Odd Jobs: The Fantastical World of Keith Cary

Near the top of a low hill on the outskirts of Winters, California, a trim and tidy 1920s farmhouse sits surrounded by terraces of wildflowers and oak trees. Across the crown of the hill, a vegetable garden spreads away from the house and gives way to a shed where a vintage BMW motorcycle crouches in the shade. A wooden shepherd’s wagon rests near a hulking brown barn, and a few hives of honeybees drone and buzz in the tall grass. This hilltop is the home of luthier and musician Keith Cary.

Keith, well known in Northern California for repairing vintage, rare and unusual instruments, boasts a long list of clients and friends who are fiercely loyal and happy to sing his praises. In the cathedral-like expanse of the barn, Cary has established a workshop like no other—musicians make pilgrimages from all over to bring their damaged instruments, gawk and talk, sit and play and pick his expansive brain. I’ve come to visit Keith on a warm spring morning to hear his unique take on the world of music and musical instruments.

As I crunch across the gravel drive towards the barn with Keith, his dog Buddy barks and sniffs at me. Buddy is his constant companion in the shop, he follows him as we walk and talk, occasionally perking up his ears if he thinks Keith is speaking to him. I step inside and am amazed: A newcomer to the barn is met with a jumble of sights almost too much to take in at once. Every square inch of the huge shop is covered with some sort of equipment, artwork, spare part, tool or machinery. Rows of instrument cases on shelves line an entire wall, vintage Italian road bikes hang from the rafters and esoteric instruments of every description sit, lean or hang in various states of wholeness.

Keith crouches down and pulls a guitar case from several lined up on the floor. He opens the case, takes out a guitar that will be his next repair and sits down at his workbench. Buddy immediately curls up in the empty case and falls asleep. The guitar is an early 1960s Gibson J-45, a guitar long revered as a workhorse of the post-war dreadnoughts. Prized for having a ruler-straight neck and a warm, full tone, good original examples of the guitar now fetch high prices. This guitar, unfortunately, has seen better days. Keith ticks off a list of atrocities as he looks it over. Although most ’60s-vintage J-45s that are around these days have had their adjustable bridge replaced, this guitar’s original bridge has had four large holes drilled through it and bolts placed to hold it down. The original three-on-a-side Kluson tuners have been replaced with bulky no-names. The top is covered in sticky glue residue where two huge aftermarket pickguards were once plastered on. The frets are fuzzy with green patina. Keith hands me a luthier’s inspection mirror and a small light and I peer inside. “It’s like Where’s Waldo?” he say with a grin. “See if you can find all of the things wrong in there!”

A huge slab of plywood has replaced the original bridge plate. Under string tension it acts as a cantilever, pushing up the top behind the bridge. Braces have come loose and are floating in space. The bolts protrude down through the mess. I hand the poor guitar back, and Keith undoes the bolts securing the bridge. This is the kind of rescue, repair and restoration that he specializes in, carefully undoing earlier insults to the guitar and bringing it back to its original glory. He slides a thin flexible spatula under the bridge and slowly pries it off, talking as he works.

“One of my first repair jobs was that guitar right there.” He gestures to a guitar top hanging on a nail over the shop door. “It was an Epiphone Howard Roberts. The original owner had cut holes and mounted humbuckers and cut controls in. He had just hacked the thing up, but those guitars weren’t worth much back then.”

The spatula slides along the top of the J-45 and the bridge gives grudging way, as Keith continues to describe the Howard Roberts.

“The new owner had me make a new spruce top, so I saved the old top as a souvenir. My repair philosophy is ‘Do No Harm.’ If I have to use a router or I take away wood, then I’m doing something wrong. You can’t undo those things. Trends change, and I try not to be trendy. It’s just so awful to see beautiful old instruments that have already been repaired and to say to myself ‘Oh yeah, they did that in the ’80s,’ as I see all that has been done wrong. You know, bolts through the bridge plate, and epoxy in the neck joint.

“I worked at a small repair shop in Tucson in the ’70s, and that guy was switching out tuners left and right with a big old rat tail file, grinding away the old wood. Even back then, when I was still new, I was saying, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure you want to be doing this?’ At that time, a Melody Maker was only a $200 guitar, but even then I knew I didn’t want to put on new tuning machines if I could help it.”

Keith has long been considered a go-to guy in the Northern California area and beyond for his repair and restoration work. In countless discussions, when working musicians and enthusiasts need an instrument fixed or tuned up Keith’s name is almost automatically mentioned.

“I’m very proud of that,” Keith says when the subject comes up. “The word-of-mouth business from Sacramento and Bay Area musicians has been so important, because I don’t have many local customers.”

In fact, his relative geographic isolation has ended up being an advantage, rather than problematic. He now he has the luxury of working largely uninterrupted, as his repair work is by appointment only. He gestures around at the expanse of his shop. “I look forward to being here so much. I need my shop time. If I go a day or two without, I start getting a little off. I need those hours of no talking, that time inside myself.”

The discussion turns to how Keith decides which repairs to take in and which to turn away. “Well, my shop is a little bit of a filter. If people don’t get scared off when they walk into my shop, that’s a good sign!” He chuckles. “If they do, then we’re probably not made for each other.”

The imposing clutter and funk of the shop notwithstanding, Cary is a meticulous and careful technician.

“For years, I did repairs for music stores, and had to take whatever work would come through the door because it wasn’t so specialized. I didn’t object, and it wasn’t anything that I didn’t like doing, really, but I would often think ‘This isn’t quite me.’ The basic repairs were just like anything else, you had to use logic and try not to do anything that couldn’t be undone. I learned so much, and I didn’t mind that work, but I’m happy I’m at a place where I don’t have to do it anymore.

“I like getting guitars from people for which I have an affinity. I respect the music they play. If you want to be a small town repairman and want to be generalized, then you should try to have a good feeling about a wide range of music. It doesn’t mean you have to play it or listen to it a lot, but know that the guys and gals who do it are probably pros and they have to do the same thing as everybody else—they have to play this guitar at shows, this is their tool, like a carpenter, and it has to work right.”

The process of deciding what to work on and what not to begins on the phone, a luxury of having his shop in a rural location, and he rarely has to turn away an instrument once it shows up in the shop. But it has happened. “I don’t like to work on anything I couldn’t pay for, especially with violins, back when I was doing more violin work. There are people that I would rather send them to. Now, with guitars, it’s rare that there is something I won’t work on.”

Keith is philosophical about his relationship with his clients.

“I’m very lucky to be able to relate to many of the people that walk through the door. One of my recent customers was this amazing Brazilian jazz guy, and he was just going off to play New York the next day and needed an emergency repair. And while I’m working there’s some guy here playing rockabilly bass. It’s just great! I love eclectic stuff, I love all of these different kinds of music and musicians. I think having a wide range is a big part of the attraction for this kind of work. I’ve never really settled down on one kind of music, I’m kind of all over the place, and it’s useful for my repair work.”

Guitarist Charles Baty has been a fixture in the blues music scene for many years, and has toured the world with his band, Little Charlie and the Nightcats. In recent years, Charlie and Keith have collaborated on other musical projects, most notably the Little Charlie Caravan, a Gypsy jazz combo with a revolving cast of characters.

“Keith is a throwback,” Baty told me. “He is the musical equivalent of a utility player in baseball. He can play any number of instruments in a wide range of styles with relative ease. And yet he still reacts with childlike amazement at discovering new musical concepts and theories. He truly loves, and lives for, music.

“Without Keith, I’d be sunk. It helps knowing someone who understands the styles of music that you play and what sound you are striving for, and who has the skill to make the correct adjustments. And sometimes, even more importantly, he knows what not to touch and what to leave alone. If my guitar doesn’t quite feel right, Keith will fix it. If a fret buzzes or a string is dead, Keith straightens it out. And then we play over changes and I get to test out the guitar.”

Keith Cary speaks fondly of his long-time friendship with tube amp specialist Skip Simmons [profiled in FJ #33]. The two have been collaborators and bandmates on and off over the years, and share many customers. “I first met Skip in Davis 30 years ago. I remember him showing up at my shop, and I remember having this decision inside myself: Okay, here’s this guy who wants to do what I do, and I want to do what he wants to do. I had just finished an electronics class at Sacramento City College. And I’m thinking I could get competitive and get weird, or I could embrace this guy. It was this three-second decision, where my brain is clicking…” Keith pantomimes weighing scales with his upturned hands. “And I said to myself, ‘Okay, let’s go with the embrace!’ Now, I can’t say how much knowing Skip has meant to me and to my business, and what his recommendations have done. You know, Skip does amp work for all of these heavyweights, and then he sends them to me for instrument work. He has been my one-man advertiser.”

When I spoke with Skip Simmons about Keith, he told me, “Keith is the only super-proficient repair person I know who is a fantastic musician, who can read music and play any instrument. Usually those two left brain/right brain things just don’t go together. It’s like Les Paul. That guy was an amazing inventor and could just plain burn on a guitar. That’s really something.”

Skip also feels like there is a good reason Keith’s shop is the wonderfully anarchic mess that it is. “Guys that only build things from scratch can have the shop with the little tools all outlined, but people who do repairs…forget it. Any kind of repairs, you have to just have this pile of junk around you at all times or you can’t really do it, because you need so much stuff! If you’re busy, it’s because you’re good, and that means you don’t often have time to clean and sweep.”

In addition to his repair work, Keith Cary has an extensive history as an instrument builder. Early in his career, he started disassembling and studying mandolins before putting them back together again. He soon moved on to building mandolins from scratch. Keith enrolled in a violin building and lutherie class at Spokane Falls Community College, an experience that he says changed his life. Under the instruction of Anton Smith, Keith sharpened the skills of construction and came to realize that he wanted to build instruments.

After years of building mandolins and other instruments and a visit to the National Resophonic factory, Keith hit on the idea for which he would eventually receive national notoriety: a resonator mandolin. Cary experimented with and abandoned several designs before a neighbor dropped off a stainless steel bedpan that was the exact right size and shape. Thus was born the Commodium, an eight-string resonator mandolin that utilizes a bedpan for the body. By his reckoning, he’s built about 35 or 36 of the instruments and had just received a commission for a mandola at the time of my visit.

“The original design had the heel on the outside, like a dobro, but the pan was too big and the neck didn’t lend itself to the design,” Keith says. “I kept thinking about it, and decided I could put the heel on the inside and make it more of a bolt-together instrument. That became the final design and it hasn’t changed much since.

“Joe Craven borrowed the first one that I built for a long time, even though it didn’t work very well, and now he has one of the newer, better ones. Louis Santer bought number two or three, and Ken Cooper also got one of the first ones. The first three or four went to people that are high-profile players who play out a lot, so they were all out there in the world.”

Keith says he started getting calls right away from customers wanting to order instruments. Word of this tiny but mighty “Banjo Slayer” spread via mandolin websites and chat rooms, and soon he was getting orders from all over the country.

He quickly grew tired of hearing the same jokes over and over about the “bedpandolins,” Keith says. “They were really loud, and people appreciated the novelty of it, that they are made from bedpans, [but] I’m really not that nuts about that aspect of it anymore, because I think they are great instruments and I don’t want the novelty to distract from that. But I still enjoy building them for people I don’t know.”

For the mandola he is building right now, the buyer has very specific requests and desires, and Keith says he enjoys meeting the challenge. Current owners send him YouTube videos of them playing their Commodiums, and he likes seeing where they have ended up. “I like watching them in the wild!”

Keith’s most recent guitar build was inspired by a 1930 Nick Lucas that belongs to a friend and customer. As we talk, he unrolls a hand-drawn plan on the table and shows me a detailed rendering of the guitar. “I had been lusting after Lucas guitars for 15 years or so,” he says, “and wanted to get my hands on one. When she brought her guitar to me, it looked like it had been in a bar fight. I was able to spend some time with it, getting to know it as I fixed it. As I was putting it back together I was making notes and sketches of the construction. The bracing is very much like Martin bracing, but not scalloped. It has a nice forward crossbrace, but the bracing is very narrow and tall, and stays thick out to the edges.”

Later, Keith asked to borrow the guitar back for further study. “I took it in the closet and put a light bulb inside of it and took photos of the shadow lines. I put a camera inside it—I mean I really got intimate with that guitar!” he says with a laugh.

Once he had a firm idea of how he was going to proceed, Keith built a form for heating and shaping the sides. “Please ignore my hillbilly welding skills,” he says as he shows me the form, turning it over and over in his hands. Ancient heat-lamp coils and electric heater elements have been wired together underneath. It’s actually a beautiful and effective piece of simple machinery, and shows off well Keith’s penchant for doing everything himself.

The sides and back of the guitar are walnut from a tree that grew on a Sacramento street, logged by Skip Simmons’ stepfather. As the build progressed, Keith found a beautiful piece of close-grained Douglas fir that had been lying around the shop for a number of years. He used the fir for the top, but had some reservations about it working well as a tonewood. Keith brought the guitar in a half-finished state to a party and showed it to his friend Richard Johnston, wondering if he should pull the top off and redo it in spruce. Richard (a founder of Gryphon Stringed Instruments and the man who literally wrote the book on Martin guitars) looked the guitar over and gave his approval. “Go for it, it’s going to sound great!” The guitar has a warm, rich and deep tone when strummed. The finish is shellac, hand-rubbed to a brilliant shine. As I sit and pluck the guitar, Keith rummages around in a sack, drawing forth a huge puck of shellac flakes for me to inspect.

“That’s about all I use: shellac, Everclear, and aniline dyes,” he says, gesturing to a half-empty bottle of grain alcohol on the workbench and laughing. “I do apologize occasionally to a customer when they notice it. I have to say, ‘I’m actually not an alcoholic, I use that in my work.’”

Keith is well regarded as a musician, and has played with many, many bands over the years. He is one of those players in whose hands almost any instrument can be found at any time, from a string bass to a viola, a sousaphone to an intonarumori. His musical career has been long and varied, allowing him to form friendships and working relationships with a huge cross-section of the musical world.

“I’ve been really focused on the steel guitar a lot for the last two years,” he says. “I feel like it has kept me sane, in some ways.”

He brings me across the shop to where a two-neck Fender pedal steel guitar sits plugged into an amp. We crouch and he shows me where he has added a knee lever made from a bicycle handbrake and cables.

“For the last few weeks, it has actually been somewhat of a problem,” he says, laughing nervously. “I’ve become kind of addicted—I actually sneak out to the shop at night to play. I just love the tone.”

Keith remembers listening to Hank Williams and Bob Wills records and playing along. He gives a nod to two of his biggest influences, Lee Jeffriess and Dave Zirbel. “With steel, the more I play and the more I hear, the more I realize these guys are so good at doing simple stuff perfectly. They make it sound easy.”

Later in life, Vance Terry, the steel player for Billy Jack Wills, was living in the North Highlands apartment of an acquaintance and Keith was able to finagle a private lesson. “He was such a great gentleman, and he spent hours with me at that first meeting. He was just so advanced in his thinking, he was really playing jazz on a steel guitar. He showed me blocking, and really good hand positioning, because before that I had just been sliding around on the neck. It’s now 20 years later and I just feel like I’m finally getting it, like it’s finally clicking. I like being my age and still learning new things. I feel like I start to plateau and some new thing comes along!”

Nowadays, Keith says he is part of a large group of steel guitar players who share ideas, new tunings, old recordings and general knowledge about steel guitar playing. Lee Jeffriess is a big part of the group, and Keith says that recently they have been discussing the unique sound and construction of Bigsby pickups. In typical fashion, this has led Keith to want to try his hand at building his own Bigsby-style pickups, with a copper wire of thicker gauge than other pickups. As we talk, Keith walks me over to another corner of his shop. Scores of antique violins hang over our heads like so many sleeping bats. A contraption that looks like a cross between a wooden sewing machine and a 16mm film projector sits on the workbench. Copper wire winds through springs and tensioners, slowly clad to a pickup body attached to a revolving plywood wheel. The machine looks crude, but slowly and perfectly winds away. “I’ve built three or four pickup winders over the years, but this one has more bells and whistles.” He makes a small tweak to a slide. “Works perfectly!” he says as it clatters away.

Winters musician and artist Robert Armstrong has been a friend and musical collaborator with Keith Cary for more than 30 years. Armstrong is well-known for his comic book and fine art work, as well as his contribution of musical saw for the soundtrack of the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He was a founding member of the Cheap Suit Serenaders with cartoonist R. Crumb.

“Bob Armstrong has been such a big factor in my life, and has introduced me to so many people. I used to go see the Cheap Suits play when I was 22 or 23 and I thought ‘Wow! This is what I really like!’ They played a house concert in Davis, and I had never seen guys like this. We had some long conversations about music, and I guess we started playing together shortly after that. I had known Robert Crumb before that, in fact he lived out here in Winters and I would come out and visit him and we’d play together.

“I had played in a rock and roll band that did Rolling Stones covers when I was 21, and jeez…that was awful, and I knew I didn’t want to do that anymore. Right around that time I discovered playing weddings. Wedding gigs were different back in the ’70s and ’80s. It was an easier scene, less seedy than bars, and I’d get home at a reasonable time. It was way better money and there was nobody threatening to fight the band! I actually felt like I could make a living making instrument repairs and playing weddings. Well, right around that time Robert Crumb had come to me and was forming a wedding band and wanted me on the bass.”

Keith says that by this time, Crumb’s fame had started to wane a little bit, which was fine with him. “He could just play music and be one of the guys. Bob Armstrong was in the band, and Tom Arons, as well as Skip Simmons on drums and Ken Kemmerling on keys. That band became the Rural Sophisticates and we did that for a few years, then drifted apart. And then we came back together as Bo Trong and the Thin Men From Venus. We played a lot of weddings and had a lot of fun. I got to be a much better bass player from playing in those bands, playing the music from the late ’20s and early ’30s. Bob Armstrong had a huge library of songs and he would make us tapes of songs to learn and to inspire us.”

This era lasted until Terry Zwigoff’s documentary about Robert Crumb came out. “The movie Crumb sort of turned his life upside down. He lost some of the anonymity he had, which I think was a mixed bag for him.”

After Robert Crumb moved to France, the Cheap Suit Serenaders did one last tour in Europe with him, and Keith filled in for Terry Zwigoff on cello. “We rented a cello over there and it ended up being a nice old cello. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh man, I’m never going to have it this good again! Take notes!’ We played some concert halls and some punk clubs, and they drove us around and really spoiled us. It was a wonderful tour.”

Bob Armstrong and Keith Cary have also collaborated on a number of musical instruments together—Cary has made a six string banjo and several ukuleles that were then custom painted by Armstrong. “Keith also built some acoustic lap guitars out of some old bodies he had, and he wanted to decorate them with a stencil like old stencil guitars,” Armstrong explains about another project. “So I designed some stencils for him based on old National designs from the ’30s. The National guitars had these crude stencils with a palm tree and an island and a couple in a dugout canoe, and a volcano erupting in the background, and they were sandblasted onto the old Style O National. We thought it would be funny to do a takeoff on that and make it a different type of Islander model; it would be the Three Mile Islander Model. So instead of a volcano, we had the cooling towers from Three Mile Island, and this couple in a canoe, sinking and dying in this toxic lagoon, and Keith used that on a couple of guitars. That was a fun collaboration!”

Bob goes on to describe Keith’s unique creativity. “Keith just gets excited about stuff. His mind is always going and he can just make it happen. That’s the beauty of Keith, besides just being able to do a quick and easy or inexpensive repair to something, he’s got some way of figuring out a new way of doing it. He’ll say, ‘Oh, I can just build you that.’ And that’s really the heart of Keith’s brilliance. He’s not bound by anything, and so he’s not above doing fun, innovative things. He’s not overly serious, and I really admire that about him. He’s got this playfulness that comes with a certain type of creativity that is its own type of ingenuity.”

For many years Keith has also enjoyed employment as a music teacher. One year, he was asked to instruct the teachers at his daughter’s school how to sing and play autoharp. The next year, the principal of the school asked him to come in and teach the younger kids music. It began an association with the school that lasted for over 30 years. “Somebody had given me Ruth Crawford Seeger’s American Folk Songs for Children and that is still the heart of what I teach the kids,” Keith explains. “It helped me learn to sing and play guitar much better. Some days I would be singing for six hours a day.”

Describing how he engages the children to understand music on a deeper level, he says, “I’m not teaching them any music theory or anything at this point, but I might get them to see the difference in the way a minor chord or a major chord will make you feel. I will tell the kids a little bit about a song such as, ‘This is a song that the cowboys would sing when they were out on the trail,’ because I’m trying to suck them into the romance of it. That’s what I love so much about it.”

At a Davis music store, Keith has put together a symposium of novice musicians and players that he calls Plays Well with Others, attracting people who are interested in learning how to play in groups. “I have taught a lot of private lessons over the years, as well at being at parties and seeing that a lot of people don’t really know how to get together with their friends and play. When I was in college and kind of in the potluck days, it just happened to be a thing that everybody was playing together, and even earlier when I was still in high school my friends and I would get together. There was still a little bit of the hootenanny thing going on. It seems that there was a long spell where that sort of thing wasn’t going on. Now there is a lot of renewed interest in it, but many people have not been along on that evolutionary trip, learning how capos work, learning how to listen and play at the same time.”

Keith stands in front of the group with a guitar slung over his shoulder and a large drawing of the Circle of Fifths on a whiteboard and runs the attendees through the fundamentals of playing in a group. “The Circle of Fifths figures prominently in my teaching of adults, because it is sort of the Rosetta Stone of understanding on a larger level what is going on. It’s a way to go from a place of just random memorization of chords in a song, to a place of transposing to different chords to be able to play with someone who wants to sing or play in a certain key.”

Keith says this understanding is essential to moving musicians towards playing in groups. “I like to get people to a place where the theory just occurs to them naturally as they play. I also want to show people how to learn how to hang back and play quietly as others sing or take solos. It’s a way for people to learn how to not just be playing alone in their room as solo virtuosos. With so many people who don’t play with anybody else, I have found that their rhythm can really suffer. And I have been that person, we have all been that person on occasion. Playing with other people, your rhythm and pitch really have to be good, you really have to be part of the general ‘over soul.’”

The term “Renaissance man” is bandied about pretty freely these days, often used to describe any creative person who is good at more than one thing. To spend time in the world of Keith Cary is to realize how overused and watered-down the phrase has become: Keith really is a reminder of earlier times, when instruments were carefully built by hand and repaired when they broke, not mass-produced and then thrown away. If he needs a tool or a part that doesn’t exist, he will fashion it himself at his workbench. When he is playing music, the notes and phrases of long-forgotten and rarely played songs might find their way through his fingers, a conduit from musicians long dead to our ears. When he is teaching, he truly wants to awaken a love of music in his students that he hopes will last them a lifetime. In an increasingly plastic and disposable world, it is a pleasure to know that people like Keith Cary still exist and are happily sought out by those who need them.

I’ll let Skip Simmons have the final word on Keith: “Building something brand-new from scratch requires a lot of skill. But being a repairman requires an even wider range of skill, and Keith can fix anything. A lot of people like us are really one-dimensional guys that live by themselves. Guys that just do that one thing that they do. But Keith is a full-range guy. He might want to work on a tractor one minute, and he might then make an ultra-invisible, super fine repair on an old mandolin. And then he’ll turn around and make a resonator guitar from scratch, where he puts holes in the cover plate by shooting it with a shotgun. You just don’t find guys like that anymore.”

This article originally appeared in the Fretboard Journal #37. Photographs by Timothy White.