Guitars show up on Randy Hughes’ doorstep almost daily. Sometimes, a whole crowd of them is out there.
They arrive in FedEx or UPS shipping boxes, with notes mentioning mysterious buzzings, sprung frets, buckling necks, high actions. Others show up in the arms of concerned owners, often with unexpected stories in tow.
Hughes, 45, WNC’s busiest independent, fretted-instrument repairer, operates out of a 1,500-square-foot workshop out back of his family’s rural Fairview home, which was self-built nearly 20 years in a clearing off a steep, windy, gravel path.
Just inside his workshop building, and not far from the overhead humidifier that erupts periodically in bursts of thick mist, loaded instrument cases are arranged about six wide and four deep.
A back vault holds even more — acoustic and electric guitars, banjos, mandolins, basses.
Anywhere from eight to 10 other instruments in various states of disassembly are propped on different workbenches, surrounded by sundry tools, gauges, glues, solvents and finishes.
On average, Hughes works on 500-600 instruments annually, he reveals. He’s been backed up on work now for about the past nine years.
He doesn’t ever get bored, he quips; he never has the chance to.
“God’s blessed me to the point where I can’t keep up,” Hughes muses, smiling. “The number of guitars that come through and go out of here blows me away.
“I feel like someday I’m going to reach the end,” he quips.
Not only does Hughes have a constant stream of warranty work from major guitar manufacturers (Martin, Gibson, Ovation, Taylor, et al.), but several hotshot guitar makers are among his biggest champions.
Jim Olson, best known as the guy behind James Taylor’s guitars, says he’s never recommended anyone to Hughes who hasn’t come away “100-percent happy.”
“He’s the stuff,” confirms Santa Cruz, Calif.-based luthier Jeff Traugott. “He’s super-reliable.”
Traugott recently referred one of his own best customers to Hughes: Joe Butler, a dynamo session player (Garth Brooks, Shania Twain), required repairs on one of his many vintage models.
Hughes has done work for quite a few big-league performers, from Grand Ole Opry finger-style ace Doyle Dykes to session legend Hank Garland (Elvis, Johnny Cash, the Everly Brothers), and for such local heavyweights as David LaMotte, Christine Kane and David Holt.
Yet Hughes is listed with no fanfare in the Yellow Pages (under “Musical Instruments-Repairing”). Still, with a client list like his, why bother advertising?
Some guitar-repair guys treat their job, as Olson puts it, like they’re doing Midas muffler work, cranking through one instrument after another. But not Hughes.
“He makes it as good as he can,” the Minnesota-based luthier raves.
It’s all about attention to detail, Hughes explains. But even more than that, it’s about patience.
“Watching glue dry just isn’t exciting,” he jokes.
And though Hughes routinely downplays his professional achievements, saying that everything he does can be found in some book or gleaned via some seminar, he’s steadfastly become a craftsman at his calling.
“The way I look at a guitar isn’t the way a lot of people look at a guitar,” he reveals.
“This,” Hughes adds, holding up an unattached instrument neck, “is a guitar.” The rest, to him, is merely a box to do the bidding of that quintessential component.
It’s a philosophy gleaned as much from playing guitars as fixing them, Hughes says. The two passions are inseparable for him.
He’s an avid member of his church’s house band, while his second group, devoted to 1920s and ’30s jazz standards, includes his two talented sons Matt, 15 (piano), and Will, 13 (drums). And Hughes’ prowess at finger-style jazz has resulted not only in gigs at the Grove Park Inn, but in periodic Guitar Week spots at the Swannanoa Gathering (while helping students there adjust their instruments one year, his offhand playing brought teaching offers).
Hughes’ experience as a player has, among other things, helped him to better understand the human side of instrument repair.
“An instrument, no matter what kind, can become therapy for a person,” he explains. “Because you’re actually holding this thing, the emotional attachment becomes very large.”