Video Interview with Steven Rigsby

Kentucky Historical Society


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0:06 - Early life / Education / Teaching

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Keywords: Morehead State University; Morgan Fork; music major; Rowan County; trumpet

5:31 - Repairs and building

7:33 - Working with local guitar shops

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Keywords: authorized Martin repair center; Fender; Gibson; Martin; R.S. Guitar Works

11:26 - Getting certified to work on Martin guitars

12:28 - Tools and wood

16:51 - Wood preferences / Custom requests

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Keywords: alder; ash; curly maple; koa; mahogany; native poplar; rosewood; spalted maple

24:47 - Playing the instruments

29:59 - Making quality product

36:20 - Publications

37:30 - Musicians he's worked with

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Keywords: Aerosmith; Bill Perry; Cheap Trick; Clarence White; Kenny Vaughn; Paul Martin

46:10 - Seeing his work out in the world

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Keywords: Five Finger Death Punch; Jason Hook; Joe Perry


SR: Taking this fifteenth fret out and put that with the rest of the parts

we've removed so far. And now we have to make a couple of holes for the steam,

that's why we take the fret out.

SR: I felt it drop through into the void. That's good. Yep. And, we've already

taken the fingerboard lose. Heat and a tool. So that's already lose. That's not

attached. And we are getting ready to put some heat down into that joint. We are

going to do that with steam. Move the catch pack up; let me get the water out of it.

SA: Now what is this procedure doing?

SR: I'm getting ready to-- This is just steam coming out of this. We're

injecting steam into the joint of the neck where it's put together originally

and the reason we are doing that is we've already determined that we are going

to have to take the neck off to change the angle. We will just let that heat up

in there.

SR: We will let the steam do its thing. We've got a jig on here that puts some

pressure in the right places. I'm going to move this back just a little so I can

get my fingers in there so I can feel when that starts to come lose and now you

just wait for a minute. Shouldn't take too terribly long. We will kind of

alternate this from one side to the other. You can see the steam coming out of

there. Yep. When you are injecting it into one side you should be able to see it

coming out of the other, which you can. What we want is heat in there; we don't

necessarily want the water. We don't want to get it wet, of course it will, but

we are looking for the heat and that's the only way that we can get it down into

the innards of the guitar so to speak. Sometimes you can wiggle it like that a

little bit just to give it more-- I feel it coming lose at the top, but it

hasn't made it to the bottom yet so we are going to have to give it some time.

Be patient with it. See it start to move?

SA: Yes.

SR: You can actually feel it. Put your finger right there.

SA: Oh yeah.

SR: See the neck and the body are moving in separate amounts. You can reach

underneath it and you can feel how far down that movement is going. You don't

want to rush it until it gets all the way to the bottom.

TA: Is it hard to get it all the way to the bottom?

SR: No, you've just got to be patient with it. Sometimes it takes five minutes.

Sometimes it takes fifteen. Martins are basically designed to come apart. They

are like a fiddle. That's why a fiddle is made the way it is made. That's why

they have the oval hang all the way around the top and the back, so you can get

it apart and this type of joint is the same deal. They want it to come apart

because they are wise enough to know that they are going to be around long

enough that they are going to need to be worked on. Some of the modern guitars

are epoxied together, the cheaper ones especially. Well not necessarily the

cheap. Some of the imports are epoxied in there. Actually some of the newer

guitars are not glued at all, they are bolted together, which is not necessarily

a bad thing.

TA: To remove the neck like that, does that require use of hide glue previously?

SR: Yeah, it makes things a lot simpler. Can you smell that? You can smell the glue.

TA: Yeah.

SR: That's hide glue that you smell. Hide glue stinks. I remember when you were

a kid I used to say, "That's made out of dead horses." Yeah it is, in fact. It's

in a dry powder form when you get it. I kind of cheat; I mix that up ahead of

time in small batches in an ice cube tray with just the water and the glue and I

put it I the freezer and then when I want one of them I will pop one out and

stick it in the microwave for a few seconds and bring it out here and put it in

the heater and I've got glue. It's always fresh and it's always ready to go that

way-- Yeah, we are getting close. I'm just trying to keep the water off of the fingerboard.

TA: After a job like that, do you have to do any touchup work to the finish?

SR: Yep. If I do it right, now. Sometimes, even if you do it right, you'll have

some issues. Oh yeah, we're getting close.

TA: Yeah, wow. You can really see it moving.

SR: It's leaking out of the bottom now. I'm going to tighten up on that just a

little now. You just gotta be patient, that's the-- There was still one spot

that was stuck.

SR: And it's free!

TA: Wow.

SR: I'm going to get this out of the way.

SR: And you can see how it went together. That's actually the easy part. Now

we've got to wait for about a week or so to let this all dry off completely

before we actually take wood from here, we're going to move this angle back and

in doing that change the angle of the neck. Then we'll add some wood here,

tapered shim. I'm going to get some of this glue off of here, you can see that

it's just gooey, but you can smell it now.

TA: Are those numbers serial numbers, or the date?

SR: Yep. That's the serial number on the neck of the guitar. They're built from

beginning to end as a unit and yeah, it is indicative of the date of the guitar

because Martin in particular used one continuous set of serial numbers from the

start to the finish. We're just getting the glue out of there because we don't

want any of it left.

TA: Is that a piece of tape?

SR: That's a piece of tape. Yeah. I don't know why they did that, but some of

them have that. You can see the T-bar that's the reinforcement in the neck. We

lifted just a little bit of the outer layer of the wood there. Actually I'll

take that off and glue it back on just to be neat so that the next person that

has this off a hundred years from now won't make fun of me. My hands are sticky.

They've got that glue on them.

TA: That's stinky.

SR: Yeah, it's kind of stinky. Poor old dead horse, but he served another purpose.

TA: At least he wasn't Jell-O.

SR: No, he didn't make Jell-O.

SA: You made a joke about the neck there being repaired a century from now, but

do you have a sense of that? A certain continuity?

SR: Oh yeah. I mean, when you are working on the inside of an instrument or

something like that, things that nobody will ever see until somebody else has to

work on it later on, you betcha ya. You better take care of it and do things the

way that you would kind of want to find it. And the reason, one of the reasons

that I'm kind of sensitive about that is I see so many instruments that I'm

working on that someone has done something to in the past that just makes my job

three times harder. And sometimes it makes my job almost impossible. Someone had

the neck out of the guitar before and glued it back in with heaven forbid epoxy

or something like that, you know--

TA: Would you be able to get a neck out?

SR: Epoxy will soften with heat, but not like that. We would just be getting

started. You'd have to steam and steam and you stand the chance of a joint

coming apart someplace that you don't want to joint to come apart.

TA: Yeah.

SR: You probably don't want to take apart center seams. Anytime I'm putting

something together that may have to come apart, you want to use hide glue. It's

a little more trouble but, you may have to fix it again later and you know--

TA: Well some people say that it has superior tone quality.

SR: It does. It bonds on the sub-molecular level. Actually, since it's an

organic, it gets down inside the pours of the wood and makes it basically as if

there was no joint there. This stuff has its purpose, but it's all, it's sort of

like gluing something together with a piece of rubber in between them. It

doesn't really get hard and crystalline like the hide glue does. Well take a

look at this stuff and you'll see what I mean.

TA: Oh wow.

SR: It's little crystals.

SA: Tilt that toward me a little bit.

SR: They are quite hard. Well here [reaches in and grabs glue with hand].

TA: Yeah that is--

SR: That's one of its wonderful characteristics, the fact that it is quite hard.

I mean it's very hard. It is water-soluble and it is heat sensitive and that's

why we could take that neck out in five minutes or whatever it took. If that

were basically any other kind of glue that wouldn't happen, so sometimes the old

technologies are still the best.

TA: Yeah.

SR: For some things-- The lacquer finish on these, it's not very durable but it

breathes. It lets the instrument do what it needs to be. It is very thin unlike

some of the newer polyester finishes that are a lot faster to put on. They have

UV cured polyesters and even UV cured acrylics right now and you can shoot that

stuff, hit it with UV light and in twenty seconds you can handle it. You can

sand the thing almost immediately. You can sand a guitar body in a day. With a

conventional, a real cellulose lacquer finish, you are talking six weeks at

best. Every time you put a coat of finish on this, of lacquer, it's what they

call a hot finish. It melts it all the way down to the wood. That's why it bonds

so well.

TA: Yeah.

SR: And that is the fact that makes it able-- I can go back and spray in a

repair a patch and it becomes part of the original finish, it will never show.

With a urethane finish, you can't do that. You'll always be able to see a little

halo around it. It doesn't actually bond into the original finish. So, it has

its good points and it's bad points. Now the urethane finish is pretty much

impervious to all the bad stuff you know, sweat and perfume and hand lotion. I

washed a magic marker signature off a guitar the other day that had a urethane

finish on it. I used lacquer thinner on it; it didn't even bother it. It took

the permanent magic marker off. Somebody decided that they really didn't want

that fella's signature on it.

TA: Now what do you think about varnish finish? I know it's not as durable as

lacquer. Some people prefer the tone quality.

SR: Well it depends on the instrument. It's not traditionally used on guitars.

It is on mandolins and fiddles.

TA: Yeah.

SR: And that's a great-- Well, there are basically two kinds of types of varnish

too, there's an oil varnish and there's a spirit varnish. The oil varnish is

actually pretty durable. It's more than you would think. The spirit varnish is

basically shellac. They both take, unless there is a dryer put into the oil

varnish and finish, a siccative dryer of some sort, it takes longer than the

lacquer does to dry. It actually never really completely polymerizes. It's kind

of like oil paints. It's the same sort of thing, but it's a really good finish.

Some instruments were traditionally finished with that. See, the guitar is

basically a fairly new invention. Steel stringed guitar anyway. So it doesn't

have the hundred and hundred and hundred of years to evolve into what it is now.

It's still in that process. Did you know that this is not a tempered scale

instrument? Every piano, sometime in the sixteen hundreds as best as I can

remember anyway, is actually, if you play middle C on the piano, and

mathematically, the C above that should be twice that, but it's actually moved

up two and a half cycles. For every octave you go above middle C it goes sharp,

and for every octave you go below middle C it goes flat. That means that the

piano will play in any key that you want to play in with even temperament. You

can play in any key you want to and you don't have to retune the piano, unlike

back before that when you did. The guitar is still on the other side of the

sixteenth century as far as the tuning goes. That's why you can tune the guitar

to play perfectly in the key of E and you play an A and it's not in tune. Well,

it's a guitar. There are several things you can do to make it better. There are

several tuning systems that have been invented since then to make it overcome

that somewhat, but I mean if you are playing in a band that has a keyboard, it

will drive you crazy when you are changing key. You almost have to retune every

key change you make. But it's still pretty primitive, but it works. That one

really needs a fret job too.

TA: I was looking at that.


SR: Yeah. This one actually belongs to a dealer so that's up to him. Looks like

the nut has been filled in. It needs a new one. There you go. The neck is out.

I'll fill in these two little holes here and put the fret back in it. You

shouldn't be able to see anything there on top. You shouldn't be able to see

anything period once it goes back in.

TA: That's awesome.

SR: So, there you have it. It's not magic. You need the right tools.

SA: Earlier you were talking about holding the tools that your grandfather made.

SR: Yeah.

SA: And that connection you felt, I guess. Yeah. When you were, when you get an

instrument that goes back however many years, and looking forward to the next

guy that may have to fix something you work on, do you think about it in that

sense of that you are holding something that has been passed down?

SR: I had a little guitar come in about two years ago from a Lexington store and

it was a little parlor-sized Martin and it had no serial number on it. I knew it

was old. Very old. Wooden coffin-style case. So, I called my guys at Martin and

I knew it was a 21, but I didn't know how old it was. So I called them up and I

could hear them literally not on the computer but turning pages in a book, their

records, what is this thing it doesn't have a serial number on it and I

described the appointments and so forth and he said, "Ok. Get a mirror and look

on the inside of the top between the hold and the bridge on the treble side and

there was a date written in pencil on the inside of the top. 1895.

TA: Oh my gosh.

SR: It had been back to the factory and been repaired in 1900. The repairman had

signed it and dated it, April 2nd, 1900 on the inside of the top where he had

made some changes on it. You see something like that and you think, now that's

cool. And here I am messing around with it now. I was putting a bridge on it.

Somebody had put steel strings on it, which it was never designed for and popped

the bridge off of it.

TA: That was probably like a double or a single outside?

SR: Yeah, probably the closest thing they would have would be a single out. I

asked them did they want to see some pictures and the case and they said,

"Actually, we've got all kinds of pictures of the guitar, can you send us some

pictures of the case?" They were more interested in seeing the hardware and the

way that the case was made than they were the guitar because they've probably

got half a dozen of them in their archives some place but the cases didn't survive.

TA: I've heard a lot of people say that those really old cases are extremely valuable.

SR: Well this one was in really good shape, but this one extremely ugly. It was

very angular, but the hardware wasn't stanched metal, it was brass fitting and

hooks and hinges. It was extremely well made. It's just a lot more fun to work

on stuff like that than it is to work on the average everyday ordinary two year

old whatever. Because it has a history you know, and you can see it, and you can

smell it like the hide glue. I don't know what they are using now, but it's not

the same. I actually had to do this same job on a guitar that was only six years

old. It had been abused to the point where I think it had been left in a hot car

and you know, some stuff had come lose on it. I had to take the neck out of it

and it was a lot harder to get out than this was because of the glue they were

using now. It did come apart though. I think they've got some kind of glue

that's actually ultrasonically cured. Glue two things together and they hit this

radio frequency, microwave kind of thing and it bonds immediately, but it

doesn't come apart as easily as this does.

TA: The UV light glue that you were talking about reminds me of going to the dentist.

SR: Oh yeah. That's basically the same kind of thing. They use that little blue

light to cure that stuff. The dentist I used to have, if I had this one already

changed, if this one had it's original ivory nut in it and it needed re-filling,

I could take it to my other dentist and he would put that same stuff that he

puts in your teeth in here and fill it for me and I'd re-slide it. That's not

quite worth it. That's a plastic one that someone has put in there. There again,

somewhere along its life somebody changed the nut on it and instead of using a

good piece of bone that's plastic. Sometimes they need to be smacked, but you

never know, that may have been what the customer wanted. So now we put it back

in its little box and we let it dry out for a week or so and then we can

actually start doing some measurements and some repair work on it now. And it

looks like that's about all that this guitar needs. It's in pretty good shape otherwise.

TA: Yeah, it really is.

SR: I see one little crack here in the side, but I think it's already been

repaired. It doesn't seem to be open.

TA: You said it's a '51.

SR: '50.

TA: '50.

SR: I didn't check, that's what the tag said; It was a '50.

TA: I know someone who has a '53.

SR: Well, this is not a real complicated outfit here. It's a piece of hose and

paint can. I like that better, I've got one that I made out of an old pressure

cooker, but it takes about three times longer to get it hot than it does this

one, so that's why I use this thing because it's almost instantly gets hot. I

did put a pressure release value in it as the screw goes down here there's a

spring on the back of it and a nut so it can't build up pressure. I mean, I want

a little bit, but-- That's just a paint can. When it gets rusty I just get a new

bottom. That's a hot plate. Looks like that $4.35, yeah, that's been around a

while. It probably came from Perry's hardware in Morehead in about 1960.

TA: Ok.

SR: That's all that I can do for this right now.

TA: Yeah.

SR: We have to wait for it to dry.

SA: Ok, that's good.

TA: I think you all got some good footage to incorporate with the interview.