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INSIDE: SANTA CRUZ GUITAR COMPANY
The Santa Cruz Guitar Company has one goal: to make better guitars for a better life. Drawing inspiration from violin makers, SCGC is all about the harmony of process. Employees are encouraged to take their time, do things the right away, and ignore the concept of quotas. They’re asked to believe in the process being more important than just creating the product, because respect for the process creates perfect parts and more perfect parts create a more perfect whole.
No one believes this more completely than Richard Hoover, co-founder and owner of The Santa Cruz Guitar Company. His humility, patience, and preference for substance over style drive the modern boutique brand to a level of craftsmanship only centuries removed from history’s finest luthiers.
Who are you, and who is Santa Cruz Guitar Company?
Richard Hoover here. I was the original guitar maker and am now the owner of Santa Cruz Guitar Company. I have the coolest job. I make guitars for others who make music, which makes the world a better place for everybody. Good thing…as I may be otherwise unemployable.
Santa Cruz Guitar Company is a team of people who employ the methodology of the violin masters. We compose custom guitars of complimentary frequencies, in harmony, to allow maximum sustain and the development of rich, full and colorful overtones. This is what every player wants in their instrument. The personal preferences, like those a listener can manipulate on their own sound systems, are accurately matched to the tastes of each client through appropriate wood choices and artful
structural technique. We not only achieve the correct voice for that particular player, we can guarantee it. Our job is to make a personalized instrument of such sophisticated sonic complexity that the player will never cease to be inspired to explore new musical territory.
What makes us who we are? By honoring the art and science of the millennia’s old tradition of violin lutherie, we can make breakthrough improvements to the still-evolving acoustic steel string guitar. While we practice these time-proven techniques to assure maximum sound quality in each instrument, we consistently deliver the player’s personal preferences for form, function and cosmetics. Critical to maximizing our success in capturing the nuance of an individual’s personal needs is our accurate quantification of an EQ, tone and presence most appropriate for the player’s predominant playing style.
Who are the people behind the brand?
Eighteen luthiers with a combined seniority of over two hundred years at Santa Cruz Guitar Company, and four dedicated specialists who’ve shared the duties of client relationships and business management while navigating the whimsy of our economic weather.
Santa Cruz is a favored destination for graduates of lutherie instruction programs from around the world. They are attracted by SCGC’s stellar reputation and the opportunity to participate in the ever-changing custom challenges of each order.
A nice guitar is a universally recognized medium of exchange and with this as an inducement, we’ve been able to attract an incredibly talented support team. Members of our advisory group specialize in acoustic physics, aerospace and automobile engineering, quantum mathematics, structural and failure analysis, finance, forestry, spiritual health and international law. With this embarrassment of riches, we are rarely more than one degree of separation from the expertise to facilitate almost any challenge.
In addition to this industrial brain trust, SCGC enjoys the power of cooperative effort with masters of the recording arts, performing musicians and influencers in the science of music and its benefits to humankind. I gratefully credit these bountiful resources to our commitment to shepherding an open-source culture. SCGC’s advantage in the marketplace isn’t in the secrets we keep. Our benefits lie in true added value born of time and expertise. The goal of most guitar manufacturers is a price target that will attract the most customers. Our target, as custom builders, is the guaranteed satisfaction of one player at a time.
How did you get started building guitars?
I began my first exploration into guitar making at sixteen. I was playing the guitar when I was struck with the thought, “someone actually makes these things; I wonder how they do it?” Because my father’s job required skills for working in wood, metal and plastics, I was encouraged to take things apart to see how they worked and to make my own toys. It seemed so right to take my guitar apart and figure out how it was made.
I’d bought my Harmony H-150 with paper route money, so I got quiet amusement from my father when I disassembled that guitar, though my mother had plenty to say. As an in-demand reference librarian, she was the pre-computer version of today’s Google search engine. She put me on the hunt for books that could show me how to put my guitar back together again. Because I couldn’t find anything in print on guitar making at that time, I ate up everything related to the history, philosophies and making of the violin. Here’s where I was introduced to my heroes from the school of Amati. These diaries and speculative studies seemed to infer that the instruments weren’t made from physical measurements, like a chair or table, rather they were composed of components in harmony with one another. I wrongly assumed that acoustic guitars must be made in the same manner and I began guitar making with the lofty belief that one could achieve exceptionally rich, full and sustaining instruments at will, just like Stradivari.
I was extremely fortunate to meet two remarkable men, both making guitars as a hobby in Santa Cruz. B.R. McGuire was the officer that approved my loan for my beloved ’64 Epiphone Texan and the apprentice assistant to Arthur E. Overholttzer in writing Classic Guitar Making. The other was James E. Patterson, the author of the seminal book on inlay, Working in Mother of Pearl. When I asked what I could do in return for their selfless contributions to my lutherie career, each one independently asked that I pass on the knowledge freely and in the same spirit they had given it to me. It was Mr. McGuire that taught me to share what I learned with others without exception, because I would always get back more than I gave away.
As it turns out, my assumptions about modern guitar making weren’t only wrong, I was on track to become the world’s most inefficient guitar maker ever. Most modern acoustic guitars are made to fit a pre-specified price range. This means that the quality of sound is only a factor in instruments made to a higher price target, while in the inexpensive ones sound is subordinate to keeping them durable and affordable.
Assuming that a guitar maker’s success depended on the quality of the sound of their instruments was the best mistake I ever made. By the time I discovered that any price-conscious brand was limited by time constraints to how much they could afford to control the quality of the sound, we were already becoming established in a unique niche of exceptional sounding instruments that could be customized to individual, personal tastes.
When and how did Santa Cruz Guitar Company begin?
As described earlier, I was starting out in a vacuum of information about the steel string guitar. I was just twenty at this time, and the $300 I could get for a custom guitar would just about pay for the materials to make the next one. I couldn’t risk any experiments because one failure would break this fragile chain and I would have to give it up. There was no network and no internet and nothing yet written. I was so frustrated with my progress that I remember thinking, “Man! I could be 30 years old before I figure this out!” So I gave up my stubborn independence and admitted to myself that the solution was in a team of like-minded visionaries where, through combined efforts and experimentation, we could take the traditions of the violin to make exceptional guitars.
The answer to my prayer for a better way came quickly. First with Will Davis, who approached me with the idea of working together to supplement his day job of guitar sales and repair at a hip, local guitar store. Within weeks, psychology major and Will’s co-worker at the music shop, Bruce Ross, joined us with the proposal of making the best guitars in the world.
They could eek out $2,000 each from their families to launch the enterprise, but since I couldn’t match the investment, our contract was for them to credit me $500 to teach them how to make guitars and I would have 2 years to come up with the balance of $1500. The deal was made and we became Santa Cruz Guitar Company on September 22, 1976.
The intent was not to become the next CF Martin or Gibson, rather we were committed to the uncompromising pursuit of lutherie practiced by a tight team of specialists with good business as the hopeful byproduct. This concept of service to others as the company’s most important product, prioritized over the race to make an increasing number of units per year, is often credited as the beginnings of the American boutique guitar business.
Will’s brilliant contribution came to an end in just short of two years as his health and writing career took priority. Bruce’s gifts as a craftsman and his temperament for responsible business practices left a fine legacy when he moved on in the late ‘80’s to pursue other passions.
How would you describe a Santa Cruz guitar to someone new to the brand?
Santa Cruz Guitar Company makes a guitar with the goal of guaranteed satisfaction for one individual player at a time. This requires master level, traditional hand skills to achieve made-to-order variations specific to that buyer. This same instrument must also incorporate precision elements held to tolerances within one ten thousandth of an inch. The first requires a mastery of woodworking technique specific to the guitar, while the second demands precision state of the art technology employed in an intentional manner appropriate to the specific sonic and functional targets for each instrument.
There are three secrets for why old guitars and violins sound superior to new ones. Old wood is more resonant due to the polymerization of resins which turns tree sap to a crystalline structure over time. This process is progressive and begins once life ceases in the wood. It happens in an instrument itself as it ages, or in the abandoned inventory of a now defunct woodworking shop. It even occurs in a sunken log deprived of oxygen. By using this resonant, old wood, we make a new guitar with a quality of sound otherwise present only in vintage instruments. A beautiful benefit of this practice is that we don’t need to fell a living tree to build a guitar.
The next factor of the guitar improving with age comes from the progressive release of tensions, which are created during the manufacturing process. In the effort of larger companies to reduce costs by accelerating the build time, it may be necessary to force components into a target geometry that will fit into the next sub-assembly for a repeatable and efficient build formula. The resulting tensions will inhibit resonance and take years, if ever, to dissipate and free up the structure for more and longer lasting vibrations. By honoring the violin’s traditions of precise alignment and careful fitting of the guitar’s functional components, SCGC achieves maximum resonance from the start by eliminating the creation of unwanted tensions.
The final consideration is the de-damping effect that resonance has on the elasticity of the wood. Much mythology surrounds this process with the hope that it can be artificially induced. The fact is that wood is only affected when excited at its own fundamental frequency, not by a barrage of random notes. The more a guitar brand is lacking in the first two factors, the larger the effect of de-damping. Because we put so much effort into increasing resonance by the use of older wood and building with minimal tension, de-damping has much less of an effect on Santa Cruz Guitars.
How is a Santa Cruz guitar constructed from start to finish? What components, designs, techniques etc. make Santa Cruz guitars unique?
There’s a book waiting for those questions. Luckily we’ve covered much of this in my earlier responses. Every guitar that we build is treated individually to control sound, playability, function, and cosmetics to meet the preferences of the client. The results may be a one-of-a-kind guitar. We also duplicate artist’s signature models based on the scope of appeal for the artist’s own custom Santa Cruz. Here, design specs and functional dimensions are repeated, though the instrument must still be voiced and tuned individually to assure the same quality of sound as the original artist’s custom guitar. Established SCGC standard models are done the same way.
The straight answer for creating a great sounding guitar by design, instead of by random chance, lies in the difference between traditional lutherie practices and the methodology of modern mass production. This isn’t philosophical; it is the difference between efficiency at the expense of sound quality and the prioritization of quality sound over the time it takes to achieve it.
What inspires your creative process?
The best kept secret of the school of Amati, the father of the modern violin, is this: by assembling the instrument of components tuned to complimentary frequencies, instead of just physical measurements, the entire instrument resonates in harmony. These now compatible frequencies will resonate free of interference with each other, allowing sustain. This cooperation among frequencies is also what produces complementary overtones, or more simply described as an instrument that is rich, full, sustaining and colorful. These are the qualities of sound that every guitar player is searching for, and that Santa Cruz achieves in each and every build because we take the time to do it.
Design isn’t opinion, it’s math. Opinions are what we employ to manipulate design to evoke emotions. Art is the adherence to, or the disruption of harmony in an effort to make a statement by manipulating our perceptions. The proportions of guitars and their components can be elegant, comforting or distressing. My own taste is for simple elegance. I’m inspired by the wonders of nature. I’m not motivated to make a guitar look flashy on stage. I prefer the guitar to appear more expensive the closer you look.
What is the spirit of Santa Cruz?
It’s easier to begin with what we’re not. Most production companies building to a price target will benefit from a regimented discipline to build standardized guitars with limited variations. Given these consistent specifications, a worker can be assigned a set of duties and be held accountable for achieving target times. The employee can be motivated to uphold quotas and quality standards through the offer of higher pay, or by the threat of disciplinary action if they miss these targets.
As a custom shop, Santa Cruz has different goals. What may appear as casual conversation is actually constant cooperation between the luthiers to determine how to do something for the customer that hasn’t been done before. To understand our measured pace, it is necessary to realize that we must uphold a standard of quality that can’t be sustained by bribery or threat. Our luthiers need to be motivated by the desire to be part of a perfectly completed guitar, instead of only caring about the timely completion of their own isolated duties. Our fit and finish, extraordinary tone and precision playability must come from the heart, not from greed or fear. An employee’s emotional investment in the final outcome of the instrument is the only motivational force that can drive a person to do their best work every day. To sustain the guitar maker’s personal engagement, they must feel a part of a culture that cares about each other and a company which allows them to share its victories and failures. If they can’t initiate and realize their own dreams within the company, they will never feel a part of it.
Where does Santa Cruz go from here?
The Santa Cruz Guitar Company goal is not a point of perfection. It is the hubris of humans to think that we are capable of perfection. Our target is not something to be attained in the future, it is what we are doing here and now, with the daily goal being continual improvement of the guitars and our quality of life. In that spirit, our ongoing challenge for the guitar is the ideal balance between resonance and structural integrity without compromise to either one.
We are always conducting experiments.
By honoring the scientific method and engaging with experts outside our own field, we will continue to refine the acoustic steel string guitar. Many of our innovations have found their way into new guitars made by the world’s oldest, most respected guitar brands. Even as an open-source company, many of our improvements to the integrity and sound of our instruments have yet to be discovered or embraced by other builders simply because of the cost they may add to the price of their own guitars.
A career goal is to be able to thoroughly describe our processes and quantify our key target indicators in accepted scientific terms. By using universally respected vocabulary to describe our standards, I hope to realize my dream to quantify the “secrets” of lutherie so that they could be used consistently and with efficient methodology to raise the inspirational value of even the most inexpensive guitars.
Most important is whether any change will add value and reduce the cost to the player. We are fortunate that our nearly forty-three years of guitar making has established our reputation for value to the point that it isn’t necessary for us to introduce a new concept to just capture the attention of the buyers who are looking for the next innovation.
We already work with responsibly harvested and reclaimed woods, though it is my hope to reduce our carbon footprint with the use of water-based finishes. Our failure isn’t for the lack of trying, as we have experimented with many promising products only to be disappointed in the quality of the results. It would be shortsighted to say that it is impossible to replace wood as a component of great sounding guitars, though I am not looking forward to the day when a composite from petroleum or genetic engineering makes the claim that “you can’t tell the difference from real wood.” After fifty years as a wood man, trees are part of my DNA. I can’t imagine forgoing the thrill of the hunt for the ancient timbers that rolled the stones which built the pyramids!
Is there anything else you’d like for our customers to know about Santa Cruz?
As much fun as it is to drop names of our famous players, I get greater satisfaction from the testimonials of everyday players who use our guitars to brighten their lives and the lives of others. They do it through performance, charity, ministry or education to empower others to do good. The key to our own happiness is in making other people happy. No matter your job in retail, manufacturing, homemaking or technology, we are all in the job of service to others. Our actions, good, bad or indifferent, are repeated by others in kind. Your courtesy on the road is repeated at the next stoplight by the person moved by the kindness that you extended. The best thing we can do to change the world is the next right thing for one another at every opportunity.
Santa Cruz guitars must be heard to be believed. Each hand-hewn piece is in perfect harmony with every other, a laborious-by-design ethos that produces an entire guitar in perfect harmony with itself, and the effect is as incredible as it is undeniable.
Truly boutique in every way, The Santa Cruz Guitar Company represent a rare and defiant approach to guitar making that took over forty years to cultivate and refine, but it’s that careful, calculated, yet comfortable pace that continues to solidify the company’s rightful place in the heritage of American lutherie, one guitar at a time.
For more information of the Santa Cruz Guitar Company, or to shop Chicago Music Exchange's selection of handmade SCGC guitars, simply call, click, or stop in our brand new acoustic showroom. Take your time. Enjoy the process. You will be rewarded for it.