News Column

NC guitar makers build on rich traditions

September 2, 2013


Sept. 02--GREENSBORO -- In a low, tan building near downtown, a machine that once cut out legs for tables in a long-gone furniture factory now roughs out the bodies of electric basses and guitars destined for stores as far away as Japan.

About 30 miles southwest, just outside Thomasville in the heart of the state's once-thriving furniture industry, Aaron Morris uses jerry-rigged tools to fashion replicas of vintage acoustic Martin and Gibson guitars -- the holy grail era of acoustics.

The shops are a testament to two of North Carolina's richest traditions -- music and craftsmanship. They share a do-it-yourself attitude with countless potters, woodworkers and others in the state who make things by hand.

It's unclear how many people are making guitars in North Carolina, but Todd Atlas said "we are in the golden age of instrument making right now."

Atlas owns Sound Pure in Durham, a recording studio and music store that sells many North Carolina-made guitars.

He rattles off the names: Ryan Gadow in Durham, Wes Lambe in Chapel Hill, Terry McInturff in Siler City. Head toward the mountains and the list gets longer with names such as John Bogdonavich of Swannanoa, James Condino in Asheville and John Buscarino in Franklin, whose guitars can easily cost north of $10,000 and whom Atlas said "is one of the best in the world."

"We have guitars made here that will outperform anything coming out of Fender or Gibson," he said.

It starts with playing

The short version of Keith Roscoe's life story is similar to that of a lot of guitar makers: played in a band (Spin Jenny), repaired guitars, started building.

Roscoe, whose bio also includes the Berklee College of Music in Boston, opened The Guitar Shop near UNC-Greensboro around 1971, selling new and vintage guitars and repairing them, too. In 1983, he started building his own Roscoe Guitars to sell wholesale.

When you take enough guitars apart and put them back together, he said, you start thinking, "I can do that better. By the time you realize it's way harder than you thought, you're knee-deep into it, so you keep going."

For the past 15 years, Roscoe Guitars has been housed in a small building not far from the city's universities. A half-dozen employees work in a room covered in sawdust. Stacked on shelves are slabs of bubinga and wenge from Africa, swamp ash from Alabama, mahogany from Honduras and koa from Hawaii.

Theirs is not an assembly line, though there is a method. Necks and bodies are made in batches. A jointer gives the boards a nice flat surface on one side, a planer smoothes out the other. Yet another machine makes the cuts that turn a different block of wood into the rough shape of the body. Both neck and body are hand-carved to completion. Necks are strengthened with rods and joined to bodies. Fingerboards are added. They are sanded, finished and fitted with electronics.

The insides, Roscoe said, must be as clean as the outside, especially for their Japanese dealer.

"The first thing they do is take it apart and look," he said.

They sell about 300 a month, he said. About half go overseas -- most to the U.K. but a fair number to Japan, Australia and South Korea. Retail value: $3,000 to $5,000 a piece.

"The American rock 'n' roll guitar and bass is something that everybody else in the world wants," he said.

He's working on a new overseas distribution deal and said if it comes through as he expects, they could double production. He'd then need to hire a few more people.

His connections in the furniture industry have helped tap into some supplies, but for workers, Roscoe said, his hires are usually someone who walks in and says, "I play guitar, and I've always been interested in this."

'I'm not burning up the market'

The route from Roscoe's to Aaron Morris' shop goes through prime furniture country, and Morris counted craftsmen and musicians among his family.

His father was an assembler at United Furniture in Lexington; his grandfather a home builder who, in retirement, made fine furniture and gave the grandson who was "always underfoot" nails to straighten out.

At 11, Morris learned that his father had once played guitar on a local radio show. Intrigued, he pestered his dad into buying him a guitar and a chord book. Pretty soon, the family was playing house parties "but with cake and ice cream not corn liquor," he said.

When his own children came along, he learned to fix their violins and cellos. For years, he repaired instruments as a sideline to his real job, teaching architectural drafting and design. It was a student who got him to build his first guitar, he explained in the slow cadence of a storyteller.

"He said, 'Mr. Morris, can you build a guitar?' I'd never really thought about building a guitar. (Pause) Well, I had but not seriously. (Pause) So then I did."

He had already taken enough guitars apart to learn how they work. He made some drawings of them and then started building.

"I never really intended to sell any, but the fourth one I built a guy wanted and then the sixth one and the seventh one, and then I just started building them when I got orders," he said. "Still operate that way."

He has made 42 since retiring in 2009. "I'm not burning up the market," he said.

Still, his orders have backed up as his reputation has grown by word of mouth.

Wayne Martin, executive director of the N.C. Arts Council and a musician, said Morris' guitars are valued by collectors.

"He's quite a craftsman ? each one is a custom job," Martin said. "All handmade from start to finish."

It takes a couple of months to make a guitar, Morris said, but it "may take me a year and a half to get to it."

A plain mahogany acoustic starts at $3,200. Add pearl inlays or more expensive wood and the price goes up. The most expensive has been about $8,000.

He builds mostly in the fall and winter because of the humidity.

"If I was really serious about it I could go get me a real climate-controlled building, but I like to walk to work," he said.

He works in the same cinderblock workshop where his grandfather built furniture, a woodstove against one wall, pictures of musician friends and family tacked on various surfaces. Ukuleles, which he also makes, hang on a wall. Guitars are all about; he grabs one to play a little Etta Baker. He credits playing with helping him build.

"I know people who make pretty good guitars who aren't musicians," he said, "but if I wasn't a musician I couldn't do it."

The next wave

Martin said Morris and other luthiers in the state are building on a folk tradition in which musicians figured out how to make the instruments they needed -- whether a fiddle out of cornstalk or a banjo from a gourd.

When Sears Roebuck began selling Martin guitars in the early 1900s, musicians gravitated toward them.

"When local people saw how a Martin guitar was made, they would copy it and add their own ideas," he said.

The state's reputation for such music makers -- those who play and sing as well as make the instruments -- is tremendous among devotees of music and musicians, Martin said.

And that reputation is generating what Todd Atlas of Sound Pure said is the next wave; boutique businesses that specialize in pedals and amplifiers are springing up, with some people relocating from other states.

"This ends up being a smart place to operate because of the cost of living, the cost of doing business," Atlas said. "We have people who can do the handwork ... and we have the art and culture and all the things that go along with music -- and there's an appreciation for what these folks do."

Cornatzer: 919-829-4755


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