Small Business Saturday: Mending the Music Makers

Becoming a luthier is not a good career choice, period, says Cat Fox emphatically.

But just in case there’s any doubt about her point, she adds: “This is not one of those things that people should get into. Nobody makes any money doing this. You can only do this and succeed if there is nothing else you can see yourself doing, nothing else that would make you happy. You’re just driven do this.”

Her caveat is an important one: If you are driven….

Because if you’re among those who are completely and totally focused on such a livelihood, then the conversation with Fox and other well-known luthiers becomes interesting and full of practical advice.

The career ahead of you, while potentially marked by struggles and dismal pay (at least in the early years), will also be fascinating and fulfilling.

Luthiers, who build and repair string instruments, spend their lives connected to music and musicians.

Peter Stokes, one of Boston’s best-known luthiers, for instance, has worked with Mick Jagger, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, The Cars, The Clash, Boston and The J. Geils Band. And that’s far from a complete list of his illustrious clients.

Fox, meanwhile, has been a luthier for 30 years and has more then a month-and-a-half backlog of work, and two employees working for her.

“I don’t even have to advertise,” she says. “But that’s because of my 30-year track record.”

Two Different Paths

Both Fox and Stokes have proven that making a living as a luthier is possible. Neither, however, had a direct or quick path to success. In fact, neither set out initially to be luthiers at all. But little by little, both found their way to the same destination.

Stokes, for instance, might have been a designer or perhaps a museum curator. After all, his degree from the University of California at Berkeley is in design and history of art.

Stokes’ true calling, though, can be traced back to his first bicycle.

“I had always been one of these kids that if you get a bicycle for Christmas, I would have the thing totally apart, trying to figure out how it all works,” he says. “I entered my teenage years familiar with a lot of hand and power tools. I could figure out how anything worked. At around 15 years old I started playing guitar.”

The other notable part of Stokes’ inadvertent journey toward becoming a luthier involves an accidental friendship with someone who went on to fame and fortune in the music industry.

“A girlfriend that I had met at the time said she heard some guy play in Boston and said I would really like to hear him because he played great guitar. We went down and it turned out to be (singer-songwriter) Chris Smither,” says Stokes. “We went down every time he had a gig. We became such fixtures there, before too long I got to be friends with Chris. I invited him over for Thanksgiving to our home in Cambridge. He had a guitar that sounded so extraordinary, compared to what I was playing. So I figured I would get myself one like his.”

Stokes bought the same guitar his famous friend played – a Gibson. But the two guitars sounded totally different. Stokes said the guitar he purchased sounded terrible. That’s when he officially began taking guitars apart, much like that bicycle as a child.

“That triggered a wonder of what makes his guitar sound the way it does and why doesn’t mine sound that way,” Stokes says. “I started fussing with this and that, noticed some differences. I probably performed 100 operations on that guitar, some probably detrimental, but it was a great learning process.”

Still attending college at Berkeley, which at the time was a musical hotbed, Stokes began hanging out at guitar repair shops, absorbing everything he could about instrument maintenance and repair.

Meanwhile, his friend Chris Smither was becoming more and more famous. As his star rose, Smither would send famous friends to Stokes when they were in need of instrument repairs.

“When touring bands would show up in Boston, and something would happen, I would get referred,” says Stokes.

After finishing college, Stokes settled back in Boston and submitted an application for a job at the Museum of Fine Arts. He still was not focused on becoming a luthier.

But the museum never called. And destiny intervened.

“While I was waiting to hear back from the museum, a friend told me to go check out a guitar repair shop on Mass Ave and Newbury Street. I started hanging out there, and within a few weeks, a guy there left to go to Italy, and I was offered a job,” says Stokes. “The job paid more than what I would have made at the museum. I still kept waiting to hear from the museum. But then I realized I was having a lot of fun (at the guitar repair shop) and getting decently paid. Time tends to pass without you being aware of it.”

That was several decades ago. Stokes is now 65 and just a few years away from retirement.

For him, there was no lengthy formal training process to be a luthier. It was almost accidental in some ways. A series of life events, a hobby that fueled curiosity, a few turns and choices along a journey.

What Stokes did do, which was key, was apprentice for years. And he did some brief professional training at the Gibson and Martin guitar factories.

After spending much time working for others, including Wurlitzer, Stokes eventually opened his own storefront, and remains a solo operation to this day. His store, Broken Neck Guitar Repair, is located on Boylston Street in Boston, near Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory.

Once Stokes went out on his own, business took off.

“It didn’t take people long to track me down. Right from the first day I opened, I had steady business,” he says. “The first year was a little tight, but then it just went soaring and within three or four years I was doing three times as well as I was doing at Wurlitzer.”

Fox, one of the few female luthiers in the business, describes the career as something of an addiction.

After spending two years in college during her early 20s, studying aeronautics, learning all about how to fly planes, Fox dropped out.

She took a year off from school, and then enrolled in a nine-month program through the Minnesota State College system that would teach her how to build and repair guitars.

“I decided I wanted to work with my hands and be around musicians,” she recalls.

After completing the training program, Fox still did not feel like she knew enough or was ready to be on her own in the business. Much like Stokes, she spent years working as an apprentice in other people’s shops.

Fox cautions however, that landing a gig as an apprentice is extremely difficult. “I sent out over 100 cover letters and got only two responses,” she says.

Fox worked as an apprentice for six years, unpaid the entire time, while also working two other jobs to make ends meet.

“I was working those other jobs to finance my luthier addiction,” she says.

Eventually, Fox decided to open a tiny shop of her own. To advertise, she printed fliers and passed them out everywhere. She also left her business cards and fliers at music stores.

“I made my presence felt,” Fox says, adding that today she would suggest people advertise on Craigslist to begin generating business.

The first few years of business were very lean. She and her husband lived on a boat. Her husband had a job of his own, which helped the couple get by. It took two to three years before Fox’s business truly picked up.

That was 30 years ago. Fox, 53, has long been surviving and thriving on the income she makes as a luthier. Success took awhile, she says. And no one gets rich fixing guitars. But Fox’s business is booming — so much so, she employs two helpers to handle the workload.

The payoff for those who have what it takes, says Fox, is a very rewarding career.

“I like problem solving, and fixing things so that musicians can do what they do. I really like enabling musicians … because I think music is very important.”

Here are some additional tips from Fox and Stokes about making it as a luthier:

Guitar Repair and Building Training Programs

There are a handful of training programs in the country. Make sure to find a reputable one, says Fox, adding that the best are often associated with vocational schools.

She recommends the Musical Instrument Repair & Construction program offered by Minnesota State College-Southeast Tech in Red Wing. The program teaches students how to build and repair guitars as a career.

There is also the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in New Mexico, which Stokes says has an outstanding reputation.

The Importance of Serving as an Apprentice

It’s hard to overstate how important apprenticing is to a career as a luthier. Both Fox and Stokes say it is the only way to truly learn the craft well.

“It’s absolutely the best way,” says Stokes. “The apprenticing I did for people was totally unpaid. I did it because of my own curiosity, wanting to devour everything I could about the craft.”

Finding apprenticeship opportunities, however, is not quite so straightforward.

Fox suggests getting on Google and finding all the guitar stores in your area or wherever you want to locate. The next step is to offer your services to each of the stores and hope one will say yes. Be prepared for an uphill battle.

“Very few people will take apprentices now,” she says. “But there is a certain sense of giving back or paying it forward in a way among some luthiers, who will take apprentices. But apprentices drain your time, they take more time than they are worth and once you train them, they leave, so finding an apprentice opportunity is difficult.

“Don’t expect to get paid while apprenticing,” she adds. “No one is going to pay you to learn.”

The Skills You Need to Be Successful

Being a luthier involves far more than just quietly working in a shop mending an instrument.

Both Fox and Stokes stressed the importance of having business skills, people skills, and problem-solving skills.

“You’ve got to work really hard and you’ve got to work a lot,” says Fox.

“You have to run a business, be good with people, talk to musicians who are crazy — they’re all nuts — and you have to have some serious woodworking chops and be good at problem solving and be good at listening.”

The Tools of the Trade

The tools required to be a luthier require a significant investment — or being in the right place at the right time.

Stokes estimates initial costs at between $5,000 and $10,000. Fox says you can probably get away with spending around $1,000 to purchase the bare minimum.

Key tools needed to get started include a belt sander, drill press, and band saw.

“Those are the three non-negotiable tools,” says Fox. “And then there is all of the hand tools, that cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars.”

Stokes recommends looking for secondhand tools at yard sales, moving sales, and even from friends who no longer want them.

“For me it was a lifetime of collecting tools — a friend was moving, they had a table saw, and I would go get it,” says Stokes. “Over the years I accumulated so many tools, I have enough for two or three shops.”

Fees for Services

It’s always hard to know what to charge for your services when first starting out in business.

Stokes says the fees he charges are based on wanting to remain competitive in the marketplace in Boston. He tries not to price himself too high, or out of reach of the average student. The bulk of the work he does ranges from $50 to $100, which is for routine maintenance.

For major repairs, Stokes charges $100 to $300. Restoration jobs cost anywhere from about $300 to $800.

“The smaller stuff is the biggest share of my work,” he says. “The kind of setup and light fret work, small cracks, things like that. That’s the kind of work that keeps the doors open. It’s the bread and butter.”

Fox, meanwhile, says she also teaches on the side, to bring in money.

The Intangibles

Like any true calling, whether it’s being a musician or an artist, there is always the intangible something that contributes to success – whether it’s charisma, talent, or an ear for good composition.

When it comes to being a luthier, Stokes says it’s an ability to accurately assess a problem.

“I often feel a huge part of the success I had is being able to make the proper diagnosis. If someone comes in and says do this to my guitar, and then you do it, you do what they ask, and then they pick it up and say they are still not happy… you realize that what you need to do when they bring in a guitar is ask, ‘Why do you think that needs to be done?’ or ‘What is the actual problem?’” Stokes explains. “There’s kind of a bit of psychologist and diagnostic probing you have to do.”

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