IN a small room of a skinny Victorian house sandwiched between two brownstones in Cambridge, Mass., Alvin Fry spends about 10 hours each day at an intense, exhausting, time-consuming job that he describes as a passion. Mr. Fry builds custom guitars.
The luthier (meaning a maker of stringed instruments) moved here from Nashville last September, and he has been making guitars - classical, jazz, folk, rock, baritone acoustic, and electric ones -
for 14 years.
Ten years ago he discovered an innovation that he says has enabled him to build every one of his guitars with five features that work right every time.
These include a dynamic range that will respond accurately to the power level given to it; a properly balanced tone from the first position to the last position; evenness of volume from one note to the next; medium-gauged strings that are easier to play than light-gauged strings on other guitars; and perfect intonation - a musical impossibility, according to other luthiers and musicians.
A number of musicians claim that Fry is an undiscovered diamond in the rough.
``I've played thousands of guitars,'' says Bob Harris of Nashville, named ``best bluegrass flatpicker'' by Guitar Player Magazine. ``His are the best. There's no other guitar that even comes close. He's doing something inside the guitar that's bringing all of this out, and every one of his guitars are like that.''
``Al somehow found some kind of magic formula,'' says Ed Supple, a studio guitar player who bought an acoustic electric from Fry.
``I've played a lot of very expensive and well-made instruments, but usually they have a quality about them - certain parts are better than others. I've never played one makers' guitars where every one is consistently tremendous,'' says Mr. Supple.
Fry, who wears brown-suede cowboy boots and speaks with a soothing butter-like Midwestern drawl, says he stumbled into guitarmaking. As he sits on the carpeted floor, which is covered with wood dust, the subway rumbling underneath the house, he tells his story.
He was working on the assembly line of a Chrysler automobile factory in St. Louis - a job he started when he was 18. He had always loved music and owned a 1959 ``D18'' Martin guitar, though he admits he didn't have much talent as a player. When his friend began building guitars for fun, Fry became interested in the craft. When his guitar was stolen, he used the $2,000 insurance money to buy tools and materials.
Fry learned by doing. He began listening to and testing guitars to see what made them sound the way they did. He devoured books on the subject. He met with guitarists and got tutoring.
``Until I started to build guitars, nothing I did worked,'' he says. ``But this was something I could really apply myself to.''
Fry built one guitar each month. In 1989, after working 20 years as a mechanic, he moved to Nashville and set up a shop. Most of his customers were local musicians, but his guitars have also been used by musicians on albums such as those of Barbra Streisand and Michael Jackson.
Fry moved to the Boston area and set up Alvin Fry's Guitars because he wanted to build for a more diverse market. Nashville has primarily studio players, whereas Fry says the Northeast has a larger number of jazz and classical players.
``I want to be able to have different people come and say, `This is what I want built,' '' he says. ``It's kind of hard to enjoy building the same kinds of guitars. That was basically what I had to do [in Nashville] ... make them all look alike.''
Does he have a trade secret?
``I think it's possible,'' says Tim Olsen, founder of the Guild of American Luthiers, based in Tacoma, Wash. ``There are many ways to accomplish things in guitarmaking, and there have been many times in the history of guitarmaking when a new technique has come on the scene, and there's been a subtle change and it's turned out to be extremely important.... I'm in no position to say so about his guitars.''
But Mr. Olsen disputes the idea that a guitar can have absolutely perfect intonation. Better than average, but not perfect.
``It's pretty bizarre but true,'' Fry acknowledges. ``You see how revolutionary that is ... if they can be perfect and nobody anywhere has ever thought they could be.''
A number of musicians have backed up his claim, including Vince Gill, the country music singer.
Fry naturally doesn't share his secret for creating guitars in which all five features mentioned earlier work right each time, but he hints that it lies in a properly constructed box.
``To me, it's not as important to explain how it works as the fact that it does work.... A lot of reasons why people play electric guitars are because they're predictable. That's what I'm trying to offer in an acoustic guitar - something that's predictable.''
Larry Baione, chairman of the guitar department at Berklee College of Music in Boston, tested several of Fry's instruments during a clinic Fry taught there last summer.
``They are excellent instruments and have some of the best sounds that I've played,'' he says.
``I was impressed that anywhere on the guitar the notes were in
tune,'' Mr. Baione adds.
Fry, whose instruments sell for about $2,500, makes each part of the guitar himself, with the exception of the pins and tuners.