that sells them or conduct your business on-line or over the phone.
If at all possible, try to go to where the guitars are. You may get to play an instrument that you wouldn't have otherwise considered. It also lets you compare different models side by side.
If you just can't go to where the guitars are you'll have to fall back to Plan B - make the guitar come to you.
Finding a specialty shop that just deals in guitars will be your best bet. Their staff is probably better trained than the staff in a combo shop.
It will really help if you can give them a point of reference.
Something like "I like to fingerpick on a dreadnought. I'm currently playing an Alvarez dreadnought but want to find a guitar with more well defined upper mids and highs."
Something to create a frame of reference.
There's a ton of info available on-line, some accurate and some not. Do your homework the best that you can and take the plunge.
When you do, be sure to find out the dealer's return policy.
If you order a guitar, do a thorough visual inspection of it when you get it. If there are any scratches or dings that were't mentioned by the dealer call them right away and let them know.
Getting a refund on a returned guitar is usually dependant on the guitar being returned in the same condition as when it left the shop.
You don't want to be penalized by something that you didn't do. The best bet is to check out the dealer's reputation before you buy.
Owning a high-end hand made acoustic guitar can be one of life's true pleasures. Maybe it's time you owned one.
Return to learn-fingerstyle-guitar.com