William Gilbert Guitars

John Gilbert's successor: William Gilbert

I graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1985. After my wife finished up her degree I began working with my father, John Gilbert, in June of 1986. My dad had repeatedly stated that he would take no apprentice except me if I desired to become such. I thought that it was something unique to pursue, and I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity, especially while my dad was willing and able to teach me. Such an opportunity to learn a craft from a well known and respected craftsman was not something that could be set aside lightly. The fact that he was my father was of course a bonus, but it was also a catch.

When my dad allowed me to become his apprentice it was with the understanding that I would be required to produce work of equal or better quality than his own. I was given three months in which I was assigned a number of tasks and the expectation of quality had to be fulfilled. My father told me that I would be evaluated during those three months and if I could not measure up to his standard, then I would be asked to leave, and, son or not, my apprenticeship would be over. He felt that he was absolutely unwilling to have someone as a successor who could not in his estimation, equal or surpass his work. The reputation for quality of Gilbert guitars that he established was too precious to be passed on to me if I could not maintain that reputation.

The tasks I was assigned were straightforward yet demanding and included training in the construction of various parts and sub-assemblies of the instrument, such as bridge blanks, fingerboard blanks, and brace material. I was expected to hold extremely close tolerances, in some cases +/- 0.001 inch. (Yes, it really can be done in wood — and in fact, with the right equipment, fairly readily.) I was able to pass this first test of apprenticeship. Sure, I made my blunders, like the time I started to inlay the rosette on a top and started in the wrong place, and almost ruined it. (Dad to the rescue!) Or had something shift when I glued it so that it was 0.010” (1/100 of an inch — about ¼ of a millimeter) out of position, and we had to decide if that was acceptable. I learned to “measure twice and cut once,” and learned that tried and true insight, “I keep cutting and it’s still too short.” Finally, I moved on to the second phase; I began to assist in the construction of actual instruments.

It is worth noting a couple of things here. First, to the purchaser of a fine guitar, the hands that create that instrument are an integral part of why he or she chooses that instrument. Normally when we buy something from an artisan, we want it to be that person’s work. If it is the creation of a student, there is often some fear that the product will be second rate. So it was driven in to me, you will maintain all the established standards of quality. Period.

Second, perhaps this was my father’s peculiar genius in his method of instruction. He would explain a task and not really tell me the allowable tolerances. He would never tell me where I could relax a tolerance, (because it really wasn’t critical and he knew it), so I worked at everything as though my life depended on holding to just what he said. He instilled a fear of screwing up, of the absolute necessity of clean, accurate and consistent work. He taught another lesson, the good guitarmaker has to know how to fix his errors, and has to know when it is (very rarely you hope) time to start over.

So I started helping with the assembly of the instruments. I learned to bend sides, to build boxes, to put on the neck, a whole host of operations. By the time I knew that I really didn’t know what I was doing, my father announced that I would build the next guitar. Welcome to swimming class…in the deep water. I took everything to him for inspection for a long time until he began to tell me in a nice way to stop bothering him because I knew what I was doing.

I interrupted my apprenticeship to take a higher paying position for a short time, and returned to full time guitarmaking in January of 1990. At this point, my dad was developing the Gilbert Tuning Machines. By the end of that year it was evident that I needed to prepare to take over the production of the instruments. By 1991 I had become the builder of Gilbert Guitars. Of course I continued to discuss things with my dad, and I had always been able to rely on his unbiased evaluation of my work (if he thought something was good, he told me, and if something very minor could be improved, I also heard about it.)