Self-Taught Builders Lead US Into `Golden Age'

THE United States is in the golden age of guitarmaking, says Tim Olsen, founder of the Guild of American Luthiers in Tacoma, Wash.

``Clearly the best guitars that have ever been made anywhere are being made now in the US,'' Mr. Olsen says. ``That's been true for quite a while, but the height of that peak has been getting higher and higher ... over the last 10 years.''

What's the reason US guitarmakers are creating such high-quality instruments?

Olsen attributes it to a phenomenon that started in the 1960s when ``a lot of disgruntled teens'' got into guitarmaking. Those who stuck with it became the core of the group working today, he says. ``We're talking about a fairly large number of people.'' Now in their mid-40s, ``they've got a good solid 20 years experience'' and ``they're doing very good work.''

Olsen estimates there are several hundred luthiers in the US, and most are self-taught. ``There is not a tradition of guitarmaking in the US,'' he says. ``The big group that started in the '60s started as experiments-in-the-garage kind of thing.... Everybody's blazing their own trail.''

These luthiers are only turning out a small number of guitars, however. More than 90 percent of acoustic and electric guitars come out of factories. While many small factories are producing very good guitars, ``the best handmakers' work is a goodly distance past the best factory work,'' Olsen says. ``It's like the difference between a Chevrolet and a Maserati. The difference is for those who can discern it.''

Stuart Weber, a classical concert guitarist in Bozeman, Mont., emphasizes that the judgment of what makes the perfect guitar is ultimately subjective. ``There are some great builders in the country,'' he says.

``I certainly have found the builder who I think has achieved utopia.... But they build hundreds of instruments before they get to that point,'' Mr. Weber says.

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