Savannah is a city with a soundtrack, one played a chord at a time. Three legendary luthiers, or guitar makers, quietly operate from the coastal Georgia town. Nashville, Tennessee, is the world’s country and bluegrass music capital; New Orleans, Louisiana, the mecca of jazz; and Los Angeles the rock-and-roll epicenter, but the top tools of those trades come from strummin’ central, Savannah.
The stories behind Randy Wood Guitars, Benedetto Guitars and Gretsch have melodies all their own.
Randy Wood Guitars
Hank Williams Jr. needed a guitar repaired, and Nashville’s go-to instrument fixer, Shot Jackson, couldn’t do the work.
Take it to Rual Yarbrough’s music shop in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Jackson told the teenage Williams one day in1969. Ask for Randy Wood. He’s new there, but we grew up together in Georgia. Randy will take care of you.
So began Wood’s rise to luthier to the stars. Hank Jr. became a repeat customer, as did Nashville vintage guitar dealer George Gruhn. Jackson sent more and more Nashville pickers down U.S. 43 to see his childhood friend. And a burgeoning relationship with bluegrass legend Bill Monroe made Wood a weekend regular backstage at the then home of the Grand Ole Opry, the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville.
“The Ryman had only three dressing rooms at the time: one for the male musicians, one for the females and one for the host, Roy Acuff,” Wood says. “When you meet guys three or four at a time, in their skivvies, you form bonds quick.”
Within three years, the man who honed his craft working wood in a sign-painting studio owned a guitar shop, The Old Time Pickin’ Parlor. Wood’s client list read like the rolls of a music hall of fame: Eric Clapton, Waylon Jennings, Keith Richards, Joni Mitchell, Johnny Cash, Charlie Daniels, even Elvis Presley. The talent coming through his showroom door prompted him to open one of the shop’s storerooms for Sunday afternoon jam sessions. Wood soon turned that space into a concert venue, with shows several nights a week, and his repair and instrument-building business ballooned.
Before long, Wood was to guitarists what Giorgio Armani was to European business executives of the time.
“When Randy came to Nashville, there was not a single good repairman in town at that time, and he was perhaps the finest repairman in the South,” says Gruhn, the vintage guitar dealer and the man who hired Wood away from the shop in Muscle Shoals to work in Music City. “Everybody brought their instruments to him. And then he was doing custom work, too, building banjo necks and mandolins and guitars.”
Yet the rapid commercialization of the Nashville music scene in the mid-1970s left Wood disillusioned. The “dog eat dog” attitude of up-and-coming artists was not what Wood wanted, and he and his wife made plans for a move home to Georgia. Wood’s stellar reputation as a luthier guaranteed work would follow him. When a young entrepreneur made Wood an offer on The Old Time Pickin’ Parlor in 1978, he sold the business and bought a home in a quiet island community near Savannah.
Wood worked out of his house for the next two decades, building mostly mandolins and resonator guitars, better known as dobros, for Pickin’ Parlor clients and referrals. By the late 1990s, though, his quiet island was bustling. And Wood’s new neighbors frowned upon home businesses. He had long pledged to never drive to work again, so building instruments required a move.
Wood found a sufficiently quiet spot on the other side of the county. The property could accommodate a home and a large workshop and fronted a road easily accessible from Interstate 95. Wood elected to expand his operation to include a retail storefront, a small restaurant and a reincarnation of the Pickin’ Parlor concert hall. The business opened in 2000 and is less than a 10-minute drive from Gulfstream’s world headquarters.
To find Randy Wood Guitars today, follow the wisps of blue smoke, the unmistakable smell of an expertly tended barbeque smoker.
Aesthetically, Wood’s store is like many other roadside businesses in rural Georgia. The shop is a group of connected outbuildings. The cooker out front completes the camouflage.
What the site lacks in pretentiousness it makes up for in activity. The store displays dozens of original or refurbished stringed instruments, from guitars to mandolins and fiddles to man-sized basses. Wood employs a handful of repair specialists while he concentrates on building new instruments, mostly guitars.
Wood creates masterpieces in a glorified barn at the rear of the property. The walls and roof are sheet metal; the floor unfinished. He makes approximately 20 guitars, mandolins and dobros a year. Few clients nowadays have the reputation of Hank Williams Jr., but many a professional musician can still be found at his door.
“I tend to be in the right place at the right time, I guess you could say,” Wood says. “And I tend to make the most of it.”
Howard Paul’s eyes immediately went to jazz icon Jimmy Bruno’s guitar case upon their meeting in the baggage claim area of the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport.
The case, Paul knew, held an instrument crafted by the world’s foremost archtop guitar maker, Bob Benedetto. An instrument every young jazz musician aspired to hold, let alone play.
How that airport pickup on a Friday afternoon in 1996 eventually led Paul to head Benedetto’s company is a tale deserving of a song.
Bruno sensed Paul’s infatuation with his Benedetto and put the guitar in Paul’s hands before dinner that night. “The first time I played Jimmy’s Benedetto,” Paul says, “I knew I had to have one.”
Paul called Benedetto three days later and ordered his own archtop. He couldn’t afford it—the price tag rivaled that of a new car—and he faced a two-and-a-half-year wait due to Benedetto’s backlog. But the initial contact and follow-up conversations led to a friendship. That friendship later spawned a partnership.
Paul assumed leadership of Benedetto Guitars in 2006. He and Benedetto opened a manufacturing and design center in a Savannah industrial park later that year. Today, they produce approximately 100 archtops a year. Paul handles sales. Benedetto, now semiretired, directs a team of craftsmen and selects materials, precarves the instruments and signs the guitar necks in advance of delivery. Benedetto’s wife, Cindy, leads the company’s marketing efforts.
The average Benedetto commands US$15,000—the company makes less expensive models, but demand for one-of-a-kind custom instruments costing more than US$25,000 heightens the average. The backlog is six months.
“Musicians at this level have an expectation of absolute excellence, and only a handful of builders in history have commanded that,” Paul says. “I’m not exaggerating when I say Benedetto has no rivals in the high-end guitar market.”
Benedetto is widely acknowledged in the jazz music community as the master craftsman of his generation. He whittled his first archtop, a miniature model of the instrument, at age 11, after a chance encounter with his Uncle Mike’s guitar. Uncle Mike and another of Benedetto’s uncles, Frank, played jazz at family functions, and Benedetto came across Uncle Mike’s guitar as it lay on a bed during a meal. The 11-year-old stood studying the guitar when Uncle Mike walked into the room. Uncle Mike put his nephew’s hand on top of the guitar so he could feel the wood vibrate as Uncle Mike plucked the strings.
“From that moment on, all I ever wanted to do was make archtop guitars,” Benedetto says. “I dreamed guitars. I would get catalogs and cut out photos of guitars and guitar players and hang them on my bedroom wall. All my friends had photos of baseball players on their walls. Not me.”
Benedetto made that first guitar out of wood from his family’s maple kitchen table. He’d carve instruments from other pieces of family furniture, including his sister’s bed and a bookcase, as he honed his skills as a luthier. He maintained his focus on archtops, meticulously carved from hard, thick wood with a slight arch in the front and back and designed to project sound, at a time when other luthiers where producing the flat-top acoustic and solid-body electric guitars gaining in popularity. Professional jazz players like Bucky Pizzarelli and Chuck Wayne were early Benedetto converts. By the 1990s, Bruno and several other top musicians all played Benedettos, and moonlighting pros like Paul all dreamt of one day owning one of the master’s signature instruments.
“As a musician, you work and work with an aim toward one day buying a flawless instrument, one where you play any note, anywhere on the fingerboard and it sounds the same,” Paul says. “A Benedetto almost plays itself.”
Benedetto is widely acknowledged in the jazz music community as the master craftsman of his generation.
Fred W. Gretsch’s buddies all took notice of the mop-top hair and the stylish suits of the British rockers headlining the February 9, 1964, television episode of “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Gretsch zeroed in instead on the instrument in the hands of The Beatles’ lead guitarist. George Harrison’s electric guitar bore the teenager’s family’s name across the neck.
“Sitting around the one TV in the house with family and friends, there was a lot of anticipation for that moment,” Gretsch says. “The guitar had a very distinctive look. You could tell it was a Gretsch the moment they stepped on the set.”
The Gretsch name became to rock-and-rollers what Stradivarius is to classical musicians. The family has been building drums and banjos since 1883, when German immigrant Friedrich Gretsch opened a small shop in Brooklyn, New York. The company’s rise to guitar supremacy began seven decades later, driven by a relationship with guitar innovator Jimmie Webster.
Webster recruited the most influential guitarist in rock-and-roll’s early days, Chet Atkins, to design a Gretsch instrument. The Chet Atkins Hollow Body debuted in 1955 and produced crisp, twangy notes that became known as “that great Gretsch sound.” The Chet Atkins Country Gentleman guitar, introduced in 1957, was the industry standard throughout the 1960s, utilized by The Beatles’ Harrison, Elvis Presley, Lou Reed and Neil Young.
Yet Gretsch’s popularity nearly cost the family its legacy. Three years after Harrison rocked the United States on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the family patriarch, Fred Jr., sold Gretsch to piano giant, Baldwin Music Company. Fred Jr. “saw selling as his retirement plan,” says Fred W. Gretsch, who was a young adult still new to the business.
“By the time I realized what was happening it was a fait accompli, a done deal,” Gretsch says. “But from that moment on, I was very much dedicated to getting the business back in the family again.”
Gretsch started his own musical instrument wholesale business in 1970. Success there led to his lobbying to buy back his namesake. Baldwin’s leadership rebuffed him again and again—until the company went bankrupt in 1984. Two Baldwin executives bought the piano division while Gretsch reclaimed the guitar and drum lines.
Gretsch and his wife, Dinah, opened a drum manufacturing facility in Ridgeland, South Carolina, across the Savannah River from their Savannah headquarters.
Guitar production resumed in 1989, with a Japanese manufacturer building the instruments. Gretsch contracted with a California guitar builder to handle custom jobs in the early 2000s.
“The business for us has come full circle,” Gretsch says. “I still get chills thinking about that moment 50 years ago when I saw George Harrison and his Gretsch guitar on TV.”
Spring's Sweet Sounds
Savannah Music Festival showcases world-class talent in a variety of genres
Rob Gibson understands musical tastes rarely range beyond the presets on a car radio.
The Savannah Music Festival’s director also knows that while few melodic omnivores exist, the appetite for an eclectic musical showcase is insatiable. The evidence is in the growth and success of the event, which features musicians playing favorite genres like chamber music, jazz, bluegrass and folk as well as practitioners of more obscure forms such as zydeco, flamenco, qawwali and bhangra.
“Music has the power to transcend time, culture, and language—it brings us together and connects us with one another,” Gibson says. “We are more perceptive, attentive and alive through music because it awakens, develops, nourishes and sustains the human spirit.”
The festival heralds the beginning of spring each year in Gulfstream’s hometown of Savannah, Georgia. The melodies and harmonies ring for 17 days from 10 intimate venues spread across the city’s historic downtown, providing an auditory delight that complements the visual splendor of azaleas in bloom. Venues include houses of worship, historic theaters and special events spaces, and all are within walking distance of each other. Patrons can take in a jazz pianist on a workday lunch break, a mezzo-soprano before dinner and a soulful Pakistani vocal ensemble in the evening without ever worrying about parking or consulting a GPS.
The diversity of musical styles and venues has vaulted the Savannah Music Festival to its place among the great cross-genre fetes in the country. Where other musical extravaganzas focus on a theme and rely on temporary stages, Savannah’s approach makes it a favorite of both music lovers and players.
“The growth has been exponential, not linear,” says Harold Yellin, the festival’s board chairman. “The Savannah community is philanthropic but demands excellence in return, and the music festival has delivered, particularly since Rob Gibson got involved.”
Gibson is the maestro behind the Savannah Music Festival’s rise. Originally known as Savannah Onstage and billed as a musical competition, the festival operated on a lean budget and received sparse community support between its debut season in 1990 and Gibson’s arrival in 2002.
Gibson’s background gave the Savannah Music Festival instant credibility. He co-founded the world’s largest jazz organization, Jazz at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, along with music legend Wynton Marsalis while also teaching music history at the famed The Juilliard School. He’d also directed the Atlanta Jazz Festival and Montreux Atlanta International Music Festival.
The festival today boasts a $3.5 million budget, with backing from private citizens, the City of Savannah Department of Cultural Affairs, and corporate partners. One of the world’s premier violinists, Daniel Hope, heads the chamber music portion of the festival while accomplished jazz pianist Marcus Roberts leads the jazz program.
“The international reputation that these men continue to develop not only provides great credibility for our festival, but it helps grow the good name of Savannah,” Gibson says.
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