Luthiers create stringed instruments such as guitars, violins and harps. They are the ones that craft an instrument from raw materials like wood or metal before it’s completed by a player or musician. In order to become one you need a lot of passion for music, patience, creativity and manual dexterity in addition to learning about how musical instruments work.
We’re back with another installment of our So You Want My Job series, in which we speak with guys who work in coveted positions and ask them about the realities of their employment as well as tips on how men might achieve their goals.
Many men fantasize of working as a craftsman of some type, quitting the workplace for a workshop, polishing and sculpting raw materials into something solid, useful, and maybe even beautiful. The results of Tom Bills’ labors undoubtedly fit the latter description. Bills, a luthier or guitar maker by profession, spends his days turning wood into beautiful musical instruments rather than crunching figures or looking through spreadsheets. He describes his profession in the video below, along with some beautiful photos of his making and artistry.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself (e.g., where do you come from?). What is your age? Describe your job, including how long you’ve been doing it, and so on.)
My name is Tom Bills, and I’ve been handcrafting guitars professionally since 1998. I create one-of-a-kind bespoke guitars for players and collectors all around the globe using the best unusual and gorgeous timbers available.
2. What inspired you to pursue a career as a guitar maker? When did you realize you wanted to do it?
I had no idea you could earn a living as a guitar maker at first. I was in college at the time, pursuing a jazz guitar degree, and I wanted a great archtop guitar to utilize in my studies. I couldn’t buy one, so I decided to construct one for myself. Coming from a family of woodworkers, innovators, and excellent craftsmen, it wasn’t a leap for me to believe I could create a guitar, though I’m happy I didn’t realize how tough it was at the time.
Many individuals attempted to discourage me, and I allowed them for a long time stop me until one fateful fall day. I was going along a historic street in my hometown of St. Louis when I came upon a little music business. I was thinking about guitar-making, and it seemed to me that this little store could have some literature on the subject. I entered the shop and inquired if they had any books on guitar building. He responded no, but he recommended I speak with the repairman who had previously made one. He dashed to the store’s rear to get him for me.
Soon after, a man named Mike King strolled out and introduced himself to me, and before I knew it, we had worked out a deal where he would let me come to his shop and use his equipment for $20 one night a week, comparable to a weekly guitar lesson. I vividly recall the tremendous awakening I had as I walked out of the store that day, as the realization that I was going to manufacture my own guitar slowly dawned on me like warm sunshine. Even then, at such a young yet crucial age, I couldn’t help but experience a feeling of destiny.
I created my guitar over the following several months, cutting the top at my kitchen table, collecting bits of wood here and there, and coming up with all sorts of inventive methods to make the most of what I had. In the end, I finished my first guitar, and I vividly remember the first time I played it in jazz theory class. It certainly attracted a crowd, not because of the quality of the work, but because the other players couldn’t believe I had built my own guitar. Soon after, I took my weekly guitar lesson with my teacher, who was at the time one of St. Louis’ top musicians. He was so taken aback by the fact that this was my first guitar that he persuaded me to construct one for him, which I did. I had a list of orders before long, and I immediately understood I was a guitar manufacturer.
3. How did you pick up this skill? Is it something you learn in courses, self-teach, apprentice in, or a mix of the three?
Traditionally, a new luthier would work as an apprentice with a master for a period of time to learn his trade, but I took a different route. For the bulk of my career, I was left to educate myself, however I was fortunate to have the instruction and assistance of numerous luthiers whom I highly admire and consider good friends to this day.
Apart from my first instructor, with whom I had weekly “classes,” it was many years before I had another apparently preordained interaction that led to my learning from another builder. Since then, my travels have took me to Baja, California, Washington state, South Carolina, and even Rome, as I appeared to be on the right track, always connecting with the appropriate instructor at the right time to download precisely the correct information I needed to advance in my abilities and as a person.
It’s been a challenging trip at times, but every worthwhile experience has its ups and downs, hard times and easy times, and through it all, I’m continuously learning and developing, getting better at my trade and, ideally, as a human being as well.
4. What additional options exist for guitar manufacturers outside manufacturing guitars as an independent craftsman? Is it possible to be recruited by a guitar-making firm, and have you ever done so or contemplated it?
Because there aren’t many possibilities for working in guitar manufacturing or other similar enterprises in Missouri, I never had any other options. Guitar repair is a possibility, but I have an insatiable need to create, and if I can’t develop something new every day, I feel like a caged animal or something. Repairing guitars does not provide me with the same sense of accomplishment that I get at the conclusion of building a new guitar, when I’m holding in my hands and staring at the exact item that I imagined before touching a single piece of wood.
I worked completely on creating guitars for a long time, until I recently started training new luthiers different parts of the art of lutherie, which has been a great and satisfying experience. Even while nothing will ever be able to replace my original passion of handcrafting guitars, as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized the importance, and even the obligation, of passing on what I’ve learned. Because of this, as well as the many requests to apprentice with me and the numerous inquiries I get every week, I created theartofflutherie.com, a website devoted to passing on the traditional art of handcrafting guitars.
5. How can a small-scale guitar manufacturer compete with huge, well-established corporations for customers?
Each guitar maker has his own marketing and business strategy. For me, I am primarily an artist, and my business strategy is comparable to that of an oil painter or sculpture. I only take on work that really inspires me and ignites my desire to push the boundaries of what I’m capable of. As a result, I’m not really competing with anybody since every guitar I build is a genuine original, handmade particularly for one individual, from start to finish, by my hands.
The process of having a guitar built by me is a trip that the client and I take together as we go through the phases of design, manufacture, and eventually delivery of the completed instrument. Even if someone copied my designs, it would not be the same as me, since my work is an expression of who I am. Many people have said that all of my guitars, even ones with very varied woods and designs, have a distinct tone and feel, which I think is due in part to the numerous hours I spend pouring my heart and soul into each one. My heart’s attitude, which is driven by a genuine desire to improve the lives of my clients, saturates the instrument and somehow imprints it forever in a manner that even the most inexperienced guitarist can detect. So competition is never even a consideration for me; if it were, I believe it would taint my motivations and restrict my ability to create a genuinely unique and inspiring guitar.
6. What is the most enjoyable aspect of your job?
Personal connection and relationships that form as a result of this process are what keep me grounded and motivated to work for the right reasons. It’s not about me, my expertise, or my work; instead, it’s about giving the client the finest experience possible throughout the process and, most importantly, creating a really unique and inspirational guitar that they will cherish for a lifetime.
Because it takes me an average of a year from the time a guitar is bought to the time it is delivered, I have plenty of time to get to know my customers. The folks I’ve met and had the honor of working with and with throughout the years are incredible. I can honestly say that there hasn’t been a single person who hasn’t had a good impact on my life, and my aim is that I have done the same for them.
7. What is the most difficult aspect of your job?
Dealing with the business side of things is perhaps the most difficult aspect of my work. As I previously said, I’m a natural artist, and making things right may become an obsession at times, one that doesn’t always align with the bottom line. Fortunately for me, I have a very tolerant wife who always stands with me when I have to choose between sending the instrument and collecting the payment or spending an additional two weeks perfecting it. Going the additional mile, in my experience, is always worthwhile in the long run, even if it seems a bit odd at the time. Knowing that I’m giving it my all every time is precious to me, and it’s the only way I feel satisfied and get a good night’s sleep.
8. How do you strike a work-family-life balance?
Keeping everything in balance is always a problem, especially when my job always tries to take over. I am not the kind of person who has a difficult time working; rather, I have a difficult time not working. This is also because my job is a part of me; I have a feeling of destiny and calling that makes it impossible for me to focus on anything other than the guitar I’m currently working on.
Every guitar seems to be a fresh and almost impossible difficulty. I never do the same thing again, yet I have an unquenchable need to improve and refine my skills. If I allow this urge to take over too much of my life, it might be harmful. But one thing that strikes a different yet valuable balance for me is that learning the art of handcrafting guitars has instilled new ways of thinking about life and the way I see and approach problems, as well as a sense of trusting in my abilities rather than relying on technology or tools all of the time. This attitude, which can be seen in the handcrafting of guitars, has permeated every aspect of my life.
The first step is to hone your abilities. One can only go so far with this. Hand tools may be used to mastery, but that is just the beginning. The main difficulty is mastery of one’s self, and only by delving deeper into that element can we really transcend beyond just gluing wood together into something greater – something valuable and from the heart. When we reach this level of effort and self-discovery, things change for the better, and our work takes on a power that may profoundly influence others who see and hear it, and have a positive effect on people’s lives.
9. What is the most common misunderstanding about your job?
Many people believe that since my guitars are so expensive, I must be quite wealthy, but what many people don’t realize is how many hours I put into each instrument. I spend a lot of time letting my work grow, which requires time and experience to be able to understand clearly whatever path a guitar or a piece of wood wants to lead me.
It’s a difficulty for me to convey to anybody what goes into making one of my guitars, and I haven’t figured out how to do it yet.
10. Do you have any other advice, recommendations, observations, or anecdotes to share?
One of the most important lessons I could impart is that no matter what you do or how long you’ve been doing it, you can always learn more, so don’t take yourself too seriously and never stop learning and improving. Take what you’ve learned and apply it to every element of your life, since your job will be constrained or empowered by who you are as a person, not simply what you can accomplish.
The “luthier school near me” is a guide that will help you to become a luthier. It includes information on how to build your own guitar, bass, or violin.
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