Practice Makes Perfect
Geoff Luttrell crouches at his workbench, squinting hard at the neck of the soon-to-be guitar he is drilling holes in.
Luttrell has owned SF Guitarworks repair shop in the city since 2001. It began as a small-scale operation, headed by Luttrell and one other technician. More than a decade later, the shop is home to five full-time guitar experts and one part-time amp repairman. Collectively, they serve a base of more than three hundred.
He opened the shop more than ten years ago after being laid off from a tech job. His reaction was a bit eccentric.
“I decided I’m not going to ever interview again,” he says. “I’m never interviewing for another job. Period.”
After receiving subpar service from repair shops in the city, he decided that he could do it better. So that became his mission. He attended The Fret Works guitar school in Canada for two months, then came back to the city, determined to begin his own shop. Though he had the drive, he admits his strategy wasn’t full proof.
“It was a pretty feeble plan, really,” he says. “My sole market research was calling a busy shop in town and saying ‘How long to get a setup done?’”
When he was told a guitar tune-up for his instrument would take three weeks, Luttrell decided there was enough work in town to draw from. He was already a machinist who had built bicycle frames, and had worked as a certified auto technician in the city. These building blocks would add depth to his work, he decided.
Besides, he wanted to do something he enjoyed and would challenge him. And it has.
Just as he hoped, the complexities of starting a business and of navigating detailed guitar repairs challenged Lutrell in almost every way possible. Many customers have collections of guitars and come to the shop for fine-tuning, and detail work.
Often, the tasks are not straightforward, like simple restringing or part replacements. But he enjoys finding the solution to each guitar and takes pleasure in the hunt for some unknown mechanical issue. He loves repairing guitars.
“It encompasses so many different aspects of craft: woodworking, metalwork, electronics, soldering, electrical schematics, finish-work and aesthetics,” he says. “It pulls from a lot of different aspect I have expertise in. And then you use it for something awesome – music.”
Sometimes, the mechanist will work on one guitar for a few days. Other times, like for a simple tune-up, the task requires only forty-five minutes. But for Luttrell, there is not exactly an off-switch when it comes to his work. To his best estimation, he has worked on at least seven thousand guitars.
He says he has tried to picture what it would look like if all the instruments he has done work on were in one room – or if they would even fit in one.
“There’s a lot of blurring in my world,” he says. “When I go home, I build guitars for fun, and I work on guitars all day. So it’s kind of insane, really.
He has done work for guitarists Steve Vai, Bob Mould, and Camper Van Beethoven. But, he does not geek out, he says. When he has assisted famous musicians like these, his mindset is more of a “let’s get this done” versus some type of hero worship. Still, the mechanic is a huge fan of Van Halen and Beck. Luttrell played bass and guitar in more than a few bands as a teenager, whose music was a tribute to exactly their type of power and sound.
For the amount of time Luttrell spends with the instruments each day, he has very little time to actually play them. That does not bother him too much though. His appreciation of music has shifted over the years. He still plays bass or guitar from time to time, but he rather be working on one now; making it sound better and play smoother, he would rather be perfecting it.
The craft has a lot of dimension, Luttrell points out. Some repairs are completely invisible. One of the most challenging, but fun, aspects of his work is the accountability he has to his customers. When a customer comes in about an issue with their guitar, Luttrell assesses the problem and then a guarantees them he can fix it right up. This can get scary.
Occasionally, a mechanical problem is so minute or complex, he does not exactly know where to start. Nonetheless, Luttrell offers his guarantee. This would seem like bad business, but this has worked for him and his shop. So far, he has been able to figure out every problem a customer has trusted him with. But Luttrell’s love of his work goes farther than making customers happy. His work has added dimension to his life, but it has also done something beautifully simple – added music to the world.
“It’s added a depth that I didn’t have before because I have this craft that I think is a noble and long tradition,” he says. “I feel like Luthiery adds to the world. It doesn’t take away.”