Works in Progress - Autumn 2014

The Day of the Luthier

By Chloe Taft | September 8, 2014


In the counterculture of the 1960s, building a guitar from scratch was primarily a means of personal expression; today, that same activity is artisanal—not to mention lucrative. Handmade instruments can sell for $10,000 or more in a collecting market stimulated by festivals and workshops. “We even have our own anthropologist,” points out one enthusiastic luthier.

That would be Kathryn Marie Dudley of Yale University, whose Guitar Makers: The Endurance of Artisanal Values in North America is to be published in October. Dudley spent six years researching the book. Immersed in the lutherie community, she interviewed 150 guitar makers, musicians, collectors, material suppliers, dealers, and festival organizers in the United States and Canada. A guitar lover herself, Dudley wanted to understand a craft that seems to run against the logic of capitalism.

It makes little sense to make 10 or 12 guitars a year, she says, “when factories and robotic technologies can produce hundreds of high-quality guitars a day.” So why are connoisseurs willing to pay double, and sometimes even 10 times as much, for a handmade instrument? Artisanal markets, she argues—whether in guitars, cheese, or surfboards—create alternative systems of value. In such markets, interacting with the materials is more important than mass efficiencies.

Expressions like “this guitar presented itself to me and demanded that I buy it” should be taken seriously, Dudley contends. “There is urgency to listening to what nonhuman matter has to tell us.”

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