From Acoustic Guitar Magazine, June 2009:
Report from Bryan Galloup’s School of Lutherie
By Dan Erlewine
Like many others who build and repair guitars for a living, I learned this trade mostly on my own, and largely by trial and error. But today, more and more aspiring luthiers are taking an entirely different career path: going to guitar-making school and studying along with a group.
“Instead of starting out crawling, going to school is like being shot out of a cannon,” said Steve Fischer, who in 2002, at age 24, left his job in Utah to study at the Galloup School of Guitar Building and Repair in Big Rapids, Michigan-and today he is one of the top acoustic guitar builders for Paul Reed Smith Guitars. “This isn’t a “build your dream guitar’ summer camp, it’s a lesson in the fundamentals. It would take me years on my own to gain this much experience and knowledge.”
I recently spent a weekend at the Galloup School, teaching repair workshops and talking with future luthiers-folks who’ve changed their lives and are making the leap into guitar work as a full-time career. Bryan Galloup worked in my shop back in the 1980s, and in the years since he’s built a successful business of his own, including the full-time trade school. The Galloup School offers an eight-week Journeyman Program that covers repair, electronics, and construction, and a six-month Master Program that includes flattop, electric, classical, and archtop building as well as business planning. I’ve also given seminars at two other great schools-Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix, Arizona, and Minnesota State College’s program in Red Wing, Minnesota-and I really like the whole idea of lutherie schools as well as their energetic atmosphere. These schools draw students of many ages-from the late teens to older people making a career change or finding a hobby.
My own career is in guitar repair, so I was curious to see how the Galloup School balances repair with building. “Our program starts with repairs,” said Russ Olmsted, one of Galloup’s instructors. “We teach that first because even if building guitars is your goal, it’s repair work that introduces you to customers, builds your reputation, and pays the bills along the way.”
From there, students proceed to building various types of acoustics and electrics. “On the electric side, students first build solid-body guitars,” Olmsted said. “They think that sounds simple, until they try to meet our standards. And spray finishing is a big learning experience for most of them. After all that, they’re ready for the more advanced building techniques. It’s about layering the skills.”
Building a Career
During my visit I asked students what led them to guitar-building school, and what they plan to do after graduating.
“I’m in the middle of my life,” said Jim Walk, a 41-year-old student from Austin, Texas. “When a computer replaced me in the insurance business, I applied for a job at Collings Guitars in Austin. They knew I’d be a diligent worker but said my lutherie skills were too underdeveloped and that I should look into a school.
“So I considered it but was afraid it was too late to develop skills that might take years to master. My wife said, “You have the means to do it now, so go to school. If you don’t, you’ll still wish you had at 50.’ Now I’m halfway through the course, with a lot on the line and no guarantee that anything will come of it, but I’d do it over in a heartbeat. I’ve learned so much, and perhaps for the first time in my life I’m molding my own destiny.”
Another student making the move in midlife was 54-year-old Andrew Highly from Melbourne, Australia. “Guitar building will be my retirement,” he said. “Having started two previous successful businesses, I’m under no illusion that everything will fall easily into place. I know it’ll take hard work, persistence, and patience. And I’ll probably get back into sales or management for a while until I establish my new lutherie venture. I’ve learned so much whilst attending the school, to say nothing of the great guitars I’ve now made. I’ll carry this experience with me forever.”
Tony Jackson, 42, discovered at the school that he has a knack for spray finishing. “Probably some of my experiences in the US Navy [from which he recently retired] gave me a leg up on using the equipment,” he said. “I’m here under the military VA program, training to begin a second career. Most of the younger students don’t realize what a high-end finishing setup we’re using: isolated down-draft booths for sanding, a hot lacquer spray system, and fresh air flow that’s so good that even when spraying all day, you don’t smell it in the shop. I’d never get a crack at this kind of equipment if I were trying to teach myself in my own shop.
“Since we follow each other’s spray work, watching through a large picture window, the experience is multiplied by the number of students in the class; we learn much more than we would on our own. There are 16 of us in my class, and our finishes are as good or better than at any factory-right down to a perfect buff. We could walk into any shop that sprays lacquer and know what to do.”
Hands and Machines
On one day during my visit, it was quiet in the school. Everybody seemed to be working with chisels and knives on their guitar braces. But there was a shop full of high-end power tools-saws, a thickness planer, a thickness sander, and everything needed for big production work. Students do learn to use this gear as well, under the supervision of instructors. So whether students dream of building custom guitars by hand or working for one of the industry’s big manufacturers, they’ll have the chops.
Sam Guidry, another instructor, pointed out that guitar-making school includes more than just building. “We teach them guitar design and layout, problem solving, and even business planning,” he said. “That whole side of the work is important, too: how to set yourself up in business and succeed.” The students live together in log cabin homes near the school, so their immersion is complete-these folks are eating and breathing lutherie around the clock.
Though some of the students I met were in their 40s and 50s, most up-and-coming luthiers at the school are of college age and have chosen this trade school as an alternative to college-and as a way to get into the business. If the stories I encountered are any indication, this decision is working for them. Take the example of Steve Fischer, who graduated from Galloup’s six-month Master Program in 2002 along with his friend Austin Harris. Today they head the acoustic guitar division at PRS Guitars, helping to design and build the new PRS Tonare Grand and Angelus Cutaway models.
The thought of heading a division at PRS so soon after leaving school was a surprise to me. Yet Paul Reed Smith says that shouldn’t come as surprise. “I’ve never been to Bryan’s school, but the reflection I get from his students is excellent,” Smith said. “Many of his graduates work at PRS. Steve’s become a wonderful guitar maker. He’s built scores of instruments for some of the best acoustic guitarists, including Ricky Skaggs and Tony McManus. Steve believes Bryan and his school gave him the foundation for making his career.”