There are a surprising number of books on the subject of building stringed musical instruments and some of them are very good. Some of the best and most useful are listed here. I can't recommend books enough - they are probably the best investment you can make. Some of the books listed here are out of print but are readily available from the used book sellers associated with the big online book stores. I highly recommend all books in this list. Books are in no particular order. The summaries of some of the construction books include links to a page of tips for using the book in a self directed effort at building a first instrument. These tips were compiled from the questions I've answered from first time builders attempting to build instruments using these books as guides. This information will also be of use to teachers intending to use these books as texts in instrument building classes. The fact that I've provided these tips pages should in no way be misconstrued to mean any of these books are lacking. These are all great books.
Note to authors and publishers - I get a number of queries from authors asking me to list their book here. This list contains books which I have found to be useful. The first step an author or publisher needs to take for me to determine if a book is useful enough to list here is to send me the book. Just sayin'.
Last updated: Thursday, April 25, 2013
It probably comes as no surprise that I get a lot of technical questions about the design of the guitar and other stringed instruments. Until the publication of this book I had to refer questioners seeking detailed information to a variety of books, articles and research papers, as there was no single source for such information. This book contains very complete information on all technical aspects of the design of the guitar. It is a comprehensive collection of current best practices in the field. Highly technical in some sections, the material is well presented in all cases. I highly recommend it to anyone with a technical background. Nontechnical readers will also be able to get a lot of information from this source.
If Mark's first book is too technical for you, this one might just do the trick. Covering many of the same topics but in a far less technical manner, this book is an amazingly accessible treatise on the technology of acoustic and electric guitars. The author has a great talent for making difficult topics understandable, and his enthusiasm for his subject is infectious.
Here's a really cool niche book. It contains instructions for designing sold body guitars and basses. The book not only covers the technical design of the instrument, but also includes a lot of information on aesthetic considerations and issues of instrument ergonomics. It is written for anyone interested in the design of solid body instruments. The information here is quite accessible.
There is no better source of lutherie information than the pages of American Lutherie, the journal of the Guild of American Luthiers. The articles from the journal are bound into books, each covering a two year period. Every aspect of instrument making is covered in these articles.
Another book from the GAL, this one containing articles about shop built lutherie tools.
Another book from the GAL, this one containing articles about wood and making steel string guitars.
Probably the single best book on making solid body electric guitars and basses. The author provides a wealth of background information and gives step by step instructions for the construction of three different styles of instruments. The author is British but there are few language issues that will confuse Americans (hint: "hire" means "rent"; "pillar drill" means "drill press"). Here are some tips for using this book when making a first instrument. Need more info? Go directly to the source - Melvyn's home page.
A MUST for first time builders of this style of instrument.
A great book from a master builder of archtop guitars. Bob Benedetto provides good background information and careful step by step instructions for building acoustic and electric archtop guitars. Also includes solid advice for anyone who wants to make instruments of any kind for a living, and photos of many of Bob's instruments. This is the reference source for this style of instrument. Here are some tips for using this book when making a first instrument.
A MUST for first time builders of this style of instrument.
This is a design and construction book for builders of modern classic and steel string acoustic guitars. The authors detail the building of two classical and two steel string guitars using a modern building style. Plenty of background information, and the most meticulous step by step construction instructions, including many color photos. This is the only book that I know of that includes technically accurate descriptions of how guitars produce sound, solid engineering methods, and descriptions of modern small shop construction techniques all in one book. Includes four instrument plans.
A MUST for first time and experienced builders of these styles of instrument.
The authors detail the building of a classical and a dreadnought steel string guitar using the Spanish building style. Plenty of background information, and solid step by step construction instructions. Here are some tips for using this book when making a first instrument.
A MUST for first time builders of this style of instrument.
The Gibson F-style mandolin has got to be the toughest plucked instrument to build. It has all of the plate carving of an archtop guitar plus carving of the body scroll, plus the whole thing is a lot smaller. This book provides good step by step construction instructions and full size plans. It also contains excellent instructions for implementing a hand applied sunburst finish.
My only criticism of this book concerns the neck joint. The Gibson instruments use a dovetail joint. This is a really tough one to do by hand, particularly given the tapered neck heel and rounded body of the mandolin at the neck block. The book provides virtually no instructions for implementing this. Instead it provides an alternate neck joint where the neck shaft itself fits into a complex angled mortise, a joint which is not only difficult to implement but is completely visible, which means that if you screw up here your compensating shims are going to be visible, too. A straight sided mortise and tenon joint would work well here, and a splined joint might work even better, particularly for the first time builder. I could wish for an updated version of this book with changes made in this area.
Still, A MUST for first time builders of this style of instrument.
A highly technical book which provides analysis of, and offers solutions for, a number of the technical problems of lutherie. Dr. Hurd develops a top deflection model for classical guitar family instruments, performs material testing, and ultimately develops a number of spreadsheets which can be used in the construction of this family of instruments. This is not a step by step tutorial on how to build an instrument, but rather the formalization of one scientist's laboratory notebook on the general subject of guitar building. His basic goal is to provide a shortcut for producing instruments that are both structurally sound and provide optimum sound quality, without having to build dozens of instruments to figure this out. You'll need high school math and physics skills to understand it, and some familiarity with technical and research publication style would help, too. All in all, quite a trove of technical information for those able to read it. See more about this book on the author's website.
A thin and expensive book, this is an excellent step-by-step discussion of the construction of the bass. Also available from the author are full sized plans for a number of basses that were built by the author. Good photos and diagrams. The step-by-step instructions are not as detailed as they might be for a person considering a bass project for their first instrument, but they are plenty detailed for experienced luthiers or beginners with solid woodworking backgrounds.
As the title specifies, this is a book on setup and repair, not construction. The authors provides a detailed cookbook of just about every repair one would ever need on every kind of bass there is. The upright bass needs constant repair, owing to the fact that it is big and made of wood. Working backwards from the types of repairs that will be necessary in any future for any bass will be extremely useful to the builder of basses. And the descriptions of the setup of the bass are top notch and will be directly applicable to the work of the bass builder. This book has some drawbacks - it could use a lot more photos and diagrams than it has. But it is so full of valuable information that it would be hard to imagine anyone that builds basses would want to be without it.
A great book on construction of the Spanish guitar. It includes detailed specifications and drawings of guitars of eight established master guitar builders as well as step-by-step instructions for the construction of the guitar using the Spanish method. The instructions are not as detailed as in some other books but anyone with a solid woodworking background will find morethan enough detail here to be able to construct a copy of a master instrument or a personal design that reflects the master guitarmaker tradition.
Most construction books only provide the rudiments of instrument finishing. This one provides specific finishing recipes for most of the classic sprayed guitar finishes. It is very detailed and contains complete descriptions of various finishing products. Available directly from Stewart MacDonald.
A book cataloging most American made bass guitars and the people who make them, as of the date of publication. I’m a big fan of catalogs of this sort as they give the builder a broad perspective of the field in which they work. Jim Roberts is the founding editor of Bass Player magazine.
An incredibly comprehensive survey of the instrument. A must have. Lots of pictures and specifications. Out of print but readily available used.
This is a small format, inexpensive picture book of guitars. It contains photos of a large number of historical instruments as well as some modern instruments by both large factories and smaller builders. Big bang for the buck with this one.
The current reference work on the subject. If you want to find out what is currently known about how instruments work, this is the first place to look. The book is quite technical and its contents will not be accessible to all readers. You'll need college level math and science to fully understand everything here. Contains information on non-stringed instruments as well.
This book had been around for a while, and the second revised edition (1990) is currently available in paperback for a very good price. The author presents a very comprehensive treatment of the subject in a form that is surprisingly free of math. As such this book could be much more accessible to those without advanced math than Fletcher and Rossing's book, above. The subject of musical acoustics is inherently technical, and it is complex. This book does not shy away from any of the hairy details, but again, technical novices may find this work a little more approachable than others. One thing that is done exceptionally well here is the introduction of new material. The author very carefully and purposefully introduces new concepts in small bites and gives plenty of examples. Readers who are willing to take the time and effort necessary to proceed through this book will be rewarded with a great deal of knowledge.
A great book on musical acoustics, written in a very modern style that does not rely heavily on math and provides wonderful textual descriptions of what are often hard concepts to master. Probably the most accessible book on the subject of those mentioned on this page for folks without a technical background. Generally very expensive but can be had for a reasonable price from independent book sellers like those on Amazon marketplace.
The most complete information available on wood and wood products. This is a highly technical book, but there are a number of sections which are quite accessible to a general audience. Includes detailed information on properties of virtually all domestic and imported woods. Much info on gluing and fastening wood and wood products, too. This book has been printed under a number of other titles by private publishers. One I know about is called The Encyclopedia of Wood, but unfortunately there are other books with that same title. Note that the entire book can be downloaded for free here. Your (USA) tax dollars at work!
This is the materials science textbook for mechanical engineers. Highly technical and quite expensive. Previous editions of the book are readily available used, and as the materials used in instrument construction are pretty traditional any of the earlier editions would be useful.
It may seem strange to lump all old or historical books together, but in fact there is a good reason to do this (at least I think it's a good reason). Basically, I know of no historical books which I can recommend except as historical documents. At first blush it may seem that older books on making instruments that have been around in their current form for quite a while should be just as valid as newer books. After all, the violin hasn't changed much in three hundred years, so why should a new book on violin making be any better than an old one? The main reason seems to be that there has been an amazing increase in the quality of technical writing over the last sixty years or so. I don't know why this is so – it may be due to an increase in science education in this country. In any case, most historical books on lutherie that I have seen are full of misinformation and a lot contain substantial amounts of opinion masquerading as fact. For this reason I would be hard pressed to actually recommend any of these books in general, although I certainly could recommend some to individuals that I knew were capable of seeing them within a historical context. The books in this section can be interesting and even useful adjuncts to more modern works.
The author has strong opinions on what a violin should be, right down to the shape of the f holes, and he doesn't mind telling us about them. Along the way he catalogs construction details of the instruments of a number of historical violin makers and details basic construction and repair technique. It is quite a trove of information if you can filter out the opinions and the inaccuracies. Includes fold out plans. Out of print but readily and inexpensively available used.
Probably the first of the modern comprehensive construction books, and the book that many modern masters started their lutherie careers with. Clear instructions and lots of photos, but the construction methods specified are quite idiosyncratic and don't correspond to either traditional or modern building methods. The section on spray finishing is simply unacceptable in terms of safety issues.