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Guitar Making in Chicago with Ian Schneller

For over 30 years, Ian Schneller has been a maestro of hand-crafted musical instruments.

Jun 27, 2022 Handmade Goods

A graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago with a Masters in Sculpture, Ian has always applied his artistic talents to making string instruments and tube amplifiers—first for himself and then for others.

It might seem like a casual hobby, but to Ian, the mission is to uphold the tenets of handcraftsmanship and practical design. According to Ian, in today’s society, not many children learn how to make and design products from scratch. Specimen Products aims to fill that gap. 

"If the world needed to think of me as a luthier instead of a sculptor, that was fine with me."


Shelf full of handcrafted amps at Specimen Products.

Guitar making has always been important to the history of Chicago, which was once, as Ian notes, the guitar-making capital of the world. For much of the twentieth century, the city was an epicenter of manufacturing guitars, amplifiers, and other instruments. But in recent years, as the mass production moved overseas, Chicago guitars seemed doomed to become a lost art. Not so at The Chicago School of Guitar Making, which launched in 2005 under the umbrella of Specimen Products. Students come from all across the world to learn repair and building of guitars as well as tube amps.

When you enter the space, you see the wonderful work benches, all constructed by Ian specifically for guitar-making classes. Up to 10 students at a time—many of whom have gone on to become professional luthiers of their own—learn a slew of valuable skills, from adjusting virtually any stringed instrument for optimal tonality and playability to how to re-fret the instrument (or replace the frets altogether). In the design class, students create full-size blueprints the old-fashioned way—using drafting paper and pencils. Some even turn those designs into a top-quality, one-of-a-kind product to cherish forever. 

A photo of a hand crafted guitar. Ian Schneller making a guitar.

"I'm trying to uphold the tenets of handcraftsmanship and practical design. We simply don't teach our children how to use tools anymore." 

As Ian sees it, the school’s objective is to highlight the contrast between a job that’s executed with love and knowledge and perseverance versus the assembly-like, cookie-cutter work of most retail products we find on store shelves. Within these walls, Ian has created more than 800 instruments over the 30 years that he’s been in business, morphing aluminum and brass and various species of wood into fully functional works of art. Coming across something that’s made with the optimal amount of intention and craftsmanship makes for a truly unique experience—and a truly personal sound.

In some ways, Ian says, the Chicago School of Guitar Making is like “Montessori for adults.” It’s about working with your hands, about the tactile experience of creating something, about coming to know the material with which you work. Head over to North Homan Ave in Chicago to see the space for yourself. (Maybe even via The 606 elevated bike trail—Ian’s favorite thing in Chicago at the moment.) You might even be inspired to create something of your own that’s truly Illinois Made.

Student learning how to make their own instruments at Specimen Products. Student tests a guitar.

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