What is a Guitar Building Workshop Like? In Rollie’s words …
In a handful of days Rollie built his dream guitar while taking a one-on-one acoustic guitar building workshop with luthier Jay Lichty at Lichty Guitars. Its design is sublime and its tone … phenominal!
The project was an Alchemist guitar with a Manzer-inspired wedge body, beveled armrest, cocobolo rosewood for the back, sides and head plate, a Sinker redwood top, mahogany neck, ebony fretboard and bridge, sir sound port, camel bone nut and saddle, Mother of Pearl rosette and inlay markers
Click on the link to see images from the beginning of this one-on-one acoustic guitar building workshop
What is a Guitar Building Workshop Like? In Rollie’s words …
We ask guitar and ukulele building students to fill out an evaluation form upon completion of the workshops. That feedback helps us to make each session better than the last. When Rollie sent us his feedback we were frankly stunned. He tossed our form to the wind and let his talents as a writer take to the keys.
Thank you Rollie for such a thoughtful reply !
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I first talked to Jay on the phone. At the time, I knew precisely three things about building guitars:
1. It takes a luthier to build a guitar
2. It takes mysterious and complex tools
3. It takes skill beyond what I have
But Jay seemed confident that I would be able to do it. I was excited about this, but also secretly convinced that I would probably be sitting in the corner of the shop, afraid to touch the pretty wood and sharp tools, watching him do all the fabulously complex luthier-magic. I hoped this wasn’t the case, because I really wanted to build something I could be proud of, and to be able to play an instrument that I had made, one that didn’t sound too awful. That was about as far as I believed I was capable of getting: not too awful. I envisioned Jay out in the shop for hours each night undoing my mistakes and trying to salvage something playable out of the pile of sticks I had haphazardly glued together. I started to feel a bit sorry for him.
Naturally, with thoughts like these dancing through my head, I was a nervous when we arrived in Tryon. I was tired from the drive, and after bad Mexican food, 40 winks, and too little coffee, I found myself standing in a small and comparatively modest wood shop – one with tools I recognized and had used before. I knew, right then, that this was going to be really hard – without all those special tools I had dreamt up, there was no way I could do this. A band saw and a belt sander? Where was the set of precision calipers and micrometers and tiny files and picks and neck-making jigs and three-handled bracing crunchers I had dreamt up? I started to worry that 10 days wouldn’t be enough time. Or that there might be another room in the shop where all the REAL luthier tools were, but that I wasn’t allowed to go there without knowing the secret handshake.
Jay still seemed confident, and he didn’t ask for a secret handshake, so I played along. He pulled out some sheets of thin wood and a router and put them on the bench in front of me – along with a pencil and a template shaped roughly like a guitar. “This is the guitar top, so I want you to find your center line and line up the template, then trace it out. You’re going to do your rosettes and cut the sound hole.” Then he just turned around and started fiddling around with some bottles on his workbench. Really? That’s how it starts – with tracing? I was pretty sure I could do that.
An hour later, I was slopping superglue onto the rosettes and giggling about it. Superglue? Tracing? This had to be a trick.
Obviously not, and as the day ended and I walked back to the studio, I was amazed at how fast it was going – the rosettes were finished, the front and back were cut out on the band saw, and the sides were bent and glued to the neck and tail block. I wasn’t just sitting there watching Jay do the work, I was DOING the work… I was building the guitar. I knew right then that I could do this – that it wasn’t some great mystery… that it could be learned.
A month before that, at the end of the school year, we did a week of professional development with an experiential education specialist from Earlham College in Indiana. He came in and walked us through various models and frameworks for changing our classrooms from lecture-based teaching forums to more active spaces where the kids learned by doing. I have 17 years in the classroom teaching writing and media production, and many of the other teachers there had me beat – some by a decade or more. And still, for many of us, it didn’t come easily – and here was a guy in a small luthier’s shop in Tryon who, as far as I knew, didn’t have any experience or training as a teacher, and he was not only teaching me how to build a guitar, he was teaching me a whole lot about teaching.
What I knew about building a guitar was mostly wrong: You don’t have to be a luthier, the tools aren’t complex, and it wasn’t beyond my skill – just beyond my experience and training. Don’t get me wrong: If I had tried this on my own, I would have made a very sad and completely unplayable chunk of expensive wood shaped vaguely like Salvador Dali’s idea of a guitar. If I tried it on my own now, I might stand a better chance and could probably manage a sturdy guitar-shaped box with strings. What I built during the workshop was, and is, frankly, hard for me to believe. I have my perfect guitar – it’s beautiful, it sounds amazing, it plays like an extension of my fingers, and I built it. Me.
It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this proud, and it’s important for me to understand how this feels – as a teacher – to make sure my students have the opportunity to feel this way about their work. To trust them and their abilities, to push them beyond what they think they’re capable of doing, to expect great results, and to lend them my experience, but to stay out of their way as they work.
It was Jay’s patience, experience, skill, knowledge, and willingness to trust that I could pull it off that got me the guitar I have. Sure, I had to do everything the right way as I worked through it, but it was his experience that defined what that looks like so I knew how to hit the targets. This workshop helped me understand what it’s like on the other side – something we teachers often conveniently forget because it’s easier to just lecture, or to stop kids from making mistakes than it is to let them learn from them. (Did I mention that I cracked my guitar top twice during the build? I learned the power of superglue, and the wisdom of not leaning on the top of a guitar. Seems like common sense, now…)
It’s worth mentioning Jay’s patience again – it had to be tough watching me sand for three hours at a stretch… like watching someone vacuum, only when it’s over, the rug’s not clean.
I know this is longer than you were looking for, and, as a narrative, it probably did me more good to write it than it will do you for promotions and feedback, but, in my long-winded and roundabout way, I think I hit the points on the feedback form.
I want to thank you both, again, for the hospitality, generosity and opportunity you provided. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a pretty good life with some amazing experiences, and my time with you ranks up in the all-time unforgettables.
How does Rollie’s guitar sound?
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Learn more about acoustic guitar building workshops at Lichty Guitars. Jay teaches one-on-one and small group formats throughout the year.
See a photo gallery featuring some of the completed workshop guitars …