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The Music Makers

By Michelle Venus

They’re behind the scenes, but no less important than the talented musicians who strum the guitars, ukuleles, mandolins and banjos that they lovingly craft. They’re luthiers—makers of stringed instruments. And there are more right here in Fort Collins than you would imagine. It makes sense, given the vibrancy of our community’s music scene, that some very prestigious and well-known luthiers call Fort Collins home.

Michael Bashkin - By Michelle Venus

Michael Bashkin

“The impetus all comes back to music,” says Michael Bashkin. He’s been playing guitars since his age hit two digits. “But, I was never really a great musician.”

Building guitars was a natural progression founded in his passion for music, coupled with his desire to do something tactile and work with his hands. A desk job was never in his future. Michael has a science background and taught tropical forestry in Belize before embarking on his luthier career. He built his first guitar in 1995, and never looked back.

Local musicians Dave Beegle, Cary Morin, and Danny Wordley are among his customers. Most of the instruments he makes are sold through dealers, so Michael never knows whose playing them. In addition to running a full repair business, Michael makes about 12 guitars a year. The whole process takes about two years from start to finish and his order list is closed right now.

New owners can be as involved in the creative process as they want to be, which Michael is quick to explain, is not a set process. Some customers order a guitar and wait to be surprised. Others may have a hand in picking the actual wood based on the tone it gives to the instrument to making decisions about the finest details. Michael is fine with either approach—his end game is to hand over a beautifully crafted guitar that will be well played and well loved.

Has he ever fallen in love with one of his guitars? “I don’t know that I’ve ever fall in love with one of them,” muses Michael. “I’ve certainly had some that I was more excited about and I’ve had my favorites over the years. But I’d have to say, the guitar that I’m in love with is the guitar I haven’t built yet.”

Roger Funke

Funke Ukuleles

Roger Funke

By day, Roger Funke is a product manager at Hewlett Packard. In his spare time, he’s a luthier. The instrument that sparks his creative flint is the harp ukulele. It’s a double necked instrument that adds deep rich bass notes from strumming actual harp strings while the musician picks the traditional ukulele strings. These are not beginner instruments. Ukulele neophytes start out strumming, and the harp ukulele needs to be picked and strummed simultaneously. Not a simple feat.

Roger has been a woodworker since grade school, with furniture making his specialty. But he and his family have lived in their house for more than 20 years, “…and there’s nothing more to make,” he chuckles. A trip to Hawaii inspired him to craft ukuleles and after some research, he realized it wouldn’t be all that difficult to make them. After honing his chops on ukuleles for each of his children and all his nieces and nephews, Roger started making instruments for customers. It was then that he stumbled upon the harp ukulele, which is only available as a hand-made, custom instrument. “You can’t even buy plans for the harp ukulele, so I had to develop my own,” explains Roger.

Roger chooses the wood for his ukulele based on beauty rather than tonality. “I don’t follow the rules,” he says. “Tone is relative to the player, and I look to make something beautiful and creative, that people love as soon as they see it.”

He stalks lumber yards looking for pieces of wood that have a unique grain and snatches them up. Each ukulele is made on commission to someone Roger knows. Customers are very involved in the process. He sends pictures to new owners throughout the building process showing them how the instrument is developing and growing—kind of like ultrasound images during a pregnancy. “I do call them my babies,” he admits.

Working so closely with his customers is the way he stays connected to each instrument. Roger has sold only one ukulele through a store in Estes Park. When it sold, he never knew where it went and found that he missed it. “So much goes into making each one,” he says. “I want to know how they’re doing. That’s important to me.”

William and Son

“Well, there’s the long version and the short version,” says Harry Williams when asked about how he got his start as a luthier. “Let's go with the long version.”

Harry started building violins while he was working on a violin performance degree at CSU. That soon turned into a full-time business repairing mostly orchestral stringed instruments. His other gig, tuning pianos for Poudre R-1 (the precursor to the Poudre School District) evolved into sprucing up (mostly) cellos and string basses. There was the partnership with Boomer Music, repairing stringed instruments for their customers. The company—now Williams and Son Luthier and Stringed Instrument Repair—became a two-generation business when Harry’s son, Aaron, came on board.

Today, Harry and Aaron work out of their shop tucked behind Harry’s house on North Sherwood Street. And they’ve never been busier.

“The music scene here keeps getting bigger,” he observes. That growth has spurred interest in non-musicians or lapsed musicians, and they dig out heirloom instruments that were played generations ago by family members. They usually end up on Harry’s bench. “They’re worth restoring. These are special instruments.”

Williams and Son... and Granddaughter

Williams and Son (and granddaughter)

Harry used to build violins “from scratch,” but found the work time consuming and tough on his hands, due to the amount of hand carving required. Now he focuses on repairing violins and violas and re-hairing bows. Aaron works on the large instruments: repairing and restoring cellos, basses and fretted instruments and he builds ukuleles. The resurgence of interest in the instrument has made them highly desirable.

Is there a third generation of luthiers in the Williams family? “Maybe,” chuckles Harry. “I play the ukulele for my 10-month-old granddaughter and she sure does enjoy plucking it along with me. So, maybe. Maybe.”

Cloverlick Banjo Shop

“I have a firm belief that the banjo is the best instrument of all the instruments,” states Rooster Austin, co-owner of Cloverlick Banjo Shop. His given name is Mark, but Rooster is the one that sticks.

Rooster and his partner, B.J. Kinney, are the proud owners of this nationally known workshop. Before that, he trained under renowned luthiers making acoustic guitars. But as a touring banjoist, he was drawn to first repairing, and then making that instrument.

Once the decision was made to build banjos, Rooster found Jeff Kramer, a luthier in Burlington, Wisconsin. They worked a bit together and talked instrument-making philosophy, you know, luthier stuff. When Jeff decided to retire, Rooster bought the business.

“It’s not really quite that simple,” says Rooster. “It was more like on a mystic plane, if you want to put yourself there.” A few years before meeting Rooster, Jeff had a dream in which a young man came to him. This young man was destined to pick up where Jeff’s life left off and create something much larger.

Cloverlicjk Banjo Shop - Rooster at Work - By Michelle Venus

Cloverlick Banjo Shop - Rooster at work

And so Cloverlick was born.

Coming to Fort Collins made sense for the business. The community is a hub for musicians and artists, which is exactly what Rooster and B.J. were looking for. The sustainability aspect of Fort Collins was part of the appeal. The shop produces more than 30 banjos a year.

But giving back to the community they now call home has become increasingly important.

In addition to participating in fundraisers that support nonprofits such as FoCo Cafe and Mountain Sage Community School and Vindeket Market (a market in town that saves food from being thrown away and has a free grocery store for those who need food relief), the folks at Cloverlick produce banjo tutorial videos that anyone can access at no cost.

On their giving forward list are plans to start a Lil’ Pickers program that sponsors three children each year by giving them their very own instrument and providing free lessons. They are dedicated to having a completely solar-powered shop in less than two years, and they we'll continue to support organizations that make Fort Collins a better, more sustainable community.

“Living the dream,” says Rooster. “We’re living the dream.”

Michelle Venus sept-2017-headshot

Michelle Venus is a freelance writer living and working in a little old bungalow in Old Town Fort Collins. She can be found pedaling her bike to coffee shops and happy hours, and is known to dance in the office. Any office.

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