Inner Sanctum — entering the workshop of a master guitar builder
Bruce was more impenetrable than anyone I have known. The callous look on his sunbeat face, the years of squinting off the port-side while hauling in fish off the Catalina channel in winter branded him deep crevices along his heavy eyes. His smile lost by the departure of his third or perhaps fourth wife — he could never remember. He squinted constantly a habit from spending years on the ocean. A quiet pious man Bruce never complained, he had lived many lives within his 59 years.
You can never truly know everything about a man and Bruce was no different, has many hidden corners.
I ran into Bruce in one of those brave moments when you pass an open door, in this case an apartment door and something catches your attention. Bruce was speaking very loudly at this mother, not harshly but in a tone that was obviously tailored for the hard of hearing. “Mom you can’t do that OK? You can’t go to the bus unless you are with Maggie, you might get lost”. The undertone was concerned with a dash of annoyed, it sounded like mother had done this before with a somewhat more disastrous ending. “You broke your hip last time you walked to the bridge center mom, we don’t want that again OK?”. I heard the gentle voice of a mother respond “Brucy I wanted to go to bridge and you weren’t home”. A pause in conversation. I stood two paces off of the inlet that lead to their apartment.
Overhead covered with heavy cerulean blue corrugated aluminum that shivered when people walked too heavily. I could hear Bruce lumbering around, I could smell fish fry, the scramble before dinner.
I began to walk away feeling like I had been intruding in someones very private life. As I took my first step to depart I heard the all too familiar sound — ding, ring, ping, — tuning of a guitar — except the sound was very different from my twangy and metallic experience, the bass strings were more subdued and somehow silky and the high notes in his tuning regimen were bright and popped with each note plucked. I took a few more steps and stopped in the courtyard the notes of the guitar echoed through the concrete rectangle carrying all the way down to the pool before colliding with the giant red fence that separated the property from its neighbor, dissipating.
The tuning finished and all fell silent.
Another set of tuning this time with a slightly different pallet, more spice in the high notes more anger and rumble in the bass notes. Again another tuning.The barrage of tuning continued for several minutes each with unique intonation. I couldn’t understand what the hell was going on. By the ninth tuning I decided to investigate. I approached the door and knocked. I was taught by my father that knocking is the sign of friendship, salespeople ring the doorbell.
The ground seemed to rumble as Bruce paused a moment looking at his partially cracked door puzzled with the intrusion. Blood rushed to my face and hands my instinctual nervous response. Bruce continued to sit rather than address the possible door to door salesman directly. “Hello?”, Bruce said in an obviously intruded upon voice. I said “Hello, hi, I am Mike, I live in 206” a double greeting which always seemed to come across more friendly than nervous. I waited for Bruce to arrive at the door. The door was cracked about an inch and this allowed me a view down the hallway to the living area where a gaunt elderly mother sat with a blanket over her legs, Brucys mother sat peacefully she seemed well over ninety if not older, really just a skeleton with a soul taking up temporary residence.
I saw Bruce break the view line of my inch portal and approach the front door, he opened it slowly and squinted “Hi, whats up?”, I replied sheepishly “Hey man I thought I heard some guitar or something, do you play?”, Bruces face transformed with a wide grin you could see that his mind was transported to a place where he found peace and solitude, his music. “Yah I was actually tuning some of my guitars” said proudly. I dove off, I was all in, and asked “Maybe we could jam sometime?”.
The sun was peaking over the aluminum overhang hitting the south facing wall illuminating the off-white stucco courtyard. The day was warmer than the usual winter program of 56–68, the overcast had marched off beaten back by a 75 degree sun. By Santa Barbara standards quite warm. Bruce blurted, “Meet me down at the pool around three and we can play, I will bring down a guitar for you, bring your guitar and bring some wine OK?”
I returned to my apartment, restrung my guitar and grabbed a bottle of two buck chuck (Charles Shaw) Chardonnay from my refrigerator, I watched the clock as I tuned and warmed up it slowly ticked from two o’clock to three o’clock. I was at the pool right at three and there sat Bruce in his shorts tattered on a white swiveling stool, around him were four beautiful guitars all of the same body style with varying wood, They seemed like classical guitars but had very strange tuning devices that seemed archaic.
With wine in one hand and guitar in the other I used my elbow to open the old wrought iron gate to the pool.
The sun continued its persistent temperature, there was mild humidity in the air. I sat on the three foot cinderblock wall nearest Bruce and gawked at his guitars. Each one was completely different.
I blurted “where did you buy these, what are they, why do they have those weird tun-”, before I got out another word Bruce said — Mikey I build guitars.
No one had called me Mikey in 20 years. In fact the last person to call me that was my mom. It would have been uncomfortable hearing it come from this relative stranger but I had heard him referred to earlier in the day as Brucy, so I felt it fitting to be called down on as the youngster.
I have played guitar from the age of eight, I have decent chops but have never had an interest in where the guitars came from so long as they sound great. This moment changed that. Some part of me believed that guitars were built in a vacuum by a magical piece of machinery. Here I sat before a modern day artisan.
Perfunctory questions followed to fill in my historical timeline — Bruce’s responses were automatic.
I opened the bottle of wine and poured them into our elegant paper cups while I listened intently to his responses. The only question that elicited more than a one word response was a question that would open the flood gates for a great piece of Bruce history.
“How did you get into building guitars?” I asked. Bruce finally paused to mill over his answer. He was digging deep to remember details before he puzzled it all together in a long pause less abbreviated history.
“In 1969 we knew the draft was coming for us we were all twenty. I was a surfer living off Rincon in Santa Barbara living the surfing lifestyle so I did what any sensible American would do — I dodged the draft. I had recieved a mail requesting a physical and rather than maim myself I decided to leave the country in the middle of the night.
On October 18th 1969 I left on my fishing from the Santa Barbara harbor boat and docked at Catalina, I had a friend on the island that would take care of my livelyhood while I was away he was too old to be draft eligible and was a hard working abalone fisherman. I rendezvoused with Matt and he taxi’d me fromCatalina to the port of Long Beach in the dead of night. I guess the idea was that I would dissapear into the night. I took a cab from the port to LAX with three thousand dollars, my entire life savings at the time, flew from LAX to Brazils Porto Velho-Governador Jorge Teixera De Oliviera International Airport. I flew twelve hours to the Spain Morocco border on the Morrcan side of the Mediterranean to Mellila Airport buying my way onto a freighter sleeping in forward compartment just behind the pilot and staff on a cot elevated above the ground. I didn’t sleep a minute. I had just escaped fighting a war I didn’t believe in and left all the people I knew behind.” Bruce paused a moment to reflect.
I nodded entranced, it sounded like a Hollywood movie to this point. I was waiting for drug smuggling and Spanish sword fights.
Bruce continued: “Arriving in Spain I had come to surf and headed for the coast of Andalucia to live out my temporary existence as a Spanish surf bum. I bought a VW van for $200 USD from an immigrant outside of the airport in Melilla, having been the mechanic on my boat for since I bought her at 16 I felt confident that I could probably fix anything that would go wrong with the VW. My first night I arrived in arrived in Malaga via ferry from Mellila, I slept in my car and was confronted by the Policia, once they recognized that I was American, they were very helpful but asked many questions about the War. I quickly realized that my first few years of Spanish in high school would come in handy.
The Policia left me alone but asked that I park on the side streets. I fell back asleep. I woke up the next morning and drove to Andalucia where I would search for work, surf and spend about half of my money trying to figure out what to do with myself. My first Saturday night in Spain I came across my first taste of Flamenco music being played by gypsy’s, and it changed everything.”
I had heard of gypsy’s in the 60’s as a kind of pathfinder for american hippies. They were free form people that wanted to share music, love and usually some illicit substance with people they came in contact with. I didn’t want to interrupt Bruce but I also didn’t want this to segue into a drug story and it seemed headed that direction so I cut it off by saying “That must have been crazy, I heard those Gypsys are crazy”. Bruce grinned “It was so much fun man”. I then quickly asked my next question. “How did you get into building guitars?”
“Mike, I had played steel strings and classical guitars from a real early age but the percussion, the sound the soul that was in this Flamenco music was something I had to know more about this is where it all started for me. I made a pilgrimage to Sevilla to see the guitar shops. Times were different back then, people were not skeptical and untrustworthy, there were a few builders that turned me away but most shared with me their stories and some of their ideas about how guitars should be made. I met owner after owner and I told them that I had been a fisherman all my life and asked each one if they needed help in their shops. For many the language divide was too much but finally I was taken in by an old man who was past his effective age to build guitars, he tutored me for 5 years before he passed away and left his shop to me. Within his collection of plans was a charcoal copy of the Master Antonio Torres guitar, this is the only thing I took from Spain aside from the experience of building over one hundred guitars. My experience in Spain was surfing and building guitars. I also made money building Balsa surf boards and selling them on the weekends at the tourist beaches. I thought I might stay my whole life in Spain but I knew I had to go home. 1975 was the official end to the War marked by the fall of Saigon, I watched it on Spanish TV, I packed my bags the next night.
I returned to the US the next night where my boat still sat in the port at Catalina, well attended by Matt. Many of the guys I had gone to school with were dead or maimed and quite a few never returned. I took to commercial fishing again while building guitars in my spare time. The world had changed a lot in six years.
I had a few banner years on my boat and hired a young kid to work the boat so that I could start building guitars full time. In 1980 I started Guitarros Y Bruce F Wood or Bruce F Wood Guitars. I have been doing it ever since.”
I sat quietly pondering this great story, I couldn’t think of any story to match, any witty praise, I looked at the guitars and imagined this amazing journey, how they had gotten here, the Masters Plan. While I managed the apartments I became very good friends with Bruce he provided me with a guitar that was played by a professional Flamenco and returned to Bruce for an upgrade.
Bruce was a mentor to me in my early 20's, showing me basic Flamenco technique, I did events with Bruce and helped him sell guitars. Eventually I left Santa Barbara for work closer to Los Angeles, I had one final request for Bruce before I left. I wondered if I might be crossing the line. I asked to photograph the shop. He made me stand on an X he taped on the floor and said “take one photo”.