Machines Aid Quantity, Not Quality Or Creativity
The reason for the introduction of machinery in the 20th century and the creation of guitar factories was to speed up production. Electric power tools, and now computer programmed machines have take over and have made mass production in guitar building possible. No longer can an individual craftsman build instruments one by one and be able to make a modest living since building instruments by hand is time consuming and labor intensive.
Most of today's major guitar companies do not care much about design and quality unless it affects sales. Quantity is the main criterion. "How we can make more profit?" they ask. Unskilled people domestically and in third world countries can be trained to work a single operation in days. Often these workers have no interest in their work and do the job for what money they can get.
The motivation for the independent instrument craftsman is entirely different. A luthier never builds guitars only for money, they pursue the craft because they love it. They enjoy working with wood and they get great satisfaction form building an instrument from start to finish and seeing and playing a well-finished instrument. An instrument starts from raw wood and when finished is played for the first time by the craftsman. Luthiers try their hardest to achieve perfection in aesthetics and playability to produce a piece of art which is highly functional as well.
In factories that use computer aided machines the technology is the star not the humans. The humans are only there to load the raw materials into the machines and to finish off the instrument. As technology becomes even more powerful the human element will diminish even further and I believe that one day we will have guitars which are entirely machine made from start out finish without any human contact at all.
What is a difference between a guitar that is handmade and one that is made by a computer? The handmade instrument has life. This phenomena is not easily evident to the novice player. One has to be an intelligent and experienced guitarist to discern this obvious fact. A handmade instrument will look different, feel different and consequently sound different. It will have a certain aura about it which inexperience skeptics will dismiss all too quickly since they are unable to perceive the nuances. Experienced musicians often speak of how their beloved instrument "speaks" to them. Its a two way relationship between the instrument and the player. This can only happen if one plays an instrument which is imbued with the spirit and the character of the maker. The craftsman will leave his mark on the raw materials and will give it character.
Where does character come from you ask. It comes from pride. Pride in work, pride in creativity, pride in achievement and pride in a fine set of tools. Tools talk to a craftsman. What a computerized machine does by a program, the craftsman does by feel. A craftsman puts his feelings into his work a computer simply regurgitates a series of commands. Hand work is between man and his God. Whenever true creativity takes place God is present. God guides the hand in success and in failure and God approves of good work.
Computers have made it possible that anyone can become a "guitar builder". This type of guitar building has greatly diminished the true art of instrument building. Building guitars by hand is very difficult and needs a lot of practice. It is a neverending learning experience. For a guitar builder after decades of guitar building there still remains a tremendous amount to learn. The wonder and joy as each hurdle is leaped has to be experienced to be believed. Guitar building is not necessarily a pleasurable experience. The craftsmen is always on the edge. One wrong move of the hand, one bad thought or one small distraction and disaster happens. Wood is not uniform. It is moody, it can be deceptive, sometimes hiding faults until the very last moment of finishing and you have to start all over again. Handwork can torment and it can elate.
No matter how hard the craftsman tries or how experience he is he knows that perfection can never be achieve for the simple reason that humans were not created to be perfect. Our natural condition is that of error and mistakes. The kind of accuracy that a craftsman can achieve can not be measured in "thous". It is not necessary. We have all heard the boasting of computer controlled machine operators that micrometers can be used to demonstrate the precision of their products. Frankly, I find this ridiculous. Precision can not speak, character and soul can. Instead what these machine programmers achieve is good engineering skills - precision engineering in wood. They feel that the most important aspect of their work is the absence of machine marks, not realizing that a toolmark is the signature of the craftsman.
This guitar was made by a person
Handmade guitars have soul, they have character, a sparkle that a machine can not produce. The apparent "perfection" of some machine made guitars has trapped many novice players in believing that this is the way it should be. Characteristically an inexperienced player can only judge an instrument visually. He has not developed his guitar skills to the point where he can truly "feel" the instrument and evaluate it accordingly. You often see people inspecting guitars minutely to see if the finish is mirror perfect, the frets are shinny, the grain just the right look. This annoys me. Do these people do the same to a painting in an art gallery? Many expensive guitars I pick up to play are impeccable in fit and finish. The companies which produced these guitars have the latest high tech machines. Yet their guitars are "dead", unimaginative, unatractive, dull sounding, poorly playing and without any character.
In this age of high tech it is glamorous to program machines to do all the work. Man no longer has a direct connection to his work. Instead the machine does all the operations which a human should be doing. The intimate connection between man and his creation is lost. This is analogous to programing a robot to play ones guitar instead of the person doing it directly. Guitar playing is a sensual experience, mainly because ones flesh touches the strings producing the sound through touch. In guitar building also, this "human touch is essential", it will be reflected in the product. What a thrill it is to see a finished guitar with the character of the builder clearly evident in the way it looks and feels.
A handmade guitar is organic. By definition, to be organic is to have flaws. Natural flaws in the wood and inevidable flaws in the work. Nature creates flaws. Flaws are the diferentiating factor between humans and all creation. Flaws are beautiful, flaws give character, flaws give a human vibe, flaws give individuality and flaws make things feel real. Imperfection is life.
Modern economics, competition, the increasing demand for inexpensive goods will make a truly handcrafted guitar a thing of the past. Guitar building by humans will become an anomaly. The glamor of high tech will make it unfashionable to make anything by hand. The demand for absolute perfection and speed of manufacture will create an artificial machine-made society totally and absolutely dependent on technology. Before long humans will cease to be human themselves.