CORRALES — A giant 15-foot guitar looms in the corner of a woodworking shop behind a music store off of the main drag in Corrales.
This oversized instrument is an example to luthier Jimmy Smith’s students that anything is possible when it comes to designing a custom instrument.
Smith and his wife, Lisa, run the Strat Academy, a hybrid music store/music studio where students interested in “anything guitar” can learn about the instrument, including building one from scratch.
This over-3,700-square-foot, multi-building school also hosts a drum room, guitar repair shop and front-of-house store that sells basic guitar equipment any player would need. Located in the northwest corner of the front building is a recording studio, where students can work on their stage technique and vocals.
“The spark for this business came as a result of all of the things I’ve learned over the years, having to act as my own guitar tech,” Jimmy Smith said. “On the road, we didn’t have money to pay for a tech when I was in a band, so I learned how to work on guitars out of necessity.”
Smith said he spent the entirety of the ’80s in a southern rock band called the Young Executives, touring the South trying make it big.
“We traveled from New Mexico to Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi (and) all the way down to Florida,” Smith said.
After his road days ended, Smith said he had a goal to make his own guitar from scratch, an idea that blossomed into his business today.
“I began making my own tools because I wanted to make my own guitar,” he said. “Then I started offering repairs.”
Soon Smith and his wife began offering music lessons, which filled up quickly.
“I thought to myself, maybe some students would be interested in making a guitar and that became a success,” he said.
With all of the workshops and lessons combined, the Strat Academy has just fewer than 70 students.
“We stay pretty busy year-round,” Lisa Smith said. “We thought this summer would be a little lighter because of vacations but we have a steady flow of students right now.”
The cost for guitar lessons is $109 a month to meet once a week, with prices varying for other instrumental lessons. The cost for luthier classes, Smith said, depends on materials and what type of guitar students want to make.
“We specialize in Stratocaster and Telecaster body styles,” Smith said. “Some students want to come in with some radical designs, but we slow it down and say let’s try the basics before we reinvent the guitar (laughs).”
There are three holy grails to creating a successful guitar, he said.
“The first one is playability: You can have a piece of crap like Stevie Ray’s guitar, but it’s set up so nice, to his specs, that it sounds and plays so good,” Smith said.
The second grail, he said, is the aesthetics of the instrument.
“If it’s ugly and you skimp on the finish, you are going to hate it, and I give that speech before we even start,” Smith said. “When you get to this step, you are so close to end that many students just want to put it together and play it and cut corners on the finish. If it’s going to be your go-to guitar…you want it to reflect your hard work.”
The third and final grail to building your own guitar, he said, is the instrument’s feel when a student builder plays the final product.
“It’s a 3-D piece of art,” Smith said. “This is another place students sometimes skimp, because they just want to hurry up and they skip things like the neck radius. It’s real quick and easy to get the project to a place where it looks like a guitar, but it’s not going to feel good.”
An added feature that Smith is going to teach in his future luthier classes is how to build the guitar pickups, the magnets that vibrate to make the guitar sound come through an amp, from scratch.
“Guitar building is not rocket science,” he said. “Many people make it out to be, but that is why this class exists, so those who are interested can see what goes into making an instrument.”
Smith added that many of his students have kept in touch with him and his wife over the years because of how unique their business and classes are.
“We have students that have moved to Nashville and tell us they don’t even have a class like ours there,” Smith said. “As far as I know, we are the only business that offers this kind of course in New Mexico.”
For information on the Strat Academy, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 890-2928.