Monday, November 03, 2008

Vermont Instruments - Guitar Building Course - Introduction

Vermont Instruments Guitar Building Course – Introduction

I had always wanted to build a guitar from scratch, ever since my friend, Steve, did it in Phoenix at the Roberto-Venn School (where we grew up). However, it was never a priority with music school, a family, a job, and life, in general. This past summer I was complaining about something or other to Emily, my wife, trying to figure out what I could do with my upcoming 1 month sabbatical from work, graciously grandfathered in by IBM from my days at Lotus Development Corp. She suggested I go get it out of my system and learn to build one. What a great idea!! And so began my voyage into the somewhat esoteric world of lutherie.

I had been obsessing on guitars for a couple of years now, ever since I read Clapton’s Guitar by Allen St. John (which Emily had gotten me for Christmas, by the way). I started playing guitar in my teens, went to Berklee eventually, and then picked up the acoustic double bass as my preferred instrument. So, I wasn’t playing too much guitar, except at holidays for the family, when I could put everyone to sleep after a Thanksgiving meal. I tend to play folk, jazz, and fingerpicking music on guitar. I love bluegrass, but can’t flatpick too well yet, but I’m trying.

I was never one of those gearhead guitar players, always looking for the perfect sound; a search that never ends, really. I started out on an old beater guitar we had around the house when my older brother was into imitating the Beatles sound (strings 1/2 an inch off the fretboard) and my first purchased guitar was an Epiphone blond (I think it cost me $200 back in ’73 or ’74). I went through an Ovation 12-string and traded that for a no-name 6 string. In 1977, I had finally upgraded to a Martin D-35 that I had been coveting and playing at the Flagstaff Music store in AZ. Although the Martins of this era are not as highly prized as the ones from before (and after) it suited me just fine and plays nicely with a big sound. In 1978, after my interest in jazz was piqued, I purchased a ’58 (or ’57, Gibson’s are notoriously difficult to date) Gibson ES-175D (with the PAF humbucking pickups, for you guitar geeks out there) for $500. I was set for life, I thought - Martin for acoustic playing and a Gibson 175 for jazz – not bad for a poor student.

And I was set. Until I got that well-known guitar disease known as GAS, or guitar acquisition syndrome. It started with that book.

The St. John book, which chronicles how he got Wayne Henderson to build 2 guitars for Clapton, talks about the history of the instrument, its makers, Henderson in particular, but also about Martin guitars and others in some detail. The process was fascinating to me. Here you are taking some pieces of wood and crafting them into an instrument to die for. But I’d never get a Henderson – the waiting list is something like 10 years and that’s if you are lucky and be around to bug him to build it. I “settled” for a Collings OM-2H short scale. Some people buy cars, I like guitars. The next year I just “had to have” a Martin D-18 to round out the collection and found a D-18GE on craigslist that I purchased. In the small world department, I sold one of my upright basses to a guy who plays in the same bluegrass band as the guy I bought the D-18 from!

Which brings me to the next chapter in the saga and the beginning of this journey into lutherie and building my first guitar. After a quick search on Google, I found the perfect match for me – Vermont Instruments, run by George Morris. A 3-week course, in New England, everything built “by hand” and an instrument at the end to show for it. It really was the right thing for me.

Some statements on the web site were very appealing to my own goals:
“We follow the hand-building tradition, not the factory model.”
“…everyone builds a straight-ahead, high-quality guitar with special attention paid to the most important aspects of the instrument: craftsmanship, tonal quality, playability, and strong design.”
“The course is tailored to do two things: produce a very fine instrument and, more importantly, prepare students to continue their own work as soon as possible without having to invest in expensive equipment.”

When I called George in July to find out more, I got even more excited. He talked about how it is the process that we would focus on, not the guitar. I was anxious about all the unknowns – what kind of wood will I use? do I have to have a design ready? do I have to know what I’m going to build? what scale length, how many frets, etc, etc. George said not to worry about any of that stuff. “If you focus on the process, then you’ll build a good guitar.” Truer words were never said.

We were there to learn how to build a guitar, by building one. As the later email said to us before we arrived, “We are not in the business of, or at all interested in, helping anyone build their long wished-for masterpiece. That just slows us all down and gets in the way. We find that attention paid to the process and not to the product always results in good product.” We (the students) often repeated this mantra during the course to each other – “it’s not your masterpiece, it’s your first guitar”.

And I must say, that while no masterpieces were created, each person in the course ended up with a really nice sounding instrument.

Here's me with my guitar, on the last day, after I spent 4 hours doing the inlay work.

The next few posts will discuss each week of the course, so it's in more digestible segments. I took a lot of pictures to document every step, but I realize not everyone wants to know every detail; if you do, you can look through all 600+ of them. As George explains it, the 3 week course roughly follows this outline:
Week 1 - make parts. Top, back, sides, neck.
Week 2 - assemble parts.
Week 3 - finish and setup.


Continue to Week 1



  1. Fantastic stuff! I look forward to you posting a video/mp3 of it's dulcet tones :-)

  2. Cool ! It's something I've also wanted to do.

    What kind of carpentry skills do you need as a prerequisite?


  3. @Dan - well, I had some carpentry skills, but certainly not a lot at this level. We learned by doing, although I practiced on some scraps for some of the routing.

    The most important thing is to be patient and sharpen your tools!


  4. Does the course include installing an adjustable truss rod ? I live in Maine and I am considering attending the course. Thanks for a great job on the week by week description.


  5. Vinny - yes you do put in an adjustable trussrod for the steel string guitars. George has a couple of different types to choose from. The classical or flamenco typically doesn't have one.

  6. my name is carlos i need help for a project in school i want to build a guitar but have no idea how to but the guitar i build i want to donate to my music teacher my number is 802 473 0518