Hill Guitar Company
Kenny Hill


By Kenny Hill

A Luthier's Choices

From his 2004 GAL Convention lecture


Guitar building, for me, began as a way of understanding the instrument more completely. Maybe it's like raising your own food to understand where food comes from. I attended the 1977 GAL Convention and brought my fifth guitar to display. In those days I thought that I could probably invent the guitar and just discover it, all new, all fresh, all mine.

It took many years for me to start over — to just start over from the beginning and to learn what our predecessors have done, and to learn the variety of different ways there are to produce a good instrument. The pursuit of anything is a series of decisions that come at forks in the road. It's not just about how you do something, it's about where it takes you. And it's about what it does to your life and how it channels you into participating in your own life and the lives of the people around you.

I have here a few examples of instruments that are coming out of my workshop that I call The Master Series. I'm going back and, with increasing levels of obsession, trying to replicate what earlier guitar builders have done. On the very far left is a soundboard for an Ignacio Fleta model guitar that was copied after a 1967 Fleta. The next one is a Hauser-style soundboard working very much off the Richard Bruné drawings of the 1937 Hauser. I have reapproached that instrument recently and I'll talk a little bit about the design elements that I discovered that I was overlooking or choosing to ignore for a long time. The next one is a Torres model based on FE12. In general, the soundboard is simpler than the Hauser. It looks superficially the same but in a lot of ways it's really not.

And then the instrument on the right is a Signature model, incorporating my own design recipe of the elements that I'm most fond of at this time. The soundboard bracing is nothing particularly radical. The top itself, though, is a laminated top, with two layers of wood and a layer of honeycomb between them. It also has soundports in the sides near the heel. This is something I picked up from Robert Ruck and I'm sort of infatuated with that effect.

For a long time I was just looking at drawings. I didn't have access, or I didn't choose to pursue the access to, the instruments themselves. But in the last couple of years I've been able to lay my hands on some of the originals. I got an 1856 Torres, a Fleta, and a couple of Hausers to have around for awhile and to look at. The Torres design quickly became fully formed, and although the iconic makers who followed certainly did mainly what Torres was doing, you discover that there's a quirk in what each one did. What did this maker do that nobody else did? That's something that comes out of looking at the instruments themselves. When you find that quirk, you start to get their results, or at least to find a family resemblance.

It's difficult to measure your results, because time is the one thing that we can't do anything about. A comparison of a new instrument with an old instrument is not fair. You don't know what you're comparing, so it is unbelievable in a sense.

An instrument is pretty simple in the sense of a recipe. It's the design, the materials, and the craftsmanship. And definitely the weather is a factor, the location where it was built. Then there is some ineffable thing that comes from either the hands, from the belly, or from the mind of the builder. That spirit is the thing that makes every single guitar different. I don't care how many times you build to the same design, every one is different. This goes to shake apart the idea that I or any of us is ever going to make that one guitar. The guitar is not a thing any more than there is a meal that is a thing, or a person that is a thing, or a day that is the best day of your life. It just doesn't work that way. It's a process, and every guitar is its own result and has its own purpose.

Not every guitar is going to Carnegie Hall. Most guitars, maybe 90% of them, are played at home or in rooms with fewer than twenty people. For that matter, 90% of the guitars are probably never played out of the first position. This puts our work into perspective. We're striving for excellence, we're striving for insight into our culture and our craft, but what are the instruments for? They're for the pleasure of the people that own them. The satisfaction of pulling that all together is a great reward.

I started out in the 1970s, building maybe one guitar a month. I took the '80s off from guitar making. When I came back to it in the '90s I was able to speed up to two or three guitars a month. What I learned from myself is that getting the ability to produce a satisfying guitar was a matter of fluency. Fluency did not come out of obsession, but it came out of movement. It came from being able to get quick and good at starting instruments and finishing them and getting onto the next one. Guitar making should be easy. That doesn't mean simple or casual. It's like guitar playing: you've got to make it look easy. If it's too hard, you're doing something wrong.

I'm thinking five years ahead. I'm working now on what I was thinking about while I was working five years ago. There is slosh time between realizing your ideas and producing the ideas. My habit is to just keep moving. Sometimes you have to do something over, sometimes you have to promise to do it better the next time, but the main thing is to keep moving. Your thoughts and your visions and your theories will come out of the activity of working rather than laying out your theories and then trying to construct some sort of structure that matches your theories.

If you can make the thing that you're thinking about, do it. Just do it, and find out if it works. That's been my epiphany. Get an idea, try it, see if it works. Explain it later. Figure out what happened later, if you need to. Sometimes we explain things not because we believe the explanation, but because we are trying to communicate. The best explanation is "If you do it, this is what happens." I really enjoy that fact.

I first learned this working in a prison. It was the first time that I ever did anything besides just work alone with the radio on and my kids milling around my ankles. I realized that as a team we can think of something and then delegate it. You can go through the work efficiently and quickly. And don't try it once, try it ten times. Then you get a sense of what the tendencies are, and you will find the direction that your thoughts and your ideas are going.

The Fleta was the first design that I really tried to replicate, but my work was based on drawings and photos. I did not have an instrument in hand. I sold that guitar in Nashville right after I made it. I stopped in Los Angeles on my way back home, three days later. I was visiting someone there and he pointed to a case and said "open that." I opened it, and there was the guitar that I had just made. I said "How did you get this? I just sold it in Nashville." And he said "What do you mean? I've had it for a month." It was a real '68 Fleta! It was very gratifying that mine looked very much like the real thing. But then I played it and said "This is not my guitar. There's a family resemblance to the sound, but I've got something to learn."

I won't say that I have ever made a guitar as great as that Fleta, or any Fleta. But I did learn that by working with that design over time, you kind of settle into it. At first, the guitars sounded like whatever I tend to do. They sounded like my guitars. But then as I worked with the design more and more, it started to take on the characteristics of the original. We'll never know exactly what those originals were when they were new. And that "fire in the belly" which is unique to every person that ever picks up a chisel is the thing that we can never duplicate. But we can participate in it. And that's a thrill.

My fate seems to be to work with groups of people. After the prison workshop, I worked for eight years with a workshop in Mexico, and now I have a workshop in California with ten people, plus a workshop in China. I've supervised and been responsible for close to 3,000 guitars and I feel like I'm just cracking the surface of what the meaning of each of these directions is. It is a thrill to have found something that has such a rich variety of choices, and lures, and allure within it. The sawdust, the glue joints, the smells, the tool making, the vitality of the sound that pours out of it — the appreciation that we all get from going from the forest through the workshop to the stage, wherever that is, whether it's Lagerquist Hall or sitting at the bus stop — this is what pulls us all here together to Tacoma, from all parts of the world, and sends us out in pursuit of all different kinds of things, whether it's looking for wood or looking for markets.

So let's talk about some of the quirks of these iconic designs. To us, the Torres is the least quirky of them all. And yet I suppose when he made it, it was the quirkiest guitar on the planet. He didn't really invent any of the elements of the design — it emerged from his influences — but within five or ten years everything else was disappearing because it caught on so quickly and so completely.

I've always gone under the assumption that a Hauser is essentially a bigger Torres. I have Richard Bruné's drawings of Segovia's 1837 Hauser that is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I've talked with Richard a lot about Hausers. He said some things that made me think, "Are you sure?" First, he said that the tops were over 3MM thick. And in German Spruce, that's a stiff piece of wood. That sounds about right for a steel string. So I thought, "That's not possible, there's a mistake there." Then I picked up a couple of Hausers, got out my Hacklinger gauge, and son of a gun, they're all the same. Even into the next generation, I was still seeing, a very strong consistency.

Richard said another thing about Hauser guitars that made me skeptical. He said that the top is made flat but the bridge is made with a strong arch. When I looked at the ones that I had, I saw that the arch in the top was not a general arch but more like a speed bump down the middle. I didn't see how string tension could do that to a top. I started to believe that it was, in fact, done intentionally.

I could not ask Hermann Hauser how he did it, so I decided to go back and revisit it. In my Mexican shop I had been making an instrument that I called the Munich Model. This was a Hauser-style guitar, but not a Hauser copy. I thought that the 3MM top was insane. Since it didn't make sense to me, I decided to do it exactly like the Hauser. I made a platten for my Performax thickness sander. I ran it through until the whole top was at the maximum thickness, I think it's 3.2MM. Then I put masking tape on the rest of the platten for all of the thinner places until I got it so that I can shove it through the sander and if I set the maximum thickness, all of that other geography is just sanded into it. Now I can duplicate those thicknesses without even knowing why. Of course I'm not using the same wood and we all know that a luthier taps and feels and flexes and makes adjustments according to the character of the piece of wood. But I decided that since it didn't make sense to me anyway, I would just duplicate it. And so I did. I built the top flat, just flat, on a flat workboard. The last time I did that was probably about 1977. And I thought "I hate this. I can't do it." It just looked awful to me. So the guitar went on the shelf and sat there for about six months.

Finally I decided to finish it. I made the bridge with a full 1.5MM arch, then just crunched it together. When I finally strung it up, I was not impressed. So again the guitar went up on the shelf. Months later, somebody said "Whatever happened to that guitar?" I got it down and I played it. It was unbelievable! It was a whole different thing. Not only that, but it sounded much more authentically like a Hauser than anything I had made, making a Hauser style guitar.

The point is that I had thought that a Hauser is sort of like a Torres. But it isn't. There is that thick top. There is that arched bridge on the flat top. Those are quirky things that I didn't get the first time around or even the hundredth time around. And when I started to be aware of them I had said "I don't want to go there." But it was when I went there that I started to get there. That sparked my curiosity about other designs.

It's pretty easy to get to the quirks with Fleta because they're really visual. He just couldn't leave anything alone. He put all those fans on it, which is counter intuitive. The end blocks that he uses are massive. They're like pieces from a piano. The dovetail joint that he uses, the four braces in the back, the unusual choices of woods, these things make for a very heavy guitar. You'd say "This can't work, it's too heavy." And yet it's powerful, it's a very muscular instrument that actually can be really responsive. Contrast that with the Torres which is built quite delicately and can also be very responsive.

On this new design of mine that I'm calling my Signature instrument, I decided to throw out my old rules and habits. Still, I was reluctant to go high tech for a number of reasons. One was that I just didn't want to make my life any more complicated than it already was. Another is that I love the sound and the romance of the guitar. I love the hidden beauties of the sound. I just didn't want to add steroids to the thing. Some of the high-tech soundboard instruments that I played had a lot of horsepower, but where's the romance? And yet a lot of the big shot players in the world are picking them up. Can I ignore that?

It was Fritz Mueller who first told me he was working with a double top. He said it had reinvigorated him and renewed his passion for guitar making. Fritz is a very gentle soul, so if the double top had made him that excited, I wanted to try it.

I constructed the soundboard using two thin layers of wood separated by a layer of a honeycomb material called Nomex, but then I used a pretty conservative bracing system. What the heck, maybe I could get the best of both worlds. But then we come to the first question. When you go to a restaurant, the first question is, "Do you want ice water?" With classical guitars, the first question is, "Spruce or cedar?" Well, it's both. That's a cool thing with the laminated soundboard: finally I could use both spruce and cedar so I didn't have to ask that question anymore. But of course now I have to ask "Is the spruce on the outside or the inside?" (laughter)

And you know what? It does make a difference. I know it's crazy, but it's different. If you put the spruce on the outside you get more of a spruce-sounding mixture, and if you put the cedar on the outside you get more of a cedar-sounding mixture. I don't get it. I just know what happens.

With this laminated construction with the hollow core I figured it wouldn't matter what woods you used, partly because you are using a lot less wood. Not so. The wood selection makes a big difference. And it does a quicker and more radical aging and breaking-in process than a solid piece of spruce or cedar would. It gets used to itself, like any guitar, only sooner. I don't know why, it just does. Actually, I couldn't give you a final answer on why any guitar gets better with time and playing.

The same is true for the sound ports, these two holes I drill in the sides of the guitar near the heel. I was having lunch with an acoustical physicist, and I said, "This guitar sounds better since I drilled holes in its sides." And he said "What does that mean?" And I said, "You know, it sounds better. It's louder." And he said, "That's not possible." And I said, "It is though." He said "It's not possible, it just doesn't work that way." And I said "But I just did it." He said "Well, it doesn't work." (laughter)

I had thought about drilling sound ports in an instrument here on stage. I wouldn't do it on a Hauser or a Torres model but I would do it on one of mine. You can do it faster than you can tie your shoes. You can play it for awhile until you really hear it and then braapt! Drill the holes. You can have it done in less than a minute. The change is startling. It's no substitute for a microphone but it enhances the instrument, at least to my ear. And that's the ear I'm working with.

Speaking of ears, a guy in Southern California bought one of my '37 Hauser models through a dealer. I started getting e-mails saying "What can I do about the highs? It doesn't have any highs." And I thought "If any guitar has highs, that thing does." He lived eight hours away, but he didn't want to ship it. He said he would make the trip up and bring the guitar to me. Then I didn't hear from him for a while. One day an e-mail popped up. It said, "You might remember me. I was complaining about my Hauser with the bad highs. I went to the doctor and he pulled a 2" plug of wax out of my ear. Now can you make any suggestions for a change in strings? The thing sounds too bright." (laughter) This is a true story. I guess he could shove half the wax back in. (laughter)

The same dealer always wanted to put those carbon strings on my instruments because he said he really wanted that bright sound. And then he said "Well, I do have hearing loss from all my years as a Rock 'n' Roll player." And I said "This is a little bit like having Ray Charles judge a beauty contest." (laughter)

A guitar is as good as its companion. It's really not about the maximum characteristics of an instrument, it's more about compatibility. Ultimately there are two kinds of guitars in the world: The ones that you really want to play, and the ones that you neglect. We all want to make the ones that people want to play. That's all I really want out of it.

Now that I've gotten into artisan-style manufacturing, I only manage to personally make four or five guitars a year now. I've learned to work through other peoples' hands. And I've discovered that anybody can make a good guitar. Selling it, that's the hard part. I've gone from being a guitar maker and a guitar aficionado to a business person. I've got to move a lot of guitars. And yet, every one of us is a business person. Say you only make three guitars a year. If you're going to do anything besides just keep them, you're a business person. We all have to pursue that, if we want to keep doing what we're doing. And I really do, I really want to keep doing what I'm doing.

As a young adult, I felt paralysed by the need to make decisions. I really had a hard time with it. So it's ironic that I got into running a business where that's about all I do, is make decisions. It doesn't leave you alone. You've got to make the decisions and you've got to go ahead. These are the fun decisions to make, but you've got to be able to do it. The advice I have for beginning guitar makers is just to keep doing it. Don't suffer from luthier's block. You will make mistakes, and there are some mistakes you can't leave. If you glue a bridge on in the wrong place, sorry, you've got to fix it. Put a fret in the wrong place? You've got to fix it. But say you take a nick out of the back when you're doing the purfling. Do a better job next time. Keep going.

At the beginning of each of my guitar making classes I stress the fact that every single person is going to make mistakes. It's how you react to those errors that is going to determine how you do. Do you beat yourself up about it? Do you stop? There are so many who make their first mistake and that's it, it's the end of their guitar making career. It's so humiliating that they can't go on. But I say that the reason that I am the teacher of the class is because I have made more mistakes than anybody in the room. It's true. And that includes this room. I am an expert at messing things up and, fortunately, getting myself out of it. Getting into trouble is easy, but can you get out? That's my method for going forward. (laughter)


Al Greenfield: I have a question regarding the bracing patterns that you have on display here. Can you describe how these bracing patterns manifest themselves in the voices of the guitars?

What the bracing pattern does for sound is the thing that I have the least conviction about. People focus on it first because it's so visual, like a skeletal system. Yet in the end I think we are all looking for clarity, power, and complexity of tone. We want beauty of sound. I can get all of those qualities from each of these bracing patterns.

I don't think you can talk about bracing by itself, without talking about everything else in the guitar — materials, doming, neck angle, neck material, all those things. It's an element of the whole recipe. I think the arching is more important than the bracing. The bracing is just the way you put the arch in the top.

Ron Fernandez: Could you talk a little more about the construction of the double top?

You should ask me again in five years. But I'll briefly tell you what I know so far. The inner and outer wooden skins are each about .6MM, and between them is a layer of honeycomb. First you make the outer skin, then glue on the honeycomb and the other interior structural pieces. The honeycomb is a product called Nomex which I buy from a company in Texas called Texas Almet. It comes in sheets of 4' x 8' size sheets. There's a variety of cell size, wall thickness and material thickness that you can get, the specs are kind of dizzying. You cut it with scissors. Glue it with Gorilla Glue in a vacuum press. You glue on the honeycomb at it's full dimension which is about 1/8", then sand that down and glue on the inner skin.

Ben Tortorici: I have a background in honeycomb paneling from aircraft construction. I know that it only wants to bend on one axis at a time. Did you have any trouble putting the dome in the top?

I don't put a dome in the top, although I did at first. I would build the dome in by laminating the whole sandwich assembly on my typical dished solera. But later I found that it was difficult to control. Now I build it flat and brace it just the same way that I would a solid piece of wood; I use go-bars and push it into a solera in the Granada style of Spanish building.

Harry Fleishman: Kenny, as somebody who has been a beginner for a longtime, I have a question about controlling your environment. How do you control the humidity in your different shops?

My shop in Felton is in the friendly climate of Central California. I have an Ebac dehumidifier that I bought from Charles Fox that just nails it. You want 45%? Turn it on, set it, you got it.

I worked in Paracho, Mexico, for eight years. I knew when I got there that humidity was going to be a big issue. In fact, that's what took me down in the long run. When I went to Paracho, I took some Sears dehumidifiers with me in my luggage. Well, those $300 household dehumidifiers don't work like the Ebac does. They are great for dehumidifying a closet but they don't work very well for controlling a shop in my experience. I would get the temperature and the humidity gauges to read the same in Paracho as they did in Felton, but when I shipped the guitars, their necks would go all over the place, things would swell up, they'd crack. It didn't make sense. I was working with the same wood that I worked with at home and getting the same temperature and humidity readings. I finally realized that Paracho is at 7500' and water boils at 195° up there. I had my thermometer and my hygrometer but I wasn't dealing with the atmospheric pressure. But what was I going to do about that? Pressurize the building? And ship them in pressurized cases? (laughter)

South China is the tropics. When the monsoon hits it is very wet, and when the dry season hits it's very dry. Fortunately it is about two feet above sea level, so at least I'm not dealing with that. I worked and suffered in Mexico and I learned a lot that I would have to learn anyway. So now going to China, I'm better prepared. I've been through the first stage of my apprenticeship in Third World manufacturing.

The people I'm working with in China are really determined to get it right. Even though there's a lack of context and lack of experience in China, the culture of excellence is astonishing. When something goes wrong they really want to fix it. And fortunately I'm dealing with a fairly well capitalized company so we're not just trying to figure out how to get from one day to the next without spending money. And yet, the main thing is that you've got to dry the wood, dry the wood, dry the wood. Ebony takes the longest to dry. You think it's dry, and then the top splits down the edges of the fingerboard.

David Case: I'm interested, from a business perspective, in how you started up the China operation. What base of knowledge did the folks there have?

When I went to Mexico, I started by finding a group of people who had really astonishing skills with hand tools. And yet they had almost no access to international standards. They certainly didn't have private standards because the economics of their context wouldn't support high quality. I thought I could inject materials, standards, and marketing into that situation. That was right around the time of NAFTA and I thought this should be the poster child for what NAFTA should be. But those plans only worked up to a point. There are a lot that I'm not big enough to change and I had to learn that, many times the hard way. Sometimes I realize to my great relief that I can't change them.

The story of how I got started in China is actually kind of funny. I teach a classical guitar making class once a year. This guy from San Jose had signed up for the class. He's a Chinese-born American citizen, culturally still very Chinese. And it turns out that he's a well-respected violin maker, internationally. Anyway, I was talking to another guy from San Jose and he said "Oh you make guitars." I said "Yeah." He said, "I know a guy who makes violins in China and he's interested in making guitars. He wants to make a Hauser model and a Fleta and a Torres." I said "That's interesting, that's what I do. What's the guys name?" When he told me the guy's name I went "Aha! So this is what's going on. This guy will take my class and go over there and build 10,000 guitars. He's essentially copping my business plan to take it to China."

I didn't like the feeling of this. I know it would take more than my week class to make him qualified to do this, but I knew enough about the guy to know that he was very talented. If anybody could do it, he could. He could use it as a wedge into the project. So I called him up and said "So here's what I heard." All of a sudden his English goes to hell. It was pretty good when we started. (laughter) But I said, "So, are you planning on taking my course and then setting up to make guitars in your violin factory in China?" And he said, "Why? Does it matter?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "Well... no." I didn't believe him.

About five days later, I got a call from him. He says "My partner is here from China and he wants to have lunch." His partner didn't speak very good English but is a very charming man. I loved him from the day I met him. They took me out to lunch and they said, "You want to do this? You want to help us?" And I said "You've got to be kidding. Do you think I'm crazy?" And I think that was it is. They had read about the deal in Paracho and they thought that I was crazy enough to do it. And I was. (laughter)

I went through a very long reflection over it, plus some real head-to-head negotiating. I would write up a contract and they would modify it, and it went back and forth. It took us six months to get an agreement, but I was determined to get it on paper before we started. That's something I've learned, working in lots of different things: get something on paper. It's not enforceable, frankly. Especially dealing with China, the only contract that matters is the goodwill behind it. If they want to screw me, they can. And vice versa, I suppose. But that's not what the contract was for. It was for us to understand what we both want.

Yes, I'm aware of the sociopolitical implications of this for workers in this country. I have my own take on it. I had to decide, am I going to be a part of this so-called globalization or am I going to be a victim of it? Do I want to be lying in front of the train or riding in the front of the train? That's an easy decision to make.

Before this I had not thought much about China as a place and as a culture. Now I've been there half a dozen times and started to learn some things about it. And it has affected me, it has affected my world view.

The first time I went to China, I got lost. I didn't take into account that I was crossing the date line. I mean, it's a really long way from here! I arrived the day after I thought I would. It was May Day, which is the most incredible holiday imaginable there. I could not get ahold of anybody, so nobody met me at the train in Guanjo(275). That was one of the lonelier moments of my life. It took about twenty-four hours to finally hook up. I was hungry, wandering around and looking at all these noodles and stuff and thinking "How do I get that?" (laughter)

As I was standing there, I suddenly realized, "Oh my God, the world is Asian." The world isn't little waspy old Santa Cruz. I've traveled some, so I kind of knew that. Still, it was a huge realization. Standing there in that population with that amount of activity and that amount of energy and determination, just being surrounded by it... it was a revelation. I think we're all in varying degrees concerned about it, thinking about it and how it feeds into our own place in the world. A lot of people are scared of that, they want to stay top dog. If that's the idea, better do a good job, because these guys can do just as good a job as we can at anything you can think of. Can you fault them? China is not waiting for permission. They're not waiting for us or anybody else.

Denis Merrill: Are your people in China are getting enough time to really master the work? Will there be Chinese masters based on their love of handwork?

They work a six-day, 48-hour week. Some of the people are doing piece work and they'll work after hours. It's not the evil sweatshop, it's just a hardworking environment. These are very willing workers, glad to be working, happy to be rescued from the dead end of the countryside, from their point of view. It's a very beautiful countryside, and now they are in the not-so- beautiful city, working hard and making money. But that's where they want to be.

My partners, who are the administrators and the owners of this shop, don't want anybody to know how to make a guitar in their factory. They want one guy to be good at necks and another guy to be good at tops. In my workshop in California I have people working all the way through most of the time, because I think it's more fun, it's just a more amenable way to work. But they are very conscious of industrial espionage. They don't want a fully-trained worker to get "stolen" by some other factory.

I did an article on Antonio de Torres for Acoustic Guitar Magazine. They did a real nice job of the layout, and there was a picture of me; it made me look good. I gave them some copies of the magazine. They showed it off when people when they came to the workshop: "This is the guy who is directing the shop. See? He's in a magazine!" So that was my credential for running the shop. But there was a picture of a braced Torres top in the article, and they tore it out! I said, "Everybody knows that!" They said, "Not in China." (laughter) They were trying to keep this information out of the hands of the competition.

Right now they are assimilating this information about classical guitars. Will somebody really excel and then lead their national school of guitar making? Will someone be the Masaru Kohno of China? It's possible, but I don't think it's going to be somebody who is in my shop right now. They are good at showing up on time and doing what you ask them to do. But nobody is thinking "How can I make my own guitar shop?" At least, not to the best of my ability to read minds in Chinese. (laughter)

Audience: Will China make an impact on the availability and quality of wood in this country in the long run?

It certainly will. My partners don't buy 200 sets of something, they buy 2000 sets. We're just a small group but they have that mentality of putting it away. They say, "Look, here's the profits." Miles of wood, that's where our profits are. So yes, they will tend to hoard it.

Denis Merrill: There seems to be an aesthetic that developes in each region that makes guitars, whether it's Granada or Germany or France. Do you think a Chinese classical guitar aesthetic will develop?

Chinese classical guitar players tend to have to have the technique of a pipa player, but whether the Chinese guitar itself will take on that aesthetic I don't know. I was told early on by my Chinese partner that "The Chinese don't invent. They assimilate and improve."

At the NAMM show, the buzz is all about Chinese guitars. Not my Chinese guitars; I'm talking about the $59 Chinese guitars. Everybody in China thinks that that's the dogpile to jump onto, but in the long run it will benefit only a very few people. A better entry-level instrument will build a community of players, but it also cheapens what we do. Part of the negotiation before I started this project with my Chinese partners involved my insistence that I was not going to help them make cheap guitars. We had to start by making the best guitars in China. Later, if you want to make a more commercial product, the best will trickle down to your cheaper stuff. If you start by making something cheap, and then try to move to better quality stuff, forget it. It will be irrevocably tainted. So I've kind of been the Johnny Appleseed of China. I'm sure that there are people that are mad at me about this. I don't know what to say.

Greg Byers: Is the plan to make guitars at your shop in China and bring them here to North America to sell them?

Yes. They have their sights set on the American market. Everybody worldwide has their sights on the American market. I already have them coming. They are in the under-$2000 range, retail. It's not a cheap guitar, but it's an affordable guitar. These are student guitar prices, but the quality is much more ambitious. I think that our guitars are the best ones being made in China. And I feel they are nicer and more successful than the others in their price range, most of which come from Japan or Valencia, Spain.

Greg Byers: What about making a line of guitars for sale in China?

One of the reasons I really worked hard on that business plan is that I want my percentage to come out of the Chinese market. I want those 1.3 billion people all to buy classical guitars from us. And I want to take a nickel off of each one. (laughter)

When I go over to China, I get caught up in these junkets for promoting the instruments. I'm traveling around doing presentations and performances. It's distracting me from the work of the shop, and yet it's part of the big plan. Guitar is just catching on. Xuefei Yang is a young Chinese guitar player who is a big hit in this country. She's exemplary of the kind of no nonsense and don't-get-in-my-way attitude of somebody who wants to really succeed coming out of China. And we will see that more and more. Five to ten years from now, all the classical competitions worldwide will be won by people from Shanghai and Beijing. I'm not wishing for that. I'm just predicting that.

Greg Byers: Are you introducing the same work flow in China that you have in your shop in Felton? For instance, is the production less efficient in China and more dependant on hand work?

Both shops rely on manual labor. My production is very inefficient both places. (laughter) We work with the same methods in China as here. I basically went there and just started making the same tools that I make back in California. That's the way I know how to do it. I'm not an expert in machine production. I don't want a CNC. I'm OK with a router, but past that and you lose me. But they have people there who need work and they're not anxious to replace them with mechanization. The biggest difference is that rule that nobody learns to do everything in the China shop. Sooner or later they will. You can try to steer it, but you can't stem the flow of history. Can't do it. You've got to figure out how to work with it.

To learn more visit: Guild of American Luthiers

© Kenny Hill, Felton, CA




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