Buying a Luthier-Made Guitar?

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this post I’ve addressed what to look for when buying a flamenco guitar. But things can get even more complicated when you’re looking to buy your first luthier-made guitar. Whether your budget is $2,500 or $25,000, the issues are more or less the same, and boil down to finding that “perfect” guitar and not regretting your purchase.

There are four main things to consider when looking to invest in a luthier-made guitar. Despite what I consider a pretty good position from which to declare what makes a good guitar, I want to say right up front that almost all of this is just my educated take. In fact, that’s really the point – almost everything important about guitars is subjective. How they sound, how they feel and how they look are all subjects that can’t really be quantified. So in the end, the most important thing about a guitar is how it sounds, feels and looks to you. (Resale value is a whole different story, and can be really confusing because it sometimes makes no sense).

The other really important thing I want to say is this: there is no perfect guitar! The odds of finding a guitar that sounds, feels and looks perfect are really small. (The odds of finding that guitar and being able to afford it can be even smaller). Also, I’ve had about ten “perfect guitars” in my life, so clearly it’s something of a moving target.

I have a few opinions about what makes a good guitar.

I’ve owned an almost embarrassing amount of guitars over the years. I had the good luck to meet most of the great guitar makers in Spain on my first trip there, so I’ve always had guitar maker friends. Thusly, I’ve had many earfuls about what makes a great guitar. I also recorded guitars for Guitar Salon International for ten years (almost 1500 recordings in all). It’s possible that I’ve heard more performances on more different guitars than anyone else ever. And this year I was a judge at the Granada Guitar Festival’s guitar-making competition – the first year they had a flamenco division for that.

This is what you should look for in a guitar:

First – decide whether or not you even want to play guitars that are outside of your budget. On the one hand you may get an idea of what your perfect (affordable) guitar should sound and feel like. On the other hand it’s possible you’ll set an impossible standard. But on the third hand you may learn a really valuable lesson. That lesson is: just because a guitar is more expensive or made by a better-known luthier doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better.

Second – if it’s not fun to play, the rest of it doesn’t really matter. It can be the most beautiful guitar in the world in terms of both sound and looks, but if you don’t enjoy playing it you’re not going to be happy in the long run. Because of this, I recommend playing a guitar for as long as possible before buying it. A guitar’s sound and looks and reputation and mystique can temporarily make you not notice that a guitar is a pain in the ass to play. You need to be sure about this before committing.

What’s the action here?

BUT – there’s almost nothing more important to making a guitar feel right (and sound right) than having the action set up properly. Preferably by someone who knows what they’re doing, like a luthier if you can find one. So if you love a guitar that’s hard to play you’ll want to see if the seller can get that fixed for you before you decide to buy. If you can’t be sure that a guitar can be made comfortable to play then my advice is to pass, no matter how much you love everything else about it.

Third – be as open-minded as possible. You may think you have to have a guitar with certain woods made by a certain maker in a certain year. But there are a lot of guitars out there! And you might be surprised by what you find if you just go by how a guitar sounds and feels. Try lots of guitars. To the extent possible try to just listen and feel the guitar without thinking about all of the hype and marketing we’ve been exposed to over the years. You may discover that a 1960’s Ramirez cedar-top blanca was what you wanted all along. But you may also discover that the young luthier who lives in your city/state/country will work with you to make you a guitar that’s just right for you. Or that the Japanese luthier you hadn’t heard of made great guitars in the 70’s or something.

Where do I go to look for a guitar?

Fourth – Decide how you’re going to look for a guitar. Your three choices are usually a dealer, a private party or direct from a luthier. Each option has its good and bad sides. I used to think buying from dealers was crazy, but after working with GSI for so many years I see things differently, even if it’s not always the right answer. So here’s my take on the relative merits of each option:

Private party

Here’s where you’re likely to get the best deal but also face the most risk. A second hand guitar will usually be cheaper than new (unless it’s a fancy vintage something or other or the seller is unreasonable). The downside is that if the guitar has any kind of problem not instantly noticeable, or if you just end up not liking the guitar as much as you thought you would, you basically have no recourse but to turn around and try to sell the guitar yourself.

Direct from a luthier

This is by far the most satisfying experience, but it’s also not without its risks. There’s something really fun about having a guitar made for you. You generally get some say into which kinds of woods are used, and possibly even into the measurements and aesthetics of the instrument (depending on the luthier). It’s also fun to know all about your instrument as it’s being made, being the first owner, and having contact with the person who made it. And because there’s an individual person responsible for making the guitar, they will almost always stand by their work in the case of a problem. The downsides are that you’ll be paying full price for a new guitar (though this may still be less than you pay at a dealer) and that if you simply don’t like the guitar as much as you hoped you would, you’re kind of stuck with it. Most luthiers won’t simply take back a guitar if there’s nothing actually wrong with it.

From a dealer

Buying from a dealer will almost always be more expensive than the previous two options, but there are two very important upsides. The first upside is that you have many guitars to choose from, and you can play them all next to one another and really compare them to one another. This is probably the best way to ensure you wind up with a guitar you love. The other is that a dealer is the only option that is likely to give you any relief if you regret your choice, since many have a trial period of at least a few days and will generally work with you on a trade if it’s a few months before you realize you’ve bought the wrong guitar (for you).

I can’t tell you which is right for you, but hopefully thinking about all of this will help you decide how to go about buying a guitar.

A word about cracks

As I mentioned in Part 2 of this post, wood cracks. I’ve owned very few guitars without at least one crack. I had a Ramirez for a few years with so many huge cracks that I dubbed it “Cracky” and it was a great guitar! Most cracks aren’t structural and don’t really affect a guitar that much. But people don’t like cracks, so guitars with cracks can be a lot cheaper. Personally I always go for the guitar with the (well-repaired) cracks, all other things being equal. As long as you can be pretty sure it’s not structural, don’t let a crack or two (or three) scare you away from buying a guitar you love.

Your friend, The Luthier

And finally I have this to say – make friends with a guitar maker! You’ll learn so much about the instrument you love and you’ll have a valuable resource when it comes time to determine whether a crack is structural or the action on a guitar can be made better. And in the event you damage a guitar yourself it’s good to know the people who can fix them. Also, in my experience, they’re the only other people around who care about guitars as much as we players do!