David Stutzman Guitar Manufacture Presentation, February 16, 2009


Attentive RGC Audience

Last night The Mez filled with guitar lovers eager to hear Dave Stutzman speak on industry developments of the last fifty years… Jerry Carter introduced Dave, whom he has known since 1967 when Jerry first visited Eldon Stutzman in Spencerport and saw the cellar stuffed with stringed instruments. He bought a Gibson ’52 J50 from Eldon then, which he still has.

Who we are — Dave, after thanking us for the invitation, gave a brief overview of his family’s music business history. Eldon started collecting instruments after WWII. In 1952 – at his wife’s insistence — he began selling from the collection … Dave tells us “If I wanted to be with Dad, I needed to go down to the basement workshop and work with him!” So — he began doing just that at age 10. (His own children follow the family tradition.) Dave was 12 when the Jay St. store opened; there was no phone, no cash register. It was America’s boom time – the Beatles, the folk music boom, and there were “not enough places to buy guitars.” Eldon occasionally sold forty to fifty instruments in a few hours on Saturdays. Eldon’s “real job” was his insurance business, a precursor to Riedman Insurance.

Eldon was methodical; young Dave could tell the time of day by what his Dad was doing; he kept the same schedule every day – and got a lot done. In ’76 Eldon died. Dave was headed toward clinical psychology, but somehow never made it out of the music business, which he still loves. Dave has known all of the Martin CEOs. He has met most of the presidents of the other major guitar manufacturing companies. He and friends formed the American Acoustic company; Dave Stutzman and Tom Lockwood partnered to run the factory for about 10 years… Bob Taylor and others have influenced him – the bolt-on neck for example. Dave met, and worked with or for many giants in guitar manufacture - John Larrivee, Michael Gurian, the LoPrinzi Bros., and Tom Lockwood, later plant manager at Guild, to name a few.

One of American Acoustic’s goals was to make as inexpensive and good-sounding a guitar as possible. Dave thinks the company built between 1750-2000 in all. They emphasized top and bracing, and in 1991 there was little competition, few guitars below $1000 that sounded good. American Acoustic sought to retail for $500. Dave feels lucky to have been surrounded by instruments all his life.

The modern guitar industry –- Dave emphasized manufacturing history, especially changes in the last fifty years. In the ‘50s and ‘60s the tools were common to most woodworking shops. Then the folk and rock booms hit, with an unprecedented demand for acoustics and electrics. If you wanted to buy from the Big Three - Martin, Gibson and Guild – around ’67 there was a two-year wait for the more popular models. In 1959-60 Martin made approximately twenty guitars a day, by 1969 fifty-three, in the early ‘70s seventy a day, and today 277 per day. Taylor made about seventeen guitars a day in 1996; in the last year it rose to 350 per day. In the last few years Taylor has slowed production in the U.S., exporting more.

Not all attempts to streamline worked out. Dave mentioned a machine Martin tried using with finishing around 1978. The D-18 has an all-mahogany body, and requires a thick paste wood filler to stain and fill mahogany’s many pores and involves hours of messy, expensive hand rubbing. At a gun show someone saw an early robotic device for applying finish faster. Martin ordered one - and it shot the guitar bodies across the room! Very few guitars withstood the device’s flying wheels, so after two weeks it was demoted to storage, and so remains today. In the late ‘70s Martin switched from hide glue to modern glues resembling Titebond.


Guitar Neck

In the 1980s Bob Taylor sought cleaner, neater and faster finishing – while improving guitar quality, profits and speed. By 1989 he was using computer numerical control (CNC) technology. Dave points out that CNC use has improved guitars (Dave holds up guitar neck) and streamlined their manufacture. With traditional methods American Acoustic was producing three guitar necks a day. With the CNC, Taylor makes necks from rough to final sand – three in fifteen minutes and they are better quality. Hand work is still used; for example at Collings, Huss & Dalton. A CNC can’t judge what makes a good top or how much to take off braces. Bob Taylor tried a CNC Fadal machine to make various parts – and by ’89 they had automated the manufacture of bridges, faceplate, etc. Martin now has ten and Taylor fifty Fadal CNCs. When you repair some of these instruments you learn that they fit so tightly that you have to match the temperature and humidity of factory to separate them.

–- Finishing represents 15% of materials and labor, and used to take approximately two weeks. Dave visited Bob in the late ‘90s and learned about UV finish of a specific wavelength to speed curing – instantly, with no shrinkage. Taylor does finishing in two days. UV finish is expensive but gets 90% of the solid material onto the guitar as opposed to the 25%, formerly the norm. Martin finishes now in five days with catalyzed finishes.


Guitar Top

Bob Taylor now uses mirrors and a round booth in which the guitar is rotated, to get finish to all parts of the body. He also pioneered laser use to make small braces around the sound hole (Dave holds up a top). On the Baby Taylor and some special edition model Taylors the rosette is done with laser. Taylor has two robotic buffing machines. All this mechanization, Dave says yields cleaner, neater work, and more choices. He feels that Americans are getting more for the buck than, say fifty years ago. There are also challenges coming from China, most of them low-end and some “nasty,” but they are working all the time to improve their offerings.

The Lost Art of Guitar Selling –-Dave reminded us to not “always believe what you hear in chat rooms…” There is a lot of misinformation out there. For example Seagull, Godin, and four other brands are all from the same factory. They also make parts for other companies, i.e., they are not a small company. When you’re hunting around for a new guitar, ask questions. Try to buy from someone who has a repair shop; find out what experience they have. Buying on the Internet is risky for many reasons – maybe only 20% have a repair shop. People need to try things out, to pick a price range, and listen to the instruments. A good dealer helps by getting people to find what is good for their playing rather than type-casting themselves by model or brand. Dave says he typically takes 45 to 60 minutes on each setup. He reminds us that there is no perfect setup – it’s individual, based on where and how you strike the string, the likely audience and venue, what players need vs. what they want, etc. A good salesperson matches instrument to player…

Dave answered numerous questions from the floor regarding such areas as what makes low/mid/hi-end, the continued presence of hand work at Taylor-Martin-Guild-Larrivee-Gibson-Guild, how bracing rather than wood choice defines sound, what is available in pickups, differences between lacquer, polyester, and nitrocellulose finishes, and the importance of checking and adjusting for ambient humidity. Dave feels that companies don’t educate consumers enough. He reminds us, “…If you’re comfortable, the guitar is comfortable.” Dave generously answered questions past 9:30 pm. and encouraged folks to look at parts when they shop, also to visit him and find further help on instrument technical concerns.

I will simply add that I have been an on-and-off (off about a dozen years when I quit playing for a while) Stutzman customer since the Jay Street days. I have bought and traded many instruments back and forth and have always been more than satisfied with service, quality, value, etc. These folks know what they are doing and want us to understand more about what we are doing.

Visit the family owned Stutzman business at: Stutzman’s Guitar Center.

—Deb Ross

Photos: R. Taglieri

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