January-February 2007

Supergrass Festival Offers World-Class Luthiery

By Yvonne Tatar

Did you know that 80% of the guitars sold are in the lower-end of the market price range ($1,000 or less) and sold to beginners? And, of that 80%, half of those buyers never progress past the beginning stage of proficiency. So, in guitar sales, the biggest market share is for entry-level instruments. 

Players beyond the beginner stage usually desire a higher quality instrument with better tonal resonance, ease of playing, and ornamentation. This 20% creates the market for the higher-end instruments.

The cost for construction, materials, and point of origin are all kept low to keep entry-level instruments affordable. The use of pressed woods, synthetics, and laminates used with overseas constructions accomplishes this. High-end instruments are generally hand-made out of quality tonewoods such as mahogany, rosewood, maple, and spruce with upgraded hardware. With their construction, time is secondary to the finished product, placing quality above quantity.

The Supergrass Bluegrass Festival is happening again February 1-4, 2007, in Bakersfield and this year it will include a Luthiery, i.e., a gathering of world-class luthiers. This Luthiery is a wonderful opportunity for all levels of acoustic enthusiasts to see the finest and latest in acoustic instruments, parts and accessories. Here's a sampling of some of the luthiers that will attending Supergrass.

Greg Boyd's House of Fine Instruments from Missoula, Montana, has been trading in fine acoustic musicians for 27 years, both in-store and by mail. Boyd's business provides, "the real acoustic instruments that people in bands are making their living with. My customers are usually ones who have played enough and know what better tone is." Boyd revels in his ability to match the right instrument with the right customer at the right price. "This makes it all worthwhile."

Tom Ellis is the owner of Ellis Mandolins, located in Austin, Texas. In 1977, he met Ricky Skaggs, and Ricky then recorded and toured with two Ellis Mandolins for 20 years. Buck White also used his Ellis Mandolin on dozens of recordings. In 1992, Tom founded Precision Pearl Inlay, a major supplier to the US guitar industry. But in 2004, he returned to building mandolins, teaming up with Nathan Arrison and Pava Knezevic. Ellis adds that his mandolins "have been featured in Mandolin and Bluegrass Unlimited magazines."

Minneapolis, Minnesota is home to Johann D. Brentrup, Luthier. Brentrup, highly regarded in his field, is a mandolin maker, and only attends one or two festivals a year. His father was in a mandolin orchestra in Germany and always had a mandolin in the home. Since 2000, Johann has been doing it full time. His mandolins have been described as "old world" and his Loar and F-4 reproductions as "accurate in tone and vintage look."

Cumberland Acoustic hails from the Nashville, Tennessee area and its owner Steve Smith, views his company's primary focus as "manufacturing high quality parts and components. We specialize in reproduction parts and accessories. And we happily consider custom orders." Cumberland Acoustic's impeccable craftsmanship is obvious as customers include Gibson Instruments, Johann Brentrup, Paul Duff, Ron Spears, Ronnie McCoury, and Roland White.

Award-winning fiddle luthier Frank Daniels, owner of Frank's Fiddles, will also be at Supergrass this year. From Idaho, he and wife Karen travel to many festivals to vend Frank's well-known instruments. "Each of my instruments are hand-crafted using a basic Stradivarius, Guarnerius or Maggini pattern. I use my own graduations and a piece of ivory by the string nut - a family trademark started by my father," explains Daniels. Molly and B.J. Cherryholmes are proud players of Frank's fiddles.

Michael A. Lewis Fine Guitars & Mandolins from Grass Valley, CA, uses a variety of tonewoods for his archtop guitars and mandolins. "We have also made subtle changes to the traditional designs that strengthens the structure and improves the instrument's tone," Lewis adds. His guitars are inspired by the D'Angelico and Gibson L-5 guitar, made famous by Maybelle Carter. His customers have included Sarah Campbell, Greg Brown, and David Parmley & Continental Divide. Lewis also offers a full range of repairs, is an authorized service center for Martin Guitars, and will offer emergency repair service on site.

Bruce Sexauer, Luthier, will offer his own guitars and violins for sale, as well as double basses from several sources. Based in Petaluma, CA, his 39+ years of experience can be seen in the individuality of each of his guitars. Sexauer describes his approach to lutherie as that of the artist. No two are the same as they are built almost entirely without molds, jigs, or fixtures. He is far away from manufactured guitars and in the handmade realm. High profile customers have included Joe Satriani, Joe Mock, Shari Ulrich, Duck Baker, and Eric Schoenberg.

Make plans to attend the Supergrass Bluegrass Festival, February 1-4, in Bakersfield, CA, and experience this fine assemblage of luthiers and craftsmen from across the country.

Please visit www.supergrasscalifornia.org for updated ticket and the many additional festival activities happening. Don't miss this West Coast acoustic experience!