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What's a Luthier?

by   BOB DORAN


Photo of Phil Crumpluthier --
one who makes
stringed musical
instruments.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

 


FOR YEARS AREA POLITICIANS HAVE ESPOUSED THE establishment of clean industries in Humboldt County -- small manufacturing firms that provide employment for skilled workers without causing

pollution or depleting resources; businesses that bring in dollars by relying on niche markets for high-end goods.

Although they may never become a major factor in the economy, Humboldt County's luthiers fit the bill.

Over the years I have heard bits and pieces about these craftsmen who make a living here building musical instruments, but I was unaware of the respect they have earned worldwide until talking with a musician from Ireland.

Michael Holmes, a member of the Celtic band Dervish, was backstage at the Van Duzer Theatre in Arcata tuning a large teardrop-shaped instrument called a bouzouki. I knew the instrument was of Greek origin and asked him about how the Irish came about adopting it.

He gave me a brief history of the evolution of Celtic music and mentioned the bouzouki he was playing was, in fact, made in Arcata by world-class luthier Phil Crump.

Crump, a Fickle Hill-based luthier, recalled how the instrument ended up in the hands of this famous Celtic musician. "Of course, being a Drone (a member of the local Celtic band, the Primal Drone Society) I'm totally into Irish music and Dervish was my favorite band in terms of instrumentation.

"When they played their first show in Arcata at Celebration Hall, I got up my courage and took a couple of my instruments over to show them. They played them and while they were very polite, they seemed disinterested. Then a couple of months later I got a letter from Ireland saying Michael (Holmes) wanted me to build one for him. I was on Cloud Nine."

Crump got his start as a luthier in what seems to be the typical fashion: He was a musician who met someone who made a living working on musical instruments. Seeing that success, he came to realize it was a skill he could learn.

In the early 1970s, Crump met Mark Platin, who was working in a cubby hole in the back of a now-defunct music shop, Arcata Music. Crump played bluegrass for fun and while he had earned a degree in biology, he was eager to find a trade that dovetailed with his passion for music. When Platin established Wildwood Music in Arcata and started making banjos full time, Crump went to work for him and learned guitar repair.

When Platin's banjo business outgrew the Wildwood space and spun off into a new venture, Crump stayed on at the music store for a while, then set up shop on his own, shifting his focus to building guitars. As his interest in Celtic music grew, he learned how to craft esoteric instruments like octave mandolins, citterns and bouzoukis.

Now when his favorite Irish bands come to town, Crump doesn't just go to listen he shows off his creations. When Nomos played here, he sold them a new instrument he invented, a cittern crossed with a guitar that, for lack of a better name, he calls a guittern.

Crump is just one of many Humboldt County craftsmen who earn a living making string instruments.

Steve Helgeson of Moonstone Guitars has been building electric and acoustic guitars for more than 25 years while William Hirsch builds mandolins and guitars for musicians like Keb Mo.

Ken Lawrence, who plays bass with a number of combos, is earning a reputation for his innovative electric bass designs. And today Platin still makes banjos, although he has also branched off in other directions.

Wildwood Music remains in the business of selling musical instruments. Proprietor Brooks Otis says without hesitation that the work coming out of Humboldt County is world class and points out common threads in the stories of the luthiers.

"All these guys started as musicians, then learned their trade by getting into repair. Each of them knew what he wanted to do and learned how to do it well. The trick is to get their instruments in the hands of people who will pay for them so they can get the word out."

 

S teve Helgeson came to Humboldt County to work toward a wildlife management degree and to pursue his interest in falconry and birds of prey. In between biology and zoology classes at College of the Redwoods, he took a woodshop class and decided to make a bass guitar.

"I had been hanging out in this meadow in Yosemite with a bunch of guitar players and no one had an acoustic bass," Helgeson recalled during a conversation at his Kneeland workshop. "I couldn't find one anywhere so I figured I'd build one for myself. After that I moved on to building a six-string acoustic guitar. I didn't really know what I was doing. I soaked the wood in my bathtub and bent it into shape around my stove pipe."

After quitting school and moving to a small trailer in Moonstone Heights next to an abandoned shingle mill, Helgeson built a workshop where he continued his experiments in guitar construction. And experiments they were. There was no one around to teach him what to do. He had found a book, Irving Sloan's Classical Guitar Construction, and got a few tips from that, but for the most part he learned through trial and error.

One of his neighbors was Mel Fleming, an artisan who made a living building custom picture frames. He handed Helgeson a piece of redwood burl he had in his shop and suggested he might fashion it into an electric guitar.

The experiment planted the seed for a line of electrics Helgeson called the "Earth Ax." All were made from burl wood and shaped like a large battle ax. They featured high-tech electronics, but the design was intentionally "organic," with sea shells for knobs on the potentiometers. As his trademark, the word "Moonstone" and a crescent moon were inlaid on the head in abalone.

On the side, Helgeson found work doing repairs for Arcata Music. When that business folded, he established his own shop in Arcata. Throwing a few guitars in his trunk, he took to the road peddling his wares at guitar shops up and down the coast.

With counterculture rock on the rise, he found his business growing by leaps and bounds, particularly after a chance meeting in 1976 at a guitar supply house with Leland Sklar, the bass player who backed Jackson Browne and James Taylor.

When Sklar saw some of Helgeson's designs, he asked the guitar maker if he could create a custom bass, one with two necks and head pieces carved into some sort of creatures. Inspired by his love of raptors, Helgeson suggested an eagle guitar. The body of the guitar was fashioned into wings and the end of each neck was fitted with a carved eagle head. Fire opal eyes gleamed with a tiny light.

Sklar played the instrument on a major concert tour that included a spot on Saturday Night Live, and orders began to pour in. Favorable reviews in magazines like Rolling Stone and Guitar Player added to the demand. A distribution deal with Morley Pedals (makers of the Wah Wah pedal) ended the need for sales from his trunk.

At its peak in the early '80s , Moonstone Guitars employed more than a dozen people in a converted church on South G Street in Arcata, churning out 20 guitars every month. Then disaster struck. A mysterious arson fire gutted the shop.

"It was lucky I wasn't sleeping in there," Helgeson said. "There were bedrooms upstairs and a lot of times I would stay over. I was pretty loaded on alcohol and drugs a lot back then. I was recently divorced and I was in bad shape."

Retreating to his Kneeland home, he stopped making guitars for a few years and cleaned up. Eventually, the machines that survived the fire were installed in his garage and he rebuilt his business as a solo luthier.

"I'm working on my own now," he said. "I'm a Gibson and Fender authorized service center and do a lot of restoration and repairs. I've been spending a lot of time on refining my acoustic line, learning all the fine points of voicing the tops, scale lengths, brace patterns, thicknesses of various woods. They all make a difference in the sound."

Most of what Helgeson builds now are custom guitars that range in price from $4,000 to as high as $7,500, depending on what woods are used and the detail involved in inlay and design. He has no immediate plans for increasing production to the point where he will once again need to hire a staff.

"I don't want the headaches of having employees: taxes, workers' comp insurance, all that. When my business was at its peak I found I was upstairs in an office just doing administrative stuff, with tons of money coming in and tons going out, and I was barely making guitars.

"This is much better. I enjoy building something totally from scratch. This is what I want to do. I just want to make guitars."

 

W hen Moonstone Guitars production was at its peak, it took on a new employee from Canada, Ken Lawrence. Today, Lawrence has his own business and specializes in crafting custom made, high-end electric basses.

"I make a variety of bass guitars," said Lawrence, who has a shop in Arcata. "Right now I'm working on some seven-string basses that have the range of a contra bass and a piccolo bass in the same instrument. I've made double-strung basses with string in pairs, like on a 12-string. Another oddball is a nylon string piccolo bass that has the same pitch and overall timbre of a classical guitar, but because of its scale length and the way it's played, it becomes its own thing.

"I like to experiment. The piccolo bass I built ostensibly for myself, but it ended up that Victor Wooten came in here. (Wooten is a member of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and one of the world's top bass players.) He fell in love with it, so now it's his."

Lawrence counts many of the top bass players in the music business among his clients. Norwood Fish of Fishbone was one of his first customers and he has made instruments for the musicians who back Celine Dion, Michael Bolton and Don Ho.

As a teenager with no musical background growing up in Edmonton, Alberta, Lawrence was invited by friends to join a rock band. They needed a bass player, so he went out and bought a bass at Sears and learned how to play it.

"At some point I saw these really beautiful instruments made by a company called Alembic (a Marin County shop that catered to the Grateful Dead). They were amazing pieces of woodwork; they made them look more like art. I dreamed of having one, but they were very expensive.

"I had visions of designing something that they might build for me, but at some point I was looking at my own bass and realized there were only eight pieces of wood on it. I figured this can't be rocket science."

Rocket science or not, Lawrence realized he needed some experience in woodworking. After completing an introductory course he found a job doing a variety of construction tasks. By chance he hooked up with a Danish cabinet firm, learning the cutting-edge techniques that Scandinavians are known for.

His early experiments in crafting instruments for himself were not very successful, but he did modify his Fender bass and started doing repairs for others. In 1980 he met some musicians from Arcata in a band called Two Weeks Notice who were on a Canadian tour. An invitation from the band brought Lawrence to Arcata, where Moonstone Guitars happened to be hiring.

"Steve (Helgeson) had so many guys working there who didn't know what was going on," Lawrence recalled. "Business was booming and there was pandemonium. He handed the reigns of the operation of the shop to his foreman, Peter Shingle. Peter and I ended up doing the majority of the building, with Steve doing the acoustics and the fine tuning."

After the Moonstone fire, Lawrence set up shop in a portion of Wildwood Banjos. He had already done some subcontracting work for Platin and when Wildwood made a transition from banjos to electric guitar work, Platin found Lawrence's background and experience invaluable.

Today Kenneth Lawrence Instruments is a separate entity, with a space in a section of the relatively vast Wildwood shop. Selling through a few dealers around the world, Lawrence makes 16 to 18 basses a year, using concepts to create instruments that look and sound like no others.

"In my design work I tend to favor more flowing, curvy things, more feminine designs rather than the angular," he said. "Of course, being an artist, the aesthetics are very important to me, but no less important than the function. The challenge is to execute functional designs in an artistic way."

 

W hen we visit his factory, Platin is working at a bench doing what he calls "my `ye olde craftsman' thing." He puts the finishing touches on a couple of frailing banjos, beautiful instruments with curly maple necks and ebony fingerboards decorated with hand-cut mother of pearl and abalone inlay, all etched using a scrimshaw technique.

While it is different from most of the work coming out of what has become a mass-production shop, it is closely connected to the roots of his business. Like other Humboldt area luthiers, Platin got involved in making instruments because he enjoyed music.

"I was always curious about the banjo and decided to learn how to play," he recalled. "Then I met a luthier in Santa Monica, Ren Furgeson, who was building banjos. I would hang out at his shop for hours on end. At some point he said, `Here, put an apron on,' and I ended up working for him for 50 hours a week just for gas money and hamburgers. That's where I learned my skills."

Platin was also employed by the Dobro Co. in Long Beach, a venerable business run by the Dopbra brothers, who invented the instrument. This connection would prove helpful later.

After graduating with a bachelor of arts in anthropology, Platin migrated north for no better reason than a friend was moving to Arcata to study transcendental meditation. While attending graduate school at Humboldt State University, he did repairs for Arcata Music on the Plaza and built a few banjos on the side, "just because I knew how."

Venturing off on his own, he rented an old coin laundry on I Street and opened a repair shop called Wildwood Music. When Arcata Music folded, the opportunity to shift into retail opened up and he took on a couple of partners, current proprietors Brooks Otis and Mike "Spumoni" Manetas.

In 1973, two well-known folk banjo players, John Burke and Art Rosenbalm, had stopped off and bought banjos on their way down the coast from Washington for a recording session at Kicking Mule Records in Berkeley.

Word of mouth caused a growth spurt and sharing the space with the retail operation became too complicated, so Platin moved to new quarters, taking his shop across town. Working with his future wife, Kathy, he developed a small line and began selling banjos to music stores around the country. It was then that his connection with the Dobro Co. came into play.

"Since they knew me from when I worked for them, they took me under their wing at the big trade shows," said Platin. "They let me share their booth space to show my banjos and introduced me to a lot of music stores. Eventually I began doing the shows on my own, and the business grew. Folk music was really popular and I guess the rest is history."

With a small crew, Platin established his niche in the folk music trade doing repairs and building banjos, guitars and mandolins. But in the '90s, when the emerging generation seemed more interested in rock, new directions became mandatory.

Opportunity knocked when Stewart McDonald, one of the banjo parts companies Platin had dealt with, expanded its line to include parts for electric guitars and asked Platin if he could build a Telecaster body.

Platin recalled not even knowing what a Telecaster was. "I really didn't know anything about electric guitars. But I've been making musical instruments for the last 25 years, and it was easy for me to move from building banjos into another part of the market.

"It wasn't a change of careers; I was just diversifying a bit. This was actually much simpler than what we had been doing. You just carve a chunk of wood into shape, rout out a space for the electronics, and that's it."

Over the next few years, the demand for parts grew as more companies realized it was more efficient to use outside sources for their woodworking and concentrate on electronics and assembly. To fill these relatively large orders, Wildwood moved into the state-of-the-art world of CAD (computer- aided design) and CAM (computer-aided machining). Platin, the luthier, had to return to school to learn programming.

He still builds banjos, but 99 percent of Wildwood's business is in the parts field. Employing four full-time woodworkers, the shop produces guitar necks and bodies for what is known in the trade as an OEM original equipment manufacturer. Platin has moved into a much larger space and purchased a $100,000 CNC (computer numerically controlled) milling machine, a robot craftsman that is tucked away in the back corner of the shop.

While Platin works at his bench, on the other side of a wall the CNC machine labors relatively unattended. A computer screen mounted in front monitors the action as a mobile arm with a drill bit at the tip traces patterns on one of four rectangles of ash attached to the machine bed by vacuum suction.

As it works its magic on the first piece, the familiar pattern of an electric guitar body takes shape and slots are cut out where the electronic pickups will be inserted. While the arm moves on to the next piece of wood and the process is repeated exactly, the Wildwood crew is sanding down the rough edges and preparing stacks of the guitar parts to be shipped to dealers and factories around the country.

With a little imagination one can envision the finished product, a classic electric guitar in the hands of some teenager banging out chords in his garage.

"The guitars look just like they did 30 years ago it's just how we get there is much different," Platin said. "This is not Geppetto's ye olde workshop anymore."


Top photo: Phil Crump tunes the guittern. (courtesy of Phil Crump)

Second photo: Mark Platin at his work bench (by Mark Lufkin)

Third photo: Steve Helgeson of Moonstone Guitars. (by Mark Lufkin)

Last photo: Ken Lawrence with his electric bass. (by Mark Lufkin)


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