As it applies to making a living making stuff:
I, at one time, was someone who didn’t make anything who transitioned into making things full time to make a living. It was, well, hard. But being on both sides of that coin has given me some perspective. I am acquainted with many people who make stuff. The difference between those who are successful and the makers who swaffle can sometimes be obvious to everyone but the maker themselves. Makers can hide behind their art, their muse, their inspiration, as a guise for unproductive or wrong decisions. When sales are not good we can work on our machines or oogle other people’s creations for inspiration and not just get better at selling things. There are many different aspects of this life and we can easily divert to the ones we like when the ones we suck at are causing us pain.
Consistency. The makers I’ve known that hold a big question mark over their successful outcomes lack consistency. If they make 10 belts, then they are making 10 pots, then they are helping a friend with an installing and then making tap handles for their buddies brewery. They might wake up at 6 three days a week and then get distracted the other two. This is totally fine if the making of things is something you do as a hobby. If it’s full time making you want to be a part of consistency is key. It takes relentless forward progress.
Your initial decision on what to make is huge. If you are going to committ to one thing, make sure that ‘thing’ is worthy of the commitment. Just because you are a potter doesn’t mean the world will want your pottery just because it’s yours. That’s entitlement. How can you do it different enough to be yours but still something everyone wants? Where’s your pocket of creativity sit in the world? If you can’t answer that question now, find the answer first.
Wake up everyday at 6 o clock and make one thing. Obsess over it. Strip everything away until it’s just it’s parts, and then make the parts simpler. If your estimation is that it should take 10 hours to make, know it probably will take you 20. Figure out how to make it in 8. Don’t get distracted by making something else, we adults call it something else but when our vocabularies were smaller our parents’ called it ‘quitting’. When it gets hard, punch harder. Keep waking up, keep doing one thing. Precise focus, immense effort.
Want to make guitars as more than a whenever-you-have-time hobby? Here’s my advice, guided by the principle I’ve found to be true and was put into words by Bob Taylor in his book ‘Guitar Lessons”:
Quantity is just as important as quality.
You may have a negative reaction to that. You may think that guitar making is about making the perfect joint, the perfect bracing pattern. Pursuit of that is a lifelong pursuit, and if thats your goal in the beginning it’s going to hamper your progress dramatically. Do the best you can do at the time and then move on. Getting over the impulse to labor and toil over the minutest detail during your first 50 instruments is the best thing you can do to ensure your progress. Read that again because its a big deal, don’t be that guy who wants to make a living building guitars and then builds three guitars a year:
Do the best you can do at the time and then move on. Getting over the impulse to labor and toil over the minutest detail during your first 50 instruments is the best thing you can do to ensure your progress.
If I could go back and guide 18 year old me along the path of guitar making education this would be my short advice: Go to a class where you build one instrument and can copy the jigs, avoid the large schools, then get a job at a smallish manufacturer, build your own guitars on the weekends, and switch to another manufacturer after a couple years if you cant get into another department.
I went to one of the larger schools. I thought it would be the best education because it was the longest course. What ended up happening was I built three guitars in 9 months. Most students who had no previous experience could only manage two. Two guitars in nine months. The biggest holdup was everyone learned a step and then we all went and lined up at the bandsaw. 40 people standing at the bandsaw. Then we would all move to the edge sander. Although there was some guidance by instructors you basically did the work by yourself until you screwed it up and needed to get bailed out or needed some new wood. You could copy jigs but we were new and didn’t know know how to do that or what we needed to replicate since it wasn’t part of the schooling. What you need in the beginning is hands on attention, and you need to get your first five or so guitars out of the way. After that you need quantity and the only way to do that is by working for someone else. I worked at Huss and Dalton for 2.5 years and it was where I learned almost everything I know about guitar making. I carved 400 necks, sanded 800 necks/bodies, milled all the lumber, bound the guitars and glued braces on, and was directly exposed to other parts of the process. Who’s better at fretting? The guy at home who frets 10 guitars a year or the guy at H and D fretting 8 guitars a week? Exactly. You just can’t compete with the scale. I don’t mean to not a pursuit of perfection mentality, but I’m trying to balance the scale a bit. You need to make a ton of stuff. A lot more stuff than you think. It’s going to take years. After a given point if ‘quantity is just as important as quality” the one with the biggest pile of work wins.
Jeffrey Foucault playing Rainier Ptacek on his Mule resonator guitar, and then I died.
I’m not a huge fan of guitar voodoo- you won’t find me filing away the nut in between the string slots, or clamping things to head stocks. All these things can change the tone of a guitar in theory. Does they contribute to an audible difference? Meh. But the more important question is: does it make the guitar sound better?
And that of course is the unanswerable question. What is better? So many things about guitars are chocolate and vanilla. I had a Gibson Lg-1 that I loved and it was the quietest, sustain-less, thunkiness guitar I ever owned.
Part of the fun of building resonator guitars is that because they are so loud, small changes make a more audible difference. I’ve always believed that the more you can do around the bridge/saddle/biscuit on a guitar the better. That’s where most of the vibration is happening so it makes sense that you can affect the most change there.
Something I’ve started doing is slightly hollowing out the bottom of the biscuits, leaving a border around the outside edge where it rests on top of the cone, and where the cone screw goes into the biscuit. It’s not for weight savings – the amount is so little- but it’s for vibration. Think of the top of the biscuit as a mini sound board. Just like when you thin the top of a guitar you are able to get more vibration going and that’s always a good thing.
It’s added some openness to these guitars. It’s slight, not as drastic as using a rosewood saddle compared to a maple saddle, but it’s there and it’s fun to do so I’ll keep doing it until convinced otherwise.