They've Got the World on a String | KCET
They've Got the World on a String
Even after 20 years of crafting acoustic guitars by hand, Templeton instrument maker Mike Baranik still gets giddy whenever he splits open a block of Brazilian rosewood, Mexican cocobolo, or Colorado blue spruce. "That's one of the rewards of being a luthier for me, is seeing that wood for the first time," Baranik said. "Different pieces of wood will spark your imagination, will lead you down the path."
Baranik belongs to a thriving community of local luthiers -- people who make and repair stringed instruments. Many boast a connection to legendary guitar and string maker Roland Sherwood "Ernie" Ball, the late founder of Ernie Ball Inc.
After opening one of the first music stores to focus solely on guitars in Tarzana in 1958, Ball developed custom strings known as "Slinkys" in the early 1960s; they generated so much interest that he sold his shop and moved his strings business to Newport Beach. Ball bought a guitar company, Music Man, in 1984, and moved both businesses to San Luis Obispo a year later.
Although Ernie Ball Inc. currently manufactures its strings, guitar picks and other accessories in Coachella, the company's San Luis Obispo factory still builds electric guitars and basses -- making it one of several Central Coast businesses, including National Reso-Phonic Guitars, RLS Engineering and Triplett Harps, to specialize in stringed instruments. Another San Luis Obispo firm, Highlander Musical Audio Products, makes guitar pickups and microphones used by the likes of David Crosby and Graham Nash, while L.R. Baggs of Nipomo provides pickups and preamps to artists including Coldplay, Tom Petty and James Taylor.
According to Robert and Janita Baker, founders of Blue Lion Dulcimers & Guitars in Santa Margarita, the same factors that make the Central Coast an ideal environment for winemakers attract luthiers as well. "We came here for the same reason as a lot of instrument makers -- the weather is very good," said Robert Baker, whose business celebrated its 35th anniversary in June. "We don't have the hot, humid summers that you find in the Midwest and the South and the Northeast. It doesn't get really cold or really hot."
"The climate is perfect for building guitars...In San Luis Obispo, you basically roll your door open and it's climate controlled," added Baranik, who moved his business to the Central Coast seven years ago.
Born on Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc and raised in northern New Jersey, Baranik moved to Los Angeles at age 18 with dreams of becoming a professional guitarist. Instead, he decided to enroll at the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix, Ariz, in 1993, later returning to the school as an assistant instructor.
A stint at the short-lived Phoenix Guitar Co., coupled with trade show success, inspired Baranik to start his own business in 1997. "It was the perfect time to come in," he recalled.
As the sole employee of Baranik Guitars, Baranik builds 12 to 14 acoustic and electric guitars a year, most of them tailored to individual musicians' tastes.
"My goal is to create a guitar that meets all their needs," said Baranik, whether that means designing an Art Deco fretboard or tracking down exotic woods for a South African client. "It's a fine line of creating a guitar that is your own but being able to change things (to match) what the customer wants."
One of his regular customers, San Luis Obispo guitarist Dorian Michael, is notoriously tough on his instruments. "I made him a guitar and saw it six months later and it looked like it was 10 years old," recalled Baranik, so he switched to a different, more durable finish.
At least half of the instruments the Bakers sell have some custom elements, including fret holes and shell inlays shaped like cats or carousel animals. They build about 120 Appalachian dulcimers -- also known as mountain or lap dulcimers - each year under the Blue Lion brand, as well as a handful of guitars.
"We've watched the dulcimer evolve over the last 35 years and become accepted" by musicians in multiple genres, Janita Baker said, as well as film composers and sound effects experts. "It's very rare you ever get somebody nowadays saying, 'You're only supposed to play Appalachian folk music on it.' "
Although they grew up different parts of California, the couple met at Cal Poly, where Robert Baker was studying math and ornamental horticulture and his future bride was working on a doctorate degree in geomorphology. "I fell in love with music and I fell in love with this great guitar player and it was no contest," Janita Baker recalled.
On their first wedding anniversary, Robert Baker gave his wife a mountain dulcimer. "I took to it right away. It spoke to me," she said, but she initially had trouble finding quality dulcimers west of the Mississippi River. "They were treated as curiosity instead of a serious instrument."
A few factors helped the fledgling luthiers break into the national music market -- including Janita Baker's reputation as an instructor and player known for her innovative fingerpicking style. An endorsement from singer-songwriter Jean Ritchie, who helped popularize the dulcimer during the folk revival of the 1940s and '50s, also aided their cause.
"She was the most traditional of players and we were one of the least traditional of builders," Robert Baker said, but they crafted an instrument to Ritchie's exact specifications. "That really gave us credit in the traditional dulcimer world."
Although they've been offered opportunities to expand, the Bakers prefer to keep their two-person operation small. "We want complete control over what we do so we're responsible for what we turn out," Robert Baker said. "We really do provide a high-end instrument."
At National Reso-Phonic Guitars, owned by Don Young and Eric Smith, a 20-person staff manufactures vintage-style resonator guitars, mandolins and ukuleles -- following in the footsteps of Slovak-American inventor John Dopyera.
Prized for their ability to project sound in noisy bars and juke joints, mechanically amplified resonator instruments enjoyed their greatest popularity during the pre-electric 1920s and '30s, falling out of favor following World War II. When a teenaged Young went to work for brothers Rudy and Emil Dopyera at the Original Music Instrument Company in Long Beach in 1971, resonator instruments were being rediscovered by a new generation of blues, bluegrass, country, Hawaiian and jazz musicians.
"I was smitten by resonator guitars," recalled Young, whose fascination with "weird old music" made him a perfect fit for the job. "I was working with the men who were there in the beginning...I would stay after work and pick their brains."
After the Dopyera family sold Original Music, Young ran the company as plant foreman for four years. He and his now-retired partner, McGregor "Mac" Gaines, resurrected the long-dormant National brand in 1988 and moved their business to San Luis Obispo a year later.
Today, National Reso-Phonic makes about 1,000 metal- and wood-bodied instruments a year using a mixture of high-tech methods and traditional techniques. "They gotta play good, they gotta look good and they gotta sound good, and these guys make it happen," Young said, noting that nearly every part is manufactured in house.
"The only things we don't make from raw materials are fret wires and tuning machines. We're very self sufficient in what we can do," he added. National Reso-Phonic even manufactures parts for other companies, including Dell'Arte Instruments in San Diego and Kamaka Ukulele in Honolulu.
The dozens of colorful styles offered by National Reso-Phonic have attracted legions of fans over the company's 25-year history, among them blues players Eric Bibb, Ben Harper and Keb Mo' and rock bands Aerosmith and Metallica. "They have their own mystique," Young explained.
According to Mike Baranik, National Reso-Phonic's hands-on approach is typical of Central Coast instrument makers. "That's the nice thing about the community," said Baranik, praising the support he's received from local luthiers. "Everybody really does share. (They) are very giving and open to...keeping the craft on a higher level."