The ax man cometh

Mike Gardner

Photo By Larry Dalton

The guitar is a deceptively simple-looking instrument. Slap together a hunk of wood, a bunch of knobs, six strings and presto: kertwang! But as every guitarist knows, mystery hides within this instrument’s alleged simplicity. Tighten a string too much, and snap! The string breaks and nearly takes an eye out. Stow it away in a hot, musty closet, and the neck will warp faster than Jerry Falwell’s mind in a red-light district. Neglect to perform the proper maintenance, and it’ll soon be playing sour notes.

While some guitarists prefer to do their own maintenance, it’s safe to say that most do not. These are the musicians who keep Mike Gardner, the guitar-repair dude at Skip’s Music, in business. Gardner sits way in the back at Skip’s in this cramped little room with guitars and basses hanging on the walls. It’s kind of like that setup the robot repairman had in Blade Runner, except Gardner works on guitars. He also constructs guitars for various high-profile clients, which makes him a full-blown luthier.

It should come as no surprise that Gardner, in addition to repairing and manufacturing musical instruments, is a musician himself. Currently, he plays bass in the Urbanfire reggae band, which has opened for international acts such as Steel Pulse, Burning Spear, The Itals, Israel Vibration and Eek-a-Mouse. The group’s playing schedule can be found at Monday through Saturday during working hours, you’ll find Gardner in the back at Skip’s, most likely fixing yet another neglected instrument.

How does one become a guitar repairman?

I learned my skills on the job. I’ve always been pretty good at taking things apart and putting them back together. I also gained some electronics skills in the Air Force.

The guitar has been called an imperfect instrument. They go out of tune, the neck and body can warp, etc. Do you agree that it is an imperfect instrument?

Absolutely. It’s a piece of wood, which is a pretty unstable material in general. The intonation and the tuning methods are a little imperfect, but over the years everybody has gotten used to hearing it that way, so it’s pretty much considered normal.

Who are some of the more high-profile musicians you’ve done guitar work for, both nationally and locally?

The first ones that come to mind are Ronnie Montrose [of Montrose] and Frank Hannon [of Tesla], and numerous regional players. I’ve built Ronnie several guitars, refinished a couple, installed a B-bender in one. Frank, I’ve mainly done general setup work for small bits and pieces. I met Frank when he was in a band called City Kid, at the Oasis Ballroom. I think he was about 16 at the time.

How is making a whole guitar different than repairing a guitar?

You’re turning rough wood products into a guitar. You’re starting with lumber, not just pieces and parts.

Are there different guitar setups for different styles of music?

It’s not so much setup for style as it is for what a player likes, what different people think is appropriate for them. That’s a real personal taste sort of thing.

If you could tell guitarists one thing about taking care of their instruments, what would it be?

Don’t leave your guitar anywhere you wouldn’t leave your kid or your dog. Avoid extremes of temperature and humidity.

Do you have a favorite model of guitar for your own personal playing?

Well, I’m mostly playing bass these days. I’m playing bass in the Urbanfire reggae band. [Gardner plays a fairly expensive Sadowsky bass.] I’ve seen good and bad in just about all brands. You evaluate each one on its own merits, and you either like it or you don’t.

Would you rather play music or fix guitars?

I’d rather play music. I’d much rather be playing music for a living. But, you know, there’s a lot of people starving trying to play music, and repairing guitars is much steadier work. It’s still being involved in the music industry in one way or another.

How many guitars do you fix per day?

Per day, eight or 10, maybe. Some days it could be two or three, others it may be a dozen. It depends on whether it’s big work or just a few strings and some adjustments.

What’s the most messed-up guitar you’ve seen?

Anything that’s been left some place you wouldn’t leave your kid or your dog—that guitar that was left in the car on a hot summer day. At about 140 degrees or so, the glue starts breaking down.

Have you ever injured yourself working on a guitar?

I’ve stuck myself with knives and chisels, little scrapes and stuffs, but not anything I’d really call an injury. It’s no more dangerous than being a cabinet worker or a woodworker of any other kind.