On Becoming a Luthier

April 18, 2017

A friend of mine asked me to give some advice about attending a luthierie school. This is my email to him. I am posting this because it may be helpful to those out there thinking about becoming a luthier...

First, let me begin by asking that after you read this you could post it on the forum for others to read. I like helping others who are interested in my field and really hate the misconceptions about both the educations & professions alike. Having said that, please read on. 

One of the earliest things anyone venturing into the guitar service/provision field should consider is which end of the spectrum is one going to focus their efforts: building or repairing. Although I am a living testament to the education that AGW has to offer, I am a rarity in that I can comfortably repair upwards of 40 instruments daily and build custom pieces in my own time from scratch. In order to explain how AGW (or any other luthierie/repair school) functions, I will need to touch into my own story regarding my time in Atlanta and my time as a professional luthier to this day.

My grandfather was a small-scale woodworker, my father was auto mechanic, and I was (ok, still am) a student of the fine arts (painting, drawing, sculpture, photos). After graduation from college, I ended up discovering that the art field was not for me, so I stuck it out at my job working as HR manager/head technician/IT specialist at the pharmacy that employed me since beginning my college career. My band was going no-where fast. I found myself staring at pictures of guitars and dreaming about what my signature model would look like instead of reading the articles in the magazines about how to build my skills as a guitar player.

My job, although stable, didn’t satisfy me. I had looked into returning to school for my MFA, but I could not leave my job without some type of pay from some type of job. I figured that if I learned to work with something else that I loved (ie: guitars) that money would flow in equally proportionate to my passion. This is rarely ever the case, but I was young (25!) and I wanted to give it a shot.

So, it was one fateful evening when I called my mother and told her that I was planning on heading down to Georgia for 6 weeks and learning how to build guitars. I severed ties with my band. I took a leave of absence from work. I packed up my 2 guitars and headed down to Atlanta Guitar Works. I really didn’t know what to expect from the school or my time there.

What I quickly learned at Atlanta Guitar Works was that personal drive and ambition mean everything in the musical instrument field. If you want to do something bad enough, having the ability & resources to learn to do so will help you figure out how to do it. Read that line again. It’s the student that matters most. AGW’s staff helps foster a Socratic learning method among their students. I had the hefty ambition to build 4 complete guitar from scratch while there in 6 weeks – and I never used a power tool larger than a small dremel or an electric handheld drill before then! I accomplished my goals, and I graduated “Best In Class” for my efforts & final products. 

To put a cap on this delve into my past, I ended up coming home, eventually quitting my job at the pharmacy to work for a repair contracting company in New Jersey that was able to place me in the middle of a busy Guitar Center where my reputation quickly grew. I am now one of the top technicians in our company, and I am pleased with where I am today. I know that eventually I will move into a larger scale guitar production stage, but until then fixing others’ instruments pays the bills and keeps me in touch with the world of properly functioning guitars. 

Now I know that was a bit of a long story, but I think really knowing my situation before this explanation will help in dismissing any misconceptions about AGW. It’s similar to asking 2 or more highscool students how they like their algebra II class. One may say, “This sucks. I can’t understand anything, and the teacher isn’t really helping”, while another may say, “Ms. Such’n’Such is such a great teacher! This class is great and I really love algebra! I want to be an accountant and I need to get these good grades for college acceptance & this school is my life!”. Obviously, the second student is a bit over-enthusiastic about math, but she/he knows what they need to accomplish their future goals. 

When I was attending my session at AGW, I was amongst a class of relatively young students. We had their youngest student to date (16) in my class, as well as an 18yr old, 21yr old, myself (25), and a 27yr old. The younger guys used AGW as a vacation-esque adventure. It was a little distracting. We took a summer-session that started at the end of May and stretched into the beginning of July. There were times when I stayed at the shop until 3am only to return the next morning at 9am to continue sanding the neck of my 3rd guitar, while the others put in their school day and left as soon as they could to go home to the lodge and watch TV. So to reference the high-school student scenerio from earlier, I was the gung-ho algebra student who stayed after school to do what I needed & succeed while some of the other couch-potatoes were the less-than-enthusiastic clock watchers.

I did my homework while I was there. I kept a journal of my guitar progress since I knew I wanted to change my direction in life to reflect my new-found ability to build guitars. I had to make this work. In my mind there was no other option. I wanted to graduate and open my own facility building guitars day in and day out. Obviously I’m not doing that quite yet today (4 years later) but I will get there. 

Notice that I’ve been focusing on my experience learning how to build guitars at AGW and not the repair aspects. While there, the head instructors (Tim, Brian & Gary at the time) stuck to a loose structure of 50/50 building/repair days. Sometimes we’d start with building from morning to afternoon, then after a lunch break we’d move into the repairs and learning the basics needed for that realm. Everything that we were showed was able to be directly applied to our building expertise. Wiring, intonation, fret leveling, bone nuts & saddles, even neck resets were demonstrated and (when applicable) practiced on our own instruments or some instruments laying around at the shop. 

Let me tell one small side story about this. Of the 2 instruments that I brought with me to AGW, I had my trusty Paul Reed Smith Swamp Ash Special. This was my baby. I loved it to death. While learning that art of the guitar setup, I had the option of using my own guitar as a learning tool. I figured, “Why not – it’ll play better, right?”. So after struggling through my first bone nut and finishing a proper setup, one of the teachers came up to me and asked if I wanted to continue using my PRS for the remainder of the lesson which involved a complete refret. I thought to myself, “Why not – it’ll play better, right?”. Now, if I were of a different mindset, the guitar would have sat in a trash bin to this day. I knew I had to make this thing play perfectly. It was a PRS. It didn’t need a refret, but I was doing it. It didn’t need a bone nut, but I carved one (ok, 4 since the first 3 were horrible) for it. I had to make this guitar play well again. Besides, it was worth too much for me to let it die on the table. 

I was successful, although during the process I doubted my abilities as a repairman. I couldn’t imagine doing refrets on others’ guitars. Although it was a painful lesson (yes, I shed a few tears while working on this guitar), I can now confidently say that I’ve fretted & refretted many instruments since then including a 1960’s Gibson ES-335 Block neck. It was my drive that got me through it then, and it is my drive that gets me through it today. 

The learning experience begins with the student and essentially ends with the student. I have been a full-time luthier for 4 years and I am still learning new things on a steady basis. Some things don’t change. Setups are still standard regarding basic measurements and rules about string height, buzzing, etc. A guitar is still (for the most part) wood & steel accompanied with the occasional electro-magnetic signal. AGW was more than helpful in explaining these things to me and fostering a “figure it out” attitude that will really get you through your guitar building/repairing task on hand. 

When I was building my 4 guitars at one time, I quickly learned that if I screwed up on one I would have 3 more problems looming in the near future. So I had to think on my feet. I had issues with bridges not fitting, neck pockets not being designed well enough, and issues with other small design flaws on my end. But with their help I was able to come up with perfectly valid and intelligent solutions to my issues, and with their guidance I was able to make 4 completely amazing guitars. Tim, Brian & Gary were able to demonstrate that they not only knew what they were doing as luthiers but also as instructors. A teacher can only lead a student so far before the student will need to be tested. I was tested in my practice of building. I was forced to think on my feet. If I got stumped, they were there to help me though. They didn’t just say, “Give it here and let me do it.” It was more of a, “Why isn’t it working? Did you try this? Well then, what do you want to do to make it work?”. Again, they were & are still there when you need them. 

I truly value my time in AGW. I would have joined their staff if my wife & I could have figured things out to relocate. But, today I’m happy where I am. I made the right decision going to their school, and I know my customers appreciate my successful education as well. 

I hope this bit of insight helps. Please pass it on to others looking into AGW or becoming luthiers. 

Michael Virok
Luthier & proud graduate of Atlanta Guitar Works ‘07

 

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