Bruce Roper never planned to start a business. As a teenager, he wanted to be a Beatle. As an adult, he moved to Chicago after a brief stint running a music store and began fixing guitars. Over the next quarter century, Bruce built up a modest but steady one-man business repairing and building instruments, as well as teaching guitar building. Bruce’s students come to him seeking the secrets of making guitars, but he’s the first to say there are no secrets. It’s just a matter of doing it, and there’s no substitute for the decades of experience Bruce has accumulated.
BRUCE ROPER: Smell that. That’s western red cedar there. Yeah, that’s a great wood. But this is the same as the fence out there.
WAILIN WONG: Bruce Roper is standing in the small shed where he builds and repairs acoustic guitars. It’s behind the house where he lives on the bottom floor, and he also built the cedar fence encircling the yard. Bruce Roper can do pretty much anything with wood. But he’s chosen to focus on guitars.
BRUCE: I do between 3 and 400 repairs a year, so that’s more than one a day and I do that by myself. I’m a one-man shop, so, you know, that’s a lot of repairs and I’ve done over 10,000 guitars, which also means I’ve strummed over 10,000, so that informs me when I pick up anything I can strum it, go okay, I can categorize it right away whether I think it’s a good guitar or, you know, what its potential is, those sorts of things.
WAILIN: Bruce’s business, which he started 26 years ago, is called Chicago Luthiers Workshop. A luthier is someone who makes stringed instruments. The word is plural in his business name — Chicago Luthiers — but Bruce has been working by himself for most of his professional life. His love of guitar started even earlier, when he was a teenager with aspirations of becoming a rock star.
BRUCE: I wanted to be a Beatle, that’s how I got into the guitar and so that was back in 1963, I was 13 years old. That’s when the Beatles hit the shores and I was off and running.
WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, how Bruce Roper, who set out to be a Beatle, ended up rejecting both rock and roll cliches and conventional business wisdom for a quieter, but more satisfying, career. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. Basecamp is the better way to run your business. It’s an app for communicating with people and organizing projects and work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by email, chat and meetings, give Basecamp a try. Sign up for a 30-day free trial at basecamp.com/thedistance.
BRUCE: It’s all about problem solving and you can’t solve all the problems on one guitar. You have to do a series of guitars and after you’ve done maybe five or six, then all of a sudden certain problems are solved but then you dig deeper and get into the minutiae of other problems and how to solve them, so it’s always a learning—I’m still learning.
WAILIN: Bruce has spent his whole life learning. The first song he learned on the guitar was House of the Rising Sun because the version by The Animals was a massive hit in 1964, right when he started lessons. After he grew up and got married, Bruce got a job at a music store in downstate Illinois and started doing guitar repairs. Building his own instruments was the next step.
BRUCE: Once you got all the tools and you’ve done all the repairs, you’ve done necks and re-glued fingerboards and you’ve done all that sort of thing, it’s kind of a natural progression.
WAILIN: While Bruce was working at the music store, someone encouraged him to open his own shop in the nearby metropolitan area of Bloomington-Normal, which is home to two colleges and looked like a good market.
BRUCE: A distributor who carried a lot of different brands of guitars and all the capos and picks and all the accessories came to me and said Bloomington Normal, at the time, he felt needed a young, progressive acoustic guitar store. And he offered me a lot of lines, and he had a lot of samples, he said, “I’ll put them in there for you, hang them on your wall.” So he basically set me up and said here, go for it.
WAILIN: Bruce ran the store for 10 years during the 80s. He sold guitars and kept building his own, both acoustic and electric. Some of the instruments he built were on display at the shop, and one day he got an unexpected customer.
BRUCE: This was in Bloomington-Normal, where ISU is—Illinois State University—and Wesleyan is there as well. And ISU was having the Go-Go’s play and their opening act was A Flock of Seagulls, so one day these guys walk in from A Flock of Seagulls and they walked out with two of my electric guitars. Of course, part of the deal was talk about it in interviews—If someone asks, say this guy in Bloomington-Normal, and of course none of that panned out because they were gone after their one hit, you know. There went my opportunity to be a famous guitar builder, you see. If you build guitars to sell them, it helps a bunch to have someone famous playing your guitar. The music store business, I learned early on, was hero worship, whatever your hero is playing, you want to play and you’ll see them—back then it was on MTV, playing a Stratocaster and it’d be yellow and you’d go in and you’d gotta have a yellow Stratocaster, you know. Guitar’s very much an image statement as much as anything, you know. Everybody has in their mind what their image is going to be when they’re on stage playing their hit song, you know. People talk about, oh it’s about sound. But most people you go in, and you go for the one that attracts you, the one that’s your image, the one says what it is you want to project in life about your art and how you approach it. Guys that are successful at building are always out hawking their guitars, always chasing somebody famous, try to get their guitar. That’s not my personality. I’m not going to go chase some people. And so I’ve built for fun. I’ve given away way most of my guitars. I’ve built probably over 60 acoustic guitars and that’s pretty cool and I’m not that kind of guy that wants to go out and get some famous guy to play my guitar and kiss his behind to do it, you know.
WAILIN: The experience at the guitar shop taught Bruce that he didn’t want to chase celebrity customers or become famous himself. The rock star life that he thought he wanted as a 13-year-old just didn’t have the same appeal anymore. Something else Bruce learned running his music store was that he didn’t want to run a music store. He liked repairing and building guitars, but he wasn’t suited for a career in retail. So he closed the store after a 10-year run.
BRUCE: My wife and I had been married 20 years, our kids were grown out of school and we were moving in different directions, so there was a divorce involved. The market in town had changed. And the 80s were plagued with recession most of that time. After the same 13-year-old coming into my store for the hundredth time asking what that one pedal did, one day I woke up and said, “I’m done with retail.” Retail’s a terrible life. You know, you gotta be there every day and you gotta answer the same dumb questions over and over again. I mean, I’m much happier doing repair work where I’m kind of away from the public in a sense, you know, I can work at my own pace and do that sort of thing. So I’m a little freer and a little happier because of that. It was just time, you know. No big plan. I closed it probably as quick as I started. I just one day said, “Eh, let’s move on” and just closed it up. Didn’t try to sell it or anything, not really worth anything at that point. I didn’t feel like I failed, that was never part of the equation. It was just time to move on.
WAILIN: In 1990, Bruce headed up to Chicago, both because he was following a woman, and because he was looking for work in the city. He had a friend named Bob Egan who owned a shop called Bob’s Guitar Repair, and Bruce helped out with that business. Bob mentioned to Bruce that the Old Town School of Folk Music, a local institution that teaches guitar and banjo and other instruments, needed someone for repairs. Bruce decided to stop by the school in person.
BRUCE: So I walked in there and Tom Connolly at the time was running the store and I said I repair guitars, and he gave me three guitars that day and I’ve been doing it ever since. You need to have some kind of relationship with the store or a school or something that has traffic that’s coming through. It’d be really hard to hang a shingle out and just say I’m repairing. It’s really competitive out there, so I was blessed to be able to find Old Town and they took me in and we’ve had a great relationship ever since.
WAILIN: Bruce had some other clients too, mostly brick and mortar music stores in the city, but they came and went or changed owners. His old friend Bob Egan sold his store to join the band Wilco as its pedal steel guitarist. Amid all these changes, the Old Town School of Folk Music was Bruce’s steadiest source of business. It was enough for Bruce to hang out his own shingle as the Chicago Luthiers Workshop, even though he didn’t intend to be so formal about it.
BRUCE: You know, I could have just worked under my own name. I don’t have a shop that’s open to the public but mostly for 25, 6 years now I pick up and bring back to my shop, do the repairs, tak ’em back. You need something to put on the invoice. It wasn’t a conscious effort to start a business.
WAILIN: Even if Bruce wasn’t looking to become a small business owner, he was thinking about ways he could supplement his existing work. In 2001, he advertised guitar-building lessons and took on his first student. The one-on-one course worked out so well that he kept doing it. The class runs $3,200, which is more than what he usually sells his guitars for, and students build their instruments from the ground up. They choose their woods and their body shape, cut out and glue the parts in place, and do a lot of sanding. Teaching today accounts for a quarter of Bruce’s income, and in the 15 years since he started teaching, he’s discovered he really enjoys it.
BRUCE: It’s really rewarding. It’s one of the joys in my life to have these people in and they’ve been all great people and you get into these wonderful conversations and you find out about their lives and what they’re up to, and you’re sharing this information and they’re very appreciative of that. I do more with teaching guitar building than I do with actually building and selling ‘cause there are a lot of people that want to learn how to do this. A lot of them come and want to learn because they think they’re gonna go into the business and I always tell them, “No, it’s really hard and don’t get into it because you think you’re gonna make a living at it.” That’s the wrong reason. Get in it because it’s fun, it’s an opportunity to do something with your hands and not sit in front of your screen all day. One of my things I like to tell people is you can walk up and down Lincoln Avenue here and there’s a million places to go get your nails done. This is a place where you can come and get them dirty, you know, and I think we kind of need more of that these days. We’re losing that thing we do with building things. I’m just old. Old and grumpy.
WAILIN: Bruce takes on a couple students at a time. They range from high school students to retirees, and they all want to learn the secrets of a centuries-old craft. Bruce disabuses them of that notion from the very beginning.
BRUCE: I also tell my students that the secret to building a good guitar is just knowing how to do it. There are no secrets and we want to attach secrets in this industry because there’s a mystique about the instrument. I’ll pick up one guitar and it sounds great, but then you pick up another one and the concept, the way they build it and the way they think it has to be built is completely different than this other one but they both sound great. They both are wonderful guitars. So how do you square those two things? It’s woodworking. It’s a puzzle. You put the puzzle pieces together. There’s no magic, there’s no secrets, there’s no voodoo involved.
WAILIN: Bruce has never bought into the mystique that drives so much of the guitar world, including the idea of master grade wood that gives the instrument a superior sound. He doesn’t think such a thing exists. While I was getting a tour of his shop, he showed me a guitar he built using pine that he bought at his local Menards hardware store. The wood isn’t bookmatched, which is when two side-by-side pieces mirror each other like an open book. Bookmatching is considered a hallmark of beautiful guitar design, but Bruce doesn’t always do it.
BRUCE: And there’s lot of examples of people that have built guitars out of like pallets or lumberyard wood and they sound fine, they work just great. I like wood that I call the Charlie Brown Christmas tree wood of the guitar world, you know. I always love to buy seconds, a little knot here or something there. I’ve never bought a piece of master grade wood in my life. I refuse to pay that much money for it, for one thing. I hate perfection, I’d rather build a lot of imperfect guitars than spend that same amount of time making one perfect. To me that’s boring.
WAILIN: Bruce’s career has followed an unconventional arc too. He didn’t become a Beatle, but he does still play guitar in a folk trio that’s been together for 25 years. Bruce says he and his bandmates just clicked. And it’s also been like that in his long, meandering career. It’s his decades of experience in repairing, building, teaching and performing that give him a sense of job satisfaction, one that he wouldn’t have found by chasing stardom as a musician or a luthier.
BRUCE: I’m fearless now about repairs. I can look at anything and tell you what’s wrong and what needs to be done. But certainly couldn’t do that earlier on. I think anybody who repairs like that, they are self taught. You just have to learn by doing it over and over again. I get a lot of people that ask if I can teach them how to repair and I always say no. It’s because there’s so many different types of repairs. It takes literally years and years and years to see all the different things. I’m an artist and a craftsman, basically. It has not been easy. I don’t have the retirement plan, I don’t own my own house, I’m certainly not wealthy by any means, but I’m happy, so I’ve gotten to do what I want to do and that’s pretty cool.
WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. The song you’re hearing right now is “The Great Unknown” from the album King Fisher King by Sons of the Never Wrong, Bruce Roper’s folk trio. You can find them at sons.com, that’s sons.com. On the next episode, we’ll bring you the story of another band member, who’s also a small business owner. Special thanks to Mareva Lindo of the Old Town School of Folk Music. Mareva produces a podcast for the Old Town called The Archives Podcast, which surfaces old recordings of important figures in folk music history. You can find The Archives Podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Try Basecamp free for 30 days at basecamp.com/thedistance.