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Fine Tuning: The Art Of Guitar Making

For the person accustomed to playing a factory model, a guitar from the hand of a skilled luthier is always a revelation. The tone, action, craftsmanship, and finish make playing such an instrument a unique pleasure.

Irving Sloane – Classic Guitar Construction

It used to be that if you wanted to learn how to make a guitar, you had to apprentice with a luthier. You’d find them in Europe, and you had almost no other option. That is, until New Yorker Irving Sloane wrote the book on high-end construction: Classic Guitar Construction: Diagrams, Photographs, and Step-By-Step Instructions.

When he was a teenager, Alan Perlman got that book. And he began exploring what it takes to make a guitar.

There’s interest: “I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands,” he says.

Then diligence.

“Right," he says. “Almost everything can be repaired.”

And passion.

“The first guitar, I gave away to a beautiful woman,” he says. “She liked the guitar.”

She liked him, too, but it didn’t work out. She moved to Bolivia. He eventually moved to San Francisco’s Outer Sunset district, near the windswept waves of Ocean Beach, where he lives in a house with his wife Sue Williard.

His studio is in a small room in the back of the house with a west-facing window, a wall full of tools, and several guitars hanging from the ceiling.

“It’s probably the safest way, especially in earthquake country,” he notes. “If anything happened, they would just swing.”

Perlman has crafted more than 200 guitars.

“I have a two-year list of commissions, and so there’s always a guitar to build,” he says.

They sell for up to $13,000. And his repairs can be even more expensive. One job was worth $25,000. The guitar was worth six times that.

“I’ll get these surprise emails or phone calls,” he says. “The best recent example is Paul Simon. Call from his repairman saying he wanted to send one of his favorite guitars, that he’s had since he was 18, over for a full restoration.”

Perlman also does a lot of work for collectors. He just finished restoring a guitar built in 1867.

“Yeah, people have astonishing numbers of really expensive guitars. I have one client who owns about 120. Thirty or 40 is the more common number,” he says. “There’s something called GAS: Guitar Acquisition Syndrome. So in the really large number, it’s that. For the 30 or 40, its a serious collection that represents the evolution of the guitars over the ages. So there might be instruments from the 1600s, 1700s, that are sort of pre-guitar guitars, right up to the 20th and perhaps 21st century.”

Contents: introduction, construction theory, fan bracing, humidity, wood and materials, tools, construction forms, bending form, workboard, boiling rough, guitar maker clamps, purfling cutter, glue, planing the wood, jointing top and back, top and sides, side assembly, neck, joining sides to neck, lining, sideboard construction, back construction, gluing top and back, alternate assembly method, purfling, fretboard, bridge, gluing the bridge, rosette, finishing, guitars by the great makers, supply sources, bibliography.

Sometimes, to repair a guitar, Perlman has to take it apart. He first removes the neck of the guitar, or fretboard, from the body of the instrument. He drills two small holes to the fret slot.

“And I have what’s basically a basketball inflation valve hooked up to a cappuccino maker,” he says. “And I’ll use that to pump steam into that, and as that joint loosens, clamp it out, and remove it. We have a lot of homemade tools.”

If a job requires replacing or creating wood for the body of the guitar, Perlman heads to his wood shop. It’s downstairs in his garage. He uses a bandsaw, a sawdust collector, and a thicknessing sander. When the wood is thinned, he finishes it off by hand.

The guitar maker’s basic job, then, is to make a guitar thin enough to produce adequate volume, stable enough to preclude harmonic difficulties, and with a top that will flex properly to lend body and presence to the sound. This golden mean is what the luthier strives for. How to achieve it cannot be reduced to a pat formula. A systematic study of the great makers’ guitars reveals subtle changes in thicknesses and dimensions from one instrument to the next. No two are the same.

“The guitar tops are most often spruce, and the resins in spruce are kind of gummy, sappy, in the first part of their lives, and then they crystallize. And that really helps tone. And the other, more mysterious part, is that playing instruments improves the tone,” he says. “There’s even a device that we fasten onto our guitars that just vibrates them for days on end, and helps partially simulate the effects of age. But still there’s nothing that can duplicate the age, and that’s a really good argument for keeping things for a long time.”

Perlman is a person who believes in taking his time. In an age of instant access, the internet at our fingertips, he has no Yelp page. No Twitter. Rather, he relies on word-of-mouth references. And he’s not into instant gratification. Some jobs take years to complete. Some things take decades to learn. Technology can only go so far.

But, then again, he does have a guitar tuner app.

“And I hate to say, it blows my $300 strobe tuner out of the water,” he says.

Out of all the guitars he’s built, Perlman has a favorite.

“There was an 11-string guitar that I had built for a guitarist named James Kline,” he says. “And to hear him play this in concert was one of the most exquisite moments, and like, those are actually the moments that I live for, to hear in my work to hear people playing these instruments and go to the back of the hall and listen.”

The classic guitar is a delicate equation, painstakingly conceived to produce a brilliant, balanced tone over its entire playable range. The story of the great guitar makers is the story of the quest for this perfection. The secret of the men who have succeeded in mastering this equation is simply the skill born of infinite patience and the knowledge born of experience.

What does it take to make a musical instrument?

Interest. Diligence. Passion. Study. Patience. Experience. And, maybe most valuable of all: slowing down to listen.

This story originally aired in May of 2015.

Ben was hired as Interim Executive Director of KALW in November, 2021.