By Gregory Daurer | Jul 26, 2021
Guitars and other stringed instruments
Almost as soon as the guitar case is opened, Dick notices the problems with the Martin D-18 acoustic, made in the early 1970s: there are a couple of slight cracks in its wooden body, the neck is bowed and needs to be reset, and, given that there were no adjustable truss rods in models from that year, different types of frets need to now be installed. The latter couple of issues presently make the guitar harder to play, to stay in tune. Dick inserts a mirror on a stick (akin to dental tool), as well as a light source, into the sound hole to scope around inside, but he doesn't spot any issues there.
If the Martin guitar had spent the past few decades in, say, Seattle or Atlanta -- where it's substantially more humid and much lower in elevation -- there's a chance it might not need any work, at all. "We're constantly repairing guitars that are damaged as a result of our environment, because we live in the high desert," says Dick.
Repairs for this particular Martin guitar will cost just over $1,000. If it's fixed up, it will be good to go for another 30, 40 years, Dick says. Or, after being repaired -- and only then -- Dick might accept it on consignment, placing it for sale in his shop, beside other used and new guitars, some of which were made by the shop's staff or the students who have excelled within his guitar-making school. At that point, the Martin could conceivably fetch around $2,000.
Dick has repaired much rarer instruments: He cites a mandolin made by Lloyd Loar, as well as a 1941 Martin D-45 worth around $150,000. He's also worked on all manner of exotic instruments: lutes; harps; bouzoukis; instruments from Bosnia, Serbia; a Chinese erthu. "I've got a Russian instrument in here now," he says. On one wall there decoratively hangs a cittern, probably made in the late 17th or early 18th century in Austria or Germany.
In addition to fixing exotic instruments, Dick makes one of his own: the banjola -- which is built from wood like a guitar, but tuned like a banjo. "I always had the idea to marry the two instruments," he says.
Dick built his first banjola in 1996. Now, Dick says, Jens Kruger of the Kruger Brothers owns one; Ron Block, who plays with Alison Krauss, has two. By 2009, the first banjola festival took place in Colorado, featuring an array of players. The festival ran for a couple more years, before Dick needed to devote all of his time to his shop on South Broadway in Denver.
Retail brings in about 15 to 20 percent of the shop's revenue. Repairs bring in around 25 percent. "Instruments always need work," Dick says. "Every instrument almost out there could be improved."
He's fixed guitars for homeless buskers, in addition to doing restoration work for lawyers and bankers who can afford to plunk down $15,000 for a vintage Gibson. "One of the perks of this business is I get praised every day because I solve people's problems," he says.
Then, there's his on-premise Colorado School of Lutherie, in which Dick's students learn how to build and repair instruments by hand. The school brings in about 40 percent of the shop's revenue. It used to be men in their fifties taking the classes, perhaps looking at the pursuit as a retirement hobby, but Dick says there are a lot more career-minded young people -- including increasing numbers of women -- learning the craft, these days.
Last but not least, instruments built by Dick, himself, bring in another 15 to 20 percent.
Since starting nearly 50 years ago, Dick has made 455 instruments, including scores of guitars. But it's not something he would have ever imagined himself doing as a teenager in Peterborough, Canada, when he had grand visions of playing professional hockey. When Dick's hockey dreams fizzled, and conventional higher education didn't excite him, he was at a loss as to what direction to take. While out walking one windy day, filled with anxiety, he experienced an epiphany. What am I going to do?, he'd internalized, as he was walking up a hill. "After I got to the bottom of the hill, I literally heard a voice: 'You will be a builder of musical instruments.'" It was a pursuit he had zero experience in previously.
Almost immediately he found a place to learn. Then he began making trips across the border, buying broken instruments at pawn shops across the Eastern United States. He taught himself how to fix them up, then he'd sell them. Dick says, "To this day, repair work has been a teacher: I get to see how they're built; how they fall apart; how you can repair them; their internal design and construction; why they sound like they do."
After nearly 50 years in business, he's still smitten with building guitars. There's the shaping, carving, sanding, and the working with chisels, rasps, and saws. And unlike a piece of furniture or a birdhouse, the results can produce glorious sound, the direct result of those resonant woods -- "this beautiful organic material" -- such as ebony, rosewood, and spruce.
"Building instruments is just an incredibly intoxicating experience," says Dick.
Challenges: Dick says it's bridging the communication gap between himself and the musicians he assists, which oftentimes requires "dealing with their idiosyncrasies, neuroses, desire, passions -- which they often can't communicate -- their idea of tone." He adds, "Musicians are in constant quest to find an instrument that satisfies their internal passion. A lot of the time, I can do a great job [helping them to get just that]."
Opportunities: The Colorado School of Lutherie, which has had more than 400 students, and brings in a good portion of revenue for the business. Students have come from as far away as Italy, China, and Brazil. Dick says people "get hooked" learning how to build and repair guitars by hand -- as well as by the camaraderie they experience learning alongside others within the same class. "The way we teach it is literally how guitars would have been built in the 1930s -- which is often seen as a heyday of the guitar," adds Dick.
Needs: Given that Dick wants to focus his time exclusively on repairing and building instruments, the shop needs people to handle the other aspects of the business -- from running the cash register to keeping the books to maintaining the shop's social media presence.