Today we’d like to introduce you to Josh Stotler.
Hi Josh, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
I am a professional Luthier, someone who makes and repairs stringed instruments. My story starts out in 1994, I was a Freshman at El Capitan High School in Lakeside, CA. A couple of my friends were getting into bands and playing guitar; I was very interested but couldn’t afford an instrument. That’s when I got the idea to make one. Knowing nothing about a guitar’s construction, I set out to build my own guitar. I spent hours at the local music store, taking measurements and making sketches of what I wanted, a Höfner 500/1 bass, just like Paul McCartney’s. After the design process, I started to collect supplies for my build. Wood from Home Depot, various parts and electronics from some local mom-and-pop guitar shops, and some parts and pieces gifted to me for my birthday. Having amassed everything I needed, it was time to build. Working nights and weekends with hand tools in my family’s laundry room, a guitar started to show itself. with help here and there from my grandfather and some friends’ parents, I was able to bring my dream to fruition. Hand sanding the curves, staining the body and neck, and mounting the hardware, my excitement grew as I could see this guitar coming to life. The smell of Minwax stain still takes me right back to that build. EVERY TIME. I was able to play that guitar at the Battle of The Bands, and I was so proud. Lugging it around in the case my grandfather and I built together. The same case it sits in today. That guitar started it all.
Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back, would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Fortunately, the road has been smooth, long, but smooth. For many years, my guitar building was strictly for a hobby, because I enjoyed it. I spent almost 6 years in Germany and found that they had an amazing woodshop at Römer art center on the Wiesbaden Army Airfield. I gained a reputation for my successful guitar repairs and building skills, and that is where it started to become a reality that I could pursue this as a career. It has taken years to build my brand from nothing to one of the top custom shops in the Nation. The hurdles for a one-man shop trying to prove it’s meddle are many. I find that a nice balance of trade shows, woodworking competitions, and social media can do wonders to show off work and advertise my skills. I don’t pay for advertisements but I get several inquiries a week for work and I now have a waiting list for repairs and custom work. It’s not a route that would work for every business model, but it has been quite successful for me. I only recently took a big leap and have been building guitars full time. It’s both exhilarating and frightening at the same time. The challenges of being the only employee are probably the toughest. I build the guitars, answer the phone, write up proposals and invoices and meet with customers. Not to mention all the upkeep and maintenance a wood shop requires. It’s not glamorous, but I get to do what I love, and that is more than worth it.
Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
I found out very early in my guitar building that I LOVE inlay. Inlay is the ornate detail you see on guitars, whether it is a vine of mother of pearl on the fretboard or an intricate rosette of abalone, inlay is what elevates a guitar from “oooh, nice” to “WOW, that’s insane!’ My first large inlay piece was a replica Johnny Cash guitar that has Johnny’s name inlayed in mother of pearl along the entire fretboard. It came out beautifully, and I was hooked. Now I am one of the top shops for custom inlay. I even contract out my services to some of the larger Guitar companies. A big part of my yearly schedule is the San Diego County Fair’s “Design in Wood Show” put on by the San Diego Fine Woodworkers Association (SDFWA.org) of which I am a member. The Fair is given a theme every year, and for the last 8 years, I have entered a themed instrument into the competition and have done quite well. Some of the themed entries have been a Monopoly-themed electric guitar, a Willy Wonka-themed Jumbo Acoustic, a Wizard of Oz-themed ukulele, and most recently, a 1966 Batmobile-themed electric that really shoots fire, like the real Batmobile. The fair is my chance to unleash my creativity and really make something that catches the eye of the crowd. Thousands of people visit the Design in Wood show, one of the largest juried woodworking competitions in the US, and it’s my chance to put my work out there for all of them to see. Over the years, I have increased the intricacy and materials I use in my inlays. Aside from the standard pearl and abalone, I have used metal, stones, resin, acrylic, glass, and wood. One of my recent builds was a pair of Jumbo Acoustic guitars with an Apollo space theme. A tribute to the men and women of the Apollo space program. These guitars have genuine space flown artifacts inlayed into them and have been signed by Astronauts and mission control personnel. One is on permanent display at the San Diego Air & Space Museum, and the other remains in my collection. I think what sets me apart from others in my field is that while there are a lot of traditionalists in Luthiery, I don’t always go along with what others have done or the “industry norm.” If I think a specific material will look good, I’ll use it. Marching to the beat of my own drummer is what sets me apart, the willingness to take on a restoration others have turned down or taking on a very intricate job that has been my customer’s dream. Turning that into a reality and an heirloom they will treasure for generations is what keeps me continually raising the bar for myself.
What matters most to you? Why?
I think my shop runs on a balance of good communication and high-quality work. If you have one without the other, eventually, something will break down. Taking into account the customer’s vision, needs, budget, and timeline is probably the most important part of what I do. If the customer isn’t happy, nobody is happy. My ability to produce expert work means nothing if I don’t have a happy customer. Most of my business is from my customers spreading the word. I have the best customers, and most of them keep coming back; that speaks volumes. No advertising in the world can compete with a happy client.