Bedpans make great mandolins

But don’t call offbeat musical-instrument maker Keith Cary a luthier

Keith Cary at home in his workshop: What has better “tone"—Farberware or Revere?

Keith Cary at home in his workshop: What has better “tone"—Farberware or Revere?

Photo by Larry Dalton

A few years ago, my band was setting up its equipment onstage at a club. Quite unexpectedly, my bass guitar fell over. Upon picking up and examining the instrument, it became nauseatingly apparent that the headstock—that part at the end of the neck where the tuning knobs are located—had snapped like a dry twig. It was still attached to the neck, but it dangled pathetically.

This was really horrible.

I borrowed someone else’s bass to play the set, but the thought of my favorite bass guitar—the one I’d bought because it was unique, the one that fit me just right—lying there so brutally injured haunted me all night long. I had no idea what to do.

My drummer casually explained that I shouldn’t do anything. “Call Keith Cary immediately,” he advised, adding that Cary could fix it right and that I shouldn’t trust anyone else. Why argue?

Later, over the phone, Cary explained that headstock breaks are usually not too big a deal. We quickly set up an appointment to bring the bass over to his shop in Winters, a tiny Yolo County town west of Davis and north of Vacaville.

Keith Cary is a soft- spoken man who projects a very careful nature. A first impression was enough to quell any misgivings about entrusting this stranger with my favorite musical instrument. Glancing around the shop, it became readily apparent that the person who inhabits this space doesn’t just simply work on guitars. There was a whole different world going on in here, and it was quite exciting.

Not having seen the workshops of too many artisans who specialize in repairing musical instruments, I’d guess that most would prefer a place that was organized, well-lit and clean. Not Cary’s shop. His takes a completely opposite approach, yet it still feels like an ideal place to engage in a business of this nature. A motorcycle lies in pieces in the corner, there are a smattering of shop tools with guitar cases piled on top, and there’s very little clear space to be found on the workbench.

At one point, Cary’s dog stands, wagging its tail frantically in anticipation of someone giving it a good petting. The entire time his tail is beating, it slaps against a strange-looking guitar that dates from around 1850. “I should really put that away in the house, so it doesn’t get broken,” Cary deadpans.

And when it’s raining and you are in Winters tucked away in this shop listening to the downpour beat out a rhythm on the galvanized tin roof, it isn’t difficult to see how someone like Cary could get lost out in that environment for hours on end.

But it isn’t just the repair work that keeps Cary busy. He also designs and builds musical instruments, but perhaps not the kind you’d expect. There’s an eight-string, extra-long-scale, tenor-type guitar that Cary fabricated from piano guts and a turkey pan; a cello he fashioned from different-sized round pots and lids that features a couple of resonating strings similar to a sitar. And although these instruments sound like they’re novelties, when Cary plays them you realize that they are well thought out and designed alternative instruments—that work. They sound good, whether they’re played with or without amplification, yet Cary still doesn’t like to be called a luthier. “It’s too precious,” he says.

Cary’s greatest self-claimed success, however, is the one that makes many people laugh the hardest. He calls it the commodium. There’s a certain stainless-steel bedpan in existence that—when combined with a Dobro resonating chamber—makes the brightest, loudest mandolin you’ll ever hear. Cary argues that it’s the single loudest acoustic instrument he’s ever heard.

You have to wonder how someone winds up doing the things Keith Cary does, but he’s had the same interests for most of his life. Imagine a teenager who grew up in a musical family in the late ‘60s, but who didn’t have any interest in playing rock ‘n’ roll. During that decade, Cary was much more into playing a stand-up bass; he was also really enjoying the banjo lessons he’d been taking for a few years. His passion was for 1920s jazz and traditional folk music.

One day, when Cary was 13 or 14, and while his parents were gone, he found an old mandolin in their attic that was missing a string. He quickly ran down to the store and bought a replacement for the missing string and a Mel Bay instructional book on how to play the mandolin. He was well on his way before his parents got home. And according to Cary, it was “all very normal.”

In a roundabout way, it was a natural progression for Cary to pick up the trade of instrument repair. Playing so many different musical instruments led him to acquire quite a few cheap or broken ones that always needed work. And, after a little experience, he realized that he actually enjoyed many of the tasks involved with fixing instruments. At one point, he took a valuable six-month violin repair course from an instructor with whom he still keeps in contact.

Cary takes a fresh approach to repairing and building instruments that seems quite rare in today’s mass-produced world. He believes that a repair or modification should reflect the intrinsic value of the instrument to the person who plays it, and shouldn’t be based solely on the monetary value of the piece. To illustrate, I once took a guitar to him that would have prompted most guitar-repair specialists to laugh out loud before they explained the wisdom of tossing it into the trash—it was old, it wasn’t that exceptional in quality and it was in really sad condition. Cary perceived its true worth and restored its great playable condition without spending unnecessary time or effort, due to the guitar’s limitations. He says he gets frustrated with people who take the approach of “Well, if you want to do it right,” adding that he’d rather explore the option of “What will happen if you do it wrong?” This line of thinking leads him to ask: “Why can’t you build a stand-up bass out of a Weber barbecue?”

On top of repairing and building stringed instruments, Cary is also an accomplished musician. It’s no surprise, really, given his background, but he’s done—and is currently involved in—some projects that might make many musicians quite jealous. For one, he’s played, off and on, with the Cheap Suit Serenaders, a group that also included former Winters neighbor Robert Crumb, the comic-book artist who now lives in the south of France. The group crisscrossed Europe a couple of years ago, playing in a fancy venue one night and some grimy punk club the next.

These days, Cary has teamed up with longtime friend, fellow Cheap Suit Serenaders member and Dixon-based artist Robert Armstrong and Davis-based blues guitarist Bill Scholer to form a trio they call the Joy Buzzards. In recent months, the group has played the Palms Playhouse in Davis; it also wowed a crowd, at last summer’s exhibit of resonator guitars at the Crocker Art Museum, with a two-set show that finished with an enthusiastic standing ovation.

There are a few guitars, a mandolin, a stand-up bass, the resonating cello, a saw and other instruments that get a fair amount of use from these three at their shows, and it’s not unusual to see any one of them set aside one instrument and grab another right in the middle of a song.

For Cary, it’s everything he’s ever wanted in a band. The Joy Buzzards play a mixture of his two favorite types of music (‘20s jazz, traditional folk), and he’s able to play all of the instruments he builds, and loves, with a couple of close friends. And, although they enjoy playing clubs, a lot of their shows tend to be backyard barbecues and weddings. Which, in Cary’s mind, is all he could ever ask for.

So the next time your stringed instrument breaks, or if you want lessons, or you just want to get out and see a fun and unusual band, track down Keith Cary. You’ll be glad you did.