A Guitar Surgeon Gives Old Instruments Their Voices Back
Walk through the front door of Bob Smakula’s workshop and — it's a lot to take in.
Every flat surface is covered in clutter: chisels, screwdrivers, paint brushes, a fork, a bottle of lighter fluid. One whole wall is just wood clamps in various sizes and denominations.
But eventually you see past the jumble and begin to notice all the musical instruments, in various states of repair.
There’s a ukulele on Smakula’s workbench. It’s a Martin from the 1920s; a beautiful instrument and a real collector’s piece, but it has problems.
“For some reason Martin used mahogany for the tuning pegs so they’re fussy. Extra fussy,” he said.
These tuners are held in place by friction, like the ones on a violin. That friction caused one of these brittle mahogany pegs to break.
“I’m going to replace those with a comparable ebony tuning peg. And that’s going to work better for him. He’s going to be able to get things in tune a bit better,” Smakula said.
This is Smakula’s style. He could have slapped a set of modern, metal geared tuners on this uke. It would have stayed in perfect tune. But that wouldn’t be right for a 100-year-old instrument like this.
Smakula tries to make repairs that fix an instrument’s problems while also staying true to its history.
“I’ve definitely honed my skills to try to be invisible,” he said. “I don’t want anybody to know I was ever there, except to go ‘Hey, this plays better than they usually do,’ or ‘This sounds better than they usually do.’”
Smakula has been honing his invisibility powers for a long time. He’s originally from Cleveland, Ohio, where his parents were involved in the folk music scene of the 1960s and ‘70s
In those days, new acoustic instruments were overbuilt and heavy. Folk musicians tended to seek out older instruments, but those often needed repairs. So Smakula’s dad Peter, an engineer by trade, started fixing them.
Smakula also took an interest in the inner-workings of musical instruments. He learned to play his mother’s lap dulcimer and wanted one of his own. He didn’t have the money, so he sent away for a build-your-own dulcimer kit.
“My parents’ friends saw the instrument and said ‘Hey, you made that. Could you make me one?’ The next thing I knew I was 14 and in business making dulcimers for people,” he said.
Father and son eventually joined forces and opened Goose Acres Folk Music Center in Cleveland where they bought, sold, built and repaired folk instruments.
Instrument repair was a difficult trade to learn in those days.
“We were definitely inventing the wheel,” he said. “The information age of instrument work just wasn’t there. There were a few books out there, and so I'd grab everything I could in printed sources. But it’s not like now, where you can find dang near anything you want to know via the internet.”
Smakula learned much of what he knows from the instruments that appeared on his operating table.
“Maybe a part needed to be replaced. We’d study that and put on something similar. Every builder has their own little quirks, or their own little design style,” he said.
His work developed such a reputation that Smakula decided to leave Cleveland — and the business he started with his dad. He followed his new bride Mary, who worked for the U.S. Forest Service in Elkins, and moved his operations to West Virginia.
“I decided I could do my work anywhere in the world. It didn’t have to be in Cleveland,” he said. “Anywhere a UPS truck can come, I can fix an instrument and send it back to the owner.”
He was right. In addition to his repair work, Smakula also taught instrument repair classes at the nearby Augusta Heritage Center. That is how he found his apprentices Nate Druckenmiller and Andy Fitzgibbon.
Now customers from all over the country ship their banjos, mandolins, fiddles and guitars to this little shop in the woods so Smakula and his team can get them singing again.
Like one particular banjo from 1887.
“[It was] made by a talented woodworker who, maybe banjos wasn’t his main thing. But it’s really interesting,” Smakula said.
On a recent Monday morning, the instrument was laying on Fitzgibbon’s workbench. He has worked for Smakula for over 20 years and is the shop’s go-to banjo guy.
“You see a lot of unique, one-off home-built ones like this. [They] vary in quality anywhere from really crude to really nice. And this one is a really nice one,” Fitzgibbon said. “It’s nice to get them back up and running again.”
But as nice as it is, there are some things about this old banjo that don’t live up to modern standards.
Nowadays, builders know frets need to be precisely placed, down to hundredths of an inch, for an instrument to play in tune. The frets on this 1887 banjo weren’t placed with nearly that precision.
“At this point you have to balance playability with the historical aspect of it,” Fitzgibbon said.
Since this instrument is more of a collector’s piece, Fitzgibbon decides to keep the wonky fret job. But the balance might tip in the other direction if the instrument was going to be played onstage, or if the original construction compromised the banjo’s structural integrity.
In those cases, Fitzgibbon would apply a bit more modern know-how. That’s what happened with Smakula’s own 1903 Fairbanks banjo.
It’s a family heirloom. His uncle found it in a bar in Newton Center, Massachusetts.
“He goes in one day and sees this banjo in the corner,” Smakula said. “He says ‘Hey Tom, what’s with the banjo?’ And Tom says ‘Eh, somebody used it to pay a bar tab. You want it? You can have it.’”
It had a lot of sentimental value, but wasn’t a great player.
“All the time I've had it, I always thought there’s something missing. There’s something that needs to be done to make it the best-playing banjo for me,” he said.
The fingerboard was made from ebonized hardwood. That’s a technique where woodworkers imitate the look of ebony by creating a chemical reaction with the wood’s natural acids.
“The acid dies they used 120 years ago causes slow degradation to the wood’s cell structure,” Smakula said. “Without it being a good solid piece of wood, it would bend ever so slightly and make it harder to play.”
After years of working on instruments like this, Smakula and Fitzgibbon decided to rip out the old fingerboard and replace it with real ebony. They replaced the wood on the peghead with a special kind of poplar that matches the color of old ebonized wood but is more stable.
“And this banjo went from my favorite family heirloom to my favorite banjo to play,” Smakula said.
Smakula had been playing this banjo for nearly 40 years before making that repair. Why the delay? Well, the instrument really belonged to his dad. It didn’t pass into Smakula’s possession until Peter’s death in 2008. But that worked out perfectly. By the time it was actually his, Smakula had the years of experience necessary to know exactly how to fix it.
Smakula doesn’t make his customers wait quite that long for their repairs. Some take only hours. A severe case might take six months. You’ve just got to find a place in his unending wait list.
Which is why, when I was saying my goodbyes, Smakula made a request.
“When you’re airing this, I wanna make sure you don't give away my exact location,” he said. “Say ‘North of Elkins.’”
I said I noticed he only had a PO box on his website. Was he worried someone would break in and make off with somebody’s vintage guitar? No.
Turns out, Smakula’s worried about something even more precious.
“You see how busy we are,” he said. “If I did have my address, people would just stop by. ‘Oh, just wanted to see what you have.’ I have … no time.”
Turns out, he’s got more than one reason to be invisible.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, which is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to Inside Appalachia to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.