Bob Rigaud’s guitars are more than an instrument, they’re a functional piece of art
In a small workshop behind guitar builder Bob Rigaud’s home numerous ukuleles hang on the wall. Some are made of wood, some of plastic, some crudely painted. Bob likes Hawaii. He and his wife like to travel there, he says. On a carpeted table lies Bob’s latest creation: a hand-built jumbo-sized guitar made of Hawaiian Koa, a wood known for its smooth, mellow tone. The Koa is from a 500-year-old island tree cut down by the state of Hawaii to make room for a road in 1985. The wood is beautiful. Its deep, dark pattern is like a tunnel that pulls in the eyes to follow an intricate maze one can get lost in for hours. He’s been saving this wood for a special guitar.
The bearclaw-patterned top is made from Sitka spruce and bound in a Southwestern pattern. The strong neck is made entirely of one piece of Honduran mahogany, the most stable wood available, and reinforced with two long rods of carbon fiber that run across the neck joint. His logo is carved and inlaid in a solid piece of ebony on the head.
The result is a fine, hand-made instrument built on a sturdy frame that is made to improve the quality of the sound as the guitar settles and ages. And someone is going to walk away with the prize valued at $4,000 for the mere price of a $3 raffle ticket. This guitar is going to be given away in a drawing during this Saturday’s Pickin’ in the Park bluegrass festival at Hagen-Stone Park.
The shop is quiet.Orville the shop cat, named after Orville Gibson, lounges around the hardwood floor, every now and then vying for Bob’s attention.
Bob was trained as a guitar builder in 1977 at the Robeto-Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix, Ariz. and taught there for a short time afterward. Over the years he’s had the opportunity to meet, work for and become friends with some legendary musicians. One of those is John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Fogerty, a collector of Gibson guitars, was in search of a rare 1934 Gibson jumbo. Another collector, Microsoft giant Bill Gates, outbid him on one such guitar. A man came into Bob’s shop one day with a 1934 Gibson jumbo wanting a repair. He’d bought it at the old Cone Mills store, Bob says. He asked the man if he’d be willing to sell it, to which the man replied, ‘“Son, I’ve been offered $1,000 for this guitar.’”
Bob said, ‘“We’ll, I’ve give you $2,000 for it,’” but the man still refused.
A day or so later Fogerty called Bob to ask him if anything new or different had come through the shop lately. When Bob told him of the 1934 Gibson Fogerty told him to give the man whatever he wanted for it. Bob called the man and told him he knew of someone that was very interested in the guitar and offered the man $5,000. The man wanted to know if the buyer was willing to give $5,000 then would he give $6,000. Bob immediately bought the guitar. Some time later Bob learned that Fogerty used that guitar to record his album Blue Moon Swamp.
Bob also has photographs of himself with Roy Clark of ‘“Hee Haw’” holding an electric guitar Bob built in 1983 that was featured in Guitar Player magazine. And in 1981 he built a guitar for Nokie Edwards of the Ventures.
‘“People ask,’” Bob says, ‘“’Why are yours more expensive than factory guitars?’
‘“A lot of people don’t realize how much is going on here,’” Bob says. He’s been inside of just about every guitar model there is over the years either doing repair work or just opening them to see how they were made. His methods for building are progressive, using the latest technology for cutting and shaping wood.
‘“It’s important to be progressive,’” he says. The carbon fiber rods he uses in the necks of his guitars are just one example of his progressive approach. Even though the Honduran mahogany necks he builds are probably strong enough to withstand the almost 200 pounds of pressure the strings apply, the rods add extra strength, are lighter and stronger than steel and help create a better sounding instrument.
Many of the factory models, he says, are built to match a certain standard and some of them are great instruments. But he builds each of his guitars to be a great instrument of its own. The average time he spends on a guitar from start to finish is about 150 hours. He uses all real parts: ebony, abalone ‘— no plastic here. And he has a selection of rare and special woods that have been aging for almost two decades ‘— Koa, quilted walnut, curly maple, Brazilian rosewood.
‘“This is the holy grail,’” he says, stroking the rare, old growth piece of Brazilian rosewood he has lying in the rough on a shelf. He paid $300 for it when he bought it in the early ’80s. It is now worth $1,500.
He takes pride in his work. He sees the finished piece in the hands of a fine musician before he’s even begun.
‘“This is going to be for a special one,’” he says, sliding the Brazilian rosewood back into its place on the shelf.