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Phoenix School Draws Students from Around the Globe to Learn Art of Guitar Making

Published: Thursday, February 16, 2012

Updated: Friday, February 17, 2012 14:02

Robert Venn

Ryan A. Ruiz

Instructor Kris Olsen addresses his students on the first day of guitar making school at the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix.

Like a lot of other trade schools, the Roberto-Venn School has a student body made up predominantly of young men, a smallish facility and more workspaces and tools than classrooms. But that's about where the similarities end.

Instead of learning to be an electrician or mechanic, the students at Roberto-Venn are taught the craft of luthiery, how to build and repair guitars. And in keeping with the unique skill-set the students learn, the place has plenty of quirks of its own. Desks in one of the administrative offices are made of giant slabs of mahogany root, brought by the founder of the school from the jungles of Nicaragua. And don't let the giant Pepsi logo on the vending machine fool you; it only contains Coke products.

"This place isn't typical by any stretch of the imagination," said Bart Applewhite, a 1993 graduate of the school who has since returned to work as its financial manager.

The school happened almost by accident. In the 1960s, John Roberts was flying airplanes for a timber company in Nicaragua. The company would clear cut areas of the jungle, taking the trunks of the trees for lumber but leaving massive roots behind.

Roberts, according to Applewhite, had the idea to use the mahogany wood to build a yacht, and with the help of local Miskito Indians, extracted the roots from the jungle to bring back to the US.

When his yacht-building associates bailed, Roberts was left trying to find something to do with his huge stockpile of hardwood. During relatively unsuccessful attempts at first selling the wood and then going into the furniture business, Roberts came into contact with a number of guitar builders, inspiring him to start a guitar building enterprise of his own.

Roberts first focused on constructing Spanish-style guitars. As a result, he took some flak for his distinctly Anglo name.

"So as kind of an ‘up yours' to the people saying that, he said, ‘Fine, call me Juan Roberto,'" Applewhite said, laughing.

And with that, the guitar building and apprenticeship program of Juan Roberto Guitar Works was born. William Eaton, who apprenticed under Roberts in 1971, wrote a business plan for a full-fledged guitar making school as part of his MBA program at Stanford.

With Roberts and his associates Robert Venn and Bruce Scotten, Eaton helped develop the plan into the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery, incorporated in 1975 and accredited in 1979.

After switching locations twice, Roberto-Venn has settled into new digs on Grand Avenue, a facility that Applewhite calls a "big upgrade" over the last location.

Today, the school attracts aspiring guitar makers from around the country and the world. Brady Aul, 23, came from St. Louis to learn the trade and said the Roberto-Venn's accreditation was a big factor in his decision to attend.

"There was a school a couple of blocks away from my place [in St. Louis], but it wasn't accredited, so I couldn't get financial aid to go there. A buddy told me about Roberto-Venn, so I came here and found out they have a pretty badass school of luthiery."

Students go through a rigorous five-month program during which they attend classes 45 hours a week Monday through Friday. By the end of the program, they will have completed at least two guitars, one electric, one acoustic, in addition to picking up essential guitar repair skills. Instructor Kris Olsen said it takes a lot of dedication to complete the course, but the payoff is a valuable skill set that qualifies graduates to work at the biggest and best guitar-makers around.

"The discipline it takes to get through this program is really intense," he told students. "We're trying to teach you guys to be successful at places like Fender."

Applewhite said many prominent guitar makers and repair shops contact Roberto-Venn looking for new employees and interns. Many graduates also go on to open their own businesses, though Applewhite said the school recommends additional experience through internships or apprenticeships before students go off completely on their own.

Randy Pemberton, the "old guy" of the class at 59, worked as an engineer for 35 years and wants to make a second career out of guitar sales and repair. He first picked up a guitar when the Beatles became popular, "along with 10 million other kids" and has played ever since. He operates his own online guitar shop, and wants to add guitar repair to his list of services. Pemberton said he appreciates the emphasis on handcrafting the instruments rather than mass-producing them.

"I like the fact that they teach you to build [guitars] from scratch, not just stamp them out like at a factory," he said. "It's more distinctive and way more interesting."


Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery, 1012 NW Grand Avenue, Phoenix, 602.243.1179,

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