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Strings Attached

Meet five area luthiers—professional makers of stringed instruments, ranging from guitars to mandolins. Some create instruments from scratch, others rebuild vintage pieces, and one even builds guitars for the stars.

Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder

 

For Silver City's Scott van Linge—one of at least five Southwest New Mexico luthiers, professional makers of stringed instruments—a lifelong passion for and career in music began with one auspicious music lesson. He'd decided to learn to play guitar after seeing a minimally talented young man at a party, around whom were gathered several women. Determined to play an instrument that surely would transform him into a chick magnet, van Linge found a music-store employee who gave lessons —"a young man with the longest hair I had ever seen"— van Linge recalls—leaning against a parking meter, playing guitar. This was California in the 1960s, outside a music store in Palo Alto, near San Francisco.

Bill Bussman feigns taking a bite out
of a watermelon mandolin.

The young teacher, a guy named Jerry, worked at the music store by day and played gigs with his band every chance he got. In that first lesson, Jerry straightened out van Linge's flat picking, taught him some new finger-picking techniques, and gave him some bluegrass charts to study and practice. Plans were made for another lesson.

As the two parted, Jerry pointed to a poster in the store promoting his next gig. He mentioned that his band, The Warlocks, was going by a new name these days—The Grateful Dead.

Yes, that Jerry.

Alas, van Linge's next lesson was not to be. Just a week or so later he turned on his radio and heard a radio DJ introducing "a new hit from The Grateful Dead." It was both the beginning of the band's commercial fame and the end of young Jerry Garcia's teaching career.

Undeterred, van Linge practiced his charts and followed up on tips Garcia had given him about special shops and a guitar master in Berkeley, Calif., named Jon Lundberg, who fashioned special braces for The Grateful Dead's acoustic guitars. Five years later, after having spent "too many years in college," van Linge decided to pursue a career as a blues musician.

He was a "special guest" performer at the Sacramento Blues Festival from 1985 through its final year in 1993. At a club in Burbank, Calif., he was invited to play with the house band backing up Steven Sills. On several occasions at the same club, Juice Newton asked van Linge to play backup on harmonica with her band. Through community-radio connections in Nevada City, Calif., van Linge met and got to jam with many famous blues musicians after their gigs, including Honeyboy Edwards, Taj Mahal, Steve James and Ramblin' Jack Elliott. After moving to Southwest New Mexico in 1995, he jammed with Paul Geremia the night before his appearance at the Silver City Blues Festival in 1998.

His passion for music and eternal quest for perfect sound led van Linge to the work he does today—customizing guitars with his unique bracing system called the Parabolic ReVoicing technique. Parabolic ReVoicing aims to remove "dead spots" in the sound, helping the instrument achieve it best, well, voice.

While van Linge also builds guitars from scratch and repairs instruments, the Parabolic ReVoicing is the largest and most prominent part of his work. He served as a consultant to Gibson Guitars from 1997-1999, where he worked with one of their specialists in Gibson's custom shop in Bozeman, Mont. Van Linge also did a brief stint as a consultant to Taylor Guitars in 2000. This June he presented an update on his technique at a Guild of American Luthiers Convention in Tacoma, Wash.

Though there is a history of other luthiers working with bracing to improve sound, van Linge says he's gone in a "totally different direction" with his parabolic technology. "It is as revolutionary as whoever it was that first said, 'The world is round, not flat,'" he says.

The technique combines his knowledge of physics from college, basic engineering mechanics he learned at Stanford, his observations of Jon Lundberg's brace-shaving technique, as well as what he calls a major "light-bulb moment" of his own in 1989. Van Linge's unique theory of how and where each string makes its sound in a guitar lets him customize and alter the braces—strips of wood inside the body of the guitar that support the structure of the instrument and make the top and back more rigid—to enable the guitar to play every note with equal volume.

Parabolic ReVoicing results in cleaner, less muddy bass notes (the low ones) than most dreadnoughts (a larger body guitar), richer mid-range notes and crisp highs, van Linge says. And it's not just dreadnoughts that can benefit from the technology, he adds, but any style or size guitar: "I've yet to meet a guitar I couldn't make sound significantly better."

A client's guitar receiving a parabolic retrofit sits on van Linge's workbench, an adjustable desk lamp illuminating the sound-hole in the center. He points to the shaved bracing, then holds up a gallon-sized plastic bag packed with wood shavings. "That's what I took out of it," he says of the guitar.

After working his parabolic-brace magic, van Linge sends the bag of shavings back to the customer with the guitar. "That way, if they bury it at the end of its life, it can rest all in one place," he jokes. If nothing else, it will impress upon the owner just how much painstaking work was done on the guitar, certainly justifying the $1,200 price tag for a ReVoicing retrofit.

A significant component of the parabolic modification technique is to reshape the guitar's bridge, that little piece of wood on the front of the guitar, under the sound-hole, that holds the strings. The dark wood shavings in the plastic bag are the result of this guitar's bridge modification.

Of course, all the guitars van Linge builds from scratch have parabolic bracing systems. He builds three styles of guitar: an OM, a mid-size guitar whose shape was originated by the Martin Guitar Company; a Grand Auditorium, a pinched-waist guitar design originated by Taylor Guitars, between the OM and a dreadnought in size; and a style of van Linge's own invention, what he calls a "pinchnought."

After spending countless nights playing on barstools, trying to get comfortable with his dreadnought, van Linge got the idea to build a new guitar with a narrower and lower waist, putting less guitar between the player's torso and right leg while playing seated, combined with modifications to the instrument's hips. The resulting pinchnought style was just the ticket, he says, allowing the guitar to be held and played comfortably, with the neck of the guitar held parallel to the floor. Such orientation also improves the sound, he says.

Jane and Bob Fistori play in their Deming shop.

In his home-based custom guitar shop near Silver City, where van Linge builds from scratch, modifies braces and does other guitar repairs, major and minor, he works with traditional guitar woodworking instruments plus some he has customized. He employs traditional guitar-building woods—soft spruces and cedars for the tops, hardwoods like rosewood for the sides. His favorite is mahogany, "for its sweet sound. It's not as loud as rosewood."

Brazilian rosewood, prized by luthiers and guitarists and scarcer these days due to environmental protection for the wood's source, is among the pricier rosewoods, and can cost from a couple of hundred dollars up to $1,000 for enough to build just one guitar.

 

When it comes to specialty woods for guitar-making, Don Musser, another local luthier, seemingly has cornered the market. Opening closets and storage-room doors in his workshop to show off his stash, Musser admits he has more guitar-building woods than he'd ever be able to use in his lifetime. That's OK. It was never his intention to use it all himself. In the "off-season," when he's building and hasn't got finished guitars to sell, Musser makes his daily bread by selling the specialty woods to other luthiers.

"That stack's going to a ukulele builder," he says, gesturing to a small, orderly pile of planks in various hues. Though still in rough form, the various examples of instruments around the shop make it possible to imagine these boards as the polished and charming, plinky little instruments they will become.

Musser goes to the storage room and pulls out a piece of that rare Brazilian rosewood, purchased before the environmental embargo. Holding it at arm's length, he looks down the squarish plank, nearly two inches thick, seemingly past the wood to some place in the future where only he can see it made into a guitar.

"That'll be a beauty," he predicts.

Among luthiers, Musser is known for his long vision and ability to spot an opportunity. As certain woods were becoming rare or protected, Musser bought up what he could over the years, resulting in a beautiful inventory, stacked immaculately to the ceiling in his special wood storage room.

A number of his high-end guitars—for sale through shops in California and elsewhere—boast such unique components as "pre-ban elephant ivory" nuts and saddles.

The "nut" is the small piece at the top of a guitar's neck that carries the strings from the winding pegs at the headstock, down to the guitar's bridge below the sound-hole. The "saddle" is the small piece inserted into the bridge. Musser is known for his distinctively designed guitar nuts: The channels that guide the strings down the neck of the guitar are raised, reminding one perhaps of little Roman aqueducts.

Musser is also known for selling high-end, custom-crafted guitars to the stars. The first guitar he built to sell wound up, via a California music store, going to actor Peter Fonda. Proving that was no fluke, Musser's second guitar sold to legendary musician Tom Rush.

Thirty years later, Musser says he still does business with that California shop. Between it and a handful of specialty guitar-sellers that carry his instruments, Musser's guitars have been bought by a number of famous musicians, including Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Neil Young and Eddie Van Halen.

In 1994, Neil Young bought one of Musser's parlor guitars, a smaller-bodied instrument, as a gift for his wife. And when Irish musician Bono, front man for U2, missed out on buying one of Musser's guitars—it was gone from the store when he returned a day later—Bono's wife commissioned Musser to make a custom guitar for her rock-star husband. Befitting the Irishman's heritage, the guitar was a striking, shiny black with Celtic cross details.

Yet Musser didn't originally plan to become a professional luthier, much less a guitar-maker to the stars. One semester away from a degree in chemistry—building guitars only as a passionate hobby—Musser took a personal inventory and did the math: He realized that if he could build a top-notch guitar and sell it for just half the going rate, he would be successful as a guitar builder—and much happier, he reasoned, than as a chemist.

Thirty years and some 250 guitars later, one would have to reason that he guessed right.

"I like being my own boss, for one thing," Musser says. Guitar building allows him the freedom and time to indulge his hobbies, he says, which include amateur archaeology.

"It keeps me grounded and focused," he says of guitar building. Not wanting the anxiety of working toward deadlines, he relaxes with each step of the process, building one perfect guitar at a time. Once, he says, he tried a more "assembly-line" approach, lining up five guitars-in-process in a row.

"I just made five mistakes in a row, the same mistake on each and every one of those (guitars)," he says, shaking his head. "Oh, well," he adds with his easy smile and a shrug.

Building one instrument at a time not only prevents such mistakes, but also helps him to be "really present with the wood," Musser says. "You get little cues as to what needs to happen next with an instrument."

His building style and timing are not only in tune with his personal rhythms, but with larger natural rhythms as well. Returning to Southwestern New Mexico in 2003, working in the arid and high-altitude conditions, he spends spring and early summer building sound boxes, the "body" part of a guitar that gives the instrument its shape and determines the style. This especially low-humidity time of year is ideal for building the sound boxes.

"From now until the monsoons come, this is what I'll be doing," he says, waving his hand over a guitar body mold, the thin strips of side wood bending into shape. Once the rains hit, though, the shop door closes and Musser will focus on constructing one guitar after another, incorporating the sound box components he's built.

Some of Musser's first guitars, built 30 years ago, are now being re-sold as high-quality "vintage" instruments. As to price, let's just say that a Musser guitar holds its value.

Musser says he builds only about 10 percent of his guitars to custom order. Mostly he just makes what he makes: highly desirable guitars in several styles and sizes, including dreadnoughts, orchestras, parlors, classicals and jumbos.

"I let the guys in the stores deal with the public. They're good at that," he says. "Jumping through hoops" to fill a customer's individual wishes can be a big headache, Musser says, something he prefers to avoid. Well, unless your name is Mrs. Bono, perhaps.

 

On the other end of that spectrum, Bill Bussman of Old Wave Mandolins handles a lot of customer special orders, especially for customers overseas. Over the counter in his workshop, a busy if quiet little place near the Black Range, hangs a row of clipboards, each with an order spelling out the required specifications for the mandolin-to-be. Many of these orders have come in over the Internet. In addition to the basics, such as body style and size, customers can choose the type of hardware used on the instrument, neck style, color and even tonal preferences, whether "bright and loud" or "warm and rich."

It takes him about nine months to turn an order into an instrument, he says.

Due to the dry climate of his workshop location, Bussman says he builds a certain amount of flexibility into the mandolins' bridges, so that when they arrive in their new homes where they will be stored and played, the change in humidity—and resulting response of the wood—will be accommodated without compromise to the instrument.

The bread-and-butter of Bussman's business is in mandolins and mandolas, a slightly larger instrument with a deeper voice. He produces the instruments in about a dozen different shapes and sizes, he says, and has sold more than 400 to date.

Bussman jokes about some of the postings he's seen on other mandolin Internet sites: "They'll have these amazing Web sites, I mean absolutely beautiful professionally designed sites, and post all this stuff about their work, and then you come to find out they've only made one mandolin."

His own calling to mandolin building, he says, was much more serious. "I couldn't find work as a chocolate taster or a sex object," he says.

He especially loves fishing for special orders for mandolins on his trips to Ireland. It's hard to get poor Irish musicians to shell out for a new instrument, he says. Most of them own only one instrument at a time.

"It's like that all over Ireland. These guys just play the snot out of these cheap instruments" until the madolins completely wear out, he says. To gather new business, Bussman says he'll go to a pub and lend out one of his mandolins, not getting it back until the end of the night. Meanwhile, all the boys 'round the bar have had a go at it. Liking the sound—and Old Wave Mandolins' pricing, decidedly better than a lot of what they've seen on the market—the musicians invariably place a few orders.

"That's my motto: 'Cheap, and built to stay that way!'" he quips.

To sweeten the deal—perhaps just what's needed to push some reluctant Irishman to cracking open his wallet—Bussman gives free delivery to all mandolins shipped to the Emerald Isle.

But he doesn't focus just on Ireland. He once made 12 violins as part of a New Mexico State Folk Arts master apprentice project. He had a lot of fun creating the instruments, taking care to have them reflect their heritage and the area they represented musically—part of the Appalachian mountain range. He gave the mandolins stocks in the shape of sheeps' heads, and made them out of mountain mahogany wood. He used pinon pine sap for the resin and ground hematite, local to the area, to color the varnish.

Bussman also makes some hilarious special projects—mandolins as well as guitars and basses—what he calls "the weird stuff." In the middle of his shop is a huge white stand-up bass, the body of which has been fashioned from an old Pontiac's gas tank. As stand-up basses are made to, well, stand up, he has the bottom pin—the "foot"—dressed out with a child's high-top sneaker. Lightning bolts are cut into the front of the bass at the waist and it's decorated with an authentic metal Pontiac logo.

"Half the fun of making one of these is going to find the weird stuff on the cars to decorate (the instruments)," he says. Evidently it's not uncommon for bass lovers to have a little fun with their instruments: He says his son was recently at a music festival and someone called "Gas-tank Slim" had a booth at which he was selling basses made out of gas tanks.

Bussman's had fun with some mandolins, too. He's made six mandolins shaped like slices of watermelon, a telltale bite carved out of one edge to give them "authenticity." He picks one up and pretends to gnaw on it to give the full effect. He recently showed up at the Silver City Blues Festival with a mandolin shaped like a piece of Swiss cheese, "Go Packers" emblazoned on the headstock.

"That was a mission from God," he says. Once, at a Green Bay Packers game, Bussman says, he heard a booming voice in the stands above him call out, "SWISS!" "That's when I realized that God is a Packers fan," he says with mock seriousness. His goal was to have the thing ready for September, "before the Packers are eliminated from any playoff possibility," he jokes, and to get it into a shop in Wisconsin.

"Some fool Packers fan will buy it," he says with a laugh.

The weird stuff sells by word of mouth. He'll build something funny and someone will want to buy it; then someone else will see it and want to buy one, so he'll wind up making another, and so it goes.

Though he has fun with his tongue-in-cheek "weird stuff," and jokes about the cheapness of his regular mandolins, Bussman enjoys a reputation for building a pretty dynamite instrument at a reasonable price—"the Bill Munroe model for a lot less," he jokes. The Old Wave Mandolins name carries weight and speaks for itself. A particularly beautiful instrument he sent to be sold through Gruhn Guitars, a well-known shop in Nashville, was gone in 24 hours.

"I didn't even get a picture on their Web site. It brought me no ad value," he complains.

Bussman holds up a mandolin, custom-made for a customer in Colorado. The wood is something ethereal-looking called "quilted maple." The red and brown wood seems to burst with golden lightning when he turns it in the light, almost a hologram effect, as if hidden pictures beneath the surface leap out only at certain angles.

He jokes about luthiers' universal fascination with beautiful woods, and his friend Don Musser's amazing stash. He gets an almost lustful look in his eye thinking about it.

"It's the never-ending quest, the search for the ultimate piece of wood," he adds, a not-quite-kidding far-off look in his eye. "I've had two good pieces of wood in my whole life, and I built two really good instruments out of it."

 

Silver City luthier Dan Swanson is also connected to Don Musser, not through Musser's cache of fine guitar woods (though Swanson admits he is in awe of it), but through the actual building of guitars. A southpaw, Swanson wanted to build himself a guitar that he could play left-handed. He'd seen an ad that Musser ran in Acoustic Guitar magazine. In the ad, with a title something like "Why I Build from Scratch," Musser, living in Colorado at the time, offered an individualized workshop in which participants would come and live on his land for six weeks, get instruction from him, and come out of the experience with a guitar to take home.

The workshop didn't work out for Swanson, who instead started reading books on guitar building and finding busted instruments to fix. About a year or so later, though, Musser moved back to New Mexico—this time to Silver City, where Swanson also lives. The two finally hooked up here, and Musser helped Swanson build his first guitar-from-scratch.

"I have a lot of love for Musser," Swanson says. "He's so generous with his time and his knowledge, and I think we're good for each other, too. We have completely opposite working styles, and it gets hysterical when we're trying to do something together. He laughs and explains, "Musser's all 'slow down,' and I'm all 'just go.'" He recounts feeling like the typical bull-in-a-china-shop, breaking things right and left in Musser's workshop, which the teacher bore with good humor and a patient smile.

After Swanson got the satisfaction of building a guitar from scratch—his first build was from a Martin kit, the result of which still hangs in his own home-based guitar workshop—he went on to specialize in vintage rebuilds, making custom guitars out of old wrecks. He prefers to work on smaller-body guitars, finding in them the most potential to make a "really wonderful little guitar."

He says, "I think there's just a more individual voice to be found in smaller-body guitars."

He's bought a number of old, beat-up guitars over the Internet, bringing them new life and then reselling them. He's found a particularly good market for his rebuilt wares at shows like the Dallas Guitar Show.

A guitar sound box sits neck- and stringless on a stand by the corner of his fireplace; it's from an out-of-playing-shape arch-top-style guitar from the 1930s. Swanson bought the wreck, which he calls a "true work of art," for a bargain on eBay. Arch-tops, he says, were developed to replace banjos in an orchestra. They had to be heard above the horns, he explains, and so are huge producers of sound. He has high hopes for the instrument's signature sound when he restores it to playing condition.

Swanson has found that word-of-mouth really spreads, and that when you're good at repairing and rebuilding guitars, everyone seems to know your name and you can't keep the business away. "I've got plenty to do," he says with a laugh. He calls this part of New Mexico "a guitar hell in some ways," and he's repaired guitars for numerous local musicians, as well as adding custom touches aimed at improving sound. "Everybody's guitar needs work at some time," he adds.

Repairing and rebuilding guitars was Swanson's way of "going deeper with guitars, and with music." A casual player, he knew soon after he started that his ability and goals were not in line with being a performer of any sort. Restoring the precious instruments is his way of becoming more involved, more intimate with them.

Swanson calls the current times a "renaissance for the art of stringed instrument building." He finds professionals and passionate hobbyists sharing information and sheer love of the craft, and is thankful that his ability with instruments enables him to play a part in that.

 

A deep and abiding love for stringed instruments is what has driven the husband-wife team of Jane and Bob Fistori of Deming to devote their entire lives together to the mandolin—teaching students how to play, repairing the instruments, and building one-of-a-kind ornate mandolins.

Bob Fistori's mother was a mandolin teacher. Being the last of seven children, he says he was lucky to get the "scraps of attention and anything that was left" from his hard-working parents. He took up playing the mandolin relatively late in life, when in his 40s.

He built his first mandolin, he says, simply because he wanted a better instrument. "The next model up was the Gibson F. It cost $400, and I couldn't afford it," he says, "so I decided to build one."

Jane Fistori worked for years as a public-school teacher. An artist, she has lavishly decorated the mandolins Bob has built, with ornate pictures—birds, flowers, pottery—burned into the instruments' fronts and backs, then painted.

Thirty-some years later, in-between teaching mandolin lessons to make ends meet, the couple has produced 62 exquisite, one-of-a-kind mandolins in an almost old-world style. Some were made for their students, and some were sold to others, leaving the Fistoris with 30 unique mandolins hanging on the walls of their little home on Zinc Street in Deming, where they still give mandolin lessons.

"Somebody said this body of work is priceless, and that it probably won't be recognized until after my death," Bob Fistori says. "I guess since I'm at this age now, he was right!"

The Fistoris have had great honors in their day, nonetheless. Their work was included in a book, Heart and Hands: Musical Instrument Makers of America. Some of their work, and an example of their unique style of crafting mandolins, was part of a Smithsonian traveling exhibit that went to museums for children, to encourage their musical appreciation and curiosity.

Bob Fistori will be the first to tell you that his mandolin-building career was for love, not commercial success. "I am not copying the Lohr model. These are not Lloyd Gibson copies," he says simply. "I can't do the same thing over and over again."

Some of his mandolins are interesting experiments. Two on the wall stand out, their backs raised seven or eight inches in a sort of beehive, an endeavor to capture a unique sound for which European instruments are known. He pulls another mandolin from the wall, this one with no sound holes. He strums it and the sound rings out clear and bright as any regular mandolin you've ever heard.

A number of their mandolins were made for special students over the years. The Fistoris customized and decorated the instruments to fit those students, reflecting their personalities. The couple never had children of their own, saying their work and their students filled that space in their life together. An average of six students per year still come through the Fistori home and studio. Though many of the students are young—their youngest ever was just seven—there are also adults who come to learn.

"They say they just always had this dream to do this," Jane says.

One special young student was so determined to learn the mandolin that her poor father asked if the Fistoris would accept fresh goat milk from the family's goats as payment. They did, and went on to teach her how to play, and even made her a mandolin of her own. That was in the 1970s. They are still in touch with the now young woman, who is married and has children of her own.

Another student who touched the Fistoris' hearts was a man who'd lost two fingers in an industrial accident. Bob Fistori taught himself to play without using those same fingers so he could teach the student. Still another memorable student, whose hand had a significant birth defect, made a huge pick out of a credit card to compensate for his malformed hand so he could learn to play.

In addition to teaching lessons and playing for their own enjoyment, the Fistoris play at several assisted-living centers in Deming, and at dinner every second and fourth Saturday at the local Holiday Inn.

"We meet so many people coming through there," says Jane. "They (managers at the Holiday Inn) heard us at a Rotary gathering and asked us to play. We've been doing that for a year now." Often they bring two of their students along to play with them.

Bob Fistori leads the way into another room of the studio, where the better part of a wall is covered by what look like violins. Indeed, that was the instruments' original design, but these have been modified and strung to be played like mandolins. He pulls one from the wall to demonstrate.

"I tried to do this 30 years ago and failed," he says of the violin experiment. "I don't know, actually, how I did it, but eventually I did, and you can hear the result."

He hands another instrument to Jane and the two sit down and play together—first a rendition of "Amazing Grace," then a plucky folk tune. They smile at each other, obviously enjoying the seamless partnering of their musical talents.

Talking with enthusiastic audience members at the Holiday Inn, Jane says they came to discover that many of the travelers came from California. That gave the Fistoris the idea that the Golden State might be the perfect place for their next big idea: establishing a mandolin museum. It would be the completion of their life's work and the cementing of their legacy, their contribution to music.

"Oh," Jane says, glancing over at her mandolin partner, "that would just be our dream come true."

 

For more information on the luthiers in this story:

Scott van Linge, www.vanlingeguitars.com
Bill Bussman, www.oldwavemandolins.com
Bob and Jane Fistori, Fistori Music, 110 S. Zinc St., Deming, 544-7370.

Don Musser's guitars are sold through several shops; check out www.mccabes.com or www.trilogyguitars.com, or Google "Don Musser guitars" for dealers.

Dan Swanson says he has more than enough repair orders
to keep him busy!

 

Senior Editor Donna Clayton Lawder comes by her musical expertise by marriage; her husband is Silver City musician Wally Lawder.

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