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Who You Gonna Call…Bob Scoby

Ted Ludwig

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Guitarist Ted Ludwig talks to master guitar technician Bob Scoby about the challenges of repairing archtops.

Ted Ludwig: It is important to recognize the people behind the scenes that keep us playing. The ones that maintain and extend the lives of our beautiful and sometimes temperamental instruments. One of these unsung heroes is Memphis’s own Bob Scoby. Bob has become one of the most respected and sought-after guitar repairmen in the midsouth. Players from all over the country come to Memphis to have their guitars repaired and restored by this fine craftsman.Although he repairs and restores all types of stringed instruments, it is the beauty and functionality of the Archtop guitar that Bobby loves most.

Bob Scoby repairing D’Angelico-New-Yorker

JGT: Your great reputation as a guitar repair luthier is reflected in the impressive backlog of repairs lined up in front of your workshop door. How did you become interested in a career in guitar repair?

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Bob: I would say that it was a “structured accident”. It’s not a great story-no famous apprenticeship or anything. I had an aunt and uncle that built Appalachian instruments (Dulcimers, flat-iron Mando’s, etc.), and I would spend summers with them. I picked up some woodworking basics at a young age, then I began playing by 12. I then started working at a local music store chain at 16. They had an outside source for repairs. As the repairs backed up, I just started to fix what I could on my own to the boss’s surprise. The store sent me to a few of the manufacturer’s dealer schools and learned more there. Ten years later, I began working for an industrial machinery manufacturer. There I learned fabrication, machining, and engineering, both electrical and mechanical. I spent almost 20 years doing that and instrument repair on the side. I retired from that venture and devoted my time totally to repairing instruments. That’s 35 years of making sawdust now.

JGT: Tell us about some of the people who have influenced the way you approach your craft?

Bob: On a national level, Frank Ford and Bryan Galloup for sure. Their articles are gold in respect to repair. Joe Glaser in Nashville is also a great “problem solver”. Locally, I was, and still am, in total amazement with Rick Hancock-he is at the PRS custom shop now. He did repair and custom builds here in Memphis years ago. I was fortunate enough to spend some time with him.

Epiphone-Zephyr

JGT: Over the years, you have had all types of stringed instrument cross your bench. What was it that attracted you to Archtop guitars?

Bob: I remember way back in 88’, a customer brought in a 40’ Epi Broadway. I’d seen them, sure, but I had never had my hands on one before. Being in Memphis the Telecaster and 335’s hold sway. True solid archtops were somewhat of a rarity, I was amazed at how touch-responsive it was, how thin the top was cut-fragile. The thing that grabs me to this day is the vocal quality of archtops. Dreadnaughts and jumbos have their place, but I think there is only so much you can do with those designs to voice them. A true archtop builder seems to have more control of just how that instrument can be voiced for the artist and its intended place in the sound spectrum.

Gibson-Super-400-II

JGT: What are some of your philosophies on Archtop guitar setup and repair?

Bob: For setup-first and foremost is “the math”. It doesn’t matter how beautiful, rare or expensive the instrument is, if the geometry is off, it will never play to its potential. This could be from poor build execution, heavy wear, environmental or the player’s misadjustment. Some days I spend more time trying to educate a customer on the design principles of the instrument and how each measurement affects another than I do working.

The repair aspect is fairly straightforward-“Do no harm”. Understanding how instruments are fabricated is half the battle, the rest is just simple experience. I try my best to respect the builder’s intent when performing a repair. This means that whenever possible, I try to use the same materials, hardware, measurements, etc. As with most other shops, I have customers that want to change things, fretboard radius, fret size/materials, even wood species for bridges. I always discuss the effects of the changes beforehand.

JGT: Considering all the amazing Archtops that you have worked on, which instruments would you highlight as being particularly memorable?

Bob: Well as I stated earlier, my first Broadway just for sentimental reasons, and I always enjoy getting my hands on pre-50’ Epiphone examples. I’ve done work on Benedettos, D’Aquistos and Monteleones. I document them as much as possible when they are on the bench. I restored a 19” Strongberg 400 a while back (a cannon!). I brought Harold Bradley’s D’Angelico New Yorker back to life for its new owner. I have done countless traditional Gibson’s-L-5’s, Super 400’s, Johnny Smith’s and they are always a pleasure. As far as a Gibson inspired / traditional archtop design goes, I have yet to find anything better than one of Mark Campellone’s examples.I recently had a chance to do some structural work on one of Linda Manzer’s beauties. She truly produces playable works of art. The tone of her guitars is enveloping. I have worked on a few of Tom Ribbecke’s masterpieces. As far as I am concerned, I think he builds as close to the perfect archtop currently available. Clean lines, mathematically perfect, and nothing superfluous. It is obvious the He, like Linda, spend hours hand voicing their tops. Memphis is not as well known for Jazz Guitar players as New York or New Orleans, but the players we do have are monsters. I have been lucky to have them as customers.

Manzer archtop

JGT: Do you have any plans to build your own Archtop guitars in the future?

Bob: Of course, but purely for my own satisfaction. I have a few design ideas to prove functional or watch them fail. I have everything to do it….and I say I will get to it every year, just as soon as I get caught up on all this repair work, which will probably never happen.

D’Aquisto-scaled
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JGT: What advice would you give a young person entering a career in guitar repair?

Bob: Young folks have so much more information on the internet on how to work on instruments these days. I wish it were available when I started. I would recommend immersing your brain on anything you can find. Get as many books on the topic as you can, but above all, buy all the pawnshop junk you can get your hands on. Learn how to disassemble them cleanly until you truly understand how they were built, then you can work on how to put them back together. Then concentrate on the finer concepts of repair, alignment, geometry, fit and finish, etc. Finally, if there is an option for a school like Venn, Galloup or even a college course, go for it. But never forget the golden rule, “If a man-made it, a man can fix it”.

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