The Question of Handcrafted Versus Mass-Produced Instruments

by Gerald Sheppard
Copyright 1997 by Sheppard Guitars™

About the Author

As we musicians develop our competencies on our instrument, we also increase our demands upon it. As a result, when we move into the marketplace, we find ourselves trying to discern between a fair instrument and a fine one.  I believe there are four primary areas by which we should evaluate the quality of an instrument. They are tone, playability, durability, and beauty. Each of these areas is addressed by the larger manufacturers; but in order to sell to a broad range of buyers, they must make trade-offs on the design of their models.  Most guitars are "one size fits all" designs.  Size, gender and personal preference of the guitarist are handled from a general point of view.

I build to meet the specific needs (and wants) of my customers.  Some guitarists want tone and do not care how an instrument looks.  Others enjoy the aesthetics as well.  Smaller framed men and women sometimes need instruments that they can reach around when they are sitting in their favorite chair writing songs.  Some folks have small hands; others have large ones.  Some instruments will be on the road in constant physical and environmental stress; others will be kept in a case in perfect conditions and played only in the safest of settings.  All of these situations affect how we need to strike the balance between tone, playability, durability and beauty.  Whether you are looking for your "dream guitar" or just one that meets your needs, here are some areas to consider:

Quality and Choice of Materials

Hand-built guitars are often referred to as ultra-high quality instruments. There are many quality mass-produced guitars, but mass production does not allow instruments to be built with the quality and care that is possible when building an instrument by hand.  An excellent way to inspect a guitar for durability and craftsmanship is to view the things that are hard to see. Use a mirror and a light to inspect the inside of a guitar.  If the workmanship is clean and neat inside, it's more likely that the builder sets an excellent standard to work by.

Individuals or very small groups of people who are considered luthiers in the truest sense of the word know their craft thoroughly.  This includes the development and use of hand tools and an understanding of the physical and sonic properties of the materials they use.  Luthiers incorporate this knowledge into each unit.  They see each guitar as a group of related components.  Each part is chosen with consideration of its impact upon tone, playability, durability and beauty. Assembly line workers build mass-produced instruments.  The loyalty, love and care for each unit is often non-existent.  It's just a job.

Expect all woods on a handcrafted instrument to be AAA or Select Grade solid woods unless otherwise requested by the customer.  (Most quality mass-produced guitars are built from A and AA grade woods.) Expect all wood parts to be quarter sawn with very little grain run-out. The grain is usually expected to be very straight and fairly tight on the top, back and sides.

Top, sides and back should be well book-matched during assembly.  The next time you are in an instrument shop, look at the accuracy with which the backs and sides are book-matched (or mismatched) on the nicer instruments.  Look at where the sides meet the heel of the neck, and notice how well the grain on the sides line up with one another.  While this is mostly an aesthetic quality, it is indicative of the level of attention to detail you can expect from the builder.  This is often fairly well done on mass-produced guitars, but it should be an expectation for a hand-built instrument.

Expect all other woods to be "woods of choice" depending upon the job the guitar part does.  The fingerboard and bridge should be a fine grade of ebony.  Many manufacturers use rosewood and nato for fingerboards. These woods are inferior to ebony because they are softer and, with use, will tend to rut out under the strings of most frequently played frets.

The wood of choice for necks is mahogany.  It should be well quartered (quarter sawn) and clear of defects, with straight grain that does not run out along the length of the neck.  Some other woods, such as cherry and maple, work very well for necks but they are more "woods of convenience."

Several varieties of woods will work well for bracing.  Sitka Spruce, Engelmann Spruce, and Appalachian Spruce (our choice) are three excellent varieties, depending upon the desired sound.  For maximum strength, you should expect the braces to be clear of imperfections and perfectly quarter-sawn with no run-out.  This is an extremely important point that a conscientious luthier should always follow.  To reduce run-out, good brace wood is split off the billet into small pieces rather than cut.  As a result, the length edge of the brace will follow the grain and eliminate run-out.  Many builders of mass-produced instruments violate this rule because they know that most buyers never look into a sound hole before they purchase an instrument.

While rosettes, binding and purfling have the important function of reducing the likelihood of the tops and backs splitting, aesthetics seems to be their most important role.  Wood binding and purfling is preferred by most guitarists for its beauty.  Plastic does not show damage easily, and it is easier to install and repair. Nevertheless, if a customer wants wood purfling or binding, it is very difficult to find on a manufactured guitar.  Many musicians want no plastic whatsoever on their instruments, and luthiers should be only glad to oblige.

Consistency

This is usually an area of weakness for luthiers and a strength for manufacturers.  Nevertheless, a luthier who builds with consistency can produce the finest instruments in the world.  Consistency (or inconsistency) manifests itself in several areas:

An experienced eye and ear can detect the first four.  Only time will tell us if the instrument is durable. The last item, processes used to make the instrument, cannot be seen by the customer.  Process consistency is achieved by documenting procedures. As a result, the builder uses the exact same process for making each part of the instrument every time.  When a better way to do a procedure is discovered, the change is documented and instituted.  This is the most important aspect of consistency because it determines the outcome of all the others and results in extremely high value for the customer.

Flexibility and Responsiveness

Most mass producers of quality instruments have custom shops.  They are fairly flexible and often do a wonderful job, but they usually draw tight boundaries around what they offer in the way of custom appointments and materials.  Their custom work is very expensive and can take a very long time to have done.

Whenever I discuss my instruments with a new customer, one of the first things I try to do is understand his/her relationship with the instrument.  Guitarists often have intimate relationships with their instruments.  Perhaps it's because we can caress it, or because it expresses itself so well, or because it's there when we are lonely and need to talk. Ha!

Another thing I like to discuss is how the customer uses the instrument.  How often does he/she play?  Does he/she usually play in a group setting or alone?  Will the instrument be used on stage?  If so, how will it be amplified?  Does he/she play on stage often?  What style of music will be played on the instrument?  Will it primarily be played with a pick(s) or with the fingers?  Will the guitarist sing while playing?  How long has he/she been playing?  What level of accomplishment has he/she reached?  I ask about the instrument he/she is playing now.  What are its strengths and weaknesses?  I assume that tone is important, but is aesthetics fairly important as well?

By asking these questions, I get to know my customer and his/her specific needs, wants, likes and dislikes.  The hand-builder will try just about anything the customer can conjure up unless experience tells him/her that it’s simply a bad idea. Then he/she will usually work with the customer to turn a bad idea into a good one!  This kind of flexibility charges the creative ingenuity that allows the customer to have a part in being a builder of the instrument.

As you consider your next guitar, you’ll find that most of the instruments in stores look very similar.  Most of us have a paradigm about how a guitar should look and sound based upon what we’ve seen in the past.  If you look at hand-built instruments, you will find a variety of designs that break all the rules.  Some you will like, and some you will not.  You will also learn a lot, and you will definitely have a much broader point of view about the instrument.


About the Author

When Gerald Sheppard was 15 years old in 1965, he told his parents that he wanted either a guitar or a motorcycle for Christmas. Lucky for him, and us, they bought him an inexpensive copy of a Fender Strat.  A couple of years later, he purchased a Gibson J-40 with money he saved working for 50 cents an hour in a movie theater.

Gerald later graduated from East Tennessee State University with a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Technology. He went on to work for 10 years as a designer and 10 years as a quality management consultant for a large chemical company. Gerald understands the subject of quality. He has applied it to his guitar making processes and it shows! But he also knows that you can't automate time honored craftsmanship! That's why Sheppard guitars are as beautiful to behold as they are to hear and are made of best quality materials available.

Gerald has been repairing and refinishing and building guitars for twenty years. He started building exclusively in 1993. Owning a fine instrument from the time he was a child has both spoiled and trained Gerald's ear for fine tone. Now that he supplies instruments to other serious musicians, his philosophy is simple:

"What I build must first satisfy me, then the biggest test is that it must satisfy the musician. I must assume that the guitarist has an excellent ear for fine tone based upon years of experience; why else would he/she even be interested in a high quality instrument? My intention is to help the guitarist present a piece of music to the best of his/her ability and for it to sound the way it was intended to sound."

Sheppard Guitars