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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

Instrumental Living

Renowned luthier Tom Ribbecke uses music to help at-risk youth

Feb. 1, 2010, by Rob Enslin

During the course of four decades, Tom Ribbecke ’74 has acquired an international reputation for building guitars and basses of incomparable beauty. “Each musical instrument tells a story,” says Ribbecke, speaking by phone from his Bay Area office in California. “This is my gift, my mission in life: to create instruments that people will be playing 400 or 500 years from now.”

Ribbecke knows quality has a long shelf life. If a 300-year-old Stradivarius violin can sell for millions, perhaps one day the same might be true of a Ribbecke guitar. Between his private workshop—a small, rustic barn behind his Healdsburg home—and the somewhat more industrial Ribbecke Guitar Company (RGC), a nearby facility where he oversees production of his trademarked Halfling instruments, Ribbecke has earned a reputation as the “Stradivari of guitars.” He has built or repaired thousands of stringed instruments for a diverse group of artists that includes British singing star Seal, Victor Wooten of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, bassist Kevin O’Neal, and rocker Bobby Vega.

While a patron of Ribbecke’s private practice may have to endure a 7- to-10-year waiting period for an instrument typically costing tens of thousands of dollars, RGC turns out high-quality guitars and basses in fractions of time and cost. Customers of both operations walk away with the famous curved Ribbecke logo on the headstock of their instruments. “I’ve never played an acoustic bass that was crafted any better than my Halfling bass,” declares Wooten. “Ribbecke is a genius.”

At 57, Ribbecke is at once ambitious and humble, and exudes an aura of Teutonic solemnity in his workshop, which he calls the “spiritual center” of his life. Casually speaking in metaphors, he expresses a desire to elevate the Halflings produced at RGC—whose revolutionary soundboard is flat on one end and arched on the other—into the Holy Grail of guitars and basses. “I’m just a blue-collar kid from Brooklyn,” he deadpans in his next breath. “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with the fear that 50 percent of my clients are reading the obituaries to see if I’ve died, so their guitars are worth more, and that the other 50 percent are frantic I might die before I deliver their guitars. I do what I do.”

A peculiar measure of Ribbecke’s success is revealed in Guitar Planet, a reality television series that debuts this coming summer. The camera follows an RGC instrument from sale to delivery, flashing back to behind-the-scenes glimpses of the six-month manufacturing process. If the You Tube trailers are any indication, its appeal will reach beyond an audience of axe connoisseurs. Ribbecke, the putative center of attention, believes the real stars of the show are likely to be the supporting cast members—a group of young at-risk apprentices to whom he is trying to pass the torch of fine instrument-making, something he hopes to do  “before they burn the place down,” he quips in the teaser.  “The guys here are a pretty entertaining group,” says 29-year-old daughter, Daniela, RGC’s operations manager. “On some days, they play pranks on each other, like gluing tool boxes to the ceiling or putting fireworks on doors, or hiding people’s keys. On other days, they might teach my dog, Charlie, how to skateboard.” Daniela says she sometimes feels like Wendy with the Lost Boys in Peter Pan. “It’s certainly never dull around here.”

The idea of instrument-making as a way to help wayward youth is not new to Ribbecke. He  has been at it since he opened up his first luthier’s shop in San Francisco’s Mission District during the Seventies, attracting a steady stream of drop-outs and delinquents who are willing to try their hands at his demanding craft as a way of turning their lives around. Ribbecke’s decision to launch the RGC company in 2003 was partly borne of his desire to create more mentoring opportunities.  Kevin, a former neo-Nazi who routinely showed up at RGC stoned or drunk until he was hauled off to a “self-esteem” camp in Mexico, is by no means unusual among Ribbecke’s apprentices. “Even when things got pretty bad, Tom still let me keep my job,” confesses the young apprentice. “That’s what kept me from going overboard.” Each story attests to the master craftsman’s devotion to his employees.

“Kids in trouble have always been drawn to him,” Daniela explains. “I think it’s because he treats everyone with respect and honesty. He will tell you the painful truth, but never in a malicious way.” That candor is evident in a Guitar Planet clip in which Ribbecke confronts an employee who has botched a repair job. “The good news is that I might be able to fix it,” he says as he inspects the cracked soundboard. “The bad news is that you might have just bought yourself a very expensive guitar.” The irony of the moment is underscored by the fact that the guitar belongs to none other than Seal. “Learning how to see the absurdity in life and being able to laugh about it is an essential skill to him,” Daniela says.        

Kevin O’Neal, a Grammy-winning bassist whose resume includes stints with Outkast, Tracy Chapman, and the Busboys, is not surprised by Ribbecke’s dirt-in-the-fingernails work ethic. “What attracts me to Tom is his desire to make things. We, as a nation, have been out of touch with this for so long that we barely know it’s missing,” O’Neal explains. In his estimation, the current economy has renewed interest in people who use their hands to earn a living. “Tom takes great pride in his ingenuity and in his ability to surround himself with wonderful young people. This brings out the best in me as a musician,” he says.

he son of a clarinetist, Ribbecke grew up in a house that suffered no shortage of jazz or classical LPs, and was bitten early by the music bug. Studying guitar as a teenager, he realized that he probably had more in common with Miles Davis and the Doors than with Benny Goodman and Mozart. “I was a young gunslinger, that’s for sure,” marvels Ribbecke, who regularly played at clubs he had no business entering. After a year at NYU, he headed for Syracuse, where he parlayed his growing interest in music and communications into a liberal arts degree in The College of Arts and Sciences. He arrived at a turning point when he learned how to fix his own guitar. “Before I knew it, people started having me look at their guitars. So I converted my dorm room on Marshall Street, which had a ‘full bath’—pretty rare in those days—into a workshop,” he laughs. “Between gigging and repairing instruments, I barely had time to study.”

With hair “down to his elbows,” Ribbecke grabbed his diploma and headed for California, where he lived the life, it can be said with a straight face, of a hippie, while making big noises as a sideman and luthier.  He estimates he worked on tens of thousands of repairs and custom-builds before closing his storefront business to focus on commissions. Even so, he kept up a punishing schedule of one-nighters up and down the coast with Buffalo Springfield, Donovan, J.J. Cale, and other legendary acts—until the road took its toll.  In 1992, traveling home from a gig in San Jose, Ribbecke fell asleep at the wheel and drove his car into a building. “I was three blocks from my house,” he says with a trace of emotion. “It was my wake-up call. I had too much on my plate.”

Reaching a fork in the road, Ribbecke chose to go the way of instrument-making, and it wasn’t long before his ability to produce highly responsive, curvaceous instruments made him a rock star among luthiers, catapulting him to the presidency of the Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans. Daniela sensed something was up with Dad when several of his instruments, including his famous Blue Mingione Guitar, were put on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. “That’s when I realized how famous he was,” she chuckles.

The word most often associated with Ribbecke is “resonance.” Jacques-André Dupont, founder of the Montreal Guitar Show, defines the term as a quality that separates “true artists” from skilled artisans. “His guitars are amazing sounding,” Dupont insists. “They ring like grand pianos and are comfortable, like the love of your life. But they are also real art pieces, with amazing designs and a very personal aesthetic.”  Jazz guitarist Bruce Forman, likens his friend Ribbecke to Geppetto, the marionette-maker in Pinnochio. “Tom has a special ability to infuse life into all of his surroundings. I look forward to his next creation,” he says.

Perhaps highest praise comes from colleagues in the field. Linda Manzer and Steve Grimes, Ribbecke’s closest competitors, are also among his closest friends. Manzer, a Canadian known for her archtop and flat-top acoustic guitars, calls Ribbecke a member of “our tribe,” and speaks of him with great affection. “Just thinking about him makes me smile,” she says. “He is wonderfully generous with his knowledge and with his gifts, and he lights up any room he walks into.” Grimes, like Ribbecke, came of age in the early Seventies as a West Coast musician and woodworker, and calls him both a dear friend and one of the best luthiers who ever picked up a chisel. “Tom designs a great looking and great sounding archtop,” says Grimes, known for his patented stress-free bridge system. “He’s an excellent teacher who is willing to share his craft with aspiring luthiers. He’s a top-notch guitarist to boot.”

Bobby Vega thinks so too. Less than a decade ago, he approached Ribbecke about building him a special archtop bass. “When I commissioned him, my son was in the womb. When I got the guitar, he was seven,” laughs Vega, a rock legend who has shared the stage with Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, Joan Baez, and various members of the Grateful Dead. “He made me a guitar that was over-the-top ridiculous.” That commission not only inspired a new, innovative design (i.e. the Halfling), but also led to the formation of RGC, which produces Halfling instruments in numbers, including the Bobby Vega Halfling Bass. Vega, who owns no fewer than 40 basses and 10 guitars, including a Ribbecke Monterey, thinks the secret to his friend’s success is integrity. “If you take the time to get to know him, Tom will make an incredible guitar for you, but it will also have his ‘mojo’ in it. It’s a really deep, special thing,” he adds. Kevin O’Neal, who also owns several Ribbecke instruments, concurs. “When Tom pays attention to you, he doesn’t break your gaze. He’s a lovely person.” Ribbecke takes the praise in stride. “I am very lucky,” he concludes. “My instruments are the culmination of my talents, my life experiences, and my many friendships.”