Luthiering: A Simple Guide (2023 Edition)

Table of Contents

If you’re interested in learning more about luthiering, you’ve come to the right post!

What Is Luthiering?

Even though string instruments have evolved, some things remain the same. In particular, I’m talking about the still very common practice of hand-crafting instruments.

When we’re talking about luthiers and luthiering, it’s about string instruments. After all, the word comes from lutes. These instruments are predecessors to present-day guitars. Nonetheless, we use the same words for builders of bowed instruments as well.

What Are Guitar Luthiers?

Guitar luthiers are the ones hand-crafting acoustic and electric guitars. But this is an incredibly demanding craft. It takes time and effort to get there.

What we refer to as guitar luthiers also includes those who repair guitars. Here are some of the things that fit the occupation description:

  • Repairing broken structural parts (body or neck)
  • Refinishing
  • Adding binding to the body and/or neck
  • Adding inlays
  • Pickup replacement
  • Servicing and changing electronics and pickups properties
  • Setting up guitar intonation and string action
  • Repairing hardware
  • Replacing hardware parts
  • Refretting

Contrary to popular belief, guitar luthiers don’t have to be skilled players in the same way that many skilled players know very little about luthiering. Sure, being a proficient musician definitely helps. However, it’s not a mandatory skill. Only basic playing skills are necessary.

What’s important is to know how to recognize if something is off. A guitar luthier should know how to notice fret buzz, poor intonation, faulty grounding, or shielding issues. After a luthier is done with it, the guitar should sound the best it can sound given its quality. And a luthier should know how to differentiate between proper and faulty-sounding guitars.

It’s also important to add that someone who solely focuses on finishes isn’t exactly a luthier. A dedicated artist who works with wood can also do this job pretty well. It’s the issue of aesthetics and protecting the wood. So there’s almost no say in what the instrument will sound or feel like.

Differences Between a Luthier and a Skilled Factory Worker

It’s important to know the difference between luthiers and factory workers. Luthiers focus on building and even designing the instrument, at least partially. Although skilled, a factory worker does everything according to the instructions.

In short, a luthier will have more say in the instrument’s tone and overall feel. And while they can be highly skilled, factory workers do not really have a say in these issues.

But that doesn’t mean that luthiers don’t work for big brands. For instance, Fender’s Custom Shop has several highly experienced luthiers working for them. They build high-end guitars and bring their twist to them. This is also true about Gibson’s Custom Shop or any other top-tier guitars of famous brands.

We usually refer to these luthiers as guitar builders. For instance, there are so-called Master Builders who are the most skilled and most experienced luthiers. They pretty much have a say in everything involved in guitar construction from the wood choice up to specifics about the instrument’s electronics.

Acoustic Guitar Builders

There are plenty of acoustic and classic guitar builders. These usually focus on either classical or Western-style steel-string guitars. Even though it may seem simple, each instrument deserves special attention to sound and feel good.

But in both cases, a builder will have a say in all of the instrument’s specs. With acoustic guitars, there’s a special dedication for each part of the body. In particular, I’m talking about the top.

Although seemingly simple, a body top, or the so-called soundboard, is pretty tricky. There’s the issue of bracing or the use of wooden braces in a specific pattern. Primarily, they serve as an instrument’s structural integrity. However, they also have an immense impact on the tone.

Then we also have the issue of choosing the right tonewoods. Needless to say, this will greatly impact the tone. Even a specific combination of body and neck materials can make a noticeable difference.

Setting it all up to work with hardware is a story of its own. Steel-string acoustic guitar luthiers also prepare the headstock and drill the holes.

Electric Guitar Builders

Electric guitars are different. There are few similarities between what acoustic and electric guitar luthiers do. Those who make hollow-body archtop jazz guitars might be dealing with some of the same issues. But even then, it’s different.

Solid-body electric guitars bodies are pretty much wooden boards. In some cases, there is a separate top that consists of two (sometimes one) glued pieces of wood. Once again, the choice of tonewoods is extremely important.

However, with electric guitars, we also have different ways to attach the neck and the body. This will also affect the tone and performance qualities. We have three standard joints here:

  • Set-in or set neck
  • Bolt-on
  • Neck-thru

The bolt-on one is the simplest. It’s literally a neck bolted onto the body. Set-neck construction requires some sort of tightly-fitted joint and glue. And neck-thru is the most advanced one. The neck and the center of the body are pretty much a single piece of wood.

An electric guitar luthier may or may not work with electronics as well. In a lot of cases, they use pre-made pickups and other parts. But sometimes, they will also manufacture pickups. As for potentiometers, guitar builders use pre-made ones. There’s no point in making them on your own.

Quite often, luthiers purchase already finished fretboards and fret wire. Since these parts are super-specific, it would be extremely time-consuming and expensive to do that on your own.

Finally, an electric guitar builder should know how it all works together. The process will also include making the wooden construction work with electronics and hardware. For instance, a luthier should always know how to do proper shielding on a guitar.

Assembling DIY Guitar Kits Isn’t Luthiering

Being a luthier requires extensive knowledge and skill in building an instrument. Sometimes, luthiers will go to great lengths to make some hardware parts on their own.

But what you should also know is that assembling DIY guitar kits doesn’t quite count as luthiering. It can be great practice as you’ll get acquainted with all of the parts.

However, a luthier often knows how to create each part, not just put them together. And they’ll know the purpose of each part.

Are Hand-Made Guitars Better?

After explaining all this, you may be wondering if hand-crafted guitars made by a luthier are better than mass-produced ones?

Well, in most cases, they are. If you make an instrument by hand, or mostly by hand, you can customize everything. You can make the neck and the body feel a particular way. And that’s precisely one of the more important aspects to making an instrument sound great.

Then we also have hand-crafted pickups. Hand-wound custom pickups are praised by most guitar players. Even a nuanced difference compared to mass-produced pickups can completely change the tone and dynamic response of a guitar.

All of this, however, comes at a much higher price. We’re usually talking about a few thousand US dollars minimum.

Luckily for those with smaller budgets, we no longer need to worry much about the quality of most mass-produced guitars. With modern practices, even some cheap low-end guitars can work great. After all, so much of your guitar sound boils down to skills and experience.

Luthiering: Conclusion  

I hope this article has clarified some of what a luthier does!

And if you would like to read more about guitar creation, check out:

Hardtail Vs Tremolo: Which is Better

Lastly, if you have questions about this or another guitar topic, feel free to let me know in the comments below.

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