DAY IN THE LIFE OF A LUTHIER : Paul Neri
Photos and profile by L.E. Agnelli
Luthier (loo-tee-er] noun: a maker of stringed instruments, as violins, guitars.
From celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s website: “Mr. Ma and his wife have two children. Mr. Ma plays two instruments, a 1733 Montagnana cello from Venice and the 1712 Davidoff Stradivarius.” Note how the famous musician’s family is mentioned in passing, but his instruments are described in loving detail. (A Stradivarius cello is rare, as he mostly made violins that are worth millions of dollars. The Davidoff Stradivarius cello is basically “priceless,” as it’s owned by the Vuitton Foundation and is “made available for use” by Yo-Yo Ma.)
However. . . this article is about Paul Neri, local luthier — or maker and repairer of stringed instruments. It isn’t about what prices vintage, beloved instruments command. It’s deeper. It’s about love and passion.
Perhaps Brian Wolfe, Neri’s friend, musician’s musician and a lifelong lover and dealer of fine fretted stringed instruments (he runs AcousticMusic.org), can deftly explain the curious lore of special instruments. Hooked since the age of nine, he’s been buying and selling guitars since he was in high school (“Some kids had jobs working in drugstores; my job was buying and selling guitars.”). He’s the “go to” guy when people are looking for a quote on the value of almost any make or year of collectible guitars. Wolfe and Neri consult on a regular basis about guitar values. Real vintage Fenders, Gibsons, and Martin guitars can go for upwards of $25 – $50,000; it’s a serious business as well as an emotional bonding, the fine fretted instruments that people collect and luthiers fix up.
According to Wolfe, “For a lot of folks like myself, an instrument is part of their identity, so trying to separate where the practical tool function of the instrument ends, and where the personal identification with the instrument happens, becomes difficult. If you identify with an instrument that you really love, it becomes part of your identity as a musician, so the sounds you get from that instrument and the places that instrument takes you as a musician can’t easily be replaced by another instrument.”
Wolfe feels that way about his 1921 Gibson A-2 mandolin. “It has no collectable value because it’s in such bad condition — altered so much over the years — but it’s the most important mandolin to me because it’s the only instrument I’ve gotten the sounds I want out of a mandolin. It’s a mess, but it’s the one I always go back to.
“So, it doesn’t always have to do with value. Some people mix up that the most important instruments are the most expensive ones, but that’s not true to musicians — because I’ve never owned an instrument because it was valuable; I’ve wanted it because it did something, it functioned on a level that I connected with it on.”
But on a purely material level, Wolfe chuckles, “The most valuable guitar I ever was able to hold was Stephen Stills’s Gibson Flying V — that, and David Crosby’s Martin D-45.” According to circumstance, Wolfe was in the right place at the right time. “They were waiting for those guitars to get back to them and I had to deliver them back. It was then I realized I had possibly a quarter of a million dollars worth of guitars in the back of my Honda CR-V.”
So, where can you bring your beloved Martin, Gibson, Gretsch, Guild, Santa Cruz, Ovation, or whatever guitar etc. to when it needs loving care? That’s right: Paul Neri, a busy luthier who runs his business, Neri Lutherie, out of his workshop in Clinton, Connecticut. Neri apprenticed for nine years with legendary luthier George Youngblood until he decided to go out on his own. Originally starting out as “Neri Stringed Instrument Repair” in 1989, he moved to Clinton in 1992, set up shop as “Neri Lutherie,” and then worked steadily for about five years before he felt “secure” as a small business.
Married to artist and OB/GYN nurse Eileen O’Donnell, Neri has 14-year-old twins, a girl, Nola, and a boy, Liam. (His 21-year-old, Hugh, attends UConn). Neri’s workshop occupies the bottom floor of the family’s Clinton home at 146 Ironworks Road.
Prior to his incarnation as a craftsman who can repair anything, major or minor, that stringed instruments require, Paul Neri started out as a musician. He’s mastered the drums, the banjo, flamenco guitar, then dobro. He’s still in demand as a musician (Ragweed, The Kerry Brothers, Small Town Concert Series) and his customers know that he understands, plays, and loves the instruments he works on.
In an antique card drawer, Neri keeps 1,000 plus filecards on customers including bass player Paul Ossola (Grammy winner), previously part of the G.E. Smith Saturday Night Live band; guitarist Keith Robinson, who’s worked with Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind and Fire and Vanessa Williams; and Mark Schulman, guitarist for Suzanne Vega. Neri works with customers from all over the U.S.; since opening, Neri estimates he’s done about 15,000 instrument repairs — on “any fretted string instrument” including violins and “A few harps, too.”
Luthiers must be a combination of fine craftsman and artist, as well as good with people (customer service matters). The “shop” smells like fragrant wood and hundreds — or thousands — of gorgeous wooden instruments, from vintage and high end to the new and the not-greatly valuable. But in each customer’s ears, their “babies” are precious and treated as such.
In a typical day in the life of luthier Paul Neri, he’s called on to do many tasks — all in the name of ensuring that some musician’s (emotionally) priceless instrument is kept in good repair. Part of the job includes filling up humidifiers in the workshop in the winter,
and prioritizing the work that comes into the shop. Working professional musicians get top priority — as it should be.
On one typical day in the life of this luthier, he is visited by one of many repeat customers, one who had repairs made to his relatively new Santa Cruz guitar and a nineteen-forties Armstrong arch top guitar, passed down from his grandfather. John Hutchinson brings along his young son, Noah, who appears captivated by the look, sound, and smell of guitars.
For his part, Neri works on all makes, all models, all years of guitars — and even other fretted string instruments. On this particular day in the shop, he had a vintage ukulele and a banjo on hand, waiting for care.
Neri turns his attention to a “routine warranty” repair on a Martin 0021 ca. 1971; he applies a silicone heating blanket to the bridge. After a few minutes, the bridge of the Martin is loosened enough with heat to work off with a spatula, then Neri pries off pick guard with slim metal spatula that he designed to be flat on top and beveled on bottom.
Some of the “tools of the trade” for a luthier include many that are also used by fine-work carpenters: chisels, scrapers, files, clamps, wrenches, soldering irons, routers, dremel tools, rulers, straight edges, drill press, stationary belt sanders. . . to name a few. In the process of scraping off old glue under the pick guard of the Martin guitar, “You can tell it was glued with a contact or a plastic cement instead of a non-resin glue (like Titebond) that should have been used.”
So, just to double-check, Neri looks up glues/adhesives in reference books on a shelf in his library (Martin Guitars: A Technical Reference and Martin Guitars: A History). After checking, Neri starts to bandsaw a block of rosewood, shaping it into a new bridge for the Martin guitar.
Every day, dozens of phonecalls come in. On this day, a customer from Florida needs to have the neck re-shaped on his prized electric guitar that was refinished by an artist; he wants the finish/artwork preserved. Neri can do it, no problem. Shortly after that, a customer from Providence, Rhode Island, arrives with a five-year-old Martin D-42 guitar that had a finish issue. They spend ten minutes discussing the customer’s dealings with Martin — a very responsive company who stand by their instruments for the life of the guitar.
The customer’s final request: please re-string with medium gauge strings for bluegrass playing (in his band). The guitarist says, in parting, “I could close my eyes and you could put it in my hands and I’d play it and know it was a Martin.” Definitely, he’s a Martin man.
Back to his workbench, Neri pulls frets from a ‘64 Gretsch Country Gentleman electric guitar with a double cutaway. Neri works for the best part of an hour on the Gretsch (pulling frets, sanding fingerboard, cleaning fret slots with a dremel tool). He explains, “Some old fretboards on inexpensive instruments are made of ‘ebonized pearwood,’ and when it gets old, it gets brittle and hard to work with.”
Then Neri inspects a 1917 Gibson acoustic guitar for clean up, set up, re-gluing the back on. “Too much shrinkage,” he shakes his head and thinks aloud, “I’m thinkin’ I’d take the back off, and splice it in the middle,” maybe adding a small piece of wood to make it the right re-size to fit the body. In a book, he checks the guitar manufacturer specifications (“specs”) for wood types to be sure he guesses right before he chooses the wood.
(Neri keeps drawers full of wood pieces for repairs, including rosewood, maple, ebony, pearwood, redwood, walnut, koa, mahogany, spruce, cedar, Spanish cedar, Spanish cypress. According to Wolfe, “The most desirable acoustic guitar wood is Brazilian rosewood. You can pay up to 8, 9 thousand dollars for just the wood. Koa’s pretty, but nowhere near as valuable or desirable as Brazilian rosewood. Unfortunately, there’s a ban on its use. . . “)
Meanwhile, as the day ends, Neri is back his bench, leveling new frets on that Gretsch Country Gentleman. Soon, it will be ready again to be reunited with its beloved master/mistress . . .
As for de-stressing from a busy day at the bench and dealing with customers, Neri picks up a banjo to go over songs for an upcoming gig. “I like to play banjo because it appeals to my silly side, and I like to play flamenco guitar because that’s my serious side.” Neri has built his own flamenco guitar that he plays, often. Neri is the originator of a musical style called“Folklectimento” (Eclectic, folk and flamenco, that is!).
Along with Brian Wolfe, he’s the co-founder of the Shoreline Acoustic Underground, whose mission is “to make the world safe for everyone to own a guitar.” The Underground, in fact, has organized numerous fundraisers for causes they believe in (a Hurricane Katrina benefit in 2005, and at least six annual fundraising concerts for the Shoreline Soup Kitchen and Pantries).
Will he be taking an apprentice anytime soon? Neri, who learned his craft by apprenticing with George Youngblood ( a legend), looks thoughtful: “I might take in an apprentice someday — if it’s the right person.” Daughter Nola is good with her hands; his son and niece have also done setups, too. “Numerous customers have told me, ‘Man, I’d love to be doing this now!” But Neri figures that retirees who want a second or third career wouldn’t be the right “fit”; he’d prefer training a younger person who’d carry the tradition on for generations. . .
That way, being a luthier extraordinaire will always be a busy day in a lifetime — and the world will be safe for guitar lovers everywhere.
(Contact info: Neri Lutherie, 146 Ironworks Road, Clinton. 860.669.3351. firstname.lastname@example.org)
Writer L.E. Agnelli owns a ’71 Guild F-30, a ’76 Fender P-bass, and a ’84 Guild jumbo 12-string guitar — with plays them with her group, Amalgamated Muck.