In April, before his concert at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center, Jackson Browne traveled to Kula to see a man about a guitar.
The man is Steve Grimes, who, in addition to being a longtime Maui musician and songwriter, is a renowned luthier – a builder of stringed instruments. Grimes has spent the last 46 years transforming wood into extraordinarily tuneful guitars, ukuleles and mandolins that reside in the collections of artists like Willie Nelson, Jake Shimabukuro, Pat Simmons, Leo Kottke, Steve Miller and George Benson, to name just a few.
He sold his first archtop guitar in 1974 for around $400. These days, a Grimes guitar can cost from $6,800 to $24,000, depending on the style and the wood used.
Are they worth it? Venerated musician and Doobie Brother Pat Simmons extolled the virtues of the double hole “Beamer” guitar that his wife Cris bought him on his 50th birthday: “It is absolutely my favorite acoustic guitar. Great intonation at every fret, superb action and playability, a silky tonality that achieves ringing high notes, and just enough lower midrange that is necessary for using in the studio. The notes are very even across the spectrum, so you can pick out the tones, and hear each one distinctly. I’m so lucky to have one of Steve’s instruments.”
Musicians are a different species. There’s a reason they’re sometimes called “cool cats.” Like their furry namesakes, musicians often dwell on a different plane from other mortals. Onstage, that’s Grimes. Offstage, he is warm, loquacious and unceasingly kind. He is a gifted songwriter, as revealed in his four CDs (Mojo Gumbo, Labor of Love, The Ocean Road and Assorted Chocolates). His tunes are catchy, and his poetic lyrics run the gamut from sweet romance to biting commentary.
On the rollicking blues tune Moving to Maui, from Labor of Love, Grimes sings,
You know we’re movin’ upcountry
And buy ten acres next to you
We’re gonna move on up to Kula
Build our McMansion next to you
We’ll make it look like California
By the time we get through
On the haunting title track of The Ocean Road, he philosophizes,
To see your destination
You must see where you have been
To see the journey’s end, you know where to begin
We sail without, and we sail within
Through the wisdom of the ancient ones who live again
I caught up with Steve in the comfortably funky shop-studio adjacent to the home he shares with his wife Mary Anna (full disclosure: my husband and I introduced them). Tall and lanky, his elegantly long fingers are well-suited for strumming, and weave through the air in punctuation to our lively conversation. Behind him, hundreds of intricate tools are neatly arranged, awaiting application to the guitar bodies in various stages of completion on the opposite wall.
One of my favorite places in his shop is his narrow wood room, an intoxicatingly fragrant, carefully humidified space where he meticulously stores the wood he uses in his creations. Among the pieces of koa, cedar, maple and Sitka spruce are also rare exotics like Brazilian rosewood, ziricote, African blackwood and Gabon ebony. Using them can add up to $10,000 to the cost of a guitar.
Born in Baltimore, Grimes started playing at 13 and frequented secondhand stores in search of cheap guitars that he taught himself how to rehabilitate. That led to years of playing with bands and fixing stringed instruments. After living in Seattle and Port Townsend, Washington, he moved to Maui in 1982 and continued to build and repair – for years he was the island’s go-to guy if you needed your Martin, Gibson or Fender fixed. He shifted solely to building in 1994 and has amassed a dazzling array of instruments and styles, including his popular Archtop and Double Sound Hole Flat Top guitars.
When he’s not building, he’s songwriting, recording, performing locally with his Ono Grimes Band or appearing in duos or trios for private parties.
Here’s an edited version of our conversation.
MAUITIME: Let’s talk about Jackson Browne’s visit.
STEVE GRIMES: I ran into Jackson backstage at the MACC a few years back and introduced myself. He said, “I know who you are. I’ve been curious about your guitars for a while.” We had a wonderful conversation, but I didn’t expect anything. Then this year his assistant called and made arrangements for Jackson to visit the shop before his concert. I thought we were just going to talk about guitars, woods and what kind of tone he liked. I planned to put a bunch of different guitars in his hands. I showed him a double hole and he said, “Whoa, that’s got a lot of sound, but it freaks me out – those two holes.” So I showed him the guitar I use for gigs – it’s a traditional round sound hole guitar made from Sitka spruce and koa – and he liked it a lot. He said he had a lot of guitars, “but not one that does what this does, tone-wise.” So even though I had one on the shelf that was almost done, I said, “If you like this one, you can take it now.” And he went, “Wow. Okay.” And that was it.
MT: Your career path didn’t initially include being a luthier.
SG: Right. After studying engineering in college, I moved to Seattle and got a drafting job at Boeing. I figured I’d work there for a while, then move up to engineer. But after a year I was bored stiff – you really didn’t want someone like me working on a plane. At night I would play instruments, and in my little home workshop I would work on repairing these beat-up instruments that I got. Then I met a guy who taught me advanced repair and things like the logarithmic layout of frets. After I got paid for my first repair, I quit my job at Boeing.
MT: How did that go over with your parents?
SG: My mother said, “That’s a stupid move. You’re throwing your education away.” And I said, “Well, I’m making mandolins now, Mom” – that was the first instrument I started on. She said. “You’re going to – what – sit on the street corner and sell medallions?” I said, “No Mom. Not medallions, mandolins.” She thought I wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed.
MT: How did you become a go-to luthier for musicians?
SG: I had moved to Maui and was making five or six instruments a year and doing lots of repair. I had built a guitar in trade for a rusty old Land Cruiser for a guy named Henry Allen, who is a very well-known jazz-Hawaiian music-steel guitar player. He showed the guitar to his friend George Benson, who then wanted to meet me. George fell in love with the guitars and bought one that day, then three more in later years. That kind of put me on the map; it was an endorsement that really changed things.
MT: Who has Grimes guitars?
SG: Steve Miller has, I think, the biggest collection of them. He’s got 11. Walter Becker had 10 or 11. Keola Beamer, Willie Nelson, Pat Simmons, now Jackson Browne, Earl Klugh, Leo Kottke. Jake Shimabukuro came up and played some ukuleles a couple years ago. He wanted a different sound, so instead of koa, I built him one with a cedar top. That was exciting.
MT: Is there a “Grimes sound?”
SG: People tell me there is and I have to believe them. Before I close up the body of the guitar or the ukulele, I “voice” the top. I have these different hammers that tap it and make different sounds, and I’m listening for how long a note lasts, how musical it is, whether it has distortion or interference. I work with the dimensions of the wood until it sounds great. I know before I have strings or a neck on it that it’s going to be a great-sounding guitar.
MT: Pat Simmons told me how much he loves his “Beamer.” Tell me how you created it.
SG: [Hawaiian slack-key master] Keola Beamer walked into my shop one day with a double hole guitar that needed repair. I told him, “This guitar has potential, but it’s too heavily built. I thought I could make one with a more open tone. So I did, and when I showed it to him, he had to have it. After I made him a second one, I asked if I could call it the Beamer model and he said yes.
MT: On average, how long does it take to build a guitar or a ukulele?
SG: For a traditional flat top guitar, about 80 to 100 hours. For a more specialized archtop, 175 to 250. A standard ukulele takes about 50 hours.
MT: How many instruments have you created?
SG: There’s a milestone coming up. We’re at 966. That includes everything: mandolins, acoustic basses, flat top guitars, archtop guitars and 75 electric guitars. My assistant Russell Halverson and I make about 25 a year, so in another two years, we’ll hit 1,000. Then there will be a party.
MT: Which is harder, writing a song or building a guitar?
SG: That’s a really hard question! I get the same amount of pleasure from both activities. I just wrote a song in an hour-and-a-half the other day and I’d never done that before. Most of the time writing a song is similar to the amount of time it takes to make a guitar, although I did start one song in 1978 and didn’t finish it until 2004 – that averaged out to about two words a year.
MT: You appeared in a classic Hollywood movie.
SG: When I lived in Port Townsend, I played with a band that did old swing, kind of campy Dan Hicks stuff. One night this guy comes up and says, “I really like the band. Would you consider playing a part in a movie?” And I said, “Sure. What movie?” It was An Officer and a Gentleman [the 1982 blockbuster starring Debra Winger and Richard Gere]. He says, “The scene is an officers’ ball. You guys will have to wear tuxedos and play some kind of patriotic song.” They decided that would be Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree. Then they wanted an instrumental version of Feelings so Richard Gere could slow dance with Debra Winger. We kind of hated both those songs, but it was a good gig. It paid magnificently.
MT: And still does…
SG: [laughs] Oh yeah, I get royalties to this day. About $13 a year – so lunch at an inexpensive restaurant.
MT: What are the physical practicalities of your profession?
SG: The hands are still working, but I’ve had some work done. I got the left wrist rebuilt and it’s good. I can actually play some chords that I haven’t been able to play in quite a while. So I’m at that point where I need some new parts, but the warranty is still valid and they still make these parts.
MT: Is it good to be a musician on Maui?
SG: It’s good to be a musician, but on Maui or anywhere else it’s tough. It’s a competitive world. There are great players on Maui who have a tough time finding work; there are very marginal players here who have all the work they can handle. When I lived in Seattle, I might make 75 or 100 bucks for a night’s work. We’re in 2018 and there are lots of people who would be happy to go out and make 75 to 100 bucks for a gig. 40 years later!! What’s wrong with this picture?
MT: Musician, Songwriter, Luthier. Is one your favorite? If somebody said, “You have to give up one of the three…”
SG: No way. I would give up sleep first. Loving to do something is such a motivator. I have a quote on my wall that says, “The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play.” I love the fact that I can’t wait to get in here in the morning after 46 years of doing it. I walk into the wood room and see these blocks of wood, and I think, “What could this be?” To think that this wood could be something in the hands of a great musician is still real exciting.
You can listen to music by Steve Grimes at Grimestunes.com and view his instruments at Grimesguitars.com.
Cover design: Darris Hurst
Cover photo: Bob Bangerter
Photo of Jackson Browne: Steve Grimes
Photo of Steve and Jake: Mary Anna Grimes
Photo of Steve in the workshop: Denny Tillman