by Len Lear
How on earth does one teach oneself something as complicated as building or repairing guitars, even those that cost many thousands of dollars? That is what Tim Huenke, 54, has been doing for four decades and professionally for 32 years as well as in his Flourtown shop (810 Bethlehem Pike) for 17 years.
“The thing that prompted me to teach myself guitar repair, restoration and building is basically inherent in my personality and the way my brain is wired,” explained Huenke, who grew up in the Tacony/Bridesburg area for the first seven years of his life, then South Jersey, to Mt. Airy in 1994 and Flourtown 15 years ago.
“I have ADHD. It’s a common misconception that people with ADD can’t focus on anything. Quite the contrary. What they have trouble focusing on are the mundane things in life. When a person such as myself finds a topic that catches his interest, he can lock onto it in a rather obsessive way.
“I fell in love with the guitar and simply wanted to know everything about it that I possibly could. Of course I went about it with an obsessiveness and hyperfocus that those who are close to you find annoying, but that’s simply the way I’m wired. So I guess you could say my interest sparked a passion and from there an intense focus in all things guitar.
“The repair, restoration and building of guitars grew out of the fact that I’d been surrounded with woodworking and tools all my life as both my father and stepfather were professional carpenters and cabinet makers. So as a teenager who didn’t have much money for a guitar, I decided to learn how to build/assemble one because I really wanted a great guitar.
“Turns out that I found that aspect of the instrument just as fascinating and rewarding as learning how to play it. By the time I got to college, I was doing repairs for other students in my dorm room for grocery money.”
Huenke spent one year at Stockton State College studying music there but “felt at the time that particular school was not a good fit for me. I also lacked the maturity and the understanding at that time to understand how important school was.”
There are many technical aspects to restoring, fixing and building guitars. One of them is the action: the distance between the bottom of the string and the top of the fret board. The strings are under an enormous amount of tension, anywhere from 150 to 200 pounds.
Another aspect is the geometry of the guitar: the alignment of the neck and the bridge and the fingerboard in relation to each other. When someone brings in a guitar for Huenke to set-up, he often finds that the geometry is misaligned. All that tension from the strings will stretch and buckle a neck over the years, which will make the guitar sound poor.
Who is Huenke’s favorite guitarist?
“It’s hard to single out just one person because there are so many incredible guitar players in so many different genres. The best guitar player I have heard in recent memory, though, is a guy named Davy Knowles. Davy has the somewhat unique trait of being technically flawless along with being expressively brilliant. The first time I heard him play, he literally moved me to tears.”
Contrary to what one might expect, Huenke actually does not go to many concerts, but he went to see The Who, whose sound he loves, many times.
“And my wife got me front row tickets to see Les Paul’s 90th birthday party at Carnegie Hall, which was also another great moment. There are definitely some folks I’d love to see that I haven’t seen yet, Jeff Beck being one of them … Being a business owner and a parent, I don’t get out as often anymore.”
Huenke has worked on just about every make of guitar, but one guitar that proved to be a major challenge for him was a Beauregard.
“I had to fill in, recut and completely recreate the dovetail joint … while leaving the fingerboard on the guitar. All that simply to enable me to do a neck reset. I’m going to have to do a full photo series of that one online at some point.”
One reason why real expertise is needed in Huenke’s field is that no two repairs are alike. Simple, everyday jobs such as fret levels, pickup installs and general maintenance obviously have a quick turnaround, but complete restorations can take more than 100 hours of shop time and months to complete.
An average repair can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars. Huenke also works on guitars from all over the world. He had a client in Kazakhstan who flew his guitar to Flourtown for him to restore. He even has a client in the United Arab Emirates who brings him his guitars when he is in the Philly area. He has also done some work for celebrities such as Kevin Eubanks, Simon Townshend and Joaquin Phoenix, and an 1830s’ Martin guitar he restored is on rotation at the Martin Museum in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. He played guitar himself in bands in his younger years, but now just for fun. His business is a three-way partnership between himself, his wife and a third partner.
For more information, call 215-487-3603 or visit SuperiorGuitar.com. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org