Rob Pope reached through the sound hole of a vintage acoustic guitar to install a sophisticated amplification system by feel deep inside the cavernous body, much like building a wooden ship in a bottle.
Under the watchful eye of master luthier DJ Parsons, Pope checked his handiwork using a lamp and thin strips of mirror placed inside the 1970s Epiphone Jumbo guitar. The wires were neatly tucked away, along with the controls, pickup, and a microphone fitted under the bridge plate.
“Are you having trouble with the jack, Rob?” Parsons asked.
“No, I am just trying to make it look pretty in here,” Pope said.
Within minutes, the Parsons Guitar Repair workshop rang with the rising plinks of guitar strings tuning to pitch.
“Rob is the closest thing to an apprentice I have,” Parsons said, pulling a 1938 Gibson Archtop out of one of the dozens of cases crammed into his workshop in a renovated 19th-century grist mill in Medway.
Through hands-on instruction — and lots of practice on his own collection of guitars — Pope has entered the ages-old tradition of learning one-on-one from a master craftsman.
To a serious guitarist, finding the right luthier can be magical. The late Texas bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan famously had Rene Martinez tweaking his Fender Stratocasters. Country legend Willie Nelson only entrusts his battered acoustic “Trigger” to the equally legendary guitarmaker Mark Erlewine.
Most luthiers, however, build loyal followings closer to home in closely knit musical communities where word-of-mouth recommendations — and a social media presence —
“Here in Boston, being a luthier means to me to be a caretaker to the music community,” said Bob Stubblebine, owner of Stubblebine Lutherie in Somerville and one of the founders of the New England Luthiers organization of builders and technicians.
“What makes this place special,” Stubblebine said, “are the touring musicians, local musicians who come here with their last-minute needs, their disasters, for some handholding, to be told everything is gong to be OK. That sort of thing. And it means somebody’s favorite old instrument they got from their grandfather comes off the wall or out from under the bed and gets played again, as opposed to going in the trash.”
Stubblebine got his start fixing hikers’ tired instruments along the Appalachian Trail before heading to the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery for formal training in Phoenix. That landed him a job at The Music Emporium in Lexington, which still refers customers to him for repairs.
And he routinely refers work to other luthiers who may have more expertise with an instrument, such as a pre-World War II Martin, considered by many collectors to be the gold standard of acoustic guitars.
Other projects at Stubblebine’s include a headless Martin guitar awaiting resurrection for a music therapist whose young clientele got a bit rough; a local performer’s main guitar that took a tumble at a gig; and pieces of a late 1890s banjo a customer found in the trash.
While he is a trained builder — one of his own guitars hangs near the entry across from a row of vintage Kays and Silvertones — Stubblebine takes great pride in focusing on repairs.
“There are so many musicians here working hard every night who are so tied to their instrument to be exactly what they need it to be that it can be catastrophic if their instrument is not treating them right,” he said.
Stubblebine shares the space with another luthier, Jess Fox, who builds and repairs violins. She was recently carving the top for a new build while repairing the neck of a German violin from the 1700s clamped into a vice on her bench.
She removed the antique’s top cap to reveal tiny squares of wood meticulously glued in place by other luthiers to repair cracks from below over the centuries, then flipped over the cap to reveal long scars in the finish.
“If this had been an Italian violin, a Stradivarius, these repairs would have been invisible,” she said.
But even 21st-century guitars require tender loving care by an expert hand to sound their best.
Like all stringed instruments, guitars need routine maintenance and proper setups to play well. Wood swells and shrinks with the change of seasons. Parts wear out and break. Fixing them requires more skill and understanding of both the instruments and their players than just access to spare parts and videos.
Pope, 40, is a professional musician from Worcester. He plays bass in the rock bands Spoon and Get Up Kids and had always tinkered with his guitars, often spending hours watching YouTube how-tos that sometimes helped, sometimes didn’t.
Last winter, Pope was dropping off some instruments in need of work at Parsons’ shop in Medway when the bespectacled proprietor made a suggestion: study one-on-one with him and learn properly to fix and set up his own gear.
“I was doing a lot of things on my own at home but my learning curve was pretty low,” Pope said. “No one had ever shown me how to do a lot of this stuff, although it made sense in my head. So it seemed like the sensible thing to do, since I have a ton of guitars that are in various states of disrepair.”
Parsons, who earned his own certification at the Galloup School in Michigan after a career in the lumber business, said he feels obligated to pass on his encyclopedic knowledge of tonewoods, fretboards, bridges, and more.
“It is a legacy thing for me,” Parsons said. “I care enough about my customers to want to put them in good hands when I hang up the tools at some point.”Jose Martinez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.