Be honest. When was the last time you brought your classical guitar to a luthier?
Every year, I do free diagnosis, adjustments and minor repairs at a local guitar festival. When I go to the classical guitarists, they gladly have me adjust their guitars. However, I’ve noticed that players rarely seek a luthier or repair person until a major problem like a crack (see below…) forces them to do so.
The lesson is that many classical guitarists are playing guitars that have not been optimized to their own playing.
Since your guitar is your expressive tool and perhaps your means of making a living, there are many advantages to getting acquainted with a local luthier who can keep your guitar running in tip-top shape. (I use the term “luthier” broadly — this includes repair persons)
What follows are THREE useful things a luthier can do for you and how to find one.
1. Optimize Your Action & Intonation
These are the two most compelling reasons to visit a luthier at least once in your relationship with any classical guitar. Surprisingly, many players I meet never considered they could make their guitars easier to play or sound better.
The action heights of your strings should be set according to what best suits your playing.
Since it’s highly individual, the optimal action height of each string is best set with you in the presence of the luthier.
In a typical session, I’ll ask the player to play a variety of pieces with different dynamic ranges as we discuss the cleanliness of sound (or presence of fret buzz) vs. left hand ease (or difficulty). We decide together whether to adjust each string up or down.
Through the arc of a player’s career or choice of repertoire, the optimal setting may change several times.
If you wince even slightly over your guitar’s poor intonation, it’s worth your time to work with a luthier who can usually improve it. I say “usually” because there can occasionally be structural constraints in some guitars that prevent improvement. (“Usually” also holds for optimizing action)
Several factors can contribute to inaccurate intonation, but in this age of laser-cut templates, it’s usually not due to incorrectly positioned frets. The most critical factor is the correct placement of where the ends of the strings leave the saddle and nut. This is fortunate because saddles and nuts can be easily adjusted whereas frets cannot.
Finally, because treble string material properties affect intonation, it’s common that players who change brands and/or models of strings experience changes in intonation. This is especially true of nylon versus carbon trebles. If you’ve noticed this phenomenon, consider working with a luthier.
2. Modify Your Classical Guitar
Beyond optimizing your classical guitar’s action and intonation, there are several modifications that a luthier can assist you with that will increase the performance of your guitar.
The most common modification I’m asked to do is change the tuning machines. (In this blog, I discuss why you might want to upgrade yours)
The second most common modification is to alter the string spacing, which requires making a new nut.
In addition to altering the distance between strings, a player can benefit by adjusting the spacing between the 1st string and the edge of the fingerboard. Most players prefer — to varying degrees — a larger distance between the 1st string and the fingerboard edge compared to that on the 6th string side. On descending slurs, this extra distance provides insurance against the dreaded slipping of the string over the edge.
3. Repair Your Guitar
It’s obvious that one would seek a luthier to repair cracks and lifting bridges, replace or level worn or protruding frets, and touch up worn finish.
What’s not so obvious is the benefit of establishing the relationship before something major happens.
In the emotional roller coaster that accompanies a severe accident or injury, you will save time and uncertainty knowing a qualified person whom you can call.
How to Find a Luthier
While developing the relationship with a luthier is easy, finding the right one in your area can be challenging.
Like finding a good auto mechanic, word of mouth is the best route.
Start by asking the professionals in your area, such as instructors, professors and performers. Other sources worth contacting for referrals are guitar societies and guitar departments within conservatories and universities.
Keep in mind that classical guitars are specialized in the guitar family, so you’ll want to informally interview a luthier to make sure he or she is experienced in performing the type of work you’re interested in.
Finally, some luthiers only build guitars and don’t do repair work. However, any luthier should be able to recommend a skilled colleague who does.