String Dreams for Ronnie Griffin, a Man with a Feel for Wood and Steel, Crafting a Guitar Is a Painstakingly Slow, Methodical Journey (Though Nobody Says It Isn't Worth the Wait)

By Carter, John R. | The Florida Times Union, February 8, 1996 | Go to article overview

String Dreams for Ronnie Griffin, a Man with a Feel for Wood and Steel, Crafting a Guitar Is a Painstakingly Slow, Methodical Journey (Though Nobody Says It Isn't Worth the Wait)


Carter, John R., The Florida Times Union


WAYCROSS, Ga. -- "If you string it, strum it and can't wipe the

grin off your face -- that's when you know."

Ronnie Griffin -- known throughout the Southeast for his

painstakingly handcrafted guitars and meticulous repair work --

is describing how he knows if one of his handcrafted instruments

has "the magic."

Finally, he says, after hundreds of attempts, he's consistent in

making a good instrument. (And at a couple of thousand bucks a

pop, he'd better be.)

"That's behind me now," said Griffin, 42. "I'm satisfied that I

can guarantee clarity and power. I'm at that point now. But

getting here," he sighs wearily, "has been quite a journey."

A slow and methodical journey, no doubt. Because if there's

anything those who have personal or professional relationships

with Griffin agree on, it's that he is in no hurry. At all. He

lends new meaning to the phrase "slow hand."

"I had a fella pass away waiting to get an instrument back,"

Griffin said. "I think I had it a year or so. I eventually got

the guitar back to his family, but I sure felt bad about that."

You'd best have plenty of patience, too, if you're placing an

order for a new guitar -- about two months construction time,

and that's after your number comes up for the process to begin.

The time could be cut if Griffin took on a partner. But that's

another Griffin quirk: He's not only slow, he's solitary.

Nevertheless, Don Walton of Don's Vintage Guitars in

Jacksonville, has a less-metaphysical explanation for Griffin's

special touch: He's picky, picky, picky.

"He's easily the most particular person I've ever known,"

Walton said. "He's had guitars of mine for three years. I've had

to go up there [to Waycross] and almost physically pry stuff

away from him. But he'd still be saying, `Oh, that's not ready.

Look at that blemish.' And you'd need a microscope to see it."

Walton says Griffin is maddeningly set about his methods: When

the guitar-maker ambles out to the clean, spacious shop at the

back of his 2-acre spread just south of the Georgia town

synonymous with Okefenokee Swamp -- he does it his way and his

way only.

Trial and error

He learned it his way, too -- the hard way. No fancy Southern

California luthier (guitar-maker) schools or apprenticeships.

You might say he got his degree from the School of Trial and

Error where he majored in Mistake After Mistake.

"That's real important though," Griffin said. "I needed to learn

the `why' to the wrong way just as much as I needed to learn the

`why' to the right way. That's just as important as knowing how

to do it. 'Cause when you know the `why' you're less inclined to

repeat your mistakes. At least that's what I keep telling

myself."

Griffin began learning the hows and whys of guitar-making in the

fifth grade when he got his first guitar, a crude Sears Roebuck

Silvertone archtop.

"The strings were up so high, I'd play that thing till my

fingers bled. Then I'd wait for them to heal over and have a go

at it again," Griffin said. "But it was rough. So I started

working on that guitar -- just to make it halfway playable. I

actually ended up completely refinishing that same guitar, the

first one I ever attempted."

And Griffin got a taste of the magic that comes from setting up

an instrument to bring out its best: Shaving the internal

braces, adjusting neck angle, dressing frets, re-gluing a bridge

-- whatever it takes.

"When you do get it right, it's a special thing," Griffin said. …

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