Carving Out a Sound: Internationally renown luthier Tom Rein sets up shop in Saline

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Tom Rein

In the Woods: Luthier Tom Rein in his Saline workshop. Photo by Laura Rein.

Through a combination of grit, trial and error, an ear for music, and an engineering mind, my brother-in-law Tom Rein has managed to make a living for 40-plus years as a string-instrument maker (also called luthier). Tom started his luthier business, Tom Rein Guitars, in the mid-1970s when there were under 50 in the entire U.S. Now, he estimates, there are over 1,000.

After my sister, Laura, retired as dean of libraries for Webster University, Tom moved his luthier business to Saline, Michigan.

Tom has been involved with music from age 10 when he took up the clarinet. The clarinet gave way to the tenor and baritone sax, which gradually gave way to the guitar.

“Being a player helps a lot in developing a signature sound,” Tom explained. “Musicians are always looking for the instrument that manifests the sound that they hear in their head. I’m able to tailor the sound to suit individual players while remaining true to the sound I’ve developed over many years.”

A huge part of Tom’s process is to figure out what type of wood to use for each soundboard, and he has developed an incredible appreciation for trees.

“I get to work with this really miraculous thing -- wood," Tom said. "Wendell Berry has called trees ‘apostles of the living light’ [in his poem 'Sabbath Poem (Untitled)'] and that rings true to me.  Trees are living things that basically turn sunlight into wood, which is a very diverse and high-performance material.”

Protecting the world’s forests is extremely important to instrument makers. “I try to obtain my woods from reclaimed, sustainable, or new-old-stock sources," Tom said. "I have used local woods and buy much of my soundboard woods from a supplier in Switzerland who has been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as using sustainable forestry practices.”

Tom has discovered that synthetic materials are no match for natural ones, either in longevity or resonance. “We are so conditioned to believe in ‘new and improved’ materials. It may be true for airplanes, but not with musical instruments.”

Tom Rein guitars

Besides acoustic guitars, lutes (shown right), and early instruments, Tom Rein has also made a few electric guitars, two ukuleles, one hammered dulcimer, and a few dozen Appalachian dulcimers. Photos courtesy Tom Rein Guitars.

Tom says, ultimately, what keeps him interested in his art is trying to make a tool that helps musicians bring forth the sound each musician hears. There’s a lot to consider for each instrument.

“I make three distinct styles of guitar. Classical guitars use nylon strings and players are looking for a sound that’s not pointy or overly bright, but a full, rich and powerful sound,” said Tom. “With steel string guitars, there are a couple of branches on the family tree. Vintage-style guitars are made in the vein of American guitars from the 1920s to 1950s. This style gives a familiar sound and is well suited to strumming, vocal accompaniment, folk music, and finger picking.”

The other model he makes has a more modern sound and is for the fingerstyle player. “Fingerstyle guitar players are looking for a deep, sustaining sound with singing treble strings,” he said. “The treble strings can get thin sounding, so it’s a challenge to make these notes fatter.”

Tom built his first guitar in 1972, after graduating from high school in the Chicago suburbs. The spark happened when he was visiting an older cousin.

“He had a mandolin torn apart on his workbench,” said Tom. “It was the first time I’d seen the structure of a musical instrument. I’d been playing guitar for a few years and it always seemed mysterious, but then I saw that it was just a simple structure. It seemed doable.”

At that time, Tom could only find one book in print about building a guitar. “Now there are probably 30 books, not to mention online tutorials,” he said. “The first book I used covered how to build a classical guitar. I wanted to make a steel-string guitar.”

Tom described how he shined a flashlight into a friend’s Martin guitar with a mirror to get a mental picture of the structure. Though it took over a year to finish, Tom was hooked on the craft and fired up to learn more. He went to the Chicago Public Library and “scoured every Yellow Pages from every major city,” Tom said. “I wrote letters to every luthier in the U.S.”

Eventually, he landed an apprenticeship in Lexington, Kentucky. His mentor, Ed Rose, was an older gentleman who had been a wood-worker who also built and fixed guitars. Though Ed wasn’t a classically trained guitar maker, Tom spent a year with him and credits that start to his success.

“What Ed gave me was some of the basic, detailed carpentry skills I still use today, like how to sharpen my tools and make fixtures and jigs,” said Tom. “Some acquaintances and I formed a Bluegrass band called The Progress Red Hot String Band. We played some festivals and toured around the Kentucky area. It was loads of fun!”

Tom Rein's viola da gamba headstock carving

Around the time Tom Rein was making a viola da gamba, he met the author's sister, Laura, and, in the Baroque tradition, carved her face into the head of the instrument. Photos courtesy Tom Rein Guitars.

Tom’s musical interests have varied greatly and have guided his business expansions. He remembers getting a call from a musician who asked if he’d ever considered making a lute.

“I thought, why not? And that led me to study early instruments, especially those from the Renaissance and Baroque eras. It sparked my musical interest in early music and I joined a group singing a capella madrigals. Besides the camaraderie, it was great training for my ear.”

In the late 1980s, Tom switched solely to making classical guitars and continued in that line for 20 years. Then, Tom was hit by another wave of inspiration. Again, his shift came from a single event that began with a power outage in his neighborhood.

“People were out on their porches and actually talking to each other,” he remembered. “A few of us started singing and playing guitars."

The impromptu jam session rekindled Tom’s love of rock and folk music and, shortly after that, he started making steel-string guitars and performing again.

“In St Louis, I was part of a duo called Treasure House. We played quite a lot around town and developed a bit of a following. Now that I’ve moved to the Ann Arbor area, I’d love to find others who like to play the type of music I do.”

Tom continues to make both classical and steel string guitars. About 50% of his sales are international. He’s built his clientele through musical instrument conventions and, more recently, by posting sound clips on YouTube. He also has musicians who represent his brand, including Americana artist Eilen Jewell, who performed at the Ark in Ann Arbor last month.

“Musicians are a fascinating group and every one of them is different,” Tom said. “They take my work and it becomes something else in their hands. I feel fortunate to have met so many interesting people over the years. Music is the universal language and it can bring people together. It is truly remarkable what humans have been able to do with only 12 notes in the musical scale.”


A version of this article was originally published on Melissa Olson Cunningham's website, melissaolson.org.


Melissa Olson Cunningham has a degree in communications from the University of Michigan and has written for magazines, newspapers, and online publications in the states and Canada. She has won two awards for her novel-in-progress, "The Life-Dividing Days." View her blog, Wordsmithery.