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The New England Luthiers: Collaborative Guitar Making

The New England Luthiers (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The New England Luthiers (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

This story originally aired on November 1, 2012.

About nine years ago, a group of local guitar makers came together to share information, techniques and ideas about their craft — and about their shared passion for making instruments.

They call themselves the New England Luthiers.

A year ago, the group launched a collaborative guitar building project, making custom guitars. These instrument-makers are amateurs, but they know what they’re doing. And they have a lot to say about what makes their particular guitars so special.

The Search For Camaraderie

Steve Spodaryk, the founder of the group, is a software engineer by day. He describes the group as a kind of mutual support network for guitar makers.

“We just wanted to reach out and connect with other people who shared the same passion we did for building instruments,” Spodaryk said. “We felt like we were working in isolation. We were looking for camaraderie and moral support and technical help. And so we reached out to all the people we could find in New England.”

The response was overwhelming, with 50 people attending the group’s first meeting.

“I discovered that I had people literally in my backyard doing the same thing as me — building guitars in their basements, building them for fun, building them for sale, building them because they had a vision of an instrument they couldn’t purchase on their own,” Spodaryk said.

Burton LeGeyt is another member of the Luthiers. By day, he runs a fabrication lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

“I was doing some woodworking for work and decided to start building instruments,” LeGeyt recalled. “I built a couple real simple teardrop-shaped things, things I wanted to try and then really loved it. I fell in love with it and started doing some research, bought books, tried to meet people and eventually found these guys. It was like a lifesaver. I just really blossomed from there with all the help I got.”

A Guitar’s Individuality

LeGeyt said that choice of wood is one the main components that defines an individual guitar.

“Visually and sonically, it makes a big difference,” he said.

What’s more: Everyone’s guitar sounds a little bit different.

“Eventually you build enough that you get to where you can change the things you want to change and make it sound how specifically you want to sound,” LeGeyt said. “That’s pleasing to me because I can do the things I want to hear in a guitar.”

A handmade guitar and factory made guitar can be worlds apart.

“This is the equivalent of a handmade sports car,” Spodaryk explained. “This is a Lotus versus a Honda. With these guitars, what we’re aiming for are the Lamborghinis and Maseratis.”

Aiming for that standard takes time. Over the course of a year, Spodaryk spent over 100 hours making his guitar.

An Undying Desire

Bruce Burns used to build guitars when he was “a young hippie.” Then he got married, had a child and had to secure a paying day job.

“At that point, I was hustling tables at a restaurant to support my guitar making habit,” Burns recollected.

Burns finally built himself a new guitar — his first one in 30 years.

“It feels good. It’s an itch that was always there waiting to be scratched,” he said. “I can’t wait to get onto the next one.”

Fran LaMalva, another Luthier, agreed with Burns on the irresistible nature of guitar making.

“Building guitars is more like an obsession or an addiction,” he said, to the soft laughter of the other Luthiers.

More Passion Than Professionals

LaMalva is a mechanical engineer. After he built his first guitar, he brought it into work and gave it to a coworker who happened to be a skilled finger style player.

“Within about two minutes of playing it, he looked up at me and said ‘I’d like Serial #2′,” LaMalva proudly said. “This project really invigorated a lot of us.”

Another Lutheir, Mike Mahar, works as a software engineer during the day. But unlike LaMalva, guitar building is just a hobby for him.

“I have no intention to sell unless somebody makes me an offer I can’t refuse,” he joked. “Right now they’re just kind of accumulating in my house.”

Though Mahar may see it as just fun, he has made five guitars and four mandolins so far.

“These guitars are as good as any in the country, any in the world,” he said. “There’s such a distinction, the professional versus the amateur. But I don’t see amateurs being a negative word. We all love this thing and we’re putting more passion in it than most of the professionals because this is what we choose to do with our free time.”

In fact, the group has had trouble attracting professional guitar builders.

“On Sunday, they’re tired of guitars,” Mahar explained. “They don’t want to come and sit around and talk about guitars because they’ve had 60 hours of guitars already. We come and we’re fired up — it’s all we want to talk about!”

New England Luthiers members featured:

  • Steve Spodaryk, co-founder
  • Burton LeGeyt
  • Bruce Burns
  • Fran LaMalva
  • Mike Mahar

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