Henry Ford famously put the assembly line approach into use in auto manufacturing in 1913. That technique — with its goals of efficiency and quality control — quickly became a worldwide standard and was applied to every conceivable type of manufacturing. Mass production and standardization changed the world in many positive ways. But the assembly line philosophy is not the be-all and end-all in every instance. Just ask Paul Heumiller, owner of award-winning Dream Guitars outside Asheville NC.
Heumiller is a guitarist, and his favored genre is acoustic blues. He’s a lover of fine craftsmanship, and as he explains, while consistency is often a hallmark of quality, the inverse is true when it comes to the art of luthiery (guitar making). As he explains, “Look at several mass-produced guitars. On every one, the wood is exactly the same thickness and placed in exactly the same spot.” And that’s a good thing, right? Not necessarily, Heumiller insists. “Every piece of wood has its own tensile strength, its own unique qualities. A piece of wood from one particular tree might be especially resilient; a highly skilled luthier can plane that piece extra-thin without sacrificing the structural integrity.” Thinner wood, he explains, makes for a better tone and more responsiveness. In mass production, there’s no way to take these kinds of variables into account.
The appreciation of fine guitars is quite similar to the mindset of wine aficionados. It’s true that you can walk into the grocery store and pick up a mass-produced wine that’s drinkable. But — if you know what to look for — the pricier wines reveal wonders untold. So it is with guitars. Even a novice can see and hear major tonal differences between instruments when an expert like Heumiller takes the time to illustrate what qualities make a guitar truly special.
Today’s top luthiers share information to increase the level of quality in custom, hand-made guitars. And the results are clearly evident during a walk around Heumiller’s well-appointed showroom. In addition to offering select pre-owned instruments, he carries new guitars from nearly sixty luthiers; quality and reputation are paramount. It’s not at all unusual to browse Paul’s shop and see serial numbers such as 302 or even 6. “Some of my luthiers,” Heumiller admits, “only make five to ten instruments a year.” Their efforts are focused on making each unique instrument the very best it can be.
Dream Guitars’ web site is unusual in the way it presents these special instruments; here, paradoxically, standardization is key. Every guitar is photographed under strictly conforming conditions. And every single guitar offered for sale is played by Grammy® winning guitarist Al Petteway. Those demonstrations are recorded. “We record every guitar the same way, and put and MP3 file and a movie on the site. This gives the customer a chance to compare guitars while searching our inventory.” In fact, the Dream Guitar site was one of the first sites on the web to do this for every instrument.
Heumiller has a keen understanding of what discerning guitar players want. His close watch on the best new developments in luthiery are part of what keep customers worldwide coming back again and again. Heumiller routinely contacts guitar makers to provide exact specifications for the next guitar; the resulting instrument is truly a one-of-a-kind work of art, one that also happens to play beautifully.