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By Kenny Hill

Guitar Making, From Zero to One

From GUITARMAKER MAGAZINE, FALL 2000

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One of the best ways to learn a subject is to teach it. And if you think you already know, teaching will quickly point out the gaps in your knowledge. Through various experiences of teaching lutherie over the past ten years I have learned a great deal from my students, and I've had a lot of gaps outed, and later filled in.

The first classes in guitar making that I taught were in prison. I received a grant from The California Arts Council to teach guitar making in Soledad Prison for 3 years. In the beginning there were a huge number of institutional demands to meet, around security issues, mostly. Obviously tools are a big issue in prison and they are categorized according to their possible use as an escape tool, a weapon, or a tool for the manufacture of either of those items. (The tools are rated with a kind of point system that determines how many locked doors they have to be stored behind.)

Aside from the security and bureaucratic issues, setting up a guitar making class in prison was an exercise in cultural crossover and on-yer-feet thinking to solve problems with whatever materials and resources could be found right then and there in the prison workshop. Although the guys who worked in that program were recruited mostly from the wood shop program, most had very little experience, and certainly they didn't know anything about classical guitars. And naturally most of these guys were world-class screw-ups - that's how they got there. But, little by little, by figuring out what made each one tick, and figuring out what it took to motivate each student, I discovered that almost every one of them was capable of really good work. I found that imaginative solutions and suggestions could come out of the people I'd least expect.

In that situation I learned so much about teaching, and not only about jigs and fixtures and source materials, but much more about relating to the people, and somehow getting past their-and my-preconceptions, fears and excessively high or low standards.

The class in Soledad was a real eye opener, and later I set up another class in a similar facility in Tracy, California. There, the standards of the work increased to the point that the quality is often equal to anything that I'm producing in my own shops. Now I go into the prison for occasional consultations, but the students have become the teachers, and the product is getting better every year. The instruments are donated to various non-profit groups on the outside for fund raising events, and the work gives the inmate builders a tremendous sense of pride, as well as a source of income for a handful of worthy causes.

A teacher who is sincere about his work strives to make himself obsolete. You are most successful when the student exceeds your own abilities and accomplishments. For me teaching guitar making, inside prison or out, is not about job training. No, no. That would be a cruel tease, and a disservice to the student. For most students it's about realizing a dream that has been growing for a long time. It's about overcoming the impediments to starting, or finishing the project. It's about de-mystifying the basics, and then later maybe rarefying the subtleties. Mostly, though, I think it's to help a student accomplish his first instrument, to take it from the "impossible" category to the "quite do-able" category. Many students will never make another guitar, and others will make some instruments as a retirement occupation or hobby with some reselling potential. But what is most important is breaking that barrier between zero and one. Then it's just a matter of making another 10, 20, or 50 or 200 more guitars, to gain experience and skill and perspective. Although I have been a professional guitar maker for quite a while now, making a living at it is as much about marketing as about making guitars.

Last year I taught two "Hands-On" guitar making classes at the (alas, now closed) American School of Lutherie in Healdsburg, CA. The first one was 8 days long, and when I titled it "Hands-On" I really was thinking of having the whole group of 9 students work together on one or two instruments, dividing the labor among all of the students sort of like what we had done in prison. But when I got to the first class session it was obvious that most of the students were planning on going home with their own guitar, and it was also clear that if I didn't go along with that I would be disgraced, or possibly seriously maimed. So I said, "What the heck, lets go for it." Now, it's a good thing none of my colleagues were around when that decision was made, because later most everybody said it couldn't be done, and they continued to say it for months, even after we did it again in a second class. But that's ok, because we did it, and we made some wonderful guitars. In both classes we worked from the plans of the 1937 Hauser ex-Segovia, drawn up by Richard Bruné. I chose this instrument because it is such a quintessential guitar design, basic, yet perfect, and because those drawings are very detailed. We worked with all A grade materials, Indian rosewood, Englemann spruce, ebony, cedar etc. The only compromises we allowed were to use a simplified purfling scheme of single lines, and we used a scarf joint for the head/neck rather than the spliced-on pointy joint that Hauser used. We started from scratch, and did everything with no prefabrication, so everyone could experience or at least witness every operation from a pile of boards to tuning the guitar. And we got some wonderful sounding instruments. We didn't try to put on a finish, any more that a wash coat of French polish. Finish would be a separate course, no matter what, so we were very happy with completed, sanded and strung-up guitars to play.

One of the interesting things was that the quality of the sound that came out of the finished instruments didn't much correlate with the skill or experience of the individual owner/builder. These were mostly beginning or intermediate guitar builders, and some with very little tool usage background. But in one case the best sounding guitar came from the least ambitious and unskilled (and most likable) student, while a stiffer and quieter instrument came from the most detail oriented and meticulous builder. Of course it still remains to be seen what happens to those guitars over time. The overall level of quality of student instruments has been consistently very high. There is a lot of juice associated with making you first guitar, and all of that pent up excitement can translate into a wonderful first instrument. I think it sometimes takes a dozen instruments afterward to come up with one that has the joy and personality of that first guitar.

It's quite a rush, that first guitar. One guy, as soon as his guitar was strung up, grabbed it before it was really quite in tune, and belted out an old Irish song, and then blurted out "I've been trying to do this for 25 years, and my wife just kept (bleep)ing it up!" Another student was listening for quite a while as I was playing the first tunes on his guitar (some Scarlatti sonatas) and I looked up and he was weeping. And so was I. Nobody goes away unchanged.

In these intensive guitar making classes we don't have time to dawdle, so getting from operation to operation without lingering is important. I run around demonstrating tricks, design, tool use, etc, and let people go at it, and try to be aware enough to catch disasters just before they drive over the cliff. After someone has learned a certain technique I often deputize him as temporary teaching assistant. Explaining to someone else how to do what you just did really helps to solidify the learning process. Mistakes are inevitable, and necessary to learn from, so you can do better next time. But most mistakes can be corrected, and that in itself is an important lesson. My main qualification for teaching is that I have made more damn mistakes than anyone else in the room, and most mistakes I've had to make more than once. This is a hard truth for some people to accept. A lot of wishful guitar makers never realize their dream because they can't manage to live up to the perfection that lives in their own minds, accept todays errors, fix 'em and move on. This is a very common problem. And there are all other kinds of students, too. Some need to be cajoled, others informed, some tricked others simply left alone. Some need to be shamed and others praised, and there is a little-or a lot-of all of that, in all of us.

Ultimately the only true teacher anyone has is him or her self. There may be experts, and guides, and specifications and standards of practice, but each student filters all of that information and instruction and makes his own decisions on what to absorb and what to discard. It's mostly a matter of keeping priorities straight. I'm basically self taught, which is to say that I have studied in one way or another with practically everyone I have ever met. I try to convey a "don't-get-bogged-down-in-obstacles" kind of momentum to my students. And I try to exploit them as my teachers as well. And, since we all know that experience is by far the best teacher, I try to give students the skills necessary to hunker down and build those 10, or 20, or 50 or 200 instruments necessary to realize their dream.

Teaching is an extra calling, and for me it is an increasingly satisfying one to round out and summarize the work I've done so far. Like most guitar makers, my career is made up of a very peculiar set of opportunities and accidents, and nothing gives me greater satisfaction than passing on some of those experiences to others who can probably make better use of them than I. And I want to see every student go on to become his or her own best teacher, and his or her own very best student.

© Kenny Hill, Felton, CA

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