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Guitar Makers

The Endurance of Artisanal Values in North America


Guitar Makers

The Endurance of Artisanal Values in North America

It whispers, it sings, it rocks, and it howls. It expresses the voice of the folk—the open road, freedom, protest and rebellion, youth and love. It is the acoustic guitar. And over the last five decades it has become a quintessential American icon. Because this musical instrument is significant to so many—in ways that are emotional, cultural, and economic—guitar making has experienced a renaissance in North America, both as a popular hobby and, for some, a way of life.

In Guitar Makers, Kathryn Marie Dudley introduces us to builders of artisanal guitars, their place in the art world, and the specialized knowledge they’ve developed. Drawing on in-depth interviews with members of the lutherie community, she finds that guitar making is a social movement with political implications.  Guitars are not simply made—they are born.  Artisans listen to their wood, respond to its liveliness, and strive to endow each instrument with an unforgettable tone. Although professional luthiers work within a market society, Dudley observes that their overriding sentiment is passion and love of the craft. Guitar makers are not aiming for quick turnover or the low-cost reproduction of commodities but the creation of singular instruments with unique qualities, and face-to-face transactions between makers, buyers, and dealers are commonplace.

In an era when technological change has pushed skilled artisanship to the margins of the global economy, and in the midst of a capitalist system that places a premium on ever faster and more efficient modes of commerce, Dudley shows us how artisanal guitar makers have carved out a unique world that operates on alternative, more humane, and ecologically sustainable terms.

374 pages | 42 halftones, 3 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2014

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Art: American Art

Music: General Music

Sociology: Occupations, Professions, Work, Sociology of Arts--Leisure, Sports


Guitar Makers is a must read for anyone working in the field of guitar building. . . . Born out of the spirit of the late ’60s, with more than a tinge of hippie idealism, the roots of American modern lutherie are far from the European model, grown out of the medieval guild system, with its mistrust, secrecy of methods and territorial angst.”

Michael Spalt, European Guitar Builders

“An energetically researched and intellectually penetrating ethnography of artisan guitar makers. . . . Guitar Makers is an important book.”

In These Times

“Worthy. . . . This is not only a book for guitarists, luthiers and collectors, providing as it does a cogent overview of the economics and practicalities involved.”

Times Literary Supplement

“This book honors the decades of unremitting toil that a generation of self-discovered artists invested in bringing the ‘folk’ guitar to its current pinnacle of sophistication.  The barriers to this evolution have been formidable, beginning with the scorn of polite society and continuing up through today’s baffling legislation that impedes the movement of millions of fine guitars across national borders.  Now that the cultural and commercial ship has come in, can luthiers serve both Art and Mammon?  That is the question that drives this groundbreaking anthropological analysis.”

Tim Olsen, president of the Guild of American Luthiers

Guitar Makers is a terrific book. Dudley has investigated the world of North American guitar making, or lutherie, the long hard way, the way of intense participation and observation, deep involvement in the world she studied, and in general following the old anthropological wisdom of seeing for yourself and asking about everything you don’t understand.”

Howard S. Becker | author of Art from Start to Finish

"A richly informative contribution to our knowledge of the predicaments and challenges of artisanship in this relentlessly high-tech and commercially unforgiving age, Dudley’s beautifully written study of modern American guitar-makers explores the intersection of the sensual, the affective, and the practical in their lives and works.  Dudley tells a story that weaves together stories of coping with harsh economic realities, of intense explorations in personal self-realization, and of the often trial-and-error acquisition entailed in what she astutely takes to be the craft epistemology of a demanding and specialized but often undervalued and risk-fraught profession.  She thereby offers us an incisive account--historical, ethnographic, personal, and analytical in kaleidoscopic rotation--of the vicissitudes of value and the mystique of mastery."

Michael Herzfeld | Harvard University

“Kathryn Dudley deftly reconstructs the social, moral and aesthetic worlds that a counter-cultural generation of North American luthiers has made in concert and in conflict with the volatile, ‘entrepreneurial’ imperatives of a globalizing, neoliberal economy.  Out of the many different artisanal voices in her study—all of them eloquent in and for themselves—Dudley teases out a haunting, antiphonal meditation on the meanings of embodied work, knowledge, and exchange in an increasingly virtualized and commodified world.  In this, Guitar Makers is as masterfully crafted and richly resonant as the instruments themselves.”

Jean-Christophe Agnew | Yale University

Guitar Makers attunes readers to the complex works and lives of American artisan guitar makers. In this finely honed ethnography, Dudley helps us hear how guitar makers seek to challenge capitalist mythmaking by pursuing work out of a sense of passion, even obsession, often at the expense of profit. Dudley’s luthiers, consoled by the conviction that others might recognize in the quality of their products the values that make their labor worth pursuing, come alive in this engaging anthropology of commodities, class, and craft.”

Heather Paxson, author of The Life of Cheese

“Dudley exposes a fascinating story of the North American guitar builders. . . . If you love the guitar and want to know more about the story of the American luthiers, buy and read this book.”

Guitar Channel

“If you love artisanal acoustics and archtop guitars, you’ll find this book fascinating.”

Vintage Guitar

“A fascinating look at the lives and the stories that members of the lutherie community tell about ourselves and how the current ‘golden age of lutherie’ came about. . . . Besides a historically accurate look at the rise of American lutherie since about 1960, the book provides an in-depth look at what motivates independent builders, how success develops, and the obstacles that each builder must overcome.”

American Lutherie

“Dudley’s Guitar Makers epitomizes Becker’s insistence that the objects of art are a key factor in explaining how art works and Braverman’s focus on the labor process by examining the social relations around the production of fine acoustic guitars. This outstanding ethnography demonstrates how elite luthiers (guitar makers) have succeeded in sustaining meaningful work under their own control in the postindustrial economy.”

Work and Occupations

“In a series of riveting interviews linked throughout six main chapters, a generation of guitar makers (mostly from the late 1960s onward) tell of their plight to establish themselves in a changing market place that continues to present enormous challenges to all of them, whether they work alone, work as part of a large corporation, or are positioned somewhere in between these two poles. . . . Dudley’s study of North American guitar makers is likely to set the benchmark for anthropological scholarship in this area for some time to come. Through this immensely important contribution to the literature, Dudley provides us with a finely honed set of tools to take into the field as we begin to study in more detail the role, affect, and meaning of the cultures of the guitar around the world.”

American Anthropologist

Guitar Makers is an important contribution to the literature on craft labor and artisanal production through its analysis of guitar making in the United States and Canada. It provides a multifaceted and complex image of a variety of craftspeople seeking to create instruments in a context of rising values and cachet for craft guitars. Dudley’s ethnographic vignettes contrast the diverse manners and techniques of guitar making, as well as spell out the unifying themes of artisanal labor and self-transformation. Drawing its data from a number of workshops and factories, Dudley’s ethnography effectively captures the dynamics of artisanal instrument making, including its alchemic science of producing tone, the entangled agency of its tools and machines, and the historical transmission of its craft knowledge.”

Anthropology of Work Review

Table of Contents

Introduction: Geppetto’s Dream

1 Crossroads of Knowledge
2 Stories of Making
3 Politics of Authenticity
4 Scenes of Instruction
5 Guitar He roes
6 Ghosts of Empire

Conclusion: Pinocchio’s Body


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