Meet the Maker: Federico Sheppard
by Roger Alan Skipper
RAS: I’ve studied your website and other Internet articles about you. You’ve led quite an interesting life: you were born in Mexico City; you mentioned that one guitar stayed with you through “five different moves” and “three careers.” You’re a chiropractor, and have been a cab driver, sod cutter, lead Hawaiian guitarist for a Polynesian dance band, a consultant for the National Museums of Paraguay and El Salvador, and have ridden a bicycle around the world. I’ve even stumbled across a rumor that you traveled with a circus. Could you share some of that life with me, and tell me how you got started in lutherie?
FS: Everything you read about me on the Internet may not be accurate. I was tempted to join a Mexican midget circus I came across on a bike trip in France, but I didn’t meet the height requirements. And that is God’s own truth.
I was born on the Day of the Dead in Mexico City in 1955, and moved to Pittsburgh when I was two. Mine was a single-parent family, and I was discouraged from any artistic endeavor. The Sears catalog was our Internet, and I was so crazy about guitars that my mother would cut out the guitar section when the new catalogs arrived. My Godfather, though, who was also my uncle, made his living as a violinist and band leader. He played everything from mining camps in the Rockies to the swankiest hotels. He was the band leader at the William Penn in Pittsburgh the night prohibition ended; he also introduced Bob Hope to his future wife, and was connected to many fabulous people.
When I was eight, I had a paper route, and I read every issue, every day. Along the route was a violin repair guy, and when we passed his shop, my Godfather would touch his nose and say, “It’s all in the wood.” Then I picked up a book called A Reverence for Wood by Eric Sloane. Both of those made an impression on me. I just never expected to have this much reverence, or this much wood!
RAS: How much wood do you have?
FS: In the ’70s I was involved in environmental issues in Montana and Wyoming. One of the characters I encountered was an old rancher and cowboy poet. As only an Eastern college kid could, I asked, “How much land do you have?” He glanced at the gun rack in his pickup and said, “We don’t ask those kinds of questions in this country, boy. That’s like asking a man how much money he has.” That same logic might apply here.
RAS: (laughs) I apologize for asking, and for interrupting. Please continue.
FS: I’ll tell you this: you wouldn’t want my wood to fall on you.
I finished high school early, and won a scholarship from the Martin Marietta Corporation to attend college in Green Bay, Wisconsin. At age sixteen, I landed there with no money, no driver’s license, and completely on my own. I met a guy who laid the sod for the Green Bay Packers, and worked for him weekends and summers. I was the only guy on the crew who could both drive and read directions, so I was made the operator of the sod cutter. On many days I would pick up a work-release crew from the local prison. I didn’t want to end up like those guys, and I developed a profound sense of right and wrong.
I finished college in Montana with a degree in geology, and worked all over the West for independent contractors, who in turn worked for big firms like Chevron and Texaco. We discovered the largest oil field in the lower forty-eight states, the Painted Reservoir field in southwest Wyoming.
Throughout this time I was playing music occasionally, and met a few guitar makers. In ’78, when I was working in northwest Montana for the Army Corps of Engineers, I spent a lot of time on the road. Libby — the asbestos town — is where I spent most of my time, but the road back to headquarters in Seattle ran through Sandpoint, Idaho. There I met Nick Kukich; his workmanship was extraordinary, and he was taking designs from the ’30s and really moving them forward. Nick was exceptionally helpful and generous. I also met Bob Givens there — a real character, in a Montana/Idaho-woodsman-pool shark sort of way. Not a big talker, though. He was making killer D-18s and a lot of great mandolins in those days. Both of these guys had an impact on me. Givens developed a lymphoma that took him way too early. Bob wasn’t the doctoring sort, but with the education I have now, I could probably have diagnosed him and saved his life.
While I was in Eureka drilling a municipal water well, I stopped at an antique store looking for old Dobros. I asked the lady if she had any guitars that looked like they had a hubcap on them, and she said, “No sir, but I can direct you to a man who plays a guitar with a skillet in it.” That’s when I met folk-art genius Ray Jacobs. He had no idea where to get the parts for a resonator guitar, so he’d used a skillet! The man knew every song ever written, and we played together. He also taught me logging; I still have some of that local spruce.
RAS: Do you still play?
FS: I pretty much gave up playing in the early ’90s, when I realized just how “high end” the really good players are. I would rather listen to twenty-five virtuosos a day than to a hack like me playing the same thing twenty-five times, badly. I mostly played steel string acoustic — country and Hawaiian styles.
RAS: How did you get from geology to chiropractic medicine?
FS: In northern California, not far from Healdsburg, I was working underground at the Warm Springs Dam and got run over by a very large earth mover. In those days medicine didn’t offer much relief for the back injuries I received, so I started going to chiropractors. One of them encouraged me to go to chiropractic school, and after being denied several good jobs because of my medical history, in 1980, I moved to Minneapolis and did just that.
By then I had a small workshop and was making a few guitars and doing some repair work; during those next lean years, that was all the income I had. On a trip back East, I visited the Martin factory and filled the back of my ’59 Ford with Brazilian rosewood for $8 a set — paid for with the last of my unemployment checks. By then, both of my guitar idols, John Fahey and Peter Lang, were playing my guitars. I thought, “Heck, this is easy!” Too much success too soon, I believe.
Minneapolis had some great makers, and Jim Olson in particular was generous with his time. Like me, he was pulling himself up by his own bootstraps, and I decided his hardships were something I wanted to avoid. I focused on my medical career, but continued to collect wood and develop a first-rate shop.
Sports medicine was just being recognized, and I began my practice in that direction. Soon I was working with many Olympic athletes, and then became an independent physician for the NFL Players’ Union. I got further education in Russia at the Lenin Institute of Physical Medicine and Sports Culture; we were housed in the same hotel that was the center for the 1980 Olympics, and our host was Vasiliy Alexeyev, the world’s strongest man. My clinic grew to clinics, and all my time was suddenly absorbed in patient care. For many years, reading American Lutherie was as close to instruments as I came. But the pilot light was still on.
Between then and now I sold the clinics, bicycled around the world, got run over by two cars, and had five major orthopedic surgeries. The last straw was when I had my right thumb torn off. When I realized it would still have some function, I decided not to put the serious lutherie on hold any longer; I adjusted my medical career to fit a more balanced lifestyle. And then I discovered Barrios! Any guy who can take a ten-day road trip and not return home for twelve years deserves some study!
RAS: Tell me more about Barrios, and how you discovered him.
FS: Barrios was the complete artist: guitarist, composer, poet, calligrapher, and artist with pen and paper. He spoke four languages fluently and was always impeccably dressed. For him, the guitar was an absolute element of his persona, something he was never without. He even dressed so his clothes would match his instrument. He was also the first classical guitarist ever recorded — fourteen years ahead of Segovia. A true Pan-American artist, he spread his vision to the end despite failing health and declining finances. His generosity was legendary as well:
I am a brother to those medieval troubadours
Who suffered a romantic madness.
Like them also, when I am dead
God knows into what far off port
I will go to find my unmarked grave!
He didn’t just write that – he lived it!
I came across Barrios’ 1930 Sanfeliu guitar in the National Museum in Paraguay, and I was just floored. I had never seen a Barcelona-style guitar before, and of course this one had to have a history, so I started pulling on the thread. With this guitar, Barrios started spelling his name backwards (Agustin to Nitsuga), dressed as a bare-chested indigenous Guarani Indian, and concertized throughout the Amazon. Then it gets interesting!
I established that he used this guitar throughout the Americas, then on to Europe. He played his own compositions on this guitar on the Nazis’ German National Radio, and it was used on the last radio transmission composed or performed by a non-Aryan just days before the ban on “Niggerjazz” (the German word at the time) imposed on October 12, 1935. You could make the point that this music, composed by an indigenous Paraguayan, was the last voice of freedom before the dark days of WWII. For me, this is one of the most important guitars of the 20th century. Since there’s only one in existence, building a copy seemed to me the right mix of challenge and adventure. So how do you define that? Lutherie? Musicology? Sleuthing? Time travel? I see it more as the application of my acquired medical skills and their inherent intellectual disciplines applied to a subject previously unstudied and worthy of my attention. It’s a hell of a guitar, too! There are about six or eight guitars-worth of work in this one.
RAS: Your website states that you’re an advocate of “clean simple lines” without “excessive ornamentation.” But your Barrios copy certainly doesn’t fit that last description. Has his work altered your perception, or changed your attitudes?
FS: Absolutely. That website is out of date, and refers to a different type of work I was doing at the time, and certainly applies to the 19th-century guitars I make. Since 2005 I’ve been totally immersed in Barrios, and that’s become part of my natural progression as a maker. As nearly as I can document, every guitar on which he performed was decorated with mother of pearl, something you rarely see in the classical world. So we know that a little flash was a required part of his performance.
At the age of forty-five, Barrios completely reinvented himself and walked away from his established life into the Amazon. He survived a year with the Nazis in the company of his Jewish patron and black wife. He went on to write some of the most enchanting music ever heard. There are lessons here that should not be ignored by the people who do what we do. Call it courage, devotion, chutzpah, or just plain self-confidence. This man was devoted to his art through many hardships, and he always endured.
South America was the real center of the guitar world in the early 20th century. Argentina owed its independence to General José de San Martin, who while in Paris was a student of guitarist and composer Fernando Sor. As far back as the 17th century, Jesuits had established communities where the indigenous Guarani Indians were trained in Baroque music. The Rio de Plata, situated between the capitols of Argentina (Buenos Aires) and Uruguay (Montevideo), was a thriving commercial and cultural waterway that also reached Paraguay and Brazil. This area saw the first commercial recordings in 1913 of the classical guitar, and in the 1920s-’30s, Buenos Aires alone had more than 5000 guitarists. It was natural for Barrios to escape the relative “backwater” of Paraguay and find his way downstream by working on boats and in the salons and hotels along the river. When he reached the bigger cities, he played background music for silent films. The works of the finest Spanish guitar makers were available there (if you could afford them), and extensive workshops were established by major music houses like Casa Nuñez in Buenos Aires. José Ramírez II was also active in the area, not as a guitar maker, but as a professional guitarist, and the ex-foreman of the Manuel Ramírez shop, Antonio Viudes, left Madrid to hang his shingle in Buenos Aires. Sadly, nothing is left of his workshop today. This was a real happening place for the guitar.
RAS: I read that you were involved with the officials of Paraguay, and with the Barrios Museum and book.
FS: While visiting Paraguay in 2005 to mark the 120th anniversary of Barrios’ birth, I became acquainted with the Cabildo Museum in Asunción, and a lot of discussions were held about making the collection there a world class exhibit. At that time, I had a guitar with me that became the primary instrument of one of the great modern Paraguayan players, Luz Maria Bobadilla. She had tried it and decided to play it in duet of guitar and piano. During the concert, the amplification system went down, but that guitar held its own with the grand piano. The good guitarists who were there took quite a bit of notice. The museum then allowed me to examine the 1930 Sanfeliu guitar of Barrios, and with the help of Carlos Salcedo, this relationship later produced a beautiful book/catalog of the two great collections of Barrios artifacts belonging to the museum and to Paraguayan patriot Jorge Gross Brown. Salcedo then went on to produce a fine film about the disciples of Barrios (Forgotten Masters and Lost Guitars) and to produce ongoing research about this great personality.
After taking a look at the state of the guitar-making craft down there, I decided to establish a luthier’s library and, with the help of the GAL, donated the most comprehensive collection of materials dealing with the art in South America to the Cabildo Museum. This library collection has been named in honor of Richard Bruné, who in addition to doing a great deal of research and writing on the guitars of Agustin Barrios, donated materials to the museum’s permanent collection. It is housed in the permanent archive room of the museum.
RAS: History has really played an active role in your work.
FS: The historical elements of my work basically grew out of an interest in the composers doing the best work in the 18th through 20th centuries, and just following the leads from there, to the instrument makers, the materials, the workshops, and that far distant world that brought us to today. Very worthwhile are the historical side streets I’ve discovered along that path, and the interesting people that make it such a joy to be alive today. Most of them Guild members!
RAS: It sounds as though you look favorably on the GAL.
FS: It’s the greatest organization on the planet. The openness of the GAL and its members is unique in all the world. At the conventions you get to walk with the giants in the art and at a very fair and reasonable price. The Guild is great! The Guild is good!
RAS: Were there other influences on your lutherie career later on?
FS: In the ’90s, I got to know one of my mentors, and one of the great unknown heroes in the guitar world, Robert Larson. He started Vikwood in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, after having been a fighter pilot in WWII, involved in theater, and having several international patents. The best of these was probably his biodegradable pesticide, but his life’s juices were sucked dry by the W.R. Grace Corporation over this product. He brokered the C.F. Martin switch from Brazilian to Indian rosewood. He also brought the first carbide cutting tools into Sri Lanka at a time when they were cutting ebony by hand with a pit saw. What a giant of a man! I was involved in negotiations for the purchase of the retail end of his business, the one with all the shipping headaches, while he would retain the wholesale side. In the few minutes I was in his office, a couple of million dollars of business came and went on the Telex. I was negotiating for the wrong side of the business!
Robert passed away suddenly, before I could take the next trip with him to India. I decided to either take a trip around the world or buy the business and see the world that way. When the business went to another family member, the choice was made for me. January 2000 was a great time to go on my around-the-world bicycle trip, and I remembered thinking as a kid on my paper route that when 2000 came, I’d be forty-five, and really old! So I set off for a little R&R. The medical crew hired for the trip never materialized, so I ended up practicing while going around the world. I got to give a medical lecture in a college in South Africa, and the next day was nearly murdered by having my throat slit. Riding the southernmost pass in the Andes in a snowstorm, that’s another memory!
RAS: How many months did you endure? What portion of the circle did you complete?
FS: Oh, about ten months. Endure is not the word I would use; it was a gas! A circle would have been too easy, so we took it zigzag instead.
Eventually forty-six countries came and went before I was hit by a drunk driver in Australia and couldn’t continue; my thumb was torn off. All the planes were tied up with the Olympics, so while waiting for my flight, I signed on as a one-handed navigator for the Duyfken, a historical replica of the ship that discovered Australia. It was making a shakedown cruise around Australia. One night under a full moon while I was on lookout, the entire Great Barrier Reef spawned. The luminescent critters all discharged their lights in the wake of the bow. That was a night I wished lasted forever.
RAS: It’s hard to leave the recounting of your experiences, but let’s return to your lutherie. When did you build your first instrument, and where did you garner the information? What’s your path from first instrument to professional luthier?
FS: I built a dreadnought from several books, none of them too good. The result was predictable, but the sound was there. From that, I just followed my heart, and wherever interesting leads took me. I would have benefited a lot from one good teacher, but that was not to be. I probably wouldn’t have sat still long enough, and would probably have told them what to do anyway. I am still on the path, probably always will be. On the “professional luthier” term, it’s a bit too much, and a bit not enough. For me, it has always been problem solving, doing something just out of my grasp — art, science, music, and history.
RAS: How many guitars would you guess that you build in a year? How many in your lifetime? And have they all been guitars, or have you built other instruments?
FS: I have made guitars of all sorts, and a few mandolins. But what I build typically follows my musical tastes at the time. If I like a particular style of music, I will build those period instruments. Depending on my travel schedule, I build six to twelve guitars in a year. I have never kept a tally on my total output.
FS: A guitar order can take from three months to five years, depending on the complexity of the style. Once I acquire the skills for a certain style, I tend to make batches of what is required to execute that style, and it is easy to go back and make more instruments should the need arise. I find it easier to go backwards than forwards. So today, at least in decorative terms, I am set up to do nine historical styles of classical guitars. And of course within limits, you can mix and match to come up with variations. Simplicio did this a lot.
RAS: You wholesale lumber from your website. How would one go about purchasing materials from you?
FS: My website is hopelessly out of date, and I have no desire to spend more time online doing something about it. No more wood-selling business, except for a few friends I know very well. With the current regulations, and their own Catch-22 of regulatory madness, it just isn’t worth it. I am expected to prove that a stick of wood I bought thirty years ago that was old when I bought it was harvested legally? You have got to be kidding.
I used to harvest spruce and cedar, sometimes as we say “by the light of the moon.” Now that a handheld GPS can tell me where I actually am… it’s best I don’t go there. In the old days we would shinny up as close as we could to the off-limit areas and hope the tree fell on the right side of the line, such as we could determine it to be. We didn’t have choppers available in those days, and of course there was no money for that anyway. You can buy better wood from my friends at Vikwood and LMI these days.
When all the talk was about disappearing forests, all the good tonewood being gone and the like, I kept remembering all the maps of Russia I saw as a kid; they have a lot of forests. To make a long story short, in Russia, on a visit to my good friend, rosette maker, and collaborator Dmitry Zhevlakov (in my opinion one of the finest craftsmen alive) I located virgin timber on the far eastern end of the range of what we for many years have called German spruce. I helped my Russian friends get that operation going. I let them keep all the profits, and sometimes I get some very fine material from them. Stunning, really. The folks at the violin school in Salt Lake have called it the best they have ever seen.
RAS: Could you describe your shop?
FS: At one point in my life, over on the steelstring side of things, I had the goal of getting jigged up, computer happy, and turning out slick, shiny guitars. I had plenty of good role models to learn from. An unhappy interaction with a Chinese corporation hell-bent on acquiring my trademark cured me of that pretty quickly. I came to the realization that you can’t get into too much trouble doing original work. Many of the laws on the books in this area of intellectual rights do not exist to support the individual, but rather the corporation with the deep pockets to win a long and expensive war. I chose not to live that kind of life.
I have sawn a lot of logs, and GAL articles would supply anyone with what they need to know. I have some big saws, and the one I call “Great White” nearly took my forearm off in 2005. I was cutting a big maple burl, and the blade jumped out of the guards and buried itself 31/2˝ from where it started, just missing my right arm. It was buried in the wood so deeply that I had to use a recip saw to cut it free. And I was doing everything right. I get the shakes every time I get within ten feet of that saw.
A turning point for me, after having accumulated a mountain of tools and a factory of a workshop, was while on my bike trip walking into the shop of Antonio Marin, a very fine Spanish maker. He had it all there in a 10´×12´ shop, including another guitar maker! I have been downsizing ever since. Keep it small, and keep it all! In my climate, it is a heck of a lot easier to heat and keep the moisture right in my spare bedroom, which has the added benefit of looking out over the sunset. I have a hawk that hovers most of the winter about fifty feet outside my oversize window, and watching him sure beats the heck out of being stuck in traffic somewhere else.
My shop is in a state of continuous quality improvement. I am more interested in what I can do without than what I can find to buy and try. Eugene Clark is a person I think highly of, and he has evolved a bench that works well for me. It can be broken down quickly and moved if the need arises, and it is a very flexible, well-thought-out way of working. Eugene is a highly educated man, inquisitive and self-taught. Eventually I will add a short workstand so I can do more things sitting down. A life on my feet is taking its toll. I try to keep the jigs I do use on the walls and keep the floor space as free as possible. This leaves more space for the guitars so I can trip over them. (laughs) I have a small router table for trimming fingerboards to size, a small belt sander, and that’s about it. I keep the other machines — bandsaws, and so on — in the old big shop. Once a year or so, I make a pile of neck blanks and stack them up.
RAS: It certainly sounds as though you’re a traditionalist from the tooling angle. How about in your materials? Are you a hot-hide-glue man, or do you use something more modern? What’s the balance of art and science in your thinking and craft?
FS: Ah, the time/space/hide-glue continuum. After much screwing around with everything else (he who dies having tried the most varnish recipes wins!), I finally settled on traditional materials: hide glue, shellac, and homemade varnishes from natural products, cooked at home. They work better, with better colors, are easier to clean up, and have fewer health hazards — the smells are actually quite nice, and I have no desire to wear a moon suit. Our “better living through chemistry” people have a nasty habit of lying about long-term health effects of their products. With the micro-abrasives available today, the dust particles created will go through any filter made, and once they enter your environment, they have a tendency to stay. As a rule of thumb, the smaller the particle, the more dangerous.
The thing about fine dusts, as we learned in the Libby, Montana case of tremolite asbestos (one of the worst environmental debacles in the country’s history) is that the dusts will affect family members, even people who never entered the shop. Some of the most dangerous stuff shows up only under an electron microscope. If you want to read a good story about corporate abuse and the total failure of people in government service who are supposed to look after public heath, our health, that is a good place to start. And the bastards got me, as I was in the civil service in Libby for a time. Of course, the old Spanish boys had their own problems: cigarette smoke, alcohol, no sunlight, and no exercise. Many of the good ones never saw their 60th birthday. I just want to keep what I know to be unsafe out of my life.
I have gotten over the shiny-guitar-shiny-guitar-good, monkey-see-monkey-do mentality. I honestly do sympathize with makers who have to deal with the belt-buckle-wearing crowd. But a guitar that has been used has a special charm. Abused — that’s another thing. Waking up at any age with a beautiful life ahead and finding you have lung cancer, that’s yet another. It’s not a trade-off I’m willing to make.
RAS: You’re still a practicing chiropractor, right?
FS: Yes, I am. And having been injured myself, and after many years of dealing with the issues involved, I am in a unique position to help people who find themselves physically or mentally challenged by injury or illness transition into lutherie. I know the various sources of retraining funds available that an average person might not be aware of, including disability insurance. And because of my occupational health background, I can advise on quite a number of issues for someone setting up a serious working environment. A doctor’s signature carries a lot of weight.
I put in a fourteen-hour day yesterday, between this and that, and felt guilty I didn’t work more. I try to avoid the heavy stuff. My motto is “always have a giant for a friend.” I try to adjust what I do and encourage my patients to do the same. The months after surgery are a great time to catch up on reading, call old friends, and go through the tool catalogs. I choose not to allow these traumas to continue to live in my head. I see those events as opportunities, although I admit that a few of them were rather cleverly disguised.
RAS: Like me, you’re accumulating a few years, and I can sense a change coming as you transition to a life that is less vocational and more avocational. How big a part do you see lutherie playing in your future?
FS: It has been a gradual immersion process since 1979. I am just about up to my neck now. I will keep following the thread, wherever it leads.
RAS: What would you like to do in lutherie that you’ve not yet tackled?
FS: The various neck joints of the French and German schools have eluded me so far. Not much attention has been given to the French school, but they were hands-down the best craftsmen at the time. Another lutherie fantasy for me is the 1873 D-18, never made at that time, but I would like to do one in the style of that time period, as if C.F. Martin the first would have done it.
I’d also like to try to uncover some of the lost ways of Santos Hernandez. My wandering led me to his old shop. I found the place in disarray, and when I started asking questions, found that the original tool collection was in the museum started by José Romanillos in Sigüenza, Spain. With the help of the GAL, Richard Bruné, and Sheldon Urlik, I am going to develop plans of the important instruments and several representative tools used by Santos. Historical research has suggested that he used some unorthodox methods.
Someone wiser than me once said, “He who knows he has enough is rich.” And when it comes to wood and friends, you could count me in on that. I have just enough to do what I want to do and embark on one last adventure if the funding comes about.
RAS: Do you know in what direction that grand adventure might take you? Will lutherie play a part in it?
FS: Here’s a sketch of a teaching studio I’d like to build. The artist-in-residence lives in the head, the neck is the guitar making/teaching studio, and the body is the gallery/concert hall. I originally envisioned Spain, but Montana, California, or Wyoming would do. The costs would not be as high as one would imagine, and I have an architect on board for the project. He’s the same guy who scraped my hide off the Australian blacktop and took me to the hospital in 2000. I visualize education, performance, art, and a steady stream of highly unusual, but talented people, all in one place. Perhaps it would morph into a museum, though I choose not to collect anything anymore myself. Maybe we could even have a clinic for treating the various problems musicians have.