In her ethnographic study of guitar makers in North America over the past century, Guitar Makers: the Endurance of Artisanal Values in North America (University of Chicago press, 2014) Kathryn Marie Dudley provides a penetrating analysis of the dilemma facing high-end guitar makers. After World War II, it appeared that mass-produced guitars were going to put handcrafted guitars out of business. On top of that, the popularity of electric guitars pushed acoustic guitars to the periphery. Nonetheless, a hardy band of craft workers held on, shared information, created craft fairs, magazines, associations, and other mechanisms for taking collective action to preserve the craft.
Because she was interested in learning how to play the guitar, as well as to learn more about the craft, Dudley got to meet some of the key players in the industry as she conducted her fieldwork throughout the first decade of the 21st century. She attended meetings, went to trade fairs, and thus learned first-hand the vicissitudes of being a craft worker in a machine age.
Like Matthew Crawford in his New Atlantis article, “Shop Class As Soul Craft,” her book celebrates the materiality of craftwork and the intrinsic satisfaction craft workers get in producing beautiful artifacts that other people want to own. She emphasizes that almost all the craft workers she studied were drawn to the occupation not because of financial considerations – – until the collecting boom hit the market in the 1990s, many lived off the wages of their spouses – – but rather because they just wanted to make something.
What makes her book relevant to the maker movement is her depiction of the struggle in the industry between craft workers who are happy with low-volume production and a penurious lifestyle versus those who discovered that they can earn a nice living, but only if they scale up production by using modern technologies, particularly CNC machines. Beginning in the early 1990s, the cash value of vintage guitars soared, surpassing wine and fine art. The pursuit of collectible high-end guitars spilled over into guitars made by contemporary guitar makers, raising their value as well.
Some makers had the surreal experience of selling one of their guitars for less than $2000 and seeing it subsequently auctioned off for 5 to 10 times that amount. $100 guitars suddenly became $1000 guitars, and more. The economic incentive to produce at a higher volume was irresistible to many, but not all. The arrival of wealthy collectors, many of them who made their fortunes and the high technology boom of the 1990s, benefited only some of the guitar makers. Those who were able to get their guitars into the hands of celebrity guitarists and onto the performing stages of concert halls or clubs gain the reputation that radically boosted the value of their products. As in other winner-take-all markets, the number of people who could do this was inherently limited, and so other guitar craft workers had to be content with continuing to earn money with refurbishing and repairs on guitars, with the occasional sale of their own work.
A large part of the narrative in this book concerns the struggles in the guitar-making community over the issue of automation, scaling up, and potential destruction of the sharing ethos which guided early and mid-20th century guitar makers. Just as Richard Ocejoe’s book, Masters of Craft, describes the dilemma of distillery owners who received huge offers to sell out to big distributors, so too does Dudley portray the dilemma of guitar makers, living out their golden years in semi-poverty or buying CNC technology, scaling up, and reaping the rewards of large-scale production & distribution.
Hanging over all this are the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) regulations designed to prevent the importation of rare & endangered wood products, making it very difficult for makers to get the materials they need.
To scale or not to scale, that is the question facing skilled artisans today.