Roger Skipper-Deep Creek Lake Luthier
I had this urge to build a guitar after building my dream woodworking shop outside of Deep Creek Lake. I spent a year researching the many techniques there are to accomplish this task as well as buying materials piece by piece. I remembered being introduced by a friend to Roger Skipper who hosted a bluegrass night at a local watering hole near the lake. Roger, I was soon to discover, was a well-respected luthier not only in Western Maryland but across the country. The instruments he created in his one-man shop ranged from guitars, mandolins, ukuleles, violins, banjos, stand up basses and the list goes on and on. I figured I would pay him a visit to look a little closer into his craft, which I consider art, and hopefully learn a few things from him that I could apply to my first guitar build. I really didn’t know how I would be received since I was asking advice on something he made a living off of. At first I think he looked at me with some amusement, as I’m sure he had many people in the past that wanted to build a guitar and asked his advice and instruction as to how to do it. After a couple of visits, I think he felt I was serious enough that he would invest his time getting me started. This is something that not only meant the world to me but also exposed a layer of Roger that most people locally already know about him, and that is…he is a giver. He looked at me, mind made up, and offered to help me tackle my project. “I’m about to start a guitar, you come over and watch me build it step by step and either work here building it or go back to your shop and do it. I will help you with anything you need.” I was blown away by the offer and quickly agreed like a proud student. After all, I had all the materials bought and had planned 90% of the guitar a million times in my head over the last year. Luckily I had the flexibility of a career that slowed down immensely during the winter months which afforded me opportunities to go visit Roger consistently. In my mind, I still had doubts if I could actually do this even with the help of a master craftsman. We would soon see…
The first thing you notice when you walk into Roger’s shop is the vast amount of jigs hanging on every square inch of his walls. These jigs make no sense to you even if you think you have a clue what they are. The ingenuity and creativity it takes to invent and build these jigs is staggering. These jigs are the key to making instrument construction consistent and can shave some time off the process. “I love to create and build jigs” he has told me numerous times. “Sometimes I have to build a jig to build another jig”. Make no mistake about it, every step along the way is nothing short of impressive and these handmade tools rival the finished product in terms of creativity and ingenuity.
Nestled in the center of the room in a rectangular work table with tools neatly scattered, he is always hunched over his work bench doing the seemingly impossible with the shrug of a shoulder. Some days he’s snapping delicate abalone into small perfling slots to give a guitar its famous stage zing. Other days he’s meticulously cutting dozens upon dozens of small pieces of inlays constructing masterpiece works of art on guitar rosettes, fretboards and headstocks. Roger has an engineer’s mind for detail and problem solving meshed with a lifetime of hard knocks Appalachian Mountains common sense. The result of these talents and gifts teeter on complete genius. People have no clue how many steps there are in the instrument construction process. After all, this is a handmade guitar!
I watch him labor over a custom inlay sometimes for days until its assembled perfect. This is not some assembly line computer-built instrument. Roger taps every red spruce guitar top to make sure it has that special ring tone that’s associated with all of his guitars. He hand selects every mahogany neck, back and side as well as every other piece to the puzzle. You are not getting this kind of care with any of the “well-respected” guitar companies. You are buying a brand and an assembly line product. Roger is hand-crafting you an amazing instrument, a piece of art that you proudly pass on for generations to your family. A product that he stands behind! Roger tries to achieve perfection knowing and believing it doesn’t exist. Nothing is perfect in this complex profession but the subtle differences in each instrument defines its personality like the diverse and complex differences of your children. When playing his instruments, you will have a difficult task trying to find one flaw in his seamless work. You will be mesmerized by the beauty and sound of them all. In the throw away world we live in, craftsmen of this caliber are becoming a dying breed. People that cater to a quality product that will cut no corners for monetary gain are hard to come by. Roger takes his craft seriously and strives to build a quality instrument every time. Essentially you are getting what you pay for. Wow, imagine that…
So, I get started on my project under the supervision of the best luthier in the country. My instructor patiently lays out an introductory curriculum for me, basically hand holding me every step of the way through most of the project. Sporadically, over the next three months I come over and learn basics in woodworking and guitar construction. I don’t think he is 100% sure if I am going to finish what I start in the beginning but I slowly work my way through each lesson understandably, making numerous mistakes. Mistakes that for me seem like the end of the world but for Roger seem to play out as amusement. I challenge him daily with new slip-ups that I make and he just smiles at my frustration offering me an easy solution to each crisis. I felt so accomplished finally voicing my guitar top and getting the sides bent and gluing the body together. This was the catalyst of motivation for me to move forward under the wing of a master to finish what I started. This burst of successes took me through installing abalone purfling, fitting the neck, installing neck markers, all the way through the long and tedious finishing process which is also the most fulling. To start out with pieces of raw wood and to bring it together making something that sings beautifully is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my life and I give thanks to a man that steered me selflessly through the project.
It takes a special person to take you under their wing and guide you through every step of his own profession, sharing secrets and techniques that have taken a lifetime to acquire. I have a few guitars under my belt but still find myself leaning on the teacher to help me through planning as well as nurturing me through mistakes. I feel very fortunate that I have had the opportunity to learn from a true master but more importantly learning life lessons and sharing goods times with a great friend. Stop by his shop sometime, have a beer and help him plan your next instrument.
I failed to mention he is also an accomplished writer with well-respected books published. You can find them here.
Here’s another article about Roger Skipper.