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Off Central: Guitar-making school puts Phoenix on musical maps

(KTAR News Photo/Martha Maurer)
LISTEN: School puts Phoenix on the map for guitar making

PHOENIX — Jack Ward left his family and friends back home in Yorkshire, England when he moved to Phoenix to learn how to make guitars.

“I’ve played guitar since I was 9,” he said. “I just want to eventually open up my own shop making guitars and selling them.”

Ward is one of 25 students attending the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery, located near Grand and 10th avenues, this fall.

The warehouse-style shop inside the 42-year-old school is spread out — work tables, tools, individual space and auditorium seating fill the large room where students learn the art of guitar-making.

Outside, heavy machinery help students — who range in age from late teens to 60s — with sanding and wielding, painting and other techniques.

“They’re not going to be masters right away,” the school’s director, Will Eaton, explained. “They will have a fundamental knowledge, a good start.”

Roberto-Venn’s curriculum is five months long. It teaches students about a career in guitar building and repair, all the way from the basics to setting the foundation for a career in the field.

Through a mix of lectures and practical training, students will finish both an electric and an acoustic guitar by the end of the program.

“The school is their 101,” Eaton said. “What we want to do is help them find a job with somebody. When they find a job with a small manufacturer or custom builder, or as an apprentice, they can improve their chops and learn of other guitar-making processes.”

Students come from all over the world to study at Roberto-Venn. The current group includes the 22-year-old Ward, and another student from Japan. More than 2,000 students from every continent except Antarctica have attended and graduated from Roberto-Venn.

Gillian Marsh, 18, is the only female in the course. The Colorado native hoped to turn guitar-making into a career. She heard about the school from someone who had attended in the past, and after graduating high school and taking a few online classes, she decided it was time to move to Phoenix.

“Once I complete the course, I’d like to start working for a small guitar shop,” she said, adding that her end goal was to open up her own business.

A legacy

The school’s office houses several custom guitars on the walls. Some are so unique that they’ve been displayed in museums around the world. The acoustic, harp and electric guitars on the wall tell of the love Eaton has for making guitars.

He likes to tell the story of how the school came about. He points to a slab of wood, a table that was once slated to make a boat.

“This is a piece of root mahogany,” he said, as he ran his hand over the wood. One of the school’s founder brought the timber from Nicaragua.

“John wanted to create a boat,” he said. “What he did is create a vessel that all of us have found a lifestyle in this big arc, so to speak, where we’ve all enjoyed a life style of making guitars.”

As he pulls one of his string guitars off the wall and places on this lap to play a tune, you can watch Eaton transport to his own place.

He’s been with the school from its inception. In fact, he created the blueprint, a business plan he thought up when he was a student at Stanford.

Besides traveling the country performing and running the school, Eaton still finds time to make guitars.

“All mine are unique,” he said, pointing to the drawings and the wooden base he has already started.

It looks like a spiral, each ray with the marks of where the strings will be.

It is certainly unique. He seemed to relish in the fact that a guitar like this will create sound no one has heard before.

Getting credit

The current course will conclude at the end of January.

In February, things will begin anew and run through June.

Students receive a Luthier certificate after completing the course.

Roberto-Venn is an accredited member of the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges. In addition to the five-month course, students can also attend shorter workshops such as tool seminar, painting and electronics techniques.

KTAR News 92.3

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