Brian Howard is a luthier.
If you have no idea what that is, well, that’s understandable. “Luthier” is a French word for a lute-maker. But while lutes were a big hit in Renaissance entertainment at 14th-century royal soirees, there isn’t much demand for lutes these days.
However, nowadays the term applies to the makers of a wide variety of stringed instruments – like guitars. And that’s where Howard strikes a chord with guitarists who aren’t willing to settle for some run-of-the-mill mass-produced guitar.
Howard’s custom guitars are hand-crafted one at a time to precise specifications – right down to the type of wood, the engineering, the woodworking, the metalwork, finishing and inlay. It takes up to 200 hours to craft one of these sweet masterpieces.
“The first step for me is always the selection of the exact pieces of wood to be used and how they will be oriented for grain and so forth in the final instrument,” says Howard.
After that, the process varies greatly depending on the exact instrument being built. As he points out, making the body for an electric guitar is completely different from making an acoustic guitar. A complex electric design may have at most 12 pieces of wood in the body construction and is done mainly with routers.
In contrast, a simple acoustic design will have no fewer than 27 pieces, almost all carved by hand. Factory-made guitars use an assembly-line process, in which anyone can be taught to make a small piece or two of the complete job.
“Being a maker of fine guitars requires much flexibility,” says Howard. “My process is very organic and flows in whatever course is necessary to make the instrument at hand.”
One of Howard’s standard models is made with a Sitka spruce top and East Indian rosewood body or an Engelmann spruce top and mahogany body. Soundboards feature an all-wood spoke-style rosette and ebony bridge. The necks are laminated for strength and stability, featuring a V-jointed mahogany peghead with a volute and ebony face. With all that involved in the standard model, it’s easy to imagine how, for a custom luthier, the sky is the limit when it comes to custom construction.
Howard is a woodworker born from a long line of wood craftsmen.
“My great-grandfather was the master carpenter who built the Hotel Hershey,” he says. “So the woodwork part was almost genetic. Until I became a full-time luthier, I worked in high-end cabinetry, millwork and furniture.”
Howard started making guitars in 1984, but it took nearly 25 years before he decided to follow his passion and put “Luthier” on his business card. He often works on a custom guitar for four months, and makes three to six guitars in a year.
As you can well imagine, a handcrafted guitar comes at a price. A standard guitar might start at just under $2,000, soaring as high as $6,700 or more, with exotic woods like black limba and inlay details like mother of pearl or precious metals.
To supplement his custom guitar business, Howard performs repair and maintenance on all fretted instruments, from basic setup and adjustment to complete reconstruction, as well as the application of finishes and lacquers.
“I really enjoy the fact that everything I do, everything I touch, has but one purpose, to bring joy and happiness to the world,” he says.
Howard – a guitarist himself – names Ritchie Blackmore, Billy Gibbons, Joe Perry and Ace Frehley among his guitar idols. He’s just waiting to craft a custom guitar for a musician of their caliber. Or someone with big dreams.
“That kind of talent is the result of many things – not the least of which is often some sort of voodoo magic,” says Howard.
An exquisite, handcrafted custom guitar certainly couldn’t hurt.