The Art of Luthiery – How professional guitars are made

Having the right instrument for a professional musician, means to step up his work of quite a bit.

Guitars are not the same. There are many different types of guitars differentiating in size, price or specifications; more or less suitable for certain genres.

So when it comes to choose one, professional musicians have many factors to include in their choice (such as playing style, role, pitch, internal mechanics etc).

But finding a guitar to suit all the needs of a musician is difficult, especially in a commerce saturated by instruments of every kind and price.

 So certain musicians decide to approach luthiers in order to be able to buy a guitar suiting any specific need, builted exclusively for them. Guitar Luthiers are considered “wood tailors”, capable of building instruments following the exact needs of a musician; making music composition for them, much more natural.

So how is a luthiery guitar built?

Modern Lutherie is the practice of building stringed instruments by hand and was born in Brescia, Italy around the 15th century, spreading all around Europe. 

Today, even if the industry of music instruments its dominated by big companies trying to maximise their profits, using machines and top notch technologies; after more than 7 centuries, it’s still possible to see people (especially young people) deciding to study and to help surivive; the noble art of Luthiery.

Mirko Costa is one of those people.

Twenty four years old; Mirko has played guitar on daily basis since he was eleven. Loving to understand how things are made since young age; he studies electronics until 2014, when he realises that he could combine his two passions in his future career, and joins Giulio Negrini’s luthier course. After a few years of practice and prototypes, finally in 2016 Mirko launches his activity as luthier of electric guitars: “MRK Guitars”. When asked what he loves about his job he says “What I love about it, is that you see your ideas taking shape, becoming reality; and the satisfaction of putting all of yourself into something someone else will enjoy.”

So,to start a project, Mirko likes first to understand the type of musician his client is. To do this  Mirko meets with his client, and starts viewing photos and videos of live performances, and (if available) studio-projects provided by his client; in order to understand in detail what kind of guitar project to create. Afterwards, consulting the mood board, Mirko then starts by drawing the silouhette of the guitar with his client, considering multiple factors: from posture to aesthetic, for example.

In the next part of the process, the luthier has to choose the right wood for his project, which is a crucial part of the work. Guitars are composed of different types of woods, so depending on the requests of the client and the project,different woods affects a project in many different ways such as for example balance, sound, or even the humity of the country the client lives in[…]. 

But the wood Luthiers use, is no common wood. To be able to maximise results, liuthiers work with wood aged at least 10 years, coming from trees planted in places where they wouldn’t develop many branches. This because trees with less branches are more likely to grow with more resistant straight fibres, and aged wood is much dryier; helping the malleability of the wood and its durability. To buy this very specific wood, Mirko has to contact specific luthier sawmills, from which he buys only the specific amount of wood he needs for the project.

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Luthiery Wood (PH. Mirko Costa)

After obtaining the fine wood, during the first week, the Luthier spends the majority of his time shaping the various parts of the guitar into the rough project. In this part he carves also the space for the elttronics inside the guitar.

For aesthetical reasons, the body of the guitar should be always symmetrical; and to achieve this, Mirko opens a  wood piece book-like, to then compose it back together horizontally, creating a perfectly symmetrical natural design.

In the refinement process, the headstock of the guitar is one of the most complex tasks. Containing the main mechanics for tuning the instrument called “tuning machines”, the headstock is composed by the same wood of the body for aesthetical reasons. Designing and building  properly  a headstock is foundamental for the overall sound and  balance of the guitar, and given the high tension of the strings, in order to avoid damages, the most resistant and utilised method to attach it to the neck is called “scarf-joint”.

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Elnath Project (Picture courtesy Of MRK Guitars)

The refinement of the guitar’s fretboard and neck is oppositely, the easiest part of the process in Mirko’s opinion; but the most important one for sound of it and comfort of the musician. A badly built fretboard could lead to tendinitis given the amount of hours certain musicians spend playing. 

So In this part, the luthier measures size and posture of the musician, and depending on the unique way the musician plays and his real-time feedback, he shapes the neck of the instrument. After that, a specific saw cuts frets from wood of the right size for the fretboard, that are then embedded and glued on it. Many people love decorations on their fretboards, that Mirko carves by hand fret by fret, and then fills with “Madre Perla” or resin depending on the clients request. 

The same refining criteria are applied to the finalisation of the guitar’s body. Shaped depending on the posture and comfort of the artist but also his personal taste; Mirko refines with various tools the lineaments and surface of the instrument, to then paint it and assemble it. In the painting process, the choice of what type of paint is not only an aesthetical process. Mirko for example, prefers to work with synthetic paint  jobs because even though less “warm”; more resistant to time and humidities.

It takes more than 11 months for Mirko to complete one if his art-pieces depending on its complexity; and the costs of such cure are relatively “high”.

So do effectively all this cure to details and wait; make an actual difference?

For Giovanni Rosellini (pro-musician, owner of an MRK Guitar) yes.

Coming from the Metal World, he thinks that today mass production guitars are deep down all the same from every point of view. So, after trying one of Mirko’s guitars, Giovanni relised that to step up his music skills he had to have the right instrument, and decided to work on his custom guitar with Mirko.

He states: “There is no such thing as a perfect guitar; but it’s sure that If you know what to ask from your instrument or what you need, a luthier guitar is perfection”.

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