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High Strung

Tom Ribbecke is instrumental in creating handcrafted guitars

By Gretchen Giles

EVEN PETE TOWNSHEND, the Who frontman famous for splintering his axes all over the stage in a fury of youth, would think twice about smashing a Ribbecke guitar. And it's doubtful if Tom Ribbecke would ever make him another if he did. Each of them created during the labor of one month's time and crafted from wood that Ribbecke calls "the gems of the earth," these guitars can't be bought from the music center down the street, and require such intense personal interaction between maker and client for the creation of tonality and voice that smashing one would be tantamount to taking a significant portion of one's salary and dreams and stomping wickedly upon them.

Priced from between $5,000 to $20,000, these completely handmade instruments bring together a Zen synthesis of woodworking expertise, physics, people skills, and business smarts that satisfy the soul. "It's a pretty romantic living," Ribbecke admits, standing in the light-shafted, sweet-smelling order of his Healdsburg studio. "It's a wonderful discipline, it's a spiritual discipline. It's physics and alchemy and marketing, and it's something that you do with your hands."

A luthier by profession for some 23 years--"That's a highfalutin way of saying guitar maker," he chuckles--Ribbecke is just one of the many instrument artisans who will be represented at the Healdsburg Guitar Makers Festival Aug. 21-23. Ribbecke's specialty is the creation of jazz-oriented arch-top guitars that bell upward for a distinctive sound. "You think of people like Wes Montgomery and George Benson when you think of arch-top guitars," he says.

A self-professed "fair to middling guitarist," Ribbecke used to balance his making with his playing. Now he stays strictly on the aproned side of the stage. "About two years ago," he recalls, "I had a six-week gig down in San Jose over Christmas, and on Christmas Eve--during my fifth week of doing this four nights a week--I was looking out over the audience, and it was a piano bar, and some guy threw up his gin and tonic on my feet. You know, who are you going to see in a bar on Christmas Eve except the most dysfunctional? It was like the Star Wars bar scene. I looked at those people, and I looked at myself and said, 'I've got to stop this, I'm getting too old for this particular environment.'

"After that, I just sort of hung it up."

Looking around his workshop, he elaborates, "This is too demanding. This takes so much of your spirit." Now Ribbecke sells to players and collectors, recently returning from an L.A. trip where he sold two of his specialty instruments to pop-phenom Seal.

"Professionals are buying the guitars, and professionals are funny," he says, "because they don't really like to pay for them. I've just had a wonderful experience, though, with that guy Seal. He ordered two guitars, paid full price--a wonderful gentleman, intelligent focus. Guys like that are rare. Most artists get discounts for endorsing big companies. If you look at the other segment of the market, it's baby boomers and jazz musicians."

Because Ribbecke won't discount for endorsements, he also prefers not to drop the names of his other clients.

While Ribbecke is clearly on a quest for perfection--a goal that he admits is impossible--he probably wouldn't spend 12 hours a day, six days a week in his workshop if it weren't for his materials. Pointing up to the loft rimming half his studio, he says "If you look at all the wood up there, I've had some of these woods for 10 years, sometimes 15. It's like wine. One piece of that wood up there is about $250, and it's not only that, but it's the search for the wood. Instrument woods are the gems of the woodworking world . . . and this material here is so rare that it's a privilege to work with."

Picking up a guitar body backed in mahogany, Ribbecke applies a small amount of naptha fluid to the surface. The deep golden, rippling patterns and tone of the material immediately spring to life. "This is the most extraordinary wood I've ever seen," he says reverently. Hewn from a tree felled some 75 years ago because it blocked the entrance to a silver mine being dug near a Mayan temple, the wood has an extraordinary quality of grain that makes this "the one tree of its kind ever found in its category," according to Ribbecke. "A friend of mine found this tree about 30 years ago in Belize. He was drinking with some miners down there and was looking for wood, and they said, 'You want to see a tree, we'll show you a tree.' Well, he saw this tree--he was a wood dealer from Sausalito--and knew immediately what it was worth, and helicoptered it out at huge expense.

"Personally speaking, I don't use this material just for money, I use it only for the best client," he says, stroking the guitar's back. "And this is something from the jungle, this is just gorgeous. See the huge, reptilian patterns. This is magnificent stuff. When you have a chance to work with wood like this, the money is irrelevant. The thrill is that this is the best that the earth has to offer. I think that you'll find with the best guitar makers, most have incredible reverence for their materials."

Later, Ribbecke says philosophically, "It's a great thing to do with your life, but it's not brain surgery. You know, I'm not solving the problems in the Middle East. I'm making guitars."


The Healdsburg Guitar Makers Festival runs Wednesday, Aug. 21, through Friday, Aug. 23, with workshops from 9 a.m. to noon and luthier exhibits from 1 to 5 p.m. at Villa Chanticleer. Adjunct events include flamenco guitarist Mark Taylor Aug. 21 at 8 p.m. at the Mark West Winery; the Acoustic Café concert Aug. 22 at 8 p.m. at the Raven Theater with Alex de Grassi, Sharon Isbin, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and the Hot Club; and jam sessions Aug. 23 at 9 p.m. with Richard Prenkert at the Flying Goat Coffee Roastery Café, and at 9:30 p.m. with Tom Ribbecke at the Bear Republic Brewing Co. For details, call 431-1814.

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From the August 15-21, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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