Logan’s Ryan Thorell is leaving a legacy of fine, handcrafted guitars
Ryan Thorell is something of a case study in turning your passion into a successful career.
Thorell is a luthier (a.k.a. guitar maker) and the owner of Thorell Fine Guitars in Logan, Utah. And just like handcrafting his instruments—which are sold for up to $15,000 each—turning his passion into a successful career took time.
Thorell built his first guitar at age 14 while attending Butler Middle School in Cottonwood Heights. For years, he crafted guitars in his cabinet-making shop at night after work while also teaching guitar lessons in 2003. Three years later, Thorell began to focus mainly on making archtop guitars—which are made specifically for playing jazz music—while setting up displays at shows and trying to get the word out about his craft.
“I think you do whatever it takes,” Thorell says of building his business. “If you have something that you love and you figure out a way to monetize it or give back to the community with it, then it’s really about just getting out there and believing in what you’re doing and showing it to people. It has an excitement all of its own. I think that’s really true with any craft.”
By 2009, the word was out. Thorell sold guitars to Ray Charles’ former guitarist J.D. Moffat, the late University of Utah music professor Keven Johansen, and acclaimed jazz guitarist Frank Vignola—who has played with Ringo Starr and Madonna, toured in 21 countries, and recorded 30 albums.
When a friend introduced Vignola to Thorell, Vignola knew he had found the right guitar for him.
“A perfect match for my playing. I don’t know how he did that,” Vignola said. “His guitars are outstanding instruments. I was shocked when he sent me his idea for a [Frank Vignola] model. It was so good I took it with me immediately for a tour in the European Union.”
That guitar has since become Thorell’s most popular model, and Eastman Guitars has begun mass-producing it.
Since then, Thorell’s business has taken off. He often has a long waiting list for his guitars at any given time. Since he works alone and crafts every guitar by hand, he can only make 10 to 15 guitars per year.
Most of Thorell’s hand-crafted guitars are custom orders, many of which sell between $8,500 and $15,000 apiece. Much of what makes the guitars special is the personal attention and dedication Thorell brings to the creation of each instrument.
“It’s a craft where you’re getting paid to bring your A-game and do your best work every time, on each guitar, or else it doesn’t have the value it needs to command the price you need to be able to afford to do it, time-wise,” Thorell said. “I think that mentality over time has allowed me to become more humble as to what is possible in the craft of guitar-making and what the pinnacle of building could be. It is truly an art, like the sculptor that will never fully reach their potential.”
Thorell won’t go quite as far as to call himself an artist, however. With his cabinetry and woodworking background, he’s more of a craftsman.
“I do have more artistic moments, but a lot of what I do is try to distill out the simplicity of a design,” he says. “There’s already too much going on with most of the guitars I’m trying to build, and I’m trying to distill it down to something that speaks well visually.”
Thorell sells his guitars worldwide and has become quite well-known in the jazz world. He’s already thinking about what his legacy will be.
“I think it was just something I thought I wanted to do for a living … [but] I really care about the guitars that I leave when I’m dead,” he says. “There are only 180 now, and there will probably only ever be 400 or 500. It’s definitely become a thing that I care about the preservation of now.”
From making guitars in his shop after work to leaving a legacy in the form of 400 or 500 highly-desirable instruments is a big jump, and it didn’t just happen overnight. Though he warns other guitar makers that planning to make a living off their craft is to risk catastrophe, Thorell was able to make the dream a reality through balance.
“It isn’t set up to work,” Thorell says. “When you’re building a career like this, you have to take care of yourself first. You take care of your creature, whatever that is. Keep yourself healthy and be able to step away from it, do some other work, and let it grow in a healthy manner. That’s the best way to foster it into something that will be a really positive thing for you in the future.”