In today’s tech-mad world, the role of the luthier, a maker of stringed instruments including guitars and violins, might appear archaic to some. It seems a trade more befitting an era when cobblers and hatters were common ways to put food on the table. Quite possibly, the word luthier, derived from the word “lute,” would fit seamlessly in Walt Whitman’s 1867 poem, I Hear America Singing.
In it, the American poet laureate conjures the labor and passion of masons, boatmen and woodcutters: all trades that helped define a young nation. And while these vocations are surely essential to the America’s homegrown quality, it is perhaps the luthier—one responsible for putting instruments in the hands of their players—who has brought the most joy to the people.
Even so, observing luthier Paul Neri in his home-based Clinton workshop is frustrating. It’s downright maddening, in fact. It’s difficult to ascertain just what tools he is using on an instrument at any given time. Or, what he is looking for when he intently studies the neck on a banjo, or the frets of a mandolin. And how he is able to make a low-end guitar sound so sweet after a tweak here and there. Two things are certain, though: 1) You leave Paul Neri’s workshop with a far better sounding instrument, and 2) You will, without a doubt, be back.
A Connecticut native, and a shoreline institution since starting his own business in 1990, Neri has music in his DNA. Not only can he play everything from the drums to flamenco guitar to bluegrass banjo, but he can also assess the quality, condition, and playability of just about any instrument. And of course, he fixes them.
“I honestly can’t remember a time when music wasn’t being played or sung in my house,” Neri says from his workshop. “My mom was a pianist. My sister was a singer and multi-instrumentalist. Both my brothers played. My father played. And I played, starting out on the drums. Mine was a pretty musical family.”
With an ear for music and a hunger to collaborate, Neri soon began playing in garage bands, performing both original material as well as popular covers. The Safari’s 1963 classic tune “Wipe Out” was a key inspiration for his music at the time.
“For any drummer, this was the big hit of the era,” he says. “It was a song that actually had a drum solo in it. This was very satisfying to hear.” Drums eventually led to the banjo, which Neri took to with ease. He soon began touring with a bluegrass trio who called themselves Spacegrass. They focused on original songs as well as banjo infused Beatles tunes. The next challenge, a most formidable one, was Spanish guitar, which Neri studied with local guitar guru, Joe Tinari. This is when Neri’s playing really took flight: He learned classical, flamenco, tango, and bossa nova, all genres that demand high levels of technical expertise as well as an erudite approach to the instrument.
Years of honing his craft as a musician, as well as building a reputation for his versatility, eventually led Neri to apprentice under a guitar builder. It was around this time that he met and worked under George Youngblood, another local luthier. “I worked under George for nine years,” Neri says deferentially. “This is when I really went to school and got my education. That time was invaluable. It eventually led me to start my own business, which I’ve been doing ever since.”
Being a luthier is a delicate proposition. It requires not only a vast knowledge of nearly every stringed instrument, but the requisite precision that is needed to work on them. Part and parcel to this, naturally, is the ability to play them as well. One might say it’s equal parts art and science. “It’s really a craft that is approached differently by different people in the field,” Neri says. “Some have a knack for restoring delicate instruments, and they have a tremendous sense for detail. Others are more attuned to the love of function of the instrument, and how the musician perceives the whole: the feel, the sound, the set up.”
His own knack has turned out to be his service of Martin brand guitars. Just ask anyone fortunate enough to own one of the prized, high-end instruments: vintage Martins have sold for up to $400,000. Neri is Coastal Connecticut’s go-to guy when it comes to Martin warranty repairs. Established in 1833, Martin has its roots in gorgeous flat top steel string guitars. Iconic images of artists from Elvis Presley to Neil Young continue to inspire new players to make the heady investment that is a Martin purchase. This alone will keep Neri in business for years to come.
“It’s quite a challenge to restore these instruments,” Neri says. “They are valuable not only in a monetary sense, but in an emotional one as well. Players become quite attached to their instruments, and it makes me happy to be able to help foster that relationship.”
From replacing the back of a Martin D-28 to an entire body side of a vintage D-18, Neri knows he has his work cut out for him. Matching colors and wood grains can be painstaking, fastidious work. Since new tools and techniques are constantly being developed, Neri keeps on top of his craft by reading luthier journals.
When asked about one of his most overwhelming restorations, Neri thinks for a moment before offering up the story of the 1940s-era flamenco guitar he worked on a few years back. The instrument was cracked, seemingly beyond repair. To Neri, it was just another project, albeit an exacting one. He not only resuscitated the guitar’s aesthetics, but he was able to greatly improve upon its tonal qualities.
When he’s not toiling away in his Clinton shop, or fulfilling his duties as a family man, Neri is busy with his own musical projects. Ragweed, his bluegrass band, has the occasional gig here and there, but they’re in it mostly for the thrill of playing music together. His other project, The Kerry Boys (headed by singer and multi-instrumentalist Pierce Campbell), can be seen playing at Connecticut libraries and municipal greens.
“The playing is just as important to me as my business,” Neri says. “I started out as a musician, so that’s how I view myself, first and foremost. Playing good music with like-minded people I know and respect is rewarding beyond words. And I’ll do it as long as I possibly can.”