Song-writer, musician and luthier
I am a fourth-generation Coloradan, a citizen of the American west. When I was a sophomore in college I discovered folk music through the clean-cut Kingston Trio. I fell in love with the broad-shouldered Martin dreadnaughts they played.
The romance of the acoustic guitar is easy to fall for and impossible to shake. Someone once told me that you can learn to play the guitar in a week and then spend the rest of your life learning to play the guitar. I wasn’t a natural; I struggled. But I was in love and pain is taken for granted. I began to listen to other musical sources: first white blues artists such as Dave Ray, John Koerner, Jim Kweskin and John Hammond, and then deeper—Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Gary Davis, Muddy Waters.
I had little money and wasn’t going to own a Martin. What I did have was a few simple tools. I found inexpensive guitars in need of repair, and I didn’t know that I couldn’t fix them. I repaired broken instruments so I’d have something to play.
My playing improved and I formed a partnership with a great Texas songwriter, Steve Fromholz. I began to write songs. We called ourselves Frummox, toured, recorded, made enough money to own good guitars and I began to understand the nature of a fine instrument.
Fromholz and I went on to pursue solo careers. I continued to write and play in and around Denver. In the mid-70s I decided I wanted to own a particular guitar, a Martin 000 12-fret. A Martin was out of my price range, so I undertook to build one from scratch because I didn't know I couldn’t. The Denver Folklore Center’s Harry Tuft let me examine, measure and make patterns of a Martin 000. Vince DeFrancis, a luthier friend, gave me rosewood for the back and sides, I cut the top out of local spruce, and I built my first guitar—number 0, because I neglected to number it at the time. I thought it would be the only one. I still have it. It has been sold, sold again and bought back, and I still play it today. People liked that guitar well enough that I built half a dozen more, with varying degrees of success, before I gave the craft a rest for 30 years.
As I contemplated retirement from teaching, my love of guitar building resurfaced. Guitar #0 was not my dream guitar. Though I had done my best at the time, ignorance and inexperience had combined to produce a guitar that, while very good, was not the Martin 000 I had originally wanted. So I undertook in 2005 to build my dream 000-28 12-fret. That guitar, Isle of Skye #7, turned out to be exceptional. I completed it in the spring of 2005, and it was my primary instrument for six years. I continued to build. One of my colleagues at school commissioned me to build a high-end version of my 000. I began to think that I could become a luthier. I learned that lutherie is a demanding, time-consuming art. If I were to charge what my instruments cost in man-hours I would be up there with defense contractors. But being paid for my efforts is only part of the reward.
I’ve acquired elegant tools. I retired the set of Wetherby chisels I inherited from my father because they are too old and too beautiful to risk. Better tools are helping me to become a better, more elegant builder.
I am still improving as a player. I believe that my playing ability materially impacts my building—I know what a good instrument sounds like, how it should respond, what it should feel like under your hands. I make players’ guitars.
You could own one.