Sunday, February 14, 2010

Saturday In Goshen

I had a terrific Saturday.

One of my favorite places in the world to hang out is in "Wooden Music" -- Jim Shenk's guitar shop in Goshen Indiana.

Wooden Music has the strongest musigravitational-pull-per-mass ratio of any music store in the universe. I honestly don't know how Jim gets any work done because every musician for fifty miles is drawn to hanging out there as strongly as I am.

And the shop space is not big. He works out of a space that was once the back lot of a lumber yard, now divided and finished into small shops like Jim's.

And Jim is busier than he knows what to do with -- he is THE go-to guy for repairs in Northern Indiana. That's one of the fun things about popping into Jim's shop. You'll almost always see the most incredible instruments -- rare and expensive, or strange, much-loved "heirloom" cheapies that folks care for beyond all financial reason. And Jim builds and repairs all fretted instruments, so you're as likely to see a bouzouki as a banjo being worked on on his bench.

Yesterday tipped to the "rare and expensive" side of that equation. There's a group of jazz players who have started to hang around Wooden Music in the past five years. This came about as Jim started building really fine archtop guitars a while back (after a lengthy time on his lap, Benedetto declared one of Jim's archtops, "very fine").

Yesterday three of those jazz players showed up to look at a new/used Solomon archtop one of the fellows had just brought up from Gruhn's.

Here's Jim messing around with the Solomon archtop -- the comment was made that it sounded great as an archtop, but that it also had a bit of flattop sound to it too. So Jim played a little bluegrassy rhythm on it ...

Time was slipping by for me to get over to the morning's old-timey jam, so I left the jazz players behind at Jim's and went off to play fiddle tunes with old farts.

The old-timey group that gets together twice a month is very uneven, skill-wise. But that's one of the pleasures of playing with them. Everyone is trying to learn something -- whether the tune, keeping steady rhythm, intonation on their fiddles -- always learning something. And so they're pretty forgiving of me and my decidedly NOT old-timey guitar: I play minor chords, I mix up straight chords with swing chords on occasion, and I often lead off the tunes with guitar -- something not done in fiddle sessions.

But one reason I often lead off on tunes is that, depending on the mix of players, the sessions too often degrade into too much jawin' and too little pickin'. So I am inclined to start a new tune almost as soon as the cacophany of the previous tune stops reverberating down the hall. I don't go up there to talk. I go up there to play. Okay, I go up there to talk a little too.

Yesterday's session was what I consider one of the better ones. We had moments of real music, I was pretty clean with the tunes I led out on, and I was able to pick up on the tunes I wasn't familiar with.

I left the jam after an hour or so of picking. I still wanted to get back to Jim's shop. I had brought with me my shop mandolin (cheap Kentucky) to have Jim work on it. For the past two months now it has had this sign affixed to it:

Besides the mando repair, I also still held out hope that some of Jim's other shop "regulars" would show up. Those impromptu jams in Jim's shop are the joy of my musical life.

And I wasn't disappointed. Within minutes, Jim's playing partner, Duane, showed up. Exactly who I hoped would stop by 'cause when Duane and I had last met, we discussed how much we both love the music of Danny O'Keefe, and his song "The Road". Well, that conversation had prompted me to relearn that old gem, and this would be the first time I'd be able to show Duane what I'd come up with.

It was just SO much fun. Once through on "The Road" morphed into Duane picking up one of Jim's fine mandolins...

...and joining me in "The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore" and "Ready For The Times To Get Better" and "Windy and Warm" and "Crazy World" and a half dozen other songs.

I was in heaven.

I mentioned that getting a glimpse of the older instruments that Jim repairs is one of the pleasures of a stop in the shop. The other pleasure is in seeing the many instruments in all stages of completion -- partially completed necks, backs, sides, unused top and back sets to imagine into guitars and mandolins. And the smells -- I love the smell of cut wood. Cherry sweet. Walnut coffee-bitter. Mahogany rich. Just walking into the shop is a treat for the senses -- sight, sound, and smell.

Jim's come into a couple of the most amazing pieces of cherry wood I've ever seen. He recently finished an unusual special order for the lumberman who supplied him with the first such piece of cherry -- a twelve-fret jumbo. Yup. Kinda weird. Short neck on a fully-tubby 16" jumbo. The wood was amazing, and Jim said the sound is very unusual -- way more responsive than he'd ever have guessed. Not very jumbo-esque. But the cherry was the amazing thing -- flamed in tight, maple-like cross-grain stripes that run the entire length and width of the board -- a board big enough to complete two full jumbo backs and sides. Here is the jumbo's little brother in the works -- traced from a Gibson "L"...

And here's a peek at what I think is going to be Duane's new guitar -- a jumbo/dreadnought hybrid of Jim's design, constructed here of some very fine koa -- varnished, but not yet rubbed out...

All in all, as good a Saturday as a guitar-crazed fella could ask for.


  1. hi john, i can see why you're drawn there... reminds me of my woodworking day. i have a cousin who grew up on the same block as me in the small rural town. he was a musician but ended up working in london and although i don't regularly communicate with him, i do with his brother. his brother informed me that upon my cousins retirement in england, he was moving to spain to build guitars. i thought of how romantic this seemed. a couple years ago i went to visit my friend in desmoines, iowa and while i was there he apologized but that he had to attend a post wedding reception for a friend of his that had just married a gal from germany. we drove literally into the corn fields of central iowa where the streets are merely letters, no names, and attended this reception in a tiny house in the middle of nowhere, literally. i knew only 2 people in the whole house. when i was introduced to the groom, i asked what he did and he said he sold custom handmade guitars internationally. i mentioned my cousin, just conversationally, because it related to his job and he asked what his name was. i told him and he said, oh yeah, i know rick, he makes really fine guitars. so here i am in the middle of a cornfield with complete strangers and i meet someone who knows my cousin who grew up with me on the same block. lovely post.

  2. Hi John, Thanks for the nice post and photos. I have to say that my arch- top was played not by Benedetto, but by John Monteleone in New York. Even better! By the way, that little jam with you and Dewy was great fun and too short. Jim

  3. Hey jimgottuso,

    Notice, I had to include the full name so as to differentiate between you and Jim Shenk (post following yours)? Anyway, great "small world" story. They probably both know Kevin Bacon too, huh?


    I'd sure like to get together to play more often. I (obviously) couldn't remember who the archtop builder was -- I just remembered he was a monster builder, and Benedetto came to mind. You're right, Monteleone is even bigger!