What if you lived in India and were one of only a few professional luthiers in the whole country!? Imagine trying to get supplies or tools or wood for your instruments there…
Well, today I get the privilege of introducing you to a luthier who refused to let any of that stuff stop him, who found ways to overcome those challenges and even turn them into opportunities and strengths. And along the way it helped him discover some keys to unlocking his true potential, finding joy, and doing his best work.
His name is Karan Singh, the owner and head luthier at Bigfoot Guitars and long-time member of The Luthier’s EDGE. I don’t think it’s possible to talk with Karan and not come away feeling inspired, and I believe this interview below will give you an extra boost today and inspire you to stop making excuses, find your joy, and do your best work!” – Tom Bills
Luthier’s EDGE Meet The Member:
Can you tell me a little bit about your background (your story) and how you got started making guitars?
My profession in an earlier life was running workshops on Team Building and Leadership Development for different organizations, as a consultant. I would also coach them one on one to help them achieve their life goals – personal and professional. During this time I got into repairing my own guitars since I didn’t have a decent tech guy in my city. One thing led to another and I decided to try building my own guitar. This was around 10 years ago, and from there on I was bitten by the lutherie bug!! I would spend my days in office and evenings and weekends in my basement workshop, which I set up over 4 years. In early 2014 my wife and I had a baby boy, and at that time I decided to stay home and spend as much time as possible around him (I was travelling over half the month on work at the time), and that’s when I decided to make guitar building a full time job and give it all I’d got. Even though I’d started off completely self taught for the first 6 years, I decided to travel abroad and study with a couple of builders so I could really hone my skill set and understand what it takes to build one of these gorgeous creations that manage to spread so much happiness and joy in peoples’ lives.
I apprenticed with Paul Doyle in Ireland, and Jeffrey Yong in Malaysia, and even now I try to take out a few weeks a year to visit other builders and share build philosophies so we can each build a better and more inspired instrument.
What is the name of your company and what type of guitars do you mainly build?
I build guitars full time at Bigfoot Guitars (www.bigfootguitars.com) we offer Acoustic Steel stringed guitars, classical guitars, electric guitars, thin line acoustic (crossover guitars), ukuleles and mandolins. Having said that, our primary business is in building steel string guitars for the finger style player. That seems to be what I do best, instinctively.
Are there any unique lutherie challenges you faced living in India and if so how did you overcome them?
Where do I start???? Hahahahahaha! Just living in India is a lutherie challenge in itself! In our entire country there are exactly 7-8 guitar makers, out of which I would call 2-3 professional (Who work full time and put out a quality product). As a result of this, we don’t really have a network of luthiers to rely on for idea / resource sharing. Finding timber is a tough job, since none of the local mills stock the kind of stuff we need. If they do, it’s never seasoned, the quality is never standard, since all of it is used for local furniture work. Eventually, this made me decide to travel around the country and source my own logs, get them cut and seasoned as per my requirement and then use them. As you can imagine, this eats into a mad amount of build time, not to mention the storage space required!!!
Apart from timber, there’s also a big challenge with good power tools. There’s zero quality control on most tools here, so bandsaws don’t cut like they should, table saws can’t be set up true, belt sanders aren’t square, and the list goes on! So after trying tons of these machines, I still mainly rely on my shop made hand planes, some good Japanese chisels and saws to do 80% of my work. And in retrospect maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing 🙂
When using alternative and domestic tone woods how do you go about selecting them for each guitar?
One of the main reasons clients come to me, is to get a guitar made of non-traditional timber. I try not to use Spruce / Rosewood / Mahogany / Maple on my builds unless someone REALLY wants it. I’ve also developed my build style to incorporate hardwood tops on most of my guitars, something that is still rare in the west. The thinking behind it was, why is everyone going bonkers over Rosewood? It’s great, yes, but it’s going extinct. We have over 300 species of tropical hardwood trees in India, most of which are not endangered. So I spend a lot of time experimenting with new species. To be honest, I have worked with over 15 local species and am yet to be disappointed by any of them. They have made it to international guitar shows in Berlin and Vancouver and have homes in 10 countries, and no problems thus far. All it needs is a slightly open mind!
My process for selection is pretty simple. I start with the look of the wood when I visit the mills. If it catches my eye, I’ll pick up a small sample plank. After drying, I’ll thickness it to usable dimensions, and check it’s stiffness. If it holds up and isn’t floppy, if it rings when tapped and doesn’t sound like cardboard, I’m sold! I will try it out and work that piece till it’s as resonant as I’d like. Because of this method, my bracing style often changes to compensate for the added (or lack of) stiffness in the species of wood I’m using. I think the biggest mistake made by a number of starting builders is to keep all the bracing and top / back dimensions constant. No two pieces of wood behave the same. Work to a target stiffness, not a number!!!
Also, when people question the suitability of a particular species for a guitar, my usual response is, “If Ovation can make guitars with essentially a plastic / composite back, and have it played by professional players, you can use pretty much any type of wood and work with it!” The point isn’t to disrespect Ovation or any other brand, it’s simply to clarify that there are very few species of wood that CAN’T be used. Some will be more resonant than others, of course, but they will all put out a great tone if the builder applies his / her skills to the process of crafting a high quality guitar. Don’t blame the wood if the guitar doesn’t sound good 🙂
Do you have any key realizations or bits of advice that have helped you do your best lutherie work?
For me personally, there have been a couple.
- I realized that I cannot copy the aesthetics of any other builder. Sure, I find the work of many luthiers like yourself inspiring, and I am always curious about how the top luthiers go about their craft, and why, but it’s simply in order to make sense of what I do, and to streamline my own process of working. As gorgeous as a Somogyi rosette is, it’s never been my dream to make one. There are aesthetic trends that come and go every few years – these days it’s guitars with a lot of geometric purfling inlay down the back, on the headstock and the rosette. They look lovely, but they aren’t me. Even on my most creative day I’d still be copying someone’s design, and that bugs me. So I try to stick to what comes naturally to me, no matter how simple that may seem. It’s still me. And I think that’s a lot more important than anything else.
- My best work seems to always come out when I build from a positive place in my mind. I’ve realized that I cannot successfully build a guitar that I’m happy with if I’m operating out of a sense of fear and insecurity. That always ends badly. Happiness is a choice I make, not an outcome of the work I do. I choose to be happy while I work, and the end product will show it (I Hope!). I don’t let the finished guitar determine whether I’ll be happy or not. Sure, there are days when things don’t go according to plan, and every builder knows those days all too well, but in the larger scheme of things they are quickly forgotten. Make your mistakes, learn from them, and move on. Like my friend Jason Kostal says – “We’re not trying to cure cancer. We’re building guitars.” Don’t take yourselves so seriously. Enjoy the moment, enjoy the process, and the outcome will be positive. Because if you’re not enjoying it, what’s the point of building guitars? It’s sure as hell not a fast track to becoming a millionaire!!
How did being a member of the Luthier’s EDGE help you?
I found the Luthier’s Edge at a point in my career when I was still trying to figure out who I wanted to be as a builder. I spent a lot of time thinking about what would be the best possible version of myself that I’d like to present to the world in the form of a guitar. And then I saw Tom’s work and website and pretty much instantaneously felt a connection, even though I didn’t know him. Just from hearing him speak, a lot of his thoughts resonated within me, and reinforced my beliefs. I love the courses that are on the Luthier’s Edge – I think Tom really is trying to take things to the next level, and get builders to up their game so there are no more excuses for not making a brilliant guitar 🙂 I’m grateful for the time he’s taken out of his daily life to make this process easier for all of us.
Any additional thoughts you would like to share?
There’s no magic in lutherie. But there is a mad load of practice and patience required. Don’t let tradition dictate what you can and cannot do. If you’re starting out, don’t even worry about whether your tops are AA or AAA grade. Just pick up dry timber and build. Make tons of notes. Build again, and again, and again. Video tutorials are great, and they shorten the learning curve to a large extent, but at the end of the day there is no substitute for ‘time on the mat.’ You have to put in the hours if you want to achieve mastery. And it’s a lot of hours, have no doubt! So fasten your seat belts, and settle in for a long, glorious ride. Best of luck to all of you 🙂