Each night they strum and pluck out their tunes – some classics, some quickly forgotten – from bandstands at the House of Blues, Le Bon Temps Roulé, Snug Harbor and hundreds of other Tipitina’s wannabes and not so pretentious corner joints of every stripe where guitars accompany “entertainers” who may actually sing or simply moan and scream for crowds comprised of college kids and old timers. These crowds flow in and out the doors as the winds blow. And as the night ends, each person seemingly has found something of value … at least for the moment.
But however memorable, however fleeting, the genesis of many of those valued moments were clunky blocks of seemingly dead wood only months ago – swamp ash or Louisiana cypress – no more promising to pour forth sound than a bag of rocks.
Those blocks of wood at one time sat in a corner, perhaps for months in an out-of-the-way cavern known as “The New Orleans Guitar Company” located over the railroad tracks, down an empty street and tucked away in an isolated City Park area strip warehouse. There they waited for Vincent Guidroz to work his magic by cutting and coaxing and polishing them into stringed musical instruments to be found at many of the aforementioned musical emporiums.
Guidroz, who grew up in his family’s pasta business on Dauphine Street, is quick to point out that he’s a “sculptor” and not a “carpenter.” He says this as he runs his hand gently over a gleaming guitar that’s obviously in the final stages of its transformation from mere wood to an attractive musical instrument.
“Sure, I play music,” Guidroz says of the long-ago first steps on his road to being the master guitar maker into which he has evolved. “It just seems like in New Orleans if you pick up an instrument you wind up playing in a band. Most of them are really garage bands that you play in all the time moving up to the next level toward becoming a professional musician. But I knew that wasn’t my calling. That’s a whole different world.” He continues, “It was always in me to be a sculptor. I knew that was my calling. I started out for the first three years doing Mardi Gras work; working for Blaine Kern and others. I was freelancing. It was all commission stuff. I was like a hired gun. Also, a lot of the stuff I was doing was working for Disney and Universal Studios and for all kinds of different architectural and construction companies. I did some product designs and automotive prototypes. I was doing that kind of stuff. And, my experience as a commercial sculptor was pretty broad. I was fortunate to be able to go to Italy to study sculpture. That’s always been my calling, my business. I just happened to work with wood, with guitars.”
And working with wood and with guitars has been good for Guidroz. He admits he works from sunup to sundown, six, many times seven days a week in his cavernous workshop that has more than its share of dark corners and dust here, there and everywhere.
Against one wall, wooden pillars in neat stacks reach for the ceiling waiting their turn to be called on by Guidroz. A forklift here holds more wood; an office over there is loaded with drawings and mock-ups. More wood, showing a vague resemblance to a guitar in the making, sits on a table. A router sits nearby. In short, there’s nary an unused or dust-free spot inside the vast building.
The 45-year-old Guidroz makes a slight hand gesture and laughingly says something like, “I don’t want to be sanding guitars when I’m in my 60s.” But again, he knows this is where his heart lies and what he was “born to do.”
He is all about guitars and mandolins and some things that emit sound that exist only in a customer’s mind like the “ukulele harp” Guidroz has mocked up on a paper that hangs on a wall.
“Once you get down to the bare essentials, the wood, they’re really all the same,” Guidroz says. “It’s what you do after you select the best wood and make the initial cuts, getting rid of everything you’re not going to use … that’s when the craftsmanship comes in. Sometimes a person will come in and just say, ‘I’d like you to build me a guitar. Sometimes they’re very specific. Other times they want something flashy. Then there are instruments like that.” He points to the drawing he’s made of the ukulele harp.
Whatever the order, Guidroz says he tries to keep about eight instruments in various forms of rotation. “That’s a good number to go with.”
A Guidroz-made guitar generally runs in the $3,000 range but can run upward “to the $7,000 range.”
He gently places his hand under the neck of one guitar he’s moving to completion and lifts it up the way one does to an infant, saying, “These guitars are not the $800 instruments you buy off the shelf at a music store. I put every bit of training and experience I have into making a guitar. This is meant to last a lifetime and to be as close to perfection as it can be from the moment you walk out of here with it to the end of that lifetime.”
Guidroz gently lays the guitar he’s hand-polishing back onto the neatly folded towels that serve as a bed for the instrument that’s nearing completion.
He speaks with pride of a new computerized overarm router he’s gone to of late.
“But won’t that take away some of the craftsma- …”
Guidroz anticipates the question and stops the visitor in mid-sentence.
“Not at all,” he says. “That router allows me to speed up some of the grunt work that unnecessarily used to take a lot of time. In the end it all comes down to this: to tender loving care. You don’t get that from a machine. I’m not interested in mass-producing instruments. If I can’t put myself into every instrument I make, I don’t want to do it. A lot of me goes into every instrument. This is what I was meant to do.”