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Review: A Guitar Maker’s Manual

Review: A Guitar Maker’s Manual

Jim Williams

Guitarcraft, 10 Albury St.,
Dudley, NSW 2290, Australia, 1986
$19.95 from Stewart-MacDonald (1999)



In 1976 I decided to make myself a guitar. I have no idea now what possessed me. The bottom-of-the-line Yamaha I was learning on sounded a bit thick, I guess — but I hadn’t yet witnessed Segovia, alive and in person, nor the wondrous and magical sound of Julian Bream. A friend loaned me Irving Sloane’s Classical Guitar Construction and I was off — off on a tremendously frustrating journey which led two years later to an intense and gratifying six-week course with William Cumpiano (Stringfellow Guitars, now in Amherst, Massachusetts) where I successfully completed my first nylon string guitar.

People learn best in different ways. For me, a very attentive and competent teacher was a requirement, but for some a how-to-do-it book may suffice or may be the only choice available.

Reading Jim Williams’ A Guitar Maker’s Manual has brought back those memories for me, but the question one must ask of this book is, “Can a person make an adequate first guitar, either classical or steel string, from this book?” I guess the answer is, “maybe.” Although Sloane’s book was the only one I could lay my hands on in 1976, today’s aspiring guitar maker has many choices, some pretty good, some not. I’m not up on all of these, but if I were starting out again, and had no access to a good teacher, I’d study all the books I could buy or borrow, and this one would be an important addition.

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Review: A Guitar Maker’s Manual

Jim Williams

Guitarcraft, 10 Albury St.,
Dudley, NSW 2290, Australia, 1986
$19.95 from Stewart-MacDonald (1999)



In 1976 I decided to make myself a guitar. I have no idea now what possessed me. The bottom-of-the-line Yamaha I was learning on sounded a bit thick, I guess — but I hadn’t yet witnessed Segovia, alive and in person, nor the wondrous and magical sound of Julian Bream. A friend loaned me Irving Sloane’s Classical Guitar Construction and I was off — off on a tremendously frustrating journey which led two years later to an intense and gratifying six-week course with William Cumpiano (Stringfellow Guitars, now in Amherst, Massachusetts) where I successfully completed my first nylon string guitar.

People learn best in different ways. For me, a very attentive and competent teacher was a requirement, but for some a how-to-do-it book may suffice or may be the only choice available.

Reading Jim Williams’ A Guitar Maker’s Manual has brought back those memories for me, but the question one must ask of this book is, “Can a person make an adequate first guitar, either classical or steel string, from this book?” I guess the answer is, “maybe.” Although Sloane’s book was the only one I could lay my hands on in 1976, today’s aspiring guitar maker has many choices, some pretty good, some not. I’m not up on all of these, but if I were starting out again, and had no access to a good teacher, I’d study all the books I could buy or borrow, and this one would be an important addition.

The large workbook format, (almost 8 1/2" × 12" size), about 160 photos and diagrams, and a spiral binding to allow the book to lie flat and open on the bench, are great advantages. Having clear diagrams of workable jigs, including a “go-stick (what we call go-bar) board” and a side-bending jig similar to the one available from Luthier’s Mercantile, as well as actual-size drawings of a steel string and classical guitar, which are folded neatly in an envelope attached to the back cover, are invaluable.

This is a nuts-and-bolts approach; a straight, let’s-get-to-it method book. No words are wasted on theory or philosophy, a fact which some people will find disturbing. The analogy of a good basic cookbook comes to mind. And, as with a good cookbook, the final results of specific recipes are often dependent on the experience, competence, and sensitivity of the cook, rather than just the list of ingredients and directions for combining them.

Writing a how-to-do-it guitar book is a monumental task. To build a successful guitar literally hundreds of steps must be carried out with some degree of accuracy, and for certain ones, there is no margin for error (bridge placement, for example). This book will certainly serve as a step-by-step guide and a source of ideas. The potential for frustration and a very negative experience is always present. But this book probably significantly betters your chances for a successful outcome.

I would like to see more space spent on the details that affect setup and, ultimately, playability. For example, in this method the fingerboard thickness is not tapered except a small amount on the bass side on classicals, so saddle height must be quite extreme (string more than 12MM off the top of a classical) to compensate. In addition, no under- or over-bridge cauls are used for gluing on the bridge. A novice gluing on her or his first bridge might, with overzealous clamping, split the top. I think more detail on the really crucial steps is needed.

To conclude, I’d like to recommend this book, but with some reservations. It is an unpretentious, straightforward approach which will guide a novice, and with a little luck and maybe a little help from a guitar maker friend, a successful instrument can be made.

Cyndy Burton (1987)