Clermont resident hand crafts custom guitars, mandolins

Dan Howard holds one of his classical guitars.
Dan Howard, a resident of Clermont County, says he has been a luthier for over 25 years. His specialty is guitars, which he says is the first instrument he taught himself to build. He has currently applied finishing touches on a Flamenco guitar and has built mandolins as well.

“It’s been a long journey, however, it has been a wonderful journey. I love doing what I do. It’s part of my soul. It’s not always easy, but in the end, it is always worth it,” he said.

Howard’s drive to become a luthier was not realized, he said, until several events took place in his life. He recalls two very specific events that lead him to pursue this craft with a passion.

Howard says he actually became interested in building a guitar after he saw Eric Clapton featured on a late night television show.

“I was in awe of him and how confident this man was. Being a competitor, though, I was just really rubbed the wrong way with him. I had no idea I was watching one of the finest guitarists in the world. In fact, I had no idea who he was. I remember thinking he was either that confident or he was that good,” he said.

Upon investigating how much Clapton’s guitars cost, Howard said he was shocked.

“I just said to myself, ‘my land I’ll never be able to afford one of those.”

Then, says Howard, “I discovered Neil Young, who is my guitar hero. When I saw him perform he came across to me as being very deep. This man, in my opinion, writes with conviction and a lot of soul. He knows something about the spirit and life. As I watched him I knew he was playing from his heart. Watching him play is what really got me motivated to learn how to play the guitar,” he said.

Howard said he checked out prices on the guitars Neil Young used, and discovered, like Clapton’s guitars, those prices, were also more than he could afford.

“I remember saying out loud, ‘I will build my own guitar,'” he said. “I meant it, too. I never had anything hit me like that and I knew I had to do it. Of all the places on planet earth, I was in this library (Clermont-Milford Library) when I said that. It all happened right here.”

“There was a book by Irving Sloan, Classical Guitar Construction, I picked out by accident in this library. I read it cover to cover,” said Howard. “Everything I needed to know about building a guitar was in the pages of this book. On day three, after I read the book, I started to do it. I actually started to do it. I tore instruments apart to study how they were made. I know I upset a few people when I tore up Martins and Gibson guitars. But, as I said before, I never had anything hit me like this.”

Howard says that over the years he not only read and studied countless books on the subject of building guitars, but he also applied what he learned in college to his craft.

“Thanks to Dr. Michael Kasha, my physics professor, I used the principles he taught and put them into my guitar building. I remember thinking what was the point of all this education if I didn’t put it to use? Also my dad used to say don’t talk about what you can do, just do it! So I did.”

Howard also gives credit to the people he met along the way who helped him in becoming a master luthier.

“I met many wonderful people who took me under their wing and fine tuned what I was learning by reading and doing. I have learned from the best.”

Howard says there are tens of thousands of luthiers across the United States. In the local area he has attempted to share his craft but he says, “Today, sadly, I see this as a dying craft, especially with the advent of machinery.”

When asked if there are any real differences in the sound of a guitar constructed by a machine and those he has handcrafted, Howard replied, “That is a very good question. In machining a guitar, you still need a person to run the machines. The difference between me and that machine, though, is the human element. I can do things and fine tune things a little bit better than a machine. I have the ability to control any sound I want.”

Howard says he has taken apart and reassembled well over 200 guitars.

“I build for friends and for the love of the craft,” he said. “I would love to see at least 30 kids who would like to learn how to build a guitar. That would be from my heart. I want to do my part as a fellow American to help my brothers.”

Howard says he would like to share information about his craft with anyone who is really serious about it.

“I’m not selfish when it comes to that. I have received a lot of help over the years and I just want to give back. I want young people to learn first hand from the masters.”

According to Howard, the way he teaches his craft, anyone can do it. All that is needed to build a guitar, he says, is some simple tools and some patience and you can build a very nice ‘front porch pickin’ guitar.

There may be several reasons the craft of building a guitar is becoming obsolete, according to Howard, and that, he says, may be due to the music genre that is being listened to.

“I am a product of the 50’s era. Music was different then. I remember learning music in school. Now, with the economy being what it is the first thing schools are cutting is the music programs.”

In addition to being a master of his craft, Howard says he feels he is a bit unique in that, to date, he is the only African American who is a master luthier.

“Believe me, I have searched high and low. I have searched all across the United States. I have even researched on the internet and read books. You name it, I did it when trying to find an African American, other than myself, who is expert in this field.”

Howard is willing to help anyone who wants to learn how to build a guitar. He is available for consultation via emal: