Thursday, December 18, 2014
Audio
Photos

Sponsor

The city of string instruments
Larger view
Shaun Fosdick focuses carefully on a piece of wood. He sands it down as part of a guitar repair class he's taking at Minnesota State College Southeast Technical. It's considered the most comprehensive program of its kind in the country. (MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)
If you want to learn how to make a guitar, or repair a violin head to Red Wing. The city is home to the nation's most comprehensive program focused on building string instruments. Over the years, students from as far away as Mozambique and Thailand have flocked here to learn the art of instrument-making.

Red Wing, Minn. — Shaun Fosdick's long ponytail snakes down his back as he bends over a small piece of wood. He rubs it steadily, working to get the piece perfectly smooth.

Fosdick's originally from St. Louis, Missouri. After years working for a printing press, he enrolled in the string instrument program offered here at Minnesota State College Southeast Technical.

"I tried first building an instrument in high school and it turned out pretty badly," he explains. "I fiddled around and made them as hobbies. Since then my wife talked me into checking out school, which I did, and so I like it and here I am."

Fosdick's like a lot of the students here. He left one profession to pursue a life long passion.

For instance last year, 19-year old Matthew Grimmer was a college freshman studying vocal performance at Luther College. But after securing a summer internship in Nashville at a guitar repair shop, Grimmer decided to change directions. And now after successfully completing the Red Wing program he's heading south again, only this time to stay.

"I am going down to Nashville Tennessee to work a place restoring vintage instruments," says Grimmer. "I'm looking forward to that quite a bit."

Grimmer and the room filled with other busy students learned their craft from veteran teacher David Vincent. He shepherds them through the year-long program imparting wisdom on everything from sharpening tools to understanding different woods.

"Because the wood is so much a part of it and every piece of wood is different," says Vincent. "Even two or three tops cut off the same section of the same tree will have slightly different characteristics. So you're always dealing with nature and variability of that. A good maker can point a guitar in a certain direction - make it a little brighter with a little more presence or make it real warm full of low end sound."

Vincent says this variation means it's impossible to predict where you'll find the very best guitars in the world. They could come from any number of instrument making workshops.

Over the years Vincent himself has made some 30 instruments and helped his students produce hundreds, some of which were on display earlier this spring in the schools cafeteria.

Gleaming guitars, mandolins, and violins sat on long conference style tables in preparation for a part concert part graduation ceremony.

There's also one very important tradition. Every year musician Phil Heywood drives down to Red Wing from his home in Minneapolis to play most of these newly hatched instruments before a boisterous audience.

But before that can happen Heywood makes the rounds.

"This is a promising looking instrument and it's my size," says Heywood, picking up a guitar. "It's a smaller body. Definitely the kind of thing I would be attracted to. Sounds like a good one. I could have fun with that."

It's an acoustic guitar, with a spruce top and rosewood sides. He spies another with herringbone trim and strums a few notes. But it's not long before Heywood is summoned to the front to begin. He's handed a guitar. It's a replica of a 1943 Herman Hauser. He begins picking the strings and fills the room with music.

Each instrument has taken months of painstaking work to produce. Because of the in-depth nature of the program, these graduates will all have jobs. Most will end up staffing repair shops around the country. But thanks to a recent boom in specialty made instruments, some may even be lucky to support themselves solely by making guitars like these.

Sponsor