Charleston Daily Mail

Friday August 14, 2009

Culloden man found his niche building, repairing instruments

by Zack Harold
Daily Mail staff


CULLODEN, W.Va. -- It's difficult to imagine a better place for a musical instrument workshop than Gerry Collyard's Culloden home.

The house is located on a mountaintop at the end of the winding, mostly graveled Benedict Road. Collyard built it with his wife, Sandy Sowell, owner of Sandy Sowell Entertainment.

The home is sunny and open inside, tree-shaded and breezy outside. A giant wooden guitar stands in the backyard. Collyard's shop can be found in the home's basement. Among the woodworking equipment, instrument cases and instrument pieces fill the shop's shelves

The beginnings of his latest project lie on the workbench. After acquiring a piece of West Virginia flamed maple, Collyard knew it was destined to become an instrument, but he wasn't sure what kind.

The wood was too small to become a guitar top and too thin to be carved into a mandolin top. After some careful consideration Collyard decided to build an octave mandolin, which is played like a regular mandolin but with the range and construction of a guitar.

His choice of project isn't entirely surprising. Collyard has a thing for mandolins.

A member of an early-1970s bluegrass group in Minnesota's Twin Cities, Collyard began playing mandolin "because there were too many guitars in the room."

The first couple of mandolins he bought were "awful," and he recalls taking one of them to a repair shop in hopes of improving it.

"I was thinking, 'Well, if I could repair it myself, I wouldn't have to take it to someone else,' " he said. At the time, Collyard was working at an automotive wholesale company and knew it wasn't what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He enrolled in the instrument repair program at the Red Wing Area Vocational Technical Institute in Red Wing, Minn.
The program included a segment on luthiery, the art of making and repairing stringed instruments, because as Collyard explained, "If you can build a guitar, you know how it's put together and you can repair it."

He said his first effort still is one of the best-sounding instruments he's built.

Halfway through his instrument repair course, Collyard started sending resumes to music stores around the country. Eventually, Joe Dobbs from Fret 'n Fiddle in St. Albans offered him a job, and Collyard jumped at the opportunity. He'd heard a lot about Appalachia and its musicians, and figured those musicians would need a repairman.

At Fret 'n Fiddle, Collyard gained a loyal client base for his work, many of whom followed him to his new shop when he left Fret 'n Fiddle in 2003 after two decades of working there. Collyard said he needed uninterrupted time to work. "When you put glue on something, you don't want to leave it."

Now, he has fewer distractions and all the time he needs. "I can come down here in the middle of the night and clamp something up if I have to," Collyard said.

The shop also gives him more time to work on luthiery. If there isn't a repair on his workbench, there's always a guitar bracing to glue or a mandolin top to carve. He makes it a point to work on one of his original instruments every day.

Still, Collyard says just about every guitar or mandolin takes about a year to build. When he moved to his home shop, he envisioned an assembly line-style production, but came to realize that wasn't his style. Collyard has turned out only two-dozen instruments in his lifetime, but he's been proud of every single one.

"I'm not sure that quantity is what I'm going for. All my instruments have been one-of-a-kind," Collyard said. "They've all been pretty good instruments. A quality mandolin is almost required to make music. You need a quality instrument."

Collyard uses a mandolin he made for himself in 1986. Built with cutting-edge hardware and beautiful West Virginia flamed maple, the mandolin has touches that larger instrument builders are only beginning to employ. Collyard utilized high-quality tuners that keep strings from slipping mid-gig, a curved fingerboard that allows for more comfortable playing, and a solid-cast tailpiece, which cuts down on noisy vibrations.

In addition to his acoustic mandolins, Collyard has made a name for himself as an electric mandolin builder. Collyard says the instruments aren't widely embraced by traditionalists, but the electric mandolin is much older than people think. Fender and Gibson, two of the nation's largest instrument makers, were producing the instruments as early as the 1950s.
Unlike acoustic mandolins, which have eight strings in four pairs, Collyard's electric instruments have four single strings - a nod to Fender's electric mandolins.

Collyard says acoustic mandolins feature four pairs of strings because they need the added volume in order to compete with other, louder instruments like banjos and guitars. With an electric mandolin, volume's no longer an issue so tone becomes the most important quality. Avoiding doubled strings allows players to get a cleaner note and bend the mandolin's strings, like blues guitar players do.

Collyard also has built an electric slide mandola, the mandolin-family equivalent of a viola. Mandolas are tuned lower than mandolins and have been made for hundreds of years. Collyard's twist on the instrument is that it is electric and combines the traditional mandola with a lap steel guitar. Instead of fretting the mandola's strings with your fingers, this one is played by sliding a glass or metal tube up and down the strings.

He says his experience in instrument repair has given him a lot of time to study the fine musical instruments that inform his work. Even though he turns out instruments slowly, Collyard said selling them can be a challenge. Thanks to the Internet, it's easier. For instance, the last instrument Collyard sold was an electric mandolin made of Brazilian rosewood. He had tried unsuccessfully to sell it in a local music store on commission. Collyard took it home and listed it on his Web site,

Within two weeks someone from Alabama called and offered to buy the mandolin - no questions, no haggling, no commission to pay.

Still, that doesn't mean luthiery is a lucrative business. "You don't get rich doing hand work," Collyard says. "I'm not making a lot of money on it."

Though Collyard sells his instruments for about $2,000 apiece, repair work is still his bread and butter. Of course, it's never been about the money. "I get to work on instruments instead of driving a truck for a living," Collyard says. "I know I'll be doing this until my hands fall off."