Our very first "Career Spotlight" interview is with a special gentleman, the husband of one of our Facebook group members, John Slater. John is a Luthier with Gibson Guitars, and he makes custom guitars. We were so thankful to John for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for us.
BCH: How did you get started making guitars? Did you learn on the job?
John: I started playing guitar when I was 13. When I was 14, I took a screwdriver and disassembled as much of the guitar as I could. It was a Fender Stratocaster copy, so it was mostly screws holding everything together. It seemed really easy to put it back together once I did it. It was really satisfying to see that I could do that. My father had a workbench in the basement, so I had access to a variety of tools at an early age.
When I was 16, I bought a cheap imported guitar from a friend that had faulty electronics. I ordered new parts from a catalog and rewired it. I learned how to solder in Industrial Arts class in 8th grade, so I had some experience and a little confidence going into that. My older brother (who worked on computers) gave me some tips to make the work go easier and look better. Later that year, I took it apart and refinished it with a can of spray paint.
There was one other guy at my high school that was doing the same sort of thing: buying cheap guitars and hot rodding them. We got into trading parts and lending each other magazine articles on guitar repair and books on guitar building. I would go in the back of the guitar magazines and send away for applications and catalogs for guitar building schools. There was one book in my county’s library system on guitar building and repair, but it only dealt with acoustic guitars which require many special tools. I wanted to work on electric guitars.
I wanted to go to a school to become a luthier after high school. My parents persuaded me to go to a traditional college instead. Throughout college I would continue to buy cheap and/or broken electric guitars and try to modify and repair them.
I eventually went to Bryan Galloup’s School of Guitar Building and Repair a few years after completing college. In that 2 month course I built an electric and an acoustic guitar and learned all manner of repair and maintenance of guitars. I applied to about half a dozen manufacturers in the US and was hired on to the Gibson Custom Shop 17 years ago.
BCH: What kind of skills would someone need to get into this line of work?
John: It’s not necessary to have completed a course in guitar building to start work in a guitar factory, but it was a big help for me. It made training for specific tasks go quicker. Knowledge of and experience using various hand tools (files, chisels, drills, etc.) is recommended. In my experience, you can learn all you need to know to do your job while on the job.
I had to learn the Gibson way of doing things, even though I’d been to school. Even if you have experience working on guitars, applying those techniques in a mass production setting will be different.
BCH: What do you enjoy most about your job?
John: I get to work on guitars everyday! We’re a big iconic brand. I work on guitars that I get to see in concerts, Super Bowl half time shows, the Grammys, in magazines, etc. It can be pretty cool.
BCH: Is a lot of your work by rote, or do you have opportunity to be creative?
John: Most of the work has to be the same. The guitars have to be consistent. Challenging myself to find a more efficient technique or a better looking result can keep the creative juices flowing.
Every once in while there will be a custom order where the customer thinks up something we haven’t done before. Like a wiring scheme for example. I get to figure out whether we can do it or not. You’d think there could be only so much you can do with a guitar’s wiring, but people come up with new stuff all the time. Technology advances and so do guitar gadgets. We try to come up with ways of creating the widest variety of tones in the simplest way possible.
BCH: Do you play guitar? Other instruments?
John: I’ve been playing guitar for over 30 years. I play bass guitar in a rock band that plays on weekends. One of my coworkers is in the band, too. I’ve been slowly teaching myself to play drums over the last couple of years. My sons are taking lessons in guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. Before my parents bought me a guitar, I learned to play the piano, violin, and trumpet.
BCH: What did you think you wanted to do in high school?
John: I knew I wanted to do this since high school. My parents pushed going to college to have a more white collar job. They weren’t going to pay for a trade school that they couldn’t see leading to a good career. I also must not have made a persuasive enough argument at 18 years old to change their minds. There weren’t very many places nearby to apply that trade, and I knew I wasn’t an entrepreneur. Starting my own guitar making/repair business was not something I wanted to do. So I went to college and got a BA in English and Theatre. I am fortunate to have parents who were able to pay for college.
BCH: Do you consider your work difficult? Rewarding?
John: Yes and yes.
Difficult: Lots of tasks require focus and concentration. There can be many distractions. If you’re not careful, a drill can go through a guitar instead of 1/4 of an inch. A file can cut too much material. You have to keep production pace and hit quotas while maintaining a high level of quality.
Rewarding: The completed product.
BCH: What advice would you give to someone who might be considering this for a career?
John: If you have an electric guitar, take it apart and put it back together. Get some experience working with tools. You can buy guitar kits online. Find videos and books about guitar building or repair. Your public library and Youtube are great resources. I wish I had Youtube when I was a teenager. I used to buy VHS tapes from the Stewart McDonald catalog that showed how to do repairs.
Contact some luthierie schools. Get the advice of the teachers or owners. They have the benefit of seeing where their students have gone after their training. They know the shops and factories and their reputations and hiring needs.
BCH: What classes should they take in high school?
John: Anything that gets you working with your hands. Wood working or furniture making. Do they have art and shop classes in school anymore? Engineering.
Luthiers craft all kinds of stringed instruments, not just guitars. Violins, mandolins, banjos, and any other stringed instrument that is either plucked or "bowed" is crafted by a Luthier. There are many schools you can train at for a career in this field and we will be featuring many of them on our web page here: Trade and Technical Training - Visual and Performing Arts.
Thanks again to John Slater for helping us all learn more about his career!