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Fret Master

The only time I ever busted up a guitar was at a party in Rabbit Hash in the backyard of E.W. Scripps chairman Bill Burleigh.

I was doing a job there with a bluegrass band, and I had the guitar around my neck as we strolled and played to various clusters of guests at the party. Unfortunately, I was walking in deep shadows at the back of the house, and I tripped in a big hole. I was surprised when I hit the ground—you always are—but I was even more surprised when I realized I’d broken the neck of my Martin D-28 guitar. I couldn’t move, but I could feel the guitar’s jagged edges where the neck used to be.

About 25 people came running, and I was briefly flattered that so many were concerned about my welfare. I started to say, “I’m all right,” but nobody was interested. “How’s the guitar?” they demanded.

I didn’t even have to look at the limp neck of the instrument. Instead I told the banjo player, “Put it in the case and take it to Harry Sparks.”

Harry doesn’t build instruments, but he is known in the bluegrass universe for the almost surgical repairs and fret work he has done on the necks of guitars, mandolins, and banjos over the years, instruments belonging to everyone from Cincinnati friends to Nashville legends. Bela Fleck has flown in with his banjo, mandolinist Sam Bush thanks him on every single CD he releases, and Nashville superstar Vince Gill has called him a friend for more than 30 years. In fact, back in the ’60s Harry was asked to dress a fret on a young folk singer’s guitar. The man was playing with the Mitchell Trio, and later, when he politely sent Harry tickets to all his concerts, Harry learned his stage name: John Denver. The future pop star got to experience what bluegrass players in our town have known for years: If you want to buy a guitar, sell a banjo, or heal a mandolin, Harry Sparks—“Sparky” to his friends—is the man to see.

 

Harry has a feeling for structure. He is an architect by trade, an instrument repairman by passion, and there’s something about bluegrass and old-time music that appeals to his Kentucky roots, something about the very framework of the music. Harry himself is built to last. His lanky, six-foot-plus height is straight and strong-looking, even at the age of 73. His hair is a mixture of gray and gold, and his eyes are thick-lashed behind his plain wire-rimmed glasses. He is affable, soft-spoken and soothing when he’s telling a musician what’s wrong with his “ax,” and equally encouraging when he’s assuring you that everything is going to be all right. When he told me my guitar was beyond him—that it would have to be returned to Martin & Co. for work—the ground gave out beneath me. “I know this doesn’t look good,” he crooned in his best bedside manner, “but they do repairs like this all the time. It’ll be in the hands of the experts.”

Mandolinist Brad Meinerding, who Harry mentored in instrument repair, has a telling story about what a player goes through when an instrument is broken, and what a really talented repairman can do to heal it.

“My guess is one of Bill Monroe’s lady friends got upset with Bill and smashed up a couple of his mandolins,” Brad says. “I mean, like, into hundreds of pieces.” Monroe’s band members gathered up all the pieces and took them to Gibson, the company that made them. There, a gifted repairman named Charlie Derrington catalogued each scrap and began reconstruction. “It must have taken six months to a year,” Brad says. “But in the end Gibson was able to return Bill’s favorite Lloyd Loar mandolin in its former glory.” As for Harry’s work, Brad says, “I didn’t know Charlie—he was before my time—but I think Harry’s in the mold of Charlie in that he’s the most talented guy I’ve ever met, and he is generous with his knowledge and time.”

The issue of reworking (or “dressing”) frets—the small metal strips embedded in the neck of a stringed instrument—may seem like a small thing. But Harry’s great friend, banjo player Wayne Clyburn, gives a reasonably cogent explanation of what Harry does and why it’s so useful.

“A uniform curvature on each fret makes the string vibrate more easily and makes it easier to play,” he explains. And getting those little pieces to be uniform is a tedious process. “What he does is take a flat metal file and move it back and forth across the fret, and as he does that the shavings drop off on the neck,” Clyburn says. Harry’s genius is that he can tell by those shavings how consistent the frets are in their height. “That’s why people fly in all the way from California to get Harry to do their frets. It’s painstaking and very methodical, but it can make a tremendous difference to your instrument in the way it plays and the way it sounds.”

 

Harry’s instrument work and his music dovetail nicely with his love of black-powder muzzle-loading, a study of precision in itself. In fact, the first time I met him, back in the shaggier 1970s, was at the Muzzle Loaders’ Convention in Friendship, Indiana. I had tagged along with a friend, and I had no idea what to expect. The muzzle-loading aficionados had set up camp around Friendship, and the scene was similar to what a tailgate party at a Rolling Stones concert might look like—if Stones fans dressed in buckskin and wore powder horns around their necks. Stew pots of burgoo bubbled on campfires, and men and women in Revolutionary War costumes wandered from tent to tent, discussing who had the most authentic Colonial set-up and listening to the old-time musicians jam.

I was fairly new to bluegrass back then, muzzle-loading was a bafflement to me, and I had no idea why the two belonged together. But I do remember it was fun, and recently, when I sat down with Harry at Arnold’s, we found ourselves reminiscing about those events and how they became the nexus of his two loves.

“At Friendship, you’d shoot all day and play music all night,” Harry said, a little wistfully. “I liked to camp 50 yards from the firing range,” he added with a twinkle, “and wait for the 8 a.m. announcement to come: ‘Ready on the right; ready on the left. Commence firing.’ That’s when the fun began. All the unsuspecting campers positively levitated.” It seems to me that black-powder muzzle-loading fits in with Harry’s passion for structure, design, and precision. All you have to do is ask him to describe the process, and you can hear it: “You mix buck and black powder and you cover it with a card that’s quite rigid,” he explains. “Then you put the shot into a second wad and cover it with a thinner card.

“In the old days these cards would have been made out of leather,” he adds, a stickler for historic detail. “You’ve got to top it with that second card so the shot doesn’t fall out of the barrel before you are ready to shoot.” Harry’s muzzle-loading hobby is not simply an idle pastime: In 2008 he took top honors in an international competition in Australia. He’s as well known in that genre as he is in bluegrass. Harry makes a quizzical expression to indicate that this conflation of music and target-shooting was not planned. “The muzzle-loaders and the music, both old-timey and bluegrass, were part of the same culture,” he says, taking a sip of water. “They went together naturally. And working on instruments came out of that same culture, of course. One thing led to another, and it was all organic. The best things always are.”

Harry first heard bluegrass in Murray, Kentucky in the 1950s when Flatt & Scruggs played the local drive-in theater. He said it hit him like a hammer, and he spent years trying to find that sound again. When, as a college student, he dropped into a local bar in Cincinnati and heard Jim McCall, Earl Taylor, and Vernon “Boatwhistle” McIntyre playing, he was thunderstruck. “There,” he said. “That was it—and I knew that was the music for me.”

His first beat-up guitar had a “bow-and-arrow” action (a term which signifies how high off the neck of the guitar the strings are.) “I developed strong hand muscles from pressing down on those strings,” he says, laughing. “Later I bought a Goya”—a folk guitar. “Of course, when I discovered bluegrass, about the time of what bluegrass players define as the ‘folk scare,’ I had to have a Martin guitar.” By the late 1960s, he had opened the Famous Old Time Music Store near Pleasant Ridge in partnership with a guy named Mack Smith. Mack was happy giving lessons and keeping store while Harry worked his day job as an architect. There was nothing fancy about the Old Time Music Store. A few dusty glass cabinets held instrument strings and capos for sale, and the tall drafting board in the back always had an instrument or two that Harry was working on, their necks clamped while the glue set.

It was a place where Harry could work easily, and the store quickly became the hangout for musicians to jam on Saturday afternoons, take lessons during the week, or just sit around and talk about banjos, guitars, and bluegrass.

 

Nowadays he owns a Martin D-45—an instrument that is widely revered in Cincinnati music circles. It is a pre–World War II Martin with a bass sound that rattles the rafters. It has dazzling abalone pearl inlay all around the neck and the body, and if that guitar doesn’t deafen you with its volume, it will blind you with its brilliance. Its pedigree comes from the quality of materials that went into it: real Brazilian rosewood—now a protected species—for the back of the instrument, and black ebony, the hardest wood, prized for guitar fretboards.

He has played for years around Cincinnati, starting back in the 1960s with a group he formed to perform at a small folk festival in Kentucky. Getting together for the gig was a bit slapdash; Harry and his group hadn’t bothered to choose a name, and they weren’t entirely sure where they were when they finally got to the festival. So when the announcer asked him the name of the band, Harry said, “Well, what’s the name of this little town around here?”

“Why, this is Rabbit Hash,” the man said.

“Then we’re the Rabbit Hash Ramblers,” Harry announced.

Back in the 1960s, he took a band to Friendship, Indiana, and called it the Famous Old Time Music Company. “We weren’t famous,” he says now, “but the music was, and we had the store.”

His most recent project as an architect was designing a new Gruhn Guitar store in Nashville for his long-time friend and business associate, George Gruhn. When the shop was opened in June, Nashville pickers gave a lavish concert at the Ryman Auditorium. Harry was there, and so was documentarian Ken Burns. Burns announced at the Ryman that he is launching a new documentary and its subject will be country music.

It is appropriate that he made that announcement at the Ryman, the Mother Church of country and bluegrass music. With its oval interior, its perfect acoustics—it was originally built to be a tabernacle for a fundamentalist Christian sect—it is an awesome experience just to enter the doors and see the bare stage where Hank Williams took so many encores singing “Lovesick Blues” that Nashville could no longer ignore him, and where Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs played the first time with Bill Monroe, and Earl’s three-fingered banjo playing tore the place up.

In the middle of the concert Vince Gill went to the microphone and paid tribute to his old friend, Harry Sparks. The two men had been friends since Vince was a blue-jeaned youngster, playing bluegrass in Louisville. Harry, who had been tipped off that he was likely to be asked to sing, was ready. He walked through the backstage area carrying his beautiful D-45 and made his way to the stage.

Harry is not a man who is easily dazzled, but he says he was blinded by the footlights shining up from the floor and amazed at the roar of audience approval. He began with the haunting “Satan’s Jewel Crown”—a song that he had learned from Emmylou Harris before he heard the original recording by the Louvin Brothers—then sang “Hot Corn, Cold Corn” with Vince on mandolin. Like so many other performers before him, he was caught off guard by the waves of applause. But he relaxed a little by the second song, and was able to feel the soul of what he was singing, the beautiful intervals of the melody. He was more controlled this time around, and he looked out occasionally at the audience in the venerable old auditorium.

Vince joined him on the harmony lines, and Harry thought they sounded pretty good. He smiled a little, to himself. When the last line was sung the audience applauded again. Then, one by one, some enthusiastic listeners began to stand up. A groundswell of approval swept the Ryman, and when Harry looked out again, they were all standing, clapping enthusiastically, embracing him with their affection and their appreciation.

Harry said later it was one of the best things that had ever happened to him, better than fretting his first guitar and getting it right, better than seeing his first building rise in front of him, better than winning that muzzle-loading championship in Australia.

Music is like that: you’re in the moment, and it carries you like a wave in the ocean and drops you gently, almost unexpectedly, upon the beach again.