Showcasing the Arts

National Endowment for the Arts

 

Made to be Played: Masterpieces



Stringed Instruments as Art

Of course musicians and sculptors are artists, but what about men and women who work on musical instruments? Those who make and repair stringed instruments are called luthiers. Does a luthier make artistic decisions about the way an instrument sounds, looks, and feels?

Luthiers have advanced skills in the arts of instrument building and repair, and they use these skills to serve musical communities. Through recent interviews, some luthiers explained how they learned the trade, differences in building and repairing, communities they serve, favorite tools and materials, their workshops, and their innovations. This exhibit features Kentucky luthiers’ quotations, photographs, and some of their musical masterpieces.

Roy BowenRoy Bowen cofounded RS Guitarworks in Winchester, which is internationally known for electric guitar making, repair, aging, and upgrades:

“The guitar itself is a work of art. It all has to be about the craftsmanship and the beauty of the thing. You could almost frame them and put them on the wall.”

 

 

 

Donna Lamb and Lewis Lamb

Donna Lamb and her father Lewis make instruments, play them, and host popular jam sessions in Berea. They live in Lancaster and won a 2007 Kentucky Governor’s Award in the Arts for Folk Heritage:

“They’re made to be used. I’ve seen so many instruments go into museums and you can just see that they want to be played. They don’t want to be sat there for people to look at, that wasn’t what they were built for.”

 

 


Learning the Art of Lutherie

Like all master artists, luthiers have talents they develop over years. Often, they begin as musicians who work on their own instruments. Luthiers learn from one another and share artistic expression, which is why folklorists study luthiers as an occupational folk group.

Luthiers make up a group that serves another type of folk group: musicians. John Harrod is a musician and scholar from Owenton who plays in the band Kentucky Wild Horse. He says:

“They’re artists, and highly skilled craftspeople. It takes a lifetime of experience to learn the ins and outs of instruments, whether they’re banjos or guitars or fiddles or mandolins, they all have their own history and lore, and what makes them sound good. There’s a lot of specialized knowledge that goes into it, and that’s why most musicians don’t do it themselves, because they’re specialized as pickers. They rely on somebody to keep the music going.”

 

Frank Pittman

Frank Pittman of Bowling Green is a retired industrial arts professor at Western Kentucky University:

“I wanted to learn how to make guitars first and then see if I could teach guitar making. The only way that you can really, really know that you know something is to actually try to do it on your own.”

 

 

 

Art Mize learned lutherie from the late J. B. Miller. He operates Mize Violin Shop in Lexington:

“There’s a lot of wisdom that’s almost incommunicable about making: sense of the wood, the feel for its strength, and that sort of thing. You could just watch J. B. Miller and see how he dealt with the wood and say, ‘he’s feeling for something there.’ And then you go feel it yourself and say ‘What’s he discerning about that?’”

Cathy Currier, of Currier’s Music World in Richmond focuses most of her work on repair and maintenance:

“You have a big, networking group of people. If I need help with something, I have ten people I can call. There’s always something different to learn when you’re doing instrument repair work. Everyone has a different opinion how to do it, so then you have to decide which way is good for you.”

 

Jimmy Robertson

Jimmy Robertson of Metcalfe County is a self-taught instrument builder:

“I’d always wanted an F-style mandolin. You know, they’re too high to buy. I just started whittling and chopping on a piece of wood and made me one, and it made a sound. Somebody wanted it, and I sold it and made another one. It just went from there.”

 

 

 


Making and Repairing Instruments

Luthiers develop a deep understanding of how instruments are made, and how they are maintained. Some focus on making instruments, and others focus on repair. Both areas of specialization require lots of creativity, and both serve equally important roles in musical communities.

Environmental changes like humidity and temperature affect the way stringed instruments sound, so luthiers may “set up” an instrument two or more times a year. A set-up may involve neck, bridge, nut, or tailpiece adjustments.

Arthur Hatfield

Arthur Hatfield of Glasgow makes banjos for well-known players like Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver and leads the bluegrass band Arthur Hatfield and Buck Creek:

“The best instruments are not being made by big companies. Your individual builders are making the best.”

 

 

 

Scott Leedy of RS Guitarworks in Winchester explains the satisfaction that comes from making an instrument:

“You get done with this piece of wood you’ve been hacking on and carving on and sanding on forever, and just working on so hard. When you get to put all the pieces on it and plug it in for the first time, that’s what we refer to as “the lightning hitting Frankenstein effect.” You get that first sound out of it. That’s when I get my reward, right there. That’s when it all comes full circle for me.”

 

Art Mize

Art Mize does repair work at Mize Violin Shop in Lexington:

“Repair is a funny business, because you hope that you fix it and you don’t see them again. You have to have new people discover you all the time.”

“The really interesting repairs are the ones where you have to think a lot about what to do to restore it to functionality, and restore it to its beauty, and to the quality that the instrument was. Violins tend to have very long lives, so I have to conserve the historical voice of the instrument.”

 

 

 

 

 


Luthier Communities

Kentucky is filled with musical communities that play old-time, bluegrass, gospel, rock and roll, country, and many other styles. Whether performing in a concert hall, a recording studio, or in a family jam session, a string player depends on a luthier who, in many cases, lives and works nearby.

Luthiers, as an occupational folk group, interact with groups of musicians who require great-sounding, great-looking instruments that also feel good in texture, weight, and balance.

Cathy Currier

Cathy Currier works on instruments at Currier’s Music World in Richmond:

“I’m a woman, and I think it’s a very, very male-dominated trade. To this day, people come in and go, ‘Where’s the repairman?’ And I go, ‘You’re looking at him. Here I am.’”

 

 

 

Neil Kendrick of Menifee County makes guitars and other instruments:

“The late Homer Ledford gave me a lot of information on how to do things the correct way. It’s really good that the family of luthiers are friendly with each other, and they will share so-called secrets with each other on how to do things.”

Frank Neat

Frank Neat lives in Russell Springs, where he makes banjos:

“We go and pick our wood out, and we’ll pick it out for the instrument and the player. We try to get ours to where they feel good in your hand, so that whenever they put their left hand on it, they want to play it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gary Cornett

John Harrod, musician and fiddle scholar from Owenton, descibes his luthier, Gary Cornett:

“Musicians depend on luthiers to find good instruments, and to keep them in playing condition. So I’m absolutely dependent on Gary Cornett. I owe him just about my life. He’s found great instruments, and he’s taken care of all my friends and everybody in the band.”

 

 

 


A Luthier's Environment:
Tools, Materials, and the Workshop

Luthiers learn to use a variety of tools, ranging from complex computers to simple pocketknives. Some prefer old methods over new ones, but all luthiers are innovators and make many of their own tools.

Materials are very important, and a luthier must know how to select the most appropriate woods, metals, finishes, and other goods, sometimes years before they will be used.

The luthier’s workshop is where everything comes together. The combination of tools, materials, hard work, and inspiration result in instruments that are works of art.

Cathy Currier of Richmond describes her most-used tools:

“Being a luthier a hundred years ago may have been romantic, but being a luthier now is really neat because [of] all the really nice tools we get to use. What I use the most is my belt sander and my band saw, and then all my hand tools. Lots of clamps, lots of little spatulas, tape, lots of low-tech stuff. I made thousands of dollars of tools that I would have had to have bought. I didn’t have to.”

Warren MayWarren A. May, who runs a shop in Berea, discusses different types of wood for dulcimers:

“Well, overall, each piece of wood will sound different. Generally, poplar was the most common wood available. The wood was very light, very resonant. Then, a lot of times, walnut would be very, very mellow. It’s a very soft, forgiving sound. For a little bit more precise sound, the cherry has the real bright, crispy, just a good clear tone sound. The aging of the wood is something that just can’t be duplicated. There’s more volume, more clarity, just a little bit more interest using the older pieces of wood, as opposed to new wood.”

 

Bryan EnglandBryan England began the business Custom Inlay with Larry Shepherd in Caneyville. Bryan explains the growth of his workshop:

“I’m on the kitchen table, making a mess, with another one. Then another one later, then another one, and then eventually I’m taking over the utility room, I’m taking over my garage, and then gradually take over the carport, take over this, add here, add there. We moved on out on the farm. And my old shop was just a garage here, and I added and added. And I ended up taking that over, and we just kept growing.”

 


Artistic Expression

Everyone expresses artistic sensibility in daily life, such as the way one prepares food, participates in work and play, or celebrates special occasions. These sensibilities, or aesthetics, are shared among groups of people, or folk groups. Luthiers are no exception; their group and individual aesthetics stand out in the details of their work.

Doug NaselroadDoug Naselrode of Clark County makes guitars and mandolins:

“I think anybody that really refines guitar making has to be an artist. You have the craftsmanship, but you also have the sense of taste, and you can’t have one without the other. You really have to find that balance. And I think a lot of it comes from spending time with that community, with peers.”

 

 

 

Frank Neat, of Russell Springs does inlay designs on his banjo necks:

“If you do it with a computer, everything looks just the same. If you hand do it, then it looks like it’s been done by hand. There’s a little bit of difference in all of it. If it’s hand done, you can tell that it’s hand done.”

Warren May of Berea explains how extraordinary-sounding instruments are born:

“There will be, occasionally, maybe one in fifty, maybe one in a hundred, that will have really, really distinctive properties. The instrument will just have an exceptional tone quality. Probably it’s the certain combination of pieces of wood, along with the playability. Now when you get down to super fine points like that, you probably couldn’t make one on purpose to sound better than another one.”

Neil KendrickNeil Kendrick of Menifee County uses his engineering background to control all aspects of an instrument’s construction:

“I approach my instruments from a precision standpoint. I like to think my instruments are as accurate as a manmade thing can be. There’s not really anything magical about a musical instrument. It’s all engineering principles, and a matter of design, and then the part of being meticulous about how everything happens. To do everything as perfect as a man can do.”

 

 


Tradition and Innovation

Traditional art forms are always changing. Change is what keeps folk culture alive and relevant. Luthiers draw from generations of traditional knowledge about musical instruments. Along the way, they make their own discoveries and contribute to that knowledge.

Warren May of Berea talks about his innovations:

“I’ve come up with an hour drop, which is a wider body with a teardrop side on it, to make it more gutsy sounding. I do a wide-bodied dulcimer that has a stronger, hummier sound. But I still keep in the traditional format, the traditional playing style.”

Scott LeedyScott Leedy of RS Guitarworks in Winchester describes the process of aging, or “relicking” an instrument:

“Roy [Bowen of RS Guitarworks] was pretty much the whole pioneer of the aging process, going through the right steps by trial and error, from the checking to the stains to the scratching, to Roy bashing a guitar against a rusty pole in the back. There’s been a lot of debate about the aging of the guitars and restoring them to their original look. I’ve always said it’s like trying to explain a joke. You either get it or you don’t. It can’t be explained. So we’re just lucky that a lot of people get it.”

 

Homer LedfordDoug Naselrode of Clark County learned many techniques from Homer Ledford, who was known for being an innovator:

“Part of his ethos, if you will, the way that he viewed the world was as an inventor. He was going to figure out what needed to be done. If he made a mistake, well, he’d do it better next time, and he wasn’t afraid to think up things.”

 

Page last updated: June 8, 2016
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