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In Memoriam: Rob Girdis

In Memoriam: Rob Girdis

1953 – 2009

Originally published in American Lutherie #99, 2009

When Rob Girdis passed away the Lutherie community lost one of its most talented members.

Rob learned the elements of his craft from Anthony Huvard in 1978–1979, staying on at Huvard’s Northwest School of Instrument Design for a second year as teaching assistant. He began his independent guitar making in 1981 and continued building custom instruments until his death. His guitars were notable for their perfection of detail and for Rob’s artistry in color and form. Rob never took the easy way — plates were thicknessed with hand planes, inlays were individually cut, and the materials for each commission were thoughtfully chosen. Each of his instrument stands as testament to his skill.

Photo by Collicott Photo Illustration.

He also left a circle of students who unanimously praise Rob for his patience and grace as a teacher, gently urging beginners in the art of sharp tools and critical eyes.

Though he was a quiet, private person, he impressed his peers at guitar shows and lutherie meetings with his dry sense of humor and reflective approach. Rob was also an accomplished musician, enlivening music camps, sessions, and parties with his fine rhythm backup and occasional fiddle.

More information about Rob and testimonials from some of his many friends can be found at www.girdisguitars.com.

— Rick Davis

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In Memoriam: David Minnieweather

In Memoriam: David Minnieweather

1964 – 2009

Originally published in American Lutherie #100, 2009

David’s life’s passion was bass, both as a maker and an accomplished player — although he would say he just noodled. He started making bass guitars at middle school where his teacher instilled the concept of starting with a centerline, and of not building until it looked right on paper. David was largely self-taught, learning bit by bit from others’ advise and his own work.

His basses were liked and respected by luthiers and players, ensuring his popularity at his regular NAMM appearances.

“Thoughtful,” “genuinely complimentary,” “he smiled with his whole body,” “kind, well spoken, the kind of dude you could connect with immediately,” “an amazing person,” “a huge influence,” “a true gentleman,” are just a few of the comments made by players and makers. Whether you met him once, many times, or only on-line, he left a profound impression.

I am going miss our get-togethers, where all things bass would be talked over, design ideas discussed and pulled apart, what players wanted and didn’t, why things worked or not. He was an inspiration, encouraging trial and experimentation. I am forever indebted and thankful for this, and will noodle as he directed.

David, may your soul be truly at peace and noodling with the Great Maker.

— Veronica Merryfield

Photo by Jonathon Peterson.

I always marveled at David’s musical ability. He once told me how he tried to learn all of Stanley Clark’s seminal solo album by ear in the 8th grade by going to the music store everyday and playing on a Kramer bass. I was also amazed by David’s ability to hear an instrument or a pickup and tell me what it sounded like when compared to other instruments from the near or distant past, where it excelled or was lacking. He had an instinctive understanding of how it would “sit in the mix.” His ability to listen extended to his many deep friendships. Always a quiet person, David would let an initial bluster in an often one-sided conversation blow over, but then redouble his concentration when you were finally getting around to the meat of your thesis. Our wide-ranging conversations were always punctuated with laughter no matter how dark the subject.

As a luthier, David had a knack for finding extraordinary pieces of wood and melding them into something gorgeous. He loved fine details, frequently becoming so engrossed in his work that the passage of time was lost. He called one morning saying that he’d been up all night sanding the edge of a body. At dawn he realized that he’d removed more than a 1/4" of wood all the way around, but he was finally pleased with the results. When I suggested that he trace the shape and alter his template, he implied that it was only this particular instrument that had needed that quantity of sanding.

David did most of his jointing and surfacing with a hand-held router, and the results rivaled the best that I’ve seen. His glue lines were immaculate, and his finishes were as flat and optically perfect as any that I have seen.

David’s passion and his friendship enveloped and inspired me. For this I’ll be eternally grateful.

— David King

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In Memoriam: Victor Gardener

In Memoriam: Victor Gardener

April 1, 1909 – April 7, 2006

Originally published in American Lutherie #92, 2007

Victor Gardener, a fellow violin maker, tree cutter, and friend, passed away last year, April 7th, 2006. He was a giant person in so many ways. I have struggled now for a year to write this letter, in honor of a man that had a tremendous impact on numerous violin makers, players, teachers, and most of all, his most gifted apprentice, Michael Kline. In fact, to honor Victor Gardener, Michael has established a very successful violin making program in southern Oregon called the Giardinari Violin Making Program.

Victor did not want a memorial service when he passed away. This did not surprise me. He was always the first to refuse any thanks for all he had done for others over the years. I always remember Victor talking about wanting to take violin lessons when he was a boy. But his family was so poor, they could not afford to buy him an instrument or lessons. He made his first violin in his lap with a few tools from Sears Roebuck Co., and went on to make 405 violins, violas, and cellos. Among his completed instruments are 108 cellos. He was never able to fulfill his dream of becoming a violin player. Instead, when he became a violin maker he made a point of practically giving away his instruments so the student or family would have the opportunity of playing and enjoying the violin in a way that he never was able to.

Photo courtesy of Michael Kline.

Growing up in the mountains of southern Oregon, almost all his spruce, maple, willow, and mountain mahogany was from trees he found, cut, hauled, milled, and air-dried himself. His ebony he bought in lumber form. He made everything for his instruments, including the purfling, fingerboards, pegs, end pins, tail pieces, and chin rests. I have never known a violin maker or read of a maker anywhere who was so prolific and worked from the tree to the finished product.

Giardinieri’s talent was discovered by Hans Weisshaar, a notable master maker and restorer. A fire broke out in the University of Oregon and the instruments were taken from the Music Deptartment and laid on the lawn until the all-clear was sounded. During this time, as Weisshaar waited outside with everyone else, he spotted a viola. He was impressed by the bold artistic carving but did not recognize the name, Victor Gardener. Weisshaar took some time and located Gardener in the mountains of southern Oregon and for the next several years he would invite him to come and visit his shop and home in California and there he would teach him. Weisshaar had worked with Simone Sacconi for Wurlitzer in New York. It was finally Weisshaar and Sacconi who talked Gardener into using his Italian name, Vittore E. Giardinieri.

Weisshaar and Giardinieri became good friends and corresponded for many years about violin making and the art of carving. Giardinieri would not forget the help that Weisshaar gave him. Victor would return that help by getting ten apprentices started, many of them becoming award-winning makers and enjoying successful careers.

Victor was born July 1, 1909, in Lake Creek, Oregon, the youngest of six children of Rafaele Diodatto Francesco Gardener and his wife, Luisa Maria D’Francesco Gardener, immigrants from Cavalese and Bolzano, then in Austria and now in Italy.

Victor was a logger, dairy farmer, and rancher; he was a designer and builder of earthen dams and irrigation systems; and eventually he became a violin maker. He married Harriet Short in 1936 and lived in Jackson County throughout his life.

I first met Victor when I was a first-year student at the Newark School of Violin Making in England. Since I had grown up in the southern Oregon area, I had known of Victor for a number of years prior to starting my violin making career. I had heard stories of this man who lived in the hills outside of Medford, Oregon (where I had grown up as a youth), who had piles of wood. Maybe I would get lucky and he would agree to sell me some of his wood! As a first year student, I was on the hunt for obtaining piles of my own wood for future instrument making.

At that meeting Victor was very open and friendly, but, “No, I don’t sell my wood” was his reply when I asked to purchase some. “But,” he said, “if you would like to go cut a tree, I would be happy to show you how.” I jumped at the chance!

Little did I know how involved the whole operation was to become. He did show me how to find a tree, and helped with obtaining the proper permits to cut the tree. At which point he said, “Have fun cutting!” Yikes, I was on my own to figure out how I was going to cut, chop, peel, move, wax, stack, and transport this material back into town for storage. With the help of numerous friends and family (several of whom were loggers at the time) the project did come to pass. The next year I came back to visit Victor again and asked if we could go get another tree. He agreed, and from that day forward he was an active participant in what was later to become ten or fifteen various wood cutting-trips that we collaborated on together. That first tree, as I found out later, was his way of testing how serious I was in wanting to obtain my own violin making wood for future years of supply. I guess I passed the test by returning year after year for more!

It was on one of those last trips that Michael Kline and I had the chance to cut one of the last couple of spruce trees that Victor was to be involved with. The areas that Victor knew contained high quality wood have since become off limits to cutting.

Victor had a memory that was amazing! Several times when I would go to visit him and talk about those wood expeditions, he would be able to name every person that was on that trip. He wanted to know what they were doing now, where they lived, and so on. I struggled to even remember the trip itself.

I could easily write a short book about all of the wonderful times I was able to spend with Victor and his wife Harriet. Unfortunately time and space will not permit me to do so. But I would like to acknowledge that without Victor’s help, guidance, tutoring, generosity, and openness (and Harriet’s fantastic pies), I would not have had the good fortune to be where I am today in my career as a cello maker. I keep a picture of Victor near my workbench today, in honor of a gentle giant that I shall never forget. My only wish was that I could have written this article sooner rather than later in remembrance of a dear friend and a man who was like a father to me.

— Chris Dungey

(I would like to thank Michael Kline for his generous contribution and help with this article.)

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In Memoriam: Taku Sakashta

In Memoriam: Taku Sakashta

December 11, 1966 – February 11, 2010

Originally published in American Lutherie #101, 2010

Besides making world-class guitars, Taku Sakashta was part of our local community of artists. In the blink of an eye he is gone, at the hands of a brutal career criminal. Nothing prepared us for the loss of our friend like this. It can really test one’s faith. He is survived by his wife Kazuko. As she worked with Taku, she now is bereft of an income as well as a husband.

Taku came to America and achieved the respect and admiration of his peers. As my former apprentice Isao Abe said about the Japanese culture, “The highest nail is hammered down first.” But here, Taku was an unstoppable lutherie force. He developed his own aesthetic and created extraordinary designs. As Rick Turner pointed out, Taku achieved his dream. Losing him is not easy. When an artist of his stature dies, so do the many guitars he certainly would have left to the world had he lived.

Taku would come to visit without warning. I would turn around and he would be standing in my shop in his apron, usually with one of his students or an assistant in tow. I used to tell him he looked like my grandfather Hideo (who later became Henry) and he would laugh. He would round up the Japanese apprentices from Ervin’s and my shop, and take them camping, or out for beers. He was really caring for this group of men, and was always there for them.

Photo by Jonathon Peterson.

So there we sat in the front row at Taku’s memorial service at the request of his family: Larry Robinson, Steve Klein, Ervin Somogyi, Rick Turner, and myself, with our 200 years of collective instrument making experience. I was honored to be in the company of these outstanding people, who all share the same love of the art and the craft of lutherie. My apprentices call us the “old Gs” of guitar making. It felt like we were burying one of our children.

The family did not want the media there. It was a small and lovely service, half in English and half in Japanese, honoring his life. Tuck and Patty performed, and we were treated to slides of Taku as a wild young man and as a little boy. This was the story of his life outside of guitars.

Taku was a remarkable, brilliant, unstoppable, unflagging force for lutherie. But I will always remember him as a better person.

— Tom Ribbecke

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In Memoriam: Thomas Humphrey

In Memoriam: Thomas Humphrey

November 13, 1948 – April 16, 2008

Originally published in American Lutherie #95, 2008

Thomas Humphrey, a brilliant designer and maker of classical guitars, died recently of a heart attack at his home in Gardiner, New York. It is a great loss to the guitar community and to those fortunate enough to have witnessed his passion for the instrument and life in general.

Among the many things Tom was known for was his Millennium design which popularized the elevated fingerboard. He was constantly, fearlessly experimenting with so many aspects of the guitar: soundboard bracing, back bracing, finish, bridge design, and more. His guitars have been used by many fine guitarists, including Sergio and Odair Assad, Eliot Fisk, Ben Verderey, David Tanenbaum, Lily Afshar, Bruce and Adam Holzman, Sharon Isbin, and many others. His guitars are known for their power, projection, upper treble response, and easy access to the upper register.

Photo courtesy of Stephan Connor.

Early in my own career I had the great fortune and pleasure of meeting Tom at a guitar festival in Boston. I asked him to critique my sixth guitar, which was based on a Torres design with seven fans and a perimeter mosaic. He played several notes, with good rest-stroke technique, producing a very nice tone and said, “Listen, it’s beautiful. You should visit my workshop.” At his shop I couldn’t help bombarding him with questions about the voicing of instruments, how he got such strong treble response, and such. To my questions he would often respond mysteriously with answers such as, “You already know the answer.” When I brought up asymmetrical bracing as a way to push treble response, he said, “It’s a myth.” He had experimented with diagonal harmonic bars in the ’80s, like so many builders (Santos Hernández, Fleta, and Rodríguez to name a few), but later in his career he was using symmetrical patterns exclusively.

One time he intensely exclaimed, with fire in his eyes, “Stephan, you must concern yourself with the atmosphere!” As we all know humidity control is so important to the building process for controlling moisture content of parts, doming of plates, and so on, but he was also stressing the importance of having consistent guitars, not summer guitars built at a higher humidity and winter guitars built drier. He was recommending achieving a consistent sound. His guitars hold up remarkably well through rigorous touring, especially considering his thin tops — 2MM was thick for him. He had an expensive automatic humidity-regulation system in his workshop in Gardiner. I’m not entirely sure, but I believe he kept it around 40%.

I recently examined a guitar he built in 1985 that had a four-piece top salvaged from a vintage piano soundboard. The guitar’s bridge had been stained, perhaps with coffee, but it appeared to be mahogany. Ideas like these are indicative of his style — always exploring. His later Millennium guitars used the same plantilla as his early ones but were braced with a sort of hybrid X/lattice top with a thin layer of carbon fiber over the X.

Over the years Tom offered me advice and guidance in countless ways. It was always offered freely, with only the love of the instrument in mind. What I will miss most about Tom are the intense phone conversations we would have, throwing around ideas at a mile a minute. He was so passionate about guitar making, more than anyone else that I’ve met. The conversations were like roller coaster rides covering so many important topics of lutherie from improving durability of French polish, to what to listen for while evaluating the sound of a guitar, to shaping braces, and methods for building more efficiently. Tom’s spirit and passion will live on in many ways and in many places. I will honor his memory by continuing to build with passion the best instruments that I can, and recognize the many contributions Tom has made to the evolution of this magical instrument that captivates us all.

— Stephan Connor