and his One-of-a-kind Guitars
by Barney Quick
photo by Cindy Steele
You don’t so much interview Ron Volbrecht as let him spin his recollections of guitar-building adventures, observations on human nature, and discourses on craftsmanship and design. An occasional question will prompt a good twenty minutes of wide-ranging commentary, sparked as well by any particular item in his visually busy workshop.
On one late-winter afternoon, he hovers intently over the body of a guitar-in-process, applying abalone inlay to the instrument’s contour. He’s routed a channel and is placing thin strips of the shiny material in it. He cut the abalone from little sheets on a wet saw. The strips naturally break so as to accommodate the channel’s curves. Volbrecht gives equal weight to looks and functionality, sparing no attention to detail in either area.
“I’m a stickler on intonation and fret placement,” he says. He has worked out elaborate tables showing how much a given error in fret spacing will affect tone relationships. Then, he adds, one has to consider saddle setup and how aggressively someone plays.
He is also a firm believer in a curved fretboard. “I like a ten-inch maximum radius,” he reveals. “Your fingers conform more naturally to that. It’s more ergonomically friendly.”
He has some strong view on factory-made guitars, even vintage models that enthrall lots of players. “Spending $60,000 on a ’54 Stratocaster is just nuts, as far as I’m concerned. I can make you a better one for a couple thousand.”
He explains that he dislikes going into guitar stores. Clerks are more anxious to make a sale than to find out the particulars of a customer’s style.
He has built guitars for some pretty impressive clients. They have summoned him to places near and far to consult with him about the Volbrecht touch.
“Hoyt Axton bought the first guitar I ever built,” he recounts. “This was over at the Little Nashville Opry. I had an artist friend, C.W. Mundy, a guy who had played surf banjo out in California. Anyway, he knew the harmonica player and the banjo player in Hoyt’s band. C.W. told them he could show them some pretty cool guitars, so I took a few over there. Hoyt liked one in particular, the first one I’d made. He was a pretty big guy, and he wasn’t leaving without it.”
Richie Sambora once flew Volbrecht to Memphis on the third stop on a Bon Jovi tour. He ordered a guitar after the show.
Memphis figures into the story of a guitar Volbrecht made for John Mellencamp as well. “This was right after he’d become famous,” he says. “John toured Graceland and saw one of Elvis’s guitars that had his name etched in pearl inlay up the fretboard. He wanted one like it, and, yes, he wanted it to be white like Elvis’s, too.”
There is some intriguing detail in Volbrecht’s shop and home environment no matter where one’s gaze alights. Shelves brimming with tubular containers of fretwire. Jigs and templates hanging in the hallway. Cutting devices and measuring devices. Volbrecht wrote an article for a 1997 issue of Fine Woodworking magazine on customizing bandsaws, complete with a sidebar on his formula for calculating blade speed.
The ubiquitous commodity, though, is wood—boards in the shop, in the living room, the bedroom. Curly maple, Brazilian rosewood, spruce, cedar.
He hoists a board of cocobola (a wood from the equatorial rainforest) onto a workbench. “As you can see, it’s got some pretty deep cracks in it,” he says, running his hand along the surface, “but I’ll try my darnedest to get a guitar out of it.”
If you can keep a board dry, age is not an issue. “If a board goes over a seven-and-a-half-percent moisture reading, it goes in the dry box,” he explains.
His Hammond, Indiana upbringing was full of both musical and technical influences. His father was an engineer. Volbrecht himself studied violin for fourteen years and French horn for three.
Sports has been a major part of his life as well. He went to the University of Washington on a football scholarship. He didn’t graduate, though: “I became a garbage man to buy my first Martin.”
He returned to Indiana and moved to Nashville in 1975. He had a shop with another luthier for a while, but has been on his own since the early 1980s.
“I like controlling how much business I have,” he says. “People come here by appointment. I don’t want to build a factory. If I am the one doing the work, I know it meets my standards.”
Those seriously interested in handcrafted, custom-made guitars or exacting repair work can visit <www.volbrechtguitars.com> or call (812) 988-4914.