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Sounds of Science

With A Little Robotic Help, Luthier Phil Jacoby is Tuning Up Baltimore One Guitar At a Time

Sam Holden

By Ned Oldham | Posted 6/15/2005

The Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans meets at McDaniel College, June 16-18. For more info, check out www.guitarmaker.org.

Phil Jacoby is a luthier. The word, of course, derives from “lute,” a small guitarlike instrument that is somewhat archaic but still gets play, mostly in historical ensembles. But Phil Jacoby doesn’t make lutes, he makes guitars, and more frequently adjusts or repairs them. He and his fellow practitioners of this ancient yet evolving art have been traditionally a secretive and guildlike community, but in recent years luthiers have become more open to sharing their trade secrets, Jacoby says, as part of a relatively recent renaissance in improved guitar quality.

“Information is more widely available,” he says, “and that’s kind of what a renaissance is.”

Jacoby believes this is happening for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that “an estimated 10 to 12 percent of Americans play guitar, and everybody’s got more than one,” he says. Other reasons notwithstanding—and Jacoby can think of several—those of us in that 10-12 percent can partake of this newly relaxed atmosphere at the biannual symposium of the Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans (ASIA), to be held at McDaniel College in Westminster, June 16-18, the premier luthiers’ convention on the East Coast.

Jacoby has been invited to speak on the recently developed and still-evolving German-made machine called the Plek, invented by tool and die maker and guitar player Gerd Anke. The software-controlled device measures a guitar’s many play-affecting distances—fret to fret, fret height, string to fret, neck curvature, and so on—then suggests and in some cases robotically makes adjustments to the guitar. It looks like a cross between a weight machine and a dentist’s drill, weighs about 1,000 pounds, and costs in the neighborhood of $100,000, which Jacoby himself learned in April when he bought one of the seven Plek machines owned in the U.S. Of the remaining six, two are owned by Joe Glaser, a longtime Nashville expert who works on the guitars of Ricky Scaggs and Vince Gill, among others, and who along with master luthier Dan Erelewine will be speaking with Jacoby on the Plek at ASIA on Friday, June 17.

“You want to make it easy for the machine to see the guitar,” Jacoby says of his device, which stands beside him in his South Baltimore shop. “Otherwise it will wander all over hell’s half acre trying to find what to measure.” The machine must be given reference points for the instrument, he explains, and data entered according to several observations the luthier makes.

Jacoby types some parameters into a computer keyboard, then buckles a ’65 Fender Mustang into the Plek. He gives each string a low-voltage charge with the touch of a small electrical clamp—again, to help the machine “read” it—and steps back to let the Plek work.

A round, smooth point extends from the end of a long flexible mechanical arm and stops short just above the center of the guitar’s neck. The point pushes against the neck then, and drags itself first gently upward, tracing over the frets, then up and down, on each string in turn, measuring to within a thousandth of a millimeter.

“Sensor finger. Titanium point. It won’t make a mess of anything,” Jacoby says.

This particular Fender Mustang’s frets are worn down to nubs only a half a millimeter high, but the relative heights of the frets form a curve quite close to what the Plek suggests.

“That’s interesting to see—no neck twist. You have fall-away, but no neck twist, per se. Sooner or later it’s going to get a buzz that won’t go away,” he predicts for the Mustang. “But it’s like an old leather jacket—worn in just so.” The best thing to do with it, Jacoby says, is to wait for that final buzzing fret, then put new frets in. His Plek Basic model can’t do that, though Glaser’s Plek Pros can. What his Plek can do, however, is file frets into the appropriate curve of heights, “as well or better than me on a good day,” he admits.

From a young age, Jacoby had a natural guitar player’s curiosity and a genetic knack for taking things apart and putting them back together.

“I started playing when I was 14 and right away I started tinkering,” he says. “We always had a workbench in the basement. My dad was always fiddling with the car, fiddling with the boat, doing house projects. . . . My parents were do-it-yourselfers. That’s what they did. If something was broken, they fixed it. . . . So naturally, when the guitar bug finally bit, one of the first things I did was take the darn thing apart.”

Jacoby, now 34, first apprenticed in Jerry Korkki’s guitar shop while earning an undergraduate degree in music from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, gigging often as a guitarist, then went to the Roberto Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix, Ariz., while stocking groceries on the red-eye shift. From there, he went to work in the factory at Paul Reed Smith Guitars, a high-end, large-quantity manufacturer in Annapolis, before setting up his own shop on Light Street in South Baltimore in 2002. He’s managed to keep busy without advertising or offering any semblance of retail.

“I’m not a big fan of retail,” he says. “Retail, you have to sell them something. I would rather something sell itself. But the nice thing about this niche is people will seek you out if you’re doing a particular thing. You’re not trying to shove anything down their throat, so right off the bat you can have a rapport.”

When he first set up shop in a small room on Light Street, he kept what he calls a moderate backlog of instruments for repair. “Twenty to 30 instruments,” he says, “will pay the mortgage.” This April, he moved into a bigger space in a former barbershop at the corner of Fort Avenue and Henry Street, this time with a family residence upstairs, where he lives with his wife and their two young children. Plus, it has room for the Plek. Today, he figures he works on about 10 instruments a week, and in each case, he meets his client by appointment, to see how they interact with their guitars, how they hold it, how they play it.

“Any problem is 50 percent the instrument, 50 percent the player,” he says. “The repairman is stuck trying to get them to meet in the middle. I love measuring, but it’s all about reference. Reference is a yardstick to measure against. It’s your high-water mark. Then you go from there. In the end, the final quality control is all touchy-feely.”

At the moment, Jacoby’s got a 60-instrument backlog building up in his new shop. But at least now he has that cyber-droid-looking contraption in the corner, which both saves him labor and increases his precision. With business this good, he’ll need all the help he can get.

“In the workshop,” Jacoby says, “time can run away with you.”

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