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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Guild of America Luthiers Convention 2014

It was great to be backed! As Tim has said,"The Guild is good. The guild is great. The Guild is good and great!" It was my second trip to the GAL convention. Having made friends during my maiden visit, I was really looking forward to meet them again.

Introduction to GAL
For those who are not familiar with the Guild of America Luthiers, here is a brief. A group of guitar enthusiasts banded together in 1972. They wanted to create higher values for string instrument designing and making as an profession. They wanted the profession to be recognized by the society thus transforming string instruments making from a mere hobby or interest. The work needed to grow it into a profession was by no means minute. It has taken them years to established the trade title Lutherie on a firm place in the world trade skills.

These are their words
 "Started by a group of budding craftsmen in 1972, the Guild of American Luthiers has grown to become a driving force in the current “Golden Age” of lutherie through its constant commitment to a free exchange of information among luthiers of all areas and experience levels. Makers and repairers of guitars of all types, mandolins, violins, lutes, and other stringed instruments have found in the Guild’s publications and meetings a place to share their expertise and developing techniques, and to learn from the experience, successes, and trials of others in the field."

Unlike my last GAL blog posting it will not be a day to day account of my experiences. Instead I will highlight certain topics and share my insights regarding them. For those who wish to know about the convention content, please click this link to view its schedule:

Introduction to CNC for Small and Intermediate Shops
It was day one and the first workshop I have attended. The speakers were Chris Klumper with Sigmund Johannessen. Both are veterans in the field of guitar making.

They presented various means that a CNC machine could be used for guitar manufacturing. The key message was in qualities of speed, consistency and repeatability that CNC machines can deliver. The workshop has attracted a sizable crowd. Most of them were curious about how fast and accurate can such machines go.

The use of Computer Numeric Control (CNC) machines in guitar making is here to stay. For centuries, the string instruments were associated with handicraft work and art form. They were all hand made. To entertain the thoughts of machines replacing our hands, this idea seems intimidating and intrusive to many guitar makers. There was clear concerns in altering inherent values or qualities of guitars hence the traditional ways in making guitars were perceived to be kept like commandments. Tempering with these commandments would tantamount of disrespect.

While CNC technology has gained some traction in guitar making industry, it hasn't cover much grounds because there are many solo guitar builders in the market. More than often, luthiers or guitar builders evolve in solitude. As for myself, being engineering trained, I perceived the CNC machines as a bigger guitar making tool. It is definitely helpful to have on lying around workshop. However the investment was by no means trivial. That was the biggest barrier to get pass I reckon. The tug of war between hand craftsmanship and machine made will always persist. It is hard to predict the winner.

Make Bread at Bread & Butter Repair: Techniques for Efficiency
Being someone who offers guitar repairing services, this workshop was certainly relevant and useful to me. The three presenters were Erick Coleman, Evan Gluck and Eron Harding. Each one was well respected in the guitar repair field. Apart from some witty repair techniques that were useful, the most important messages to me was shared by Erick Coleman.

He mentioned that due to his work, he has developed arthritis in several joints in his body. It was the impairment created by his arthritis that motivated him to become creative in designing his work. Many repair works were highly repetitive and this nature has made guitar repair techs susceptible to arthritis. Erick was impelled to think out of the box to deal with two opposing demands,

1. Cut down on highly repetitive movements because of arthritis
2. Increase productivity by turning to-be-repaired guitars within shorter time

Necessity has became the mother invention for Erick. He went on to share many witty techniques he has created and developed that saved him from deteriorating his arthritis and yet increased productivity in guitar repairs.

The other important message was about resting. He used to drive himself really hard because he wanted to repair more guitars. As like most hardworking American would do, he worked longer hours. However he found himself draining away rapidly.

Due to personal circumstances, he has to take care of his niece and that was like throwing a spanner into his work flow. Without consciously knowing how to deal with it, Erick simply decided to spent more time with his niece by ceasing operations on Wednesday, operating half a day on Saturday and stop meeting customers on Sunday.

With the reduction of operating hours, Erick was amazed that he didn't suffer lost in business revenue instead his takings has increased. He said he has discovered the important of rest because it allowed him to take his mind and body away from work. It has resulted in recovery and rejuvenation because of the planned rest days. Erick said he was never more creative and productive. If I am right, Erick has once repaired 800 guitars in three months. Think about the takings from such number.

Developing Your Sound
Solving the myth of guitars; All guitar makers constantly seek or hope for the holy grail in guitar making with regards to wood selection and top tuning. While design and construction methods can be analyzed and rationalized with reasonable level of clarity, much less was known about woods' responses to sound.

It may sound like paradox but it was true. The more we learn about woods, the less we know about them. In the market, wood sellers tried in every possible way to state claims to the holy grail status about the wood they were selling, that is, their woods build the best sounding guitars. Does that even make any sense? It was as good as saying recruitment companies recruit only the best personnel.

To start with, woods and humans are far from perfect. However, guitar makers didn't stop the search. Bryan Galloup seems to have presented a way to narrow the search of this holy grail.

In the workshop, Bryan illustrated a database he has gathered and morphed into a software. It was designed to provide the natural frequencies of top boards. We are also aware that guitar top boards can be tuned to specific frequencies by adding or removing woods from the braces. Bryan's belief was tuning the top board to coincide with its wood's natural frequency, and that should provide the maximum responsiveness to top boards.

In achieving that, it was implied that the eventual tonal qualities of the would-be-built guitar will be good. The software contained a huge database on various woods. He intended to allow more luthiers to use his software.

Unexpected and spontaneous things are the best things
When everything goes according to plan, we call it plain sailing but that can be boring too. In life, we do look forward to things that were unexpected. No amount of planning can create those moments. In convention like this, many participants study its schedule and decide the most suitable workshops to attend. But more than often, the most best moments were unplanned or spontaneous.

The cool and sunny outdoors in Tacoma was indeed inviting. On the last day of the convention, I brought a Jeffrey Yong acoustic guitar to PLU's courtyard for a spin. Arguable the best moments for me. As I was enjoying the quiet time, the amazing guitar tone of Jeffrey's full mango wood guitar attracted a few individuals. They halted momentarily to listen to my playing. It was all good.

Unexpectedly, Kimo Hussey came along. Like the others, he was lured by the guitar tone. He stopped by and asked if the guitar was a Jeffrey Yong guitar. Jeffrey always encouraged me to sharpen my playing abilities and the acid test to one's abilities in guitar playing was to create beautiful sounding tunes for others to listen to. I summoned my courage and played a tune for Kimo.

At the end of my playing I heard claps and I saw smiles on their faces. They have made my day indeed. The wonderful guitar tone motivated must have pleased Kimo. He seat by me and requested to play the guitar. Surely I have obliged and that turned into an enjoyable jamming session with Jay Hagris.

Making new friends
GAL Convention was not liked many commercially driven events that emphasized on prestige and returns. Many successful luthiers have their roots from the GAL community. Many has a humble beginning. It was very nice to see new builders displaying their instruments in GAL. It was through such cordial settings, aspiring builders get to discussed their ideas and thoughts about making guitars openly. Seated one table away was a young French emerging guitar maker by the name Emile Gervais displayed his guitars for the first time in GAL.

Even knowing him for only a brief moment, I could see that he is very passionate and curious in making guitars. He was not shy to share with me about certain inadequacies in his guitars. He requested me to play his guitars and he asked me for comments about them. For a young maker, I must acknowledge the meticulous effort he has put into making his guitars. The joints, bindings and purflings were neat and aligned. It was well made.

Meeting old friends
A day before the convention Jeffrey and I have made a stop in Portland Oregon to visit some luthiers. Mark Roberts who is a Ukelele and guitar maker arranged a lunch meeting for the luthiers who were around the neighborhood. I meet Mark in the last convention. He is cool guy and he makes great instruments. The lunch meeting was enjoyable and fun. Endless guitar making talks and exchange of ideas.

Our day concluded with a dinner at Marks place, a.k.a. his workshop. It was a great feeling to visit a fellow luthier's workshop and listened to his ideas in laying out his workshop the way it was. I have indeed picked up lots of useful ideas and considerations that will likely help me in setting my own workshop in future.


I think it must be challenging for the Tim and his team to determine themes and topics for the convention. From the dawn of guitars, the core structure and function were established. While a lot of innovation effort was placed on features and appointments in guitars, there weren't big leap with respect to invention. So much literature has been published and countless workshops have been presented. I truly admired their passion and tenacity in their continuous effort.

Coming back to GAL 2014, Tim and his team have done a great job in providing a wide range of topics for cater to the members' learning needs. The presenters were respectable and highly regarded in their respective domains. It was also undeniable that overlaps among topics occurred. Repetition was inevitable as well. Nevertheless the friendships fostered have been the most invaluable gains above any knowledge that can be learned from the convention. In closing, I must say that The Guild is Good and Great!

Thanks for reading and here are more photos of the GAL Convention 2014. Scroll DOWN!


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