When Lofty Goals Converge
The partnerships that developed between Ribbecke, Szmanda, and Vega, along with CFO Len Wood, became the energy behind the Ribbecke Guitar Corporation (RGC). “Because of luck of the draw—where the economy was when these instruments appeared on the scene—we were fortunate enough to have people step forward and invest and help me make these things. We obtained a patent on it, we had a group of investors step forward and opened a corporation—kind of a nutty, alternative corporation— to build the Halflings. We’ve built and sold close to a million dollars worth of Halflings in the last six years. I wanted to rebrand myself at about a third of the price, wrap in some technology, really offer something different, and build them in America. We made a very conscious decision not to take this offshore, because I felt that the technology could be screwed up very quickly and easily. So we slog along here making them in America.”

Taking a “guerilla” approach, RGC decided the best strategy would be to run the business as lean as possible instead of taking on millions of dollars in debt. “We took angelic investors who really believed in the product and started the company with a little less than $600,000 and ran it on a shoestring with an unbelievable crew of people who were all hand-selected—all of whom are really special. I think that’s why we’re still here today, because we chose the guerilla method to build this company. If we had taken venture capital, or if we had taken money from anyplace else, I think we would be out of business now.” Ribbecke’s private workshop is located three miles from the RGC workshop, but he currently spends 80 to 85 percent of his time building Halflings.

RGC’s other mission was completely accidental. It was poles apart from Ribbecke’s goal of changing the archtop world, but it was perhaps far more important. Several years ago, a friend asked if she could bring her son out to the shop to do some sweeping up or other work for Ribbecke—he was setting fires and getting into trouble and she needed to do something. Ribbecke politely declined, but she showed up anyway, and he took the youngster on. “He was particularly troubled. He had been a young white supremacist—I went to his MySpace page and it was all in German! I used to call him Himmler [after Heinrich Himmler, Adolf Hitler’s infamous SS officer during World War II]. But he seemed to think what I did was cool. It wasn’t long before his life had changed and his MySpace page was in English and he had gay friends and black friends—because people would just call him out on his behavior in my shop. After a while the school started calling me, saying, ‘Well, we’ve got this other kid . . . .’ That’s kind of how that whole thing started.”

Some documentary filmmakers approached Ribbecke about doing a film about his life and the two businesses he ran side by side. When they observed the people in the shop and how Ribbecke interacted with them, they immediately began talking about a reality TV series, which was to be called Ribbecke’s Guitar Planet. The trailer opens with Ribbecke saying that he is trying to pass on his knowledge before “they burn the place down.” He’s being tongue-incheek, of course. But, all kidding aside, he’s very proud of this “family” that surrounds his instruments. “If nothing else comes out of this, the fact that we’ve had this experience, and these kids have had this chance to grow and be who they are—they would have done this with or without us, maybe—but I was privileged to be with them when this all happened. It’s just been phenomenal.

Tom Ribbecke checks out the flat bass side of one of his Halfling archtop soundboards at his shop in Healdsburg, California.
“When Oprah saw the documentary, she went nuts,” Ribbecke continues. “She thought it belonged on prime-time TV, because she felt it was a great bit of social work. We got a lot of attention because of that. But ultimately, the truth of the matter is that—and this goes to the core of my belief about guitar making—I believe guitars are extraordinary collections of energy.”

Ribbecke’s Guitar Planet was purchased by the producers of Extreme Home Makeover, but is currently simmering on a back burner. Ribbecke believes the current economy is such that it probably won’t air, but you can still view the trailer online. Go to guitarplanet.org and click on the “Promo Clip” link at the bottom of the page.

The Final 25
Ribbecke recently made an announcement on his website that he was accepting the last 25 orders for his private workshop. “There’s a four- to five-year wait for a guitar from my private shop. I’m 58 years old and I’ve been doing this 15 hours a day my whole life. I don’t know how to live in a moderate way, so this is what I’ve done. The Final 25 guitars are guitars that nobody else touches but me. My helpers don’t work on them—they’re my final work. And each one of them I want to be extraordinary. It’s not about decorative work as much as it’s about art and design. I don’t want to do tons of inlay. I’ll be working with shapes and sonic development. I’ve got some instruments that I don’t even want to talk about yet, because they’re new developments. I just figured out a new way to buffer the rim of a soundboard, which I think will be very microphonic. I think it will create a whole new type of instrument. But each of those final 25 orders will be the best that I can do—museum-quality pieces that I’ve built with materials I’ve been stashing for 38 years. The best material that I have. The most focus from me. The highest way that I can realize whatever their dream is.”

Which brings us back to dreams and the stuff they’re made of. Like Honduran mahogany, German spruce, and the pure mojo of people who are in it because they truly love it. Ribbecke’s father taught him the true meaning of the Latin word amateur many years ago. “He used to say, ‘Thirty years from now, I hope you can tell me you still love these guitars,’ and that’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten. Every day I think about that, and even when I hate doing what I’m doing I find a way to love it because that’s what’s essential to keep it going.”