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December 2014
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Builder Profile: Ribbecke Guitars

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Builder Profile: Ribbecke Guitars

LEFT: This amber-hued, nitrocellulose-finished Ribbecke Halfling archtop features a 25" scale, a Sitka spruce top, spruce X bracing, a floating Kent Armstrong pickup, and an ebony fretboard, bridge, and tailpiece. RIGHT: The back of this Halfling flaunts stunningly matched figured maple (note the horizontal and vertical striping), black purfling, and a goldplated strap button.
Tom Ribbecke built his first guitar in his dorm room in 1972. Thirty-eight years later, he says it sometimes feels like the whole thing was a dream. But recently he got remarkably concrete proof of how real it was. “Somebody just sent me back the first steel-string guitar I ever made, from Holland. It’s checked all over the place, and I’m looking at this thing that I made in 1974, and I’m going, ‘I didn’t dream this—it actually did happen!’”

Between 1972 and 2010, Ribbecke has covered a lot of ground in the guitar world. Starting with solidbodies—“because they’re easy”—he was quickly enamored with the way steel-string tops vibrate. “I became fascinated with what I started to call the ‘z axis.’ When you look at the way the top behaves on a guitar as an energy machine, we generally look at whether it’s flat or arched—but almost nobody screws around with that axis, the actual carving or shape of it. I became uniquely aware, because I’ve always been fascinated with physics, that the top of the guitar is really a radiator, and the soundhole is really a port for bass. The guitar is really a speaker enclosure.”

Though this discovery affected all of Ribbecke’s subsequent designs, including the thinline and flattop models he still offers, it was especially instrumental in Ribbecke’s famed Halfling model. For archtop aficionados, it’s no stretch of the imagination to say that the Halfling represents a revolution in archtop technology—the culmination of 30 years of experience, research, observation, and a profound desire to contribute something truly meaningful to the development of the instrument. “I looked around and saw a lot of incredible steel-strings that were mostly reduxes of Martins and Gibsons,” Ribbecke recalls. “But when I started playing the archtop, it became clear to me that the instrument was really undeveloped, really in its infancy. Archtops started with Lloyd Loar, and they’re less than 100 years old as a real design. I felt that there was room to innovate in that area, and I became incredibly fascinated with the structural challenge of building an archtop guitar.”

The “Grandfatherly” Artist in the Family

Tom Ribbecke, head of Ribbecke Guitars and Ribbecke Guitar Corporation, at his shop in Healdsburg, California.
Double-majoring in music theory and communications, Ribbecke spent most of his college career at the Newhouse School of Syracuse University playing rock ’n’ roll in the dozens of roadhouses in and around New York State. When he got out of college, he moved to San Francisco, played in club bands, and was on the road quite a bit. “But I was always a pretty grandfatherly guy—I like to be home. Being out on the road with young bands was really exciting, and I was a pretty good player, but the truth of the matter is that lifestyle was not really suited for my personality. My marriage and my desire to be home just took over. And I made guitars because I didn’t think the guitars I was playing were good enough—which is kind of the megalomaniacal, young guitarmaker syndrome.”

It never occurred to Ribbecke to not build guitars once he’d made up his mind to do it. “My father infused me with this ability to make things,” he says. “If I thought I could do it, I could just do it. I didn’t think there was any reason that you couldn’t make something if you just saw it. That’s what he gave me by way of encouragement—I saw him doing it. My brother was an MIT engineer and my father was a chemist, so I’m sort of ‘the artist,’ but I still have all of that scientific imperative. I grew up with it.”

But very few guitar-building resources were available when Ribbecke got started. “In those days, there was an Arthur Overholtzer book [Classic Guitar Making], which was as ponderous as Arthur was himself. There was a David Russell Young book [The Steel String Guitar: Construction & Repair] about steel-string guitars, and the [Hideo] Kamamoto book, which was called Complete Guitar Repair. I spent six months in the library, and there was no one to study with around me. There was literally nobody doing this that I could find.”

Even so, commissions started coming in from the repair shop he opened on San Francisco’s Guerrero Street. “I would lure customers in, refret their guitars, repair them,” he reminisces. “And I began to sell instruments most handily that way, because I had a little storefront window I could put a little solidbody guitar in, and one thing led to the next. By about the second year of making, I became fascinated with the science of acoustics.”

The first innovation Ribbecke made waves with was the Sound Bubble steel-string. In fact, he says that’s what led to “the whole Halfling thing.” Sound Bubbles looked like conventional steel-strings with a little bubble carved in the bass side of the soundboard. They had a natural flanged sound, but didn’t have the huge bass response that Ribbecke and his partner at the time, Charles Kelly, were hoping for. “I still didn’t know what the hell I was doing at that age,” he says with a laugh, “but I built a lot of those guitars—they still come back to me. There are collectors of those instruments, and they have a unique and beautiful sound, but I never felt that was an idea that I truly realized.”

Conceptualizing a Texturizing Machine


This cobalt-blue Halfling features a pin bridge, a 17" lower bout, a 4 1/2" body depth, Indian rosewood back and sides, and a B-Band pickup.
Growing up in New York, Ribbecke got his hands on a D’Angelico early on. “I can never forget the moment they handed me that guitar and I strummed a chord on it. It changed my life,” he says. “It was like a George Gobel-y kind of D’Angelico, and it was the most incredible thing I’d ever heard—but I still heard the pinched-off, nasal bass that led me to this sense that maybe there was something I could do that was better.” He began turning the problem around in his mind, but it was years before all the pieces of the puzzle would fit together. “I loved archtop guitars, but I hated the thought that they didn’t have any bass response. I built my first archtop with a plywood top sometime around 1980 or ’81, and once I did that I became so fascinated that I started making a 335-type guitar that I still make to this day, the Testadura—which is an archtop in solidbody clothing. But once I realized I could carve and manipulate top plates to behave in certain ways, I became so fascinated with the archtop that I kind of never looked back after that.”
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