A luthier is someone who builds guitars, i.e. a guitar maker or guitar builder. A lute player is someone who plays lutes.
Classical guitarists are very different from pianists in that they are more likely to know their instrument makers than not. I may be biased because of my duo partnership with a classical guitarist who is curious to try new guitars of luthiers he meets.
The builder of his Hilhorst guitar makes only 6 guitars a year, two at a time. Each time he finishes a pair, he invites Robert Bekkers to visit him in his workshop in Amsterdam. Each time, Robert hopes that he has not built a better guitar than the one he bought in 2005, to be assured that he made a good investment. At the same time, he is honoured that he can try out the newborns before they get sent to their final destinations.
Unlike pianos, guitars take less time to build. They are often the result of one person’s dedication —- handmade in a workshop and not manufactured in a factory. The ownership is clear: the luthier designs and creates his own unique product. He usually has a philosophy and approach to making his guitars. Robert’s Amsterdam-based luthier Jeroen Hilhorst, for instance, builds concert guitars, i.e. for the concert stage. Other luthiers follow the tradition that has passed down from father to son, keeping the shape, size, feel, and sound as close to the original concept of a guitar as possible.
Recently I discovered the Guitar Master Works website of Maui-based luthier John Decker. I had the pleasure of meeting him at a Rotary Club of Maui Thursday luncheon and quickly struck up a conversation about guitar building and book publishing. Dr John A. Decker, Jr was not born a guitar builder but became one after working in different fields. The story of how he decided to build guitars is a fascinating one.
We followed John to his workshop one Wednesday afternoon after an interesting conversation over an enjoyable lunch in Cafe O’Lei in Wailuku. John’s philosophy to building graphite guitars was influenced by the need to have an instrument that could withstand changing and harsh outdoor conditions. [Readers can also take a virtual tour of John’s workshop.]
As a physicist, Dr Decker addressed the challenges of building a guitar that could last in humid, tropical climates. Many characteristics of the guitar are results of compromises: weight vs the thickness of the soundboard, stiffness of the neck, kind of wood used, etc. As an entrepreneur, Decker experimented with different designs and construction. The guitars on display in his office were all different, as Robert found out in the ensuing hour.
Four days after his visit, Robert Bekkers reflects. “These handmade guitars of John Decker I tried recently have a very even sound — no unwanted resonances or dominant strings. Because of the sandwiched soundboard, there’s no bracing. Apparently there’s less impact of the tropical climate on the wood. The inlays are remarkable. Beautiful local woods (like koa) used — and that one which the neck made of hardwood felt as thin as paper. Very comfortable. The cover on the guitar head is something I’ve never seen before — a mermaid-like figure that’s iconic of the Hawaiian islands.”