by Eric J. Wallace
Larry Keel, a world-renowned progressive-bluegrass guitarist, dropped by a small music shop in Lexington in 2003 and was immediately smitten by a big dreadnought acoustic guitar hanging above the counter.
Its sunburst coloring was reminiscent of a 1930s Gibson. An inlay of colorful vines spanned the length of the fretboard. And “Rockbridge” was emblazoned across the headstock in cursive, mother-of-pearl lettering.
“I was immediately drawn to the guitar because of its incredibly beautiful craftsmanship,” says Keel. “Then I played it and the sound was equally as beautiful. I knew then and there, I had to have one.”
The magnificent instrument, essentially a prototype, was crafted by Brian Calhoun and Randall Ray, a pair of locals who had launched the Rockbridge Guitar Company as a part-time business in 2002.
Keel was flabbergasted. “I knew those guys from jam sessions I’d attended back in the ‘90s,” he says. “I had no idea they were making guitars – much less ones that sounded as good as anything you’ll ever run a pick across.”
Keel reached out to Calhoun and commissioned a dreadnought, the most common style of acoustic guitar, customized with a particularly impressive, full-color largemouth bass inlaid on the headstock. The beautiful instrument served as Keel’s go-to tour axe for about 10 years. In addition to his own shows, he played it while moonlighting with Sam Bush, Del McCoury, the Yonder Mountain String Band, Tony Rice and Bela Fleck, among countless others. Following a handful of scares, he realized the guitar was “way too nice a work of art for the road.” The instrument now stays at home and is used for all his songwriting.
The high-profile sale, as well as Keel’s emphatic endorsements, put Rockbridge on the map. Major studio owners and producers requested demos. Orders skyrocketed. Within a year, Calhoun and Ray had quit their jobs and bought a showroom off of Charlottesville’s downtown mall.
The company has since grown to include four employees. Offering 10 guitar models, the group crafts about 60 boutique instruments a year. The company has built a star-studded following; their client list includes Dave Matthews, Jason Mraz, Jonathan Russell (The Head and the Heart), Mary Chapin Carpenter, Mike Campbell (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), Matt Sorum (Guns N’ Roses), Richie Sambora (Bon Jovi), Ray LaMontagne and Warren Haynes.
The company’s origins lie in what Calhoun calls a high school pipedream gone impossibly right. The story begins in the mid-90s with a math teacher and a homemade violin.
“He brings this thing to class one day, bows out a tune, then starts explaining about the equations he’d used to build it,” says Calhoun, a native of Rockbridge County. A zealous bluegrass guitarist, he was mind-blown. “I could’ve cared less about the math stuff, what got me going was the sound. I could hardly believe it: Here was this dude I thought was just a normal everyday guy, yet he’d managed to make this amazing instrument.”
Inspired, Calhoun lingered after class. He implored the instructor to help him build an instrument. The enthusiasm he showed in the matter was in sharp contrast to his usual lackluster academic interest. The teacher took note and offered to sponsor a program of independent study. Calhoun chose to make a mandolin.
“I dove in headfirst and fell in love, like, immediately,” he says. Working with the wood brought a Zen-like peace. Shaping it into a sonorous box capable of giving birth to music felt magical. “It was romantic and deeply spiritual,” says Calhoun. “I felt like I was discovering the reason for my being.”
Professional apprenticeships followed graduation. Calhoun spent the next three years learning to craft fiddles and mandolins. But while he excelled, something still felt off.
“A violin can be technically perfect and still be missing something,” he says. “World-class instruments have this kind of mystical quality – there’s something special that brings them to life and makes them sing. It sounds wonky, but a trained musician can feel it when it’s in their hands, and they’ll damn sure hear it.”
Calhoun’s violins and mandolins didn’t measure up.
Distraught, he decided to try his hand at a guitar. The results were lifechanging.
“The moment I gave up the other stuff, something clicked,” he says. Strumming his first homemade guitar, a shiver knuckled down his spine. “I knew I was on the right path. I felt with 100 percent surety I was put on this Earth to build acoustic guitars.”
Still, his instruments needed tweaking.
Randall Ray moved to Lexington in 1981 to attend Washington and Lee University and never left. “The bug bit me hard,” he says of the area’s bluegrass scene. Ray took up guitar and started playing about eight hours a day. “By the end of freshman year, I was attending more jam sessions than classes. My life’s big ambition morphed into eking out a living in the country and becoming a reasonably decent flat-picker.”
He made his first guitar in 1989, a labor that had more to do with money than passion. Working as a part-time housepainter, he was broke. Top-notch instruments were expensive; vintage Martin and Gibson guitars, coveted by bluegrass pickers, can cost more than $10,000.
“The only way to get my hands on something like that was to make it myself,” says Ray. Raised in a family of woodworking tinkerers, the idea seemed feasible – especially with practice. “I learned so much working on the first one, I started planning for the second before it was finished,” he says.
Then came a third and fourth. Correspondences with luthiers to obtain information about obscure techniques and antique instruments ensued. “The more I learned, the more I saw there was to know. It became a crazy addiction.”
Ray started selling his guitars to finance better tools and materials. By 2000, he was building four or five a year. An influx of commissions led him to approach Calhoun.
“Brian was super-dedicated and extremely enthusiastic,” says Ray. The two had been jamming together on-and-off for about five years. “All he cared about was picking tunes and trying to build a phenomenal instrument. I figured, who better to help me out?”
The relationship started with Calhoun shaping a few necks and applying finishes.
“Then one day he comes in and says, ‘Check out this inlay job, isn’t it awesome?’” says Ray.
Unfortunately, it was not good. The would-be Western-style festoons looked more like tentacles than vines.
“I told him, ‘Don’t quit your day job, cowboy.’”
“Hearing that now, I think, ‘Man, that’s harsh,’” says
Calhoun with a chuckle. “But back then, I was just starting out. And Randall was, like, the guru. The fact he’d even take the time to criticize my stuff felt profound. So, I took it as a challenge.”
The incident went unmentioned for about six months. Meanwhile, Calhoun obsessed over the project, carving inlay patterns for four to six hours a day. Eventually, he unveiled work that he was really proud of, for instance, a cowboy on horseback lassoing the neck of a raging bull.
“I took one look and my heart sort of skipped a beat,” Ray says. “It was as good, if not better, than anything I’d ever seen.” Gauging by the reaction, Calhoun urged Ray to partner with him and go into business full-time. Ray agreed, but was skeptical.
“Nobody builds their own guitars full-time,” Ray says. “That’s rarer than becoming a rock star. But Brian was too naïve to know that, and I didn’t have the heart to say no. Instead, I heard myself say something like, ‘You get the orders and we’ll quit our jobs and live our real-life American Dream.’”
The year was 2002. That summer, Calhoun took some prototypes and hit the road. He roamed the campgrounds of Southeastern bluegrass festivals looking for jam sessions.
“I’d sit in on a few songs and people would get intrigued by the guitar’s look and sound and ask what it was,” he says. Within two months, he’d more than quadrupled orders from the year before. Rockbridge Guitar Company was born.
According to Keel, Rockbridge guitars sell themselves. Put one in the hands of a seasoned veteran and they can’t help but to be impressed.
“They’re incredible to look at and then, when you play one, that sound is as good as anything you’ve ever heard,” he says. The tone is clear and robust as a 100-year-old Gibson or Martin. Yet the instruments are fundamentally unique. “I’ve played thousands of guitars and can say with surety: You won’t come across this sound anywhere else.”
While most boutique guitar makers peddle copycats, Calhoun and Ray took a different approach. Their goal was to craft heirloom instruments that would be handed down through the generations.
“Randall spent 10 years analyzing blueprints from every big-name guitar maker there ever was,” says Calhoun. For his part, Calhoun researched innovations like carbon-fiber bracing and water-based finishes, which respectively reduce weight and allow the wood to resonate more fully. “We took what we liked about different vintage models and created new combinations. Then we used modern technology to make them even better.”
The effect has pros hooked. Warren Haynes, the longtime Allman Brothers Band and Government Mule frontman, recorded with five Rockbridges on his 2015 acoustic album, “Ashes & Dust.” He subsequently bought three.
“You can pretty much tell a great guitar when you can strum a G-chord and it speaks to you,” says Haynes. “I can try 20 old guitars and that might not happen once. But every Rockbridge I played had that effect. And the more I played, the better they sounded.”
The company has produced about 650 guitars to date. While base models start at $5,100, specialty jobs often sell for more than $10,000. Ray and Calhoun hope the instruments will remain in circulation for centuries. They envision a day when, like the great masters of the past, Haynes and Keel will bestow their go-to axes upon the next generation of players.
“It’s fun to think of my great-great-grandkids seeing one of these guitars on stage somewhere 100 years from now and saying, ‘Hey, I know where that thing came from!’” says Ray.
A handful of patriarchs have already passed instruments down to their children and grandchildren.
“Don’t get me wrong, getting to make guitars for my heroes has been amazing,” says Calhoun. “But what’s affected me the most is hearing from a 20-year-old saying this guitar represents her grandfather better than anything he could’ve left her. He’s moved on, but when she plays the songs he taught her as a kid? It’s like he’s right there with her. To me, that’s incredible. That’s what Rockbridge is all about.”