Friday, April 5, 2013

Interview w/ Jake Wildwood of Antebellum Instruments

"They don't make 'em like they used to".  It's an old cliché that rings particularly true with Jake Wildwood of Antebellum Instruments.  Jake spends his days fixing up and reviving pre-WWII instruments out of his family's Rochester, Vermont store.  He certainly picked a good name!  The word "antebellum" is a Latin phrase that literally means "before the war".

On the Antebellum Instruments site, you can check out what Jake is currently working on via his running blog (something that I spend WAY too much time looking at).  You also have the opportunity to buy one of these pieces of musical history - ukuleles, banjos, guitars, mandolins, etc. 

There is a group of people in this world that are absolutely fascinating to me - people who have stories and anecdotes to pass along to you...people who seem like they've done it all....people who are just plain interesting.  From my brief correspondence with Jake, I would have to put him in this category.  I enjoyed every bit of his responses to my questions and I hope you will too!

Q:  How long have you been doing this and approximately how many instruments have you repaired over the years?

A:  "5 years professionally, 2 more years just for myself and friends. I did the math recently and it seems that I churn out a little bit more than an instrument a day. 300-450 a year. That's a lot of wood, but some of the stuff is minor and some of it is major."

Q:  What got you into you repairing stringed instruments and why do you particularly enjoy working on pre-WWII instruments?

A:  "I've always been interested in history of any kind. Add to that a love of music and working creatively with my hands and the pieces line up. When we lived in Rhode Island my wife and I would visit our folks in Connecticut on weekends and there's a big flea market at the Mansfield Drive-in. We'd get up early and go hunting and I started working on funky old instruments that I picked up there. This was purely to add fun sounds for recording projects.

I decided to have a "one-in, one-out" policy on instruments at that point (we had an apartment, you know...!) so that early work coincided with eBay resales which was really just a way to turn my money back into more toys to work on in my spare time.

As for pre-war instruments -- they're just different by their nature. After the 50s instruments have been much more homogenized than they were before that. From the 1880s through the 1930s there were huge changes in instrument design across the board. The most visible changes can be seen in the guitar, mandolin, and banjo families where the instruments were constantly being tweaked and reinvented. The most successful designs are the ones that we're still using today and they've been relatively unchanged since their debut in the 20s through late 30s.

In addition, all of these old instruments were made for the most part by hand. This means that, even if they can be folksier by today's standards of machine-made, laser-cut, mass-production turnout, they were built by folks who ultimately had to make decisions and impart their skill and care in the building process. Add to that the nicer-grade solid wood used throughout instruments from the low end to the high end and it becomes very hard to compete with the old guys tonally.

Furthermore, they just feel and sound different. An instrument made in a certain time speaks to the voicings preferred in that time. If you've been around a lot of old ukes then you'll inevitably find that some of them don't sound truly wonderful in GCEA, but if you tune them up to ADF#B then they shine like crazy. That seems silly but it's a no-brainer as D-tuning was far more popular when the ukes were made."

Q:  I know it's probably hard to pick just one, but out of all the ukuleles that you've worked on, which has been your favorite and why?

A:  "Oh, come on!

Harmony Roy Smeck Vita
I have a red, all-birch 20s Oscar Schmidt that I use for live shows. It's heavy, not very loud, has slightly inaccurate fret work high up the board, and is built like a tank. I don't know why, but that uke speaks to me. It was pretty abused when it was younger. For whatever reason that's the one that I've held onto.

As for ones I've let go that I may regret? I recently sold a Harmony Roy Smeck Vita Uke which had the most perfect tone of any uke that I've ever played. The neck shape had that Martin thing going on, too, which made it great for playing just about any style on it.

The one that I really miss the most, though, is a plain-Jane Gibson mahogany uke from the 20s. I don't see a lot of them come through, but you know, I run a business so I can't keep them all."

Q:  What's the most expensive uke that you've fixed up?

Lyon & Healy tenor uke
A:  "I haven't worked on a lot of truly expensive ukes, to be honest. Some of the most expensive ukes I've seen are actually being made today rather than in the past.

I've done my fair share of work on old Martins for customers but the one that I think of as most interesting/most value-packed was a late-20s Lyon & Healy American Conservatory tenor uke. These were intended to be tuned DGBE and had a scale between a concert and a modern tenor. Very cool. In looks it was similar to the 20s Washburn tenors but had a monkeypod body rather than mahogany. I was using that one for shows for a while, too, but found I kept drifting back to sopranos."

Q:  I'm sure you get a lot of e-mails from people asking you how to fix this or that.  How much do enjoy and/or get sick of people like me bothering you with repair questions?

A:  "I don't mind people asking for repair advice or historical information on their instruments. That's my intellectual bread and butter -- I love to talk shop!

What I do mind are the endless calls and emails I get from people asking me to value their instruments. I call it "Antiques Roadshow" syndrome. I just don't have time for it, nor is it really possible to truly value something without it in my hands (condition is 9/10ths of the value)."
Q:  And finally, coffee or tea?

A:  "Both. I can usually quit coffee in summer but by the time winter rolls around I really need the bean. It gets dark here and very, very cold. The espresso machine in the workshop is supposedly for steaming out neck joints. It does that... sometimes.

I used to be a manager at Coffee Exchange in Providence, RI and that got me addicted to good coffee. Fun job, great people. Every time I walk into cafes I suboncsciously judge whoever's making espresso drinks by the sound coming off the steaming wand. It's a sickness!"

1 comment:

  1. antebellum means something different down south
    but great shop great person
    highly recommend even if he is north of the line