Nik of Gruber's Guitars can wax poetic about music. He's been teaching guitar since age 14 and he knows his way around a bandsaw so he's truly a tour de force. If you need to know why your guitar sounds weird, what kind of guitar you need for a particular piece of music, or what Norwegian singer songwriter you should listen to, Nik is your guy. It was great being able to watch him work for an afternoon.
Tell us who you are and what you do.
That’s a great question. Who am I? Some days I don’t know. Um. I’m Nik Gruber. I’m a luthier, which means I fix and build guitars. Beyond that, I self identify as a teacher because that’s what I did for a long time.
How did you start building guitars?
My dad does this, too, kind of... He’s a high school teacher in Omaha. I grew up doing this. I started doing this as a teenager and I started working at a guitar store when I was like fourteen and kind of just kept doing that.
Do you play music?
I play in a couple bands around town. The Blues Band and Harmony Party - we’re like a weird contemporary jazz thing - and I’ve been in a long standing band in town called Big Fun, which is just guitar and drums and we do a lot of R&B and funk and soul jazz.
Did you grow up in a creative home?
Yep. My dad played guitar. Everybody plays guitar in my family. I probably started when I was ten, seriously that is, and I started teaching when I was fourteen.
How did you get into lutherie?
Mostly job security. I moved around a bunch and I taught at a bunch of places - at the University of Iowa and Kirkwood Community College, Ohio University, and at that point the job market was going south, especially for tenure track jazz musicians. This would’ve been 2008. At that point, I started making a transition in careers and began working at Stewmac in Athens, Ohio. I started apprenticing with a guy that I knew while I was teaching. I moved out here to teach at Concordia, but in the back of my mind I knew that I would start my own shop.
What was the process like of starting your own business?
Slow. When we started in 2010 just out of the house, it took a long time for us to build a customer base. By the end of moving a year ago, we were regularly helping 60-80 customers a month just out of the house. So it took five years to build up a solid enough customer base to where I could actually pay myself.
What’s your favorite part of the business?
Boy. I don’t know. Probably the most satisfying thing for me is going out and seeing people use the stuff. That’s my favorite part of doing this - going to Sidestreet and seeing people use my stuff.
What’s the advantage of having you make the guitar over buying off the rack?
Aside from my sparkling personality, I’d have to say it’s options. That’s always what it’s about. When we’re building something for somebody, it’s something they can’t get. It might be a basic design that already exists, but for instance, we’ve done guitars just because they couldn’t get a green one. So color ends up being a thing but that’s really the advantage. Someone may want a guitar with completely different pickups or something bizarre but you do get to pick everything.
What’s the most challenging part of the business?
For me it’s the actual business part. I mean I do my own taxes and stuff, but I just really don’t like it. The work is always just the work. That and time management, which is related to the business part of it.
What’s the most challenging project you’ve ever taken on?
This is a guitar that I made for a guy named Colin Holter from Concordia last spring. We drew this up. That’s not derivative or related to any existing shape. We made it from scratch. And what’s really weird about this, aside from looking just effing bizarre is if you can see closely on the neck there are twice as many frets. It’s microtonal. There’s that note between C and C sharp that we don’t have in our music but other places do. He had a weird piece of classical music, like 60’s era Norwegian composer, and commissioned me to make a guitar that he could actually play the piece on. It has twice as many frets up to the octave and then it’s fretless because otherwise you couldn’t play the top ones. That was even a thing we had to figure out.
Talk about where we are.
Totally random. We looked at a bunch of places downtown and I was being thrifty and so we ended up here. We didn’t really choose here, but we wanted to be downtown where everything was happening. When we rented this, it was still the pinball arcade. Scott, who owned the building, wanted to change it from a pinball arcade so he made me a really good deal. He wanted the space to be a little different so that’s how we ended up down here.
Because of where we are downtown, bands do come over from the Civic so it’s that kind of place. Some people aren’t actual customers, they just want to come chat.
How are you able to use the space more creatively than previous spaces?
I kind of have free reign. There’s just no shortage of space. If I wanted to paint a car down there, the only problem would be getting it down the stairs. (chuckles) There’s the space to do those kinds of crazy things. The only disadvantage was having to change things so it had what we needed like adding ventilation.
How do you make a guitar start to finish?
I run over to Valley Hardware in Dilworth and grab $8.50 pieces of Basswood. One of the things we moved out of the way downstairs was the planer/joiner and creates a perfect surfaces and joins the two together.
Step two is pretty much the same thing but we put a center line on this bad boy. But then we’re going to take something like I’m making today - another template out of wood - that we’re going to pattern route and bandsaw this out. Then we’ll clean up all the edges and route my pockets with my palm router tracing bit, and from there it’s finishing. That’s a really time consuming thing. Depending on if we’re making a neck, the same process happens again for the neck.
At the very end, after a bunch of painting and buffing, you wire things up.
How long does it take from start to finish?
Good question. (chuckles) Most projects take a couple months because I’ve got a bunch of projects going at once and it takes two weeks for just the lacquer to cure. Two months is the fastest I’ve done one - and that was a birthday present.
How many projects do you typically have going at one time?
Too many. For repairs, I’ve got eight or nine going right now. Some of those are bigger projects - restorations, paint, things like that. Then I’m building a couple things for myself, like this guitar with carving, and I just finished that red bass over there for the weekend so we’re up to a dozen random things… and that doesn’t even include things like the 1915 mandolin I’m messing with, and the 1910 ten string next to it. I’m building this Les Paul for the heck of it. Sometimes people even bring things in that they are getting rid of and while I don’t have time to fix them now… maybe in the future… (laughs)
Why do you create?
I don’t know the why. It’s one of those innate things. It’s a thing that you do with a compulsion without any sort of logic. I like to do creative stuff because early on I had those outlets because my family played music. I always saw it as something that was fun but also a way that I could not work as hard as the next guy… which is ironic considering that I can sometimes put in 90 hours of work a week.
At the age that I realized you could get paid to play music, that was just earth shattering.
Since I was thirteen or fourteen, I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to work in a phone center or something. That’s part of it for me. Being creative is the antithesis of having a desk job.
How has your work changed?
We’ve streamlined a bit. It’s still pretty old school, but having employees like Brett, Dusty, and Connor has allowed me to delegate. Little things to make it easier. We still make guitars the way Fender made guitars in the 50’s so our process hasn’t changed that much.
What are you listening to right now?
I’m all over the place. I’m one of those people who listens to a weird variety of stuff. I’ve been listening to Dylan a lot, not Bob but there’s a European singer and her name is Dylan. She’s German but of Brazilian birth. It’s an odd, almost Amy Winehouse thing. That one’s been stuck in my head a bunch. A lot of the other guys who work here like to listen to Saint Pepsi and other chillwave kind of stuff so we listen to a lot of chillwave. I like soul music. I get in grooves. I think Tower of Power is what’s on the table right now. I’ve been listening to a lot of 70’s soul like The Whispers… those are the things in my brain right now.
That’s what keeps it exciting. That’s kind of what compels me to do everything - that I constantly want to hear new music.
What inspires you?
The first thing that came into my mind was “revenge.” (laughs) I don’t know how to answer that one. Seeing good work get done. Seeing my assistant Brett pick stuff up. He made that red guitar right there with the stripes. I still like to teach in that way. That’s inspirational for me to see that maybe we’re figuring some stuff out here.
What do you hope people take away from their experience with you?
I hope that they leave with a different sense of quality, the attention to detail. I think nowadays a lot of things are mass produced, and guitars are one of those, but the things we make are remarkably old school that most companies use a CNC machine, or computer, to produce. It’s doing all the cutting for us that was drawn up in CAD.
What advice do you have for other people who want to have a creative career?
What I’ve learned is that it’s difficult to make a career out of being a creative person, especially, and I’ll speak for myself but generalize a little bit, because many times creative people aren’t accountants, too. That’s what I’ve learned about it. It’s a lot of work and I’ve gotten to learn a lot about my strengths and weaknesses (chuckles) - which is not a bad thing! The piece of advice then would be to know yourself. Know what you can do and delegate or get help. I have a SCORE mentor. There’s just no way I could do it all myself. And I’ve always been that kind of person who wanted to do it all himself, but no that’s what you have to learn. You have to figure out how to get help and let other people do the things that aren’t for you. Not everything will be for you so let others do what you can’t so that you can do the creating.
One thing I have been told, a piece of advice from visual artists, from Steve Troy, is “do it a lot.” And that may sound like a ridiculous statement, but if you want to do art, do art a lot. (laughs) You have to develop your personality as an artist and that happens over the course of time. Also, you kind of have to be prolific just so that you have enough stuff to show, to be able to say “this is what I do.”