Story and photos by WILLIAM PHIFER III
Behind the scenes of Ryan Thorell’s guitar making process.
Nestled in the heart of downtown Logan, Utah, is a warehouse with a fire-engine red door on the southern side. But this is no ordinary warehouse. Inside, the scent of wood dust fills the nostrils and a man named Ryan Thorell can be seen huddled over a workbench. With thick red hair and a bright bushy beard to match, Thorell’s passion and profession is evident as he carefully chisels away unwanted shavings from a piece of cedar wood.
Thorell, 35, uses many old-fashioned methods to efficiently hand-craft innovative, fine acoustic guitars.
“A lot of what I do is custom,” Thorell said. “My designs are constantly changing. I try to really reinvent the guitar and push it with each design.”
As a guitar maker, Thorell said, “I think you’re constantly prototyping instruments with everything you build, and trying to improve upon it. You’re constantly trying to build a better [sound] box and trying to make it perform and look as good as you can.”
Unlike other instruments, such as the violin, Thorell said the guitar is continually being redesigned and improved. This creates a desire among musicians for custom and personalized guitars with different sound profiles.
One of those musicians is Frank Vignola, 49. A world-renowned guitarist, Vignola teaches various workshops online and at music universities such as the Juilliard School. As a prominent jazz musician who owns three guitars made by Thorell, Vignola really likes the durability and tone of each one.
“I travel and play about 150 shows a year all over the world,” Vignola wrote in an email interview. “I am always amazed that the guitar barely goes out of tune.” He added, “Always knowing I can rely on the guitar to sound great and travel well is a must for any professional touring musician.”
Vignola, who performed in Salt Lake City on Jan. 3, 2015, wrote in the email, “There are many great builders out there. What stands out about Ryan’s guitars are their uniqueness in look, design and sound.” Thorell’s guitars were on display at the Capitol Theatre.
Thorell prides himself on creating guitars that are pleasing to his customers. He said one of the things he enjoys the most is “working with clients and getting excited about a concept, and turning that into a super high-quality, fine machine for making music.”
However, the process of designing, crafting and finishing guitars is time-intensive. Thorell currently has a year-long waiting list for prospective clients.
Perhaps one of the reasons Thorell enjoys making guitars and working with musicians is because he has also played the guitar for many years.
“I think it has been very informative to me to have a good playing background so that I can fine tune what’s important to me in a guitar,” Thorell said.
Growing up in Utah, Thorell always had a passion for music and guitars. He said listening to the band, Metallica, influenced him to learn how to play the guitar. He started lessons at the age of 14 and was introduced to a guitar maker by the name of Tim Gonzalez.
Gonzalez, who died in 2009, was a board member of the Intermountain Acoustic Music Association and owner of a shop in Salt Lake City called Gonzo Guitars.
Intrigued by Gonzalez’s work, Thorell decided to try his hand at making his very first guitar. With the help and guidance of Gonzalez, Thorell learned how to build and repair guitars and completed his own guitar when he was 16.
Thorell became involved with playing the guitar in high school and after graduation, he chose to enroll in music and guitar performance at the University of Utah. Family issues later caused him to move to Logan, where his grandfather had a wood-working shop.
“I got messing around with stuff in his shop and decided to go back into guitar making,” Thorell said.
Thorell completed apprenticeships with many people who influenced his guitar making. One of those people was Chris Gochnour, an experienced furniture maker in Salt Lake City who uses traditional hand-crafting tools. Gochnour taught Thorell, who was 23 at the time, a great deal about woodworking and how to work efficiently when creating different designs.
“He was building the largest range of styles of furniture,” Thorell said. “He would just gear up for each piece and it would be drastically different than the piece before it. It was such an experience in how little you need to be efficient … on the fly like that.”
With a firm grasp of woodworking, Thorell decided he wanted to focus on building archtop guitars. Similar in style to violins, archtop guitars have a convexly curved back and the f-holes on the soundboard, or front of the guitar, often look very similar to that of a violin.
Thorell, then 25, went to study with Tom Ribbecke.
Based out of Healdsburg, Calif., Ribbecke, 62, is an expert guitar maker who teaches and specializes in building archtop guitars.
“Tom is the guitar world’s version of James Krenov, the redwood-style furniture maker,” Thorell said in a phone interview. “He has approached archtop building from a perspective that is very much in line with that school of woodworking.”
During his time in California, Thorell studied the fluid arm motions Ribbecke used to carve his guitars. “He is able to get these finely graduated curves on his archtops that are very unique in the instrument design world,” Thorell said.
Thorell is proud to call Ribbecke his mentor, while Ribbecke admires Thorell and considers him one of his best students. “He’s gifted, he’s brilliant and he’s fun,” Ribbecke said in a phone interview. “I’m very lucky to have met an individual like him. … To have been able to have a positive influence on him, it’s a great gift and it’s a great blessing for me.”
Over the years, the two have continued to seek each other’s opinions and share insights on their work. Having taught an estimated 150 guitar makers, Ribbecke said, “Ryan is a pretty unique and insightful guy [and] I would say [he] is the best of those makers and the most gifted.” But, he added, “I haven’t told him this, lest it would cause his large red head to get any larger.”
Every day Ryan Thorell continues to develop his craft, art and business. “In the guitar market you have so much leeway to be creative,” he said. “Instrument-wise there is almost nothing that can look as weird and different as a guitar can from the next guitar. There is nothing else like it.”