Strings Attached

The tale of two local guitar makers: Jeff Babicz, whose instruments are played by the likes of Todd Rundgren and Judas Priest, and Thomas Humphrey, whose client roster includes classical virtuosi Sharon Isbin and Carlos Barbosa-Lima.



Strings Attached

 

Two Valley guitar makers have fashioned innovative instruments that are taking the music world by storm

 

BY ANITRA BROWN • PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAEL POLITO

 

Guitars might make you think Nashville, or even Spain. But right here in the Hudson Valley reside two master guitar makers whose instruments are coveted by top musicians all over the world. Jeff Babicz has designed what’s been called “the guitar of the future” — a ground-breaking steel-stringed acoustic guitar that’s being embraced by growing ranks of rock stars. Thomas Humphrey handcrafts classical guitars — just 21 a year — for concert musicians and recording artists. Both men are winning the highest accolades in their fields.

 

Babicz Guitars

It’s a big day for the owners of Babicz Guitars, a guitar company started by two local men whose showroom is directly across from the Mid-Hudson Civic Center in downtown Poughkeepsie. Heavy metal band Judas Priest is playing there tonight, and lead guitarist K.K. Downing has promised to come and check out their guitars.

 

“He’ll be waking up about 4 p.m.,” says an intense Jeff Carano, 45, the business side of the guitar-making duo. “We just have to hang out here until he shows up.”

 

The Babicz guitar is already being played by the likes of Todd Rundgren, the Outlaws, Huey Lewis and the News, and the Little River Band — and it has only been on the market since 2004. “In years to come, any professional will play the Babicz and nothing else,” boldly predicts AJ Charron, a musician and reviewer for the Web site guitarnoise.com.

 

But right now Carano and his partner, Jeff Babicz, the easygoing design genius behind Babicz Guitars, are still trying to get the guitar into the hands of as many rock stars as possible, and Downing would be a major coup. “If Judas Priest started using these guitars, thousands of 13- to 16-year-olds and heavy metal guitarists would start asking about them,” says Carano.

 

The reason Babicz guitars are grabbing the attention of rock stars like Rundgren and Downing is their revolutionary design  — the first real change in acoustic guitars since Martin started making them in the 1830s, according to Babicz, a 42-year-old native of Liberty, Sullivan County. And he’s not the only one who says so. “Jeff Babicz has not redesigned the acoustic guitar, he reinvented it,” raves Charron.

 

There are several differences between a Babicz and an ordinary acoustic guitar. The most revolutionary feature is a neck that can be adjusted with the turn of a key, using a rail system. Most acoustic guitars have a glued-on neck; the strings put a strain on it, and over time it is pulled slightly out of position. As a result, the distance between the strings and the neck (called the action height) becomes greater and the instrument harder to play.

 

With a Babicz guitar, the performer can easily adjust the action height — not just to deal with long-term changes in the guitar, but between songs, on stage — without the guitar going out of tune. “This has never been done before,” says Babicz. To change the action height, the performer simply takes a hexagonal key, puts it into a trap plate on the back of

the guitar, and turns it to move the neck closer to or further away from the strings.

 

“Every performer has their ideal action height,” says Babicz. Further, the ideal height changes depending on what style you’re playing: fingerpicking; hard strumming with a pick; moving up and down the neck with a slide; using fingerpicks that slide on your fingers; or even “electric guitar” style, where the strings are very close to the fret. Usually, only a trusted guitar technician can set up the action height. “Players will have one guy they use,” says Babicz. “Now they can do it themselves.”

 

Another major innovation is an adjustable bridge, which helps the guitar stay in tune. “Usually you’re at the mercy of where the manufacturer glued the bridge, and if it’s not installed correctly, the guitar won’t play well,” says Babicz. Even if it is installed properly, it might shift a little over time, making the guitar go out of tune more easily. The adjustable bridge is not a feature a musician would use very often, but if the bridge needs micro-adjustments, it can be easily done. It can cost at least $200 to tear off the old bridge and reposition a new one on a traditional acoustic guitar, notes Carano. “Up-and-coming country guitarist Shevy Smith spent a lot of money fixing her guitars until she started playing a Babicz.”

 

Babicz’s third big innovation gives the instrument its distinctive look — strings that fan out past the bridge to attach to the soundboard at the perimeter of the guitar. Typically, the strings are attached to the bridge, exerting 190 pounds of pressure, says Babicz. To resist the pull, the guitar has to be braced inside, which dampens its resonance. “Why not attach the strings to the soundboard at the bottom, where it’s strongest?” he says. “That way you don’t have to have heavy bracing, and the guitar has a lot of ‘sustain’ — ability to hold the sound.” Babicz and Carano have secured provisional patents on all three features — the adjustable neck, adjustable bridge, and string fanning — which has enabled them to start manufacturing the guitars without fear of copycats.

 

The two met when they worked at Steinberger Guitars in Newburgh, a company that reinvented the electric guitar in the 1980s. “I was Ned Steinberger’s personal assistant, and built guitars for all the rock stars — Sting, Eddie Van Halen,” says Babicz. Carano started in production and moved as fast as he could into sales. Both stayed on after Steinberger was sold to Gibson, but when the operation moved to Nashville they shifted into information technology at a company in Poughkeepsie. “We learned very quickly that it was not our passion,” says Babicz. “We’re guitar guys.”

 

     Even as he worked in IT, Babicz continued guitar-making as a hobby. After several years of tinkering, he came up with the innovations he eventually showed to Carano. “At first, I didn’t want to know anything about it,” says Carano. “It’s hard to make it in the guitar business. It’s very expensive to market guitars and the big guys — Gibson, Martin, and Fender — are formidable to go up against.”

 

    But sensing they had something unique, they put together a business plan. Carano found a family-owned workshop in Indonesia that could build high-quality guitars using Javanese mahogany and rosewood at an affordable price — $950 to $1,400 retail for the “Identity” series. (Babicz also handcrafts 10 guitars a year for his “Signature” series, which sell for $7,000 to $10,000.) They signed a distributor who has placed the instruments in 100 retail shops across the country, including Imperial Guitar & Soundworks on Route 17K in Newburgh and Saratoga Guitar in Saratoga Springs. Babicz Guitars are also distributed in Canada, Singapore, and Italy. “We think of it as a global brand,” says Carano. They’ve sold 1,000 guitars so far — but believe they can move that

number up to 1,000 guitars a month.

 

Downing doesn’t make it over to the showroom until about 7 p.m., but when he gets there he likes what he sees. “He took a Spider,” says Babicz, referring to their best-selling, all-black acoustic guitar, which has a Gothic look favored by rockers. “He’s giving it a test run, and if he likes it, he’ll buy it.”

 

Two weeks later, the verdict comes in. “Judas Priest is using a Babicz guitar onstage, every night, on tour,” says Carano, exultantly. “They love the guitar! And they just ordered two more.”

 

Now all they have to do is wait for the 16-year-olds to follow.

 

THOMAS HUMPHREY

Sharon Isbin is one of the world’s greatest classical guitarists, a two-time Grammy Award winner backed on her latest CD by the New York Philharmonic — the first time the orchestra has recorded with a guitarist in 26 years.

 

And the guitar she is playing? It was made in the Hudson Valley by Thomas Humphrey, considered one of the world’s greatest guitar makers. His instruments are spoken for long before they are built, even with a price tag that starts at $8,000 and goes up to $20,000.

 

“People give me a deposit of $1,000, and some years later, I put the guitar in a box and mail it,” says the 57-year-old Humphrey, who moved to a 20-acre spread in Gardiner, Ulster County, with his Brazilian-born wife, Martha, and daughters Gabriella and Adriana in 1997.

 

There is one thing that can move you from a three-year-wait to the front of the list — being Sharon Isbin, Ricardo Cobo, the Assad Brothers, Carlos Barbosa-Lima, Eliot Fisk, or any other of a number of star performers who swear by Humphrey’s guitars. “Many of the new generation of great players play my guitars, and some even play copies of my guitar,” says Humphrey, who admits he has never suffered from a lack of confidence.

Humphrey landed in the Hudson Valley the way many people do — by way of New York City. He was born in northern Minnesota to a large musical family, and migrated to Manhattan in 1970. When he lost his first job as a cook in a Greenwich Village restaurant, he heard by chance about another job handcrafting steel-string jumbo acoustic guitars. “They told me they couldn’t pay me much, and I said okay,” he recalls. “I started that day. At the end of a 55-hour week, I got $12. It was a true apprenticeship.”

 

He stuck it out because he was intrigued by the work, but was more drawn to the classical guitar because he had studied the cello from age eight to 20. When his boss moved the business to New Hampshire, Humphrey struck out on his own. “The first one took me seven months to make,” he recalls.

 

Humphrey’s speed has picked up, but it is still a slow process. Using his cache of rare Brazilian rosewood (which has been banned from import since 1992), Humphrey makes just 21 guitars a year in three batches of seven. “I started working that way because that’s how much space I had in my apartment to hang the guitars while they dried, and it still seems right.”

 

When he was starting out, many of his customers were students of the classical guitar. “I got connected to the Manhattan School of Music and the Mannes School of Music, and started to be very busy,” he says. Students are still a large part of his market, as are professional musicians. “High-level concert guitarists keep changing guitars,” Humphrey remarks. “They’re always looking for the perfect guitar.”

 

Humphrey’s instruments are prized not just because of his skill and craftsmanship — though those are considerable — but because of a design innovation that makes them both louder and easier to play. “With classical guitar, volume is really an issue,” explains Humphrey. “Everyone is looking for more volume in their guitar.” He got an idea about how to achieve this in 1985, when a guitar festival at Carnegie Hall drew guitar players from all over the world — and seven of them were sleeping on his floor in the East Village. “We had a lot of late nights talking about technical ideas for the guitar, and one night — I don’t know if I was falling asleep or it was a dream — but suddenly I had a complete picture of a guitar. I woke myself up and sketched it out. Then I went in my workshop and built this new guitar the next day.”

 

The instrument, which he named “Millennium,” has two key differences from the traditional guitar. First, the neck is not flush with the body of the guitar but sits higher — about five-eighths of an inch at the soundboard. Second, the neck is not parallel to the soundboard but slightly angled, so that it sits a full inch above it at the top of the neck. This creates a greater angle for the strings, which makes the instrument louder. As a side benefit, the elevated neck gives the player easier access to the higher registers, near the soundboard. Other makers quickly picked up on the design, says Humphrey, transforming the world of classical guitars.

 

But innovation is an ongoing process for Humphrey. For his latest guitar, he asked artist Tamara Codor to paint nude women with long, flowing hair on a Millennium. “This is actually a very old tradition,” he says. “They painted instruments in the Renaissance.” He liked Codor’s work so much that he asked her to create several designs that customers can choose from for their $15,000 custom orders. The subject matter, he says, seemed obvious. “Segovia is the one who said, ‘The guitar, she is like a woman.’ ”

 

    Humphrey’s presence in the Valley is also transforming it into a richer landscape for lovers of classical guitar. He had a private concert in his own home when a world-class classical guitar duo, Ivo and Sofia Kaltchev, flew in from Bulgaria to pick up Sofia’s new guitar. The Kaltchevs had already purchased two of Humphrey’s guitars for Sofia, trying to find the perfect match for Ivo’s (also a Humphrey) in terms of tone and sound quality. Every guitar has its own unique sound because each piece of wood is different. With a performing duo, the goal is to get as close in sound as possible.

 

    This was the their third try, and they wanted to make sure it was the right instrument. So the Kaltchevs donned their formal wear, gravely entered the Humphreys’ candlelit living room (which was filled with about 50 friends and neighbors), and gave a private performance worthy of the concert halls of Europe, where they usually perform. “That was a highlight of my 35 years of making guitars,” admits Humphrey. And was the third time a charm? “They haven’t said anything since.”

 

    But you don’t need to be friends with Humphrey to hear the music. He has collaborated with Unison Arts Center in New Paltz and E. & O. Mari in Newburgh (which manufactures guitar strings) on a series of concerts that have brought to the Valley renowned performers such as Isbin and classical modernist Dominic Frasca, who plays a modified Humphrey 10-string Millennium.

 

“I bring my friends here for my own personal enjoyment,” he admits. “But I’m also introducing people in the area to great

performers.”

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