Building a Guitar

Many decades ago- probably around 1965- I was enthused about guitars and was learning to play a classical guitar. At one point I worked for a guy who was a remarkable amateur player. Ed Karrer and his friend Jerry Pressman taught a beginner class in their homes on Sunday evenings. It was a great class and I learned a lot, but to my disappointment I had more enthusiasm than talent. When the class ended about a year later, I let what I'd learned slip away.

However, and this is might be typical of a lot of engineers, my curiosity about how the guitar was constructed and how they produce their uique sound never diminished. In 1967 there just wasn't much written info about guitar construction that I could find. I found a couple 'coffee table books' (see the pretty pictures?) but nothing of substance that told me how to build on my own. Then in late 1968 I moved aboard a boat and any thought of building a guitar evaporated with the years.

When Celia & I moved to Santa Fe I was sure I'd be able to have a shop and get all my tools out of storage, but what to build? Furniture was the first thing to come to mind. Except we already had a house full of furniture.

Strange how answers present themselves sometimes. About 3 months into the remodel and while the shop was being squeezed onto the back of our tiny lot, we had a burglary. I lost a couple instruments: an inexpensive classical guitar that had suffered terribly in 20+ years of storage (no great loss), plus I lost my grandfather's violin ca. 1906 (a mission priest in Arizona had collected $36 from the congregation to buy a mail order violin to replace my grandfather's which was stolen at a church service; how ironic that this one should go the same way). Celia lost 3 instruments: a mint 1961 Martin classical (Brazilian rosewood), a steel string built in Japan which she called her folk guitar, and her mothers old Kamaka Pineapple with pearl inlay (built about 1927, her mom won it in a talent contest in Honolulu when she was 16; it still had the gut strings on it). Nearly everything was irreplaceable and it was a horrible loss. With that stroke of bad luck I realized what I wanted to do.

Whatever was lacking in the way of info in the late 1960s has been resolved in the ensuing 40+ years. There are any number of books that I would have died for back then which can be had on the used book market for a song (no pun intended). Instruction is available in public schools as well as private instruction with builders. And there are some great videos.

I bought a few of the videos and haunted several builder's web sites. Like the site Kathy Matsushita in San Jose, CA has created. It's a great site with several examples of her work with detailed pics that take you step by step thru the whole process from planning to finishing. A recent build (summer of 2007) is essentially detailed instruction on how to build a classical guitar, piece by piece. Great job Kathy!

Of the videos I bought, one in particular stands out and that's the one made by Frank Finocchio in Easton, PA. About 10 minutes into the first disc I told Celia "I could learn from this guy!"

And I did. I've taken 3 classes from Frank and built steel string, classical and archtop guitars. He's a great teacher and works to a very high standard. Being a student in Frank's shop means you leave with a very high quality guitar that you built yourself - no demo classes here! If you don't like getting your hands dirty with glue or saw dust, better take a pass on this one. But if you do take it, you'll have a detailed knowledge of at least one reliable way to build. For the steel string class we used a few components made by Martin: the CNC carved neck, fret board, bridge and saddle; the rest we built. In later classes we built the neck and bridge from scratch, but the fret board was supplied in all the classes.

The best part of Frank's classes was that no matter the mistake, Frank always worked out a solution that was invisible by the time we were finished (even if you looked inside!). In many ways we learned more by making mistakes than by doing everything exactly right. Along that line and while taking the steel string class, a former student and guitar shop owner I know only as Chris stopped by with a graphic for Frank: WWFD. No it doesn't mean West Waterbury Fire Department. It's the question we needed to ask ourselves when we made a mistake: What Would Frank Do? It would be a great T-shirt!

I'm sure there are several others out there providing similar instruction. This just happens to be something that worked for me and left me with the warm fuzzy feeling I might be able to do this on my own.

What follows are pics that I or others took during each of the classes, plus pictures of guitars that I'm working on here in my own shop. This isn't intended as instruction (I'm nowhere near that level!), but rather as a record for my own benefit of what I've done along the way. Unfortunately, when you're working in the class it's very easy to get involved in what you're doing and forget about your camera. So there are a few image gaps where steps are left to the viewer as an exercise in imagination!