‘Backstage Heroes’ is a series spotlighting the many movers and shakers working behind the arts scenes to make magic happen in the Bay Area. Guiding us is Hiya Swanhuyser, a veteran fan and all-around culture vulture who for nearly a decade helmed calendar duties for the SF Weekly — where her ‘Music Heroes’ series inspired this broader look at the arts — giving her rare personal insight into those toiling in the wings, but rarely in the spotlight.
As I open the door of SF Guitarworks, I hear the sound, close overhead, of four open strings being struck. Brrlang! The door, it turns out, plays a small ukulele, positioned string-side-down above the doorframe.
It’s an old-fashioned shop touch, a silly trick to make a kid laugh, but I think it also might signify a sort of human-scale relationship to skilled handwork. This is very much a guitar repair shop, the instrument’s clang broadcasts, and guitar repair is exactly what we do in here. This shop is not interchangeable. It’s not formula retail; the workers here are highly skilled and proud of their work. They’d be hard to replace.
Owner and founder Geoff Luttrell is a set of contrasts, like his business; he looks too young for his grey hair, and his friendly, energetic manner belie the nearly 20 years he’s been dedicated to this often stressful endeavor. Business, he says, is good on one hand, but tough on the other: Some people in San Francisco have plenty of money, but those people don’t tend to be musicians. He’d love to hire a new technician, but it’s harder and harder to find someone who can afford to live in the Bay Area on the wages he can pay. Lots of people would love to work for him, but how many can work at the level SF Guitarworks clientele demands?
It’s surprisingly demanding work, he tells me as we sit near the famous PLEK fret-leveling machine. Sawdust is scattered around the tables like you’d see in any workshop, but the wood shavings contrast sharply with the fuchsia “fur” of a guitar case sitting open nearby. An unfinished electric guitar body hangs behind Luttrell; someone has scrawled Woody Guthrie’s famous threat on it: “This machine kills fascists.”
SF Guitarworks is currently hiring, but it’s tricky. “You have to know metalworking, electronics, finish work including lacquer, polyurethane, French polish; you’ve got to know the woodworking side of it -- there’s just so many different facets,” says Luttrell. That’s what he likes about it, though. “I’ve worked as a welder, and you’re like OK, it’s fun, you’re welding stuff, or building bike frames, but with luthiery every guitar is different, it’s interesting.”
It must be fun, in a certain sense. In spite of the way San Francisco is getting more expensive and less stable for small businesses — “If the plug got pulled on my location that would just gut it. I would say 'That’s it; I’m just in Petaluma now.' That’s where I live, and I have a barn, and I’m working on making another shop and a school up there…But I wouldn’t try to start up again in San Francisco. That would be insane.”
And, in spite of the way instruments are getting cheaper and less repairable, Luttrell seems to have a craftsman’s sense of accomplishment. But does he secretly yearn for the spotlight, the way so many in the music industry do? No, he says. In fact, “I’m in the spotlight! I’ve done work for [guitar legend] Steve Vai, and Skywalker Sound, I’ve teched for Bob Mould, I work for a lot of big local bands like Faith No More, Cracker, Camper van Beethoven, so I get to meet the people whose art I really like. You’d be surprised! I mean you wouldn’t know this, because you’re not a luthier, but … I’m well-known enough, and I feel like I get that opportunity to kind of shine.”
The feeling is mutual; the Bay Area loves SF Guitarworks, across all genres that involve guitars. Gene Bae of Oakland postpunk band Robbery, maybe someone more likely to need guitar work than, say, a classical player, is an appreciator: “SF Guitarworks fixed a MAJOR headstock repair -- think Pete Townshend-level destruction -- on my vintage Rickenbacker bass,” he says.
Meanwhile, Orion Letizi of Bay Area dream-pop outfit Animal Hours says the shop was vital, as its staff “set up my Telecaster and also cut away the bridge enclosure thingy so I can play it without mangling my hand.” Luttrell’s work for those “big local” bands is well-loved, too; bass player Victor Krummenacher of Camper van Beethoven says the SF Guitarworks team has been taking care of his instruments for years, and he mentions their popular setup workshops. And he’s succinct about his feelings: “I consider SF Guitarworks family.”
But there’s a more esoteric element to this shop, in my mind. In his book Shop Class as Soulcraft, electrician and mechanic Matthew B. Crawford describes the industrial-revolution-era “separation of thinking from doing.” The new, profitably efficient, assembly-line idea was opposed to what “work” had previously been: “An integral activity, rooted in craft tradition and experience, animated by the worker’s own mental image of, and intention toward, the finished product.” In our current moment of fragmented attention spans, short-focus, high-intensity stimuli, and deep alienation, it’s an observation ever more important. How many people know the satisfaction of making something with their hands, from start to finish, let alone imagine such “integral activity” as a way to make a living and a life?
Geoff Luttrell is one of them.
“You’ve got this guitar on your bench, you’ve never seen it, it’s a job you’ve never done. You’ve got to be able to see ahead -- 'Okay, here’s how I’m going to get to the end, and I’m not going to make any mistakes.'"
Maybe it’s a bit much to see SF Guitarworks as a kind of new-look Medieval guild, yet as I leave (brrlang!), I notice an impression set into the cement just outside the door: a stamp in the shape of a guitar, right there in the sidewalk. It will stay there for a long time.