About Watchful Guitars & Greg Robinson
Growing up, my parents would tell me that my name means "watchful."
I finally looked this up for myself one day: Gregory (Greek "Gregorios"/Latin "Gregorious"):
A watchman, vigilant, awake, alert.
I’ve been around guitars since I was little.
My grandfather used to sit on his bed and sing and play his 1957 Dobro for us grandkids whenever we were at his house and asked him to bring it out. What a musical treat! He loved Roy Acuff and George Jones, and would usually pick out a “high lonesome” song to sing and play, and he loved his Dobro.
He bought and sold antiques and “junk,” and was always bringing something interesting home with him. One day when I was eleven, and had been wanting to take piano lessons, he brought out an old beat-up Harmony guitar that he’d traded someone for. He sat it on my lap, and that was it! I immediately started trying to pick out tunes I knew, until my parents finally decided it was time for guitar lessons a few months later.
Speaking of lessons: When I was fifteen, the music store where I’d been taking them invited me to spend three days with them at the NAMM show in Chicago. To get me in they had to “credential” me as the store “repairman,” because the actual repairman was sick and couldn’t make it. Although I was far from being any kind of guitar repair person at the time, I sure got to see a lot of guitars on that trip!
During these years, I found myself with a Martin dreadnaught, a Fender Stratocaster and a Telecaster—I was set (thanks to my dad, who always supported my musical interests). By the time I was in high school, I had decided to take classical guitar, and studied it seriously all the way through the end of my first year in college.
After taking a break from playing for a few years, when I did pick it up again, I became interested in what made the guitar work. I even had a couple of friends ask me to take a look at their guitars to see if I could figure out what was making them hard to play. I wouldn’t really call my first repair attempts repairs at all . . . I basically did (thankfully reversible) damage to them, but also thankfully they were not vintage Gibsons or Martins, and so I was hooked on what it took to problem-solve things about guitars.
Fast-forwarding a couple of decades later is where I found myself with some real experiences under my belt. I’d tinkered with many, many guitars that had passed through my hands (at last count it was something north of eight-hundred or so), having changed out pickups, hardware, executed finish repairs or re-finishing, made replacement parts, etc., and so I was on my way. I’d also had the experiences of having taken many of my guitars to accomplished professional repair people wherever I’d lived, and I would always ask questions, and they were typically always glad to show, explain, and sometimes demonstrate things for me. I would also visit the big guitar shows like the one in Dallas, TX during the years that I lived there, and there were always people from all over the world with all kinds of guitars, old and new.
A real turning point came on a day in 2011 when a custom builder, who was working on an archtop that I’d commissioned from him, invited me to his shop to witness part of the process. He'd been shaping the neck for my guitar with a scraper, and turned to me with the tool and the neck and asked me to keep shaving while he worked on the body. All I knew to do was to say “okay” and take the neck and scraper and just keep doing what he’d been doing. The photo below is of that neck, and it turned out really great! I also ended up completing my second complete French polish of shellac job on that archtop, and to this day it brings me much joy.
In late 2018, I was approached by someone who asked me to take a look at two of his guitars: One a simple fret adjustment and the other a large finish gouge—each of these guitars that he treasured. He was really happy with the result, and by early 2019, it hit me one night while watching Johnny Kinkead narrate a fret job he was completing on YouTube that it was time . . . time to enter the professional world of stringed instrument repair and guitar building.
I spent six months researching and preparing for my first build, and started it during the early summer of 2019. To date, I have completed eight guitars, one of which is a classical based upon a 1963 Robert Bouchet model. The five acoustics are OM-style acoustic guitars, made completely by myself, apart from the tuners, the strings, the frets, and the bridge pins. The latest classical is a traditionally-braced instrument adapted to my soundhole-cutaway design which is proving to take my guitars further in the direction that I want to take them.
Education and Training
As I'd mentioned above, my grandfather bought, restored, and sold antiques as a side business. I learned to appreciate fine woodwork from going to auctions with him and from being around his workshop and seeing all of those nice old pieces of furniture. My other grandfather was a life-long professional cabinet-maker, and so I was eventually fortunate to inherit many of his old tools, while my dad taught me how to use them through carpentry, and always made sure through the years that I had various essential tools that I needed.
Growing up, I was a kid who could draw, after my dad would sit with me on the couch and show me how to reproduce basic things like trains (I loved trains when I was little!) using a pencil and paper. As a younger teenager, I had private instruction for several years from portrait painter Barbara Van Gelderen, who taught me how to really look and how to really see. I also thank my tenth-grade art teacher Gregg Davis for teaching our class actual, practical skills for creating visual art over the course of that school year.
In the summer of 1987, I was chosen to participate in the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts under the leadership of the visionary Virginia Uldrick, when the program was young and still taking place on the campus of Furman University. It was here that I was exposed to world-class teachers in drawing, painting, and three-dimensional art, and it was here that I first realized that being a professional artist meant lots of hard work!
As I have turned to the profession of lutherie, I have gotten and continue to receive what I consider continuing education all of the time. As of this writing, I have completed online coursework through material provided by Eric Schaefer, Robert O’Brien, and Tom Bills. As well, I have completed Bogdanovich's Making a Concert Classical Guitar with John Bogdanovich--his extensive DVD course. Also toward this endeavor, I have worked through Roy Courtnall’s book, Making Master Guitars, and have corresponded with him during the making of that first classical. As well, Johnny Kinkead’s Make Your Own Acoustic Guitar really got me started with completing that first build. And I am forever grateful to Marcus Chatfield for handing me the neck and scraper on that day back in 2011, as this really helped point me in a direction that meant I would eventually begin and complete that first guitar. I must also mention Christopher Brinson as a constant source of inspiration and encouragement through the years.
Seeking an additional challenge for honing my skills, I have also completed Lucas Fabro's course on making a violin, and have completed a kit which took around 80+ hours of handwork. I'm excited about how it turned out, and have already gained additional insights that are only going to enhance my guitar building going forward. Becoming a member of the Guild of American Luthiers has also provided for me a big boost in resources and educational materials toward this end.