Two FreshGrass luthiers have a short trip to Mass MoCA

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NORTH ADAMS — As FreshGrass festivalgoers wander the grounds of Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art this weekend, they may happen upon a man resetting a neck — a guitar's neck, that is.

Steve Sauve has been repairing guitars and other instruments at the festival for years, bringing a work bench to the tent area where fellow luthiers, or stringed instrument makers, have gathered to display their creations. While he doesn't bring clients' instruments to the festival — too many distractions, he said — he has been willing to make adjustments for people at FreshGrass in the past. One year, he even helped David Grisman's banjo player replace a peg an hour before a show, according to Sauve. In case nothing that exciting happens, he also works on his own instruments, ensuring that he can entertain the festival's attendees.

"Nobody else is kind of doing that," Sauve told The Eagle on Tuesday.

It's a quick trip to the North Adams institution for Sauve, who has owned and operated Sauve Guitars in the city's Windsor Mill since 1981. His shop was briefly named Stringfellow Guitars after he took over for William Cumpiano, his mentor of five years. But Sauve doesn't have the shortest journey; he has to share that honor with fellow Windsor Mill luthier Nick Lenski, who runs Berkshire Stringed Instruments: School of Lutherie and manufactures a line of guitars (Brier Road Guitars) in a room right next to Sauve.

Their proximity isn't a coincidence. After Lenski's wife, Erin, advised him to take a guitar-building class, a friend of Lenski's connected him with Sauve. Lenski has now rented the Windsor Mill space from Sauve for six years.

"Basically, everything I learned, I would attribute to his lessons," Lenski said of Sauve while roaming his workshop on Tuesday afternoon, planks of wood laying on shelves and leaning against walls.

Lenski considers himself an apprentice to Sauve, but the elder luthier was hesitant to apply that label to their relationship as he ate lunch on the other side of the wall separating the two businesses. Sauve has certainly provided Lenski with tools and advice over the years, but two staff members, Dan Broad and Jeff Burrington, help him in an official capacity with the ceaseless requests he receives to fix banjos, mandolins, guitars, cellos, upright basses, violins and more uncommon instruments. On this particular afternoon, Broad was re-fretting a guitar (replacing the raised lines, often metal, running across the instrument's neck), and Sauve was doing a neck reset, or removing the thin, long part of the instrument before reattaching it. Generally, guitars will need a reset when their necks begin to lurch forward, increasing the separation between the strings and the neck.

"When I'm doing a neck reset on a guitar, it's probably at least 25 or 30 years old, if not 100 years old," Sauve said.

With age, the instruments' value increases, adding pressure on Sauve not to cause any damage.

"You know that you have to take the neck off this thing and put it back on again, and the neck won't come off. And you're spending days, and you're struggling with this thing, and you know that you don't have the option to just take out a bigger hammer and hit it harder to get it apart," he said.

Students in Lenski's courses, in which they work with the luthier to create a guitar, ukulele or mandolin over a 10-day period (students must later apply the finish to the body, a three- to four-week process) are also often most concerned about the necks, though their trepidation stems from having to handcarve them, Lenski said.

"We could have any size body, but as long as the neck feels good, then you can play it," Lenski said, describing a common musician mindset.

The body does matter, though, especially its composition. Luthiers choose woods of varying densities to stunt or extend the instrument's sounds. Jazz and blues players like guitars made of maple, "one of the softer hard woods," because they dampen the instruments' vibrations, Lenski said. Folk musicians prefer the harder rosewood because it prolongs the tremors, he added.

Ultimately, construction, style and function are the three main elements of building a guitar, Lenski said, and Sauve agrees.

"It's different than a lot of other crafts because it does have to look good, sound good and function and feel good," said Sauve, who estimates he has built about 65 guitars during his career.

The two North Adams luthiers have drastically different styles. Lenski's is modern, whereas Sauve's is more traditional. For example, Lenski built a purple guitar that Sauve didn't like.

"I'm not a purple guitar guy," Sauve said.

Yet, despite their different aesthetic tastes and seemingly competing interests, neither holds ill will toward the other.

"My guitars reflect my art. His guitars reflect his art. What he builds, somebody might find really desirable and might find mine to be a bit too modern or flashy, and somebody who might like mine might think his are too old-timey looking," Lenski said.

"People say things like, 'Are you crazy? You've invited your competition in to work in your shop' — literally, because this shop was my shop. I mean, it still is — those are my tools in there — but he's not my competition," Sauve said. "What we do is decidedly very different in that we are both building acoustic guitars, but the people that like mine are probably not going to like his, and vice versa."


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