Making music: Raleigh’s instrument restorers keep the town in tune

John Montgomery and his violin workshop in Raleigh, NC

by Corbie Hill

photographs by Lissa Gotwals

Violins are made to be repaired. Their tops aren’t flush to their sides, like a guitar’s. Instead, those tops are designed to be removed, so violins can be tended to over multi-hundred-year lifespans.

For violinists in smaller cities, the regular repair and restoration that keeps their instruments playing requires travel to a metropolitan hub – Charlotte, say, or Atlanta. That’s where the restorers and builders who keep their weather-sensitive instruments playable can usually be found. Raleigh’s violinists have no such hurdle.

“Normally you have to ship it somewhere or you make a special trip,” says Karen Galvin, violinist with the North Carolina Symphony and co-founder of New Music Raleigh. “But the ability to actually take your fiddle to the shop … luxury is the word.” Galvin says she can realize that her violin needs work in the morning, and have it fixed by lunchtime. That’s because Raleigh is home to not one but two violin shops – a true rarity in a city of our size. Then again, our capital city, Galvin points out, is not a small one, culturally speaking.

Indeed, Galvin and her fellow fiddlers have choices: There’s John Montgomery of Montgomery
Violins, Jerry Pasewicz of Triangle Strings, and their workshops full of capable luthiers and restorers.

Players of other instruments also have an outsized variety of specialized repairers here. Guru Guitars on Hillsborough Street is a nexus of locally built guitars, amps, and effects pedals – including those handmade by Richard Flickinger of Flickinger Tone Boxes. Yontz Sucre of Mad Science Works fixes amplifiers, and Marsh Woodwinds and Flying Squirrel Music both repair woodwind instruments.

These craftspeople are essential to a healthy, varied music scene. Sally Mullikin of Triangle Strings says she recognizes her customers (and their instruments) when she goes to the symphony, while Flickinger is excited when his pedals help local rockers find their tone – and better express themselves.

Regardless of instrument or genre, each of these craftspeople works on one part of a larger musical ecosystem. And when every element in the system aligns, a player can find his or her best sound.

Montgomery breaks down his system with clear-headed practicality: for a violin, that system includes the instrument, the bow, the room, and the player. “You might say the most singular thing is the human, but that’s the most varying piece of the whole part – not only day to day, but as people age and grow,” Montgomery says. “You want to think of it as a system, rather than isolate the instrument.”

Yet these instrument-makers can be viewed as part of the ecosystem, too, and their work often reflects their personality and creativity as strongly as an instrument reflects its player’s. Eugene Reinert of Guru Guitars, for instance, winds pickups – the parts of an electric guitar that “pick up” the strings’ vibration so they can be amplified – on his mother’s old Singer sewing machine. By the nature of his process, no two of his pickups are alike.

“Because I’m doing it by hand and because I don’t have a computer that’s testing every nuance, each one is going to have its own character,” he says, sitting in his store’s lesson room between students. It’s about the size of a walk-in closet, but, like Raleigh, it’s big enough.

“I don’t say mine are better than anyone else’s,” Reinert says. “I say that mine are unique.”

John Montgomery and his violin workshop in Raleigh, NC

John Montgomery in his violin workshop, Montgomery Violins.

Montgomery Violins

To meet John Montgomery, 61, you may not guess he’s responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the Library of Congress’s priceless collection of historic violins. He’s capable, sure, and he’s a respected violin luthier with three-plus decades’ experience in Raleigh alone, but he’s a disarming fellow – confident in his expertise, but not interested in making a big deal of it.

Besides that, he’s not even completely sure why, of all the luthiers of his caliber, they picked him.

“They did try me out. They had me work on something and they liked what they saw,” Montgomery says, sitting in his airy, well-lit workshop while an NPR talk show prattles quietly in the background. “I must have had good references, and I’m thinking I had a background check as well, like all government workers.” He has a sly smile on his face, like an ex-hippie having an ironic last laugh.

As with many folks of his generation, conventional career paths never held any appeal to Montgomery. His search for alternatives led him to the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City, which he graduated from in 1980. His like-minded classmates ended up all over the U.S., while Montgomery came to Raleigh in 1982. Today, they all continue the American tradition of violin making – one based on, and strengthened by, cooperation and communication.

“Our colleagues in Europe don’t find the conversation to be free-flowing, and here we do,” he says, working on a violin as he talks. “They always talk about, ‘What is the secret of Stradivarius?’ and we all laugh. There’s no secrets.” Instead, Montgomery says he and his colleagues tell each other everything they know, which leads to better-made instruments, he says, and a stronger American tradition.

Montgomery’s even part of a group that has together written a book on the history of violin making in America from the 18th century through 1950. Due out sometime this year, the title, appropriately enough, is The American Violin.

North Carolina Symphony violinist and assistant concertmaster Rebekah Binford’s primary violin may be a Sanctus Seraphin, an Italian instrument older than the United States, but she has an American instrument too – a bench copy made by Montgomery. It was his idea, she says, to effectively clone hers. He studied her original closely and reproduced it, bruises and all. They have distinct personalities and slightly different finishes, but are identical to the untrained eye.

“You know how artists will copy a famous painter’s painting in order to learn?” Binford says. “John has done very much the same thing.” Her own violin is famous for its deep, practically holographic varnish. So he made a copy as exactly as he could, and then he made two more without the age marks – his own versions.

“He’s learning about and improving his knowledge of how to stain and varnish the instrument,” Binford says. True to the American tradition, anything he learns he passes on to his peers.

“We taught each other while we were in the school,” Montgomery says. “And we’ve continued teaching each other since we’ve been out.”

Eugene Reinert and Howard Critcher of Guru Guitars in Raleigh, NC.

Eugene Reinert and Howard Critcher, who co-own Guru Guitars. In addition to their individual creations, the two also sell a variety of other locally made instruments, amps, and effects.

Guru Guitars

When the afternoon sun comes in the front windows of Guru Guitars, it shines on modification-ready Squier six-strings and more traditional Fenders, Carr amps with Art Deco grilles and hand-painted Flickinger distortion pedals. The Squiers are made in Asia and the Fenders originate in Mexico and California. But the Carr factory is in Pittsboro, and the Flickinger boxes come from just a few miles away.

And tucked between the Fenders and the Squiers, the Gibsons and the Ibanezes, are even funkier models – guitars with an even closer point of origin. There’s a short-scale, solid-body electric guitar with hand-wound pickups made right here, and another with a thin, hollow body and an aged, natural look, but futuristic F-holes. And, in a case in the back, there’s a fascinating locally made jazz guitar with frets – the metal strips along the neck where the player’s fingers go – that fan away from each other rather than run parallel; they look more like the spokes on a bicycle wheel than the rungs on a ladder, yet the instrument is intuitively playable and, frankly, a delight to plug in.

“We love our small little shop,” says Howard Critcher, 43, who built the hollow body model and co-owns the place with Eugene Reinert, 36, builder of the short-scale guitar. These two make a variety of instruments, from acoustics to electrics to even the occasional ukulele. They also run Guru Guitars, which stocks interesting factory models, sure, but also a respectable variety of locally made instruments, amps, and effects.

“Instead of being in competition with each other, it makes a lot of sense to support each other,” says Critcher of his fellow local instrument makers. “Our store is kind of a venue to show off some local artisans and allow them to get their items out to the world.” He means it literally: In 2010, Guru was the first place to stock Flickinger Tone Boxes; today, they’re in boutique instrument stores internationally. And while Guru employee Clay Conner’s fanned fretted guitars are technically a separate entity from Guru, they’re still sold in the shop.

It’s business, but it’s not competition: Critcher jokes that the store supports his and Reinert’s building habit. Even with the multi-thousand dollar price tag of a custom guitar, the creator doesn’t make a lot of money. “It’s a slow process,” Critcher says, particularly when they’re running the store full-time.

Customers come and go – some to browse, and others with old or damaged instruments to sell or have repaired. There’s a steady influx of students, too, many of whom walk from within a four-block radius to learn from Reinert.

“I’ve always done multiple things,” he says. “I’ve never just been solely a guitar builder or solely a teacher or repairman.” Or retailer. The juggling act he and Critcher pull off has kept the store open since 2008, even as other businesses folded during the recession. Today, they have two additional employees, but this hasn’t meant more time to build.

No, when these luthiers do find time for their craft, it’s when they should be off the clock. And the interesting and unusual instruments they produce reflect Critcher and Reinert’s un-dulled passion as builders, not necessarily as businesspeople.

“We do it because we like it,” says Reinert. “It’s like an artist – you don’t paint for money.”

Jerry Pasewicz and his string instrument repair business in Raleigh, NC.

With patience and attention to detail, Jerry Pasewicz and his team restore violins from around the world at Triangle Strings.

Triangle Strings

In an older office building a few hundred yards from the mid-morning hum of Beltline traffic, Jerry Pasewicz, 50, sits at his workbench. Outside the window are other, similar buildings and a parking lot in need of maintenance, but his attention is on his work. Pasewicz is a violin restorer, trained in New York City by the late master René Morel, and he restores and repairs ancient and valuable violins from around the world with confidence and pragmatism.

“One of the things that’s always asked of me is, do you get nervous when you’re working on a nice old Strad or a Guarneri?” Pasewicz says without looking up. “And my favorite response is, ‘No, I just picture them in their underwear.’” He speaks with a level detachment that can make it easy to miss the dry humor.

“There are no accidents,” he says. It’s a perfect Bill Murray deadpan.

In 1998, Pasewicz and violinist wife Dana Friedli left New York for somewhere warmer – not his snowy native Pittsburgh, nor her Texas. They came to Raleigh, where Friedli could have a playing career, and Pasewicz rented a small office for his restorations business. In the years since, it’s grown: Today, Pasewicz heads a six-luthier workshop, himself included. The violins and bows they bring back to life come from around the world, while some of these restorers have crossed the country just to work for him.

“For a solid year, I called him every couple of months, trying to get a job with him,” says Ryan Hayes. “This is one of the top places in the country to work that is willing to train people from the ground up.” Hayes, a native of Houston’s suburbs, had been living in South Orange County, California until Pasewicz hired him in late 2013.

Chapel Hill native Sally Mullikin, at a nearby workbench, says she was looking for a job in Boston when someone said, “‘You’re in North Carolina. You should work for Jerry.’”

While many violin luthiers go to the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City, Mullikin went to the Newark School of Violin Making in England – “the original Newark,” she says with a half-laugh and a grin. Pasewicz brought her home.

“What attracted me is that Jerry sits at the bench and works and I knew I’d be able to learn a lot,” Mullikin says. Not all violin shop owners are luthiers, and restoration and repair require a different skill set than violin building.

“The people that are working here literally put things back together after they’ve been run over by cars,” Pasewicz says. Violins in that kind of shape come from all over the world. It’s tricky work to put them back together, Pasewicz says, and often requires making matters worse in the process of making them better. These are techniques that are passed down from master to master – in Europe, in New York City, and, yes, in Raleigh.

Richard Flickinger and his flicktoneboxes.

Richard Flickinger’s Tone Boxes are sold around the world.

Flickinger Tone Boxes

One week in 2010, Brandy Flickinger noticed her husband, Richard, was staying up later than usual. He was focused on something, but she wasn’t sure what, and the dining room of their row house just down the hill from N.C. State was slowly but surely turning into a workshop.

“He’s kind of like a mad scientist,” Brandy says. “He never really actually told me he was thinking about building pedals.” At the end of the week, though, Richard, 40, presented her with his first homemade effects pedal. Days later, he’d drawn up its schematics.

The Angry Sparrow, as he named it, has since become the flagship pedal for Flickinger Tone Boxes, which are sold in boutique instrument shops internationally. It and his other pedals are still handmade – and hand-painted – in the corner of the Flickingers’ dining room.

It’s been a labor of love for the couple who also forms a rock duo called the Revolutionary Sweethearts. The pedal Richard presented to his wife back in 2010 was designed to thicken his guitar tone so the two of them could play together as guitarist husband and drummer wife, with no other musicians necessary.

“I had the idea to do the sparrow design on it because my wife has a sparrow tattoo,” Richard says, sitting at his kitchen table on a sunny day, pedals in various states of completion on a rack behind him. “It’s almost the same image.” The eye of the pedal’s sparrow is an LED: when the pedal’s on, the sparrow’s angry – and the guitar signal darkens to a low, distorted roar.

“I was really proud of him. I thought it was very creative,” Brandy says. “It was a cool concept to me, and I was really flattered for him to use that.”

For Richard, the Angry Sparrow was the end of a frustrating search for a pedal that fit his needs. As a baritone guitarist, he wanted a pedal that responded well to his instrument’s nuances. Tonally, baritones fall between basses and guitars – and distortion pedals are typically designed with one or the other in mind. He was getting the worst of both worlds, though. After going through easily two dozen pedals, he took matters into his own hands.

“It’s not that difficult of a problem to solve,” he says. “There’s just not a product available.”

Though he has a music degree and teaches piano, Richard is a natural tinkerer. As a child he loved his Radio Shack circuit board, and he wistfully says he’d have been quite happy as a handyman; when something breaks around the house, he’s thrilled to fix it. Once he realized his pedal quandary was simply an engineering challenge, he got to work, and his search was over.

That was five years ago, but sometimes still he’s up late at night, building pedals when the orders stack up. He wouldn’t have it any other way. The Angry Sparrow is the only pedal Richard uses.

“To this day, that is probably his biggest selling pedal,” says Brandy. “And it was cool that he was able to come up with something unique like that based on something we shared.”