GAL History

From our 40th Anniversary Issue - 2012

The following articles appeared in American Lutherie #111, Fall 2012:


A Blast from the Past: Some Early GAL Letters

Here we present some of the earliest letters we received, mostly published in the GAL Newsletter. Letters from our members were a large part of our early issues and helped us build a feeling of community. The following give some insights into the formation of the Guild’s ideals, as well as a look at how things have changed (or not) since those early days.


(A letter in GAL files to J.R. Beall, dated Sept. 1, 1972)

Dear Mr. Beall:

Thank you for sending me the Guild outline. You have made an interesting proposal for a guild which several of us have considered for quite a while. At first, I was struck by a considerable amount of enthusiasm when the idea was first conceived here. However, after some thought, I have come to the conclusion that this is somewhat of a nostalgic dream, and cannot succeed, for the following reasons:
1) This is a trade in which 90% of the craftsmen make very little money. Forming a strong organization would require a great deal of money; fairs, conventions, and trade shows would, in my opinion, be poorly attended simply because of the tremendously long distances involved, and the lack of money for transportation.
2) This is such a secretive business in regard to suppliers and techniques that few people would end up giving a lot, and many people would just end up taking a lot.
3) There are a number of people like myself who have their names on instruments that are only responsible for their final product quality. Should I then be given a Master Luthier’s title for being a good inspector, when there are a number of other men who do different stages of work?

In addition to the above negativism, we have already tried to form a buying cooperative with two close friends of ours in Colorado and Tennessee who are excellent craftsmen. Our three companies make approximately 700 guitars a year, combined. Yet we never have the right amount of money at the right time to make large purchases together, even though we are in envious positions because of the amount of capital and equipment we own. I feel that if this cannot work among friends, a crafts guild cannot succeed, either.

My attitude is not generally this negative, but I do believe, from my own experience, that a crafts guild simply could not work. I will, however, be glad to help, and would be interested in trying. We have always been very open here in regard to techniques we have found that work. I would be glad to write articles for your newsletter on the technical end of our production and compile a list of suppliers that we do not use, but that have been helpful to us at one time or another.

If I can be of further help, please let me know.

Sincerely yours,
S.L. Mossman
Winfield, KS

(Stu Mossman was a pioneer in quality guitar manufacturing on a small scale. He lectured at our 1977 convention in Tacoma and our 1978 convention in Winfield, Kansas, where he also gave members a tour of his shop.)

(From GAL Newsletter Volume 1, #2, October 1973)

Dear Jerrold,

On reading your proposal, everything went alright until I came to heading #2, “to set standards and goals of professionalism.” The things that guitar makers in this country need are an apprentice system, a good source of supplies, and acknowledgment. The thing they don’t need is someone telling them they are better, worse, just a little better, or maybe just a little, little better, or maybe you’ll never make it, kid.

The Guild systems of the past came to be organizations to protect certain individuals within these same organizations and kept them closed to outsiders. It has been my experience that this is the kind of thing that stifles any creative feeling from the type of animal that makes a good craftsman.

When you meet a good craftsman, you will usually find him to be a fairly humble type that wouldn’t be bothered with any such grading system. When you come upon a really great craftsman, you don’t need to grade him; just look at his work and enjoy. No words need to be said or little pieces of paper with gold seals need to be hung on the wall or stored in little boxes. They serve no purpose except to build the ego. And in order to be a really good craftsman, you must learn to control your ego.

Yours truly,
James C. Boyce
North Falmouth, MA

(James was an early member and eventually racked up twenty-six year of GAL membership.)

(From GAL Newsletter Volume 1, #2, October 1973)

Dear Mr. Olsen,

Luthiers are creative people. The making of musical instruments is as much an art as it is a craft. Here is where the Guild can accomplish something really worthwhile: to teach younger people, who may have a natural aptitude for this sort of thing, that it can be an extremely rewarding occupation. For some reason, many younger people think that it is degrading to work with one’s hands. Too often they are too far along in another career to quit by the time they discover that making things with one’s own hands is the most rewarding work of all.

Many people seem to have the idea that only Europe can produce master craftsmen, and especially luthiers. This is simply not so. There is just as much talent scattered all over this country as any European country can produce. In Europe they are perhaps better organized because they started a lot sooner. But too much organization can also become a handicap. It leads to a hardening of the arteries: too much attention to tradition and not enough to the advances of modern technology. We have an advantage over our European brothers: the heritage of generations of Yankee ingenuity developed by our pioneer ancestors who had to make practically everything they owned with their own two hands.

There has never been as much demand for high-quality handcrafted musical instruments as there is today. There will always be enough demand for such instruments to make the profession of luthier financially rewarding as well as personally satisfying. If the Guild can get this point across to enough younger people, it will do a great service to them as well as to many music lovers.

Again, wishing you the greatest success,
David A. Sturgill
Piney Creek, NC

(David Sturgill wrote in 1973 that he had already been making instruments for forty-five years. He was an early supporter of the Guild, wrote several articles in our early newsletters, and spoke at our 1977 convention in Tacoma.)

(From GAL Newsletter Volume 2, #2, March 1974)

Dear Mr. Olsen,

James Boyce’s letter in your October 1973 issue reflects my own feelings about the foolishness of attempting to formulate or define professional standards for luthiers.

This is an old dodge among trade organizations who hope to profit from the prestige that a code of “professional ethics” may bring. Nothing is more appealing to a businessman than the idea of doing business from the lofty pinnacle of membership in a professional organization with hallowed ethical rules. It is easier and a lot less risky than selling yourself on your own individual merit. Even Stradivarius might be excluded from a professional luthiers’ organization with strict standards since he was fond of joining the neck to the top block with nails because he distrusted glue alone.

Finally, I know a well-known luthier whose output is uniformly mediocre. I also know one or two novices who have built guitars of astonishing quality. I would not want the job of passing official judgement on these men, and I know of no one to whom I would entrust this task.

Let us all concentrate on making the best instruments we can and let the musical public decide where quality lies.

For some time I have been gathering material for a book about craft work as a vocation. Part of this book will deal with the history and practice of apprenticeship, and I would enjoy reading in your columns a discussion about this subject.

Good luck with your newsletter, a useful and welcome enterprise.

Irving Sloane
New York, NY

(Good advice from another American lutherie pioneer, and the author of the first lutherie book on many shelves, Classic Guitar Construction. We were thrilled to receive his encouraging letter.)

(From GAL Newsletter Volume 2, #3, May 1974)

Dear Tim,

Your newsletter is one of the most informative and valuable magazines in the guitar business. I find lots of good humor in it and many times have a belly laugh right out loud. One that got me was in Leo Bidne’s review of Guitar Repair by Irving Sloane. I ordered this book just to see how you take the top off a guitar without damaging the edges. I was horrified when I saw a saber saw cutting the top out.

Maybe your readers would like to hear about the electric guitar I built for myself. It has 1/2" lead slugs under each fret, one on each side of the truss rod down to about the 14th fret. This gives noticeable sustained tone. I also installed a solid 4 lb. bridge, and now I can give the steel players a little competition with my volume pedal and original Vib-Rola.

I know many luthiers will think I’m nuts, but if the classic guitar had lead slugs under each fret, you would have a real harp-sustained tone, which to me would be an advantage in playing any type music on the classic. Don’t alter the bridge.

Later maybe you would like to hear about my experiments with a cheap mass-produced door skin guitar. Turned out good, glued the top and back on at same time, one model arched top, other flat, used a press.

Best wishes,
C.O. “Doc” Kaufmann
Santa Ana, CA

(You may remember “Doc” Kaufmann, the electric guitar pioneer and early partner of Leo Fender. He was a big supporter of the Guild, and his letters appeared frequently in the newsletter.)

(From GAL Newsletter Volume 2, #4, July 1974)

Subject: The projected shortage of iridescent pine cones used in the manufacture of polarized kaleidoscopes.

Dear Jerry and M.K.,

Just a note to thank you for the (belch, erp) good time Susie and I had at the convention. I’d have to say it was a complete success in spite of the collapse of the main tent. We enjoyed Karl Wallenda and the Dancing Bears. Be sure and get them back next year. Enclosed is my membership fee for the Guild. You may notice a small drop of blood on the check; I’m very particular about how I spend my wife’s money. I assume that membership in the Guild entitles me to free access to the sauna on Easter morning, paid medical insurance, and a 20% discount on ebony barrel staves.

God Bless you,
R. Englehart

(From GAL Newsletter Volume 2, #4, July 1974 and Volume 2, #5, November 1974)

Dear Tim,

I saw Stewart Cassidy’s plea for information on soundhole rosette making in Volume 2, #3 and immediately invited him to visit and go through the process of making rosettes in my shop. I have made a little write-up on the way the old-time Spanish makers did it. In this method, the mosaics are made like little bricks and glued in their slot first. Then the adjoining slots are dug out and the concentric colored strips added last. I know many makers made the rosettes in lengths like sausage and others make them complete outside the soundhole recess and put them in as a complete assembly. The method I describe is the oldest and needs the fewest tools.

Just had a visit from Hans Hermann Kuhl, an exporter of Hamburg, Germany. He and his daughter, Angie, were on the way back from the NAMM show in Houston. We expect Bobri just as soon as Guitar Review #39 is complete. Look for my article on Aguado’s Tripodison. I had a great visit with Manuel de Jesus Davila, an extraordinary luthier in Guatemala City. I’ll try to find time to write about his works. Looking forward to a serious juerga.

Very truly yours,
H.E. Huttig II
Miami, FL

(As mentioned earlier, H.E. Huttig was one of the Guild’s earliest and most enthusiastic supporters. His method for rosette making was published as GAL Data Sheet #1 and reprinted in BRBAL2.)

(From GAL Newsletter Volume 3, #1, February 1975)

You’re doing a nice job in your efforts to bring kindred souls together. Stress honesty and old-fashioned pride-of-accomplishment policies and demand a fair price for top quality work, and no one will be out of work in this field. Do not speak negatively of the luthier’s trade facing anything but prosperity in a time of inflation and/or bad times. Music as a hobby always thrives during bad times — there is more time for recreation — and music is a genuine essential to survival. We are busier every week; the more people out of work, the more old instruments we get in for restoration. There is a silver lining to every dark cloud. Right on!

C.C. Richelieu
Banjos by Richelieu
Oregon, WI

(From GAL Newsletter Volume 3, #2, March 1975)

I am expanding my business to offer a complete line of supplies for guitar builders, wholesale and retail. Because of this, I am not interested in participating in group buying, which I think is an endless morass of trouble anyway.

I have mixed feelings about spreading the word about lutherie. People with a natural ability to build instruments will find out what they need to know, and books will never help those without it. I would not like to see an organization seeking to interest newcomers, but rather one which quietly serves to communicate among serious members. I know the ideal situation is to have a strong, flourishing, and fairly large profession going, for normally this creates market pressures and consumer interest, which breeds customers and supporting industries like tool makers and wood suppliers. At this time, however, the world’s wood resources are dwindling, and the economic pressures to cut veneer out of rosewood, etc., are overwhelming. The best I can foresee is that there will not be enough good wood left for the giant manufacturers to bother with, and they’ll switch to plywood and plastic, leaving the little remaining quality wood to individual craftsmen. If that happens, a few luthiers can go a long way on those crumbs.

I think that as petroleum prices and pollution increase, Americans will be forced to give up their internal combustion hobbies and will stay home and turn to other things — TV, sex, and music perhaps. So the future for music may be brighter than you think.

Walter Lipton
Orford, NH

(From GAL Newsletter Volume 3, #5&6, December 1975)

Dear Mr. Olsen,

Good soundboard material is becoming more difficult to obtain, especially spruce imported from Europe. I’ve begun experimenting with our local Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii) which grows between 8,000´ and 10,000´ in the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains near Salt Lake City. Some violin makers have had success with it, but I haven’t come to any conclusions for its use in guitars. If you know of guitar makers who have had experience with Engelmann spruce, I would appreciate any information.

Jan E. Callister
Draper, UT

Guild of American Luthiers Newsletter Volume 1, #1

Below is a facsimile of our very first publication that was mailed to members in the summer of 1973. On the margins (in red) are Editor Tim Olsen’s commentary from 2012.

The “Right Way” is a Myth

by Tim Olsen

The “right way” is a myth. Everyone has something to tell and something to learn. The young me wrote that inflammatory motto to try to open people up to the idea that they really did have something worth sharing. It was meant to confront the lazy notion that there was an elite group of mysterious people somewhere that had everything properly figured out. It sought to empower the earnest young amateur. And it dared to suggest that more experienced craftsmen had a duty to the future as well as the opportunity to find wisdom in unexpected sources. Our statement of editorial principle in the front of every issue of the magazine has been revised now and then since we first started publishing it in the 1970s. But that phrase has always seemed right. So how’s that working out for us?

Well, the hippies and dropouts and misfits who pooled their meager scraps of lutherie lore and experience have grown up to be the Old Masters of the American Lutherie Boom. Together we’ve gone from a time when a handmade guitar had better look just like a Martin and cost a lot less, to a time when handmade guitars of all genres are the quality standard of the world and collectors, big-name musicians, and museums pay top dollar for the work of living makers.

Friends, nobody did this for us. Fifty years ago in this country there was no tradition of hand-crafting guitars and almost no market. American cultural shifts had relegated such things to factories after WWII. All known published information in English on guitar building consisted of Irving Sloane’s recent book Classic Guitar Construction plus another inch or two on the metaphoric shelf. As the cultural pendulum swung back in the late ’60s, there were no “respectable” people to take up the crafts, mostly just a bunch of young malcontents and some retirees. We did not have money, information, training, or experience. But we did have the great blessing of naïveté. Since we had nothing to lose, we decided to share what little we information we had. Here’s the short version: Everyone benefited, everyone learned more, everyone shared more, and boom! It’s the Golden Age of American Lutherie! This inclusive, cooperative approach to excellence has become the mainstream attitude among instrument makers. If you are sixty or younger, you’ve never known a time when this cooperative and supportive system was not taken for granted. You can thank the GAL for that.

As of Fall 2012, we have published well over 2,000 articles by about 600 volunteer authors. We have published 161 issues of our periodical as well as 9 hardcover books and 65 full-scale plans. We have presented 20 national conventions and their exhibitions, involving scores of presenters and performers and thousands of attendees and exhibited instruments. And in all this, we have kept our prices low and we have never applied for or received a grant, been sponsored by an outside entity, or borrowed money. It has all been paid for by publication sales and by a community of members paying annual dues and making small donations.

The secret of the GAL’s success has been our tenacious focus on the simple idea of being a system of information exchange between our generous members, and nothing else. We do one thing well. And we have moved the world by sticking to that simple idea.

As Murray Eaton said so long ago, “The Guild is Great. The Guild is Good. The Guild is Great and Good.”

Amen, Brother Murray. Amen.

Tim & Jerry

Here are the letters between our founding fathers that mark the Guild’s coming into existence.

September 2, 1972

Mr. Beall,

Your printed proposal has calmed my fears. The proposal is practical, fair, realizable, and (oh joy!) all-encompassing.

Concerning your post script:

Interested, yes. Capable, I doubt it. I am painfully short on the money, mobility, and authority that I assume this task would require. Being, as I am, but 19 years of age, the people I would be “organizing” would be many years my senior chronologically and luthierily.

I am eager to help further this worthy cause and would jump at the chance to accept this position but for my feeling that there must be someone far more qualified than myself willing to take the job. So if there is a smaller job, or if this one is less frightening (and costly) than it seems, please allow me to be of assistance.

I am,
Tim Olsen


October 16, 1972

Dear Tim,

Yes!! I’d still like you to be “our man on the coast” if you are interested, but let me first warn you, this is not really a very big deal. It has become increasingly apparent to me that the professionals are not interested in the guild, at least not at this stage. Therefore, it will have to be done by us talented amateurs and interested types for ourselves. The money situation is a little grim, but not insurmountable, am working on getting a non-profit organization official status so that donations can take the form of tax write-offs. I want to publish a newsletter, but need a mimeo machine. I don’t care how old you are or what your experience is, what we need now is enthusiasm and follow-thru. I am certainly no powerhouse but I want to get a newsletter out as soon as possible and maybe, pretty soon get the charter committee together. Anything you can do to help promote — get to it. The title of Co-Chairman for the Western United States Guild of American Luthiers, now belongs to you. See if you can make something out of it.

We now have 36 names total on our mailing list. I think if we can get to 100, we’ll be in business.

I placed a classified ad in Guitar Review some time ago, I don’t think it has come out as yet, but we should get some response from that.

Let me hear your ideas.

J.R. Beall

A Word from Our Founding Father

August 28, 2012

Deb and Tim,

You are right, it has been a long time. Too long, I think. It was like another life then — different wife, different friends, different concerns and goals — but it was good then, too, and I miss some of the parts I no longer own. I will be seventy-nine next month, and I have suddenly realized that I am older than dirt. I have lots of different kinds of arthritis and have been through all the rights of geezerhood: bypass, cataracts, prostate, hearing aids, and some others I can’t remember. I am pretty happy though, and my life is still full of interesting challenges and a few interesting people.

I remember when I thought I would always be a luthier, forgetting my unfortunately short attention span. I built something like 600 instruments during those years, mostly dulcimers, but I have two double-manual harpsichords in Ohio universities that have not yet imploded and a fair number of guitars and other strange devices that I am occasionally reminded of. Had I been able to play anything I built, I might well have continued the work, but I think one must be a musician to achieve long-lasting success at lutherie. I am reminded of the few boats I built and never learned to sail. I have one pretty decent curly maple Bouchet left that sits in a corner and gathers dust.

As you know, I am in the tool business now and have done pretty well at that. We live in the same place but have two nice buildings behind our house and four employees who help me live a sort-of retired life. I spend most of my time playing in my shop and now have a huge quantity of tools and equipment that I usually can’t find. In spite of my advanced age, I have learned the rudiments of CAD/CAM and have several CNC machines to play with. I have become semifamous among wood turners and other cranks and enjoy that rarest of all qualities among instrument makers, security.

When the GAL first started, we were all pretty excited about the potential it held, but none of us imagined how far it would come and how successful it would be. It is now a boon to luthiers everywhere and a great tribute to Tim and Deb and the others who did the actual work of making it go. I was as much of a stick in the eye as I could be, but managed to get out of the way fairly early and allowed the enterprise to succeed. Though I can take very little credit for the organization, it is my fondest hope that it will continue to grow and flourish and make me even more semifamous.

J.R. Beall
Newark, Ohio