CAREFULLY CRAFTED SUCCESS
has made handmade guitars
for some of the biggest names in music
FOR A MAN WHO MAKES A LIVINGin his Portland basement cutting, sanding and gluing small pieces of wood, John Greven can drop some big names.
It takes some prodding, however, before the soft-spoken woodworker lets them tumble out.
George Harrison. Johnny Cash. John Denver. Mary Chapin Carpenter. Stephen Stills. Stefan Grossman.
During a career that spans more than 30 years, Greven has delivered one or more of his handmade acoustic guitars to each of those artists. All have used them for public performances or recording.
"George Harrison wanted the most elaborate design I make," said Greven, whose instruments are notable for their unusual wood selections and intricate inlays of ivory and mother-of-pearl.
"I call it the 'Tree of Life' pattern that runs up the entire fretboard. George said he loved the tone of the guitar, but he had trouble finding the 12th fret because of the inlay."
A guitar magazine published a picture showing how Harrison solved his problem finding the important 12th fret, which marks an octave above an open, or unfingered, string. He pasted a Band-Aid on the neck of an $8,000 guitar.
Greven and his wife, Celia, moved to Portland last year after spending most of his career in Tennessee and Indiana. A New York native, Greven had his first taste of Oregon in 1966 and '67 when he studied forestry at Oregon State University.
ESTABLISHED HIMSELF NATIONALLY
The couple liked Portland and wanted to be close to their adult daughter, who landed in Portland before them. "When you work in your basement, it doesn't really matter where you are," he said.
In the course of building 1,100 guitars, Greven has established himself among the nation's best luthiers, catering to the stars and to bedroom players willing to pay $2,400 or more for one-of-a-kind instruments. Greven often consults with individual buyers about the size, woods and decoration.
"Certainly, John Greven is one of the very best," said George Gruhn, a leading authority on guitar values and owner of a nationally prominent guitar store in Nashville. "He is one of an elite, small group that has really achieved something notable."
Greven worked in Gruhn's repair shop for a few years in the early 1970s, giving him a chance to work on dozens of vintage guitars and banjos. Indeed, decorations on turn-of-the-century Vega banjos inspired the notable Art Nouveau inlays Greven puts on many guitars.
Demand for high-end acoustic guitars soared in the 1990s, fueled by baby boomers willing to indulge their fantasies, fingers and ears. Greven said only four craftsmen were making handmade guitars when he started in the late 1960s. Today he estimates those ranks at 350, with about two dozen "hard at it" full time.
Although their production totals are comparatively small, the craftsmen have taught the industry about new wood choices and guitar-making technologies.
"Twenty-five years ago the big companies like Martin and Gibson wouldn't talk to us," Greven said. "Now it's just the opposite. We are driving the market. They are coming to us saying, "What kind of finish are you using? How do you do that?' "
Greven, for example, uses a water-based urethane finish that releases no volatile fumes like traditional lacquer. But because the urethane dries quickly, application and spray-gun care require more precision. "It's hard to manage but very safe," Greven said.
So far, the big companies have not switched. "Lacquer is easy to work with and very forgiving," Greven said. "Plus they've been doing it that way for 110 years."
Although the '90s were a banner decade for the acoustic-guitar industry, Greven, Gruhn and others wonder whether the boom will last after the boomers dodder into their 60s and 70s.
"The industry could be devastated again just as it was in the early 1980s by disco," said Frank Ford, a fretted-instrument restorer in Palo Alto, Calif., who tracks national trends.
"The market is extremely strong right now worldwide," Greven said, "but I think we're heading for a shakeup in five years. I want to be a survivor." He's counting on staying small, controlling costs and maintaining quality as keys to his future.
Greven has no immediate worries, however. A backlog of 40 orders, enough to keep him going for a year and a half, waits in his basement. Because he doesn't want to keep people waiting too long, he isn't seeking new orders now.
Greven's production plunged in 1999 while he and Celia, a psychotherapist with a flair for interior design, devoted half the year to restoring their Richmond neighborhood bungalow.
He expects to return to his basement almost full time soon. After 33 years, Greven remains intrigued with new wood combinations and decorations.
"Every guitar is still like having a child," he said. "It's a thrill to string one up for the first time and see how it sounds."
Oh, by the way, another name: Steve Martin.
"Yes. People don't know that Steve Martin is an excellent guitarist."
You can reach Fred Leeson at
Music Credit toGerald Ross' Guitar
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