The Guild of American Luthiers: A Triumph of Sharing, by Norman L. Beberman, GuitarNation.com Staff Writer
The word "guild" is something most of us vaguely remember from high-school or college as being the fore-runner of today's unions, primarily established to ensure uniform standards and high-quality in the manufacture of goods and the provision of services. These early guilds also had a social aspect. They often provided care for sick and needy members and members' widows and orphans. Guilds often served as centers of social interests since members of craft guilds usually lived on the same street. These early Guilds were historically significant in that they were the first concrete example of workers' binding together to promote their common interests, largely through the free exchange of knowledge, information and ideas.
Fast Forward, oh, about 450 years or so to 1971-1972 and Tacoma, WA when an aspiring teen-age luthier named Tim Olsen saw a 1/2" ad in Guitar Player magazine saying something like "there ought to be an organization for guitar-makers" placed by a fellow named Jerrold Beall from Newark, OH. A more fortuitous event in the world of guitar making and repair would be difficult to imagine.
Tim answered the ad with a $10 donation and a note to "please don't forget about electric guitars". An exchange of letters was initiated in which Gerald soon discovered that Tim had a mechanical duplicating machine known as a mimeograph. Gerald promptly sent Tim a list of 40 names and funded the first copy of a newsletter. The Guild of American Luthiers was clearly beginning to take shape.
A few copies of the newsletter got out before GAL began to charge. In 1973, a $5 annual fee paid for a couple of newsletter. The idea was, in the beginnng, was to charge $5 for 4 issues, postage included. 40 members paying a $5 annual fee meant that the fledgling GAL had an operating budget of $200 and was being run by a now 18 year old guitar tech.
Largely a result of Tim's youthful enthusiasm, 1974 was the year of GAL's first National Convention. Tim light-heartedly refers to this highlight as "having 6 or 7 people over for lunch". This first National Convention was officially divided with the first part in Tacoma and the second part in Newark, OH. The rough outlines of the GAL called for a new President to be elected at each annual convention.
It is absolutely crucial to understand the motivation of these early GAL pioneers by remembering what was going on in the mid-to-late 1960's and early 1970's. Hippies--Viet Nam--Great Folk Boom--Free Love--Pot--LSD--British Rock'n Roll Invasion--Civil Rights Movement, etc. It was an era of turmoil that produced idealism and optimism unparalleled in US history.
Young people were questioning authority, finding their political voices and social conscience, completely convinced they were not bound by the conventions of the past. Most importantly were the concepts of sharing and of the commonality of man. Central to the Guild's mission was the free exchange of knowledge so that better guitars could be made. This free exchange of knowledge was also eminently practical. At that point in time, no one person had volumes of knowledge, making it necessary to pool the bits of information that everyone had.
1975 saw the annual convention in Chicago, hosted by one of the original GAL members, R.E. Brune. 1976 was Ann Arbor, Michigan and 1977 was Tacoma. If you can believe the guitar event that this must have been, the 1978 convention was held in Winfield, KS, in conjunction with the national flatpicking championships!
GAL hit another landmark in 1979 with membership totaling 1500 and the annual convention in Boston. Staying true to its' idealistic nature, dues were still from$10 to make membership accessible to as many as possible.
From this high point in 1979, the Guild was about to encounter challenges that would test the mettle of its' founders and members. Disaster struck in the form of a fire at GAL headquarters in Tacoma in 1980. Right around the corner was the Reagan Recession of 1981.
The fire demonstrated the need for better internal organization and Tim dove in. To finance the needed improvements, dues went up to $15 in 1980 and to $20 a year or two later. By 1982, membership had dropped precipitously to 900 from a high of 1500 a mere two years later. This 40% drop in membership, though very difficult at the time, did not last long.
Those able to ride out the recession soon saw an improving economy. Their lutherie skills were becoming more marketable, and, though they had no idea, these luthiers would be in position to account for and take advantage of the unforeseen acoustic guitar boom of the 1990's.
GAL was in a significant period of transition in the 1980's. The practice of holding an annual convention in different parts of the country was quickly draining the precious resources of the Guild. Different locations brought unforeseen, and, frequently unpleasant surprises.
The 1980 convention in San Francisco was HUGE! So huge, in fact, that it became impossible to sustain. There were 100 exhibitors and 4-5 days of programs. It was clearly a case of too much too soon. Accordingly, the decision was made to have conventions every other year to save money. 1982's convention was in Estes Park, CO; 1984 at a college campus in NC; 1986 in Tacoma; 1988 at what would become the National Music Museum in Vermillion, SD; 1990 in Tacoma.
Having the 1986 and 1990 conventions in Tacoma demonstrated the benefits of working with the same known people, in the same place and in the same overall environment. Ever since 1992, GAL conventions have been in Tacoma.
Keep in mind that Apple and IBM were about the introduce personal computers just as Tim realized the need for the Guild to be better organized.. People born in the 50's were hitting their early 30's in the mid 1980's. Tim jokes that "Bill Clinton was one of us. Yesterday's slacker is today's US President, founder of Microsoft and Director of Star Wars".
To write chronologically about GAL is to only tell half the story because its' origins and growth directly paralleled what was and is going on in the guitar world.
In the early 1960's, guitarists had 2 basic beer-like choices: domestic or imported. The domestic guitar industry was based around the trinity of Fender, Gibson and Martin. Imported guitars of the period were usually Japanese. Domestic guitars of the early to mid 1960's were pretty high-quality instruments and remained so until the generally recognized year of 1965. In 1965, CBS purchased Fender and Gibson's acquisition by Norlin resulted in increased production had a corresponding decrease in quality.
Imported guitars of the 1960's were, generally speaking, unplayable junk made of inferior woods and assembled with less-than-loving care. The combination of relatively high-priced domestic guitars and low-quality imported guitars were the impetus for a small group of guitar lovers, working independently and in different parts of the country, to consider the possibilities of either trying to build a better guitar than that which they could afford or or acquiring older guitars which could be bought for less than the price of new ones.
The seminal event responsible for the surge in guitar popularity was the Great Folk Boom. The first of the Baby Boomers were hitting their teens and 20's in the early-to-mid 1960's and everybody wanted to play guitar. Elvis, standing on the shoulders of the great Southern R&B groups, set the stage for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the "British Invasion". Now, not only did everybody want to play guitar, they wanted to play the electric guitar!
According to Tim, in the late 60's and early 70's, there were hippies who really weren't too crazy about wanting to work and definitely weren't into climbing the corporate ladder. Their parents had accumulated a bit of post WWII prosperity, and, in order to make sure their kids didn't starve, they began to support their various endeavors, one of which was tinkering with and building guitars.
The desire to tinker with guitars was idealistic in the purest sense in that there was no demand for people to provide this service. Without a demand for guitar-related services, there was no way to exchange these services for money. the capitalistic society model called for people to perform tasks for which there was a demand by employers and these employers would pay those who provided labor and performed the desired tasks.
This was something entirely different. The motivation was different. There was no demand for handmade guitars, no market of any sort. No wood, tool or abalone suppliers and certainly no demand among musicians. Quite insightfully, Tim posits that guitar building was "somewhere between a hobby and an addiction."
Under the radar, these hobbyists/addicts were quietly, persistently refining their craft. And then IT happened.
IT was Eric Clapton's acoustic performance on MTV's "Unplugged" and the subsequent CD release of that performance on August 25, 1992. This was almost 3 months to the day before the US would elect its' first boomer President, Bill Clinton.
The rest reads like a fairy tale, both for GAL and its' members. From being non-existent in the mid-to-late 80's, there was a new, exciting acoustic guitar scene by the mid 90's.
The 1990's saw the guitar market expand in every price area: low, medium and high. Handbuilders moved into the high-end market to offer discerning guitarists with money to spend instruments that were, by definition, one-of-a-kind, genuinely unique and far superior to anything commercially available in 50 or 60 years.
Major manufacturers simultaneously moved aggressively into the low-end market by having instruments manufactured in Korea and China. Japanese manufacture by US companies that began in the early 80's was too expensive. Korea and China offered ever lower cost-to-produce and US manufacturers moved right in to meet their goal of cutting costs and maximizing profits.
Not content with market dominance of the low and medium price points, these same major manufacturers began to move in on the high-end market staked out by handbuilders. These major manufacturers either opened "custom shops" and employed skilled luthiers to run them or they hired handbuilders as independent contractors to build special order guitars and put the factory name on them. They now offer guitars at every price point, from $250 to $250,000 or more. The $250 guitars offer surprising utility and playability. Every price point is very well served.
Throughout the 90's, the demand for handmade guitars continued to grow, fueled in part by money from the dot-com boom and the advanced fingerstyle playing styles that were becoming de riguer. There was a healthy slice of the guitar market available to luthiers with a record and reputation for building super-high quality guitars. Thanks in no small part to the dot-com boom, more and more people were comfortable spending, and, had the means to spend, far in excess of the old high-end standard of $2K for a guitar.
In the summer of 2005, it is fair to ask where is the Guild now, and, what it going on regarding handmade guitars.
Guild membership is at an all-time high of 3600 with non-US members being the largest growing segment. Quite possibly, this may be an Internet phenomenon because GAL is now accessible to anyone remotely interested in guitar building or repair. Professional, amateur or merely innocent bystander, access to GAL is instantly available to anyone, anywhere, with Internet access.
Regarding handmade guitars, we are seeing the maturing of what is still largely a cottage industry in that handmade guitars are being increasingly recognized and collected as an American art form. Museums are ordering guitars from living makers. Hundreds of years from now, there will be perfectly preserved examples of certain handbuilders' work.
As collectors, investors, dealers and speculators begin to bid-up the prices of these guitars, they increasingly fall out of the reach of the very people for whom these functional sculptures were loving handcrafted--guitarists.
From its' hippie roots, GAL founder and President Tim Olsen has been privileged to play an important role in the evolution of the modern guitar. GAL has stayed remarkably true to its' roots by following its' original idealistic intention of facilitating the free exchange of knowledge of stringed-instrument construction and repair.
Ever quick to point out that this free exchange of knowledge was borne of practicality in that no one had very much knowledge in the area, Tim recalls that it would have made no sense for the first 40-50 GAL members to not share information, when they were all, in fact desperate for information.
By any measure, GAL is a remarkable organization, as relevant today as the day it was formed. Idealistic, practical and resilient, it is a tribute to those who believed in its' cause and really is "A Triumph of Sharing".
About the author:
Norman L. Beberman is the founder of GuitarNation.com and the Handmade Guitar Marketing Council. He currently plays a 00 made by Frederich Holtier of Olmstead Falls, Ohio and a dreadnaught by E.A. (Ed) Foley of Andover, NJ. Norman is a volunteer with the Association of Fingerstyle Guitarists in Southern California and is a proud to be a member of the Guild of American Luthiers. He may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org