Class Testimonial from former student, Bob Rose .......
North – A Visit to Custom Pearl
Bob Rose 4/27/05
This reviewer recently had the good fortune to spend two
weeks in the inlay and guitar-building courses at Custom Pearl, home of David
Nichols and his band of lost boys plus Wendy (aka Nadine).
Off the beaten path describes the location in Malone, New York. It’s more easily visited from Montreal (
especially if you are bringing smoked meat!) than from the lower 48. The ambience of the workshop is a cross
between the bar at Cheers and Pee Wee’s
Playhouse. Many regular characters
drift in and out daily for a dose of philosophy, witty repartee, and advice
on their instruments form the guru of guitars.
Mr. Nichols and his Kato, Lee Mulverhill, take
students with a wide range of experience, interest, and expectations and give
them the skills to build a guitar and inlay it to a level that would impress
any competent luthier. David draws on
more than 40 years experience as a builder and musician to show you how to
take quarter-saw lumber and find the voice God hid inside it.
Equally impressive, of course, are his credentials as a pearl cutter
extraordinaire. His legacy at the
Martin Custom Shop during the re-emergence of the D-45 in the 60’s, as well as the fingerboards of the Nichols
Custom Dreadnaughts, seem to be beyond the expectation of any student
builder. But after two weeks at the
shop with David Nichols’ careful oversight and encouragement, it suddenly
seems reasonable to dream of the joy of crafting not just a competent flat
top, but a high-end acoustic marvel. Or as the MTV generation would say,
Dave, pimp my guitar! Part of the
genius of the course is his turning the student loose on an exercise, and
when successful, directing him (or her!) to the next level.; and when the
student veers off-course, gently reminding with a good natured shout of
“damn, did you want to do that?” ( Many variations of this inquiry exist with
many different expletives).
In the middle of all this may come the shout of “Brown!”: yes, just like
“Norm” interrupts all activity.
Anything that is not hot, actively grinding, or wet, is dropped and a
one-dollar-ante hand of poker ensues with the hapless UPS driver. At 11:30 a.m. every day the lights go out
at every work bench, the machinery stops, and everyone looks up. In the old movies at this point someone says,
“they just threw the switch on Billy in the big house,” but here at Custom
Pearl it means it’s time for the mandatory lunch at the Number 1 Chinese
Restaurant in Malone, a tradition not to be sneezed at.
After lunch, work resumes with Lee Mulverhill
reinforcing the shortest, simplest way to get exact results. This is key to the Nichols’ school of
instrument-building. That is, begin
with the principle “mistakes are cumulative, precision is not.” Make sure each step in the building process
gives a solid foundation for the next with the least opportunity for error in
the least complicated format. And by
Friday, there will be several delighted neophytes marveling at the
instruments in their hands.
I came to the Nichols camp by a devious course that began with the sadly
mercenary goal of building a good guitar cheaper than I could buy it. As I wandered through the build – it –
yourself world of Irving Sloane, Campiano, Stew
Mac, and LMI, I gradually realized I could also build it better. But I thought I didn’t need “no stinkin’ inlay.” I
then happened to hear of the elusive Davis Nichols and some strange
-encounters –of- the- third -kind –pull led me to drive 14 hours to the home
of Custom Pearl. I figured I should
learn about inlay since everyone used it, but at the time, I really just
wanted to build.
I’d been through the Martin Guitar Factory tour, and seen the millionth
guitar inlaid out the wazoo. To me this seemed gaudy and
not-so-attractive. But Mr. Nichols’ delicate patterns on fingerboard and
headstock are of a different dimension that sucked me in immediately. Of course, I initially assumed this could
only be the work of a natural artist and beyond my expectations. David encourages you to think big from day
one, coaxing and supporting.
The inlay course started with a piece of mother-of-pearl, a saw , ( for us
who are over 50: Optivisors), and a ˝ hour
instruction. Then dig in, boys! David
kept an eye on the progress – an impressive feat with 4 students and
production work underway – but there is no getting lost in the class at
Amazingly, I found a knack for pearl, and by the third day was laying out the
floral pattern and test inlaying my name in a fret board for the lacewood and Adirondack spruce dreadnaught I would be
making. Thanks to the skillful
encouragement and instruction, my interest and curiosity flared into mild
obsession with the hope if someday becoming a real pearl cutter. If not,
it’ll be great fun trying!
Anyone signing up for either inlay or guitar-building will get their money’s
worth as Nichols and Mulverhill will spot what you
need to know and how much you can handle. (Dave can also explain many
innovative uses for shop tools as medical devices with the unwilling Lee as
the subject!) It’s been a rude return
to reality after two weeks in the shop, and I look forward to a second
tutorial as soon as possible.