Strumming Along with Colorado Music Makers

Robbie O’Brien, right, works with a student during a guitar building class. Photo courtesy of Robbie O’Brien at O’Brien Guitars.

Robbie O’Brien, right, works with a student during a guitar building class. Photo courtesy of Robbie O’Brien at O’Brien Guitars.

The (He)art of the Guitar: Talking with Local Luthiers

By Kyle Kirmess

The guitar wants to collapse. Not just this guitar — a beauty with a Sitka spruce top, rosewood sides and back, and a custom-wood inlay for a rosette — but all guitars, every guitar. The string tension between the headstock and the bridge wants to take the whole thing and fold it in half like a broken bird. The truss rod, a metal bar that runs up the inside of the neck, allows the guitar to confidently withstand the rigors of playing and resist the forces of physics that would destroy it. 

So, you could say that, like all things of grace and character, a well-made guitar is delicate without being fragile … and with a resilient backbone. The handmade guitars created at the hands of Colorado’s luthiers, artisans who specialize in creating handmade stringed instruments, exemplify those attributes. 

“Creating a guitar is a way to combine design, aesthetic thinking, engineering, structural thinking, the whole brain,” says Bevan Frost of Big Hollow Guitars in Frisco.  “It requires a lot of skill with the hands and mind.”  

Frost, a luthier with 18 years of experience, is almost entirely self-taught. He learned the craft from a library book, which is more common than you might think. Others, however, took a more traditional, apprenticeship-based route. Robbie O’Brien of O’Brien Guitars in Parker learned from a master guitar maker in Brazil. 

A custom guitar back depicts exotic wood and grain. Photo courtesy of Bevan Frost at Big Hollow Guitars.

A custom guitar back depicts exotic wood and grain. Photo courtesy of Bevan Frost at Big Hollow Guitars.

“I was working down there (in Brazil) and playing guitar and I had a few woodworking skills,” he says. “And I went looking for someone to train with. I found someone and went over on Saturdays for a couple of years to learn the trade.” 

That someone was Antonio Tessarin, one of Brazil’s most renowned luthiers. Now, after more than 20 years in guitar making, O’Brien has turned instructor himself. His courses take initiates from a box of lumber to a finished guitar in six days. Jeff Bamburg of Bamburg Guitars and the Rocky Mountain Guitar Co. in Salida started out with a standard guitar-making kit, but it was enough to give him the bug. He says he didn’t formally train with anyone in particular, but he learned from everyone. “It’s really a non-competitive industry. A really open guitar-making community. That’s refreshing.” 

The Colorado chapter of that community is turning out some of the finest instruments available, sought after by master musicians and enthusiasts. They are composed from materials with exotic names — Indian rosewood, Africana ebony, South American mahogany, Hawaiian koa — for a fanbase of professional musicians who include, in the case of O’Brien, Tommy Emmanuel and other champion fingerstyle players. 

The character and the spirit of the intended owner often is woven into any number of customizations and personalization. Frost’s work has been repeatedly commissioned by a fan in France who’s flown him over to deliver instruments. Bamburg cites as a standout a guitar completed for a local Salida musician inlaid with a Tree of Life on the fretboard. 

O’Brien said most people will want their initials for a peghead icon, or custom inlay work on the fretboard. One unique request came from the other side of the United States. 

“I did a ukulele for a football player from the Baltimore Ravens,” says O’Brien. “It had his jersey number on the fretboard.” 

Player or not, there’s something that speaks to all of us about the guitar. 

Inlay rosette and binding work are displayed. Photo courtesy Bevan Frost, Big Hollow Guitars.

Inlay rosette and binding work are displayed. Photo courtesy Bevan Frost, Big Hollow Guitars.

“It’s a very versatile instrument,” Bamburg says. “It’s as comfortable in a coffee house as at a campfire. And it’s portable. You never hear anyone say, ‘Hey, pass me that piano.’” 

Part of it is the aesthetic. The guitars and their exotic woods are often pieces to admire even when they’re not being played. The selection of woods starts with the intent and design of the guitar; that is, what music will this future beauty be made to sing? Fast-picking? Big, robust open notes? Fingerstyle? 

Like all things built from scratch, the piece and the purpose always figures into design. For example, Bamburg suggests, spruce has a high strength-to-weight ratio and responds well to strings — perfect for a top selection. From there, it’s often aesthetic choice. 

“After design is the look,” Bamburg continues. “A pretty piece of wood still draws people’s attention in.” 

Ornate “closed” style headstock, with parrot inlay, and tuning pegs. Photo courtesy of Robbie O’Brien.

Ornate “closed” style headstock, with parrot inlay, and tuning pegs. Photo courtesy of Robbie O’Brien.

It’s fanciful to think that master craftsmen always fashion their artworks with fine hand tools fitted just to that purpose. But all these Colorado luthiers said some power tools are put in play. Still, for the fine work – the setting of phosphorescent accents or the shaping of a neck made to fit your hand – the old ways are still best.

“Back in our day, if you wanted to hear a piece of music, you had to learn how to play it. Now, we’re flooded with it. It’s a dying craft among the young,” O’Brien opines about the state of music in the 21st Century.  Still, he says, he’s encouraged by the interest among the established generation of not just playing an instrument, but making one. 

“In the 45-65 year-old crowd, the interest in doing something with their hands remains high,” he said. “And if you’ve made the guitar you’re playing, that interest stays way up there.” 

Appreciation of fine instruments seems to be on the rise, both as collectibles and as things to be played. The reward and satisfaction that comes from a handcrafted guitar is still very real for these luthiers, and for the hundreds of players who count a Colorado-crafted guitar among their favorites.   

Kyle Kirves drinks beer, plays guitar, runs trails, and manages projects – all with varying degrees of success. While not a craftsman himself, he is quite content writing about the Colorado artisans who create such wonderful things and memorable experiences.