It’s a warm, sunny September day in the Vermont valleys, but in the hills above the bend-in-the-river hamlet of Jonesville it’s already misty, looking like early fall. Stage Road, a dirt road that winds up toward the tiny village of West Bolton, is gulleyed by recent heavy rain, as is the long, steep dirt driveway up to Rick Davis’s house, home and headquarters of Running Dog Guitars.
Rick’s face is comfortably creased like soft leather, a warmth of line unusual in one relatively young. (“Our age,” he says, referring to another guy around fifty.) Early maturity is, of course, a positive and sought-after quality in a guitar. He’s wearing a black turtleneck underneath dark blue fleece, khakis, mocs–the classic thinking person’s cool-weather gear in Vermont, the Subaru of clothing.
His workshop, in among the birch and pine trees just uphill from the house, is small, new, and crammed with band saw, router, sander, drill press, heater, generator, humidifier, dehumidifier, and shelves bearing all manner of hand tools and pieces of wood.
On one workbench a broad strip of Indian rosewood is being bent into shape for the sides of a guitar. On another lies a guitar top–that is, the face or front of the instrument–with strips of Sitka spruce running across it for bracing. On yet another workbench is a nearly finished concert jumbo in Hawaiian koa, a tigerish wood with an astonishing complexity of grain, depth, and variety of color.
On the fingerboard, he has inlaid his own mother-of-pearl designs on the third, fifth, seventh, and ninth frets: small maple leaves, all set at different angles to make them look as if they’re falling down the guitar, as they’ve already started to fall outside. Then, at the octave fret, a snowflake.
“I wanted something that would show where the guitar comes from, and cutting out Subaru Outbacks and Saab 900s was a bit difficult,” he says dryly.
From that moment, I am lost. Not because I know anything conclusive about his skill, or the compatibility between my playing and his guitars, but because of those maple leaves. The Fylde, as I now see it, stands for the first half of my life, the English half. I’ll ask Rick to build me a guitar for the second half of my life, the Vermont half.
Much later, after the guitar is finished, Rick will refer to “the eternal and infinite capacity of the consumer to confuse making a purchase with falling in love.” I should have known better, I suppose–but then again maybe not. First guitars tend to be like first loves: ill-chosen, unsuitable, short-lived, and unforgettable. I’m not sure I ever want to get to the point of making a rational decision about a guitar.
Rick is well aware of his place in history–or, to put it another way, he’s well aware that thirty years ago he probably wouldn’t have been doing what he does. The custom-guitar business has existed as long as guitars have existed, but thirty years ago the chance of finding a guitar maker in the next valley, or finding a school of lutherie in the same state, was essentially nil. (Lutherie originally meant “lute-making,” but the term is now used more generally to mean the making of fretted instruments, especially guitars. It’s to some extent a snob term; Rick says dryly that a luthier is a guitar maker who charges more than $1,000 per guitar.) At the start of the new millennium there are probably more stringed instrument makers in Vermont per capita than any other state, Rick says, and as he is the president of the Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans and compiler of the A.S.I.A. directory, he should know. Some of the more notable are Froggy Bottom Guitars of Newfane, makers of steel-string acoustic guitars with a national reputation; Roger Borys of Shelburne, who makes top-of-the-line jazz-style archtop guitars, whose customers include the late Emily Remler; and Paul Languedoc of Westford, who makes hollow-body electrics for a select clientele that includes Phish. Vermont even has its own guitar-making school, Vermont Instruments, in Thetford.
To my dismay, I seem to be part of a trend. All over America, former guitarists, part-time guitarists, and would-be guitarists are looking ahead to their fiftieth birthdays and asking for the really good guitar that they could never afford back in their impoverished but musical youth. And if the fiftieth birthday isn’t available as an excuse, then there’s the forty-fifth, or the fifty-fifth, or just the next available Christmas. There’s even an upper stratum of buyers who have enough disposable income to be able to call one of these high-end handmade guitars an investment–an investment that, unlike a wad of shares in Ben & Jerry’s, you can pull out of its case and use to play a blues or some complicated New Age instrumental in DADGAD tuning. Guitar makers even have a word for these baby-boomers-who-always-wanted-to-be-great-guitarists-and-now-have-the-money-to-indulge-those-dreams: dentists.
Starting slowly in the early seventies, then, and growing rapidly from the late eighties, an unprecedented number of guitar makers, some full-time, most part-time, have set up their own businesses–between five hundred and seven hundred and fifty in North America alone. These makers, moreover, are being granted artistic license to build guitars that not only are of the finest available materials but are also open to a fair amount of creative freedom. Some are making guitars that are as good as any ever made. It’s the Golden Age of Guitar Making.
It’s a sign of how open-minded the guitar market is becoming, and how selective Rick can choose to be, that he won’t even make a dreadnought, the standard flat-bottomed, big-bodied guitar (named after a World War I Royal Navy battleship) that you see in the hands of country and bluegrass players. He says he’s never heard a dreadnought with a good mid-range. Strong bass, loud clear treble, no middle. Instead he makes five models, most of them far less familiar. In increasing order of size, they are:
1. The Sprite. A tiny, twelve-fret guitar, also called a terz, for “third,” guitar because it is tuned a third higher than other guitars. It is an old style currently gaining popularity as a travel guitar or a high-harmony guitar, which is more or less the role a guitar might have played in an ensemble of the sixteenth century.
2. The Parlor guitar. A small instrument based on the size and style popular in the nineteenth century, also twelve frets to the body, being bought by Celtic players and women who’ve always hated lugging around guitars that were too big for the lap, too thick for the right armpit.
3. The Chickadee, with its sloping shoulders, based on a unique guitar made by Martin in the 1840s. The Martin original was a tiny instrument; Rick has enlarged it somewhat. He tells the tale of a woman who brought this unique Martin guitar to a show in Los Angeles, her chauffeur carrying it around and showing it. She was asking an ungodly amount of money, and nobody bought it, but luckily a few people thought to take photos and measurements, because after she disappeared everyone looked at one another and realized that nobody had asked her name. And the guitar, a unique shoulder-sloped Martin, hasn’t been seen or heard of since.
4. The Mini Jumbo–”the oxymoronic guitar.” Based roughly on an old Gibson body shape, with a narrower waist than a dreadnought, plus a cutaway that in its earlier incarnations looked like a biting shark. (A cutaway is the scoop taken out of the upper bout that allows the player to reach higher up the fingerboard.) There are two styles of cutaway, Rick tells me: the sharper Florentine and the rounded Venetian, the latter perhaps so called, he says, because it looks like a wave. These guitars may have smaller lower bouts than a dreadnought, he says, but a dreadnought has a flattened bottom, like a hippo sitting on concrete, and straight lines don’t help acoustics–that’s why speakers are round. So the flat bottom creates an acoustically wasted area, according to Rick.
5. The Concert Jumbo is his largest. Even this instrument, the koa one in Rick’s workshop, seems delicate compared with the huge prewar Gibsons and even a standard Martin dreadnought. He hands me his concert jumbo. The sound leaps off the instru-ment, and I almost yelp. I had no idea how many things could be so different. Even the fret wires are different to the Fylde’s, wider and more rounded, so my fingers seem to slither more easily over them up and down the strings. The case is half as thick again as mine. The custom work–the rosette around the sound hole, the decorative strip of binding that joins the top to the sides and the sides to the back, the inlay–all make the Fylde seem a little dowdy, even shabby: these were details Roger could have put work into, and didn’t. On the other hand, yes, it’s a little more ostentatious than the Fylde, but not aggressively so. It still doesn’t feel like the cat on the lap, but it is a member of the cat family, at least.
The Chickadee, the Sprite, and the Parlor seem too small–stocky and strong, like pit ponies, but not nearly as rich and musical as I want. But they are a different breed from the mass-produced guitars in the shop. These have a sense of ownership and purpose. It’s like seeing someone else’s children in the school playground: they aren’t my children but they clearly have identities and futures that appear to be nobody else’s but their own.
He checks out the Fylde. I hold my breath, expecting veiled insults to the guitar, to me, to my bad taste and worse sense in buying such a guitar, to my irresponsible ownership in allowing it to get into such a condition. He lends me a catalog featuring a cartoon of a guitarist (glasses, long ponytail, long sideburns) on a small stage in a bar announcing, “This next song is about the feelings of an expensive, finely crafted instrument spending its life in the hands of a musical hack.”
He hmm‘s a little. He breathes through his nose. He picks up something like a large dentist’s mirror on a stick and inserts it into the sound box to examine the entrails. He squints down the neck. He runs his hands over the top. I notice nicks and gouges I’ve never seen before.
His eventual analysis is surprisingly encouraging. My amateur glue job seems to have held, though the edges of the break are still jagged.
“Sand them down,” he says. “Then fill in the crack. Mix up a little good epoxy–not the five-minute stuff. Add a little mahogany dust to give it color.”
“Where do I get mahogany dust?”
“Mahogany,” he says. He turns away, rummages around, and hands me a sheet of 120-grit sandpaper and a wedge-shaped block of mahogany that later I’ll realize is cut off a guitar neck.
“I won’t use all that,” I protest.
He shrugs. “It’s kindling.”
I can’t get over it. This is wood from thousands of miles away, wood whose name is almost magical. Mahogany. Teak. Ebony. The exotics of empire, like sapphires, rubies, diamonds.
“Mix up the epoxy. Add a little dust–less than you’d think. Trickle it into the crack here. Try to work the bubbles out. Use a piece of wood.” He makes little prodding motions. Down to work, his sentences become crisp. This was what I should do, and can do. He does it every day. “Work it in all across these other cracks. Let it dry, then bring it down with a rasp. Or sandpaper. The epoxy provides a kind of finish of its own.”
In general, he pronounces, the Fylde has the expected wear and tear but has held up better than I feared.
“This is not to say you don’t need a guitar for your fiftieth birthday,” he adds drolly. Rick, I will learn, rarely goes into sales mode, and when he does it’s a little startling, like watching your best friend, meeting a girl for the first time, turn on a charm and intensity of focus you’ve never seen before, never suspected was in his range.
I laugh, and Rick starts to sketch out, from what he has just seen of my playing, the kind of guitar that he’d suggest for me. We settle on a concert jumbo–not a huge, boomy box but one with plenty of balanced sound, with a cutaway so I can get to those high Django chords. It’ll be ready for my birthday in June.
And the price? Like most luthiers he has a base price, onto which he adds the extras: cutaway, special woods, built-in pickup, top-of-the-line hardshell traveling case. He clicks a mechanical pencil and writes tiny numbers on an order form. I hold my breath. Well, he says, it would come out to between two and three thousand dollars, depending on the extras. I release the breath. I’ve set myself a top limit of twenty-five hundred dollars–about the price of a new Fylde, as it happens.
We discuss the arcane specs I’ve started to hear about: scale length, nut width. These technicalities start making me uncomfortable. How can you call yourself a guitarist and not even know something as basic as the right nut width? I was happier twenty years ago being ignorant, picking out a guitar because I was besotted with the name, buying the only model I could afford. I’ve got to be on campus soon, I tell him, to meet a student who can’t figure out what to do with her writing talent. It feels like a relief to be heading somewhere where I know I’ll be equal to the challenge, to know that in this respect, at least, I can do as good a job as anyone else she might seek out for advice.
No problem, he says. Mind you, if we are going ahead with the guitar we’ll need to decide on the wood. He pulls out from the bottom of a pile what he calls “the good stuff”: two boards, 9 by 18 by ” inches, of coastal redwood, probably eighteen hundred years old, salvaged from a blowdown. The great advantage from a Vermont guitarist’s point of view: they’re unaffected by humidity, which up here gets high in the summer but then disappears down into the single digits when winter arrives and the home heat goes on. He knocks the board with the side of his thumb and it thrums, an utterly unexpected round, rich, deep sound, like a drum.
As I drive away from his cluttered-but-orderly workshop I keep seeing all the multifarious tools and bits and pieces, and it strikes me that there’s no more mystery in building a guitar than in playing one. The pieces are like musical notes; it’s all in the way you put them together.
©2005 by Tim Brookes. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.