In the mid-1960s, many members of the Baby Boomer generation, myself included, began wearing bell-bottom pants, growing our hair long, and fighting the rising tide of conformity to avoid being pigeonholed into jobs that wouldn’t bring us satisfaction and fulfillment. Perhaps one of the most popular tomes for our do-it-yourself cohort was The Whole Earth Catalog, which was published in a few evolving editions between 1968 and 1972. Compiled and edited by Stewart Brand (who also played a role in the computer think tank that inspired Steve Jobs), this impressive phone-book-like publication preceded the internet—in fact it was our internet!
The catalog provided access to the tools and resources needed to do just about anything, from building geodesic domes to motorcycle maintenance. In the middle of the last edition, I landed upon a section on musical instrument making—harpsichords, thumb pianos, mountain dulcimers!—a letter from Gurian Guitars, a Stewart-MacDonald banjo parts catalog for 25 cents, and Irvine Sloane’s book Classic Guitar Construction.
Big deal, you say.
Well, it was a big deal. Prior to this, instrument making was very secretive. Aside from an early book by Arthur Overholtzer, there were scarcely any instructional manuals on the subject. The few luthiers that were around typically didn’t share any information, especially about how to build instruments that would ultimately compete in their limited marketplace.
Many thousands of young bohemian compatriots were seeing the same information in The Whole Earth Catalog, and a generation of young luthiers started trying their hand at guitar making. Soon, Sloane and David Russell Young each added a book on steel-string guitar construction. The Guild of American Luthiers (G.A.L.) and the Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans (A.S.I.A.) championed the notion of sharing technical information about instrument making. Both organizations held biannual conventions and symposiums where luthiers could exhibit their instruments, access wood and tool suppliers, attend lectures, and network with other builders. The friendships and collaborations generated from these heady days have been a significant force in the industry and in the initiation of what many consider to be the current golden age of lutherie.
We reached out to a small cross-section of pioneering luthiers who were part of this vital scene. Among the first, Michael Gurian presided over a band of gypsies that would become first-rate luthiers in their own right, from the classical maker Thomas Humphrey to Michael Millard of Froggy Bottom Guitars. Linda Manzer emerged from apprenticeships with the Canadian guitar maker Jean-Claude Larrivée and the American archtop luthier James D’Aquisto to arrive at her own bold and coveted designs.
Richard Hoover developed a passionate client base through his brand, Santa Cruz Guitar Company, to become one of the leading high-end makers, and Steve Klein borrowed ideas from scientific research in creating radical designs that challenged the notion of what an acoustic guitar could do. While these four luthiers’ instruments are quite dissimilar in terms of design and execution, they all contributed to the evolution of the steel-string guitar as we know it today.
We Thought We Could Change the World
How did it occur to you to make a guitar for the first time?
My scene started in the ’60s, when I would find a broken guitar in the street and try to fix it. Then, when I was teaching guitar out on Long Island, in the first accredited guitar school [the Guitar Workshop] in the United States, I needed another guitar, so I built one.
Eventually I set up my shop in the West Village [of New York City] on Carmine Street. I built classical guitars for many of the major players of the time, and became friends with groups like the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Mothers, and The Band, and then the folky people like Bob Dylan and Richie Havens. They were all my customers. John Sebastian of the Spoonful, who was a neighbor of mine, convinced me to start building steel-string guitars, and that marked the beginning of Gurian Guitars, which existed until 1982.
Talk more about what it was like to make your first guitar at a time when there was a dearth of resources.
Basically, I copied a classical guitar I owned. The builders of the time were not willing to share any information. There was one guy who I became fairly friendly with, Victor Manuel Pineiro, who worked with Manuel Velazquez, and he gave me a couple of pointers, but that was about it. I built that first guitar in a studio apartment out on Long Island near where I was teaching, using bricks, rubber bands, rope, and a lot of sandpaper. For bending the sides, I used a tin can with a Bernzomatic torch.
Did the playing styles of Sebastian, Dylan, and other notable clients inform the design of your guitars?
You always get input from everyone you interact with; if you keep your eyes and ears open, you learn a lot. That’s why I became a really good classical builder for concert players—I watched them play, listened to what they had to say and how they heard things.
But as for the steel-string, the changes in design were my own. I just didn’t want to make another dreadnought. I wanted something that wasn’t too bass-y, and so I came up with the size 3, a very crisp- and clean-sounding midsize guitar. (See Great Acoustics on page 98 of the print/digital edition.) If you struck a chord, you could hear every single note and yet all the notes worked together.
After branching out to making steel-strings in New York, you moved to New Hampshire to start a much larger operation.
Well, we had quite a few employees because we had not only a guitar factory, but a mail-order company. I also had a big sawmill and supplied woods, cutting about 15 million feet a year in lumber and another 15 million feet in veneer. That was not just for the guitar world, but for pianos and harpsichords, canoes and kayaks, pool sticks, you name it. It was indeed a big operation we had, and we were probably the second most advanced factory in the United States, Ovation being the first with its connection to the helicopter company and all that. [Company founder Charles Kaman used technology from his work in helicopter design for the synthetic, rounded backs of Ovation guitars. —Ed.]
And that was decades before CNC machinery was commonplace in guitar factories.
Right, exactly. We built a lot of machinery. We had two machine shops, one for the sawmill, because we built all our own blades for everything there, and the other to maintain the guitar factory. So we built all specialized machines and they worked out really well.
You stepped away from guitar making in the early 1980s. Was that due to economics, or the fire your factory suffered in 1979?
Well, we had that major fire, where I lost a 35,000-square-foot building with everything. Guitar makers get sick when I tell them what was in there. I had accumulated quite a bit of really rare woods. Then, there was the [early 1980s global] recession, not to mention my health. I was on a baseball team and wiped out my right fibula and ankle sliding into third base, and it took me two years to learn how to walk again.
But I did keep my fingers in it, supplying parts for the guitar industry and doing some consulting work and helping set up guitar factories for Lowden, Guild, and Giannini. And I’m still friends with just about everyone in the industry—friendships that go back for about 40 to 45 years. Those were great times in the 1970s, with a lot of wonderful music, and people having their spirits filled right up to the top, thinking that we could change the world and make it a better place.
Legends in the Mist
What was your entree into the world of lutherie?
In high school I wanted to be a folk singer. I was inspired by artists like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. In 1969, after seeing Joni Mitchell perform on a dulcimer at the Mariposa Folk Festival, I went to the Toronto Folklore Centre to buy one, but it was too expensive for me. Luckily a fellow at the store convinced me to buy a kit and assemble it myself. I was sure I couldn’t assemble it and he was sure I could. Thank you, Paul Hornbeck—you changed my life.
I graduated high school and went to two different art colleges, but in the back of my mind there was this hunger to continue making musical instruments, and I began to look for a teacher. Someone told me about Jean-Claude Larrivée operating out of Toronto, my hometown, and I basically bugged him until he hired me.
I started with Larrivée in 1974. Obviously there was no internet back then and only one book on guitar making that I knew of, by David Russell Young, which was wonderful but light on details. Realistically the only way to really learn was to apprentice with somebody. And there were no supply houses with guitar makers’ tools and jigs; you had to make them and invent them yourself. Same with the woods—I remember resawing huge logs of ebony for fingerboards and mahogany for necks. It was a bit Wild West.
What was it like to work at the Larrivée shop?
It was a traditional apprenticeship; I began by sweeping the floors and going for coffee and worked my way up to a senior apprenticeship, where I was bracing tops and backs and assembling six guitar bodies a week. It was old-school and intense—and incredibly fun. I learned by watching and doing. I figure we made about 1,500 instruments while I was there. For three-and-a-half years, the handful of apprentices would have these wonderful discussions about every aspect of guitar building during our coffee breaks and over lunch. I am still really close friends with those original apprentices.
How was information shared between builders in those days?
You would hear through the grapevine that there were other builders out there, but they were kind of legends in the mist. I learned there was a guy called Gurian somewhere in New England and some guy with a tiny shop in San Diego called Bob Taylor, whom Larrivée eventually became good friends with. And of course Martin was the gold standard.
Larrivée was certainly influenced by Martin’s tooling and assembly methods, but he relied heavily on his European classical guitar background when designing his own instruments. And as he was the grandfather of Canadian guitar building, all of his apprentices inherited that European design sense from him. At that time, you could definitely see a distinct difference between Canadian and U.S. building styles, which were mostly based on Gibson and Martin designs.
You also studied with James D’Aquisto, a decidedly different apprenticeship.
Yes, it was a different situation. Jimmy would build a few guitars at a time, mostly for individual players. He had a really intuitive approach to each instrument. You got the sense he was bringing something to life; anyone who knew Jimmy was definitely aware of the passion attached to his instruments. Besides showing me the technical skills involved in making an archtop, the most important thing Jimmy taught me was to trust my instincts. I was incredibly lucky to have two such brilliant and different teachers. Both gave me a great foundation and skill set to find my own path in lutherie.
A Beautiful Bit of Serendipity
Growing up in an agricultural California, how did you get into guitar making?
My childhood was in a different era—I must have been about 13 when The Beatles played on The Ed Sullivan Show—and most of my friends made something: They fixed their bikes or made go-karts; there was woodshop all the way from junior high. I also had a huge advantage because my father had a home shop. He was a commercial artist, and I helped him set up local window displays. So, from an early age I was familiar with woodworking and had the fundamentals down. It never crossed my mind that building a guitar was something I couldn’t do.
Playing guitar was a rite of passage for most of us—your entree into high levels of social acceptance. The first guitar I bought with my own money was a Harmony H150, and I took it apart, thinking that I could discover things about how it was made and then put it back together. My mom was the search engine of her day—a reference librarian—and she got me every available book on instrument building, but it was all violin stuff.
Later, when I moved to Santa Cruz in 1972, my Martin D-28 got stolen, and that put me on the odyssey to finance the Epiphone Texan I found to replace it. It turns out that a loan officer I visited, Bruce McGuire, was a classical-guitar maker who studied under Arthur Overholtzer. So I had my first formal training under him, and he introduced me to Jim Patterson, who wrote the bible on pearl inlays and who was also in Santa Cruz. Both were really gracious and helpful in my development as a guitar maker.
After you started the Santa Cruz Guitar Company, in 1976, how did you seek out clients?
You made a guitar and you tried to attract attention; you wrote letters, you made phone calls. One of the early people who believed in us was Dean Kamei of Guitar Solo [an instrument shop and music publisher] in San Francisco. We drove up, showed him a guitar, and he literally bought it out of our hands.
But we might as well have been on Mars. There was not really a network yet to get the word out, but we finally were able to scratch enough dough together to run an ad in Frets magazine. Our little black-and-white ad was probably only about four postage stamps big, and it really hurt our wallet. But it was a way to let the world know, and that was really huge. It’s what attracted the attention of Eric Clapton, who sent us a handwritten letter—a beautiful bit of serendipity.
Also, one summer I worked with [violinist] Darol Anger making mandolins, and Darol went off to try out for some obscure band in Mill Valley that was run by [mandolinist] David Grisman. Darol brought his band mate Tony Rice down to visit Santa Cruz—at the time I think we’d only made four guitars. So we had Eric Clapton on one hand and Tony Rice on the other to brag about, and that was credibility—all of a sudden our guitars became hip and inside. The value of celebrity association was huge.
Concurrently with that, we began making guitars for the Windham Hill crowd, guitarists like Michael Hedges and Daniel Hecht, and also Robbie Basho. They were all playing this really sophisticated stuff on dreadnoughts, and it wasn’t working on those bass-heavy instruments. The introduction to those people was also beautiful because from that came our fingerstyle model—and being taken really seriously as steel-string artisans rather than just a brand of steel-string.
It sounds like such a different scene than these days, when everything is so connected.
You could develop a network back then, but it was slow-moving. The beauty of that time was that everybody was learning, everybody was in the dark, and we needed each other desperately. The people that were independent, that had their secrets and so forth, you probably never heard of, as they didn’t survive. It’s those of us who shared with each other and developed the modern body of knowledge for the steel-string guitar that did thrive, because we buoyed and supported each other through it all.
Crashing Concerts to Peddle Guitars
What are the origins of your life in lutherie?
I’d been playing folk music and had a cheap Framus acoustic guitar. And then my next-door neighbor came home with a drum set and I wanted to get an electric. And I thought, “Well, maybe I can build one, because I don’t have enough money for both an amp and a guitar.” So, that’s pretty much when it all started, back in high school. And then very early on, through my grandfather, I met Michael Kasha [the physical chemist and molecular spectroscopist who also had a role in guitar design] and the whole acoustic interest reared its head.
How did you start building acoustic guitars?
It was interesting, because there were so few resources. I bought my first tools and some wood from Europe. My dad was born in Austria, so I knew of the violin world and just ordered supplies from European catalogs. Where I grew up, in the San Francisco Bay Area, there were a few builder/repair kinds of people, and I pestered them to death and tried to learn as much as I could piecemeal.
After a friend of a friend had a nice Martin dreadnought that got dropped on the kitchen floor, he handed it to me in pieces and said, “Do whatever you want to it.” So I took off the back and bridge, redid the bracing, and put the whole thing back together with a Kasha-style bridge. We thought it sounded really great. I wish I knew where that guitar was now.
Talk more about how you met Kasha, and the role he played in your early career.
My grandfather Joel Hildebrand was a pioneering chemist who had the chemistry building on the UC Berkeley campus named after him. Michael was a visiting professor at the time, and I met him at a garden party in my grandfather’s backyard. He and his son had just started the Suzuki method to learn to play guitar together, and his curiosity got the better of him. He stuck a mirror inside a [cheap student] guitar and said, “It shouldn’t be like this at all.”
Michael had some really cool ideas that I tried to adapt, but I was kind of stumbling along on my own, until I met Richard Schneider, a wonderfully insane classical builder that Michael had worked with in Detroit. Richard was a good enough builder to pull off Michael’s theories, none of which do any good until you can build a decent guitar. Richard and I collaborated somewhat apart and met each other once a year or so at different shows. So that connection was really important.
What was it like to realize the Kasha designs on steel-string guitars?
I had to overcome structural-tension stuff that the classical people didn’t have to worry about nearly as much, and thus came up with what I call the flying brace, which I still use today in a refined form. I also started to use carbon fiber, to keep the structure light and rigid. It wasn’t until then that I felt I had gotten to a point with my designs where I could build a really stable instrument. As a side note, now we can get carbon fiber from aerospace companies that make these nice sheets, but back then, David Russell Young was actually cooking carbon sheets on an old stove that we had in my garage.
How did you establish yourself as a luthier?
I always knew I wasn’t going to be very prolific, so the idea of building a Martin copy or whatever just made no sense to me. I wanted to stand out visually as well, and the Kasha ideas lent themselves to that. At a certain point, I decided to take some guitars to someone whose feedback wouldn’t be influenced by what the instruments looked like. So I went to Doc Watson [who was blind] with three jumbo acoustics. He set one in his lap, ran his hands over it, and said, “This is the strangest guitar I’ve ever seen!” Doc gravitated toward one of the guitars in particular, which had walnut back and sides and a flamed redwood top, with probably about seven grain lines per inch. No one in their right mind would have built with that wood, as it was much more like a speaker cone than a guitar top. Doc Watson was blown away when I told him what the materials were, and that kind of opened a door.
How did you find other clients?
I used to crash concerts, which was much easier to do back then. I would get there early and kind of weasel my way in, offering to set up the stage and this and that. In the spring and summer of ’74, I spent almost every weekend at the Greek Theater [on the UC Berkeley campus], and that actually did get me my first sale with Dan Peek of the group America.
I also used to go down to L.A. and just go wherever I could get in to show my guitars. That’s how in 1977 I got to make Joni Mitchell an acoustic, specifically to support her low open tunings. On one visit I encountered a dulcimer maker, Joellen Lapidus, who had built an instrument for Joni. I asked if she could put us in touch, but she didn’t have Joni’s number. But she did know [singer-songwriter] J.D. Souther [who was in Mitchell’s circle], so she called him, and we arranged for me to show him my guitars at the office on Sunset Boulevard the following day. He looked up at me and said, “Has Joni seen these yet?” I said no, and he said, “Look, she’s just down the block. Let me give her a call.”
So about 15 minutes later she’s there . . . all this amazing synchronicity just could not happen today. She then invited me into the studio for the album that she was working on, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, at the A&M studios the following night; we played my guitars up against her Martin. And that’s when she said, “I want one.”
Artifact of an Era
Steve James restores his early-1970s guitar
In 1970, as an employee of Gurian Guitars in New York, Steve James began work on his first guitar, a nylon-string. He continued the project in the apartment he shared at the time with the luthier Thomas Humphrey, but set it aside to work on other projects. “I finally finished the guitar after leaving New York, in a house in the woods outside of Poughkeepsie,” says James, a renowned blues and roots guitarist and AG contributor.
James recalls Gurian insisting that every component, including the fretboard and the marquetry soundhole rosette, be made by hand. No forms or molds were involved in the guitar’s construction; rather it was built straight off a board, in the traditional Spanish manner. “I used a side-bending device cobbled out of a heating element and a piece of pipe,” James says. “That and a lightbulb were the only things plugged in. Tools sharp enough to shave with were the rule at Gurian.”
James gifted the completed guitar to his sister, also a musician, and would periodically check in on it. After having spent some time neglected in storage, the instrument developed cracks. James has not built an instrument in decades, but he often repairs instruments, so he recently fixed the cracks on his old guitar, and while he was at it did a refret and some finish touchup. He reports that the instrument sounds bright and loud, with good intonation and action. “It makes me feel like building another one, which Michael [Gurian] said is a sure sign that I’m losing my mind,” James says, laughing. —Adam Perlmutter
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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