GAL History

On the GAL's 40th Anniversary:

How It All Began
by Deb Olsen

It’s a little funny looking back at something you’ve been intimately involved in for forty years to try and get some perspective (and not feel too depressed about how old it makes you feel). The last time we did a review of the Guild’s history was for our 20th anniversary in 1992 (American Lutherie #32). We focused a lot on all the trials and pitfalls of our early years: the challenges of our early printing efforts and the shaky situations we faced trying to host a convention in a different city every year on a shoestring budget for a bunch of hippies with no resources! But this time we thought we’d just take a look, especially for those new to the Guild, at our very humble beginnings. Heck, maybe when this all started, you weren’t even born yet! Maybe you’ve always lived in a beautiful world where there has always been a GAL with all its back issues, books, and plans; a world where there are myriad books on all types of instrument building and repair; a world with multiple and well-established specialty suppliers catering to a luthier’s every esoteric need; a world with a community of luthiers who have developed a culture of information sharing; a world where exhibits of handmade instruments and educational forums are common; where there are hundreds of luthiers from all over the USA and the world to interact with, or see their work and methods posted on the “Internets!” So how did a bunch of hippies decide it was a good idea to get together to share information about instrument building and make it into an organization that has pushed forward the luthier’s craft in the 20th century and beyond? Let’s review how it all came about.

There was a very clever guy who was making musical instruments in Newark, Ohio named Jerrold “J.R.” Beall. J.R. had been meeting other instrument makers and got an idea that it would be really helpful if all these guys who were just starting to make instruments in the early ’70s could get together and learn from each other, get some recognition for all their hard work, and maybe sell a few instruments to boot! So J.R. wrote up a proposal for an organization to be called “The Guild of American Luthiers.” He started sharing it with the people he knew and trying to get the word out to anyone who would be interested. He wrote a letter to Guitar Player magazine which appeared in their July/August 1972 issue, and put a small ad in Guitar Review around the same time.

We all know what happened with youth culture, the baby boomers, alternative lifestyles, music, and guitars in the late ’60s, so it’s no surprise that there were a lot of young guys (and some older ones too) who had started making and repairing instruments around that time. Most of them had never met someone who was making instruments in a serious way. They had basic questions like: How do I bend sides, and where do I get some wood? So there was a real need for a center for burgeoning luthiers to gather around.

One of those young guys was Tim Olsen, a highly motivated teenager who was just starting out making guitars. (See Tim’s “Meet the Maker” article in AL#32 and BRBAL3.) When Tim saw J.R.’s letter in Guitar Player, he jumped at the opportunity to support this new idea. He sent a letter to J.R., urging him to keep the Guild open to all kinds of stringed instruments, particularly including electric guitars. Tim also sent a check for $11.11 to further the cause, which was a pretty nice chunk of money in those days for a teenager without a regular income. (Interestingly, $11.11 works out to $61.23 in 2012 dollars — more than current Guild membership dues!) J.R. was impressed with Tim’s enthusiasm and felt the need for someone on the West Coast to help spread the word beyond the Midwest, so he suggested that Tim become the new guild’s West Coast organizer. This collaboration between J.R. and Tim marks the beginning of the Guild that we know today.

By August 1972, J.R. had already compiled a mailing list of fifty-three people. Tim had experience doing mimeograph printing, and volunteered to put out a newsletter. After corresponding all fall and winter, Tim got a Greyhound bus pass and went out to visit J.R. in the wilds of Ohio in February of 1973 for a meeting of the “temporary officers” of the Guild to hammer out some of the details of this new organization. By July 1973, the first Guild of American Luthiers Newsletter was in the mail. It was two sheets of paper, stapled in one corner. By August of 1974, the Guild had held its first “conventions,” one at Olsen Lutherie in Tacoma, and one at J.R.’s Farkleberry Farm in Newark. By the fall of 1974, the Tacoma crew (Tim, his lutherie partners Bob Petrulis and Leo Bidne, typist Bon “Flying Caps” Henderson, and myself) had published six newsletters and started our Data Sheet series, (which would be the format for all technical articles the Guild published until we changed to the magazine-format American Lutherie in 1985). By the end of 1974, we had 117 members.

So now you know how humble our beginnings were!

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