Triggs Mando Madness......

Jim and Ryan Triggs shop looks like chaos every time I’ve been lucky enough to make the short trip there from Kansas City for a visit. They live and work in Lawrence Kansas so it’s only a thirty minute drive for me. The current shop in Lawrence is a close replica to the Custom Shop at Gibson where Jim worked out of between 1986 - 1992 in Nashville, Tennessee. The custom shop at Gibson (Jim explained to me), was around 30’ x 30’ and it was located inside the massive Gibson plant located on Massman drive that was nearly one hundred thousand square feet in size.

Jim tells the story, “ Eight or nine years ago I saw a buddy of mine, Edwin Wilson at a trade show. Edwin worked at Gibson prior to my hire there and he still works for the Custom Shop. He mentioned to me that the “old Custom Shop area” was torn down in the plant to make room for new machinery. At that time Gibson’s Custom Shop had it’s own building with fifty or sixty employees. I felt awful when I heard that news. I hoped that one day I would have the right building that I could make my shop in and have it look exactly like that small Custom Shop Gibson had inside the main plant when I worked there. I had so many good memories and fun times there that I wanted to re-create it someday. Every major artist in Nashville during the time I was at Gibson came through the Custom Shop either for a tour or we built custom instruments for them. For some we repaired their instruments.”

Jim and Mary Ann Triggs moved to Lawrence over four years ago and one of Jim and Ryan’s first projects was to re-model a 27’ x 30’ 2 car garage into Jim’s dream shop. It took nearly two months to complete the project. The shop has three bay areas along one wall. At Gibson there was a bay for each luthier. “My buddy Phil Jones had the bay in the spot that Ryan uses as his bench area. My bay in the middle was Charlie Derrington’s originally. Charlie always called the Custom Shop the “old repair shop.” Early on mostly repairs were done in the small room and over the years much of Gibson’s research and development and new models were built there. There was also a lacquer spray booth right next to the Custom Shop and an expert sprayer was part of the crew back then.”

I’ve known Jim around ten years now. I first met him after I was the winning bidder of one of his fine blonde A-5 mandolins at an auction at the Sante Fe Trails bluegrass festival. My best guess tells me that was in 1999. The festival was located just outside Kansas City. Jim donated the mandolin to the festival and it was an honor to be able to meet and talk to him after I picked up my new instrument. Ricky Skaggs was playing the show that Saturday night and I mentioned to Jim that I sure would like for Ricky to autograph the mandolin. I had no Idea that Jim knew Ricky. He promptly left with my mandolin in hand and went to the back stage area. A few minutes later he was back and the mandolin had been signed by Ricky. Over the years I feel like I’ve got to know Jim well. I custom ordered a flat top guitar from him over eight years ago and it has grown to be one of my favorites. I run into Jim at local music and bluegrass events frequently through out the year. The Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas is where I felt I began to get to know Jim on a more personal level as I try to spend some time in his booth and play some music with him there. I am a doctor in the Kansas City area and Thursdays are a regular day off for me. In the last decade, I’ve ventured out on Thursday afternoons on many occasions to visit Jim and see what he and Ryan are working on. It seems they always have eight to ten different instruments in the works at all times. Some are finished and waiting for shipment. Some are bodies ready for a neck. There are always parts around that Jim and Ryan take the time to show me that are in progress and in various stages of completion. Sides bent, necks blanked out, or maybe tops or backs of an archtop guitar or mandolin that Jim’s carving on. It’s all fun stuff to look at.

A little over a year ago Jim came to me and mentioned that his right arm and hand were giving him some problems. He explained that his fingers were frequently getting a tingling sensation and also numbness. He knew he had Carpal Tunnel issues and it had been going on almost three years. It was progressively getting worse. I agreed with Jim on his diagnosis and occasionally he would drive to my office and I would give him some treatments. Last summer his arm began to feel pain nearly every day along with what hand problems he was having. For months he had been putting ice on his arm and hand at night for an hour. It was only a short term fix. There were days in a row that Jim told me went by where he had no feeling in his right hand. He finally went to a specialist. After having a neurologist do an MRI test on Jim’s arm and hand, a road map for surgeon Doug Cusick was laid out. Not only did Jim have Carpal Tunnel issues, there was also nerve damage in his hand that needed taken care of. This testing was done in August of 2007.

With the problems Jim was having with the arm and hand, he also had the problem of not being able to get his work done in a timely fashion. “I was working between ten and twelve hour days, five days a week and I couldn’t keep up the pace for our normal scheduling. I was getting five or six hours worth of work done, but it was taking me over ten hours to keep up our production. In October I began working around eight hours on the weekends also but could never reach my expectations. It seemed my arm was getting worse with every week,” Jim said.

Surgery was scheduled for December 19th. The day before Jim and Ryan sent out the last guitar and made their deadline for the fall and Christmas Season. “I was so relieved to get that last guitar out. It was an archtop guitar and it went to an attorney in France. I was excited to get the surgery done and take a couple weeks off around the holidays. In August, Doctor Cusick told me most people are working within a week after surgery. I knew that my situation was different and I discussed with him about the dangers of instrument building. It seems like I always have something dangerous in my hands, whether its a chisel or a piece of machinery. I told him I planned to take a month off and spend a lot of time working on my rehab.”

Me being a doctor I know sometimes things don’t go as planned or a surprise pops up along the way. In Jim’ case, the surgery went fine but there were complications. Doctor Cusick, during surgery found out that Jim’s hand had extensive nerve damage. It was much worse than what the MRI that was done in August mapped out. Jim had made his situation worse by working the excessive hours during the fall. The estimate was that over 30% of the nerves in his hand were damaged. This too had to be taken care of during the surgery. The scheduled half hour surgery took almost an hour. Though Jim was on medication and getting over the effects of the anistesia, he still can remember the doctor saying, “There was a lot more nerve damage than we anticipated. Your rehab will take longer than we had discussed and it could be six to eight months before you get your grip back.” Jim laughed, then said, “Elmer,I was so screwed up, I really don’t think I knew what he was getting at.”

Ryan drove him home from the hospital..........

Then Jim continued, “The first couple of weeks were a blur, I was on pain killers and after two weeks I got off them. My hand was useless. I had learned to do just about everything with my left hand. I was going to rehab three days a week and spending around two hours a day at home aggressively doing the hand exercises I was told to do. Though progress was steady, it wasn’t as fast as I’d hoped for. My incision took almost two months to heal because it was made right across the bending region of the wrist. Our shop had been shut down for two months and by the end of February I was spending almost three hours a day working with my arm and hand. My grip was slowly coming back and the first part of March, Ryan and I began to work again out in the shop.”

Jim was in a strange position. For a guy that’s used to working a lot of hours and then take two months off, gave Jim time to think over his situation. He knew that when they started working again that it would be months before there were any instruments being shipped to customers. He also knew he couldn’t go on grinding out the tops and backs of archtop guitars the way he used to. That is what mainly caused his arm and hand issues. Ryan and Jim discussed the alternatives. As they looked around the shop looking for components ready to assemble, they realized there were mostly F-5 mandolin parts that could be used to get out a number of mandolins completed.

“Elmer, when we started working again, we put in an hour a day. Each week after, we added an hour to our day in the shop. Progress was slow at first and I realized I could do most things with my hand that I needed to. We had many mandolin parts in the works and we focused on getting an F-5 in to the spray booth first. Instead of two weeks to get ready for spray, it took three, but we got it done. It didn’t take us long to figure out that it would be easier on my hand this year to build mandolins instead of archtop guitars. They are so much smaller and there is a lot less grinding on tops and backs. More detail work is obvious on an F-5, but that kind of work we knew would be easier on my hand.”

Jim showed me wood destined to become mandolins that he has had for over twenty five years in his shop. ”I got this maple from Ken Thompson in the early eighties. I think I got his name from Tom Ellis. Gilchrist and Ellis were using wood from him and I purchased a pallet of fine curly maple from Ken. We lived in Riverside, California at the time. I hung on to this wood, even through the Gibson years, as I always knew some day I may need it again. The Mandolin I made Byron Berline in 1983 was made from this wood. It came from Pennsylvania and not only looks good but has great tonal qualities.”

The Triggs boys pretty much use red spruce (adirondack). They get it from Old Standard Wood. They are located in Missouri and it’s only a three hour drive from their Lawrence shop. Jim talks about John Griffin, “We first started buying wood from OSW over five years ago. We were only building archtop and flat top guitars and were hand selecting our wood from John Griffin. He sells to everybody, Martin, Gibson, Collings and many other major manufacturers and also the smaller luthier shops. We also started buying red spruce mandolin top sets from John to save it for a rainy day. I had all the maple to build a lot of mandolins, but we needed the spruce for the tops. We’ve had this stuff several years now.”

Seem like the perfect storm? Jim has surgery, decides to focus on mandolins for a while because they will be easier to manufacture, he has all this great mandolin wood. He showed me several sets of mandolin tuners. He has all kinds, the new Grovers, he also has Schallers and Ghoto’s on hand. I also saw a large box of ivoroid binding material and another box of standard mandolin tailpieces. Jim explained to me that they had nearly all the inventory in house to build up over two dozen mandolins. All they need are some fingerboards and bridges.

“Short term Elmer, financially speaking we have a lot invested in mandolin wood. It was bought and paid for years ago. It’s better than money in the bank. Our hard cost for an F-5 is three times less than our standard archtop guitar. In many instances we get around the same money for both instruments. I can’t afford to inventory many archtop parts, not only because of money but also because we don’t have the room as the dimensions of the wood are so much greater.”

When I began to see Jim and Ryan regularly this spring to prepare for this article, I also noticed the lack of guitar parts and bodies that are usually in their shop. Mandolin tops, backs and neck parts seemed to be growing out of nowhere. Jim showed me a hand full of beautiful F-5 backs that he had hand carved over two years ago. Within a two week period, five tops were carved. He showed me a couple of tops that were to final dimension and had the tone bars installed. Neck parts were all over the place. I was amazed. I asked Jim, “What about your hand?” He answered, “I’ve been lifting light weights and all the rehab has paid off. I think my grip’s about 85% back and it’s only been three months since the surgery. I’m back to seven and eight hour days and we’re finally getting something done out here.”

Jim is teaching Ryan how to rough carve tops and backs to help ease his hand back into a heavy work load. Ryan knows a lot about flat tops and archtop construction and the mandolin building is something new to him.

Jim talks about their new mandolin website, “Ryan’s been working on it off and on for a couple of months now. We felt it was important to get right on this from a marketing stand point. We need to start to advertise the fact that we’re building F-5’s again and not just two or three a year like we’ve been doing.”

Jim suggested that I have Ryan show me the progress he was making on the site. I really enjoyed seeing all the photos, not just of the completed mandolins but of the mandolins going through the building process as well. While visiting with him I asked Ryan what it was like working with Jim. He said, “Elmer, I can’t think of another job that I’d rather have. I’ve been helping him out for around eight years now. I think the last six or so I’ve been working full time. It just seems like there is an unlimited amount of things to learn out in the shop and who better to teach me than my dad. He’s a wealth of instrument building knowledge and I just try to soak it all in. Sometimes it’s hard for him to sit down and teach me something new because that takes time and can slow down our production so I just try to watch what he does and learn from him that way. It can get a little hectic out in the shop. Being stuck in an 800 sq. ft. room with someone all day everyday can become monotonous every now and then but for the most part we seem to get a long fairly well. I’m really looking forward to learning more about building mandolins in the near future. I’ve already routed some tops and backs and can’t wait to start shaping necks. The more familiar I become with different aspects of the building process the better prepared I’ll be if I decide to do this on my own someday.”

Seems like Ryan is in it for the long haul. Jim told me years ago that when Ryan and he discussed his working in the shop, they came up with a plan for Ryan to be a complete luthier by the time he turned thirty. Anytime Jim shows Ryan something new to learn, he has to learn the process as good as Jim can do it prior to Jim teaching him something else.

“If we stay true to our plan, Ryan will be an accomplished luthier, and be able to build any instrument, whether it’s a mandolin, flat top, archtop guitar or solid body electric of any style. I didn’t hit the pavement running till after I left Gibson, and I was thirty six years old. Ryan will be way ahead of me. We’re known as a custom shop and aren’t afraid to tackle any style musical instrument. With all the different style instruments that Gibson makes, I learned a lot while I was there especially from my good friend in the Custom Shop, Phil Jones. I learned so much while watching him work. He is truly a master luthier and expert repairman.”

In a world where instrument “kits” are available for just about every instrument, It’s good to know that there are still small shops out there like the Triggs shop, that still manufacture nearly all of their own parts. I hope you have enjoyed this first part of this long article on Jim and Ryan. I decided to break it up into two parts when I figured out how much information I had come up with. The second part of the article will mostly be about the Triggs Boys future and their current focus on the mandolin. Also, be on the lookout for “Jim Triggs, The Gibson Years.” It’s an article written by Jim discussing his time at Gibson. Jim worked there from October of 1986 to March 1992. Jim tells me he’s never really opened up publicly about his tenure at Gibson. He also told me there is a lot of mis-information out there on the subject. I can assure you that the stories he shares are all light hearted and informative. His memories of his times with Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs are priceless. Then there’s the Greg Rich and Charlie Derrington tales. The many artist he got to know on a personal level he mentioned often. Many of Jim’s closest friends in the midwest really don’t know much about his Gibson days. It’s really hard for me to believe there’s a guy living over in Lawrence that knows so many high level music artist. The gold records and photo’s hanging in Jim’s basement are a testimony as to what the Nashville community thought of him as a person.

Dr. Elmer Sharp, spring 2008