Roberto-Venn: Three Decades of Training Guitarmakers

Ask any guitarmaker to name a school where you can learn that craft, and odds are he or she will say “Roberto-Venn.” About half a dozen instructors there teach roughly 70 students per year, divided into two classes. “Over the past 30 years, we have graduated over 1,500 students from all over the world,” William Eaton, the director of the school, told me.

“We are represented in just about every major and minor guitar company in the country, including Collings, Santa Cruz, Breedlove, Taylor, PRS, Fender and even Martin, a company that long resisted hiring anyone already trained. Many other graduates become one-off builders, running individual or small shops building one guitar at a time by hand. Some students have gone on to other woodworking areas after having their taste for it whetted here.” Ironically, even their closest competitor, a program at a school in Red Wing, Minnesota, is currently run by a former Roberto-Venn student.

Clearly, this is the bastion of guitarmaking education in the U.S., so I asked William to give me a quick recap of how it came to be. “Back in the mid-60s,” he recounted, “a gentleman named John Roberts was working as a pilot for a lumber company that was buying wood in South America, among other areas. He befriended the natives and started collecting wood for a yacht he planned to build. That idea fell through, but he shipped the wood he had collected to Phoenix, and ended up with several boxcars full of exotic woods. He decided to start a hardwood business.

“Shortly thereafter, he ran into a customer who said ‘this is perfect wood for guitarmaking’ and offered to teach John how to make acoustic guitars. John had always done woodworking, and he went for it. Eventually, he started teaching guitarmaking to others, and opened an apprentice shop, where I met him in 1971 and learned guitarmaking from him,” Eaton explained. “You would buy materials and shop time from him and he would help you on a one-on-one basis.

“Robert Venn, meanwhile, had started making electric guitars in the 1950s in Bakersfield, CA. He moved to Phoenix to be near family, met John Roberts in 1973, and they formed a partnership that gave them the ability to teach and make both acoustic and electric guitars.

“During the ’70s, I was attending Stanford Graduate School of Business in an MBA program,” continued Eaton, “and as part of the course had to write a small business plan. Having built a guitar, I had stayed in touch with John and decided to write my small business plan about a guitarmaking school. During a school break, I went back and built a 12-string guitar there, and showed them my business plan. After graduation in 1975, the other two invited me in as a partner with my business plan as the model. We incorporated, and the now three-person company became the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery.” William Eaton is the sole remaining founding partner, as both Roberts and Venn passed away in the 1990s.

“We originally started with a four-month core course where students built one acoustic and one electric guitar, and that course still exists today. We use the building process as a way of learning to build guitars. In 1994, we added a one-month repair class to the curriculum. In 1979, we became accredited by NATTS, which is now ACCSCT, a trade and technical school accrediting commission. Among other things, accreditation means we can offer our students financial aid.”

It also means that both the school and its students take things very seriously. “This is not a hobby school,” Eaton admits. “We tend to graduate almost everyone who starts. Right now, we have 35 benches, and they are full from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Because we are accredited, one of the evaluations is how many of our students are placed in jobs. At the moment, we try to dissuade anyone who merely wants to do this as a hobby, and instead court people who want to become serious builders. We do get a lot of furniture makers and cabinetmakers who decide they want to try their hand at making guitars.”

The good news for hobby woodworkers is that there is a plan afoot to expand the school, and that will include more courses aimed at those who want to pursue guitarmaking as a hobby. “The new plan, which includes a new building, calls for both hobby and vocation courses in arch-top guitarmaking, inlay, mandolin and amps. The first will most likely be one- or two-week courses where you can build your own acoustic or electric guitar.”

The school itself sits on a nine-acre parcel in Phoenix comprising an office and storage building and a workshop. Because of the clement weather there, rough milling takes place outdoors in covered work areas. Indoor areas are hand work, bench, and lecture spaces. “Marketing is mostly through classified ads in guitar and luthiery magazines and, of course, via the Internet,” William explained. “However, we invest very little in marketing because we typically have a waiting list, and courses tend to fill months before they start.

“We pride ourselves in doing everything from scratch. There are no kits; you process the wood, carve heel blocks and necks, bend the wood, and do all the other tasks in guitarmaking. Hand skills are one of the primary foci. Over the years, we have developed a very detailed workbook. It is essentially a textbook, but rather than publish it, we hand out segments week by week and constantly revise and improve it. We also encourage all our instructors to continue custom building and repairing so they keep their skills and reputations intact.

“Overall, the profession of guitarmaking is very satisfying,” insists Eaton, “encompassing art, design, woodworking, finishing, inlay and even chemistry. You could easily make a career out of any one of these specialties. For example, one of the top pickup winders in the country, Jason Lollar, is a former student who made his career out of that specialty area. There’s real diversity in what opportunities can flow from an education here.”

Perhaps even more important than the diversity is the quality of education the school offers. Go anywhere in the country, and you will find guitarmakers gratefully singing the praises of the little school that these dedicated teachers built. In honor of more than 30 years of dedicated teaching, allow us to editorially tip our hat to the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery.

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