Tips For Someone Wanting To Build Guitars For A Living

Discussion in 'Bad Dog Cafe' started by Grant Ball, Sep 16, 2021.

  1. jimgchord

    jimgchord Tele-Afflicted

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    Get base woodworking skills first. Look for a job in a cabinet ship to see of you even like working with wood on the daily. Lotsa 17 year olds think they like something on paper. No offense intended, there are just many aspects to building a guitar and you need to be exposed to a few different skill sets to see if you have the aptitude for it. Some people can build things easily, others not so much
     
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  2. tomasz

    tomasz Tele-Meister

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    Since you're asking about tips, I'd start with one:

    Try it, if you still like it after your first build, do another 3 or 5 and ask yourself a question, if you are still enjoying the process and the outcomes.

    If you can tick that box, ask yourself how big you wanna go with that operation, how that impacts/changes your life. Is the product good enough? Do your friends or even unknown people enjoy it? Is it stable to withstand the years to come for an instrument? Do you have place enough for what is needed, wood storage, tools, parts?

    You may be surprised by the answers down the road!

    I did that excercise and decided for myself, that I just enjoy building instruments. More of a that, I enjoy working wood with hand tools mainly and cooking hide glue, I love french polish, I enjoy the process, but I wouldn't quit my day job to do that full time, as it is not sustainable. I'll end up probably as an retired guy one day, who will be the local guitar builder in a small town. And I like that vision :) your story may differ!:)
     
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  3. dlew919

    dlew919 Doctor of Teleocity

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    Try not to listen to the naysayers. Start small. You’re 17. You have plenty of time. Find what it is you bring to guitar building. There’s a million guitar makers. The one thing that the ones we know have is a certain uniqueness. Maybe you can redesign a shape. Or maybe your necks are perfect every time. Or maybe you can get a unique tone that sounds great.
    Probably a word working trade is a great idea as it will get you access to tools.
     
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  4. tomasz

    tomasz Tele-Meister

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    I'd add to that, the ones we know were determined enough and had a vision. They never stopped ideating and improving on it, I think that is what made the difference.

    Now many are huge established brand, that stopped listening to customers, but that's a different tale, of growth and wellbeing :)
     
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  5. tattypicker

    tattypicker Tele-Meister

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    I do think you need an apprenticeship. I would be wary of relying on a course of education or training that's divorced from on-the-job training, unless you're very clear that one is the gateway into the other.

    Lots of people develop considerable and impressive skills as amateurs, but never learn the knack or discipline of delivering them in a business-like and profitable way. Lots of craft enterprises fail for reasons that have nothing to do with the core skills or quality of product, but everything to do with delivering them as an effective business.

    From conversations with a well-established local builder, came these 2 pieces of advice.

    1. You will always make mistakes. 20 or 30 years in to professional building, you will still be making mistakes and hopefully learning from them.

    If that's true of a guy who has survived 20 years in the business, stop and think how thick and fast your mistakes are going to come in your early years, and what sort of environment and financial exposure you want to have at that point in your career....

    2. You will never have enough tools... and in many cases, you will need to make your own.
     
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  6. Ghostdriver

    Ghostdriver Tele-Meister

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    I am only going to echo what most are saying, this is a pipe dream with a slim chance of becoming a real career earning money to sustain what life throws at you in the way of just making ends meet.
    At 17 I knew nothing about the real value of money until i started work and then having to part with it regularly just to survive, running a car, board and lodging, whatever supplies required etc etc...
    Get out in the world and experience all this before you embark on this notion of being a professional guitar builder.

    Also, the world is saturated with good budget brands, what is going to make your guitars really stand out above these factory made decent guitars thats going to tempt someone to part with their own hard earnt dollar ?

    All very well thinking your guitars are great, turn them into real cash, maybe small profit margin, and you will soon learn that although achievable, its a long hard road ! The only danger is that your real passion for guitars can easily and quickly deteriorate and turn to a loathsome chore.
     
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  7. trev333

    trev333 Telefied Ad Free Member

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    Making them is the easy part..... marketing/selling them is another story.

    How many of your friends play guitars?, are you in a band? are you mixing with a lot of other musicians/guitar players?....

    How are you going to get them out there?.... ;)
     
  8. eclipse

    eclipse Tele-Meister

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  9. bettyseldest

    bettyseldest Friend of Leo's

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    My daughter decided at the age of six that she wanted to be an architect. It's all that she has ever wanted to be. At the age of thirteen I took her to meet the Principal Architect at my firm. When I first met him he managed a team of over thirty, now in his fifties he was a Project Manager who took on any projects requiring an architectural input. The only architect in the business. He spent a couple of hours explaining the business and trying to talk her out of it, and at the end told her to go for it, but don't expect to get rich.

    Twenty years later she is an architect, and with her husband has moved to Vancouver. A year after moving she is still working for the firm in the UK that she has been with for the last four years, but hopes to find a local job as things open up. They have enough money to live on, but as a comparison, her sister earns significantly more as a teacher. It is still the only job she has ever wanted.

    My other daughter never knew what career she wanted to follow. She wanted to camp, canoe, climb and travel. She thought about working in an outward bound type business but it did not feel right. She took two gap years (Brazil and Kenya) before ended up in teaching, she has long holidays, and running Duke of Edingburgh Award training courses through the school means she is still involved in outdoor adventures.

    Making a living from guitar building is two jobs, firstly making guitars, and secondly managing the business. You can work for someone else, and let them manage the business. They take the risk, and profit or loss associated with the business. Do you have the desire to learn those business skills? How much time are you prepared to spend doing the business? Would you be happy to hire others to do the guitar building work, or the management role?

    My uncle Brian was an engineer, in his late twenties he and his best friend set up their own business. Brian did the engineering design and build, whilst his partner ran the business. For over twenty years everything seemed to go well. Then Brian broke his arm and was unable to do some of the physical aspects of the job. He spent a month or so in the office and found that his partner had been syphoning money out of the business for over ten years. He immediately terminated the partnership arrangement and got a job working at a major engineering company.

    Geoff is my wife's brother in law, he met Dave when working as a machinist in his early twenties. Ten years later he had mastered CNC machines. Dave was keen to set up in business together, and for about a year they discussed it. With a child and mortgage Geoff decided to stick with what he knew. Dave leased a CNC machine, and workshop in order to set up on his own. As a CNC operator he was not up to Geoff's standard, but he was good at business and it thrived. Geoff worked the odd weekend shift for him to help out when he was very busy, and was offered a partnership on a couple of further occassions, but declined. Geoff did ok with the companies he worked for, earned a decent living and put away enough for a comfortable retirement, but my sister in law never let him forget the opportunity he missed out on.

    If this is really your dream, then go for it whilst you are young. It won't be easy, but you don't want to be an old man thinking about what might have been. If you just want to make guitars in your spare time, there are lots of builders on the forum operating that way and enjoying it. Just take a look at the annual Challenge builds or Brotherhood build as the latest incarnations are called. Best of luck.
     
    Last edited: Sep 17, 2021
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  10. guitarbuilder

    guitarbuilder Telefied Ad Free Member

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    Most people who build guitars for a living spent a number of years doing repairs to pay the bills. There are schools around that will teach you the proper way to repair instruments and there are programs available for that endeavor. After you have the repair skills, start building guitars. I'd also say learn 3d cad and machining because that is where instrument building is really heading. There's plenty of work for people that have hands -on skills. Getting a decent job involves having skills that are in demand or at least be willing to work hard to learn.

    The one guy locally( Bernie Lehmann) who is really what I'd consider a true luthier did repair work for at least 25 years before he could focus on building full time.


    If you want it then prepare to work hard to get it.





    In Tenn:

    Guitar Build Workshop | Nashville, Tennessee

    In CA: Charles Fox is the guy you want to show you the ropes.

    American School of Lutherie, Guitar Making


    Best Musical Instrument Fabrication and Repair Colleges in the US | 2021 (universities.com)



    Hand-built arch top, flattop, gypsy style and classical guitars by master luthier Bernie Lehmann (lehmannstrings.com)
     
    Last edited: Sep 17, 2021
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  11. AJBaker

    AJBaker Friend of Leo's

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    I would start with an apprenticeship with a respected luthier.

    Furthermore, I would suggest you want a broad set of instrument related skills before you specialize in what you want. Therefore, consider learning not just about guitars (acoustic and/or electric), but also about how to repair violins and the like. Other options could be learning to tune and repair pianos, for example.
    If you want to go in the direction of electric guitars, consider doing a course in electrical engineering in order to also be able to work on amps.


    Custom guitars are a niche market, so you will be competing with other established boutique makers, as well as the established factory brands. Furthermore, it seems to me that the guitar isn't anywhere near as popular as it used to be, so unless fashions change in the future, your customer base could end up shrinking in a few decades as the boomers who grew up on rock and roll start passing on.

    To compete in this market, you want to be known and respected as one of the best in your field, with a reputation for fine craftsmanship and reliability.

    I don't see an easy path, but I imagine you would start as an apprentice (earning next to nothing I imagine*), then find a job as a luthier repairing instruments (including violins, I would suggest. Those luthiers have amazing skills).
    Get to know the musicians in your community, and also in the online community like here. Offer your services for setting up, repairing, or modding instruments, work to become known as 'that guy you go to for anything to do with guitars'.

    Hopefully, by now, you will have built up your skills, and have a decent workshop. Have fun experimenting, building parts or even entire guitars, and try to have these guitars pass through the hands of people you know.
    Let customers noodle on it while you repair their guitar, let people (you trust) borrow it for gigs, bring it along to pick-nicks, church etc. to let people hear it. Become known as 'that guitar guy who also MAKES killer guitars', and try to find your first customers willing to buy a guitar from you.

    After that, the hard part begins...



    *I don't know how apprenticeship works where you are, but here kids start at about age 15/16 earning squat. In the first one or two years, they earn maybe 300-600$ a month, since their work isn't worth much, and they're there to learn. Only after passing their exams can the ask for the normal wage of 4000-6000 a month.
     
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  12. bgmacaw

    bgmacaw Poster Extraordinaire

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    Have a spouse, preferably well off and secure financially, who is willing to indulge and support your art. (This has been my primary role in my wife's various craft related businesses over the years.)
     
  13. teletail

    teletail Friend of Leo's

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    If you’re really serious, make a list of successful guitar builders and meet with them. Successful people usually love talking about themselves. Get advice from people doing it, not armchair quarterbacks.

    NO EXCUSES!! Find a way to meet these people. It might take a bunch of calls. You’ll definitely have to travel. It’s going to cost money. It’s going to take time.
     
  14. Wrighty

    Wrighty Friend of Leo's

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    If you want to make a small fortune out of building guitars you need to start with a big one!
     
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  15. Wrighty

    Wrighty Friend of Leo's

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    Yep, took Leo years of graft, a supportive wife and fingers in plenty of other pies to sustain him in the early years. He was creating a market, not entering a crowded one. Treat it as a sideline occupation and see how it goes.
     
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  16. Wrighty

    Wrighty Friend of Leo's

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    Worked for Brian May……………mind you he did have a reasonably successful band and a degree to fall back on!
     
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  17. guitarbuilder

    guitarbuilder Telefied Ad Free Member

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    Besides going to a specialty school or program. You can learn a lot right here at the Home Depot forum. You will find men and women with little to no experience building electric guitars and other instruments. There are plenty of threads showing a multitude of ways to accomplish the same task. While some people will tell you it takes thousands of dollars in equipment, you can get by with less to start. You may make some mistakes but that's all part of the process of learning anyway.

    You can buy pre slotted and radiused fretboards from Stewart MacDonald or LMII. Having access to a router or router table ( which you can make) would be helpful. People can saw with jigsaw, scrollsaws, or bow saws to cut out the shapes. Hand sanding gets the job done but it takes more effort than using a machine. It can be done.

    You can farm out some operations to a cabinet shop, or buy a plane and learn how to do it to get started. Used tools and machines are common on craigslist and Facebook marketplace. You can buy a planer for 3 hundred dollars that will mill wood wide enough to make a guitar body and neck.

    If you want to build a guitar, see your tech ed teacher at school and see if they can help you out to get started.


    Don't discount the book option either:

    Buy a copy of Melvyn Hiscock's Make your own electric guitar too. He sadly passed away recently, but his 3rd Edition came out this year.


    Make Your Own Electric Guitar: Hiscock, Melvyn, May, Dr. Brian: 9780953104932: Amazon.com: Books

    This used to be considered a must have to build an acoustic guitar


    Amazon.com: Guitarmaking: Tradition and Technology (Guitar Reference): 9780811806404: Jonathan Natelson, William Cumpiano: Books



    Making an Archtop Guitar: Benedetto, Robert: 0073999844030: Amazon.com: Books
     
    Last edited: Sep 17, 2021
  18. jvin248

    jvin248 Doctor of Teleocity

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    .

    The guitar building and selling business is extremely hard to do because there are no barriers to entry. Your buddy down the street can order all the hardware bits off ebay to build and sell guitars just like you can. How do you convince guitar buyers to pay for your guitar over your buddy's build? Are you extremely inexpensive? Extremely expensive and bespoke? Can you get 'that tone' or 'that look' that others find so elusive?

    Look up the Crimson Guitars youtube channel and go to the beginning videos for Ben Crowe's channel (if he still has them up). He was building custom guitars out of the falling down shed behind his house and basically starving his family. Out of desperation he started filming marathon youtube build sprints and miraculously the youtube channel paid his bills. Eventually he built a business selling tools, guitar kits, and custom guitars all supplemented with youtube video revenue.

    Leo Fender got in the guitar making business because he wanted to sell amps but his amp buyers kept asking for a guitar to go with the amp. Leo made his guitars as simply as he could. Leo was so good at making amps that Marshall amps started out making copies of Fender amps using local British parts, and then Gibson really relied on Marshall amps in the market space to sell their guitars. Gibson flirted with marketing their own amps but it was really Marshall that sold LPs and SGs. The first Les Pauls sold so poorly against Fender's Tele and Strat that Gibson gave up and replaced it with the SG that became more successful (largely because the price was half of the LP and in-line with the competitive Teles and Strats that started out low cost by clever design).

    PRS got started by being a guitar repair guy (at first for his friends) who realized the guitar repair business was not going to make enough money to keep his girlfriend/wife/family so he built a few guitars, got some financial backing to cover equipment and facilities investments, and then spent a lot of time pushing guitars at performers backstage at concerts -- today he'd get stalking and court harassment claims filed against him (so don't follow that trick) -- but he talked Santana into playing one of his guitars on stage and that got him the first sales.

    Several popular builders rely on the fact they worked in the Custom Shops of Fender/Gibson/PRS: Suhr, Anderson, Kaur. There is a long list of Custom Shop escapees that use their credentials and client contacts (who are often their first customers when they get out of corporate bondage). Then they show a list of famous players they have built guitars for to convince new buyers to take a chance with them. Their pedigree gets them started.

    Two areas you need to make sure you can do well: Fretwork and Finishes. That is the baseline.
    You must make a Custom-Shop level playable guitar and you must make a pretty guitar. Practice painting things.
    Then Marketing/Sales needs to be your next skill set.

    But in the end your guitar company needs something to stand out against all the other thousands of companies and individuals building and selling guitars. They and you have no barriers to entry and few have what are called 'defensible moats' around their brand. Well, except for Fender, Gibson, and PRS is achieving that status. Fender and Gibson can get their premium pricing for their logos and headstock shapes because they have a Marketing Moat in their brand equity they have built up over decades. By the way, don't copy their or others' trademarked headstocks.

    I would advise against trying to be a custom builder -- that is where all the horror stories you read about in the forums happen. A buyer wants a guitar built with 'these features' and a price and timeline are agreed to and the timeline slips. It always slips when your sales are rising. Then the buyer(s) gets mad and a public slog-fest ensues. Inevitably, most of the custom builds buyers want made are conventional guitar copy Tele/Strat/LP with a trademark headstock shape, so don't go there. Design and build and market your own line, building to refill your order inventory (which might only be one or two guitars). Building to a custom order is stressful and dangerous for a small business.

    Don't buy a garage full of production equipment until you can 'hand build' a few great guitars and have your profitable business niche figured out that you can easily sell into. Build a few guitars and try selling them. Then build a few more and sell those. Figure out what worked or what did not work with the building and the selling.

    Constantly work at answering 'why does a guitar player want to buy my guitars?' Answer that well and you'll have all the success in the world.

    .
     
  19. Ron C

    Ron C Tele-Holic

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    Yikes.

    I agree with the rest of your post about taking classes, learning your craft, and in general, taking some risks while young, But it seems to me that far too many young people find themselves in too much debt, living in mom's basement until their hairline is receding and generally feeling like crap about it. The money wasn't there when they needed it.

    I'm more comfortable with @Peegoo and @ghostchord and @jvin248 's advice. They capture the creative spirit of your post but add in sound business guidance.
     
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  20. Telekarster

    Telekarster Friend of Leo's Gold Supporter

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    @Grant Ball I'd like to give you some luthiers that might inspire you. Dig their work man! :)

    https://manzer.com/

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Larrivée

    https://williamlaskin.com/

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Benedetto

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Triggs

    https://www.mcampellone.com/

    This is just a sample, as there are many more. However, all of these folks are top shelf and all of them sell their guitars for many 1000's of dollars, and people will and do pay for their quality. There's a couple things they all have in common: 1. They are the best at what they do 2. None of them are getting any younger.

    If you have the drive, you'll succeed. Perfection on all things should be your goal. I'd reach out to some of these folks and ask them about apprenticeships and advice, it doesn't cost much to make a phone call or send an email ;) I know Mark Campellone and I can tell you he's 100% Grade A guy in more ways than one, and I have no doubt all the rest are of same caliber. Good luck man! I'm rootin' for ya!
     
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