As I have briefly mentioned before, Mycelia and I have been taking fiddle lessons for a while now. My fine fiddlin’ friend Artemas Rex (who you may remember from here and here) recently took me to a hidden little luthier’s shop aways outside of town called Wolf Note Studio. Owned and operated by local musician Luke Wilson, it is located in a small building right next to the house he shares with his wife and long time band mate Maggie McKaig.
I was completely mesmerized by the beautiful instruments, fine craftsmanship, and rusty history the place evoked. Last week Luke and his partner Jon allowed me to come back, take photographs, and ask them some questions.
One question you may have is “what is a luthier?” Unless you play a stringed instrument you may have never heard the word. I first came across the term in a fiddle book (okay, I admit it, it was The Total Idiot’s Guide to Playing the Fiddle) only days before Artemas mentioned the shop to me. Upon reading about what a luthier does, I was aching to meet one in person and see what wonders such a shop would hold. So I was thrilled when Artemas told me Luke was a good friend of his and that he had set up a time for us to go out there.
A luthier is, quite simply, someone who makes and/or repairs stringed instruments. As you might guess, this is a whole subculture within itself, steeped in intricate handiwork, fascinating folklore, and a deep love of music.
I ended up renting a late 19th century German fiddle from Luke that first day, which replaced the slightly-less-awesome fiddle that my wonderful teacher (and Luke’s old time pal) Rick Toles (aka Alkali- Last of the 49ers) had lent me for free. Luke’s beautifully restored fiddle had come to him by way of the dump- a long time employee there used to salvage old instruments and pass them on to Luke. I am proud to be in possession of such a piece
Luke’s grandfather had apprenticed as a woodworker at 14 years of age in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada. It was through this work that he eventually became a luthier in the late 1800s. He made this woodworking tool. A creek going by outside his window turned the lathe that created the power necessary to create such an implement out of Birdseye Maple. Luke uses it in his shop over a hundred years later.
His grandfather also made this:
Luke’s father (born to the luthier grandfather) was a classical piano player turned industrial chemist, and his mother also played piano. She never received classical training and just played by ear. This is the way Luke has always learned music as well. He says “If you hear twelve notes a few times and can’t play it back, what kind of a musician are you?”
Here’s the man himself, holding a Hawaiian guitar from the 1920s.
And here’s Luke in his younger days, on an album he and a friend recorded in Europe in the 70s. Luke spent this time in his life between there and Canada, working with violin and guitar makers, spending time at Folklore Centers, and learning from banjo historian Pete Stanley. And playing music and honing his craft and falling in love and starting a family all the while.
One of the first things Luke showed me on my visit was the beautifully carved abalone inlay he put into this guitar. “I think you’ll like this” he said as he brought it out.
I’m quite certain there was no esoteric intuition involved and that he knew nothing of my love for the whale folk (and just thought that I’d find it beautiful, because it is) but it sure did make my little heart sing to behold such a special, painstakingly crafted instrument bearing the image of my most beloved ocean dwellers.
Can you guess what this is?
Horse hair, for fiddle bows.
The shop is full of this kind of thing- crazy looking instruments that you’ve never seen anything like before but can tell have a long history behind them and have travelled far and wide. Here we have (from left to right)- a coconut shell ukulele made by a World War II Marine, a Moroccan three string land tortoise shell instrument, and a Chilean one string top cello made from an armadillo.
This is Jon Wondergem, who started out as Luke’s apprentice many years ago and now works beside him as a junior partner, at work in his corner of the shop. Jon grew up in the area and now lives with his wife on a piece of land much farther out of town where they tend goats and fruit trees and other crops, calling their operation by a moniker just as charming as his last name- Peaches & Cream Farm. Here is Jon’s beloved Epiphone Broadway guitar:
He told me that he loves doing this kind of work because of the infinite variety of options available to him when crafting an instrument. He feels as though he enters a different kind of time and space when he is working on a piece. Which, it seems to me, is proof that he is engaged in his heart’s true work.
Jon and I talked about the palpable history, subtle and almost ghostly, that lingers around the instruments and pulses through the shop. He told me a story about a man, both cellist and exorcist (totally amazing career combo), who came into the shop once. Luke told him about a strange, uneasy feeling he’d been having lately while working, which made it difficult to concentrate properly on the task at hand, and the man offered a suggestion. He had Luke pick up the piece of material on his workbench upon which he lays the instrument he is currently working on, take it outside, and throw it into the air. When he did this, Luke saw a flash of light come out of the material. Things improved after that and, it seems, whatever ill spirit was lingering around the place disappeared. It makes me wonder what other energies and reminiscences are housed in these relics.
A better look at Jon’s workspace, as he shows me a piece of abalone inlay in a beautiful wave pattern that he put into the neck of this instrument.
Speaking of, here is Luke’s workbench. Quite a lovely, rolling-green-hillside-and-oaks, view. Which is sometimes also filled with their horse Belle, any number of the deer who graze their land, and maybe a dog or cat or two.
This is a guitar from 1901 that was built by an Italian immigrant living in New York City. He was a part of a whole community of Italian craftspeople working there at the turn of the century.
This beautiful East Indian single stringed instrument, with a goat-like animal head, is made of solid rosewood, and was probably used to accompany chanting.
Do you notice how the bridge on these guitars is shaped like an airplane? Well, it’s actually a very specific airplane. In the late 1920s, after Charles Lindbergh successfully made the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris in his small single engine plane, luthiers all over the country scrambled to incorporate images of his famous aircraft The Spirit of St. Louis onto their instruments.
This simple one string cello was popular with country folk and was used to accompany singers at church and other gatherings.
This is a late 19th century harp guitar of the sort that was peddled door to door at farms across America. I would like to meet one of those peddlers.
Luke calls this a “guilute”.
A late 19th century mandolin with gorgeous abalone inlay.
I can’t tell you how happy it made me to be there that day, a feeling that lingers as I go over these photos and stories now. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that I have suddenly gone from being someone who had never picked up an instrument to someone who can (kinda) play a song or two on the fiddle! One of my favorite parts in one of my favorite books, Cold Mountain, is when a 15 year old girl asks Stobrod “What kind of a fiddler are you?” He answers “Bum and shoddy”. That’s me, for now. But being around Luke and John and Rick and going to see shows like the one I did last weekend just serve to further embed into my heart the desire to keep at it. To steep myself in the folklore and craftsmanship and love that emanates from all the beautiful stringed instruments in the world. To continue to stomp my feet and twirl my skirt and smile to the music, and to maybe someday be the orchestrator of that experience for someone else through my own playing.
You can check out Luke and Maggie’s band Beaucoup Chapeaux here. And for all you locals- they play at the Nevada City Classic Cafe every Friday night at 6pm (acoustic set! children welcome!) and will be having a CD release party at The Miner’s Foundry on May 6th, details here.