I've long been considering looking for an independent luthier to build me a custom guitar. I have a pretty specific idea of what I want the guitar to be, but I don't know how to find the right luthier to build it. I can't afford to do this twice, so I have to pick the right luthier the first time. What should I be looking for in a luthier?
I think the key is going to be two fold:
- Play, play, play. You've got to play a couple of guitars from the luthier. While the guitar almost certinaly won't be what you are looking for, you want to look at build quality. Check out the neck, ask to look at the electronics, etc. If his other guitars are good, the chances that yours will be are good too.
- Talk to him (or her). Talk about what you want and see if you think he "gets it". Do his questions make sense? Is he digging in to really understand what you want? It's important that he understands exactly what you want. See how he works. Can you see the guitar as it's being built and provide input? My dad had a guitar built and went down to play it while it was still being built. He didn't like the neck and the luthier made changes while he was standing there.
To find luthiers, try checking your small, local stores. I've often seen stuff from local luthiers in mom and pop stores. I've found out about a couple of local guys through that. You can also ask the guitar techs. They're likely to know about the local people.
Yossarian has certainly nailed the important points. Look, you're deciding to go the luthier route for a reason: you're looking for something special. The great thing about luthiers is that they make bespoke instruments, even when they have set models you can tweak it to suit. You're looking at $4000+, so it pays to spend some time thinking what the instrument will be used for - which it sounds like you've done. Each luthier has their own style so then it's all about going visiting to try out what each of them do.
I would say local is definitely better. Unless you really know what you want and are very familiar with a particular builders work, you'll be wanting to visit a few times during the build to check everything is how you want it to be.
I don't know any in the New York area, but I'm sure there are good folks who can help you out. As a starting point, here is a list for New York state - don't know how up to date it is though.
Happy hunting and let us know how it goes.
I have seen this question asked many times in different forums, I have observed that there is no checklist. Having said that, you really need a checklist to decide whom to choose. You need to do a bit/lot research for that. Visit guitar forums like AGF, OLF etc. to familiarize yourself about the state of the art of Luthiery world and shortlist the luthiers whose work/philosophy you like. Listen to their instruments. Search google for "Luthier Database" and visit various luthier's sites. I created my own blog http://luthierdb.blogspot.com for the same purpose, and may be a good place to start for you.
So you make two separate lists. One listing the criteria/features you want to have in your guitar (keep revising the list with any new information) and the second the list of luthiers. Now eliminate the luthiers based upon your requirements and/or other constraints (like proximity to your living area, if that is your concern). Finally, communicate with your shortlisted luthiers to pick the final one. It seems to be a lot of work, but for most, it's labor of love. Hope you enjoy the process.