I’m 56 years old, and I’ve worn many hats in my life, but I never got around to doing something I’d always wanted to do – turn a pile of wood into an instrument of music. As a boy I was convinced it took magical powers to do that. I know better now, yet I still can’t come up with an excuse for my lifelong procrastination. Perhaps life just got in the way. Remember what Lennon said - “life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans”? Lucky for me, that changed this summer. Thanks to Master Luthier William R. Cumpiano, I turned off the “plans” and turned on the planer, and guess what? I actually made a guitar – a damned good one at that.
I’m back home now, and each time I take that baby out of its case (for some unabashed admiration and adulation, of course) I realize this venture wasn’t just a mid-life crisis, spur-of-the-moment thing, but rather something that had been in the making for a long time. It just didn’t become crystal clear to me until Bill asked me for a deposit
on his two-week tutorial. Truth is I played my first guitar at eight and still play today. I’ve also followed the guitar trade and the great guitar makers, living and dead, whose virtuosity has earned them rightful places in the annals of lutherie history. Their quest for perfection has left a legacy that lives on through those who replicate their instruments and those who play them. Somehow, I wanted to feel that legacy up close and personal, to feel, if only for a brief moment what it would be like to be in their shoes, or rather, in their workshops and experience the thrill of creating an instrument that could make beautiful music. There was only one way that could happen – I had to make my own. Now all I needed was to find someone who was part of that legacy, someone who had been there and done that and would give me a shot at it. That someone was Bill Cumpiano of Northampton, Massachusetts. And so, the adventure began.
Bill Cumpiano is world class; everything about him is - his book on guitar making, his web site, his workshop, and of course, his tutorial. For two whole weeks I got nothing but full time master-on-student instruction at its best. Nothing was left to chance or taken for granted. I constructed my guitar while Bill constructed his and throughout this process he was right there with me every step of the way answering every question and explaining every technique he uses to produce instruments of exceptional quality. The man is a virtual encyclopedia on anything and anyone who has ever had anything to do with lutherie and guitar making – the history, the materials, the tools; you name it, he knows it. What’s more, he floored me with what seemed to be an interminable worldwide knowledge of the instruments, the music, and the performers involved in this craft.
Once I got to his shop, It didn’t take me long to realize that I was in the presence of a not only a master craftsman, but a master teacher as well. I should know. I’m a Human Resources executive in a highly technical industry and I’m constantly looking for the best instructors I can find to keep our employees on top of their games. I’ve also been a teacher (my wife still is). I know good teaching when I see it – Bill Cumpiano is a great teacher! For starters, Bill knows every nuance of his subject matter and how to impart and share that knowledge. He has made many sacrifices and paid heavy dues to earn his place among a very select group of world-class luthiers, yet has the confidence, and desire, to pass that knowledge on despite the potential repercussions or competition. Add to that the ease with which he takes a student of any level and turns him or her into guitarmaker, and you end up with that rare combination that separates the master from the ordinary teacher. Let me put it this way, Bill couldn’t help being a good teacher, and I couldn’t help learning because of it.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t exactly skate through this tutorial; the schedule was fast-paced, the hours were long, and the work was hard. Bill was very demanding of me as a student, but no more so than he was of himself. He is, after all, a master luthier who seeks perfection in everything he does. I wouldn’t have thought any less of him if he was more forgiving, but he expected and demanded the best of me and I tried as hard as I could to give it to him. That’s exactly what I was looking for. I wasn’t looking for a picnic and didn’t get one. What I got was intensive, hands-on, one-on-one instruction from one of the very best in the business. It just doesn’t get better than that. This was time and money well spent – every minute and every penny of it.
I’ve read the tales of other aspiring guitarmakers who, like me, questioned the wisdom and expense of taking a guitarmaking class or tutorial. After all, one could go on an exotic cruise, or put a hefty down payment on a new car for what it takes to make this dream come true. By and large, most of what they had to say was positive. However, when it came time for these aspiring guitarmakers to select whom they wanted as a teacher, most gave the edge to the experienced luthier with a well-established reputation i.e. the one who has earned the respect of his peers and whose life or work has been recognized by reputable trade publications. These are the Master Luthiers. Of these, only a handful, such as Bill Cumpiano, enjoy teaching and will accept a limited number of students. My advice to the wannabe guitarmaker is to do whatever it takes to reserve a spot on their lists, the sooner better.
When I decided to follow my lifetime dream of building a guitar, I was looking for a way to experience, if only for a brief moment, the great satisfaction and sense of accomplishment a master luthier must feel as he admires his just completed guitar - his latest quest for perfection - an instrument, which, but for his “magical” intervention, would have been a mere pile of wood just moments before. To a wannabe guitarmaker like me, being able to work side-by-side with Bill Cumpiano got me as close to that feeling as I ever imagined. Now that’s what I call an excellent adventure!