GAL History

“I have decided to organize a Guild of American Luthiers, as a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting the art of the luthier, and providing a publication concerning technique and opinion, as well as an annual convention.” This was the first line of a letter to the editor that appeared in the July/August 1972 issue of Guitar Player magazine from luthier J.R. Beall. This was the beginning of what would become the nonprofit educational membership organization for instrument makers and repairers, the Guild of American Luthiers!

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 anyone who was making instruments in a serious way. They had basic questions like: How do I bend sides? Where do I get some wood? How do I measure fret spacing? So there was a real need for a center for fledgling luthiers to gather around and share what scant information they had. In the early ’70s, J.R. had met other instrument makers at craft shows in the Midwest and got an idea that it would be really helpful if all these guys who were just starting to make instruments could get together and learn from each other. One of most enthusiastic respondents to J.R.’s appeal was a teenager and aspiring luthier named Tim Olsen who had a lot of enthusiasm (and a mimeograph machine) and the desire to serve this noble idea of sharing information for the benefit of this burgeoning community. So J.R. and Tim formed an alliance to start with the list of thirty-six luthiers that J.R. had amassed and turn into a real organization.

Our Founding Father J.R. Beall with one of his dulcimers at the 1975 GAL Convention.

The organizing principles of the Guild quickly came into focus. There would be no requirements for membership: Anyone, whether experienced or novice; professional or hobbyist; builder, repairer, or scholar; all would be welcome to be a part of the Guild. No particular instrument or way of building or repairing would be promoted above any other, in order to promote a free flow of information among people of different specialties. And it was decided that there is no point in promoting a “right way” of doing things. In our member-generated publications, our feeling was (and still is) that everyone has something to tell and something to learn and that the more one learns about a thing, the more one realizes how much more there is to know. Through a commitment to these ideas, the Guild established a culture of information sharing and mutual support in the lutherie community in the USA and elsewhere that has created a new Golden Age of Lutherie.

Our first step was to publish a newsletter with member submissions in the summer of 1973. Soon Tacoma, Washington, became the center of GAL publishing and activity. Our small newsletter morphed into the GAL Quarterly magazine with separate Data Sheets of more technical information. Before long, we had so many Data Sheets that we started collecting them into books. Full-scale instrument plans were offered from a very early date. In 1985, we combined the Quarterly and Data Sheets into one large quarterly journal, and American Lutherie was born. With the success of American Lutherie as a resource that members and newcomers would want to refer to again and again, the Big Red Book of American Lutherie series was launched in 2000, and our seventh book in the set was published in 2015. In between, we published the landmark book, Historical Lute Construction by Robert Lundberg, based on his series of lectures and practicums that had appeared as a series in American Lutherie over several years. The GAL Quarterly, the Data Sheets, and the first twenty-one years of American Lutherie were actually printed in-house by the Guild staff. In 2006 we took the printing out-of-house, and American Lutherie became a full-color journal in 2011.

1973: Newlyweds Tim and Deb Olsen pose with Tim’s guitar-making partner Bob Petrulis in front of the affectionately named “Vetus Pigmentum” (loosely translated, “Old Paint”), the original and current GALHQ. Bob was the newsletter’s publisher in our early years, but had the good sense to follow a career path in higher education. He has remained a friend to the Guild all these decades and currently serves on our Board of Directors.
Bon “Flying Caps” Henderson in 1978, with our new IBM Selectric typewriter, which ended her ability to produce those flying caps!

Luthiers wanted to have opportunities to interact, make friends, and share what they were learning, so very early on, the Guild began hosting conventions. Our first GAL Convention in 1974 was just an afternoon get-together, held in two locations: one at the Olsens’ in Tacoma, and the other at J.R.’s in Newark, Ohio. Although total attendance was maybe two dozen, this was a significant milestone in the history of lutherie in the modern era. In the summer of 1975, our second GAL Convention in Evanston, Illinois, set the pattern for all our future conventions with formal demos and talks, an exhibit of members’ instruments, and concerts. This happened long before the many guitar-oriented shows developed, and it really was the only meeting of its kind. The emphasis was on learning and camaraderie, and these values continued to be our guiding lights. As the conventions grew, a generation of luthiers grew up with them. People who first attended as beginners later presented and exhibited as established masters of the art. The connections and revelations that happen at GAL Conventions have provided a creative hothouse for the development of the craft. We produce major articles from our convention talks and demos in order to widen the circle of learning to the entire membership. Our most recent GAL Convention in 2017 was our twenty-second event, with over 400 participants and dozens of workshops and lectures.

R.E. Bruné demonstrates side bending with a propane torch and a length of pipe at our 2nd (and what we consider our first “real”) GAL Convention in 1975. Bruné organized and hosted it at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. The program elements of informational presentations, instrument exhibition, and concerts became the template for future GAL conventions as well as other events that have used our Guild conventions as a model.
A party at the 1977 convention in the Olsens’ home. Can you find the luthiers and friends in this photo? Easily identifiable are (in alphabetical order): Don Bradley, Bill Collings, Jeff Elliott, Tom Ellis, David Fisher, Alan Hawkinson, Bon Henderson, Bob Laughlin, Deb Olsen, Tim Olsen, Jon Peterson, Bruce Petros, Bob Petrulis, Kent Rayman, Tim Shaw, John Thierman, Mary Thierman, Dan Torres, Buzz Vineyard, Jim White, Ken White.

In the fifty years since we began, the Guild of American Luthiers has remained true to our original guiding principles of promoting the sharing of lutherie information and inspiration. Our original thought, that we could advance the art of lutherie by freely sharing what we were learning, has proven to be not just a good idea, but a great one! The Guild has contributed to the amazing quality of instruments, and to the culture of luthiers generously sharing their knowledge which is the norm today. Together our members have formed a community that made it possible for more than 1200 authors to produce over 3700 original articles. We’ve published nearly 200 journals, as well as 15 books and 80 full-scale instrument plans. Our periodic Convention/Exhibition, first held in 1974, is the standard for what a lutherie gathering can be, welcoming luthiers of all ages, interests, and experience levels, to share and learn. We’ve held 22 Conventions so far, with luthiers attending from all over the USA, Canada, and around the world. Support of the Guild, both moral and financial, has been and continues to be from our members, the worldwide community of luthiers.

The Guild of American Luthiers is an organization that works, and, as our members have enthusiastically chanted at many a GAL gathering… “The Guild is Great, the Guild is Good, the Guild is Great and Good!”