In a rural Sonoma County repair shop, guitars are fixed, finessed and created

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SONOMA COUNTY GUITARWORKS

Website: SFguitarworks.com/sonoma-county-guitarworks

Email: Geoff@sfguitarworks.com or Heather@sfguitarworks.com

Phone: 559-3095

“This is where the magic happens.”

On a rainy Friday afternoon in West Petaluma, Geoff Luttrell is working in the large, welcoming barn that currently serves as the headquarters and classroom for Sonoma County Guitarworks. Luttrell and his wife Heather, who moved to Petaluma six years ago, also operate San Francisco Guitarworks, which Geoff founded 19 years ago.

“In San Francisco, we have a proper storefront, and this is … well, this is a barn,” Luttrell laughs. “It’s in a constant state of improvement and refurbishment, but it’s dry and it’s clean and it’s functional and it works for us.”

At the center of the room is a cluster of workbenches, each one fitted out with a slew of tools, some recognizable, others not so much. Here and there are larger tools: saws, drills and sanding machines. On a counter is a working turntable, on which is currently playing an album by Miles Davis.

“I recently started getting back into Jazz,” Luttrell acknowledges. “’Kind of Blue’ is amazing. It’s beyond amazing. It’s like the pyramids, an absolute pinnacle of human achievement.”

As someone who spends his time repairing and improving musical instruments, Luttrell admits that his enthusiasm for the arts and artists is nicely balanced with his lifelong knack for practical science and mechanics.

“I’ve been a tinkerer my whole life,” he says, continuing his tour of the facility. “I took my bikes apart and put them together again, all of that. Over the course of my adult life, I’ve had various careers, mostly in the skilled trades. I was a welder, I built bike frames, I was a sheet metal fabricator, an ASC certified mast tech. I worked at Volvo for a while. I worked at a British sports car shop.”

Around the edges of the large room are random examples of your standard barn-and-garage décor. A 3D Last Supper painting leans against a window. A row of reclining guitars in cases are lined up near a counter, across the room from a red, standing toolbox, a rack of guitar strings, a brightly colored kite, and a row of high-powered bow-and-arrow rigs hanging from the ceiling, not far from a makeshift archery target on a small hay bale against the far end of the building.

“I never shoot near any guitars,” Luttrell points out, laughing. “But sometimes I do shoot a little with certain customers.”

When a client arrives to pick up a pair of guitars, Luttrell turns his attention back to musical instruments,

“Here you are!” Luttrell says, lifting a case from the row of waiting guitars. “It’s in good shape now, and it plays great. And here’s your Les Paul. The frets are still very flat, so it has a little overtone here and there — but that’s just the fret tops. The action is good. It’s not super buzzy anywhere.”

A short technical discussion of re-fretting ensues, with a quick side tangent to the pros and cons of leaving staining on guitars when selling them (Luttrell’s opinion: leave the stains. They add character and a sense of history). The client asks a few questions regarding the proper wiring of certain electric guitars, and bids Luttrell goodbye. Within seconds, the phone rings, and Luttrell makes a quick appointment to meet another customer at the barn in fifteen minutes.

SONOMA COUNTY GUITARWORKS

Website: SFguitarworks.com/sonoma-county-guitarworks

Email: Geoff@sfguitarworks.com or Heather@sfguitarworks.com

Phone: 559-3095

Asked how he ended up channeling his tinkering talents into a successful career repairing guitars, Luttrell explains that he’d always been interested in lutherie, having worked on his own guitars as a teenager. But he never aspired to a career as a luthier until he found himself at a crossroads, living in San Francisco with a big decision to make.

“I was working at a telecom company, because a buddy hired me even though I had zero skill with computers,” he says. “I had a bass guitar that needed some fret work, so I sent it up to a buddy in Oregon to do the work. When it came back, it was not good. I knew right away I could have done a better job myself. Surprise, surprise, I got laid off at the telecom company, but I was given a little itty-bitty severance package. I decided right then that I was never going to apply for a job again. I was going to start a business of my own.”

Having always had an interest in guitars, Luttrell called around to shops in the city, asking how busy they were, and found that every shop had more work than it could handle.

“I decided I would open my own shop,” he says. Taking his severance money, he traveled up to Calgary, in Canada, to take guitar repair classes at a place called The Fretworks.

“My main reason for going there was the owner, a guy named Miles Jones,” he says. “His whole push was, you come here if you want to start your own shop. I learned the bread-and-butter repairs — fret-work, nut making, fretwork, set-up work, electronics. You down into the core skills that every repair shop needs. I was told that even if you learn nothing but those five core skills, you can have a successful shop.”

Luttrell stayed in Canada for a couple of months, at the tail end of 2001, learning everything he could. He then returned to San Francisco, rented a tiny shop in a warehouse on Third Street. The next challenge was to find some customers.

“I had a friend from the telecom company who was in a band called King Missile,” Luttrell recalls. The friend was Chris Xefos, and King Missile was a notorious art-rock band best known for the cult hit novelty song “Detachable Penis.” “Chris knew all these musicians in the city, so as soon as I opened my shop, he was referring people to me. So right off the bat, I had a good influx of customers, real working musicians. If you do good work for folks like that, the word gets around. There were still a few weeks when I wondered if anyone knew I was alive, but generally, I had a pretty good shot out of the gate.”

That was almost 19 years ago. Luttrell says he worked out of that Third Street shop for roughly three years, then moved to his current spot on Portrero, and has been steadily expanding ever since. Though he still commutes to the San Francisco shop several times a week, Luttrell says his new happy place is right here in Petaluma. The home he shares with Heather and their two daughters is right next door to the barn, and a small play area stands a few yards off.

It’s literally just a few steps from the front door of his house to his workplace. That said, Luttrell points out that, these days, he doesn’t do a lot of repairs in the Petaluma facility. Most of the repair jobs he takes in at the barn end up in San Francisco for the actual work. His primary focus in Petaluma is teaching what he’s learned to other people.

“I do weekend classes involving set-up work, basic adjustment processes and all of that,” Luttrell says. “I’ll show you how to go through the entire set up process to make it play really nicely. That’s our core class. But I also do a workshop on electronics, a workshop on nut-making, a workshop on frets, fret-levelling and all that, and another class on re-fretting, where you pull your frets out of the guitar’s neck, plane the fretboard down, prep the slots, re-press the new fret, bevel them, level them. It’s a three-day workshop. It’s a pretty big job, doing that kind of work.”

In another, very popular class, Luttrell works with students to build their own electric guitar from scratch. He produces the electric he built himself, pointing out the steps it takes to build one like it.

“There’s something really special about playing a guitar you made with your own hands,” he says. Eventually, as word spreads about what going on in Luttrell’s barn, he hopes to spend more time in Petaluma, expanding his school to incorporate more classes, more often. It’s a need Luttrell says he’s happy to be a part of filling.

“I really do think,” Luttrell says, “that what we do here is pretty unique.”

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