Classical Guitar Maker Gregory Byers

Like many members of the post-war baby boom, I grew up believing there were no limits to the direction my life might take, and no compelling reason to constrain my path early on. I tried different things. I began college at UC Berkeley as an architecture major, quit school, worked in a biochemistry lab, returned my draft card and joined the Vietnam war resistance movement (narrowly avoiding prison on a technicality after refusing induction into the army), hitch-hiked through Europe (never got to Spain), went to pottery school and spent several years as a stoneware potter. After returning to school in biology, I travelled a few more twists and turns of the road, and ended up in graduate school where I earned a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona. Even then, I didn't look at my work as a career choice. I saw graduate school as an interlude from pottery with a chance to learn how to confront the natural world not just on a spiritual level, which I felt deeply, but also from a place of rational inquisitiveness. I was awarded a National Science Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship to pursue my dissertation on the evolution of sex in plants.

In 1979 I took a break from my own work and spent half a year in Puerto Rico working on hummingbird-flower community ecology. It was here that I, an old steel-string folkie/rocker, fell for the nylon string guitar. I met an ancient luthier named Velasquez (no relation to the one you may know) whose hillside house was perched on stilts over an open-air workshop. He was backed up two years with orders for guitars and cuatros at $200 a piece. I bought a cheap factory guitar that he had acquired in a trade for the same $200 I would have spent on his, and left with the conviction that I would make one myself one day.

A little more than a year later, with my dissertation work completed but for the final written form, I engaged in the ultimate displacement activity and built that guitar. Once completed, I showed it to Tom Patterson, the new teacher in the guitar department at the U. of A. He encouraged me to do more. This was early April in 1981, and a poster on Tom's door advertised the Guitar 81 festival in Toronto, where José Romanillos would be giving a weeklong workshop at the end of June. Having read an article about him and another by him, I knew I had to go. Small problem: my incomplete dissertation. I didn't want to leave it hanging and I suspected a big intersection coming up on life's highway. So I pulled over and refuelled: in the space of six weeks I wrote and defended my dissertation, and since then I have never looked back.

Romanillos was (is!) wonderful. A deeply spiritual man, he showed me that lutherie is more than just gluing sticks together. Inspired by the greatness of both his artistry and spirit, I found my calling as a luthier. He gave me reason to think my life's work could touch the creative, the spiritual, the rational in equal measure. This is what I had been looking for. In the intervening years my view hasn't faltered or changed, struggle though it has been at times. I developed my woodworking skills by building furniture during the first years, and took time out from guitarmaking to design and build the house I live in with my family. Along the way I also became strongly influenced by John Gilbert, who was kind enough to offer encouragement and advice on numerous occasions. Beyond these two, my biggest influences are the players who have evaluated my guitars. The most important thing an aspiring builder can do is go to the best players he/she can find and listen -- truely listen -- to how they sound and what they say. Listen critically and listen to criticism! I currently construct about 12 guitars each year, and have built over 200 classical guitars since 1984.

I have given presentations on various aspects of the craft at conventions of the Guild of American Luthiers (1986, 1995, 1998, 2004), at the College of the Redwoods Woodworking School (1993), and at the Healdsburg Guitar Festival (1997, 1999). In 1999, I was a featured speaker at La Guitarra California, in San Luis Obispo. I was invited to the Joaquín Rodrigo Centenary Luthiers' Competition in Aranjuez, Spain (November, 2000), which my wife Susan and I attended. I have published several articles in American Lutherie, most notably a mathematical solution to the problem of intonation in fretted instruments. This work was done in collaboration with guitarist Cem Duruöz. We successfully applied a theoretical approach to the age-old problem of making fretted instruments play in tune. Experimental testing based on the model has yielded an improved method for solving intonation problems, which I apply to all my guitars. Currently, I'm really excited to do some experimental work on soundboard design. (Learn more).