March 2006

Illinois Entertainer

If You Build It, They Will Strum
The Chicago School Of Guitar Making
by Mike O’Cull

Everybody plays guitar, right? Any musician’s classified section will turn up 10 or more guitar players for every bassist and keyboardist. Now, try to find someone to setup, maintain, or rewire all the instruments belonging to all those guitar players and the list of reputable candidates gets shorter in a hurry. Sure, one can find a number of individuals with a shingle out, offering guitar repair and other services, but there are often conflicting reports about the quality of work done and prices charged.

Wouldn’t life be simpler if more guitarists (and bassists) were knowledgeable enough to do their own neck adjustments, intonation, and other common procedures for their instruments regularly? Enter Ian Schneller, co-owner (with wife Nadine) of Specimen Products guitar shop ( and founder of The Chicago School Of Guitar Making. Schneller, formerly of legendary Chicago band Shrimp Boat, is a highly skilled luthier and builder of custom tube amplifiers who has been in the business of building and repairing instruments since the mid 1980s.

“I think it is a great benefit to area musicians who want to be closer in touch with their instruments,” he says.

“Anybody can benefit from learning more about how their equipment operates.” He founded the school partly in response to the years of phone calls and resumes received from people wanting to apprentice and learn guitar repair, and partly to try to revive a time-honored tradition, which was once emblematic of our fair city.

Surprisingly, in a place once called “The Guitar-Building Capital Of The World,” there was nowhere in the area to learn the craft before the Chicago School launched in August 2005, and only a handful of custom builders were doing business. Schneller is one of the few who has prospered in this hardscrabble environment and seen his reputation as a guitar tech spread across the city and seen his guitars used by artists including Veruca Salt, Wilco, Neko Case, and Califone.

Illinois Entertainer features the Chicago School of Guitar MakingHe comes to the guitar world with a background in sculpture and a degree from the School Of The Art Institute and brings an artist’s vision and regard for tradition to what has become his life’s work. He also has a desire to pass on the knowledge he has accumulated over 20 years spent building and repairing guitars and tube amps. These qualities have made Schneller’s efforts involving the School an almost instant success.

“Things with the School are going very well,” he says, “and I’m amazed at the interest. I have over 130 students now. Many of them are enrolling for their third class in a row and we’re quickly gaining momentum.” Indeed, with the types of classes offered, it is easy to see why the School keeps picking up speed. “The classes I’ve offered thus far, the setup and maintenance class, the fretting workshop, and the advanced guitar electronics class, are all part of what I am considering a foundations program working up to where the students will be able to make sensible decisions about designing and constructing an instrument.” This year, Schneller plans to add a glue technologies course to the foundation series and it will teach students the proper way to glue and repair headstocks, cracks, braces, and bridges. Over the summer he will teach a guitar-building workshop in which aspiring luthiers will design and build their own instrument from scratch. There will also be a tube-amp building class where students build their own from the ground up.

That he is even willing to teach the kinds of skills offered in his classes makes Schneller different from most instrument builders, in Chicago or anywhere else. Many luthiers are very secretive about what they do and know and are worried about losing business to others who possess the same knowledge. “It’s very easy to sense a bit of rivalry and competitiveness [among luthiers] because it is sort of a niche vocation. When some guy moves in a few blocks away doing the same thing, you get a little nervous about it.” Schneller, however, has seen his clientele continue to steadily build over the two decades he has been doing this and is not threatened or worried about sharing his knowledge.

“I had received so many inquiries for internships and apprenticeships, I had a stack of resumes on my desk that was approaching a foot tall,” he relates, “and it just seemed like a no-brainer.”

He reports no drop in his repair business since beginning to teach his art to others, and, with the seemingly exponential growth of the school, may well end up better than ever and surpassing hose who choose to keep everything a secret.

There are, of course, other places to learn the six-string science, including the Roberto-Venn School Of Luthiery in Arizona and The American School Of Lutherie in Oregon. Most of these institutions are, in Schneller’s words, “boot camp-style situations” that require students to set up housing on campus for periods of time ranging from a few weeks to a few months. What sets The Chicago School Of Guitar Making apart is Schneller’s decision to offer classes at night and on weekends, keeping day jobs and personal lives intact. This also allows students to, as he says, “Test the water and see if it is something they want to pursue in a fuller way.”

Talking with Schneller gives one the sense of speaking with a man who is doing exactly what he should be doing. He had already found a niche for himself in an increasingly hostile business as a repairman and builder, but, in sharing his knowledge with others, he may have found what he will do for the second half of his life. He does hope to train enough repair people that he will be able to leave some of the day-to-day setups and pickup installs to them so that he may have more time to design and build new instruments. But it is the teaching itself that seems to be his passion.

Schneller is an old master in an increasingly codependent world and represents a huge resource to the local music scene. Whether you long to build that dream guitar yourself or just want to handle your own repairs at home or on the gig, The Chicago School of Guitar Making can only be a step in the right direction.