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Reflections on my Career

Reflections on My Career

by J.R. Beall

Originally published in Guild of American Luthiers Quarterly 6, #1, 1978

This year of 1978 will mark my tenth anniversary as a practitioner of the luthier’s art. Those of us who have engaged in any profession for a longish period of time like to think that we have gained insight regarding that profession and, though such an assumption may be debatable, there is no doubt that we are more than willing to give advice to all and sundry who will listen. Being no less human than the rest and having evolved, over the years, the motto that, “Tis better to bore than be bored,” I shall proceed herewith.

A decade ago, we were considerably fewer in number. There was, of course, no G.A.L. and much less information about the craft. Sloane’s first book, Classic Guitar Construction, had just been released and it was a real boon to many who were trying to make a beginning. I built my first guitar with only a copy of “Guitar Review” No. 28 as a guide. I wasn’t really such a bad set of instructions, but it wasn’t meant as a how-to-build essay and much was missing. At any rate, most of us know what a tremendous thrill that first guitar is. To actually hold in one’s hands the result of so much thought and effort, to experience the consummation of a truly difficult and challenging creative act is, in a very real sense, a personal triumph. Most of us will look back on that first instrument with some embarrassment for its crudity and its faults, but no matter how skilled or accomplished we may become in subsequent years, the completion of that first “#1” is an all time high. I have built only about fifteen guitars during my career. I find them to be the most difficult of all the instruments I have attempted and financially comparatively unrewarding. It has been my observation that to become a truly competitive guitar builder, one needs to have built something like a hundred instruments or had a truly excellent teacher. This is not to say that the first one hundred guitars may not be very good and quite saleable, but only that the complexity of the task requires a very long and arduous apprenticeship. The unfortunate part is that usually, after half a dozen or fewer instruments, most of us feel that we are professionally ready for the market place. We fantasize glorious and financially successful careers and many make major changes in their lives to accommodate this new vocation. After another ten or fifteen guitars, the realization begins to dawn that we know very little about this very complex and sophisticated instrument and, what is even more discouraging, that we are probably unable even to achieve as good a finish as is common on commercial instruments selling for $200–$300. Our biggest problem is that no one has explained that there is simply no substitute for serving one’s time. The construction of a guitar in the Ramírez, Kohno, or Martin steel string class requires at least much knowledge and experience as is necessary of a candidate for a PhD. in any of the professions and the time requirement must be roughly equivalent as well. If one is willing to give seven or eight years to the learning process and has a sufficient natural talent as well, the glories and riches of the master luthier may be attained... but no less will do. I don’t mean to discourage those earnest aspirants to the luthier’s art, but only to inject a realistic note. I know, personally, several master luthiers. I know a great many guitar builders, but only a few who are truly competitive with the “name brands” and they have all served their time. Most of the successful ones became that way because they were driven. They have worked long and hard to achieve true quality. It seems to me that of late I have encountered more and more would-be luthiers, particularly dulcimer makers, who have taken up the craft as a means of avoiding an ordinary job or profession. Needless to say, such people have a somewhat more casual approach to building and it can be predicted that they are not likely to become professional. It is impossible to stress too strongly the necessity for a professional attitude toward what we do!

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