Local guitar builders share passion for handmade music

(This story appeared in the Chicago Tribune Sunday, November 22, 2015)

Bruce Roper

Bruce Roper leaned over the dusty workbench and carefully placed two slender, hand-hewn lengths of spruce into the shape of an “X” on the flat, unfinished cutout of a guitar top.

“You can buy these pre-made and pre-measured,” he said with a furrowed brow and a slight head-shake, the words held at arm’s length.

He let that unpleasant thought trail off. Tom Kennedy stood nearby, the newest student of the Chicago Luthiers Workshop — which is basically Roper.

A lifelong music lover and self-proclaimed hack of a guitar player, Kennedy recently took an early retirement from his job in pharmaceutical sales. He could easily have bought himself a nice new instrument.

“Why, though?” he said. “I’ve reached the point in my life where, instead of just buying stuff, I’d like to spend my time accumulating experiences.”

That’s a service Chicago-area guitar-makers like Roper can provide. Ian Schneller, the owner of the Chicago School of Guitar Making in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, said he’s taught about 1,000 would-be luthiers and musical tinkerers (he also offers classes in tube-amplifier building) since he opened for business 10 years ago, and he credits the still-growing maker movement, a subculture of people dedicated to either buying or making handcrafted things, for bringing students in the door.

He cited a general decline in the quality of manufactured goods and a growing disconnect between people and the objects they own: “We’ve turned a corner in the last decade, in terms of people wanting to work with their hands and actually make things. … People used to change their own oil in their cars. Now some motors don’t even have dipsticks. We’re told to not even look under the hood.”

Roper pointed toward the busy commercial strip a few blocks from his workshop.

“There’s dozens of places on Lincoln Avenue where you can get your fingernails done,” he said. “This is someplace where you can get your fingernails dirty. People are looking for that.”

The number of certified luthier schools in the United States has held steady for the past 10 years, according to Tim Olsen, president of the Guild of American Luthiers. But the increasing array of online educational offerings suggests the desire to learn the skill is growing, Olsen said.

Serious, musically inclined do-it-yourself types can take solace. There are real places out there, like Roper’s garage studio in Lakeview, where you can learn to be a luthier from a luthier.

Kennedy drives into the Lakeview neighborhood from Burr Ridge a few times a week for half-day chunks, working under the watchful eye and instructive temperament of Roper.

There is no textbook or set of blueprints, and certainly no kit. There are tools and a pile of wood, along with a few pieces of specialty hardware. And there’s Roper’s lifetime of experience in the art of lutherie. When he’s not teaching, Roper makes guitars on his own, does guitar repair work for the Old Town School of Folk Music and is a member of the folksy trio Sons of the Never Wrong.

Kennedy is learning how to make a guitar the old-fashioned way. He’s making one.

Schneller’s Chicago School of Guitar Making offers a variety of classes that also include instrument design and repair. But Roper’s course catalog is more simple: He’ll help you make a guitar, showing and teaching through every step of cutting, scraping, sanding and shaping, for $3,200. It’s a process that usually takes about 12 weeks, depending on a student’s schedule and Roper’s availability.

All of Roper’s tools are available, but students are expected to bring their own materials, which can be found through any number of online supply houses that source the special woods for different parts of the instrument, everything from cherry and mahogany to exotic spruce and rosewood.

Materials can cost several hundred dollars. And Kennedy acknowledged that the total outlay is not insignificant. But he said the price tag on a high-quality, high-end instrument can quickly pass $2,000. Spending the additional money for the knowledge and experience was a no-brainer, he said.

“I know I’m going to appreciate this every time I pick it up and play,” he said.

As for the curriculum, it’s about as comprehensive as it gets. The process starts, literally, with a small pile of raw wood.

The only item Roper doesn’t make himself is the fingerboard, the long stretch of precisely slotted, very hard wood that runs along the guitar neck under the strings. He could, but he said that achieving the slightly arched top, along with the carefully measured slots for the inlayed frets — which he does make — “isn’t worth the time” when the simple part is available.

Other than that, it’s all from scratch.

Students must first choose the size and style of the body of their guitar. Although the general pear shape is unmistakable, different sizes and variations appeal to different types of players. Kennedy, for example, chose a slightly smaller body.

“It won’t have that big, booming sound. But I’m a finger picker,” he said. “It’ll have a Lutz spruce top, which means the single notes should come out very well-articulated.”

Roper is careful to manage expectations about how precisely any luthier can tailor the sound of an instrument. An acoustic guitar is a complex collection of woods, carefully assembled and joined, with an almost infinite variety of thicknesses, both in the surface woods and the many, mostly unseen braces. A maker never knows precisely how a guitar will sound until the job is done.

“The only secret is in knowing how to do it well,” he said.

Luthiers can make guitars for higher or lower tones, or tailored to different kinds of playing styles. But the guitar, once made, takes on a life of its own, shaped by the player “like a worn-out pair of shoes.”

Roper mentioned the battle-scarred ax of country great Willie Nelson: “He doesn’t have to play that thing. He’s just at home with it.”

Kennedy knows this; knows that, as much as he’s thought carefully about the sound he wants from his instrument, he won’t know for sure how it will sound until it’s done and he plays it. He also knows it’ll be hard not to love something he made with his own hands.

The aforementioned braces were the lesson of the day on a recent visit to Roper’s shop. The lengths of spruce had been cut to a width of about a quarter-inch, and Kennedy was sanding the ends on a table-mounted band saw. They were then brought over to a hollow form, so the bottoms could be sanded to the necessary gentle curve.

That curve is key: Although guitars look flat on the top and bottom at first glance, the surfaces are actually slightly bowed when attached to the braces, a characteristic that allows the guitar to produce its unique sound. Enter the hollow form, sometimes called a radius dish. Imagine the very bottom of a gigantic bowl — gigantic as in 50 feet from rim to rim. The guitar front requires a 25-foot radius dish — meaning its shape, if fully extended, would create that 50-foot-in-diameter bowl. The back of the guitar requires a less-pronounced bow, created with a 15-foot radius dish.

The thin pieces that make up the front and back of the guitar are glued to the curved braces, carefully arranged with an eye toward both structural integrity and sound.

“The top is where all the action is,” Roper explained. “The thicker the brace, the higher the pitch.”

It’s for this reason that the final carving and shaping of the braces don’t happen until they are glued to the top piece. This is because there’s no way to tell precisely what tone a particular combination of braces and top-wood will produce. The only way to get it right, Roper explained, is to slowly carve the braces, pausing occasionally to hold the top up and tap on it, listening for the tone.

“Of course, the old-timers are listening for something it’s taken them years to learn to listen for,” he said, acknowledging that he doesn’t expect his students to master the practice immediately. He’s happy to help, but “as a teaching element, though, I think it’s important to let my students do it the old-fashioned way and to get their hands dirty.”

He’ll also help them keep their hands intact.

“You hold it like a pool cue,” he said to Kennedy, showing him how to grip one of Roper’s long-handled Japanese chisels to make a precise lap-joint cut in one of the back braces. Moments earlier, Kennedy had prepared to make the cut holding his hand just beyond the work piece. Roper stopped him and stepped in, mimicking his pose and demonstrating how the chisel might have slipped past the work and into his hand.

“I tell you this from personal experience and a lot of pain,” he said with a laugh, handing the tool back to Kennedy.

This is the teaching style. Each next step is first explained, then briefly demonstrated. Then Roper steps back and watches while the student does the work.

Eventually Kennedy will bend the outer sides of the guitar body, using one of the several forms Roper has made himself. Most of the joints will be carefully set with glue, the one exception being a small bolt that joins the neck to the body.

Roper noted that there are some in the luthier community who suggest this bolt is both unnecessary and detrimental to the sound. He disagrees on both counts, noting that more and more guitars nowadays — including many made by Martin, the legendary Pennsylvania-based guitar company — use a bolt.

As someone who repairs guitars for a living, Roper also has a practical reason.

“They are easier to work on,” he said. “I’ve had to steam those necks off before, and it’s not easy.”

Less essential to the structural integrity or future repairability of the guitar are the small inlays that make each instrument distinctive. The designs can be whatever the maker wants. Roper sometimes puts a small image of a lariat-wielding cowboy on his own guitars, which he sells privately at a clip of “about three to five per year.”

Kennedy is planning on a small shamrock, made from mother-of-pearl.

“What can I say?” he said with a shrug. “I’m an Irishman.”

Schneller said his students generally divide into two camps: Some are young music lovers looking for a craft that fuels their passion and that they might be able to make a living at. Others are people like Kennedy.

“They are career professionals at or near retirement, and they want to rekindle the passion of their youth,” he said.

Kennedy won’t argue.

“This is probably the coolest thing I’ll ever do.”

jccarpenter@tribpub.com

Twitter @ScoopCarp

 

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