Making a Good Thing Even Better: Interviews on Guitar and Instrument Repair
When you snap the headstock of your prized possession in a moment of passion on stage, the bridge slips out of place, the nut gets too worn down, your current strings aren’t doing it for you, or your guitar is just not playing right, who do you call?! Ghostbust – errr, wait. Sorry, got excited there for a second. You call… your local guitar fixer upper. Guy. Gal. Luthier. That one shop in town your buddy in a band told you about one time. Regardless if you’re a performing or hobby musician, new to town or a longtime resident, there will come a point when you need a professional to fix up your guitar where you are, when you are. So, who do you call? And who are these behind – the – scenes people who save the show?
I found myself in this predicament earlier this year. The winter and my playing had been rough on my Alvarez, and the buzzing low E string was something I could no longer ignore come spring. In previous years Google had been my aid, as I vetted websites and testimonials from my living room. I wasn’t displeased with the work I had done previously, once at Hoffman Guitars and once at Twin Town, but the isolating experience of dropping off my guitar with the same pair of strings on it and not understanding what exactly they were fixing left me unsatisfied in making another blind choice from the internet. Maybe I wasn’t asking enough questions, afraid of revealing what I didn’t know. But I knew I wanted something different, something more informed this time around.
Despite living in the Twin Cities for the last four years, I still did not have a good idea of who to contact. So I asked the great advice column of my Facebook friends, “Who does a quality, quick and cheap setup in Minneapolis?” I got back answers of Willie’s in Saint Paul, El Diablo in NE, and Brad Hendrickson of Hendrickson Guitars. Picking the closest and most convenient option, Hendrickson graciously fit me in his schedule last minute. Talking with Hendrickson about my guitar only made me realize how little I know – in a good way – about both stringed instruments and the people who help the musicians who play them have great experiences doing so. He also reminded me that no matter the level of experience or talent of a player, they still deserve a well-tuned instrument in good, working order.
Finding a trusted repair tech to fix your musical investments is kind of like finding a primary doctor: once you find a good one in network, you keep them. And once you ask around, everyone has someone to recommend. It is amazing how much talent both on and behind stage that resides in the state of Minnesota. Hailing from Maiden Rock, Kari Larson is a “resonator expert,” and “killer musician!” as Molly Maher of Willie’s Guitars puts it. Ted Vig (electric and acoustic repair), Casey Gooby (tube amp repair), and Claire Givens (violins) were among names thrown out proudly. Jim Sawyer is “the guy” for audio, amp, and consol repair, and Alan of El Diablo Guitars is “the man” for amps and guitars, according to Connor Davison and Daniel Stewart of local band Wingman. And finally, Michele Beardsley at Hoffman Guitars was mentioned many times. Turns out, after all this time, the first place I went was one of the best.
Those who work in the instrument repair business have ended up in a similar position to other skill-based jobs in today’s economy. No one wants to be a plumber or a carpenter anymore, when society seems to expect a college degree for the most basic position. It doesn’t have the same reputation for financial gain or prestige, and the outdoor or non-office environments are less appealing to some. Apprenticeships are not an obvious alternative choice to college, and finding them for most people is a matter of happenstance versus planning. These careers get classified as “dirty jobs,” and although Mike Rowe of TV show fame has tried to spin this concept on its head, the majority of young high school graduates are not flocking into construction and labor based industries.
Yet the skills and service of those who work with their hands is essential to keep other systems in society running in good order. Electricians, builders, and yes – musical instrument repair techs – keep other, less blue collar industries afloat. Like the fact cars need regular basic maintenance such as oil changes, major work after 100,000 miles, or new parts after a crash, you never just buy a vehicle and assume it is set for life. You’re going to need to bring it back in over time to someone, or someplace you trust. In the same way, musical instruments come with a need for tune ups and care over time. The music industry depends on the professional skill of luthiers and music techs to keep the instruments that sustain it, and therefore the musicians that play them, viable, profitable, and productive.
I sat down to talk more with Brad Hendrickson, spoke with Molly Maher, and caught up with Nils David Barese and Harrison Dunbar of Colorado to learn more about how they fell into and what it means to be in the instrument repair and maintenance business: what they do, who they know, and what they love.
Brad Hendrickson (right) with David Bazan
Brad Hendrickson might be one of the best kept secrets in Minneapolis. Currently working a one man show out of his basement workshop, he has dedicated himself to the trade over the past 15 years. Hendrickson has worked on the guitars of notables such as Prince, David Bazan, Communist Daughter, Erik Koskinen, John Mark Nelson, Sturgill Simpson, and many more local and national artists. At any given time, he could be servicing around “a dozenish” clients, but it varies from 2 to 25. He’ll happily help out a seasoned pro or complete amateur, and loves to include a mini master class with each visit. Beyond the basement workshop, Hendrickson caters to touring bands, studio sessions, and last minute requests in town.
It began in the snowy winter of 1999, when Dave Rusan (who built Prince’s first Cloud guitar) used to service clients based out of the Guitar Center in Edina on Saturday afternoons. One fateful weekend, a blizzard kept everyone but the employees from making it to the store. Hendrickson, working there at the time, asked: “Hey Dave, um, I work here and I’m enthusiastic but I don’t really know what I’m doing. How would I know, what’s the first thing to know?” and more boldly, “Hey can I come over and do stuff?” So then began a decade of stopping by on and off to trim shrubs and run errands, and eventually work on guitars. Hendrickson, however, will never forget the first time he screwed up on the job by cutting the wrong end of a wire. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know that I did it wrong, I didn’t know what was right. Cause I knew nothing. I was just enthusiastic.”
In the many years since meeting Rusan, Hendrickson has lived and worked in New York from 2007-2008 at the famed Rudy’s on music row on 48th St (now in SOHO), completed the guitar repair and building program out of Red Wing in 2012, run his own business out of a church basement, returned to Minneapolis to work under Rusan, and then his own business grew large enough that he had to wish Dave well. He now runs his busy solo business and is a part of the National Guard. It definitely wasn’t a straight line to this point, and sitting with me in his basement this June, he wondered: “How did this thing, that most people would kill for, end up actually working out for me so successfully that any other alternative just seems like a really daunting consideration?”
What are some favorite experiences you’ve had or people you’ve worked with?
Nationally: “My first setup in this house was David Bazan.”
Locally: “batteryboy, Cobey [Rouse], he’s been such a life-giving wind in the sails sort of advocate both personally and professionally. Helps me breathe easy when I’m there… The Southern Theater sessions? I was the on-site tech for all three, in the back, setting up everybody’s instruments… [had] the visibility of somebody who has themselves been to other shops, and has taken the Pepsi challenge, and has heard and felt the difference.”
How do you define your current role in the (Minneapolis) music scene?
There’s the ‘best kept secret,’ and sort of the boxing coach in the corner. I’m not the prizefighter, it’s true. But I can make observations and pointers from the corner, just say, hey I think I see what’s going on here and there’s this little tweak, or this little something, or have you tried this or noticed this? Or – would this or this – I don’t know, but at least to want to have you make the consideration and even know that this sort of choice is available to you in a way that might not otherwise have been considered.
[I’m] like the fifth Beatle of everybody’s band. I’m their biggest fan, I really dig it… I’ve got the best seats in the house, it’s fantastic. To be able to make a good thing even better in their band, is just fantastic.
It’s not a name dropping thing, but I get to hang out with all these [bands] and do something, and have them smile and say: hooray I enjoy my own music! I can have my instrument, I don’t have to worry about it, it doesn’t make my fingers ache, it can just say what I need it to say.
Once you know what you’re doing and stuff, the smallest bit of difference can make a world of difference.
Do you want to stay a one man shop or grow into an operation?
The prospect of successfully being a one man shop… I mean, sure, I’d like to have taller ceilings than this… I’d like to have a more comfortable reception hang-out spot… I could stand to have somebody who could just sort of help about the place with ordering some parts or keep the books or whatever, but it’s not like an oil change, where somebody’s got to do it and as long as they’re skilled and trained in the job, there you go. What people are looking for is to have a conversation with me. Because I know this stuff, I listen to their music, I like their music, I go to their shows. I enjoy the music of like, everybody’s guitars I’ve pretty much ever done ever. It’s ridiculous. Every CD player that I own is just constantly full of only music of people who’s stuff that I do. I don’t even know other music for the most part anymore.
One man to me is great, the commute is nice. The down time is actually helpful. I do enjoy interacting with people, obviously. But I guess one is the question of what do people want? It’s not just somebody wearing a polo shirt that says my name on it. It’s me from the last time we talked, it’s me from all the things that I’ve learned and picked up from all my years, and I can’t impart that to any other human being.
What is your desire for the future?
What I would love to do is more custom builds… acoustic in the long term game.
I would like to be more available to set my own schedule… I’d like firmer things penciled in more consistently. Do more custom builds… have a longer, more thorough project. That’d be fun to have.
You might know Molly Maher as the “reigning queen of the Twin Cities scene,” as the bio of her band Molly Maher and the Disbelievers proclaims. A fantastic musician in her own right, Maher holds a double edged sword of personal experience and hands-on craft. She has worked with “extraordinary repair men,” including John “Woody” Woodland, who went on to develop the Mastery Bridge, and Steve Morgan. She may not have formal training or certification, but Maher has been in the business for 15 years, and has worked in guitar shops since 1989, with her first stint at the (original) Podium in Dinkytown. She has worked at the famed Willie’s American Guitars in Saint Paul since 2001, and specializes in acoustic guitars.
Can you elaborate a bit more about Willie’s American Guitars and your work there?
Sure. I run the acoustic room at Willie’s American Guitars. We specialize in vintage instruments and North American made guitar/pedals and amps. A lot of my job is “CSI-ing” acoustics that come in and placing value on them. So, lots of attics are still getting cleaned out or Grandma’s first guitar has been sitting under her bed for 50 years and what is it? Is it playable? Or is it worth making it playable? Maybe there are some nasty cracks on the body, do you put in $100- $1K to fix them when the guitar is worth $50- $5,000? There are so many “fingerprints” on old acoustics and so much history in the construction of the instrument it is fascinating. That’s part of my gig.
I also help artists pick out guitars that will best serve them in whatever is their quest for the time. Maybe it’s just a particular sound for a session, or a phase of life or it’s their first guitar. When not doing those things during the day, I restring guitars and do basic set ups. Straiten the necks, lower the saddles or just make sure they are all healthy! A huge part of that is basically restring[ing] guitars. And trying to drown out the repetitious noodling that goes along with the job. And yes I have a list of those songs that cause me to question the choices I’ve made in my life.
I also get calls to work with artists serving as their “guitar tech”. So, I either travel with them, as it has been with Trampled By Turtles, and I take care of their instruments. (In the TBT case: 15 of those). I set up “guitar world,” where all the instruments are ready to be played when the artists takes the stage. Or if a string breaks, much like a ball girl in Tennis, I dart out and rescue. I’ve worked with Trampled, Lucinda Williams, Honeydogs, Tina Schlieske, Dan Wilson, Prince, to name drop a few.
What interests or excites you most about this work?
Working at a guitar shop, the thrill is usually when we match the right guitar to the person. There’s that moment when they strum a chord and everything lights up, the human and the guitar. Guitar teching, it’s the thrill of the gig. Overcoming challenges so the show appears smoothly. The comradery between you and the artists. Travel!
What role do you feel your work plays in your community?
It appears I am a trusted ally when folks are needing advice when it comes to getting the best sound or play ability from their guitars. I have artists from all of the country calling in or having their techs consult with me. It’s feels just as good being a Sherpa, if you will, to Grammy award winning artists or to little Hanna or Liam from down the street.
What is a recent favorite experience that happened through or because of your work?
Man, where to start? I love when rock stars come in and have the patience and willingness to sit down and listen to how the different woods sound and want to get educated. Instead of leading with ego they lead with ears and heart!
I’ve been fortunate to stand on the side of many incredible stages witnessing some pretty incredible moments or interacting with some great musical humans. I’ve been fortunate to handle and strum guitars and mandos that are living history.
What’s in the future for you?
For me, I take the work as it comes. The planets have aligned so I will be back out with Trampled in August for a 2 week run and that’s great. I’ve been offered other tours and if it feels right, sure!
As for working at the shop, I’ve slowed down my hours there. I will continue to work on my music daily and work towards maintaining a balanced life.
Nils David Barese
Nils David Barese is a well-traveled soul. After becoming a member of the Guild of American Luthiers, he received formal training at the Vermont Instruments School of Luthiere in Lake Fairlee, Vermont, studying under George Morris. While there, he studied inlay techniques under Tracy Cox (“inlay artist for Martin guitar, and an incredible builder and artist in his own right”). Yet even before then, Barese sought out experts in his home state of Connecticut, “got to learn a lot just hanging around the shop and asking questions till I got to annoying for them to be productive.”
More recently, he’s been to England to witness once-in-a-lifetime instrument auctions, and studied with a master luthier from Germany, Thomas Hummel. Barese also attended the Luthiere program at Red Rocks Community College in Colorado, receiving two certificates. In 2014, he attended The Guild of American Luthieres convention, and has “so many more classes and schools and workshops I have lined up, we never stop learning.”
What first got you interested in instrument repair?
I started working on my dad’s guitars; he has a decent sized collection and would have someone work on them. I said to my dad: “I can do this, save 75 bucks and I’ll work on them.” I was researching guitar repair and restoration and building and became very passionate about it. I come from a long line of craftsman and I wanted to find my niche within that; melding two things I love, guitars and working with my hands. I specialize in building repairing and restoring acoustic steel string guitars, I build small body acoustic flat tops, I’m really chasing the sound of those old blues boxes.
Who have you studied under?
Everyone I have studied with or met has been an influence and inspiration to me. I Met Wayne Henderson at his shop in Rugby, Virginia which was mind blowing, and George Gruhn at his shop in Nashville, Tennessee. George showed me around his shop and I got to talk with the repairmen there – such an amazing experience. George Morris from Visol was a major influence as well, as everyone I studied with at Red Rocks, some amazing luthiers: Brian Deckebach , Tim Serpico, Andy Lesuer, Dave Vanderweele, Nathan Klein Deters. It’s endless – everyone I talk to I come away with more knowledge and inspiration. There is a shop in Denver I love going to, it’s an amazing place – Colfax guitar shop – the repairmen in there, Dave Dougherty and Christian Phillips, are always helpful with any question and so knowledgeable and skilled. I hang out there until I get in the way.
What do you see your role as in your community?
Denver has a great music scene, from well-known venues to open mics, there is live music everywhere. On the same coin there is a large community of luthiers either just starting out or well established. It’s a symbiotic relationship you won’t find one without the other, musicians dedicated to their craft may not have time or the know how to maintain or do extensive repairs on their instrument, they spend their time working on their music, that’s why they’re so good right, that’s where I come in I dedicate all my time knowledge to repairing and maintaining instruments.
I love guitars and I get to work on thousands a year which is always new and exciting and meeting the owners behind those guitars is even more exciting so many interesting and talented people out there.
What does your future look like?
I’m starting my own shop, Golden Rooster Guitar Shop; it is in its infancy and is building a good following and customer base. I Should be going full steam in the next year or two, I would like to expand it one day to a shared work space where luthiers come to together share a shop, everyone with an independent company working side by side like a guild, with a store front of all handmade instruments from the luthiers there, and our friends across the nation and world. One day I will make a school, kind of like a Hogwarts for luthiere, for beginners and continuing education geared towards students that will seek this field as a career instead of hobbyists. I have big dreams and goals, and a drive to, if nothing else, inspire people to follow their dreams within luthiere and without, that and hard work are the only things worth anything.
I met Harrison Dunbar in the summer of 2012, in the middle his preparations for a move out of the Midwest and across the country. He was trying to figure out how to transport all of his beloved instruments with him. Since then he has relocated to Colorado, and attended the Red Rocks College School of Fine Wood Working in Guitar construction and received formal training in repair and setup there. He has also studied under Thomas Hummel, a master violin luthier from Stuttgart, Germany. Currently, Dunbar works at Golden Music Center in Lakewood, Colorado. He attributes the biggest influence in his training to be his coworkers.
How did you first get into instrument repair?
The way I got into instrument repair and Lutherie is the way that I think most people get into it. Which is by first learning to play guitar. I taught myself guitar at the age of 16, and I absolutely absorbed the stuff. I obsessed over it. I picked up many other string instruments along the way, including Mandolin, Ukulele and Banjo. After a few years of playing and after graduating high school my brother came to me and encouraged me to go to school to become a luthier. At first I had no idea what a luthier even was. Then I did some research and discovered this vast community of craftsmen and artists. I mainly specialize in building and repair of small bodied fretted instruments such as Ukulele and mandolins with additional training in repair and building of Guitars and repair and restoration of Violin family instruments.
What do you like most about your work?
The most exciting part about being a luthier is being able to create something that someday someone might cherish and love as much as I did my very first instrument. The fact that I am able to meet such great people every day and be a part of such a close knit and supportive community really excites me.
How do you see luthiers and yourself one day in the music community?
Lutherie plays a very big role in the music community a whole. Without people to build and repair instruments there wouldn’t be anyone to play those instruments. The local music scene here in the Denver metro area is so diverse…it is so essential to meet the diverse needs of all of the musicians.
I imagine my future to hold many things. I look forward to teaching classes on building and repairing instruments. I am currently working on building my own company where I hope to build guitars, ukuleles, mandolins and some less known exotic instruments such as Puerto Rican cuatros and Portuguese cavaquinhos for many years to come. I would love to be well known in the community and hope to someday be regarded as one of the greats along with modern great luthiers such as John Monteleone and Rick Turner along with the previous greats such as John D’angelico and Lloyd Loar.
What is a recent favorite experience that happened through or because of your work?
I would say some of the most consistent and rewarding experiences with customers is getting to restring their instrument. As simple as it might sound there are a lot of people who don’t know the first thing about restringing an instrument. So when they take it to me and I hand it back to them with a fresh set of strings, it can really make a difference. Just seeing the look of appreciation on their face is rewarding enough, even with something as simple as that.
If you are interested in learning more about guitars in all forms, check out the Lowertown Guitar Festival 2016 on August 6th in Saint Paul, which is partnering with the Twin Cities Acoustic Guitar Show, taking place at McNally Smith’s nearby campus from 10:00 AM–3:00PM Saturday, August 6th and Sunday, August 7th.