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In Memoriam: Frank Ford

In Memoriam: Frank Ford

1944 – 2023

by The Guild Staff, Staff of the Roberto-Venn School of Lutherie, and Dan Erlewine

Originally published in American Lutherie #151, 2024


Frank Ford at he 1980 GAL Convention in San Francisco. Photo by Dale Korsmo.
Frank dives into the world of lutherie workshops at the first “Dan and Frank Show” at the 1995 GAL Convention. Photo by Jonathon Peterson.
"Frank and Dan Show" at the 2004 GAL Convention. Photo by Jonathon Peterson.

We were very sad to hear that Frank Ford, a great friend to the Guild and the entire lutherie community, passed away on December 17, 2023. Frank was an icon of the instrument-repair field and an overachiever when it came to sharing information with this fellow luthiers. His buddy Dan Erlewine talked him into doing repair workshop demos in 1995, including at the 1995 GAL Convention. Those workshops became what we called the “Dan and Frank Show,” and the show was a highlight at six GAL Conventions, up through 2008. After that, Dan and Frank intentionally passed the torch to some of the younger luthiers they had mentored.

Many folks have written about what a help and inspiration Frank was in their lutherie work, especially through his groundbreaking website. Frank exemplified the Guild’s spirit of sharing, and he will be greatly missed by all his friends and those who benefited from the knowledge he so freely offered.

— The GAL Staff

Frank lectures at the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery. Note his extensive and organized tool boxes. Photo courtesy of Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery.

We were deeply saddened to learn of Frank Ford’s passing. What a loss for all of us who knew him. Frank was such a dear friend to us and everyone he met. We send our heartfelt condolences to Frank’s wife Joy, his longtime friend and business partner Richard Johnston, and the guitar tech staff and employees of Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto.

Frank served on our Program Advisory Committee and as a consultant to the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery for over three decades. As a guest lecturer, Frank traveled to Phoenix to give our students in over sixty classes demonstrations on neck resets, refrets, pickguard replacement, and many other repair operations. We called Frank a “performance artist” as he did these demos in real time, while talking through each step of the process. His knowledge and experience in the world of guitars and guitar repair was truly remarkable. His tales of repair experiences, customer relations, tool use, and everything guitar related was always fascinating, insightful, and informative.

The creation and evolution of his website is an amazing resource for luthiers and hobbyists. Choosing not to produce a fretted instrument repair book and instead offering his repair knowledge for free through his website, was and is an exceptional act of generosity. What a wonderful gift to leave for the stringed instrument world.

Through his dedication to training his tech staff, teaching at our school, his many appearances at the Guild of American Luthier’s and Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans conventions, appearances at Northwoods Guitar Seminar, and tag team demos with Dan Erlewine, his participation in lutherie forums, his writings in Fretboard Journal and many other publications, and all of Frank’s associations and vast network of clients, he leaves a considerable legacy with his boundless sharing of information to the guitar making and repair world. His partnership with Richard and the creation of their Gryphon Stringed Instruments is legendary, and a real testament to what a music store can bring to a community.

Frank was truly inspirational in his expression, passion, and love for the art and craft of repairing and making things. It is hard to imagine a world without Frank Ford.

We love you always, Frank. You have made such a contribution to us and so many lives. We will miss you, and cherish the memories of our times together.

We are pleased to announce the launch of the Frank Ford Scholarship Fund, a collaboration with Frank’s wife Joy Imai, Richard Johnston and the staff of Gryphon Stringed Instruments, and the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery to honor the legacy of Frank Ford. Donations to this fund will allow learning experiences for aspiring luthiers for years to come, including educational opportunities at lutherie schools, stringed instrument workshops, forums, luthier presentations, and other information-sharing activities.

For more infomation on how to make a tax deductible donation, call or email the Roberto-Venn School (602-243-1179 or, or go to the Frank Ford Scholarship Fund section of our website:

Staff of the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery: William Eaton, (Director), John Reuter, Bart Applewhite, Steve Davis, Jim Prater, Robert Manzullo, Mark Allred, Brady Shreeve, AJ Machnes, Joe Vallee, and John Lippi; and all of the students and graduates of Roberto-Venn.

With the passing of Frank Ford this year just before Christmas, the lutherie world lost one of its greatest repairmen, inventors, and teachers of our trade. In 1969, Frank, along with his partner Richard Johnston, founded Gryphon Stringed Instruments, a more-than renowned music store and guitar repair shop in Palo Alto, California. Frank’s reputation as a repairman drew me to visit him in the early 1990s, and we became fast friends. He was my go-to answer man for many a repair dilemma for over thirty years.

On that first visit, I knocked on Frank’s door, and he asked me in. As we walked through to his dining room (which at that time was his shop), there was a black Gibson mandocello lying on the dining-room table. Its finish was pristine. I said, “That finish still looks like new!” Frank said he’d just French-polished it. At the time, I had delved into Mohawk and Star Chemicals bottled French polishing products such as Qualasole with little luck, and had just read George Frank’s Adventures In Wood Finishing, so I was all ears. Frank showed me a board that he had French polished every day until he’d learned how to do it. I went home and did the same.

Frank’s dining room/shop had one long wall filled with red Sears Craftsman tool boxes — bottoms and tops; there must have been five or six along the wall. Every tool he needed was right there within arm’s reach (I went home and did the same). His garage, which later became his home shop, was filled with typical garage stuff except that he had a South Bend 10˝ lathe that he was anxious to get running. I had been using a metal lathe for over a dozen years, and had purchased the first Grizzly Mill-Drill in 1986, so we connected on the importance of metal working in a guitar-repair shop. It wasn’t long before Frank went very deep down that rabbit hole and was on the road to being a high-level machinist and tool maker, in the blink of an eye it seemed.

Frank was a very generous man. As I went through all the tool chests in his shop, I came across two small Vaco brand nippers, or needle-nose pliers, that had been remade into a fret-tang masher (Photo 1) and crimper (Photos 2 and 3), used to lessen the size of fret-tang barbs, or to add more barbs to the tang for a better grip in the slot. I was amazed by the idea of these nice little tools, and shocked when he gave them to me to take home. Remember, this is the first day we met. “I can make myself another pair,” said Frank. Eventually, StewMac made versions of them, but they were not the equal of the originals.

Photo 1. All photos by Dan Erlewine.
Photo 2
Photo 3

On one of our many phone calls I said, “I wish I had a die that could chase mangled threads on a Gibson or Fender truss rod.” A month later, this tool came in the mail (Photos 4 and 5): a four-flute die, just as I’d dreamed of. Frank made this way before his garage was filled with every kind of machine tool you could imagine that might have made it an easier job. “This was the hardest tool I’ve made so far,” said Frank. I still don’t know how he made it, to be honest. He warned me that it couldn’t cut threads, only clean them up. Frank’s tool became the model for another StewMac tool some years later: the Truss Rod Rescue Kit.

Photo 4
Photo 5

Then there was time that a package from Frank arrived at my shop, and I opened it to find this set of “the drill bits we use most in everyday work at the Gryphon repair shop” — all inserted into hex drives and nesting in a beautiful brass base (Photos 6 and 7).

Photo 6
Photo 7

Frank introduced me to a number of his luthier friends in the Palo Alto, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco area: Richard Hoover, Paul Hostetter, Jeff Traugott, Hideo Kamimoto, and others. I returned to Ohio and StewMac with gusto, ready to get back into the shop.

Frank’s knowledge of vintage stringed instruments was vast, and I never asked Frank a question about them that he couldn’t answer. His long-running instructional website has been, and will continue to be, a great source for thousands of us in the guitar-repair biz, and a legacy for luthiers of the future. Frank was a super-bright, warm, and generous person, and a killer guitar repairman, and I will miss him dearly. I loved having Frank in my life.

Dan Erlewine

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In Memoriam: George A. Smith

In Memoriam: George A. Smith

December 7, 1930 – May 18, 2023

by Maria Gonzalez-Leon, Peter Tsiorba, and David Franzen

Originally published in American Lutherie #150, 2023


Photo by Peter Tsiorba.

It is with a heavy heart that I attempt to put into words what George meant to me in my life. His love, his knowledge, not only of music and instruments, but also of the history of our country and Portland, Oregon, was truly incomparable. His absence is deeply felt, and I find myself yearning to call him, as we used to speak at least once a week. He selflessly gave me so much of his time, love, and wisdom on various subjects, including history, music, and politics — fortunately, we shared the same political views.

George came into my life in an improbably way. Approximately forty-five years ago, I was in search of a roommate, and in response to my ad about a room for rent, he brought one of his friends to check out the place. From the very first moment, we connected over our shared passion for classical music, particularly the guitar, and I discovered his exceptional talent as a luthier. I knew that we were destined to be best friends forever.

George’s knowledge of woodcrafting, particularly in constructing guitars, banjos, and even a couple of harpsichords, was beyond compare. Generous with his time, he was always willing to share his expertise with anyone interested. Throughout my life, George remained a constant source of support during challenges and successes. He encouraged me to pursue my dreams and further educate myself to earn professional degrees.

I fondly remember the times when my daughters were young, and we would visit George’s house. My daughters and I hold memories of sitting together and watching him skillfully paint one of his harpsichords. It was a delightful experience as he patiently explained the process to the girls, answering all their questions about music, instruments, and the intricacies of construction. His love for sharing knowledge was evident in those moments, but it was George’s warm and loving nature that made those moments even more special. Beyond his musical talents, he surprised us with his culinary skills, and I particularly loved the bread croutons he made — they were so delicious, I would eat them like popcorn. Those cherished memories with George will forever remain in our hearts.

As the years passed, I relocated from Portland to California and even lived in Spain for a time, but despite the distance, our friendship never wavered. George was always curious about my experiences, especially when it came to flamenco music, wanting to know every detail of the music I heard in the Romani neighborhoods of the Alicante. He had a way of making friends effortlessly, and his warm-hearted nature endeared him to people from all walks of life. He cherished friendships and had an astounding memory for details, recounting stories from his youth. George’s passion for music and life extended beyond the boundaries of his immediate circle. He corresponded with people from all over the world, exchanging stories about music and sharing his vast knowledge.

I feel incredibly grateful to have had George in my life. He was not only and dear friend but also an exceptional human being who left a mark on the lives of those he touched. Though he is no longer with us, his memory and his legacy as a luthier and a friend will forever be cherished in our hearts.

Rest in peace, dear George.

— Maria Gonzalez-Leon

Photo courtesy of Peter Tsiorba

I met George Smith in the mid 2000s. During that time, lutherie knowledge, along with everything else in the 21st century, was steadily migrating into digital ecosystems. Video content, tonewoods, tooling, building techniques... it all seemed only a click or two away. Knowing George Smith connected me to a very different era of lutherie, one where supplies and tonewoods were elusive, and information hard to find.

I recall this story of one of George’s early tonewood orders. A certain gentleman in Los Angeles advertised European spruce and other supplies to luthiers. When one thinks of a supplier, one might expect some shelves with inventory awaiting shipment. Well, this particular supplier typically had nothing to ship. At least not right away. Incoming orders would be banked, and once enough payments had accumulated, the “supplier” would place larger batch orders for his presold wares. It would take some months for the tonewoods or tools to arrive from Europe or another unknown locale. Once received, individual orders would be shipped to customers. Lag time from order to fulfillment? By modern Instacart standards, eternity! And in case you were curious about the grading methods applied to your tonewood order, yours is the next set on the pile.

Thank you George, for doing your part, carrying lutherie knowledge across all those decades, and for leaving us with lessons in patience, frugality, and perseverance.

— Peter Tsiorba

George Smith was someone I have known pretty much my whole life. I was a young boy when I first became aware of him in our local guitar community. He was a distinguished looking gentleman wearing a mariner’s cap and he loved to talk about stringed instruments for as long as you would listen, and he made many different kinds himself. When I looked at him I wouldn’t have necessarily thought he looked like a movie star when he was young. But early photos of him proved otherwise. He had sort of a Leonardo DiCaprio look to him. I imagine he was popular with women.

Whenever George heard an interesting instrument, he always wanted to borrow it overnight to study it closely and measure it in his shop. I believe that through this process he learned key information. When I played for him he usually seemed more interested in the sound of the instrument more than any particular piece of music being played. George was always very kind to me, and generous with his time. We had long conversations about world history, or even the history of the buildings built in downtown Portland. He remembered when they were erected, and what businesses went in them, and which ones failed, and who replaced them, his memories reaching back decades. Talking to George was never boring. He usually knew more on many subjects than I, and he seemed to have a somewhat encyclopedic memory. In addition to making stellar-quality guitars, he also made harpsichords and virginals. I remember a beautiful harpsichord of his being played at the Marylhurst musical instrument show. He once told me harpsichord construction can be thought of as akin to flamenco guitars in some ways in how they respond. Frequently cypress is used to offer a quick and lightweight response. When I told him I bought a clavichord at an estate sale, and I said it seemed rather quiet, he told me to bring it over and he would take a look at it. When I did, he decided to replace the soundboard right then and there, so we got to work together on a low-risk fun project together. It is a sweet memory sitting on the floor looking through his stash of strings, and gluing in the new soundboard, all in the same day. The clavichord ended up sounding pretty much exactly the same as before, but I wouldn’t trade the memory.

I have owned four of George’s guitars over my career. The first was an African blackwood spruce guitar. When I listen back to my recording of the Chaconne, or Rodrigo’s Fandango, I think to myself, how could I ever have parted with it? I am touched to now own his final instrument, which seems to me to be the perfect mixture of all the ones that came before it. The top is made of some of the finest European spruce you can find anywhere, and it had been aging in his upstairs stash for over fifty years. The back is made of Malaysian blackwood, which seems to my ears to support upper harmonics better than African blackwood. Maybe it’s a little lighter; I can hear a little bit of Indian rosewood qualities in it, along with the power of blackwood. When I slice the string at an angle, that silky/airy quality that many guitars can lack is there in spades.

Last summer during Covid, he was having trouble getting around upstairs in his house where his wood stash was kept, and he called me up and asked me to come over and help him sort them into matched pairs. We worked a couple days at that. There was some amazing looking wood there.

Afterwards, we relaxed in the nook just outside his kitchen and we had a couple Black Butte Porters together. I don’t really like beer, but with George it had become sort of a tradition. I think we complained it wasn’t the old recipe.

I spent time with him twice in the last two weeks before his passing. I am so grateful I did. He said he didn’t have long. In spite of his quickly declining health, he seemed quite lucid and warm. He didn’t seem scared. He would occasionally exclaim he was angry about it, but it was just a brief flash, and then he was back chatting away. We reminisced about everything we had talked about over the years. We shared a couple Obsidian stout beers together on the last two visits, and dolmas as snacks. He mentioned when he grew up in this town, it wasn’t very easy to find quality guitars. George never used to like to talk about his age, but in our last conversation he mentioned he was thirteen years old at some point in World War II. It kind of puts things in perspective. I think he was ninety-two. That’s a long life, and he added beauty to the world in such a lovely way. His guitars will long outlive me. I am grateful for his long friendship.

I will miss you, George! I hope you feel ease and a fantastic bliss wherever you are. Feel free to visit me if you can.

— David Franzen