Dan Rodricks

Dan Rodricks: Behind brick walls, a crafty and creative Baltimore, and pretty cool guitars | COMMENTARY

Gary Flowers holds one of the jazz guitars he's crafted by hand over the past 25 years.

It’s good to stand among the creative and the crafty, if only for an hour or two. It’s good to stand there while Gary Flowers steams a sheet of maple to form the curved sides of one of his fine guitars. It does some good to watch, in the same shop a few feet away, Jaime Miller sand the walnut on one of his beautiful handcrafted urns.

You could walk down the hall of the old ball-bearing factory and find someone restoring furniture, gilding a frame or bringing new, shocking shine to old brass. You can walk until you land at Brubaker Musical Instruments, maker of electric guitars. It’s all there. It’s all happening on rainy days and sunny days behind the brick walls at Loch Raven Road and Exeter Hall, near the Cloverland Green Spring Dairy plant.


Baltimore has so many talented people — luthiers, metal crafters, wood carvers, dressmakers, furniture makers, cabinet makers, smithies, glass blowers, potters, masons, artisans and artists in all media — but it’s easy to forget or never know them. It’s good to see them in action. It’s inspiring.

It’s also a reminder that, while no longer an industrial Hercules, Baltimore still makes objects beautiful and useful, on the Geppetto scale. Right before our eyes — or behind brick walls — men and women every day unlock studios and shops, then fabricate, finish and polish.


Gary Flowers is 63, and he’s been making jazz guitars for a couple of decades now. He prefers to talk about guitars rather than himself — he can relate the whole history of the jazz guitar and name the great American luthiers — but, if you push him, he’ll tell you that he grew up in Baltimore, graduated from Northern High School and was never far from hammers, power tools and guitars.

“I worked for a homebuilder after high school,” he says, and then, some time after attending Essex Community College, he started getting jobs building sets for television shows, movies and commercials produced in Baltimore. Jobs led to other jobs and a busy life working with his hands. At one point, Flowers built exhibits in the National Aquarium.

He moved into his first woodworking shop 30 years ago, in the old Jeppi Nut building on High Street. That’s where he built his first guitar.

He’d been a bedroom and jam guitarist for a long time by then. He was drawn to the jazz guitar he heard in recordings of Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass and, later, George Benson and Pat Metheny.

Gary Flowers, a Baltimore-based luthier, uses steam to carefully bend a strip of maple that will become the sides of a jazz guitar.

Back in the 20th century, the banjo gave way to the jazz guitar as an orchestral instrument. Players strummed on hollow-body, archtop guitars that made a distinctive, percussive sound and could cut through an orchestra. Later, as the jazz guitar evolved, it mellowed enough that players like Pass accompanied singers.

Flowers specializes in the archtop, as opposed to the flat-top guitars associated with folk and classical music.

“It’s based on the violin,” he says, holding up one of his maple-and-spruce creations to show off its shape, its bridge, the F-holes and the pickup, the piece that amplifies the sound resonating from the strings through the guitar. The pickup was an innovation that created the distinct sound of the hollow-body jazz guitar.

Over the years, Flowers had repaired some guitars but had never built one. In the 1990s, he picked up a book, “Making An Archtop Guitar” by Bob Benedetto, one of the country’s leading makers of the instrument.


“After using Bob Benedetto’s book to build my first guitar, I called him up and he invited me to his shop in Pennsylvania,” Flowers says. “We became good friends and he personally mentored me.”

Flowers learned a lot from Benedetto and, after building his first guitar, he kept going. He built a special router device to carve the backs and fronts of guitars from maple and spruce. He learned how to steam and bend strips of maple for the sides. He learned patience, too; each guitar takes hundreds of hours to make.

Flowers moved from his workspace at Jeppi Nut to the former factory near Cloverland five years ago. He will sell anywhere from three to six guitars in a good year, for between $6,000 and $8,000. In the handcrafted market, he says, that’s not a high price, and less than most. “You can get a pretty good guitar for $1,000,” Flowers says. “So expectations are high when buying from someone like me.”

The other day, he had three unfinished guitars, all different styles, hanging in a drying room, and he was in the process of building another. To make sure he had a finished guitar to show me when I visited his shop, Flowers borrowed one he had made for a customer in 2016.

The guitar looked brand new to me; the owner obviously had treated it with great care. “He has it displayed like a statue as the main feature of his house,” Flowers said. “He plays it constantly and rightly feels he knows things about it that I don’t.”

Flowers held the shiny guitar and adjusted the tuning pegs. “It’s incredible,” he said, “to see and hear instruments that I haven’t seen in years.”


He strummed on the strings, and seemed pleased with the rich sound that came out of the guitar, proud of it, like the parent of a child who surpassed expectations.