Man creates guitars that sell for up to $5,000
NORFOLK, Va. (AP) – Lifting a thin slab of wood next to his ear, Sam Haga ran his fingers across it before pausing and lightly tapping it. The sound lasted just a second.
The luthier picked up a second slab of wood and tapped it, too. Although it almost escaped the untrained ear, there was a slight difference between the two tones.
The type, density and thickness of the wood cause the sound difference.
“It’s kind of one of those things that you have to feel it as you go along,” Haga said. “You have to bend it a little bit, tap on it and see what it’s doing.”
Identifying those differences allows Haga to experiment as he handcrafts acoustic and electric guitars in a small shop he opened in September on Colley Avenue in Ghent.
Each instrument requires significant attention to detail – and plenty of time. He estimates that it takes about 200 hours to complete a single acoustic guitar.
Every decision is crucial to how the guitar sounds – selecting wood based on characteristics, pairing woods together and creating the bracing that helps strengthen the structure.
“The building process is pretty fun,” Haga said. “I always tell people it’s kind of like a bunch of little craft projects and at the end, there’s a guitar.”
Carving, sanding and gluing are only a few of the many steps involved. Pieces of the guitar are put together using glue, which can take 12 hours or more to dry. Patience and getting a guitar’s neck angle perfectly right are the most challenging parts of Haga’s process.
“If you have mistakes that you have to fix, that ends up taking longer . ” he said. “You can spray a finish and have to let it cure for a week. If you get into the polishing process and realize that something already went wrong, you just wasted a week. You have to start over again.”
Becoming a luthier professionally was never Haga’s plan. He picked up a guitar at the age of 13 but it was just “something to do other than homework,” he said.
After studying business at Maryland’s Towson University, he thought he would end up at an office desk.
But after graduation, he worked at a music store and sold instruments. That job pulled him further into music and he built his first guitar from a kit. That led him to take classes in music theory at Old Dominion University and in guitar building with luthier Brian Hawkins at the Hawkins Guitar Luthier School in Virginia Beach.
“Sometimes when you’re hand-sanding or hand-carving something, it’s almost like a rhythmic, meditative thing, where you just get in the zone and work away little bit by little bit,” Haga said. “It’s kind of like a feedback loop where you know where you want it to be and you just got to keep going until you get it there.”
Haga has electric and acoustic guitars that are ready to be sold. But he’s more interested in completing commission work and hopes to craft about 20 guitars a year.
“If somebody has an idea that’s a little different or funky, I think that’d be cool to do,” he said.
Electric guitars and basses cost between $1,500 and $4,000, while acoustic guitars are $2,500 to $5,000.
His selection in woods and use of Hawkins’ bracing system helps set his work apart from others, Haga said. The bracing system uses “X” braces instead of the traditional ladder braces inside the guitar, which adds a tonal quality to produce their own distinctive sounds.
When he isn’t playing upright bass or electric bass for local jazz and Americana bands Sharkophagus and Lucky 757, Haga can be found working away in his studio. He makes a living from the combination of crafting and playing guitars, but he hopes to eventually rely on just the shop.
“Being aware that you’re actually working with a material that used to be alive and potentially hundreds of years old – and respecting that as you’re working with it – is kind of something that I try to keep in mind as I’m working with instruments,” he said.