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Guru say, "Comparing handmade guitar to factory guitar like comparing painting to toaster."

Why buy handmade?

Snippets from Somogyi

 

   Ervin Somogyi is one of the most talented luthiers on the face of the earth.  He has constructed guitars that are beyond imaginable.  The following passages are from an article he wrote examining the differences between handmade and factory guitars.

 

The words of Somogyi:

     "I am often asked what makes hand made guitars different from factory made ones, and whether they're better, and if so, how? These are good questions, but complex ones. Handmade guitars are not manufactured goods in the same sense that factory made guitars are manufactured goods. Each is made differently, for different purposes and different markets, and with different intent, aim and skills. Factories need to make instruments which are good enough to sell to a mass market. Luthiers need to make instruments which are successful tools for musicians. Comparing a handmade guitar to a factory made one is analogous to comparing a painting with a toaster: the one really needs to be judged by different standards than the other. I wish to stress that I do not wish to malign either luthiers or factories, but rather to point out how very different their products are in spite of the fact that they can look almost exactly alike.

     It might be most true to say that handmade guitars differ from factory made guitars primarily in that factory guitars are mass-produced, and handmade guitars are not. While this may sound obvious and self-evident, a number of implications arise out of this basic fact:

 

l) Long term repairability. In the long term, a guitar is likely to need tune-ups, maintenance or repair work, just like a car. Things like bolt-on necks, and the fact that the repairman may have worked on this or that brand of factory guitar before and knows what to expect, can make certain operations easier. But otherwise factory instruments are often made with procedures and processes which, although quick, cheap and easy to do within the manufacturing context, can be difficult to undo or work with in the normal, post-factory setting.

 

2) Personal relationships. If you deal with an individual guitar maker you will establish a personal relationship with someone which may last for years, and which may become an important one. He will almost certainly be available directly to you to consult with or to take care of some difficulty, and he will feel a responsibility to you for any work he has done. With a factory made guitar, you cannot have this personal relationship with the maker. You will have to settle for the best relationship you can have with either the store you purchased the instrument from or the factory's customer support hotline.

 

3) Choices, features and options. Factory guitars are made to strictly unvarying specifications and in large numbers. Each one will be exactly the same in all particulars, and if you want anything a bit bigger or smaller, or in any way different, you will not be able to have it unless you pay extra to have it customized. An individual instrument maker can provide you with an instrument that is tailor-made for you in many ways. As musical styles and playing techniques evolve, instruments with differing scale lengths, actions, neck widths and contours, fret sizes, string spacings, tunings, tonalities, electronics, woods, body shapes and sizes, etc. all become more desirable.

 

 

 

4) Value and price. A handmade guitar will carry a price which reflects its real value in terms of labor and overhead more truly than a factory made one which carries the same price. The former may take 200 hours of someone's conscientiously invested time and skill; the latter may take 8 to 36 hours of intensely repetitive and automated work. A factory will target a price at which it wishes to sell a certain product and will do everything it can to enable its introduction into the market at that level, including using parts made by others and mounting ad campaigns. A luthier will probably want to make something that's as open-endedly good as he can make it, without an overriding imperative from the profit motive. Because factory instruments are made for wholesaling and price markup, and handmade instruments are in general not, there is much more room for discounting within the system of retail store markups than an individual maker can offer.

 

5) Quality. According to a guitar industry spokesman at a recent symposium, quality, from a factory point of view, is the same as replicability of components and efficiency of assembly. That is, the factory man considers quality to be the measure of how efficiently his parts can be identically made and how fast his instruments can be assembled in a consistent and trouble free manner. From the musician's point of view quality has nothing to do with any of this: it has to do with how playable the guitar is and how good it sounds. This also is, normally, the attitude of the individual luthier, for whom efficiency is important but secondary to his concern for creating a personal and effective tool for the musician. The main ideal behind factory guitars is that they be made quickly, strong and salable. The main ideal behind the handmade instrument is quality of sound and playability. A really well made guitar almost plays itself.
If quality for the factory man has to do with efficiency and consistency in making identical things, it cannot be so for hand makers. And for obvious reasons: there are a lot of hand makers working at vastly different levels of skill and creative talent, and they have different concepts of "best". Let us return to the analogy of the painting and the toaster to illustrate this point. A painting is something somebody made which may be good or bad, or beautiful, or repellent, or even personally meaningful. Or perhaps unintelligible. Then, some paintings can be amateurish or indifferent. Some are interesting. Some may be pretty damn good. And some are timeless, significant and really great. A toaster, on the other hand, will do what it was designed and built to do, every time, or one fixes it or discards it. One does not normally think of a toaster as being amateurish, meaningful, expressive, trite, evocative, profound, unintelligible, interesting, or timelessly great. This is not what toasters are all about.

 

6) Craftsmanship. An intelligently run factory is geared to operating smoothly in a standardized, not customized way. Its priorities are automation of procedures and dimensional standardization of parts. A hand maker, on the other hand, is generally flexible and inefficient enough to do customized work in every place where it counts. This methodology is essential due to the innate variability of woods: two identically thicknessed guitar tops can differ by as much as l00% in density, 200% in longitudinal stiffness and 300% in lateral stiffness. Bracewood also varies as much and further compounds the possibilities of mindful wood choice and use. Therefore, while certain components in handmade guitars may be roughed out to approximate dimensions in batches of 4 or 6 or more, the selection of these components, and their final dimensions in the assembled instrument, are done on an individual basis: this top gets those brace-blanks, which are then pared down to that height, which depends on the stiffness of the braced top, its tap tone, and the judgment of the luthier as applied to this particular unique instrument.

     This is, in fact, the essential distinction between handmade and factory craftsmanship. The factory's craftsmanship is based in division and automation of labor: there is someone who is paid to do each step or make each part. He has to do it repeatedly, many times a day, at a level that meets the factory's criteria for acceptability. As often as possible, this specialist is replaced by a machine. The handmaker, in comparison, has to be adept at everything. He must spend years to master all the techniques and skills necessary to produce a high quality guitar, and, until he does so, his guitars will be of less than highest quality in some way. The need to perform every operation to a high standard is not unlike an Olympic athletic performance: make one single mistake and you fall short of the goal. To aim so high is an exceedingly demanding, and noble, effort.

 

7) Playability and action. Since factory instruments are assembled in large quantities, they normally almost all need fine tuning and adjustment before they come into the hands of players. Music stores in the United States often have a person whose job it is to set up all new guitars so that they are most comfortable for the customer. I don't know whether it is the same in other countries, but I'd be surprised if it weren't. Set-ups include setting the strings over the frets at a comfortable height, dealing with buzzes, calibrating intonations at the bridge, adjusting truss rods to the stringing, and whatever else needs to be done. Hand makers, on the other hand, will usually have done these things prior to delivery because, as far as they are concerned, a guitar that isn't as perfect as possible is not ready to be delivered.

 

 

8) Sound. The study of the factors involved in the production of tone teaches the instrument maker that small variations in structure in the right places can make important, specific, differences in response. Because there are so many places where one can take away or add a little wood, and because the difference between "a little more" or "a little less" can be critical to a specific aspect of tone, this study takes years. This is the level of work a hand maker engages in and strives to master. Ultimately, he will be able to make guitars which are consistent in quality and consistently satisfying to his clients. The factory approach, on the other hand, cannot spend so much time on any one guitar: its entire operation is based on treating all guitar assembly processes identically. Therefore all tops of a given model are equal thickness, all braces are equally high, all bodies are equally deep, and so on. Tone in a guitar is controlled by paying attention to specific qualities in the materials. Yet, the factory's focus on treating all parts uniformly bypasses these important factors.

 

9) Durability. Here, again, the concerns a factory and a hand maker bring to their work are markedly different. And for perfectly good reasons. There is nothing wrong with a factory maker's desire to sell guitars to the public. But each member of this anonymous guitar playing public will treat the guitar with different degrees of care, use different strings, play differently, live in different cities or even countries with different climates, temperatures, altitudes and humidities, and will sometimes take their guitars to the beach or on trips into the mountains. These guitars must be able to hold up against these unpredictable conditions. It is the factory's concern that these instruments not come back to plague its warranty department with problems and repairwork. To ensure this, their guitars are substantially overbuilt. Hand makers are concerned with making sensitive, responsive tools for musicians who are fairly certain to treat these with some care. These guitars can therefore deliberately be made more delicate and fragile -- and this makes possible a louder, more responsive instrument. The factory cannot afford to make fragile, maximally responsive instruments: for every increment of fragility a certain predictable number of damages and structural failures can be predicted, and the maker would sink under the weight of warranty work. The hand maker, on the other hand, cannot afford to overbuild his guitars: they would be the same as the factory version but at a higher price, and they would fail to have that extra dimension of responsiveness which makes them attractive to the buyer. He would soon starve.

 

l0) Machine precision vs. the human touch. Machines will do the same operation, over and over again, to the identical level of precision; there are no bad days or sick days, and they don't get fatigued or depressed. Hand work, on the other hand, is forever shaped by fluctuating human factors of energy, attention, concentration and skill. For these reasons, most people believe that machines can produce faster, cleaner, more consistent and more desirable products for the consumer, as well as reducing the tedium inherent in parts production. There is much truth in this.
But also, it is a fallacy. This relationship between tooling and craftsmanship only applies in direct proportion to how the machines and operations are completely free of human intervention -- as is the case with computer controlled cutters, which are getting a lot of press nowadays. But as soon as any real workers enter the picture factories cannot escape from the same limitations of hand work under which hand makers suffer. This is shown by the fact that a factory's own quality control people can tell the difference between the level of workmanship of one shift and that of another, and especially when there are new employees. Anyone who has done factory work of any kind knows that personnel problems are the larger part of production problems. Naturally, no one advertises this.
This brings us to the fundamental difference in the logic which informs these different methods of guitarmaking. The factory way to eliminate human error and fluctuation is to eliminate, or at least limit as much as possible, the human. The handmaker's way to eliminate human error is to increase skill and mindfulness.

 

l2) Are factory guitars any better than hand made ones? By the standards of the factory people, yes. They believe that high-volume assembly of pre-made and subcontracted parts produces superior products. At least one company advertises this explicitly. By the standards of the individual maker, it is possible for factory guitars to be better than individually handmade ones, for all the reasons outlined above. But, in general, factory guitars are "better" only in a limited sense of the word, also for all the reasons outlined above. I wish to emphasize again that handmade and factory guitars are each made with a different intelligence, with different priorities and for different markets. The luthier cannot compete with the factory on the level of price. The factory cannot compete with the luthier on the level of attention to detail, care and exercise of judgment in the work.

13) Are not high-end factory guitars, at least, better? From the view of the musician, no. They are much more extravagantly ornamented and appointed and also produced in limited editions so as to justify the higher price. And they are in general aimed at a quite different market -- the collector. For the average musician, the appeal of collector's guitars is blunted by the high price; and for the serious musician by the fact that their essence, soul and sound are produced under the same factory conditions and with the same concerns as any other product of that factory -- with comparable results: random variation of musical quality. But the collector has different interests. He seeks the appeal of rarity, uniqueness and "collectableness" in an instrument and his principal interests tend to be acquisition, owning and display -- not playing or using.
 

l4) A collaborative aspect. I like to think that an important difference between handmade and non-handmade guitars is the degree to which the process is one of collaboration. Makers want to find musicians who are able to appreciate how good their work is, and who can challenge them to do even better work. This is a fruitful partnership. The factory's needs are overwhelmingly to sell guitars, and usually prefer to form partnerships only with endorsers."

 

-Ervin Somogyi

 

 

     I hope the insight from Somogyi helps you all to better understand  why people choose to buy handmade guitars and why people choose to be luthiers.  We are a breed that will not die no matter how efficient the factories become.  It is an art that will live on until the end of humanity.

 


 

Take Your Time and Do It Right Grasshoppa (Part II)

by The Guru

Sheet Music PDF: Figures 1-5


     This being part two you should check out last newsletter's lesson.  I will assume that you have read it.  I'll be skipping some crucial points so be sure to go back if you missed the first lesson.  Even if you are beyond this in your playing you should read through it.  You might learn something!

 

 

 

     You should be familiar with picking eighth notes at this point.  You can mix up eighth note studies by accenting the second note in the beat instead of the first (Fig. 1).    Accents alone are a key factor in great sounding music.  This can be applied throughout any study I give you.  I will remind you from time to time.

 

     The next task is to be able to play more than just one note with the metronome.  You can use major, pentatonic, and blues scales, chord progressions, riffs you already know, etc.  All of these things can be useful in developing rhythm.  Figures 2 through 5 are some ideas for using the metronome to exercise your technique.  Some of these are harder than others  Remember to maintain alternate picking.  This can be a huge technique boost if  done regularly.  You can almost infinitely increase your speed and accuracy with alternate picking so pay close attention to your picking hand!  None of the figures in the sheet music are actually difficult to play at slow speeds.  However, you can gradually increase the metronome to 200 and really get a good workout and technique improvement.  Certain exercises will be difficult at first and you may have to learn the notes and picking before doing the exercise with the metronome.  Don't get discouraged and work hard.  Remember that you can set the metronome to whatever speed you are comfortable with.  Next lesson I'll show you sixteenth notes and how to incorporate them into your playing. 

 

     Do you have a question about the lesson in this column?  If so, email theguru@guruguitarshop.com

 

     If you would like to contribute a lesson to the column send an email of the lesson to gene@guruguitarshop.com.  It needs to be clean, professional, short and sweet with all necessary diagrams attached.  I'll review everyone's offering and pick the one I want in the column.  If you are picked for the next newsletter you'll receive a set of DR Pure Blues Electric Guitar Strings or DR Rare Acoustic Strings.

 

 

 

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