Luna designer Yvonne de Villiers (R) and her mother, Hilda, who as longtime pro bassist exerted a powerful influence that led to Yvonne’s involvement in instrument design.
Infusing instruments with the aesthetics of a seasoned artist
By Marty Paule
Guitar designers arrive at their life’s work in circuitous ways. Les Paul was a musician intent on overcoming the technical limitations of the electric guitars of his day. Leo Fender was a compulsive electronics tinkerer who saw an opportunity when the Southern California music scene grew increasingly amplified. Other guitar builders such as Joe Naylor of Reverend Guitars (who we recently profiled) started their careers as repairmen and guitar techs.
Yvonne De Villiers came to instrument building from an entirely different direction. Her perspectives grew out of two disparate experiences: Her lengthy career as a stained glass artist coupled with having a professional bassist for a mother. For decades she witnessed her mother shouldering a hefty Fender Precision Bass during long sets. Clearly those twinned influences exerted a strong pull when Yvonne found herself raising her hand to drive the development of a new line of instruments. A third element was her conviction that a lot of would-be players are intimidated by the high cost and physical proportions of many instruments. It’s no surprise then to find that Luna’s mission statement reads, “To craft fine stringed instruments with artistic sensibility that are comfortable, affordable, and inspire people of all ages and walks of life on their musical journey."
The HUB: Clearly you’ve put a lot of focus into the aesthetics of your instruments as well as forming a very deep, if you will, emotional and tribal bond with your customers. But ultimately what you’re making are musical instruments and they need to perform well as such. Since your background is in the arts, how do you ensure they’ll do that?
Yvonne de Villiers: Number one, we have really good partners in terms of our manufacturers. Number two, there are a lot of people here in the building who have the needed knowledge and who I always consult with. I think we’ve done a good job on quality control—making sure each instrument has musical integrity. Especially at our price points.
The HUB: That leads into an interesting question: I see an attitude among some gear heads who tend to be dismissive if an instrument or other piece of gear has a very low price. I watched an unsolicited review that was posted on your site by an obviously seasoned ukulele player, praising your High Tide 8-String Tenor Uke to the skies after going to Hawaii and trying out some high-end instruments made by top-name island builders. How do you otherwise deal with the “snoot factor” that this uke player clearly doesn’t have?
Yvonne de Villiers: I think it’s a very interesting exercise to look at import documents because in terms of instruments that are manufactured overseas, so many of them are coming from the exact same manufacturers. However, the name you put on the headstock can command a totally different price. So there’s a lot of perception out there that’s based on spin and advertising.
The HUB: I’d agree with that. Getting back to the beginnings of Luna, can you talk about how your mother’s career as a bassist inspired you?
Yvonne de Villiers: I was inspired mainly because she was such a trailblazer --—she never let the difficulty of adapting to such a heavy instrument—the Fender Precision Bass—stop her though it wasn’t easy. I forget what it weighs exactly, but it’s pretty daunting.
The HUB: They can make anybody’s shoulder sore after a couple of sets.
Yvonne de Villiers: She gigged five or six nights a week for close to 30 years and it definitely took it’s toll on her body in the long run. As a female in a rock band, she was definitely an exception. When I walked into music stores with her, the staff always assumed that she was there to make a purchase for one of the other band members, not for herself. I witnessed the joy that her bass brought her (and still brings her) and I thought it would be wonderful if more women were inspired to take up guitar or bass.
De Villiers was inspired by traditional henna body decoration in creating the Luna Henna Series that includes the best-selling Henna Oasis Cedar Series II Acoustic-Electric Guitar.
The idea for Luna actually started when I was designing some inlay rosettes for Dean Guitars. I was meeting with Elliott [Rubinson of Armadillo Enterprises—Luna’s parent company] to show him some inlay designs and asked Elliott if he had ever considered developing something for the female market. This was about six months before Luna’s first NAMM show. His response was ‘Well, see what you can come up with.’ [Laughs] So it was a very intensive effort. The surprising thing is, especially since I hadn’t given it any forethought, the concept came to me all at once—the name, the logo, the fret markers, the vibe. Like its namesake, Luna has more of a reflective feel.
And because I didn’t know what wasn’t possible, I didn’t know what questions not to ask. That kind of worked in my favor and allowed me to come up with some designs that had never been attempted before. Most particularly, the laser etching—using the entire front of the guitar as a canvas rather than just around the sound hole..
The first impulse was to make something more ergonomically friendly for females, and the designs themselves at first were more feminine. But as they were launched into the world, we started getting feedback from male players like, ‘I saw this guitar and really like it, but I think your company’s for females and I’m not sure if I should buy it or not.’ We hadn’t intended to exclude anyone, but it was perceived that way. So after our second year, we began expanding our design efforts so both males and females would be able to find something to connect with. At this point, I’m really happy to report that our sales are reflective of the population and hover right at 50-50 male/female.
The HUB: I was somewhat surprised looking at your gallery of customer photos and saw that so many were of the male persuasion. I had a similar perception to many of your would-be men customers.
Yvonne de Villiers: What I love about our customers is that they’re all over the place—they come from every walk of life, age and skill level. They range from children to players in their 80s—across the whole spectrum of humanity. Whenever I’m having a hard day, I go to our “Tribe” gallery and it never ceases to put things in perspective and raise a smile! In fact, we love those photos so much that we used them on the cover of our 2011 catalog and have used them as our catalog lifestyle shots ever since.
The HUB: I noticed that more of your instruments, especially in the guitar family, tend to be on the more diminutive side—parlor guitars and the like—and I gather that goes back to your early days.
Yvonne de Villiers: Actually, we don’t have all that many parlors. They’re mostly folk and grand concert profiles.
The HUB: I guess I was thinking in terms of guitars smaller than dreadnoughts or jumbos—that seems to be the emphasis as far as body sizes go.
Yvonne de Villiers: That’s right— most of our offerings are mid-size.
The HUB: What are your best-selling models?
Yvonne de Villiers: The Henna Series has been a strong seller for a long time. Our ukuleles do amazingly well as do our travel guitars. People who just want to test the waters but not spend a lot on an instrument pick up a travel guitar or uke and then feel comfortable about making their next purchase. The Vista guitars are also doing very well. Our little Passionflower Parlor Guitar still does well and it was actually our very first Luna. All of our Flora and Fauna Series guitars also continue to be strong sellers too.
The HUB: I noticed that you draw a lot on certain cultural sources for your decorative ideas. The henna designs, the tribal tattoos, the Hawaiian patchwork quilt motif. Do you recall any particular aha! moments when you were looking at an artifact and said, ‘Hey, this could be a great treatment for a rosette or a headstock?
Yvonne de Villiers: The henna guitar came from just looking at laser etching in general. When I looked at it, it the feel of it reminded me of henna. Because the guitar has a torso shape to it, I thought it might be cool to try. One thing that’s very important is that the design be authentic. So I went in search of the best henna artist I could find and ended up finding one in the UK—Alex Morgan—she’s amazing! She also did the Polynesian tattoo designs because she specializes in body ornamentation. In other cases ideas have been inspired from design movements. Our all-solid Artist Series are based on the Art Deco, Art Nouveau and Craftsman design movements. No matter what the design, we definitely strive for authenticity.
The HUB: What does being a part of Armadillo Enterprises bring to the table for Luna Guitars and vice versa?
Yvonne de Villiers: It’s interesting; I think that Luna is the yin to Dean’s yang. Even today, Luna has a softer energy—something I think the guitar industry needed. I would say that fresh, innovative designs and a priority of fostering a personal relationship with our players is what Luna brought to the table.
In terms of what Armadillo brought to the table…..the entire infrastructure, all facets for what it takes to be a guitar manufacturer was already in place. Obviously a huge advantage. And complete creative freedom...also huge.
The HUB: Clearly you’re bringing a different kind of energy into the landscape of guitars, which has largely been a male-dominated, and can we say, at times an aggressive domain. Especially when you think of guitars that are aimed at the heavy-metal player. I’d say you’re a polar opposite to that. But still, it’s ultimately all about music in whatever form it takes.
Yvonne de Villiers: It is. Another thing that’s really important to me is encouraging new players. I think so many times people entertain the idea of playing, but feel they can’t be as good as some imaginary standard they feel they have to achieve. They don’t realize that you can learn three chords and get a lot of joy out of an instrument. . There are a lot of players who aren’t accomplished but have written some amazing songs using three chords and the truth! It’s not about how technically good you are. It’s about the heart you put into it.
Under Yvonne’s stewardship, the Luna line has grown rapidly to include a wide range of instruments that attracts an equally eclectic audience of players who see themselves as part of the Luna “tribe.”
The HUB: Looking at the Luna Facebook page that you’ve done a great job of reducing that intimidation factor that a lot of people have.
Yvonne de Villiers: Intimidation—that’s the perfect word for it.
The HUB: Speaking of your Facebook page, you have a lot of really heartfelt engagement with your customers. How much of that is strategy versus a natural outcome of who you are and what Luna is supposed to be about?
Aside from it’s breathtaking visuals, the Fauna Dragon Folk Acoustic-Electric Guitar gets top marks for its playability and the sound it generates both plugged and unplugged from its comfortable, downsized jumbo body.
Yvonne de Villiers: It’s really funny—people would ask me during the first couple of years ‘what kind of market analysis did you do?’—it’s been totally intuitive from the beginning. And it’s ironic that in recent years the marketing gurus have been urging companies to do just that: strive for transparency ,authenticity and a personal relationship with customers. For Luna that’s been a given since day one. Our customer base has been built one interaction at a time. It’s the best part of my job, getting glimpses into players’ lives. I’m so honored to be a small part of that equation. I’m also honored that our customers feel free to open up as much as they do. They end up writing me letters that go beyond their music or instrument, to opening up as people. I really appreciate that. We haven’t done any advertising to speak of, so it’s all been very word of mouth, very grassroots, and we have some amazing advocates.
The HUB: It’s really evident on your website that you’ve done this “on the natch,” intuitively as you said. You’re to be congratulated for that.
Yvonne de Villiers: Thank you. It’s been my great pleasure and honor. I’ve always believed that energy follows intent—that’s part of my personal philosophy. I had complete control of the stained glass art work that I did on my table for 30 years. It went from my table to whatever building it was going to live in. But here, since our instruments are manufactured overseas, a design is sent all the way around the planet and comes back as an instrument. Then it goes out again into the world. I really feel, though I don’t have any way of substantiating it, that the original intent is still palpable, because I get that feedback from players. It’s been interesting to see that the human element can still remain viable in what one might see as a corporate structure, (though it’s totally not!)
The HUB: What about the more mundane details of bringing an instrument to life beyond your initial design. How does the process work, do you send drawings to the factories that build these instruments?
Yvonne de Villiers: Yes, lots and lots of visuals. I wrote a blog post that addresses the process step by step. Research and inspiration is the first part. Then I create an initial drawing using a pencil and sketchpad, followed by an ink drawing. In order for that to be read by a laser machine, or CNC machine in the case of inlay, it has to be rendered in Adobe Illustrator. I work with a graphic artist. We scan the ink drawing and that’s rendered into Illustrator. Then we do visual mockups and spreadsheets. It takes lots of very clear visual communications.
The HUB: Typically how many iterations or prototypes do you have to go through before you’ve got something that you’re happy with and that’s ready for production?
Yvonne de Villiers: Believe it or not, if the communication is crystal-clear we sometimes nail it on the first one. The most we’ve ever had to do is three. Once you get the hang of it, it’s just following the process—dotting all your i’s and crossing all your t’s.
The HUB: Anticipating issues before they arise?
Yvonne de Villiers: Exactly. Especially issues that arise in production are the main thing to try and avoid. They might be able to produce a sample because they have all the time in the world to do a good job on it. But when you’re on the production line, that’s when we’ve learned our hardest lessons.
The HUB: How granular is the detail you give the factory on the components they use? Does it come down to the specific metric size of a screw on a given component? How detailed is it, or do you give your partners over there a certain amount of latitude?
Yvonne de Villiers: Here’s the thing: Because of the price point we’re playing in, we pretty much only use stock components and make them work as elegantly as possible. Otherwise, if you start specifying very specific screws or whatever, then the price is going to skyrocket and it’ll be out of the ballpark. So it’s a matter of putting the best product together with readily available resources.
The HUB: So things like tuners, bridges,—that sort of thing—are pretty much, if you will, off the rack?
Yvonne de Villiers: Correct; except on our beginner’s guitars we use [Graph Tech] NuBone nuts and saddles, D’Addario strings and B-Band preamps—we’re very happy with the quality of those components. It’s just not crazy expensive; it’s very respectable middle of the road.
The HUB: When you’re selling a three or four-hundred dollar guitar there are some finite limitations on what you can do. Things like inlay for example—there are corners that can be cut, yet still end up with an instrument that looks fabulous. Going back to that gentleman’s review of your tenor ukulele, he commented specifically on your use of Aquila strings—a decent-quality string rather than no-name junk that you’d have to replace immediately.
Yvonne de Villiers: We work on keeping our quality consistent and giving a player the best out-of-the-box experience possible Some things are simply overblown. You see some [other brands’] upgraded models on which only a few details have been changed that cost a pittance, yet they mark it up another couple of hundred dollars. We don’t play those kinds of games—good, better, best. We always try to offer the best instrument we can at an accessible price point. Our least expensive full size models are $199—we have some decent travel guitars in the $169 price range.. Most prices hover around $399-$429 for our full-size guitars. Our all solid models are $599 and they offer some very elegant appointments. With a solid sounding guitar at an affordable price point, it’s easy to customize an instrument by switching out the tuners, adding a bone nut and saddle on an acoustic, or your favorite pickups on an electric.
The HUB: Do you have any designs in the works that you’d care to talk about?
Yvonne de Villiers: We talked a little about perceptions in the music industry and one thing that has me concerned is that so much wood that is being used is finite. This year we’re bringing out a series based on the Japanese concept called wabi-sabi that embraces the organic, not the symmetrical perfectness of everything. I’ve done some reading and found that a B- or C-grade top is virtually [sonically] indistinguishable to most listeners from an A, AA, or AAA top. It’s mainly cosmetic. So we’re coming out with a $199 instrument with a solid B-grade top that will offer good sound at a good price. And every one will look different, which I think is cool. It’s kind of like stone-washed jeans. I’d really like to see the music instrument industry embrace different tonewoods and not have the perception that an instrument is inferior ‘if it doesn’t have rosewood back and sides…or whatever a player’s bias may be.’ A lot of tonewoods are becoming endangered and we’re going to be forced to rethink the whole process.
The HUB: So are you working with the manufacturers to find woods that are more sustainable?
Yvonne de Villiers: Yes, but again, it will be a long process to change perceptions . We haven’t gotten too far down that rabbit hole, but I think it’s a good direction to go in because it’s inevitable.
The HUB: It is a sort of a holy decree that you have to have a Sitka spruce, cedar or maple top, and as you say, rosewood back and sides. Yet I do see a certain amount of opening up going on to admit some non-standard materials. Tonewoods really incorporate a number of species, not just the holy trinity of spruce, cedar and maple.
Yvonne de Villiers: If you make your living in music and you’re a very discriminating musician, then of course you should have whatever makes your music the best that it can be. But for beginners and casual players, it’s just not necessary.
The HUB: And it breaks down that daunting price point you’ve talked about that leads people to feel that they can’t become a competent guitarist if they only have a couple of hundred dollars to spend.
Yvonne de Villiers: You won’t find that guitar snobbery or whatever you want to call it in our group of players. I’ve never seen anyone be cruel to each other on our Facebook page—something that I know goes on with other pages and sites. It’s a kind and supportive community. I’m really proud of that and am convinced we have the best customers in the industry!
The HUB: It really differentiates your brand. So many online gear head forums are rife with tube-sniffing tone snobs—people who spend more time dissing each other rather than actually getting into the joy of making music.
Yvonne de Villiers: Exactly.
The HUB: You’ve clearly carved out a unique demographic for yourself and that you’ve done it on a seat-of-the-pants, intuitive level is remarkable.
Yvonne de Villiers: It HAS been totally intuitive and a grand adventure!
The HUB: But hey, some of the best businesses have come about that way and they tend to make the strongest bonds with the people who consume or use their products and services. And the fact you survived the economic downturn that showed up soon after Luna was launched is also remarkable. Congratulations!
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