Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Custom Fretted Instruments

   Before I drove up to Custom Fretted Instruments near Sparta, Tennessee I checked Google Earth for directions and was sure that something was amiss. Each time I reentered the address the indicator pointed to a spot in the middle of the forest along what appeared to be a  logging road. Nothing but trees. This couldn't be the place, could it? Well, yes. It could.
    CFI is, indeed, tucked away in the woods up a one lane mountain road. And it would be easy to miss but for the smallest of hand painted signs indicating it's presence. Turn right up a gravel driveway off of Fire Tower Road (which is just off Hwy 111) and there you'll find the tiny shop just a hundred yards or so down the hill from owner Jim Grainger's home.

Jim Grainger

  Just inside the front door is the tiniest of showrooms. And I mean tiny - four guys is a crowd in here. But you'll also find yourself in close proximity to some very high end guitars - Huss and Daltons, Gallaghers, and Taylors adorn the walls all set up, tuned, and ready to play. (I'm fighting some serious lust for one of those - more on that later)
   I heard of CFI from a friend when I was looking for someone to repair some loose binding on my D28S. He'd had some work done there and gave the referral saying it was worth the 1 1/2 hr drive from Chattanooga.
   So I took the drive to Sparta, Tennessee last month to drop  off my beloved Martin. After a few wrong turns due to my not bothering to print the directions and a phone call to Jim I finally found the place. Maybe I should have brought my old boy scout compass.
   Jim Grainger, it turns out, is a Chattanooga native. In 1956 he was a kid learning banjo when his involvement with instrument repair began. I emailed him to asked when and how he got started:

 " Well, I started getting paid for doing repair work in '58. In the summer of '56 I was learning to play banjo on an old Kay I bought at a pawn shop that used to be next to the Volunteer Bldg on 9th Street. I think I paid $30 for it and it was made of white looking poplar wood and painted black. It had quite a few dings and everywhere the paint was knocked off it was white underneath. I have always been "handy" doing stuff like keeping the neighborhood bicycles running, etc., so when my Dad bought one of those "shoebox" refinishing kits from the hardware that have everything from stripper, sandpaper, stain and varnish in them and refinished my Mom's kitchen table and chairs (the same chairs that are in the office of the shop now) and I saw how much better they looked, I was happy to discover there was enough stuff left over for me to use and refinish my banjo.
   After I got the banjo back together and playing again, it looked much nicer. The lady who lived behind us had apparently been watching my progress and when she saw I had the banjo playing again, she offered to give me a guitar she had in her attic that somebody had sat on and crunched in the top, as long as I would see if I could fix it. I remember borrowing one of my mother's compact mirrors and using a flashlight to see inside. Using a hypodermic, I would squirt glue under the braces were they were loose and would jam Popsicle sticks broken off appropriately between the top & back braces and stack books on top, as I didn't have any clamps. It took quite awhile, but I finally got everything glued back and then decided I needed to refinish the guitar, as the original finish was cracked and crazed. My banjo neck had always been kinda sticky since finishing it with varnish, so I decided to learn a little more about finishing before doing the guitar, which by the way was a 50's Martin 00-17.
   My mom drove me down to the Chattanooga Public Library, which was on McCallie Ave. next to U.C. at the time, and I remember gathering up six books on finishing, which is all they would let you check out at one time, and bringing them home and discovering that many musical instrument makers used lacquer finishes. Luckily, my dad had borrowed an air compressor and spray gun from where he worked so he could paint our old 1941 Buick, so I could spray lacquer! A trip to the local Glidden store in East Ridge and  I had everything the book said I needed and I basically cook-booked my way through the process. The Martin looked great when I was finally got it buffed out!
   The only problem now was a couple of missing inlay dots in the fingerboard, so I went down to Bailey Music on Cherry St., which was the local Martin dealer and asked them if they could order a couple of dots for me. They said they could, but that there was a fellow in Chattanooga that was doing some pearl inlay work, so they gave me his name. The fellow lived in Brainard, and after he got home from work one evening my mom drove me to his house. I remember he looked at the guitar and told me he could replace the dots, no problem. Then he turned the guitar over in his hands and said, "This guitar has just been refinished, hasn't it?" I said, "Yes". Then he said, "Would you mind telling me who did the work?" I replied, "I did." He then said, "You are just the guy I've been looking for!"  
    The fellow's name was Mike Longworth and he had been doing inlay work for quite a few of the Grand Ole Opry stars and needed someone who could finish over inlay work he would do. We soon started working together, with me doing finish work. As time went on, Mike would buy and trade on instruments and sometimes they would need repair work, so we started brainstorming needed repairs and trying to figure out a way to fix stuff so it would look decent. I'm sure I wouldn't be very proud of some of the work we did at first, but as time went on & we figured out better methods, it got better.
   Mike and I worked together on a part time basis until 1966, when the U.S. Army invited me to spend a couple of years seeing the world. During that time Mike got a job with the Martin Guitar Company heading up a new department they were starting in order to reintroduce the pearl inlaid series of guitars they had quit making during WWII. Mike stayed with Martin for the next 30 years, retiring as Customer Relations Manager and moving to Bell Buckle, TN where he began building ukes and  I again became his finishing room guy."
   After a stint in the army and a degree from Middle Tennessee University, Jim settled in Sparta to work in the furniture manufacturing industry. Meanwhile, he did builds and repairs in his basement. Word of mouth quicky spread, and after a time  Jim had to choose between work building furniture and work making and repairing instruments. Yeah, not a hard choice. So in 1989 he built the shop and Custom Fretted Instruments was born.
   "At first I would custom build dulcimers, hammer dulcimers, guitars & banjos for folks, but as time has gone on I've pretty much stopped building, except for an occasional banjo every now and then, as the repair and restoration part of our business has grown to the point there just isn't time or space for much other than repair work"
    Jim is also still pickin' banjo with a local band called Hickory Wind. "We've been together for over 20 years, all have day jobs and are good friends, so enjoy having social gatherings where we pick a little with an occasional gig thrown in here & there."

I've always been fascinated with the guys who do this kind of work. This is very exacting with virtually zero room for error. Botch a job on a pre-war Martin and you're pretty deep in it. It's the equivalent of vascular surgery, and I wish I had the talent to do it myself. But, my impatient nature rules this out for certain.   

Every guitar repair shop I've ever seen was just this tidy

    Personally I was amazed when I got a call just four days after I dropped off the Martin informing me it was ready. This was a unique instrument repair experience for me. Most repair guys march to the beat of a different drummer. And that drummer is SLOW! You can usually expect to wait months for a repair to be done. Years, in a worst case scenario. So, I was quite pleasantly surprised and a happy man when I picked it up the following Saturday. "We try to stay on top of things," Jim explained. Indeed.

     I dropped off another guitar for repair as I picked that one up, and it was while picking that repair up this past Saturday (Feb 20, 2010) that Jim allowed me to snap a few pics.

     The guitar I'm lusting over, as I mentioned earlier is the Gallagher in the center of the photo at left. That's an exact copy of Old Hoss, the guitar Doc Watson played from 1968 until 1974. Old Hoss was the guitar that Doc was playing on Will The Circle Be Unbroken - the album I've written about previously. It's even mentioned in a conversation between Doc and Merle Travis that was captured on the album:
           Travis: "Hey, that guitar, by the way, rings like a bell..."
           Doc:    "Yeah, it's a pretty good ole box. Mr Gallegher made this thing. Lives down here in Wartrace, Tennessee. He makes 'em."
      Old Hoss - the original - spent a couple of decades at the museum at the Country Music Hall Of Fame until it was recently returned to the Gallagher's in Wartrace, Tennessee. When Jim got wind of that fact he arranged to have six exact copies made and this is one of them. Why six? That's how many sets of the late 60s, original equipment tuning heads that the Gallagher Company had on hand.
     Well, hearing Doc play the original "Ole Hoss" on Circle changed my life, so naturally I fell in love with this guitar. The $4000 price tag is a bit out of my reach. Okay. It's WAY out of my reach. (Thank God I wasn't carrying any credit cards the day I saw it or I'd most likely be on my way to divorce court!)

I really enjoyed my visit. If it had been me building a shop in '89 I'd have put it in the same spot. The only thing I don't like about CFI is that it's too far away for me to hang out. Otherwise, they'd have to shoo me away with a broom.

                                                                The typical frenetic pace of life at CFI

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