Laurel Leader

Musical instrument repairman finds his coda

After permanently closing his successful musical instrument repair shop in North Laurel last month, Jim Tull said he is watching the next chapter of his life unfurl. On the agenda: Jumping in his RV and cruising to a yet-to-be purchased parcel of land in the heart of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley after his wife, Diana, retires.

Meanwhile, Tull has his work cut out for him, as he confronts the tedious job of clearing out his cramped shop adjacent to his home off Route 1.


At the front door, metal racks spill over with strings for guitars, banjos, violins and violas. Deeper into the shop, near his work bench are an assortment of tiny drawers, arranged vertically, that contain saxophone pads, lyre screws, trombone water keys and trumpet buttons. Here and there, beyond the pliers, hammers, screw drivers and cans of WD 40, is a smattering of woodwinds and brass instruments, and a band saw is off in one corner.

"The hardest thing is knowing what to keep," Tull said. "I've got hundreds of screws in drawers, and I'm not that organized."


Tull, 64, began the business 20 years ago in a mobile home he owned across Route 1. He and his late wife, Jacki, who worked with him, attracted repair work from individual musicians and from the music departments at local schools. When he moved across the street and from mobile home to his current home, Tull set up shop in an adjacent building.

As his reputation for quality work spread, Tull said he was offered a job running the repair shop at Chuck Levin's Washington Music Center.

"If I was looking for a job, that's exactly where I'd want to work," he said of the legendary store in Wheaton. "I told them I'm not giving up a 100-foot commute," from his house to his shop.

Tull's own musical experience is limited to playing in a country band while serving in the Navy. During his military service, he learned air-conditioning and soldering.

"It really helped me out here," Tull said. "Usually, when you see a bad repair come out of a shop, it's bad soldering on a piece of brass."

Tull downplayed the difficulty involved in getting to know an instrument and what makes it generate the desired sound.

"Once you get to know a trumpet, you can work on a tuba. It's just bulkier, heavier," he said. "Same thing with wind instruments."

Larger brass offerings such as baritone saxophones and trombones often overwhelm younger musicians, Tull said, who have trouble handling them so they get banged up."


But the tuba was the most challenging of all instruments to work on, Tull said.

"Man-handling that was a pain. I'm not that strong," he said

'An icon'

As he prepares to move on, the grandfather of eight, who grew up in Landover Hills, is saying farewell to an ensemble of admiring customers. Once word of his impending retirement got out, he recalled, some customers were shocked. "They said, `you can't retire! Who are we going to talk to? Who are we going to get to do our repairs?' " Tull said. "I am going to miss my customers. They were like a support group."

Kathy Hersey, drama and band teacher at Murray Hill Middle School, confessed that making the adjustment without Tull will be tough.

"I'm devastated," said Hersey, who has been a faculty member at the North Laurel school since it opened in 1997. "He told me it was coming. I dealt with him before I came to Murray Hill when I taught in the Falls Church public schools and I lived in Laurel. It's such a loss. Jim's an icon."


Two guitars, one acoustic, and the other electric, hang overhead in Tull's shop, "To keep my fingers moving," he noted.

During an interview, Tull moved his chair into an upright position and grabbed one of the acoustic guitars. With a pick clenched between his teeth, he promised "you'll recognize this song." Strumming the six-string, he riffed "It's a Wonderful World," a recording made famous by jazz great Louis Armstrong in 1968.

"I have mixed feelings about [closing]," he said, leaning back in his swivel chair, looking relaxed in a T-shirt and well-worn jeans supported by suspenders. "I have fond memories of Laurel. I'm the type who always hates change."