Process and Design Innovation in Guitar-Making

“In the summer, I hired a Grade 10 student, and after two weeks of training he was making guitar bodies that we couldn’t tell apart from those produced by master luthiers.”


This article by Danny Bradbury describes how a small retail music instrument store used technology to build better acoustic guitars in less time. Thus kind of breakthrough is inspiring but also, if you are a person whose job is based on manual methods, is yet another example of how goods and services that are stuck in the middle of the price-value hierarchy are continuing to get squeezed out by more efficient methods that make good value items for far less cost and ultra high-end goods and services for the affluent and for middle-class consumers who want to indulge themselves in a luxury good. You can see Mike in this video:

Lee’s Music was simply a retail store with a specialist repair arm until Lee’s son, Mike Miltimore, came up with an innovative technique for building stronger, better guitars in a fraction of the time. The company has big plans for its patent-pending design, and is tooling up a manufacturing plant to scale up production. Danny Bradbury caught up with Mr. Miltimore to get the details on Riversong Guitars, a new family venture.

Q What do you do?

A We started out as a retail music store, but then four years ago, we began building custom guitars. People would come in and want a specific width and feel for their guitar neck, and we’d build it for them. During that time, we came out with a new design that has a worldwide patent pending on it. It was for a guitar with a neck that extends through its body.

Q What was your biggest business problem?

A Growth. Before we came up with this design, we put a hundred hours of work into building a guitar. It took a specific, skilled luthier with his style of binding and bracing. To grow and expand, you’d need multiple luthiers, but each one needed a lot of training and skill. At a hundred hours per guitar, we were limited to building six to eight a year. How can you grow a company building one-off instruments?

Q What was the turning point?

A It was producing the design for a new guitar that was easy to make. Previously with guitar bodies, you’d have to use a table or handsaw, then you would sand those pieces to fit. I called it fitting a square peg in a round hole. What we did was create a 3D model of an acoustic guitar, mapping out how the profile of the side changes as it goes through the body of the guitar.

The line is curvy and crazy, not what you’d expect at all. We needed CNC [computer numerical control] machines to cut the profile of the guitar so that it’s exact.

It all has to do with how accurately we make the parts so that we don’t have to sand them down. This changes the game. Traditionally, we’d use clothespins to glue the part of the guitar that joins the sides to the top. That involved quite a bit of sanding, and if you were out by a millimetre, you’d suffer from big problems. Half a millimetre makes a huge difference between a great instrument or an OK one. Now we use the CNC machine to cut the profile, and we built custom bending machines for the sides of the guitar.

In the summer, I hired a Grade 10 student, and after two weeks of training he was making guitar bodies that we couldn’t tell apart from those produced by master luthiers. The body assembly takes 15 minutes. We simply clip the sides on to the top and it gives us a profile with perfect joins all the way around the body.

Q How much has it cost to pursue this innovation?

A We have spent about a $250,000 on labour and machinery, and that’s a conservative estimate. I spoke to our bank manager, and she set up an appointment with the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) to help.

Q What’s your monthly output now, and how will it grow?

A We developed the guitar in April, and we’re still working on the manufacturing facility. We have already expanded three times. We’re currently making 30 guitars a month. The retail store is a couple of million dollars, and the ultimate projection for the guitar company is millions. Some of our competitors are doing tens of millions now. I can’t do that in the first year, but that’s the possibility in the long term. In the first six months, it’s certainly catching up with the rest of the business. It’s the fastest growing segment.

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