written to help define the thinking behind my project (with my partner,
Eric Schoenberg) to make a difference,
Along with most of my peers, I see some disturbing trends in our culture. I do vote at every opportunity, but fail to feel that I am making much of a difference. One area that I do have some power is in my professional field of lutherie, and so I have tilted Luthier's Consortium in a particular direction. This has nothing to do with politics or religion, but rather it is about a way to hold guitar making, or most any other endeavor.
This Consortium is dedicated to the notion that making guitars individually by hand is a path that leads not only to and ever better instrument, but also to a more refined self.
There is a tendency for luthiers, once they have achieved the ability (hopefully) to consistently create successful instruments, to then jig up, or automate, in order to produce enough instruments to raise their standard of living to more closely resemble the American Dream. This tendency is so prevalent that I don't believe most builders have really considered that there is an alternative. Sadly, the usual result is that a lifestyle that many consider to be ideal is then turned into a job operating a factory, even if it is a one person operation, or into a managerial position. It seems to me that if a person wanted a job like that there are easier ways to get that job, and usually more lucrative as well. Too soon the once loved guitar becomes a commodity and the last thing one wants to see after work. As a result, many luthiers brought to the craft through a love to play no longer do. You know who you are. . .
So, the alternative. Basic competence, the crossroad, is the beginning of mastery. Mastery is never really complete, though that may not appear true to the observer. It is not so much a true goal as it is a process.
Execution is probably what most think of when the subject is considered, though there are also a number of other areas to work on. The realization of concept (or recovery from failure!) is what craftsmanship is all about. Fine muscle control, the right tools and sharper edges, and a better understanding of the right materials will constantly lead to better execution.
Templates, whether scissor cut card stock or CNC machinery, solidify a design and make it unnecessary to think about that aspect of the work again. One could still redesign that particular aspect as often as one likes, but the tendency is not to. Two things happen. As the hand is removed from the process, sensitivity to the line between ultimate performance, and catastrophic failure, is lost. It becomes necessary to err on the side of strength by a comfortable margin, or be driven out of business by warrantee issues. The other is that the creative process becomes unfamiliar and perhaps even threatening. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Don't rock the boat.
We have overlapped into another issue here. Mastery of execution is not at the top of my list of priorities. The performance of the instrument is more important to me. Improving in this area is usually done in tiny little increments, with the occasional lurch, and most certainly in conflict with any production techniques I've heard of.
While I am married to custom building at the deepest level, it is not essential to tonal improvement. But it helps in the process of designing a guitar to interface more perfectly with a particular customer. The ability to sus out what the customer wants is another area to work at mastery. Many customers have barely begun to comprehend the array of possibilities, and so the onus is on the builder to either lead towards an informed decision, or take the bull by the horns and build what one imagines is wanted. This runs considerable risk of having the would be buyer deny that they are holding the guitar of their dreams, but I have succeeded at this so far (I don't do this often) and I do know others who have done it.
There is more to this story, but I feel the call of the workbench (possibly to your relief), and hope to get more written here soon. The upshot is that I am promoting these values by using them as the main criteria in inviting builders to participate. Further, I hope to influence more of those at the described cross road to make their turn this way.Bruce Sexauer, luthier