zeidler project archtop

In another life, I was a wannabe luthier.

The intoxicating scent of Brazilian rosewood and Sitka spruce, the arcane and elegant tools and forms, the thrilling sensation of bringing an instrument to vibrating, singing life … ah well, turned out ’twas not to be.

I have built a couple of guitars, and fixed a whole bunch more, but the closest I ever came to becoming a Stradivarius of the six-string was spending an apprentice year in the terrific archtop-maker Tom Ribbecke’s workshop.

It was an amazing experience, and has deeply informed my life as a visual designer (more about that below), but why (you ask politely, as I continue what seems to be a random digression) am I bringing it up? Well, a good friend of mine happened upon the Mandolin Brothers in Staten Island, perhaps the finest purveyor of guitars in the country. He was knocked out by the joint, and — knowing I’d be interested — sent me a link.

Of course I knew about this place — Ribbecke had sold guitars through them, and so had most of the top-drawer luthiers I’d ever met. They seem to always have a spectacular inventory of handmade instruments, so I clicked straight through to the archtop section to see if I recognized anybody.

Well. Not only did I spot a few familiar names, but I ran across an instrument that I had actually worked on — and what an instrument!

Here’s the story:

J. R. Zeidler was one of the finest instrument makers I’ve ever met … a rough-edged Philly guy with visionary technical insights, exacting techniques, and an uncompromisingly personal aesthetic sense, he created some of the most uniquely stunning instruments that have ever graced this planet — and they sound as good as they look.

I got to meet the man only once, at the Healdsburg Guitar Festival. Zeidler came to an evening party at Ribbecke’s workshop. Whiskey was quaffed, war stories told, and I (the modest newbie) complimented him on his craft. He gave me advice about the importance of discovering your own style and sound, and then we argued about finishing techniques — “Hey Tom, your assistant is bustin’ my balls here!”

We shook hands. A great guy. Not much later J.R. got sick, and I never saw him again.

But I did get to participate in an incredible project inspired by both the man himself, and his (oh, the artisan life) lack of health insurance. That “project” is what I saw on the Mandolin Brothers website this morning.

The Zeidler Project:

Maybe I should just quote the “official” background.

“When fourteen of the world’s finest guitar makers decided to honor and support a colleague, they produced a unique and remarkable instrument — The Zeidler Project guitar. J. R. Zeidler was well known in the community of archtop makers. His instruments, and the man himself, were greatly respected by players and his peers.

When he was hospitalized with acute myelogenous leukemia, undergoing debilitating and expensive therapy, his fellow builders came together in support. They decided to make a collaborative guitar incorporating many of Zeidler’s touches and even using wood he chose.

The guitar will be sold to defray some of John’s medical expenses, and to help his family.”

The Zeidler Project was coordinated by the Canadian luthier, Linda Manzer. It was a spirited, bold project — never before had a group of so highly respected instrument makers attempted such collaboration.

Manzer said, “This was a chance for the archtop guitar building community to come together and focus all our skills on this one instrument to help our friend, John, and his family. These builders were just incredible to work with and we were all honored to be part of this truly unprecedented event. It was a very emotional and truly amazing experience. The end result is a guitar imbued with our collective spirit.”

The entire group, paying tribute to Zeidler’s style and preferences, worked out details of the design. The guitar traveled across the continent to the shop of every builder — each of them adding his or her own touch to it, then passing it to the next builder.

Ribbecke’s contribution involved the careful shaping of the gorgeously quilted maple back plate. My own was minimal, just helping to rough the thing out before Master Tom put his expert hands to work — but I felt honoured to play even the tiniest of roles in this historic project. Still do.

What the heck does any of this have to do with my current business?

Well … the success of a piece of visual work — just like a guitar — depends upon a careful accumulation of the smallest of details. Thus the importance of gently persuading every single element of a project to work together — in perfect harmony, as it were — can’t be exaggerated.

A millimeter too much or too little wood in the carved top plate of an archtop means the difference between an instrument that sings and a common plunker. Just so with a designed page or a drawing. A headline a few points too large, the wrong line weight, an ill-conceived colour choice …

Pay attention. Get it right.

And I guess it’s even more than that. My obsession with the making and playing of guitars has as much to do with my business as any of my hundreds of other interests and passions.

When an artist is confronted by the daily task of making “something out of nothing”, every experience that has ever been poured into the ol’ brain-hopper is called upon to fill that blank page or screen.Every moment becomes an ingredient in the creative stew, a whole life’s worth of experience transmuted into a pattern of ink or pixels, just like that.


The truth is, I was just delighted to be reminded of the existence of this wonderful guitar — and my own tiny contribution.

And as I learned just this morning, it’s actually still for sale — scroll down to the bottom of this page. For a paltry hundred grand you can take it home, but please call me if you do — I’ve still never played the thing!

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