Dinkytown luthier practices old-world craftsmanship on people’s instruments

by Jon Collins

Last Thursday, for the second afternoon in a row, Martin Reynolds fussed with a Goodall acoustic guitar. The problem from the day before was still there – the guitar’s unique layout made it difficult for the low strings to resonate fully when amplified. Most people would consider it frustrating, even maddening, to spend two full days straining to hear if the low-E string sounded “airy.”

Reynolds simply called it “a challenge.”

Reynolds has been the in-house luthier, or guitar repairman, at The Podium music store at 425 14th Ave. S.E. in Dinkytown for the past 11 years. He has been working on guitars for over 35 years.

His clients range from music legends like Leo Kottke to college kids paying $5 to have their guitars restrung.

The type of obsessive dedication Reynolds showed while fixing the Goodall is almost the hallmark of people in his trade, Podium owner Jeff Molde said.

“Marty has lots of experience. He’s an insatiable reader, constantly probing and inventing new tools,” Molde said. “The guys that can do this work are all like that.”

Reynolds, 57, grew up in Southern California playing in rock bands. Growing up, he spent pocket money he’d earned at an after-school job on broken guitars to fix.

“It’s part of the nature of my mind to tear things apart to see how they work,” he said.

Reynolds moved to Minnesota in the late ’70s, when a chance encounter with Minneapolis luthier Charles Orr landed him a job setting up guitars for Melloway which, at the time, was an instrument distributor in downtown Minneapolis.

In 1976, he took a job as a repairman at Marguerite’s – one of the biggest guitar shops in the Midwest – in Jamestown, N.D. When the store moved to Moorhead, Minn., Reynolds went back to Minneapolis.

“I decided I’d had enough of small-town life,” he said.

He went back to work at Orr’s shop in Richfield, even building a guitar and bass for Prince in the late ’70s.

In 1980, Reynolds opened his own shop at the now defunct General Music in St. Paul, working mostly on electric guitars.

“I found out I really preferred working on acoustics,” he said.

In 1997, when the luthier at The Podium decided to leave to build his own guitars, Reynolds was recommended as a replacement, Molde said.

“Marty moved into the old tech center across the street,” Molde said. “He was fixing stuff out of an old shower room.”

The move made sense to Reynolds.

“The guys from The Podium were delivering more work than was coming in from St. Paul,” he said.

They eventually renovated the workshop in The Podium basement, where he has been ever since.

He said because of the dry environment in residence halls, he sees some problems more frequently with students’ guitars than he sees elsewhere.

“I get these things in all year long,” he said. “The tops are inverted and the frets are popping out of the fingerboard.”

Molde said Reynolds is part of a tradition of quality craftsmanship that has been on the upswing lately.

“It’s about passing on skills from one luthier to another,” he said.

Reynolds said it’s the talent and experience of the staff that has attracted customers from all over the world.

“You can’t walk into a Guitar Center and get any of the people who work here,” he said. “They have an interest and passion that goes beyond a simple salesman.”

Minneapolis folk musician Papa John Kolstad said independent shops like The Podium serve a necessary role in the local music scene.

“As a musician you’ve got to have people to take your instrument to,” Kolstad said. “Imagine how long it would take for us to figure out how to fix our own guitars.”

Although Reynolds said technology has brought about a golden age of guitar making, he isn’t worried about technology making his job redundant.

“Mine is an old world trade,” he said. “It’s hand skills.”