Meet three Delhi-based luthiers who are elevating the craft of guitar making

A custom-made guitar, on the other hand, is sheer artistry. It is a thing of beauty, one that definitely catches the eye. But, where do you go for a bespoke six-string? The answer is a luthier

author_img Simi Kuriakose Published :  28th September 2021 10:59 PM   |   Published :   |  28th September 2021 10:59 PM

Images from The ThingSmiths workshop

“I got my first real six-string” — these iconic words from the Bryan Adams song, Summer of ’69 (Gen Z might have to look this one up), inspired a number of 90s kids to invest in their first acoustic guitar. A ubiquitous instrument — given how accessible it is — most of us, at some point, have tested our affinity for music through it. No matter whether you’re a beginner or have been strumming the guitar for years, there is an assortment of styles and types to choose from. However, akin to any other product, factory-made as well as mass-produced instruments are mere cookie-cutter models. A custom-made guitar, on the other hand, is sheer artistry. It is a thing of beauty, one that definitely catches the eye. But, where do you go for a bespoke six-string? The answer is a luthier.

Originating from the French word ‘lute’, a luthier is an artist who handcrafts and repairs one or more string instruments such as guitars, harp, banjo, among others. Guitar making is art – it requires immense dedication and focus. Add to that list a love for the handmade, as well as the will and awareness to assimilate lessons learnt through (a lot of) trial and error. Practitioners of this craft must be meticulous; the attention to detail required in handcrafting an instrument can take years to develop. While a popular artistry overseas, home-grown luthiers are few and far between. That said, there are a few from the city who are proficient in the craft of guitar making.

A creative process

After playing the bagpipes and snare drum for a few years in school, Anand Vihar-based Ankit Kathuria decided to try his hand at the guitar. While he played the bass in college, he never pursued learning the guitar seriously. Eliminating the assumption that luthiers must also be guitarists, Kathuria quips, “Not all guitar builders are guitar players. There are two different parts of the brain at work during these two activities – one helps to play and the other, to build.”

After giving a shot to a couple of nine-to-five jobs as well as taking up a tattoo training course, Kathuria (33) finally decided to work as a salesperson at 440Hz, a music store in Lajpat Nagar. It was at this time that a customer walked into the store, worried about a higher guitar action. “He had a gig on the same day, and was very worried,” Kathuria narrates. The owner of the store, who later helped him discover the technicalities of guitar repair and maintenance, gave Kathuria an Allen key and guided him to make a few adjustments. It worked! “Doing that was really satisfying. The owner then told me that every shop has a guitar technician. When I mentioned that I was not aware of this, he said he’d teach me and also ordered a few tools,” Kathuria tells us about his journey. In time, he was managing multiple repair orders, and recalls how he even had a runner to help him out. Not only did he learn a thing or two on the Internet, he also picked up the nuances and techniques on the job. After two apprenticeships with the late Arulnathan Dominic Xavier of Arul Guitars, Bengaluru, Kathuria finally launched Avid Guitars.

What does the clientele in need of a bespoke guitar at Avid Guitars look like? Kathuria mentions these instruments are for people who “think of owning their dream guitar”. He says, “People who have been  playing the guitar for years know what they want, unlike the others who start out.” India has a mixed market, he mentions, and there are people who cannot fathom how expensive custom-made guitars are: an Avid Guitars customer must be willing to shell out over a lakh INR for one such instrument. Kathuria says, “When people go online and see a handmade guitar, they can never figure out why it is expensive.” The detailing is intricate, says Kathuria, who often works with spruce wood, rosewood, and native Indian wood like jackfruit and tamarind.

Though he receives multiple requests for custom shapes, fanned frets, and even arm bevels, currently Kathuria only crafts a guitar in a month (or two) to sell. “Usually, a guitar builder will be booked out for a year or two. It is not the same for me because I’m amidst shifting workshops and also drive an Indie community named Space Session.” Guitar building is an extensive craft, Kathuria highlights, “There is so much to learn; you have to keep honing your skills.”

The learning never stops

Karan Singh (38), who runs a guitar repair shop with his friend in Mehrauli and crafts bespoke products from his workshop in Goa, has had a slightly unusual journey. An avid guitarist himself, Singh mentions, “Of course, it is not necessary to play the guitar if you’re a luthier. But it does help.” When Singh started ten years ago, he was self-taught; always using references on how to put something together. Finally, after a few apprenticeships in Europe, he launched Bigfoot Guitars. Singh says, “I understood the various aspects of what makes a good guitar during my apprenticeship. In fact, I always look forward to taking it to the next level. Education is an ongoing process. Every year or two, I make sure to spend some time learning from someone I really admire. I try to use my learnings in order to create a better instrument.” Crafting multiple instruments such as the ukulele, acoustic guitar, electric guitar and bass guitar, Singh points out, “It takes about three months to put together an instrument. SInce I am a one-man show, clients have to wait anywhere between one and two years for a bespoke guitar.”    

A handcrafted instrument by Singh can be made from any wood – German spruce is something he uses often, but he also uses native trees such as tamarind, mango, and a few from South India whose English names he’s unfamiliar with. A custom order at Bigfoot can start at three lakh INR, and the client roster includes professional musicians and guitar collectors. Singh says, “Those who have played for 15 to 20 years have an idea of the holy grail of the guitar; and I hopefully try and make it a reality.” Of course, given the detailing, the process is interesting yet time-consuming. He highlights, “There is a lot of to and fro in terms of design element and finer details. The client is with me throughout the process, and it is fun for them too.” How about unusual requests from patrons? Singh discusses that, more often than not, he isn't receptive to sketches, “I refuse people who come to me with sketches not because I can't make it, but because it’s difficult to get the shape and outline to make a functional instrument. At the end of the day, the guitar is a tool. If the design makes no sense from a playability standpoint, it is futile." How about other personalisations? "Yes, I have personalised instruments for clients, especially from a sentimental point of view.” 

Most skilled crafts are often handed down from generation to generation. Is this also true for guitar making? Singh debunks this myth, stating, “In the West, this craft was usually handed down from generation to generation or even from master to apprentice. But, that has not been the case over the last 30 to 40 years.” Of course, the guitar is a relatively new instrument for India, with origins dating close to roughly 200 years. Hinting on how we’re faring as a nation when it comes to taking up guitar making as a profession, Singh says, “The current generation is stepping away from the excitement of the corporate world. They're pursuing careers that are more meaningful to them, keep them rooted in some way and, for the lack of better words, are more soulful. The interest has definitely grown.”

We end our conversation with how competitive is this space, keeping in mind the musical instrument giants? Singh, who also conducts two-week long apprenticeship training for amateur guitar makers, wraps up, “The clientele that comes to me is niche. I am not competing with the big companies; they target  a certain segment of people, and we need them. People who are happy to go to a store and buy a guitar should do so, as that is what’s best for them. In fact, even within the community, it is better to have more builders as it creates a market for custom guitars.”

Ankit Kathuria of Avid Guitars

Crafting the perfect method

“I’ve been a guitarist longer than I was a luthier,” adds Sagar Prasad (30), who started playing the instrument when he was 15, and conducting repairs commercially from when he worked for a music store. He recalls, “Guitars are not cheap. As an overly ambitious guitarist, I wanted to build my instrument. That’s how it all started.” The Internet was his learning ground as Prasad would sit for hours reading or watching videos of expert luthiers such as Ron Kirn.

When he later launched The ThinkSmiths, Prasad admits it was not an easy stint, “My first run was a fiasco; and I was broke by the end of three months. I took up another job but also ran ThinkSmiths in a limited context.” Till he was 24, a bulk of Prasad’s work included adjustments and repairs. “Most of my work hinges on adjustments. In terms of set-up, Indian shops have very consistent parameters. I’ve developed my own method; it is a question of figuring out what works best for you as well,” he adds. This luthier would once repair anywhere between 25 and 30 guitars a year. Over time, that number has exponentially increased; Prasad sets-up 200 odd guitars in a year now.

Talking about the woods used in his workshop at Delhi’s Kotla Mubarakpur, he informs, “I have worked with teak, and also with Meranti (a wood that is looked down upon in India and used to make door frames). As far as using rose wood is concerned, it is not worth the effort.” The pricing, Prasad, mentions, is something he has simplified for clients. He asks the customer to purchase the hardware allowing them to choose as they please. Meanwhile, Prasad works out additional costs including a price for labour of crafting the piece.

Drawing parallels between guitar making and conducting repairs is impossible, he mentions, “Unlike repairs, a build is very time-consuming. In fact, it is very well thought out, properly funded, and takes about a month or more. My first build was long drawn out; it took me three months.”

Noting that guitar making is a hidden craft especially in India, Prasad talks to us about why the bespoke market is limited to a smaller group – a segment sandwiched between those who buy guitars off the shelf and others who pride themselves on being collectors. “Only someone who has gone through many options will come to a luthier. The bespoke market consists of artists who know what they want from their guitar,” he concludes. Probably, that is what makes for a very demanding customer to a rather content luthier.