As champions of men, SCRUBD is passionate about helping men to be masters in every area of their life. Every month we interview a true master, who is making a difference in the world around him.
This month we are shining the light on master Luthier Tom Sands who builds some of the most responsive custom acoustic guitars available in the world today.
Guitar Making started for you at the age of 16 in your dad’s garage. Talk us through your journey from furniture designer to master Luthier.
When my best friend asked me for help with his A level design project, an electric bass in exchange for guitar lessons, I had no idea what I was letting myself in for and how it would ultimately change the course of my life 15 years later.
After graduating at The Glasgow School of Art. I spent the next six year honing my skills as a precision woodworker working with the finest designers and craftsmen in the bespoke furniture industry. It was my dream job, or so I thought…But, there was a disconnect, I felt completely separated from my craft and the end client, at the end of every project I felt a little hollow, I’d spend hours neurotically obsessing over every detail, pouring my soul into each project only to see it wrapped up in foam, packed into a crate and shipped out to a faceless client living a life that I could not even begin to comprehend or relate to. I had fallen out of love with my craft and so quit my job and went on a journey to re discover my passion.
You were an apprentice for Ervin Somogyi ‘The Father of the modern acoustic guitar.’ How does an apprentice become a master?
Ask me again in 40 years! I think the key is to stay humble, stay curious, keep your ego in check as there are always people you can learn from. Ervin is in his 70’s and he still takes on apprentices. In sharing his knowledge, in helping others to grow and develop, he continues grow. The remarkable thing is that even after almost 50 years at the bench and a reputation set in stone, he is still pushing the boundaries, trying new things every day.
You describe guitar making as a ‘way of life’. What’s so special about the guitars you make and the process involved?
I always tell my clients that half of what I do is building guitars, the other half is building relationships. It can take between 2-3 years from the initial enquiry arriving in my email inbox to delivery day. That’s a long time to really get to know someone, and it’s an essential gestation period. It’s a holistic process; if I have a rapport and understanding with my clients then I’m more likely to build them something they’ll love. If I’ve done my job right, if I’ve got right to the core of what it is they want from a guitar, then they should be able to pick up that instrument for the first time and feel an instant bond. It’s so crucial that my clients feel involved and invested as it’s their baby as much as mine and it’s an intimate journey we take together. I’m lucky to have clients that I can now call good friends.
What is your proudest moment as a Luthier?
It has to be hand delivering the first ever Tom Sands guitar to my first client. Full of nerves, I was almost in tears when my client opened the case for the first time and was speechless. He loved the guitar and routinely calls me up to tell me so. There’s a unparalleled magic in instrument building, you spend so much time, hours and hours, weeks, designing and crafting the thing, and then you put strings on this inanimate object, you breathe new life into the wood, it comes alive. It has its own personality and it becomes and vessel for self expression. To witness that transitional moment, when a clients ’tonal vision’ become a reality springing from the sound board is pretty incredible to say the least.
What is the most challenging thing about your craft?
As with most crafts, you’re creating something that doesn’t already exist. I’ve been quite fortunate that my clients trust me to make them a guitar in the way I want to make it. But from time to time a client will come to me with something very specific in mind, a tone that he or she has been dreaming about. The challenge comes in trying to reach a mutual understanding of what that tone is. A universal language for describing sound doesn’t exist. “I want my guitar to sound warm” or “I want my guitar to have sparkly, almost ice-like trebles, with lots of overtones and a hint of raspberry in the finish” What does this mean? It’s so subjective. It’s a slow process but vital to the success of an instrument. Ultimately I’ve had to learn to become really good at listening and asking the right questions.
There seems to be an increase in the demand for bespoke made guitars. Why do you think this is?
A custom built guitar is like the tailor made suit. It fits perfectly, or at least it should if the Luthier has done their job right. I think that people are beginning to see the value in craft again, the big name brands invariably don’t innovate, and they keep churning out the same instruments they’ve always made albeit with snappy tag lines or a new signature model. I think guitar enthusiasts are beginning to understand that instead of filling their houses with average guitars they never play, they can have the right conversation with the right Luthier and have the guitar of their dreams built for them.
How do you master your day?
8 hours of sleep every night, 19 minutes (psychologically more acceptable than 20!) of body weight exercises in the morning, proper breaks between work, 10 minutes of meditation… oh and I have a no phone policy in my workshop so there are no distractions!
If you could have dinner with three male masters, who would they be and why?
Leonardo Da Vinci, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs. Three people that really see/saw things differently. Endlessly finding beauty and wonder in the world (and in Musks case, other worlds) and exploring it with childlike curiosity. True innovators with lasting contributions. Plus, I read that Steve Jobs would diet from time to time exclusively on carrots or apples, I’d be interested to find out which.
The best piece of advice you have ever received?
Shit days don’t last forever