Over the years, I have had the privilege of meeting extraordinary artists, musicians, composers, and artisans inadvertently while surfing Facebook and Instagram. So far, it has totally justified the ridiculous amount of time I spend on social media.
In the case of my chance meeting of classical guitar craftsman Greg Brandt, it was his clever retort to one of my random Facebook posts that caught my eye. I had to find out who was this person.
Upon further investigation, I was astonished to learn that Greg is the brother of my longtime former calligraphy student, Anita Brandt Burgoyne whose lovely daughter, Dr. Marni Burgoyne was a longtime art student of mine. Marnie is now a veterinarian at Ohana Pet Hospital in Ventura and continues to illustrate animals professionally. (Proud art teacher bragging rights.) My piano students know of Anita as the fantastic chocolatier who crafts the delicious gourmet chocolate musical notes for their piano recitals. This family is bursting with talent!
It didn’t surprise me to learn that Anita would have a brother who designs and builds guitars by hand. His guitars have been played by many highly respected musicians, in many genres, including classical, jazz and contemporary. They have been played on numerous recordings and on many motion picture soundtracks including “Goodfellas,” “The Straight Story,” “Blade Runner,” “Field of Dreams,” “Godfather 3,” “Seabiscuit,” “The Mexican,” “Cars,” “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” “Ratatouille,” “Tangled” and “Toy Story 3.”
But talk about a small world!!
Since the school’s blog editorial guidelines have recently expanded to cover a larger realm of the arts and music scenes beyond drawing, painting, and piano lessons (which for new readers is what my school’s curriculum provides), interviewing artisans of musical instruments was a perfect fit and a great way to kick off the new blog agenda. Thankfully Greg Brandt graciously accepted my invitation. I hope you enjoy acquainting yourself with this dedicated and likable craftsman of my second favorite instrument.
Word of the day: Luthier
A Luthier (pronounced lü-chə in French, or lü-tē-ər in English) is one who makes stringed musical instruments such as violins or guitars. Greg shared with me humorous anecdotes of miscommunications from mispronunciations, explaining why he preferes to refer to himself unambiguously as a Guitar Maker.
Q1. There are many different types of guitars for a variety of musical styles. What style of guitars do you build? What is the story behind what inspired you to go with that style?
A1. I build nylon string guitars. Most people would call them classical guitars…but, because I build for jazz and studio musicians as well as classical players, I just say that I build nylon string guitars.
I always played a steel-string acoustic or an electric guitar. The first guitar I made was a steel string. When I served my formal apprenticeship…my teacher (who built everything but was considered a nylon string guitar maker) insisted I build both a steel string and a nylon string guitar with him. It was the first nylon string guitar I ever held.
After my apprenticeship, I built both for a few years. Eventually, I decided to do one thing and do it great and chose nylon strings because they were more dependent on one set of hands and less successfully done in a factory setting.
Q2. Nice! Who are or have been your clientele? How did they find you? Who was your first client?
A2. My first client? That was me! I had found a book on how to make a guitar, I had my days free (I worked a night shift in a restaurant kitchen) and thought I’d try and make a guitar for myself. Short of making a dulcimer for a girlfriend, I had no woodworking experience. I have no memory of thinking “how is this going to happen?” It took over 2 years but in the middle of the project, I felt “familiar” with the work.
Back in the day, there weren’t as many guitar makers as there are now. My dad was a film editor and got me onto scoring stages when there were guitar players and I’d swallow hard and go to show them my work. Most were (barely) polite and brief. One bought my 5th guitar from me and the ball slowly started rolling.
Q3. It was meant to be! My students are interested in the latest tools of the trade. May I please inquire about your preference for types of wood? What are your power tools of choice? What types of hand tools work best for you? What finish do you use on your guitars?
A3. As to wood, I generally stick with historically traditional and proven woods: rosewoods for the sides and back; spruce and cedar for the tops; mahogany for the neck and ebony for the fingerboard. To a large degree, these are the woods that guitar players expect to see and they are used because they work! But it’s never so straight forward.
Rosewoods are tropical hardwoods and are now protected by international treaties to differing degrees making them more complicated (if not impossible) to ship internationally, making them much more expensive to buy and carry a different degree of ecological “guilt.” Lots of makers look for different woods to use….especially in steel-string guitars. Nylon string makers try to use the traditional woods as much as possible.
All guitar making shops are different. Some builders might build jigs for everything and use computer-aided milling machines to make parts, while others might prefer the most basic of tools: a few chisels, a couple of hand planes and saws, some rope, a knife, and some wedges. I’m somewhere in the middle.
My power tools are very basic: a small bandsaw, a radial arm saw, a couple of stationary sanders, a benchtop drill press, 4 or 5 dedicated routers, and a jigsaw. If I had more space, I might get a couple more power tools.
My hand tools are also very basic: a good set of chisels that I’ve had for 35 years, some good rulers and measuring calipers, a few basic small saws, some hand planes (which I love and have way more than I need) and lots of pencils.
I do build molds that I make my bodies in, have some specialized work boards and jigs that serve a dedicated purpose and two nice workbenches.
All my guitars are finished with sprayed lacquer done by a person who does only that: sprays lacquer on guitars for guitar makers. This finish is perfect for my instruments and my clientele.
Q4. I loved seeing all of these in person at your workshop. At what age did you realize you were an artisan/craftsman spirit?
A4. Like I mentioned, my dad was (and sister is) a film editor. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I saw my dad working with his hands and, in a way, making things. I learned to build plastic car and plane models as a kid. When I got older I made balsa wood and tissue paper planes. As a teenager, I was comfortable running a restaurant kitchen and cooking. I don’t remember feeling “crafty” in any way but I’m sure that seeds were being planted. When serendipity struck (finding the book on guitar making, getting a job in a great retail woodworking tool store, meeting my teacher at said store, etc. etc.), I was ripe and ready! I was 22 years old when I served my apprenticeship and had already been building for two and a half years.
Q5. Very cool. Did anyone try to talk you out of fulfilling your dream as a guitar maker? If so, how did you handle it?
A5. In broad strokes….no! I’m sure my parents were fairly confused for a while and there were times that I came to them for help which shook my confidence in myself. I went from being a long-haired, rock and roll loving, “turn that noise down” teenager to a long-haired kid that wanted to build classical guitars. I’m sure that was confusing!!
Being a craftsperson is a constant challenge. A constant challenge in getting materials, time management, learning the business side and on and on. But mostly it’s a challenge in self-confidence, in having an opinion/vision – working it – and accepting that you will not please everyone…and knowing that if you don’t please yourself -there’s a good chance you probably won’t please anyone.
Q6. Indeed! Good advice to my students and younger readers. Do you play the guitar as well as build them? If so, what styles of music or composers do you enjoy playing?
A6. I certainly used to play the guitar! Hearing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan was a pivot point in my 7 year old life…and every garden rake and tennis racket became a guitar! A few years later there was a guitar in the house (I don’t remember my asking for one but must have), getting a Beatles songbook and a chord chart and teaching myself how play a bit. Eventually there were lessons, electric guitars and high school garage bands, but I was never all that great. I loved all guitar based rock & roll, the singer /songwriters and folk rock bands but I also sang in choirs (which I still do) and there was jazz in the house…so I had pretty “big ears” being exposed to a lot of different styles. Once I started to build guitars for a living… playing mostly fell by the wayside. I work a lot and, once locking up the shop, I’m not inclined to come into the house and pick up a guitar. Of the few downsides of building…this is a significant one for me.
Q7. How do you promote your guitar building business?
A7. I have a web site and a business page on Facebook. I don’t keep my web site up to date enough and the computer is often like a second job. I run ads in appropriate magazines. I go to guitar festivals that have vendor exhibits as often as is reasonable. I do a fair amount of repair work. That gets people in the shop who would be more likely to come into a repair shop than a maker’s shop. Sometimes, it plants a seed and ends up with a purchase or an order…often out of the blue! After doing this work for such a long time, people seem to know about me!
Q8. The beauty of Craftsmanship can touch people’s lives, bringing happiness and hope. For example, my art school partners with CoachArt.org to provide free art classes for families impacted by childhood chronic illness. Is there a charity you are fond of or support, that you might like my readers to learn more about?
A8. As far as charities proper…I am interested in supporting political causes I believe in and groups that protect animals. And, while I will teach how to build for a fee, everyone who might have questions about the craft or needs assistance in being pointed in a direction, leaves the shop with more information then they came in with. I get lots of phone calls and emails about people wanting to learn the craft and all get answered and, if local, often end up with visit or three to the shop. There’s an organization that I’ve been a member of since it’s beginning in the late 70’s called The Guild of American Luthiers (www.luth.org) that is an open information sharing group that is now worldwide. Another is the Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans (www.asiartisans.org). These are very open groups filled with longtime professionals as well as beginners and have a wealth of information.
In closing, do you have a favorite quote, mantra or process that you find inspiring or helpful when faced with a creative block, that you would like to share with our readers?
There are so many for so many facets!
*I try to remember my responsibility to the wood with an old harpsichord inscription:
“In life I stood silent – in death I sweetly sing”
*In relating to the challenge of craft as a livelihood:
“Do what you love – the money will follow”
*In looking for encouragement (and I still do) there is a famous quote by Kurt Vonnegut that resonates:
“The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.”
*And there is one that is fairly new to me that speaks to the boundless directions one can travel in craft and imagination:
“Once upon a time there was…‘A king!’ my little readers will say right away. No, children, you are wrong. Once upon a time there was a piece of wood.” ~ Carlo Collodi, The Adventures of Pinocchio (1833)
Last but not least…this says it all.
Wow! Greg, thank you so much for these gems. They gave me goosebumps. I hope my readers and students will take these words to heart and thereby be inspired. Thank you for your gracious time and fabulous interview!
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