Classical guitar maker David Daily has a one-year waiting list. Here’s why.
Most guitars sold in the world today are made in a factory by many hands. One person is trained to make its back; another, the braces to its underside; another, the neck. But few people know how to put together a full guitar—from wooden slab to finished instrument—by themselves anymore, much less make a living at it.
David Daily is one of them, and he’s been doing it for 33 years.
His studio is situated in a tiny, stuffy room at the back of his home in Sparks. The 57-year-old luthier works alone—there’d hardly be room for another body to help. The space has its own sense of chaotic order. Stacks of wood—Brazilian rosewood, Indian rosewood, Western red cedar, Engelman red spruce—are piled on shelves, emitting sweetness into the heavy air. Slivers of wood that will form bracings and the decorative strips of his classical guitars are on other shelves. Luthier tools hang neatly on a wall board. The skeleton of a guitar in-the-works sits in a mold on a work table.
There’s only one finished guitar here. With a one-year-minimum waiting list for these instruments, Daily’s guitars tend to go out as soon as they’re made.
“For a guy like me, if you have 10 guitars in your shop, you’re starving,” he says, his voice deep and friendly from his burly frame, gray hair poking out recklessly beneath a well-worn baseball cap.
Each piece of each guitar is made by Daily’s hands. It takes about a month—or 160 hours—to complete one guitar. He’s made more than 500 of them during his career. His time and individual attention to produce a unique guitar has value to higher-end buyers, most of whom come from outside Nevada and many from outside the United States. They could buy a factory-made guitar of similar quality for 15-20 percent less than his $7,500 price tag, but there’s something about having an instrument that no one else has, along with the intimacy between buyer and maker, that makes the price worth paying for his clientele.
“This is more like religion than it is science,” Daily says regarding guitar preference. “It’s whatever you want to believe, but there’s no ultimate truth that this is better than something else.” But, he adds, “if a guy pays tons of money for a guitar, he’s not going to blab that it’s a factory-made guitar.”
Good luthiers can come from Sparks, too
As a luthier from Sparks, Nev., the odds are stacked somewhat against Daily. There’s a romantic notion of classical guitars and their Spanish descent. The basis of the modern classical guitar was formed by Spanish luthier Antonio Torres in the 1800s. Buyers like to look inside a classical guitar and see a Latin-sounding name written on the inside label, or at least something that sounds exotic. Look inside one of Daily’s guitars, and you’ll find: “David Daily, Sparks, NV USA.”
But his guitars speak for themselves, and their quality has spread mostly by word-of-mouth. It helps to have well-respected, international guitarists, such as Andrew York of the Los Angeles Guitar Quintet and Alieksey Vianna (a recent performer at the Sierra Nevada Guitar Society’s summer Latin guitar series) as loyal clients.
“Just because they’re out there, it makes it possible to sell my guitars,” says Daily.
Some well-known luthiers outsource their design and name to factories to make “luthier-inspired” guitars. Two examples are Danny Ferrington and Jimmy D‘Aquisto, whose signatures appear inside guitars as though they made them personally by hand, when actually they were made by many hands in a factory. Factory-made guitars are often as good or better than individually made guitars, says Daily, but, “a lot of people are being duped into thinking they’re buying a handmade guitar.”
Daily says he has no interest in outsourcing his style. “Selling guitars is the worst part of the job,” he says. “Why would I give up my favorite part to do the worst part?”
When Daily was a child, his dad was a fan of famous classical guitarist Andres Segovia. He would play Segovia’s records when it was time for young David to get to bed because the music helped the child sleep. In 1968, when Daily was 18-years-old, his dad bought him a Martin guitar. Daily says he wasn’t very good at playing it, but he was drawn to the guitar nonetheless. Mostly self-taught, Daily began trying to make guitars himself. His father bought the first four he built.
He graduated college in 1972 and went to work as an electrician in California at Pacific Gas and Electric. The job left him unsatisfied. An outdoorsy guy, he dreamed of heading out into the wilderness and making guitars. Around this time, his grandfather died, leaving him enough money to spend a couple winters making guitars. During the summer, he worked for the Forest Service in Humboldt National Forest, first on a fire crew and later on a fence crew. Afterward, he started making guitars full-time.
Thirteen years ago, he’d been thinking of giving up the luthier trade. But he was scheduled to attend a guitar convention in Buffalo, N.Y. He went and met a Segovia student, who had a house in Granada, Spain. They fell in love, and he went with her to Spain for four months. It was a place of narrow cobblestone streets and caves where gypsies hung out, playing flamenco. The student was a friend of Antonio Marin Montero, a Spanish luthier, and Daily spent much of his time observing Montero and his talented nephew and apprentice, José Marin Plazuelo, as they made guitars. When Daily returned to the United States, the relationship with the student ended, but he had a renewed sense for his craft.
Throughout his career, Daily says there’s been three main periods where he kept revamping his style. The biggest adjustments were made to the braces—wooden strips glued to the guitar’s underbelly that largely account for its resonance and tone. He’d take $25 Korean guitars, strip the tops off and keep working at them until he got the sound he wanted.
“I didn’t want my guitars to be a result of my ignorance,” he says. “I wanted them to be a result of my wisdom, and that requires massive amounts of experimentation.”
Daily continues to experiment, working away in his claustrophobic studio. It’s a lonely life, but an important addition is his 5-year-old granddaughter, Allison, for whom he and his former wife reunited to raise. He hopes Allison might take an interest in making guitars some day. It’s a rare occupation, made harder by factory competition and the dwindling availability of key natural resources—Brazilian rosewood, ebony, mahogany—(despite their persistent presence on eBay) needed to make these instruments the way they’ve been made for more than 200 years.
But the woods, the solitude and his hands brought him to the guitar, and they keep him there.
“I think the people who really like guitars are called to it,” he says. “The rugged aloneness of guitar always appealed to me as a player and maker of it.”