GAL History

From our 20th Anniversary Issue - 1992

The following articles appeared in American Lutherie #111, Winter 1992:

20th Anniversary
American Lutherie #32, 1992

We Musta Been Nuts! by Bon “Flying Caps” Henderson

In the Beginning by R.E. Bruné

Meet the Maker: Tim Olsen by Todd Brotherton

Letter by Chuck Erikson


We Musta Been Nuts!

A Nostalgic Look at the Guild’s Early Year

by Bon “Flying Caps” Henderson


People often say “it seems like only yesterday” when writing a retrospective. Well, not me! It seems like all this happened a hell of a long time ago, and it did. And it’s really unbelievable when you know the circumstances surrounding it.

I will never forget that day in 1972 when Tim got the letter from J.R. Beall suggesting that his “Guild of Luthiers” idea was only that, and Tim should make it a reality. It seemed pretty manageable when you consider that J.R. had only sent Tim 40 addresses. How much trouble could it possibly be to send out a tiny newsletter every other month to 40 people?

Those were the days when Tim had his guitar shop in a dilapidated, uncomfortable old building in the North End of Tacoma. We had gone to the same high school and my sister Deb had a crush on Tim, so my crazy friend Katrinka and I spent time hanging out with them at Olsen Lutherie. It was only natural that Deb (the girlfriend) would be first to volunteer for any goofy projects that Tim (the boyfriend) needed help with, and so she and Tim soon whipped up the first GAL Newsletter (less “news”, more “letter”, as I recall).

It was more serious than we had first imagined. Deb and Tim decided to get married in 1973. They found the most wonderful old Odd Fellows Hall in Fern Hill for sale and immediately bought it. This would be the ideal building for the home/lutherie shop combo they were searching for. By this time the GAL Newsletter had come out again and Tim was actually corresponding with other crazy types like himself that intended on making lutherie their career.

Bob Petrulis was Tim’s junior high buddy who had moved to Terre Haute, Indiana. He came back to Tacoma to be the best man and to become Tim’s partner in the new Olsen Lutherie located in the Odd Fellows hall. Of course, when it came time to put out a few GAL Newsletters, Bob was “invited” to donate his free time to the worthy cause.

It is hard to imagine in these bonanza days of books, magazines, and complete lutherie supply catalogs, that less than twenty years ago there was nothing but the Sloane book. Even the word “lutherie” was so new that instrument makers weren’t sure how to spell or pronounce it. (They still don’t. -Tim) The lutherie world was a tiny place and that made the discovery of each new luthier a very big deal. There was an exciting “ground floor” kind of atmosphere.

By 1974 Olsen Lutherie was cooking along (helped by Tim and Bob’s part time furniture repair jobs at the local antique auction company) and Deb was actually “bringing home the bacon” with her job at the fabric store. The GAL Newsletter was a project that Tim, Deb and Bob would fit into their busy schedules. Dues were $5 and membership increased to well over 80 members by the middle of the year. And the Newsletter did contain some usable information.

There were two reasons that I became involved in the GAL story: First, I was related to Deb and Tim. Second, I’d taken two years of high school typing and I could type faster than any of them. That was it.

Leo Bidne joined Tim and Bob to assist at Olsen Lutherie and, of course, to lend a hand during Newsletter time. He lent his artistic talents to draw some really great illustrations in Volume 2 when we couldn’t afford to get screened photos done.

The Guild was taking a bit more time from everyone by the end of the year. The entire paraphernalia of the Guild was held in one medium-sized cardboard box with a photo of Andres Segovia pasted on it. We would take down the “Segovia Box” and decide what we could come up with for the next issue, and I’d type it all up on the Olympia manual typewriter. When it was time to put it all together Tim, Bob, and Leo would set up the sawhorse-and-plywood table in the middle of the shop, grab the rubber cement, and start pasting. The selection of cover photos was rather interesting in those days with Sam Ervin playing a harmonica being among the most memorable.

The cover of our December 1974 issue featured this drawing of the Guild’s entire office by Leo Bidne. Note the Segovia Box. It was only our eighth issue, and already we were having a retrospective!

If we were unorthodox in our approach to paste-up, you can imagine what the photo work and printing were like. During this time the darkroom work was done on a wooden bellows camera bought at the antique company, inconveniently located in the bathroom. Printing was done by Bob on a borrowed press at the same antique auction house.

Everything went along about the same (chaotic and unorganized) until about mid-1975, when things really started to change. Leo decided to move from lutherie to a more lucrative job in sign painting. To save us the astronomical $200 it took to print the Newsletter and a few accompanying data sheets, Tim and Bob bought a used ABDick table-top press. There was this guy who used to bring us free garden vegetables, so we always called him Grocery Man. His real name was Kent Rayman. He offered to fill in, and why would we refuse his offer? Deb was getting tired of selling cloth to finicky seamstresses. She could see the boys drowning in a sea of lutherie work and increased GAL duties and knew that she had the organizational skills to bail them out. She quit her real gig to take on the even bigger job of running the Guild, while Kent worked on expanding the ranks. We’d finally moved from the “Segovia Box” and Navy surplus desk in Tim’s shop to the back room, a former industrial-style kitchen facility that was once the center of the Odd Fellows’ party scene.

That’s the Fern Hill Lodge Hall of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows as it appeared in about 1975. The sign says “Olsen Lutherie.” Note the dilapidated brick chimney, which will feature prominently in this chronicle. The Guild now accupies the entire first floor of this building, and Tim and Deb Olsen live on the second and third. For twenty years we have cimmunicated with the world of luthiers through the mail slot visible in the front door. All photos by Tim Olsen except as noted.
The Guild staff, as it was in early 1975: would you buy a magazine from these people? Hundreds did! Left to right we see Bon, Leo Bidne, Bob Petrulis, and Tim. Leo has been a luthier, a musician, a recording engineer, and a tinkerer extrordinaire. These days he’s married with a gaggle of kids and works as a appliance repairman. Bob had been a musician and a volunteer drug crisis counselor, and completed a correspondence course in electronics during his stint with us. He went on to be the financial officer for two different colleges. He is nor married with two young daughters and is about to receive his doctorate in adult education. Who would have thunk it! Photo by Deb Olsen.

The quality of the of the Newsletter’s content was rising by Volume 3 and the technical Data Sheets that accompanied them were actually very useful. In 1975 the information sharing idea was starting to catch on.

But 1976 was not one of our better years. “Times was tough” as they say. Contributions were down, and the morale of the old guard went down, too. Brune was supporting the treasury out of his own pocket. It was depressing (I think we would have used the term “bummer” back then). We raised the dues to $10 hoping that the growing membership of 250 would go for it, and crossed our fingers. Since we weren’t keeping up very well on the bi-monthly newsletters it was decided we would switch to a quarterly format to get the mailings on schedule. (Okay, I know what you’re thinking so don’t even bother to mention it). We changed the name of the magazine from Newsletter to Quarterly.

Bon grins as she operates the Guild’s first major equipment acquisition, a used IBM typewriter.
Tim and Deb are shown at their workstations in the Odd Fellows kitchen, about 1976. Photo by Bon Henderson.

By 1977, Brune’s lament had been heeded, and the Quarterly was starting to look like a real informational publication. Many new authors started submitting articles and Data Sheets. I was finally working on all other types of Guild tasks as well as typing, and we stepped into the high-tech world of tomorrow when Bob managed to convert a junked Xerox machine donated by Go-Dale Korsmo into our new copy camera. We were on a roll.

Actually Go-Dale Korsmo figures into every year of the GAL history. From house wiring and telephone installations, to locksmithing, to photography, Dale was always able to save our hides in times of trouble. After twenty years is still helping us wire the office for the new computer network and installing multi-line phones. I’d say that without ever having written an article Go-Dale Korsmo is one of the GAL’s biggest contributors.

1977 was also the year of our flopped publication, the membership directory. It sounded like a simple, useful and money making idea: give each member a half page to promote themselves with words and photo, then sell the directory at a modest price to musicians.We were getting in a bit over our heads, but everyone was so hot on the idea we just knew it would pay off.

In those days we didn’t have money for anything as luxurious as a collating machine so we would place all the pages around a huge table Deb and Tim had rigged up in their upstairs meeting hall/bedroom and walk around the table gathering up each page in order. Deb and I must have logged a hundred miles each around that table gathering directory pages.

Unfortunately for us, luthiers are such a mobile group that before we got the thing assembled it was out of date. Besides that, it didn’t sell. To make matters worse (and try to save our initial investment) we updated it in 1978 with the aid of soft-hearted Vermont Guild member Tony Pizzo who printed and collated the second installment. Big surprise, it sold as miserably as the first one.

But by 1978, Volume 6 of the GAL Quarterly was starting to look pretty darn good. Bob was really hitting his stride with the modified Xerox machine and table-top press. The photos were even halfway clear, even if there were only six per issue.

After our successful 1979 convention in Boston, lecture transcriptions became a major part of the magazine, and contained some very substantial information. We still worked out of the kitchen office which was small but adequate. Bob, however, had gone on to other interests (like not starving at Olsen Lutherie) at college and we knew his schedule would not allow him the free time to continue to print the Quarterly. Tim found a good deal on a very used ABDick 385 press, which we still use today. Bob gave us all the instruction he could and Tim and I became the official on-the-job trainee Guild printers. Membership, which was still only $10/year, soared over 1500, a mark we would not reach again for six years.

If 1979 was relatively smooth, then 1980 was just the opposite as depicted on the first cover of Volume 8, a lovely photo of the Odd Fellows lodge in flames. As Deb and Tim printed up membership certificates for the year (I was out of town that day), some guy knocked frantically on the door to tell them their house was burning. The old chimney mortar had deteriorated enough to allow sparks to set the wall on fire. It burnt the roof right off the place. Luckily the fire department was quick to save the building and most of the contents, including the Guild stuff. “Hig” Higginbottom, the next-door lawnmower repairman, allowed the Guild to immediately move into the second storey of a vacant old building he owned just across 83rd Street, which we named Higgy Towers. This act of kindness saved the day, but that was one pathetic office. The building was one step away from being condemned when we got there, but with a help of GAL stalwarts like Go-Dale, Bob Steinegger, Byron Will, Brady Anderson, and Kent Rayman, we fixed up the best room to serve as the office and let the rest crumble around us. I can often remember climbing over mountains of fallen ceiling plaster and moldy boards out in the hall before getting to the front room office. The wiring was shot, so Hig let us run a temporary power cable from his lawnmover shop. It wasn’t pretty (or warm or dry or clean) but considering our situation we didn’t complain. When you are living in a 9'×10' coal bin attached to a burned-out house, almost anything would seem suitable.

By this time the workload was really starting to pile up, with our record-high membership and sales of Data Sheet sets moving briskly. Dave Fisher had been a friend of ours and a lutherie client of Tim’s, so after returning from school in Norway he reported to Higgy Towers for his new career. He did lots of darkroom and grunt work, bound countless sets of Data Sheets, and even wrote a few articles. It was at this time that we purchased the gigantic old Haloid photostat camera, looming seven feet tall, to replace the Xerox machine. I will never forget the day Dave, Tim, Deb, and I hoisted it up the rickety stairs of Higgy Towers.

Higgy Towers was built as a Mom-and-Pop hardware store about 1910. The site is now a lot where Gary, son of “Hig,” tests lawnmowers.
That’s the Guild’s tiny darkroom/bathroom, circa 1977.
Inside Higgy Towers. What are Bon and her brother Bill so happy about? It’s moving day! Note jawa Deb in background.
David B. Fisher did construction work on the Odd Fellows hall as well as working for the Guild. He’s married now with one son and is a computer graphics specialist.

What with the fire, the huge San Francisco convention, the office move, new staff, new equipment, rebuilding work at the Odd Fellows Hall, and booming business in Guild publications, 1980 was something of a nightmare. But the flood of supportive messages and donations that came in from the membership was deeply gratifying.

Thank God 1981 turned out to be less catastrophic. We’d been smart enough to realize that the monumental task of sponsoring a convention every year was well beyond the capacity of the small Guild staff. In those days our conventions lost a lot of money, so they were a big drain on each year’s budget, too. It was decided a biennial convention was a much more manageable idea. At the end of the year board members Kent Rayman, David Russell Young and Max Krimmel came to town to help us sort out Guild problems. Dues had been raised to $15 right after the fire, and now they were raised again to $25. Up to this point the staff’s wages had been token amounts. In practical terms we were still volunteers. The board made some major changes to try to put the Guild on a realistic footing. History shows that they were the right decisions, but there was still some bumpy road ahead.

The leaking ceiling, mold-growing walls, and falling plaster finally drove us out of Higgy Towers in 1982 and up several blocks on Pacific Avenue to an actual office space above a beauty salon. Even though the combined smell of stale cigarettes and hair permanent solution was extremely unpleasant (I recall all holiday seasons being especially aromatic), we didn’t fear the building would collapse. The most inconvenient feature of the Coreen’s Beauty Shop location was that we still did the printing, chopping, and collating back at the Odd Fellows’ Hall. The most convenient feature was the front row seat we had for all the wierd happenings on Pacific Avenue and our proximity to Taco Bell.

Our space above Coreen’s Beauty Salon as cartooned by Tim 1983.

1983 was a quiet and lean year. No convention so we could try to catch up on the magazine. A national recession and our recent dues increase combined to push membership down in ’82, ’83, and ’84. Deb and Tim were spending a lot of their time on the house remodeling. The Guild was in financial trouble at the end of 1983 so Tim was laid off. He found a job as a press operator at a quick-print place. The job only lasted two months, but by then the Guild was doing a little better and we needed him back.

The last year we published the small-format Quarterly was 1984. The idea had served us well, especially when the 8 1/2"×14" paper was the biggest that the table-top press could handle. But now we could print 17"×22" and putting all those loose Data Sheets together in an envelope with a small magazine seemed counter productive. Member donations finally allowed us to purchase a collating machine with twenty 11"×17" bins; we had been using those little tin hand-cranked things that held about six stacks of fifty 8 1/2" sheets. It was finally practical to move to a full magazine format, which we did in 1985 with the first issue of American Lutherie.

We also stepped into the “Push Button World of the Future” that year as we purchased our first Kaypro 4 CP/M computer and Brother daisywheel printer. Member donations, including Bob Mattingly’s donation of a guitar at the 1982 convention, had raised the $3400 needed to purchase this equipment. That was a bigger investment, in terms of 1984 dollars and our budget, than our current network of four computers, a laser printer, and a scanner! We put in many long hours with the cryptic Perfect Filer manual before we got it to do anything useful. Up to this point I had been hand-addressing about 10,000 pieces of mail per year.

On the homefront, the constant abuse the press had taken during its years as a real commercial machine, before we purchased it, had taken its toll. As usual, the idea of the Guild spending money on a real repairman was completely out of the question. So Tim and I tore the whole thing apart, cataloged the hundreds of parts, replaced all the worn ones, put it back together and saved thousands of dollars we didn’t have. Considering everything we had accomplished up to that time, I still consider it one of the most amazing feats we pulled off. Our current press mechanic, Charlie, agrees.

In 1985 we began publishing American Lutherie magazine. All 32 back issues are currently available, so you can follow the evolution of the GAL there. In the coming years the Guild would enter a new phase, hitting some high points and some low ones. We’d be more computerized than we had ever dreamed possible in those years, Olsen Lutherie would be completely phased out to make way for the office space we needed, Jon Peterson and Dale Phillips would be added to the office staff, with Cyndy Burton and Nicholas Von Robison in remote offices, and the membership would grow to record proportions. Things have certainly changed for the better but the basic idea of luthiers sharing information with each other (no matter what their skill level) never changed for one minute during all of these twenty years. And that’s saying something!

The office today. Photo by Jonathon Peterson.
Today’s staff, assisted by Tim and Deb’s sons: (l to r) Dale Phillips, Bon (holding Sam), Tim, Deb, Isaac, and Jonathon Peterson. Photo by Jonathon Peterson.

In the Beginning

by R.E. Bruné

I remember visiting at J.R. Beall’s Farkleberry Farms (as his home was known then, before it became Beall Heavy Industries, Inc.), around 1971 or so, and he mentioned to me, “R.E., I wanna start a Guild of American Luthiers!” As we were both up to our farkleberries in work and orders and neither of us had time for such a thing, I couldn’t understand the reasoning of wanting to get involved in this endeavor. “It’ll be great, R.E. We’ll get everybody else to do all our research for us and get themselves locked in mortal combat with all those ivory tower types while we skim off the best ideas and keep busy in our shops. Besides, we’ll charge ‘em money to belong.”

From such humble beginnings was born our beloved Guild. Unbeknownst to those of us involved in the beginning, there was far more demand than anyone could have dreamed for such an organization, and the concept of skimming off other’s ideas for personal use quickly gave way to an incredibly open forum of sharing which is unprecedented in any other industry.

The problem of the day-to-day, nuts-and-bolts operation (which was definitely J.R.’s short suit) was miraculously solved by Tim and Deb Olsen volunteering to take care of the Newsletter, as it was known then. They have proven their mettle in the roughest of times, and never faltered in their dedication to putting out a first-class publication. Without them the Guild would have failed many times over.

I cannot imagine where I would be today without the benefit of the Guild. I can’t count all the factoids and tips I have gleaned (stolen, absorbed) from Guild publications. But, more importantly, in the process of alleviating my guilty conscience for having purloined so much information, I have been inspired from time to time to actually contribute information of my own, and in the process of writing and researching this stuff, voila! I have learned even more stuff, stuff I would never have looked at if I wasn’t writing the article. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

As for lutherie, these past few years have been the time of milk and honey. The Guild has been infinitely more successful with its national conventions than has the Guitar Foundation of America with its festivals, despite the fact that luthiers are ‘way further down the food chain. Yet, I see dark clouds on the horizon. The dwindling resources of suitable wood, combined with compounding national and international regulations of our materials, trade, and workplaces will make life increasingly difficult for the newcomer, despite the informational glut which is available to all for the mere price of membership.

It’s ironic. When I started, 26 years ago, you could buy all the Brazilian rosewood you wanted for $12/set, but you could hardly find any information anywhere at any price on what to do to get the most from it. Now you can read books and magazines, see videos, and attend conventions on what to do with it, but you can hardly buy it at any price, and if you do, you’ll need a permit to export it legally. Before the Guild celebrates its next XXth anniversary, most of the rest of the traditional materials of the guitarmaker will be in the same desperate situation. Obviously, the traditional materials of the luthier will not be traditional much longer. It will be the next generation of luthiers writing in this journal who will establish the new tradition. Don’t let your membership lapse!

Meet the Maker (of the Guild): Tim Olsen

by Todd Brotherton

It seems that you got involved with lutherie at a fairly early age. What was it that got your attention?

Believe it or not, my third grade reading book had a story about a little Spanish kid who gets apprenticed to a guitarmaker. That caught my fancy. In the story, the kid makes a guitar as a present for his sister. I acted that out a few years later.

I always wanted to go my own way. Lutherie was the kind of thing I could do all by my self, and there was nobody to tell me I was doing it wrong. Of course, I was doing it wrong. I was the kind of kid that liked to make things, but I never took a very systematic approach to anything. Whatever didn’t interest me at that particular instant was apt to slide. I figured if I couldn’t do something on the strength of native ability, as opposed to slogging through drills, I’d just slip over to something where I could. Several teachers gave me the old “You’re not working up to your potential” speech. My siblings and I joked that our family had a special aptitude for taking aptitude tests.

The other thing I always wanted to do was to cook up and launch big projects. This was partly because I would get the credit, but it has always seemed to me that wonderful things are worth doing for their own sake, even when they are an enormous amount of work. In junior high I was president of the science club and the drama club simultaneously, which gave me several opportunities to mastermind big overblown happenings such as rock dances complete with psychedelic squishy-oil light shows. Shades of GAL conventions to come!

Deb and I met through a club I started in high school. It was a paper airplane society, the point of which was to lampoon pomposity and hierarchy in general. The club had about twenty members, sixteen of whom were officers organized into four branches of government, each of which had its own elaborate chains of command. Each officer was in charge of designing and making an official uniform, and we spent lots of time on banquets to install and swear in officers, complete with dogged and ritualistic repetitions of officious mumbo-jumbo. Bon was a cheerleader at our “air meets,” and I engineered the election of her little sister, Deb, to succeed me as Premier of the club.

My early organizing efforts, as well as my guitarmaking career, betray a certain self-absorbed mindset and a focus on the fruits of ones’s own imagination. And I’ll bet most luthiers are the same way, otherwise they would be doing something a lot safer, less demanding, and more valued by society. Luthiers have to be real fans of their own abilities in order to invest so much time and effort just to see what marvel they will produce next.

Photo by Jonathon Peterson.
Photo by Jonathon Peterson.
Illustration from Tim’s third grade reader.

So when did you actually make an instrument?

My brother Jim got a cheap Japanese plywood guitar in the early ’60s, back when they really stank on ice. It could produce a vaguely musical noise, so I wanted to make one. I started gluing nails for frets onto fir sticks and things like that. I was about nine years old, and no one in the family knew any more about it than I did, so I happily went my own way with no advice to bog me down. Then my brother Dick got an old New York Epiphone archtop which really got my attention. Along the way to making a guitar I met Harvey Thomas, a veritable icon of eccentric wonderfulness. He made the kind of stuff you might see in a Teisco Del Ray column, and I immediately saw him as my lutherie guru. By 1969 I finally produced my first successful instrument entirely from scratch.

The infamous eccentric electric guitar guru, Harvey Thomas, does a bar gig with a guitarogan. Tim’s article about Harvey Thomas appeared in American Lutherie #11 and the Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume One.

In 1970 I saw an article about Jimmy D’Aquisto in Guitar Player. Here was a role model for me. This guy was doing what he wanted to do, all by himself, and selling the results for money. Plus, famous players were digging his work and magazines came to take pictures of him. He became the hero of my teen years. Of course, if I had spent those years at the feet of a master, like Jimmy did, I might have been better prepared to make guitars. As it was, I studied the one available book on the subject, Sloane’s Classic Guitar Making.

By the fall of 1971 I hadn’t learned much more but being seventeen years old gave me more than enough confidence to go ahead and hang out a shingle. You know what they say: being seventeen is the next best thing to being omniscient. I forewent my senior year of high school to open a tiny shop in a hippie artist’s mall.

In my new shop, I really believed I could make or fix anything in the nature of a string instrument. The potential for terrible blunders was great, but thank God I didn’t ruin anything important and I only had to give one guy his money back. Obsession gave me the will to invest a whole lot of time in lutherie work, and I gradually started to get the hang of it.

Deb and I got married in the fall of ’73. We bought a strange old barn of a place on the south end of Tacoma, a structure that has always looked to me like a cross between a dirigible hanger and a wild-west hotel. It was the 1891-vintage local meeting hall of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, but the fellows were getting odder all the time and couldn’t support a dance hall with a mystic meeting temple upstairs with the few members they had left. They asked a low price, and we countered with a lower one, which they happily accepted. I built a 4'×30' workbench and hung out a shingle. Deb worked retail to support us. It is my impression that the American lutherie boom would have been impossible without working wives.

Lutherie was my full-time work in the ’70s, and the Guild was a volunteer project. My two partners, Bob Petrulis and Leo Bidne, and I, got so we could do some pretty good repair work. Ours was the only shop in a city of 250,000. I made some acoustic guitars and Bob and I collaborated on some ambitious solidbodies. In ’78 and ’79 I made a few guitars that still look pretty good to me, and they still play well and sound good, too. I’d say I was just turning the corner to being a journeyman luthier. I was about 25.

By the fall of 1979 my lutherie career was over. The Guild was taking up a lot of my time and making it difficult to keep my guitarmaking business going. Then, while we were frantically preparing for the 1980 convention in San Francisco, a chimney fire got into the attic and burned the roof off our house. I planned to take a year off from lutherie work and rebuild the house, then go back to the bench. Of course, a year later we had hardly begun the enormous remodeling and rebuilding job, but the lutherie monkey was on my back and I still expected to get back to it full time. By 1985 I had to admit that the right thing to do was to remake my shop space into an office so we could bring the Guild back in-house after renting squalid and inadequate office space for over five years. Still, I exempted an 11'×25' room at one end for my power tools and wood stash, thinking that I would be returning to a serious amount lutherie activity as soon as I got a few things fixed up. But after another dozen years of withdrawal symptoms and two kids, I’ve finally had to face it. I’m never going to be a luthier again. I sold my 32" bandsaw to a Guild member and put the best of my lutherie wood in an attic for future generations.

What were you thinking when you first responded to that ad in guitar player back in 1972?

In my letter to J.R. Beall I sent a donation, which I could ill afford, of $11.11, and said that I hoped the new Guild would be inclusive of electric guitar makers. That’s because I was making mostly electric guitars at that time and I didn’t want to be left out.

How is the Guild different from 20 years ago? Is it everything you thought it would be?

More. I thought it would be a source of lutherie information. It certainly was that, and has grown far past anything I imagined in the first years. In fact, the Guild turned out quite different from what it first seemed it would be. J.R. Beall, whose idea it was, wrote up a proposal which called for conventions and publications, ideas which we have implemented with great success. But his proposal also called for a system of skill categories. There would be apprentices, journeymen, and masters, each paying a different annual fee and having different privileges. The Guild would also be a watchdog organization, publicly castigating recalcitrant merchants and craftsmen.

I never liked the idea of skill ratings. Initially this was because I was not about to do all the work to set up a system that would pronounce me inferior! But there were four other reasons I didn’t go for it. Firstly, it’s too darn much work. Believe me when I tell you that our information sharing activities are enough work, and that to categorize, test, and check up on 2500 members, as well as answer all their gripes as to why so-and-so is a master and they are not, would be an administrative nightmare. Secondly, it is by definition elitist, and that which is elitist is divisive. The point of an elitist organization is to keep somebody out. Why go to all that trouble just to reduce your readership and make your information more expensive per copy? Thirdly, it is unnecessary. With brain surgeons or jet pilots, it is necessary in the interest of public safety to certify competency. But we are only talking about guitars and fiddles here. A customer can ask around and get adequate assurances from other clients. If there is a big problem with scamming, con-man luthiers, I’m not aware of it. Lastly, this whole hierarchy thing is just a load of crap. That’s why it was fun to mock it as a hippie teenager. From it, there drifts the foul stench of the arrogance and distrust that is an unfortunate part of our materialistic and competitive culture. I understand that we lazily fall into these patterns as a result of our cultural programming, and prompted by our baser instincts to build ourselves up by cutting others down. But we can be better than that. We can choose to be cooperative, inclusive, supportive, tolerant, eclectic, respectful, courteous and imaginative. The Guild is living proof of it.

Is the Guild all that it can be?

The form and general activities of the Guild are about what they can be given our current resources of money and personnel. We strive to improve our efficiency and we are making good progress in that area. But until we can handle our current tasks in a more timely manner, I’d say we won’t be adding much to our agenda. Not one single issue of American Lutherie has ever been mailed on time. That is something to think about.

But I think, Todd, that your question runs deeper than that, and on a more thoughtful level, no, the Guild is not all that it can be. Within our current framework we can become much more. With the help of the membership we can provide information which is more diverse, more succinct, better illustrated, and more complete. We can present more where our coverage has been weaker. We can do more to nourish the thoughts and convictions of luthiers, as opposed to their strictly informational needs. And we can do it faster and more attractively. I believe we have made significant moves in that direction in the last few years.

Is the Guild successful? Why do you think the Guild has enjoyed the success that it has?

We have managed to stay focused. The Guild has had one goal: to provide an information sharing system for the advancement of lutherie. In that, it has been wonderfully successfully. The craft has advanced quickly and dramatically since the Guild’s first faltering steps in 1972, and I believe that our publications and meetings have played a role in that advancement. Since that has been our only goal and we have far exceeded our wildest dreams for it, I would have to give an unqualified positive answer to your question. The Guild is successful! Let me echo the words of Murray Eaton in our motto: “The Guild is great, the Guild is good. The Guild is great and good!”

What makes the Guild different from other organizations? What makes the Guild what it is?

There are lots of organizations in the world, such as political parties and labor unions, where people come together only to get what they can while giving only what they must, where each individual struggles to promote his or her own self interest against that of the other guy. People justify such behavior with statements like “We are hammering out our ideas!” But in the process, they are also hammering the life out of the human spirit; they are hammering the hand innocently extended in cooperation. This Darwinian model of communication and idea formation should be entirely beneath the dignity of luthiers or any other civilized persons.

The Guild’s original members were people who wanted to share what little information and experience they had for the benefit of each other and the advancement of the craft. With a few notable exceptions, these were mostly people like me who were young, idealistic, self-taught, naive, starving, and largely ignorant. It could be argued that we had nothing to lose by pooling what little we had. Maybe so. And if ignorance led us to do the right thing and start a good snowball rolling, it wouldn’t be the first time that the Lord had worked in a mysterious way. In any case, I believe that good people were attracted to a good idea, and that their desire to help others has been the foundation of the Guild’s success. I am particularly pleased to see that as the lutherie community has become far more knowledgeable and successful over the years, our members’ commitment to the Guild’s underlying ideas of sharing and mutual assistance has only strengthened.

Obviously there have been trials and storms during the these 20 years, and we have had the good fortune to weather them. Have the hard times strengthened your conviction and commitment to the Guild doing?

There have been some very lean times in our history, and some painful storms as well. At first the Guild was an ever-increasing distraction from what I felt was my calling, namely lutherie. Then working for the Guild involved financial hardship which ground on year after year. Lately the Guild dominates my life in a way that seems out of balance with my other responsibilities, particularly as a father of two young sons. The worst storm involved an attempt to derail the Guild from its founding principles and take it in an elitist direction. In the end, we were faced with a choice to let the Guild be destroyed in principle, or to fight for it. We fought, and won a clear victory in court. Since then, we have gone on to produce our best magazines and conventions and to enjoy our largest membership ever. That painful episode has further strengthened my conviction that the Guild’s success is based on it’s adherence to right principle.

Where did the Guild’s principles come from? Let’s be frank about it; they came from me. Or might I say, they came through me. The original idea for the Guild was J.R. Beall’s, as explained in this issue by R.E. Bruné. J.R. asked me to send a newsletter to a list of 40 interested people, and soon he had turned the whole Guild thing over to me. I took it up with the help of the people in my immediate circle, as Bon explains elsewhere in this issue. J.R. had a vision of the Guild that included a skill level hierarchy, and there were others who suggested organizing marketing efforts and trying to provide union-style services and benefits. But since it was I who was given the job of translating the Guild from a rough idea into a functioning reality, I built it up in accordance with my vision, based on my

In the fall of 1971, about a year before I saw J.R.’s ad in Guitar Player, I had become a Bahá’í. I found in Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings not only the answers to the problems that had vexed me as a Christian, but the way to redeem a world hurtling toward self-destruction. The principles of unity, inclusion, abandonment of prejudices, and problem-solving through consultation became basic to my life, and I have tried, to the best of my feeble ability, to be guided by them. Consequently, these Bahá’í principles became the underlying ideas of the Guild.

In Bahá’í consultation, the idea is for each person to put the good of the group above their own, listen to each other member with courtesy and respect, and offer what they can in a spirit of humility and with the aim of building on what others have offered, to reach a point which is closer to the always unreachable goal of Truth. This process is in stark contrast to the political, “hammering out our ideas” model so often used in our culture, which tends to leave needlessly battered losers on one side and glorified winners on the other. Bahá’ís use this method because it is a kinder and more loving approach which places proper value on all of God’s children. But we also use it because it works!

The experience of the Guild shows how successful this kind of approach can be for an educational organization such as we are. I feel that the Guild has offered a safe haven for a thousand-sided discussion. It has been the vehicle for a large number of people to progress in their understanding of a very complex subject. And while it has been the place where thousands of valuable business connections have been made, I am much more gratified that it has been the place where human connections are made, where people find kindred souls with whom they can share their efforts to perfect their instruments and themselves.

Many values that are important in my own life are ideals that the Guild strives to communicate. As an example, the concept that everyone has something to learn from everyone else is a cornerstone of this organization. It relates to people treating each other as equals and having respect for one another. Participating in this organization provides another opportunity for me to express and help further these ideas in the world.

The Guild is a micro-step in the direction of building a culture which values and respects people, and one which values and celebrates the talents of its artists and craftsmen.

What is the relationship between who you are as a person and your work with the Guild? Does your work with the Guild help your relationship with the world at large or your ideas and values?

Publishing a magazine is a lot like lutherie work. You are basically operating in your own little world, playing with your own highly specialized toys which seem extravagant to outsiders, having contact with only a few selected people, and producing something which has lasting value for the use of others. I seem to be just as obsessed with publishing as I was with guitarmaking. (Just where the line is between dedication, obsession, and addiction is still under discussion.)

Working for the Guild is my opportunity to serve. It is an enormous satisfaction to me that so many of our members feel the Guild is useful to them, that it furthers their strivings toward excellence. There were years when that was my only reason for producing Guild publications, and it was a powerful reason.

Luthiers, I have noticed, are hard-working people. Long hours at the bench and relentless striving for improvement are the norm in this field, although the earning power of lutherie is still poor, on the average. Bahá’u’lláh says that work, no matter how humble or esoteric, is, when undertaken in a spirit of service, identical to worship of God. When we make good use of the talents God has given us, we give glory to God. That makes luthiers a very worshipful lot!

The members of the Guild give me the precious opportunity to serve them. I believe that the work of the Guild is a good thing which contributes in a small way to the general good of mankind, and something which will live on to be of benefit to future generations. And in the final analysis, my service to people is the worship I offer to my Creator.


Dear Tim,

Cheryl and I would like to again thank you and all the GAL staff for the very well-organized and massively successful June convention. The last ones I had attended were Boston (1979), and San Francisco (1980), so was amazed at the huge growth in both attendance and quality (of the instruments, not of the attendees!).

Another show not visited for about fifteen years was the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) annual gathering in Anaheim, CA. A gigantic international showing of everyone and everything involved with the field of musical products, it now features four ten-hour days of marketing seminars, concerts, a parade, special banquets, after-hours displays, and over 1,000 exhibits of pianos and organs, band and orchestra instruments, percussion, karaoke machines, studio and video equipment, staging effects, publishing, tools, parts and materials, and of course every conceivable type of fretted instrument.

In the “old” NAMM days, there were almost no small companies, a majority of corporate sales pressure, double-talk, obnoxious hype, women in bikinis, deadly competition, vast and deafening noise, and an almost total refusal to share any information that could be labeled “proprietary” or “trade secret.” I usually hung out for a single exhausting and nerve-wracking day, made what contacts I had to, and got out of there.

While visiting NAMM shows the last two years, it was immediately apparent that at least some things have changed. The decibels and inflated sales pitching are certainly still there, but a new and friendlier element has established a toe-hold: “smaller” luthiers are everywhere, such as Deering, Alembic, Collings, Santa Cruz, Michael Tobias, Larry Robinson, Everett, Totem, Larry Breedlove, Art Valdez, Larrivée, Clevinger and Robert Lee, Ken Donnell, Hill, Pedulla, Roscoe Guitars, Tom Anderson, and many more who at least visit, if not actually display. Larger companies such as Gibson, Flatiron, Martin, Paul Reed Smith, Taylor, and Fender are as prominent as ever, but are either small shops grown larger, or now have actual luthiers high in administration, design, production, or custom work.

Consequently, NAMM is now enormously more “luthier friendly” than it was years ago, and the quality of production and custom instruments is much more highly evolved. Although most luthiers might be appalled at the sheer noise and glitz of these shows, which will never equal a GAL event for shop-talk and camaraderie, there is a new element of information-sharing among companies of all sizes.

For instance, when long-time West Coast luthier Roy Noble decided to again build guitars after a ten-year hiatus, he immediately hit snags with the new woods and strange finishes now being used. At the 1991 NAMM show, details of sources and techniques were freely passed to him by Stewart-MacDonald, Taylor, Larrivée, Santa Cruz, and Gibson Montana (who had also previously collaborated with another small shop on a common problem). Bob Taylor also routinely sets up a video display in his company's booth showing exactly how his necks are shaped, how inlays are done, and what brands of equipment work best for him. He'll even come over and personally spend half an hour pointing out the details for you.

For me, this makes the show actually enjoyable for all four days! Where this all ties in with the GAL is precisely at the point of information sharing: due, I believe, to the many years of friendship, trust, and non-combativeness encouraged by the GAL, and because of the “infiltration” of the larger industry by previously “small time” luthiers who have adopted an open approach toward their fellow craftsmen, we're now beginning to enjoy, across the board as a profession, the benefits of co-operation rather than the destructiveness of greedy competition. Even larger companies are starting to realize that as long as someone out there is making bad instruments, there will be consumers who will be left with a bad attitude about instruments in general. If we all work to raise the quality of each other's product, as well as our own, there'll be a lot more happy musicians to get involved in further purchases of even finer, more elaborate, and more expensive instruments. To not share information is to degrade our craft in the long run; to share information is to elevate the whole field.

Fretted instrument building in the U.S. seems to be coming of age. The GAL and its members are certainly making their presence felt, and deserve a major part of the credit!

All my best wishes,

Chuck Erikson