Cockeysville man performs 'guitar solo,' making handcrafted acoustic instruments
By Barbara Pash
Apr 07, 2015 at 6:00 AM
Luthier David MacCubbin, of Cockeysville, has been hand-making steel string acoustic guitars for nearly 15 years. On a recent afternoon, MacCubbin worked on the struts and sides of a guitar. (Jon Sham/Baltimore Sun video)
David MacCubbin cut the wolf pawprints and laid the mother-of-pearl into the ebony fretboard.
The neck will be fitted, glued and bolted to the body of the acoustic guitar, which is made of rosewood from Southeast Asian and spruce from Germany. The body will be sprayed with lacquer, sanded and buffed. The ebony bridge will be carved and screwed into the guitar, and the instrument will be strung.
This model, the 46th guitar made by MacCubbin in the last dozen years, was commissioned by Robin Bullock, a composer and performer of Celtic and Appalachian music based in Black Mountain, N.C. Bullock owns one other MacCubbin.
"It's beautifully made, and the tone has a richness, depth and warmth that is different from my other guitars," he said.
The rest of his guitars were made by famed manufacturer Martin, he said, but "I've been playing my MacCubbin more and more. I can't wait to get the new one."
Building a guitar by hand is a painstaking business. But for MacCubbin, a 63-year-old former software programmer who has been building guitars full time since 2007, "it's extremely rewarding, especially when I find guitar players who appreciate my work."
On a brisk March day, MacCubbin led a tour of his two workshops — one in the garage of his Cockeysville home, the other in the basement. The luthier is tall, with white hair and a modest manner. He has table saws, band saws, a jointer, drill press, power sanders, chisels, files and sanding blocks, and keeps stocks of mahogany, ebony, rosewood, maple and walnut.
MacCubbin estimates he invested $20,000 in tools and materials to start the business. Given the competition, and the limit on the price that even a one-of-a-kind, hand-built guitar can command, he isn't planning on getting rich.
"There are thousands of individual guitar builders — guys my age who grew up in the rock 'n' roll era," said MacCubbin.
But he has combined two loves, woodworking and teenage guitar-playing — "in church, not a band" — into a second career.
"It wasn't a lifelong dream," he said. "I hadn't thought of it until 2000."
MacCubbin learned to build guitars from a book by the Northampton, Mass., luthier William Cumpiano. He then spent two weeks in 2003 working in Cumpiano's shop.
He also attended a weeklong master class with Ervine Somogyi in California on guitar voicing, the art of combining the choice of wood, bracing patterns and construction techniques to produce each instrument's unique sound.
"All guitars are different in body style, wood and adornments," he said. "The first thing that draws a customer to a guitar is the way it looks. The second is how it sounds."
He has joined a long tradition of guitar makers in Maryland, from the one-man, home-based operations such as his own, through the manufacturers that sprang up during the guitar boom of the 1960s, to Paul Reed Smith, the state native who built his first instrument as a student at St. Mary's College and now heads a global operation based in Stevensville that challenges titans Gibson and Fender for guitar world primacy.
MacCubbin, who grew up in Dundalk and attended Frostburg State University, worked as a programmer first for a defense contractor and later for a pharmaceutical company before retiring in 2007. He and his wife, Claire, a math teacher at Dundalk Middle School, have three children and three grandchildren.
It takes MacCubbin 150 hours over two to three months to build a guitar from scratch. He can turn out 10 to 12 guitars a year, depending on demand, he said.
A standard acoustic guitar with six steel strings and no cutaway — the bite taken out of the body at the top of the neck to allow the player to reach the higher notes — starts at $4,000.
For a commissioned guitar, the price can run as high as $6,000 for a 12-string with cutaway and arm-rest bevel. Exotic woods and custom inlays — such as the pawprints for Bullock's guitar — can add thousands of dollars more.
MacCubbin gave Bullock his first guitar — "He heard something in my playing he thought his guitar would enhance," Bullock said.
Making guitars is one challenge; selling them is another. MacCubbin describes disappointments: During trade shows, "people would pick out a guitar and play it. They'd say, 'It sounds really nice.' Then they'd give it back because I didn't have a name."
Alton "Bear" Acker, head of the Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans and editor of its Guitarmaker Magazine, said building a reputation "can take years."
"You can advertise, get a professional player" to use your instrument, Acker said. That's the approach taken by Smith, whose big break came when he got a guitar into the hands of Carlos Santana.
MacCubbin has sold 35 guitars. He can't single out a specific reason — whether the website, guitar shows or publicity from Bullock — but gradually "they've begun to sell."
David Eisner, owner of the House of Musical Traditions in Takoma Park, heard his friend Bullock had a MacCubbin guitar and began carrying them last year.
"I always ask [Bullock] what he's playing," Eisner said. "He uses top instruments, so what he chooses to play is important."
Eisner stocks eight lines of guitars, including other handmade brands. They range from student models to instruments for professionals and collectors.
He has a room where customers can try models out to learn their feel and sound.
"Guitars at that level, it's a very individual choice," he said. "There has to be a relationship between the player and the guitar.