Larry Robinson

Robinson Custom Inlay
Valley Ford, CA

Larry Robinson
Years Building: 34
Above: Back of Peacocks guitar: mother-of-pearl, red abalone, green abalone, Corian, copper, Abalam, ivory and silver.
Larry Robinson wrote the book on inlay, literally. It’s called The Art of Inlay, and it’s in its second edition. It’s a treasure trove of tips, tricks, process and art. Robinson originally wrote the book because he said he believed that anybody could learn to do inlay, but over the years he’s realized that it’s like any other art: some can, some can’t. “All disciplines are the same in one way,” he observes. “You have to know the tools, the process, the order. The function of concentration is that added thing that lets us transcend.” In other words, if you aren’t driven to do it, you probably won’t be able to. “I don’t have a lot of competition. The number of people who are competitors in this industry I can count on one hand. There are some relative newcomers who are already doing some amazing things with it though, and this niche market is starting to fill up.”

Robinson started as a guitar builder in 1972, and did his first inlay project in 1975. The biggest difference between now and then is the vast variety of materials available: “Traditionally we had abalone, silver and mother-of-pearl; we were stuck in that pattern for over a hundred years. Now there’s Recon stone, plastics… people are much less resistant to using odd materials to get the effect they want.” He’s done projects ranging from putting a customer’s initials on the fretboard to the Millionth Martin. With the mix of materials and the time involved in hand-cutting, “it’s not hard to do an inlay that ends up being worth more than the guitar,” he says.

He relishes the freedom that comes from being one of a handful of dedicated inlay artists: “My boss is my customer; every day I have a different boss. They allow me latitude to use my imagination to come up with something that will be pleasing for them to look at many years down the road. That being said, I’m also leaving somewhat of a legacy. I’m 10 to 12 years out from the end of my inlay career, so I try to work to the utmost of my ability, since I know these guitars are going to be around 200 to 300 years from now.”

Many times, Robinson takes on projects because he has an idea he wants to pursue: “I’ll buy a guitar from a luthier and work with a painter or some other artist. I’ll pick a scene and just go with it. I’ve got a couple that are in the works that are specifically for art collectors and not guitar players—these are things that I want to do, not that I’ve been commissioned to do.” Two of these projects are finished, so far. One is the China Guitar, which is a MIDI guitar (the halffinished body was found in a dumpster, completed by Robinson, and recently refinished by Addam Stark in Santa Cruz, CA), and one is made by Santa Cruz Guitar Company: the Nouveau. “I supplied the Brazilian rosewood and hired a painter, Michael Coy, to paint the top,” says Robinson.

Robinson seems fearless about inlay on the soundbox of the guitar. “It’s a tired, old argument,” he sighs, “the weight with inlay versus no inlay. The tops of acoustic guitars are the pumps that you get your volume and tone from, but everything makes a difference on a guitar. You’d have to take a guitar that was already done and put inlay on it and play it after and see. That being said, I almost never inlay anything into the soundboards, especially into the lower bout. The guitar is my canvas. It’s a frame that’s guitar-shaped and I put my inlays on there, kind of like painting. I also have to remember that it’s supposed to be a guitar, so you have to think about what to do and what not to do, and where to leave blank space, which is something that’s so important.”

Mostly, he just feels incredibly lucky: “I’ve just been doing inlays since 1984, not doing repairs or building guitars, so I get to raise my family doing something I love.”

Back of China guitar: red abalone, mother-of-pearl, translucent red plexiglas, silver, various wood species and walrus tusk.
Phoenix peghead and fretboard: Pink Ivory wood, mother-of-pearl, gold mother-ofpearl,
red and green abalone, gold dust and paua Abalam.

Back of Santa Cruz Nouveau guitar: flame maple dress, Pink Ivory wood hair, ivory skin, silver, red abalone, paua, mother-of-pearl, Corian, snail shell, and 18k gold sheet and dust water lines.
Warrior peghead: various woods, copper, silver, gold mother-of-pearl, paua shell, walrus tusk, black mother-of-pearl, black abalone heart and white mother-of-pearl on flame maple.