MUSICFront PorchUnderground Sound

Underground Sound

GuitarOrder a Rockbridge Guitar, and it won’t be ready until the middle of 2010. That’s how great demand is for the high-quality six-strings that are played by some of the best in the world of acoustic music. But bluegrass queen Rhonda Vincent and pop star Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics know why these guitars are worth the wait.
Rockbridge Guitars are handcrafted in a small basement in central Virginia by Brian Calhoun and Randall Ray. Since making their first guitar together in 2000, the business partners have turned their tiny operation into an exclusive brand of custom sound.
A native of Rockbridge County now living in the farm country of Gordonsville, Va., Calhoun became a luthier (the official name for guitar makers) through an apprenticeship right out of high school. After Calhoun met Ray, they built a few instruments together for fun. Then one of the guitars fell into the hands of flat-picking champion Larry Keel, and suddenly word started to spread around the region.
“It’s totally happened by word-of-mouth,” says Calhoun. “We didn’t think it would be a full-time thing, but when Larry Keel bought one of our first guitars, it started a local buzz.”
Soon after, Calhoun started traveling to festivals to showcase his homegrown instruments and notable musicians started to take notice. The guitars are now played on stage by some of the best in the business, including Vincent and Stewart, two-time IBMA guitarist of the year Jim Hurst, Ricky Skaggs’ sideman Cody Kilby, and world music icon Vusi Mahlasela.
485285154_ygtzj-o_fix-copyBut even in success, Calhoun and Ray have kept the operation small. They take their time with each guitar, and this year they sold just their 200th instrument—the milestone guitar happened to go to actor and former wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Each guitar takes between two and three months to make. It’s this careful attention to detail that sets Rockbridge apart from other high-end guitar companies that have larger factory-scale output. Calhoun keeps a chart for each customer’s design—almost like a doctor does for every patient—so he can make each instrument original.
“We give specific attention to the carving of each guitar,” he says.
The price for one of these custom sound machines: between $3,000-8,000. What drives the price of the high-end models is Rockbridge’s use of rare and salvaged Brazilian Rosewood, which can no longer be harvested. This is what musicians claim gives the guitars their signature rich, seasoned tones.
Using predominantly salvaged wood isn’t Rockbridge’s only environmentally friendly practice. They are one of the only guitar companies that have developed a water-based finish, which is much healthier for Calhoun when he is letting instruments dry in his basement bathroom.
“It’s better for us and the environment,” he says.

Places to Go, Things to See: