Let’s start at the beginning. Well, not the very beginning, but with the inception of the steel-strung acoustic guitar in the United States: the acoustics’ spiritual beginning. C.F.Martin, The Larson Brothers, George Washburn, Orville Gibson, Bob Taylor and everyone in-between (who, by the way, are too numerous to list) set about sculpting what we now know as the acoustic guitar. Through the decades, subtle and not-so-subtle changes occurred. They created to combat issues, they invented to improve the design and, over the years they got it very, very, right.
But let’s fast-forward to the 21st century. The acoustic guitar is sold by the thousands on a worldwide scale. Martin Guitars alone produce over 20,000 instruments per annum and there is certainly no shortage of buyers. The magnitude of the acoustic guitar industry in volume produced and, of course, variation on the types that are available is almost unfathomable. It’s certainly not explainable in 600 words. However, for the popularity that the acoustic guitar now enjoys, we have a new set of changes that are becoming apparent.
The real issue now is the very thing guitar designers sought to maximise: production. More demand leads to more production, thus more wood usage, which in turn leads to governmental regulation. This forces the hand of designers to re-evaluate, re-design and ultimately allow for production to continue and increase. Companies started implementing more laminate construct, more CNC production and essentially making the guitar a little more synthetically. Now this is not saying they are any less decent as an instrument. I am the owner of several “synthetic” builds by well-known acoustic guitar manufacturers and they are fantastic; I would not part with them for the world. But surely, these production restrictions must have implications for the acoustic guitar?
Well they do, and this is where our change comes about. The steel-strung acoustic guitar is at a fork in its lifespan. What we are seeing is a forced change that means that medium and large scale companies must adhere to the regulations covering companies of large scale production, meaning that even their custom shop guitars fall inside this litigation. Thus, although their guitars are still quality instruments, they are controlled instruments. Elements of the design process are gone. Elements of the raw experimentation are gone. And, to an extent, the very element which the guitar exists for is gone: the human element.
This is where the small manufacturers come in. As we saw at this year’s NAMM, boutique guitar makers are seeing a phenomenal rise in interest and with websites such as Destroy All Guitars, it is becoming even easier to purchase a truly artisan instrument. Customers have a whole world of choice available to them, dealing with the craftspeople that are making their instrument.
This, in turn, means bespoke builds and a genuine level of creativity in the building process.
But, what about the acoustic guitar design?
On the one hand, through synthetic material innovation, the world has access to one of the most exciting and dynamic instruments in the world. From low-cost, workhorse instruments right up to high-cost, collectible, factory made. They are perfectly made using CNC production and the implementation of sustainable materials and, although identical to the next, very much quality instruments with a lot to give. On the other, it paves the way for unique traditional builds: genuinely individual instruments with individual characteristics, made by independent artisans using traditional methods and ethically sourced, hand-picked woods. Each handmade guitar, as much a testament to the input and mind of the player, as the skill and craftsmanship of the maker. So now the question is: what do you look for in your guitars?
Luke Joseph Sharples is a British guitar maker and the Director of Joseph Lukes Guitars. He has been producing handmade acoustic guitars for 5 years, specialising in using only hand tools and traditional methods to produce his own innovative designs, including the Joseph Lukes Grand Concert. Luke lives in London where he makes, plays, and writes about the guitar.