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Actually I was building both classicals and steel strings at that time. I figured out early on that trying to make a living building classicals was pretty much impossible. I really didn’t get serious again about trying to build classicals until 1984, and then I built quite a few classicals. When I moved to Nashville in ‘85 that was really all I was focused on.
What was the motivation to move to Nashville?
Starvation [laughs]. I got a job offer down here at Gruhn Guitars, and it was kind of a lark. I called up and talked to George one day, and when he found out I knew Robert Ruck, he was very interested in me coming down. I shipped them a guitar I had built and then was invited to come work for a week. At the end of the week I was asked to sign on and I moved to Nashville.
When you started at Gruhn’s, you did a lot of repair work. What was the biggest adjustment you had to make there?
You get exposed to everything in a place like that. My biggest struggle was trying to figure out what was appropriate to do on each job – how much time you would spend on this instrument, as opposed to another one. You could go way overboard and waste a lot of time on something that didn’t have a lot of return. Gruhn’s was a commission environment, and so it was critical to not waste your time.
You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that Gruhn’s was a professionally competitive environment. Did that push you to improve your work?
It was the only time in my life where everyday I was around other people with abilities that were parallel to my own. The foreman of the shop was Kim Walker, and the person who I came in to replace was Matthew Kline – Matthew now does most of the CNC operations here at the Gibson factory in Nashville. Kim and I became good friends during those years, but it was kind of brutal because we did try to outdo each other, no question about it. Years of experience were passed on in that shop and it was a special thing to have been a part of.
What was the most over-the-top operation you performed there?
Well, George had a 1927 00-28 that had herringbone around the top and in the rosette and there was just a big, gaping hole right where the bridge sat. There was no area to glue a bridge on. And George said, “Fix it. Make it go away.” Well, that guitar sat around and sat around and no one would touch it.
So one day, I pulled it out and was laughing at what George wanted us to do, which was patch something right in the middle of the top – to keep it original. So I went and visited him, and said, “This is ridiculous, we’re not going to fix this top. It is beyond reason; why don’t we just replace the entire top?” He never wanted anyone to replace a soundboard, because he wanted all of the binding and rosette to stay original. So I said, “Look, I’ll put the rosette in the new top, and I’ll drop the top inside the original bindings, and I’ll make it look like it never happened.”
He finally relented, and I developed a technique for routing in a top to fit inside the binding channels. You basically just attach a top to the soundboard – you can use carpet tape – center it up, and then use a routing tool where you calibrate the width of the bindings. You route the top outline out so that when you put in the new top it is as close as you can fit it to the original herringbone. Next, you take a routing tool, go around and ever so carefully trim the wood away from the black line. Then you brace the top and it just slides right back into the guitar. You might have to do a little fitting, but at the end of the day, that guitar had its original binding work and rosette in it. I used a 35 year old German top, did a shellac finish over it and then slightly distressed it, so it looked original.
How has that affected your own work as a luthier, having worked so closely in those traditional settings, where George doesn’t want you to replace anything?
Not really very much, I would say. The thing I would take away from it all, which is most relevant to building my own guitars, is to look at the longevity of the instrument and to see just what long-term stress will do to a guitar. The impact of the various designs is very telling and it was a good yardstick for understanding the history of American guitar making.
Your guitars have been in some famous hands – Earl Klugh used one of your guitars on Solo Guitar, a seminal guitar album. I’m sure a lot of luthiers would jump at a chance like that. How did that come about?
In my experience, the best way to work with well-known guitar players is to not try to work with well-known guitar players. I did not know Earl Klugh when he bought that guitar or made that record. Likewise, I didn’t know who Muriel Anderson was when she bought one of my guitars – she bought it from someone else in 1986, and it was a guitar I had made in 1983.
You know, the guitars really just go out and if they’re good, they’ll find their way. If they’re not good, they won’t. It’s just that simple.