Stuart Day will be the first to tell you that archtop guitars are something of a niche market. For starters, not everyone plays guitar, and those who do aren't necessarily in the market for a jazz guitar. Fewer still are willing to shell out for one made by hand with prices that range from $5,000 to $60,000.
Despite those numbers and the tedious amount of work that goes into building one from scratch, Stuart Day is betting that his company, Stuart Day Guitars, and his new Pittsburgh shop will pay off. With a debut appearance next week at the Memphis Acoustic Guitar Festival, the largest of its kind in North America, it seems like a smart bet.
"It's tough in a society that favors mass-production of cheap goods. It's hard to make a living doing this," says Day, 31. "But if you can make a name for yourself, you can."
Archtop guitars are acoustic or semi-acoustic guitars often favored by jazz players. There's a variety, but in general they look like something between a cello and an acoustic guitar. The guitar body often has f-holes, like you might find on a violin — as opposed to the round sound hole on an acoustic — plus various metal knick-knacks that look important even if you don't know what they do. And of course it has the signature archtop, in which the face of the guitar is swelled or curved, rather than flat, as in a more-familiar "flat-top."
- Photo courtesy of Stuart Day
- Stuart Day works in his basement shop
"It's kind of sculpture in a way. That curve is really crucial to the way an instrument sounds, so there's a lot of foresight and a lot of intuition that's involved with that sculpting process," says Day. "That's the thing that sets them apart from flat-tops."
Archtop guitars, with their ornate design and customizability, are a perfect fit for Day, who moved to Pittsburgh in 2013 to start Stuart Day Guitars. Before his career as a luthier — a builder of stringed instruments — Day was a sophomore at Penn State, waffling between potential majors such as fine art, painting and philosophy. He played in a band and he liked school, but nothing jumped out at him until he ran into an old high school acquaintance who showed him his new archtop guitar.
"I noticed it didn't have a brand name on it," says Day. It turned out the friend had built it himself. "Up until that point, I never really thought about where [guitars] came from."
That was enough to send him on his way. Day enrolled at the Galloup School of Lutherie in Big Rapids, Mich., and after completing the six-month program, he spent the next two years as an apprentice under the school's founder, Bryan Galloup. That apprenticeship led Day to Sonoma County, Calif., where he worked as a craftsman and eventually as shop foreman at Ribbecke Guitars (named for owner Tom Ribbecke, considered by many to be one of the best archtop-guitar builders in the world).
At Ribbecke Guitars, Day learned the business firsthand, like how to build on a deadline with little margin for error for big-name clients (pop star Seal among them). But after six years, Day felt he needed to go out on his own. His parents had moved to Pittsburgh years before, and he was drawn to the city's history of old-school manufacturing, so he took the leap.
Today, Day is working full-time out of his basement shop in Brighton Heights. This week, he's tweaking and finalizing the three guitars he'll be sharing in Memphis next week, variations on his newest archtop — the fifth under the Stuart Day Guitars brand — called The Steel City.
"The Steel City is designed as a nod to some of the more classic archtop guitars of the past," explains Day. "[It's] kind of a minimalistic approach, aesthetically. [It's] meant to be played."
"Meant to be played" is an important detail here, because a lot of archtop guitars look like they were built for display cases. They look like impeccably maintained antiques. With the Steel City, Day kept the overall weight minimal so it'd be easy to play around the house.
Although his company is less than two years old, Day was one of roughly 70 luthiers accepted to share their work at the Memphis Acoustic Guitar Festival, among them his former mentors Ribbecke and Galloup. (Day will be the only luthier from Pennsylvania.) This will be Stuart Day Guitars' official debut on the luthier circuit. With an average six or seven guitars sold a year so far, and a growing list of international dealers, Day is optimistic.
"The longer I do it, the more in love I get with it," he says. "It's a very dynamic craft, there's a lot to it. It's kind of a renaissance art."