A Brief Biography

Portrait of the luthier as a young man, playing guitar #1...uh, trying to.
Portrait of the luthier as a young man, playing guitar #1…uh, trying to.

I was born in 1940 in Woburn, Massachusetts, and spent most of my growing-up years in the suburbs of Washington, DC.  When I was a kid, I was constantly making things.  One winter I made a bobsled, just like the ones I was seeing in the winter Olympics, steering wheel and all.

There was just one problem with “Jake’s bobsled,” as my neighborhood buddies scornfully called it: it wouldn’t go anywhere.  It just wouldn’t move in the sparse, wet Maryland snow.  The next summer in Cape Cod I made a set of sails out of old bedsheets for a neighbor’s dory.  Unlike the bobsled, the dory actually moved around Provincetown harbor—quite nicely, thank you—propelled by my hand-crafted canvas.

As a teenager, my first love was music.  The guitar, you ask?  No, the trumpet.  I idolized Chet Baker and his cool jazz, and I was sure if I kept at it I could be just like him, though I realized later on I wouldn’t have been blessed by his troubled, heroin addicted lifestyle.  At age eighteen I entered the University of Maryland as—what else?!—a pre-dental student, and my music took a back seat.  I remember tooting unenthusiastically in the ROTC band for as short a stint as I could get away with.  At age nineteen I put my trumpet back in its case…for forty-five years.

In 1963 I graduated from the University of Maryland with a double-major degree in English and German.  My German was quite fluent and helped me get my first job with the CIA.  After four years, including a very brief tour in Germany, I decided money was more important than the adventure that never quite materialized.  A job as an industrial salesman moved me to Kansas City, where later I started a small business making fiberglass reinforced plastic products.  The business went bust.  I was a banker for a while.  Then a clothing salesman in a department store.  Then a salesman for a publishing company.  Let’s see, how many careers is that?  Five by my count, though I may have forgotten one.  In 1972, out of coupons, I took a job as a railroad switchman, thinking that would give me time to collect myself around some serious purpose.

That purpose began to emerge in 1974 in a way I could not have predicted: I got serious about learning to play the classical guitar.  I met Macario Briseño, a self-taught classical guitar maker in Kansas City, at a Pepe Romero master class.  I bought one of Macario’s guitars, but what really got a hold on me was the idea of making my own .  Hey, making things + love of music = voila! making music things!  In the fall of 1974, I completed my first instrument, a classical guitar, under Macario’s guidance.  In the years following, I also made a number of steel-string acoustic and twelve-string guitars and did repair and customizing work on virtually every kind of fretted instrument.  The repair work did little to satisfy my career dream, but it helped pay bills and finance needed shop equipment; in retrospect, I can now see that it was also some of the most valuable luthiery experience in my career.

Since 1980 I have focused solely on classical guitars, mostly because that’s the music I love most. In 1984 I collected my life’s last paycheck as a railroad switchman in order to give to my guitars whatever I had to offer.  My sales of new guitars, which had been sparse previously, plummeted.  After a year I took a job as a salesman in a computer store and made plans to dismantle and terminate my guitar making enterprise.  I hated the computer store job.  After a month, I quit, determined to do whatever was necessary to get the guitar making venture to go.

The next several years were spent tending display tables at guitar festivals, doing slide presentations at guitar society meetings, shaking hands, smiling, listening—lots of listening—and, oh yes, building a few guitars.  I taught myself how to use my wife’s Apple 2e computer and began building a database and mail-merge capability.  In 1989 Pat Dixon asked me to build her a guitar.  Scott Tennant saw Pat’s guitar and asked me to build him one like it.  Bill Kanengiser saw Scott’s guitar and wanted one, too.  Scott took his new guitar to Japan and proceeded to win the all-Japan classical guitar competition.  Immediately dealers in Japan contacted me wanting to import my instruments.  I started an export relationship with Rokkomann, Inc. which continues today.  Things were not the same after all this.

Since 1987 I have made my home in the ruburbs (rural suburbs) of Kansas City, where peaceful surroundings can, when necessary, ameliorate the stresses of the luthier’s life.  The Guitar Workshop, Inc. now consists of two people: me and my wife Carol, who does no luthing but supports me in so many ways, more ways than I can recount… listening to me while smiling and attentive  (if uncomprehending) as I prate about my work in luthierbabble, correcting my spelling and grammar (she’s an English teacher),  etc.

My dream of becoming a middle-aged guitar prodigy came to an abrupt halt in 1988.  I took my latest creation with me to New England on a vacation with my family, thinking relatives who lived there would appreciate seeing one.  My guitar wowed them all, but my guitar playing impressed no one.  During that vacation, I doggedly persisted trying to learn a piece that was far beyond my capability.  When I returned, a friend who is a truly gifted guitarist stopped by to fetch a repair.  He picked up the guitar I had taken to New England and proceeded to play perfectly, with a serene face, the very song I had struggled with so hopelessly.  That was the end for me.

However, in 2004, at age 64, my 45-year layoff on the trumpet came to an end.  One day I returned from a shopping trip with a new student-model trumpet purchased on a silly impulse.  I remember thinking all the way home, “You old fool, you’re not gonna be able to get a peep out of that thing.”  Within a week I was sight-reading hymns from my church hymnal.  It was like riding a bicycle again.  Of course, I didn’t start right off mountain biking, but my strength returned with some time and work, and nowadays I make regular appearances at my church with my horns (six of them, different pitches from flugelhorn to piccolo trumpet) playing music I would rate as advanced intermediate.

My life seems to me today like a full circle which contains love of music and also the urge to make things, and the parts seem to me to add to each other.  Taking up trumpeting again, for instance, has given me new insights into the music of the guitar and how the instrument, in the hands of the guitarist, creates that music.  But the specific events themselves have been so unpredictable that only God could have conjoined them as He did.