In January of 2004 I completed an extremely rewarding two-week guitar-building tutorial with William Cumpiano. I constructed a steel string guitar similar to the Martin 000 size. I worked at William’s side as he built the same style of guitar using different tone woods. It was an enlightening and uniquely satisfying experience. My own background includes years of working in scene shops building scenery for theatrical productions. I have experience with some woodworking techniques and familiarity with common power tools. On the other hand I had no experience with the precision carving achieved through the use of finely honed chisels, skew knives and block planes. Nor had my background in building scenery prepared me for the precise tolerances required of fine instrument construction. His techniques for the most challenging sculptural work (the carving of the neck and in my case, the carving of a pyramid style bridge) are simple and clear and when followed properly produce impressive and satisfying results for the novice luthier.
That being said, those without shop or cabinetry experience should in no way be dissuaded from taking this tutorial. William is an expert craftsman and a patient teacher who will step in when necessary to keep the project on track and the student guitar of the highest possible quality. William is a very thoughtful and calm person, the natural cure for this student’s nervousness and periods of panic in the face of what I (wrongly) perceived as catastrophe. He has been involved with the building and repair of fine instruments for so long that there is little or nothing he hasn’t dealt with over the course of his thirty-year career.
William’s knowledge of the history of stringed instruments is virtually limitless. This knowledge extends far beyond the American steel string and Spanish classical guitar models. My time spent with William introduced me to an entire galaxy of instruments that I had no idea existed. Particularly memorable is what I discovered about the beautiful instruments of Portugal (get him to show you his photos) and that which is very dear to him, the instruments indigenous to the Caribbean, particularly the cuatro of his native Puerto Rico. I also learned a great deal about the history and culture of the Caribbean.
Those who are just beginning to investigate luthery are often confronted with apparently contradictory information about the art, craft and science of the endeavor. Much of the circulated information is misguided, unfounded or simply untrue. William quickly dispenses with myth and anecdote and seeks to impart only that which is supported by evidence or personal experience.
William’s longstanding partner is Harry Becker. Harry runs the repair and restoration aspects of the shop and is also a consummate craftsman eager to share his vast experience. As with William, there is very little that Harry has not seen during his career. I very confidently left my completed “in the white” instrument in his care for the lacquer finishing process. Between William and Harry there is an accumulated fifty years in the construction and repair of fine instruments.
Certain elements of the guitar were completed prior to my arrival, including construction of the neck blank, truss rod and the bending of the sides, all of which are covered at length in the exemplary William Cumpiano/ Jonathan Natelson text GUITARMAKING: Tradition and Technology. Not to worry, there will be more than enough tasks to fill the two weeks of shop time. You will most definitely not feel as though you are doing a-glue-by-numbers project.
Of course the final value of the course lies in what is learned and the quality of the completed instrument. It is not inexpensive, but for me it was very worthwhile. I had the undivided attention of a master craftsman at my disposal. I ended the course with a beautiful instrument that anyone would be proud to own. I have the added pleasure of being able to say that I provided a significant hand in its creation. I would recommend without hesitation this course to the first time luthier, interested hobbyist and even those who have already built a few instruments. I guarantee that even those with some instrument building experience have a lot they can learn from someone of William’s vast expertise and experience.
Finally, I stayed in the very comfortable and private basement apartment in William’s home and enjoyed he and his wife Jeanette Rodriguez’ warmth and hospitality. The town of Northampton is a delightful college town with great restaurants and a vibrant arts and music scene. It’s a great place to hang out during your stay.