James Olson, Larry Robinson, Kevin Ryan, and Michael Keller

I have always felt there is a greater satisfaction in further refining a well thought out design. And if one is paying attention there is a never-ending possibility of refining ones understanding and potential. Instrument making is such a broad field in all of its aspects, that there is barely enough time in a whole lifetime to start to understand the overwhelming complexity of all of the elements.

From left: Craig Lavin, Michael, and Larry Robinson

From left: Craig Lavin, Michael, and Larry Robinson

Just to build one instrument like the guitar can take many years to learn basically. Then it takes many more years to learn how to sculpture the sounds one can produce. I think my own work dramatically improved somewhere after I had been building for over 20 years, and it continues to do so.

I have been very lucky to have a group of customers in recent years who have asked me to push out of my own comfort zone and build some very new and interesting designs. From these new directions some very beautiful and wonderful sounding guitars have been built, while still allowing me some blissful artistic indulgence.

As a professional guitar builder who has done many exhibitions and shows, I have been exposed to an overwhelming amount of other people’s work. I have seen hundreds of builders work, and some of them I have seen their work progress for over 20 to 30 years — mostly at the Healdsburg Guitar Festivals, and at Guild of American Luthiers conventions.

I took inspection mirrors and a flashlight to some of the shows and examined many people’s guitar bracing. So I am exposed to, and encouraged by many people’s work. I have been inspired by many designs I have seen and I have been very lucky to meet a lot of amazing guitar makers — so much to learn and so little time!

In the early days, all of my instruments were one of a kind custom builds, it was hard to get to bored because everything was always new all the time. I made a broad selection of acoustic instruments. Happily, after many years, I stabilized my design of an acoustic six-string guitar, and developed a group of models built around it. For the last 15 years I have been building 6 and 12 string acoustic guitars exclusively.

I cleaned my shop out and got rid of old instrument forms that I had used. Stabilizing my design improved all aspects of my instrument work. But I still can, with a fully tooled shop and lots of time, follow new directions. You can lose a lot of money building just one of a kind instruments because of the time involved, overhead, and tooling is so expensive. So it’s a balance of trying to make a living, and exploring new areas. I’ve never wanted to just build the same guitar over and over and over again.

Which is more difficult, building for the satisfaction of your own muse, or building to fulfill a clients requirements?

That’s a hard question to answer. They both can be difficult in different ways. If you’re building for a client it is absolutely critical that you listen to their playing styles, their taste in music, and their input and desires. But it’s most important that you fulfill a commission with an instrument that meets their expectations.

Dual ports

Dual ports

Playability, the quality of the sound, and intonation, all have to be of the highest quality. Ordering a custom built guitar requires a lot of faith in the ability of a builder on the customer’s part. It’s not like walking into a music store and taking a guitar off a rack, playing it and purchasing the instrument.

I have always allowed my clients a lot of freedom on custom guitars, picking out their own woods, inlays, body and headstock shapes, pickups, etc. But in the end, the difficulty is in bringing all of those requests together into a guitar they will want to own and play. Not an easy task!

On the other hand, following one’s own muse allows much more freedom. When going out on a limb to try radically new designs and ideas, you have to decide if you can handle the risk. What if following your own muse results in something that doesn’t work? That happens a lot for young builders.

Building a guitar takes a lot of time, and if you’re trying to live by your work, the quality must be consistent. For me, that has always been the hallmark of the great builder. Not just a good guitar once in awhile but consistently over and over again. And that takes years to learn how to do.

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