What do you want to become?
MUSICAL INSTRUMENT BUILDER
Alternate Career Titles:
Instrument Craftsman, Custom Instrument Builder, Instrument Builder/Designer, Instrument Maker, Luthier
Career Overview: Designs and builds instruments, either to be sold at their own shop or for a large instrument manufacturer.
Career Salary Range: $15,000 to $65,000+
Become a Musical Instrument Builder/Designer
Musical Instrument Builders design and build instruments within a certain family of instruments. They can work for an instrument manufacturing company or run their own shop. Luthier (or Guitar Maker) Matt Rubendall says, “I’m a Classical Guitar Builder which means I specifically make classical guitars. I also do repairs and restoration. I hand make guitars anywhere from six to ten guitars a year depending on my schedule and what I can get done. I sell some abroad to professional musicians, classical guitar players and jazz musicians — players from professionals to grad students.” Describing the construction of instruments, and in particular his handmade classical guitars, Rubendall says “it’s a matter of woods. There’s a top, a back and a side [to a guitar]. The top is a soft wood: a conifer. The back and sides are generally tropical woods like rosewoods. The necks are made of mahogany, with ebony fretboards. Most materials I buy in bulk — big beams or logs — and I mill it down into specific parts.”
Of the work Musical Instrument Builders must do outside the shop Rubendall says, “That is the hardest part—marketing. In the New York area, I’m the only Classical Guitar Builder in the five boroughs. I know all the Professors so I get a lot of repair work and I bring guitars to symposiums and things and display them that way. [Marketing and making sales] is just through people playing the guitar. I have a Broker here on the East Coast; all he does is sell classical guitars so he will sell and show my guitars. But the basic [way] is just people picking them up and playing them. I put them in stores sometimes but there’s only one or two of those [types of music shops] left in New York.”
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Musical Instrument Builders begin their careers as Apprentices or as Assistants working in a repair/restoration shop or in an instrument workshop. They advance in their careers as their skills improve, which means it can take a long time before an aspiring Musical Instrument Builder is sufficiently qualified to work for a well-known manufacturer or to strike out on his or her own and open a shop. Advancement comes as the Builder’s reputation and clientele grow, therefore allowing him or her to charge more for their work.
Education & Training
“When I first started there were a few places” offering instrument-making instruction, Rubendall says. “I went to a really quick six-week school. It was rooted in a ‘70s model of guitar-making; it was training people to work in the guitar industry, the Martin factory. Now I feel it’s shifted and you can take much longer courses and more in-depth things. There are places all around the country that do this. We didn’t do classical guitars [at this program] so I taught myself. I didn’t apprentice with anyone. For me, it was much better [not to], because you end up making the instrument you’re apprenticing on. For some people, it is good. If you apprentice you get a real idea of how the whole thing works.”
He adds, “It is an industry you need to be fairly competent to work in. You need a background in it somewhat and the schools are important for that. In the guitar world, a lot of manufacturers are not giant; there are a lot of places with shops with two or three people and you can work in a shop and get a massive amount of information.” In this way, aspiring Musical Instrument Builders can learn the basics from a short course in instrument construction and then gain real-world training by either apprenticing, job shadowing, or helping out in a shop.
“It’s a profession where there’s hardly any money in it and people are doing it because they love it, so people will help each other,” he says. “If some kid wants to come in, I will show him every single thing I do. That’s what great about Instrument Makers, I think. A lot of them are really eager to help people and offer advice. I don’t take on Apprentices because I don’t have the time and I can’t pay anything but you’re more than welcome to come to the shop, hang out for a day or two and ask me any question you want. People write to me all the time asking for apprenticeships and no one ever takes me up on it. I think people are looking for a quick fix, the Internet way of ‘I can learn this. There must be a step A-Z [tutorial] but that’s not the case.”
Experience & Skills
It would be natural to assume that Musical Instrument Builders come from a woodshop background, but this isn’t the case. “A lot of us didn’t start off with any woodworking experience at all,” Rubendall says. “I never worked in a shop. I never learned how to build cabinets. I was good at putting things together and taking them apart. It’s the Lego thing, if you’re good at that. There is some woodworking, but it’s more of a model thing.
I hand plane and get away without having any giant industrial equipment. A lot of carpentry shops have huge table saws but I get away without that. Power tools don’t make a lot of sense. It can be done just as quickly by hand” in a small shop.
“It’s funny. A lot of guys come to me and say that Luthiers are all really strange,” Rubendall says of the type of person who works in the instrument building industry. “It’s an obsessive-compulsive personality in some sense. You have to like working by yourself in a woodshop.”
He adds, “I think the draw for people who want to do this is the idea of going off in a cabin and making things, which it never truly is. You have to be a self-starter in some sense. You have to want to do it. You have to get up every day and do it and no one’s telling you what to do, no one’s yelling at you to get things done.”
Working as a Musical Instrument Builder can be a solitary occupation, especially when the Builder works in his or her own shop and isn’t employed by a larger manufacturer. Usually, the Builder will be in charge of their own schedule, which is determined by their own personal preferences, as well as the demand for instruments. Rubendall says, “I get to work musician hours. I get in at 10 am and work until 6 pm. Generally, I work Saturdays, too, but I’m not working like fifteen hour crazy days doing that. I have an attention span for super detailed work for only like seven hours or so and then people come to me and bring me repairs and things.“
Before an aspiring Instrument Builder can get set up in his or her own shop or start crafting instruments for a larger manufacturer, a considerable amount of experience is required. So how does one get a foot in the door to start building this experience? Rubendall says, “No one starts off making instruments. I know a few Guitar Makers in the area who make guitars and are obsessive-compulsive about it and did not do a lot of repair work [first]. I think there’s a stigma to repair work — that people find it lessens their work if they do repairs — which is nonsense. You should learn how to fix things; then you can learn how to make things. After school, I got a job with a local guitar shop in upstate New York and they were great. They had a repair staff upstairs, older guys, so I saw everything: standup basses to concert harps. That was really good to see how things were made–not just the thing you want to make — but everything else and how to fix it. You’ll never know how to make anything perfect. And knowing how to repair something seamlessly is a better skill than trying to make it perfectly from scratch.”
With so much work going into the construction of just one individual instrument, how do Musical Instrument Builders make a living? “Two ways,” Rubendall says, “by making and selling instruments and [by] repairing. That’s why repair [experience] is a good thing. I call it ‘doctor money.’ If you’re good at it, it takes years before you can get to the level where you can do things quickly and accurately and make a couple hundred dollars in a couple hours.”
Apart from repair fees, Musical Instrument Builders are paid when they make sales, which can depend on a lot of different elements. For example, if they partner with a Broker, the Broker will take a percentage of sales profits for their marketing and distribution services. Rubendall says, “there are people with long waitlists for instruments, but those are very few and far between in the modern age. And because of the Internet people can get them out there faster. When I talk to graduate students they’re bringing me guitars from Japan and Germany. It’s a worldwide market.” The Internet appears to be somewhat of a mixed blessing in terms of income; the market is larger, but there’s also now more competition.
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
Musical Instrument Makers may belong to The Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans or The American Musical Instrument Society, which celebrates the history, design, and use of instruments from all different cultures and different time periods. Rubendall says “for guitar, there’s the Guild of American Luthiers and Guitarmaker. But the Guild is one of the big ones. They have a quarterly magazine which is sort of instrument porn—‘Here’s an old violin. How did I fix it?’
I’ve gone through all of them and they’re a really great resource. It’s a Guild only in name. I belong to it. It’s not a Guild like a Middle Ages trade union, but it is a great resource in terms of schooling, seeing the ads. You can ask people questions about stuff.”
- “Find someone [who builds instruments] in your area and say, ‘Can I visit and come look at your shop?’ Just to get a basic idea of what they do, the kind of lifestyle they live, to see what kind of tools they have and talk to them about that.
- When most people make something they will aim for the ultimate, the best thing, but sometimes it’s much easier to just go for something simple. There are a lot of really good books on simple instrument repair and guitar manufacturing places that sell kits. A kit is a great way to work. It’s a great way to put a guitar together if you’re handy enough. Make all those mistakes.
- Don’t be afraid; you’re going to make mistakes for years. I make mistakes every day. So don’t be afraid if your guitar isn’t what you want it to be. I screwed up a lot of stuff when I was younger so now I don’t have to.
- There are some simple weekender or night classes on how to make a guitar, which is probably the more intermediate step. If you want some guidance, go to one of these. A lot of great Guitar Makers have them. Stay for a week or two (or more) and see the whole process from start to finish.
- Marry a lawyer.” (This way someone has a steady income.)
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“I would say don’t go out and buy a lot of tools but go and visit someone [first.] Go and talk to someone. Start really slowly and don’t be afraid if it is not the thing you want to do. To get through the crap you have to get through to do this you have to have this obsessive ‘I don’t know why I want to do this but I want to build guitars’ attitude. Hang out in a shop and slowly build a kit. It’s not something you’re going to do overnight. This isn’t something you can go to school for and come out six years later and you’re a doctor type of thing.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“Trying to go out there and make that perfect guitar on the first try. What’s great about Classical Guitar Builders is they’re the most innovative of all of them [meaning Guitar Makers]. They have the weirdest techniques. They’re building things in all new ways. I think a lot of students see that and want to start at that level, but it’s easier to start at the basic level and from there you can go on. I started making guitars and I wanted to be the most innovative thing right away, but that’s not going to happen.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“How far are you willing to go for an art in terms of money or sacrifice or what else you could be doing? I think people see it as a really cool career, but as you know people tour forever and never pay their bills. It’s a matter of how much you’re willing to put out there for an art form, just for the sake of doing it. That’s for anything — painting or anything — where there’s no guarantee of pay.
If you’re going to be a Guitar Player, damn it, be a Session Guitar Player—that’s the only way you’ll make money. I see a lot of kids who come to me who are great Guitar Players but especially with a classical instrument you have to be better than good. You have to be at 11. Guitar making is less of that, but there’s that kind of thing to it, too.“
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“The one thing I would say is you don’t start making guitars right away. It takes a long time and you do a lot of other things in between. It’s not like I’m a Guitar Maker—bam! If someone really wanted to get started as a Guitar Maker — especially for high school kids — go to a repair shop so you can get an ear and an eye to what they do and eventually they’ll let you do small things. That’s a great way to get started and go from there.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Diligence. You’re never going to be the Stradivarius of anything you’re going to do. You just have to keep doing it every day and as long as you’re doing it the best you can every day, that’s what counts.“