Talking Guitar: Gerber Guitars - Following the dream...
Ryan Gerber is not only one of the most talented luthiers on our roster, but he is also one of the youngest and in a very short time one of the most sought after. Since launching his brand and going 'full time' as a builder his order books have not stopped filling up, and we here at The North American Guitar as incredibly proud to be apart of his journey.
In this weeks talking guitar, we managed to grab Ryan from his workshop to talk about how it all got started, what drives and inspired him every day and how it feels to see his guitars now in the hands of some of the best fingerstyle players on the planet.
His humility and passion for what he does is completely inspiring and you can see that in the interview below. One of my personal favorites this year...Enjoy!
BM: Ryan, what an amazing couple of years it has been! To see you turn full-time builder only last year and to already be sold out until 2020, must feel amazing! How has the journey been for you since going full time?
My story of becoming a guitar maker starts in 2009, when I had just returned home after living in Colombia South America for two years. I was moving back to my hometown in Ohio and my girlfriend (now my wife), who I met in Colombia, was going to relocate to South Africa for the year. I guess she wanted one last adventure by herself before taking the plunge into married life in Ohio. I had little choice but to move back to the small community where I grew up, and I did what every other normal person would do; I bought a 15 passenger van and started a taxi service for the Amish. My life for that year was going to be pretty boring and I needed something to take up some time and creative energy. That is when I decided it would be a good idea to try to build an acoustic guitar. I started with the book by William Cumpiano and Jonathan Natelson titled "Guitar Making: Tradition and Technology". I purchased a few random clamps and chisels, a small handplane, and in the basement of my Mom's house I made my first guitar over the course of that year.
Backing up a little bit, earlier in my adult life, I had always struggled with the idea of vocation. I had no idea what I wanted to do. After high school in the late 90's, I went to college, got a degree in Business Administration, for the only reason that my guidance counselor suggested it would be a generic degree with many options. Way to go "guidance counselor"! Needless to say I was never truly inspired by any of the classes, and I did only enough to get through and graduate. Post college, I worked as a door to door salesman for a home security company, and I worked in an office designing roof trusses as a Truss Engineer. Perfectly fine jobs, but it wasn't anything to get excited about. I wasn't using my best abilities which were working with my hands, making things, and being creative.
When my wife and I married in 2010, one of our goals was that we would both be self employed doing something that we loved. I had just finished my first guitar, and my wife was just getting into photography. So we rented our first home, a super cheap house in the worst part of town, and I started to buy a few tools and worked in the basement. We bought a new camera, and she started to apprentice with a friend who was photographing weddings (she is now an amazing photographer working full time (www.adriennegerber.com). I made a handful of guitars over the next couple of years, and each guitar got a little bit better than the last. And then I got what I consider to be my "break".
We were expecting our first kid, and I need a better paying job than what I was doing at the time. I found a cabinet maker who needed help, and he happened to be very interested in making guitars. So he gave me a small part of his shop to set up a workbench and a few cabinets of tools and wood, and I worked for the the next three years and made about 25 guitars. I was payed hourly to learn, practice, and grow in guitar making. I'll forever be indebted to Marcus for giving me this opportunity. It was during this time that I started to make some good connections with my first dealers, and I presented a few guitars at my first show at the Memphis guitar festival in 2015. This is where I was first connected with The North American Guitar.
After three years, the opportunity with Marcus at the cabinet shop had ran it's course and we both decided that it was best to move on. But I had a couple of orders with a dealer in Japan, and TNAG as well. I had a choice to make. Quit guitar making and continue working in the cabinet shop as a cabinetmaker, and work for a really great boss who was all too generous, or quit at the cabinet shop and go on my own....with a family to support, and only a couple orders worth of work, and no guarantees. There was no way I was going to give up on my dream of making guitars every day. And my wife wasn't ready to give up on our dream of being self-employed. So I talked with Marcus and told him that I had to give it a shot.
I had the Woodstock Invitational Luthiers Showcase coming up a few months after I quit my job, and I had the two guitars which I made for TNAG to present at the show. Beyond that, there was no certainty. This was October of 2017.
But as a result of the first few guitars that were sold through TNAG, I got a few repeat orders. The next batch of guitars which went to TNAG sold quickly, and suddenly I felt like maybe it was going to work out for me to be a full time guitar maker.
2018 was my first full year completely on my own. What can I say, it's a lot of work! It's true, that being self employed you work twice as hard for half as much. But I wouldn't have it any other way. I get to be at home where my shop is currently located, and be close as my two kids grow up. I get to show them what I do. They get to learn and ask questions. I get to eat lunch at home, and spend more time with my wife.
I love what I do, and I'm thankful for for the many people and customers who have worked with me to make it possible. I hope that it's a mutually beneficial relationship. I hope that I'm giving something positive to the guitar universe, and that the owners of my instruments enjoy them as much as I do.
BM: People are saying your guitars (straight out the workshop) are absolutely outstanding. We have had several customers say they are instantly ‘Alive’ with sound. How would you describe the Gerber signature tone?
"Alive" is certainly a good word to hear from customers. Coincidentally, this afternoon I had a friend over who wanted to try my latest guitar to be finished, which was a RL16 model with Brazilian rosewood back and sides and Swiss spruce soundboard. He played a few notes and the first words out of his mouth were, "it's really alive". I want to coax as much resonance and power out of the instrument as possible, while still maintaining a balanced sound that is natural and comfortable on the ears. I don't want to give any preference to the bass, mids, or trebles. No one should ever pick up one of my guitars with first impression being, "wow, that bass is amazing." I want the experience to unfold on many levels, and be satisfying for more than one or two reasons.
BM: We have been lucky enough to get your guitars in the hands of some of the worlds greatest fingerstyle guitar players. First of all how does that feel seeing Tony McManus, Mike Dawes and Stuart Ryan playing your guitars and secondly who else would you like to see demoing your wonderful instruments?
It's honestly a dream come true to have such talented musicians playing my guitars. The North American Guitar has done an amazing job of collaborating with players who really bring each instrument to life, and give the listener a taste of what the guitar was made to do. I think it should be considered greedy to ask for anyone else, but I've seen a few videos with Clive Carroll in the TNAG showroom, and it would be an honor to hear him play one of my guitars.
BM: Stuart Ryan loved the RL15+ in Walnut and Moon Spruce we brought in so much when he came into demo it, that he ended up taking it home with him. We have never seen this happen before. When building an instrument a) do you have a tone goal / sound in mind and b) do you know what each individual guitar will excel at?
Yes! When I first heard that Stuart might be purchasing one of my guitars I could hardly believe it. He had hinted on his social media that he may have found a guitar which was tempting him, and he needed to sell a few of his guitars to make room. I saw this right after the demo for the Walnut guitar came out on the TNAG website, and of course I proceeded to jump to conclusions and dream about the possibility. Then I told myself I was crazy and pushed the thought aside. In the end, Stuart did end up with the guitar and he's been a wonderful ambassador for my work.
To answer the first part of your question, my tonal goal is the same with every guitar I make regardless of the model or materials. I want to make a guitar that is super responsive, powerful, and yet harmonious and comfortable on the ears. As I'm making the back and the soundboard, I'm trying to achieve harmony in the parts, and hit that perfect balance of strength versus flexibility. For me, that perfect point is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of the many luthier made guitars available today. As I mentioned in one of your earlier questions, I don't want to give any preference or bias to one particular part of the frequency response so my soundboards are voiced accordingly - a little looser than some, and a little tighter than others. Beyond that, consistency is key and I do everything that I can to be consistent from one guitar to the next, regardless of the materials used for the soundboard or back and sides. Of course, those materials will color the sound and give each guitars its unique voice. But in terms of output, responsiveness, balance, and harmony, I do my best to make every guitar as good as the last.
You're second question is a little harder for me to answer. Honestly, I want them to excel at everything! But that's not fair to say. If you want a really great flat picking guitar, you should probably look for a great Martin, or a guitar by a modern builder who builds in that genre. None of my guitars probably excel, in the fullest sense of the word, in the flatpicking genre. They just don't have the same vibe. Having said that, if someone asked me to make a guitar for them which is more friendly to being played aggressively with a pick, I would steer them towards a soundboard material which is more dense, such as Adirondack or Sitka. My primary soundboard material for the last several years has been Swiss moon spruce, which is slightly less dense, with a wonderful strength to weight ratio. This gives the guitar an immediate, responsive, powerful voice. Great for fingerstyle, but not ideal for the folk musician or flat picker.
BM: We are bringing in the very first RL16 in Honduran Mahogany (which we are very excited about), that has already sold! What do you love about building jumbo guitars?
Well, before this year I had made only a limited number of the RL16 model. But I have three on the schedule for this year, and I'm super excited to get the chance to make them. I just finished the first of the three RL16's for the year, and I'm very happy with it. Its got me very excited to finish the other two. I've kept all of the characteristics of my other models that I like and strive for, in a slightly larger and more powerful package. The body is a little bit larger, and so is the scale length at 25.5" (both the RL15 and RL15.5 have a 25.5" scale length). I don't know what else to say other than, if you want power, then go big!
BM: Do you have any new models or designs in mind for the future?
I have a plethora of ideas, but I'm not sure how many will ever move from idea to proof of concept. And most of them are probably terrible to begin with (like the new bridge design I tried to pitch to a friend of mine today). But as far as the viable ideas go, I'd like to try an adjustable neck at some point. It makes a lot of sense to my practical brain, and has many advantages over a traditional set neck. There are good reasons why someone like Ken Parker does what he does with his neck design. I also have an idea for a unique arm rest which keeps your forearm off of the soundboard completely. There is a significant amount of sound production happening where the forearm meets the soundboard, and on my guitars one can notice a huge change when lifting the forearm off of the soundboard completely. I would consider this to be a huge improvement for the sound of the instrument, and comfort of the player as well. Those are probably the two most likely experiments to happen in the near future.
BM: Your guitars are sonically outstanding but we have not spoken about just how beautiful visually they are too. We absolutely love the lines and aesthetics of your instrument’s, where do you draw your inspiration from when building and designing the theme of the guitar?
That's a great question.
I do really enjoy the artistic side of guitar making. My approach to the aesthetic of the guitar is not strictly utilitarian. I want to make it interesting to look at, and if possible, beautiful.
But before I add anything to the guitar, the back and side material is already creating a visual story by itself. It's absolutely amazing, the great variety of colors and patterns that can be found in trees. So I usually start by trying to find the right colors and complimentary materials to work with the back and side wood. I'll try to map the different parts and pieces such as the binding, purfling, rosette, headstock, before I start anything, this way I can know that the guitar as a whole will be cohesive.
I'm inspired by geometric patterns, patterns in nature, and the different textures that can be found in figured woods. While I do my best to find unique designs and ideas, I'm also inspired by other guitar makers and artists. Over the last couple of years I've been more inspired by guitar makers with classic design sensibilities and a "less is more" philosophy. This doesn't always show itself in my guitars, but hopefully I'm learning to find that balance between complexity and subtlety. My goal is to create something that is complex and interesting, but only once you've started to look close.
BM: What would be the guitar you would build for yourself?
If I were to have to choose one of my current models, I would probably make an RL16 with a cutaway, Swiss moon spruce, and one of the drier sounding woods like Mahogany, Walnut, or maybe even Maple. If I weren't limited to my current models, I'd try something new. Something completely different from the traditional guitar design and shape.
BM: Ryan thank you so much for your time, I have said it once but I will say it again, it is a real honour representing your brand and your phenomenal guitars.