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In Memoriam: Irving Sloane

In Memoriam: Irving Sloane

April 27, 1925 — June 21, 1998

by Roger Sadowsky

Originally published in American Lutherie #55, 1998 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Five, 2008

Irving Sloane, noted author on the art of lutherie, passed away on June 21, 1998 following a three-year battle with renal cell cancer. He is survived by his wife, Zelda Sloane, his children Roy, Linda, and David, and four grandchildren. I had the pleasure to know Irving for fifteen years and would like to share some of those memories.

I first discovered Classical Guitar Construction by Irving Sloane in the Whole Earth Catalog back in 1971. I was a graduate student in psychobiology and my interest in guitars was beginning to exceed my interest in graduate school. I remember the page in the Whole Earth Catalog that contained information on Irving’s book, H.L. Wild on East 11th Street in Manhattan as a source for guitar woods, and a section on Gurian Guitars who’s label read “Built on the third planet from the sun.” I can remember reading and rereading that page in the catalog at every free moment I had.

Photo courtesy of Roger Sadowsky.

Reading Classical Guitar Construction was like entering a new world for me. I can vividly recall the pictures of Irving planing his wood to thickness, boiling his sides in a galvanized pan and bending them over his bending form, joining the top and back, etc., etc. I read the book over and over until every detail and specification was committed to memory, including his list of sources at the back. This book was soon followed by Guitar Repair which transported me to the repair department at the Martin factory and unlocked many “trade secrets.” Next came Steel String Guitar Construction which, in spite of a rather bizarre neck joint, still provided a virtual gold mine of information and provided one of the few documented visits to Jimmy D’Aquisto’s shop.

These three books provided me with all of the published information available on guitar making and guitar repair to be had at the time. They were the “Rosetta stones” of guitar making — the only key to unlock the mystery of a craft on which almost no printed information existed. The knowledge extracted from these volumes launched me on what is now a twenty-six-year career.

In 1981, I met my wife, Robin Phillips. On one of her earliest visits to my shop, she spied Irving’s books on my shelf and said, “I know him — he was my neighbor when I grew up in Ridgewood, New Jersey.” She told me stories of watching Irving build his guitars in the basement and of Irving serenading her on the front porch. Robin’s mother Zelda worked at the Ridgewood Public Library and Irving paid a visit to his hometown around 1983 and dropped in to say hello (he was living in Brussels at the time). She told Irving that Robin had married a guitar maker, and Irv called us up and met us one day in Manhattan. It was a pleasure to meet him and he autographed my copy of Classical Guitar Construction.

We heard from Irving the following year. He was moving back to the States and was going to live full-time in a small country house he always had in Millerton, NY. He had designed a new premium-quality tuning machine for classical guitar and had patented the design. He was hand making them for a small number of builders and hoped to increase production as his primary source of income. The gears had the smoothest and most positive mechanism I had ever felt and were much less expensive than Rodgers, the only other quality gear available.

Irving had invited Robin and me to come up to the country for a weekend and we had a very nice visit with him. He told wonderful stories of the guitar makers and musicians he had known but his closest relationship was with Bouchet during the years he lived in Brussels. He was also very good friends with the Assad brothers. I also learned a lot about his past. He grew up an orphan on the Lower East Side (10th St.). He spent many years and traveled the world in the Merchant Marines. His primary occupation was as a designer and he worked in the advertising industry, designing product packaging and record album covers. He taught himself metalworking and jewelry making. He designed and made woodworking tools, especially planes, which he sold under the IBEX brand. He was a writer, and in addition to his lutherie books, he had written and published a children’s book titled The Silver Cart.

Robin and I encouraged Irving to take her mom Zelda out to dinner. They fell in love like a couple of teenagers and married the next year. There was an incredible amount of “small world” coincidence to realize I had as a father-in-law the man who was responsible for my career path.

Irving was a true renaissance man. There seemed to be no limit to the things he could do. He made magnificent fish prints on exquisite paper, did his own catalog-quality photography of his tools, made beautiful jewelry, built a new deck for his home, and played guitar and piano. But perhaps his best skill was his ability to make molds. He was self-taught in this art, but it was the mold making that permitted him to make his fine planes, tools, and the beautiful plates for the classical guitar tuning machines.

After failing to find competent workers to produce the tuning gears in his local area, he licensed the gears to Stewart-MacDonald, who now manufacture them at their Waverly shop in Montana. Irving travelled to Bozeman to set up the assembly and train the workers. Waverly then began to produce a variety of steel string guitar tuning gears utilizing Irving’s patented design. Irving had also designed the finest gear available for upright bass. David Gage, ace acoustic-bass guru of New York City, has taken over the assembly and distribution of the bass gear. Most of the other tools are distributed by Bob Juzak of Metropolitan Music in Vermont. Some of his best-known tools are his violin finger planes, bridge clamp, fretting rule, bending iron, rosette cutter, thickness gauge, and crack-splicing set.

We are now in the golden age of guitar making. All of us who are in our forties or fifties have been perfecting our craft for the last twenty or thirty years and are just starting to get pretty good at what we do. As I look back over the last twenty years or so, it seems to me that every interview I have read with any guitar maker or repair person contains a line something like “The first book I ever read was Irving Sloane’s Classical Guitar Construction.” We will always be indebted to Irving Sloane for changing our lives forever.