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Creating Guitars for the Ages

Hi.  I’m Walking Bob, and I’ve been really gratified to receive a good number of ideas for future entries in this series.  Rita Hosking sent me on this walk, telling me that I’d be fascinated by the work of a luthier that she relies on.  First of all, I had to find out what a luthier was (someone who repairs lutes or other stringed instruments), then I contacted Harrison Phipps, the owner of Fretted Strings.  We picked a day for me to check out his Davis workshop, and Rita was right.

Phipps built his first guitar when he lived in Chico in 1978 and was apprenticing under master guitar builder, Arthur Overholtzer.  Overholtzer not only knew enough to publish the book “Classic Guitar Building,” but he also created many unique tools that make it easier to create quality guitars and other stringed instruments.  Later, Phipps worked with Richmond Talbott, a master at repairing stringed instruments, to complete his education in becoming a luthier.  Working directly with Overholtzer and Talbott saved him years and made it so he did the work right the first time instead of having to use trial and error as he learned his craft.

Despite all that knowledge, Phipps didn’t immediately make his living as a luthier.  He spent time as a bluegrass musician himself with bandmates like Sally Van Meter, a Grammy Award winning slide guitarist.  He went to graduate school in Davis and became a traveling consultant on water issues, but that kept him on the road too often. Eventually, he began doing repair work for Watermelon Music, and then opened his own business, Fretted Strings.  Now he is proud to be able to work out of his home so he can make breakfast in the morning and be there in the afternoon when his junior high son and several of his friends come by to hang out at the Phipps home after school.

His garage has been converted into a workshop that is crammed from floor to ceiling with carefully selected and aged wood, power tools, hand tools and a collection of guitars, basses, banjos and other stringed instruments in various states of repair, creation or restoration. He can build a quality guitar from scratch in about a month, but notes that the great majority of his time is spent doing repairs and restorations of instruments.

Local musicians have come to depend on Harrison’s expertise. Dave Nachmanoff had a Martin guitar that just wouldn’t stay in tune until master diagnostician Phipps tracked down and repaired the source of the problem.  Joe Craven, the multi-instrumentalist and music educator, envisions one-of-a-kind creations made from largely recycled materials and brings ideas to Phipps, who he describes as a “fearlessly innovative builder.”  Harrison built Joe a “tuna-lin” made from found objects including a tuna can and showed me a work-in-progress that will be a baseball bat guitar for Joe when it is finished.

Some of the restoration projects are stories in themselves.  He has a banjo with names of World War II servicemen and islands where they fought carved in the back.  That banjo fell into the hands of the Japanese, but was later “liberated” and is headed to a military museum after Phipps completes a restoration. In other cases, he is taking time-damaged old instruments that have been neglected or poorly repaired and restoring them with original parts found on e-Bay or with carefully crafted parts or inlays he creates himself.

Harrison treats each instrument under his care with loving attention that adds value to whatever he works on. He showed me a crack along the seam of a 100-year-old instrument, then pointed out how that won’t happen the way he creates and glues in the braces.  That’s thinking ahead. If you have a stringed instrument that could use some tender care, or you want to get a custom guitar of your own, contact Harrison Phipps at (530) 304-1886 or go to the Fretted Strings website.


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