Self-taught luthier Bobby makes and maintains guitars at his apartment-cum-workshop in Yelahanka New Town
Entering Bobby’s workshop is a revelation for those accustomed only to the glittering displays of guitars in music stores. Behind a typical guitar, you discover, is a tangle of cables, a bewildering array of pins and screws, and various kinds of wood.
The road to Bobby’s home isn’t a road so much as it is a carpet made of small, cobbled-together stones. A small board describes his business: Custom Guitars and Guitar Maintenance. Bobby is a luthier (after ‘lute’: the word refers to makers of stringed instruments) who has carved out a part of his house to function as a workshop for the handmade guitars he specialises in.
Bobby is how he’s known to musicians; his real name is Hemanth Kumar (“it’s catchy and sells well”, he explains about his nickname). He made his first guitar when he was in Class 10 using local scrap wood, and managed to produce an instrument he describes as “playable”.
Perhaps it’s the fact that he has always been something of an electronics geek that helped him (he credits this to his father, who worked in the Railways nearby). Armed with a degree in tool and dye making, Bobby would, in the years to come, work as a teacher and a factory supervisor before returning to his passion: the guitar.
“It was a struggle,” he acknowledges, when asked how he managed to teach himself the luthier’s craft. “I was interested early on. I would be the one observing my friends’ guitars like a mad guy!”
You get the sense that Bobby relies on instinct as much as experience. Having been in the business for over ten years, he estimates that he has probably made 300-350 guitars. Most recently, he completed a fretless bass guitar for Gaurav Vaz, bassist for The Raghu Dixit Project. “I love the sound, the look and feel and everything about that guitar,” says Gaurav.
Word of mouth
Gaurav first heard about Bobby through the grapevine in 2004, when he was looking for someone to make him a bass amplifier. He then realised that Bobby also made guitars. The first guitar he had made by Bobby was a five-string bass, which is visible in The Raghu Dixit Project’s video ‘Hey Bhagwan’.
Somebody comes up — having heard of him through word of mouth, typically — and requests a customised guitar.
Bobby begins by asking about what kind of music they play. “What kind of shape, tonal quality they’re going for...it all depends on that,” he explains. The kind of wood used impacts the sound as well. A jazz guitarist might want a fat, well-rounded tone, he explains, while a rock or metal guitarists might seek a brighter, more hard-hitting sound.
“I’d use mahogany for a fat tone, maple or walnut for a brighter tone, but typically a mix of woods,” he says, showing me a mahogany guitar with maple and walnut strips.
Easy on the pocket
Bobby prides himself on his lower prices: a basic customised guitar would start at Rs. 20,000 — a figure that almost doubles in the “open market”, he says.
But he has more than just his wallet-friendliness going for him, as Gaurav attests: “Though I started out going to Bobby to make cheap versions of the guitars I wanted, today, both him and I spend tonnes of time researching wood and designs and hardware, and building unique customised instruments that I have specific needs for.”