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A Maine luthier experiments with sounds in his Portland shop

"Anytime I see one of my guitars being played, wherever it is in the world, it makes me really happy," says Portland luthier, Toby Rzepka.

PORTLAND, Maine — Not everyone finds what they’re passionate about at a young age. All Toby Rzepka knew was that he liked working with his hands, traveling, and experimenting with music. 

The more Toby experimented, the more he was drawn to a career as a luthier: one who builds guitars.

"I got really lucky because when I first became interested in doing this I took one class at the Museum of Fine Arts, and the professor of that class introduced me to a guitar maker who I became friends with," Toby explained. "I think the very next day or a few days later, he called me up and said, 'Hey I could really use a hand in the shop, do you want to come work for me?'"

Toby's passion grew while he apprenticed in a shop on Cape Cod. He’s now been creating custom classical guitars in his own shop in Portland for more than a decade, still working to manipulate sound.  

"There’s no codified classical guitar design that’s considered the norm and people are always trying new things," he explained. "It’s an instrument that a lot of people consider is still developing, so it’s an exciting thing to experiment with."

From sound to touch to look, Toby takes his time with each piece, creating everything with basic tools and his hands. 

"I try to take a somewhat controlled approach, so I try to experiment with one variable at a time. So if I say, what would double sides or laminated sides do to my sound? I’m not going to change anything else in my design for that guitar so I can isolate that variable," Toby told us with a smile. "Even though that’s painful because there are so many things I want to try, it’s like, oh my God, it’s going so slowly."

Credit: NCM

A lot of the experiments come down to materials, including where or how the wood is sourced. Have you ever heard of a moon spruce? It’s rare and according to some forums, is harvested once a year at midnight during the spring equinox —and makes a mean guitar. 

"Endless debates about wood and aging wood, what does aging wood do? Do you treat it, do you soak it in stuff? Woods that have been at the bottom of a lake for hundreds of years and some of the minerals have sort of been replaced or embedded from the minerals in the lake. Did the spruce that Strad used and the Cremonese violin makers, was it extra good because they stored it in barns with like animal urine in it, or it floated down the Poe river for months and picked up mineral content from the river? There are so many ideas."

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"We use a lot of tropical hardwoods from all over the world," Toby said. "Some of my guitars end up having wood from almost every continent. Not Antarctica yet, I haven’t figured out how to make a guitar with wood from Antarctica." 

Just as the wood Toby uses comes from all over, the guitars he makes end up in the hands of musicians around the world—and that, he said, is when his instruments really come to life. 

"It’s nice to get credit here and there, but mainly I like being in the background and having a musician not have to think about it, ideally they’re just connecting with the instruments and allowing them to express their musical ideas."

Ask Toby how long it takes him to make one of his guitars and he’ll say he hasn’t given it much thought. He does make about 10 a year but takes a good chunk of the summer off to enjoy the beauty of Maine.

"It’s just me in the shop, which I like, and I like a lot of those hand tool steps," he said.

While he likes classical music, that's not all he listens to while working long hours in his shop, building classical guitars.

"I listen to a wide variety of things. I listen to dub reggae, classical guitar, I listen to the whole gamut of what people call art music, I listen to jazz. It’s almost, what don’t I listen to? And I have two kids who are 6 and 10 now so they’re starting to be more aware of what’s popular," Toby joked. "Now I’m an old man so they tell me what’s cool." 

There are those who would say what Toby Rzepka does for a living is very cool, a man who handcrafts the instruments that inspire new music every day. "Anytime I see one of my guitars being played, wherever it is in the world, it makes me really happy."

To learn more about Toby Rzepka's work, click here

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