(Originally published December, 2010)
Turning broken into beautiful
Story and photo by Sarah Ryeland
Have you ever listened to a piece of wood?
Of course you have. You’ve heard beautiful music from guitars, banjos, violins, and maybe even a cello or two. But have you ever picked up a simple piece of wood and tapped it just so, dropping it on the floor to hear the sound living inside?
Rod Jennings does it every day.
Jennings is a luthier – a maker of stringed, wooden instruments. He chooses the finest wood and takes the utmost care with his creations, earning himself a stellar reputation in the process.
He has an ear for acoustics and a talent for working with his hands that comes in handy whether he’s building a custom instrument, or restoring one that needs a little tender loving care. He listens to the instrument and all of its components, determining just the right piece of wood that will blend with the other sounds the instrument produces.
No instrument is the same, according to Jennings. Just like the musician that plays it, every piece – especially handmade works of art like the ones Jennings produces – is as unique as its owner.
“Each musician has his own relationship with his instrument,” says Jennings. “Before I start I find out everything I can – how hard he plays, what style.”
This is what helps the luthier create an instrument. By getting to know the expectations and style of the musician he’s working with, Jennings is able to customize any instrument. The end result is a unique piece of work with a lifetime guarantee.
“I make the guitars like I’m making them for myself,” says Jennings. “That means they can be hard to sell, or give back to the musician sometimes.” But it’s that level of commitment and involvement that keeps serious musicians coming back to his Bracebridge shop.
Jennings grew up in Newmarket, the son of a craftsman who was always eager to create. Like four generations of family before him, he loved to work with his hands to make or fix anything he could. His family was supportive, but also urged Jennings to take his own path.
“My dad never wanted me to touch his tools,” he says.
Perhaps that’s what drove him to succeed, eventually having even more tools than his father did. Jennings finds satisfaction in the act of creating and building things – whether it’s cabinetry, home renovations, custom car designs, or musical instruments.
As a young man, he would put custom art on his friends’ cars and even earned a reputation as a skilled detailer.
“They called me Mr. Custom,” Jennings recalls. He seemed to be able to translate his ideas into reality by simply using his hands and vision to create. Adults often remarked on his talent, too.
“I’ve never forgotten the advice someone told me when I was young,” says Jennings. “I was a kid, camping up in Algonquin Park. I was talking to a park ranger and he said to me ‘if you can work with your hands, you’ll never be poor. You’ll always be able to feed your family.’ That really stuck with me.”
From that point forward, Jennings made it his life’s work to create. At the age of 21, he began his own successful business building custom cabinetry. From there, he tried his hand at welding, pipefitting, home renovations, car customization and more, finding he was successful at anything that required the use of his hands.
Essentially self-taught, Jennings did begin taking courses at George Brown College. But when the teacher cut his thumb off in class and Jennings had to step in as a substitute teacher, he realized that he already had more experience than most of his peers.
“That came from life,” he says. “I learned by doing, not by taking courses. It was a life’s worth of experiences that gave me that skill.”
Jennings eventually came to realize that his love of music and creative skill could be combined into a rewarding career. For years, Jennings flirted with different industries. “I was trying to find my niche,” he says. “And I think I’ve found it now.”
Building instruments – guitars being his main focus – is his passion. “I’ve always had a good ear for acoustics,” he says.
A guitar player himself from a young age, Jennings was frustrated with the cheap guitar he had to learn on. “My parents bought it for me when I was young,” he says. “It never stayed in tune and really deterred me from playing because it was so bad.”
Today he turns that memory into inspiration, devoting his life to avoiding that very situation.
He knows what makes the difference between a quality musical instrument and a frustrating, second-rate alternative, and how to execute his vision. While any woodworker may be able to physically construct a guitar, creating quality instruments is a different thing altogether.
“Anyone can throw a couple pieces of wood together,” Jennings says. “It really depends who makes them.”
Obviously, Jennings is doing an incredible job. Approached by major music companies to be an official repairman and restorer, Jennings ultimately turned them down, deciding to keep things simple. He wants to be able to compete with brand names on his own terms.
A full-time resident of Muskoka for many years, the artist and craftsman takes pride in his community and the musicians that live there. Using many locally-sourced products to create his instruments, Jennings also uses environmentally friendly elements like water-based lacquer whenever possible, in an effort to be gentle to the earth.
And it’s not just the creation of guitars that he loves – he builds various styles and makes – but also restoration.
“Every guitar has a story,” says Jennings. “People come from all over Ontario, north and south, to get their instruments restored here.” From Moose Factory, North Bay, Toronto, and beyond, people seek out Jennings’ expertise.
Huntsville musician Tina Turley is one of those customers.
She came to Jennings with a very specific request: restore this broken guitar.
“It was a complete basket-case,” recalls Jennings. “It had three full-length cracks, the finish was flaking off and the neck had to be completely re-set.” But to Turley, the instrument was worth saving.
“I bought the guitar off a friend who needed some money,” she says. “He said Beau Bridges had played it.”
A 1974 Larrivée, the guitar was made in Canada and was even hand signed. Turley loved the sound of the guitar and after she bought it, played it often. The instrument travelled with her from Nashville and back many times, and she even got offers from other songwriters who wanted to buy the guitar because of its unique sound.
Eventually, Turley bought another guitar to perform with and lent the Larrivée to her father, who played it until his death in 2002. After his passing, Turley noticed that the guitar was beginning to show its age – cracks started to appear and it was beginning to deteriorate – so she laid the instrument in its case and decided not to use it again.
Once she told her friends and fellow musicians that the Larrivée was out of commission for good, their reaction was unanimous: it was a waste of a beautiful instrument.
“Basically,” says Turley “it was either hang it on the wall, burn it, or investigate the cost of having it restored. I contacted Larrivée in B.C. and they told me to ship it out. I wasn’t keen on that because I suspected it might be a rather rare guitar.”
So she contacted her friend Jennings. He warned her that the restoration might take some time, but to Turley it was worth it. As long as it was done right, she says, she didn’t care how long it took.
A few months later, the finished product was presented.
“I was in awe when I opened the case,” says Turley. “I closed it and opened it again and asked Rod (Jennings) if it was really my guitar.”
The Larrivée, restored to its former glory, became a treasure for Turley and now she finds it hard to put down.
“The guitar is so easy to play and sounds so beautiful,” she says. “He turned something broken into something beautiful.”
The sentimental value of the guitar is something that Turley couldn’t put a price on. The Larrivée had such memories inside it that getting it restored felt like the right thing to do – and obviously Jennings was the right man for the job.
It’s the care he takes in every restoration that keeps his customers happy. By treating each guitar with respect and care, Jennings brings out the best in his instruments, and that’s exactly what the best musicians look for.
And getting it right isn’t something you can really put your finger on. Jennings refers to playability and feel as the top two priorities in either making or restoring a guitar – aspects that only intuition can judge. It seems as if he can sense what will feel right and what will bring out the best in the instrument, and that’s something that can’t be taught.
Obviously, a lifetime of working with his hands is paying off.
“We have been many places and experienced a lot of things,” says Turley of the Larrivée. “The good, the bad, the crazy – lots of emotional history. And with some support and gentle care, we’ve both come out of it in one piece.”