Janesville's Hatfield runs city's lone luthier shop
JANESVILLE Cliff Frederiksen had a bass guitar in hand and a thin, cool smile.
He walked past the amplifiers, gear and guitars slung on the wall to the front door of Hatfield's Guitar & Repair.
As Frederiksen walked out, shop owner Bill Hatfield's eyes got huge. He rushed behind the counter of his guitar repair shop and clicked on his computer's music player.
"Let me play you some of that guy's stuff. It'll just blow your mind," Hatfield said.
Warm, soft guitar tones floated from shop's speakers. It was a recording of Frederiksen noodling all over the guitar on some mellow, St. Louis-style jazz number.
"The guitar he's playing there, that's the one I'm working on next," Hatfield said.
His face was a mix of awe and rapture.
Frederiksen had just dropped off a Washburn Orleans, a hollow-body, arch-top electric guitar built for jazz. The guitar's metal frets were out of whack. It was making the guitar sound tinny.
Frederiksen wants Hatfield to fix the instrument. That's got Hatfield excited and a little scared. For one thing, Frederiksen's a new customer at Hatfield's upstart guitar repair shop, which opened in April at 3503 Mount Zion Ave. in Janesville.
But he's also a legend in the southern Wisconsin music circuit and, according to Hatfield, "maybe the best jazz player in the state."
For Hatfield, repairing a local jazz icon's guitar is a tall order, but one he's glad to take. He'll fix anything with frets and strings.
Right now, the tidy work area in the back of Hatfield's shop has an heirloom banjo that a customer brought in. Hatfield's job is to replace the parchment paper-thin goatskin head on the instrument and re-fasten the hoop that holds the skin in place.
During one afternoon, an elderly woman called into the shop to ask if Hatfield could restring and spruce up her mountain dulcimer. It's not the first dulcimer he's fixed.
"There's a real local enclave of elderly dulcimer players here. It's kind of neat," he said.
Hatfield may have just recently opened his guitar shop, but he's been playing and collecting stringed instruments since Beatlemania struck the United States in 1964. He's been doing guitar repairs since the mid-1980s.
A machinist and manufacturing engineer by trade, Hatfield started repairing guitars at home after a guitar shop botched a fix on his custom 1974 Gibson Dove acoustic guitar.
Since then, he's collected an arsenal of tools and taught himself the major processes of fixing stringed instruments.
Hatfield said some local guitar stores do minor fixes, but his is the only true luthier (stringed instrument repair) shop in Janesville.
The next closest luthiers are in Madison, Beloit and Rockford, Ill.
Hatfield's specialty is repairing acoustic guitars, but he repairs and customizes electric guitars, too. He even re-hairs violin bows and sells custom-made dulcimers at his shop, along with top-shelf ukuleles and acoustic guitars.
Hatfield works in plain view at his shop. He said he likes when guitar players come in the shop to watch him work. Even better, Hatfield said, is when people bring in a guitar and start jamming.
For Hatfield, the best part of being a luthier is learning how to fix an instrument he hasn't seen before. He relishes research, even though it doesn't earn him a dime.
It's that sweat equity that Hatfield hopes will help him forge a reputation as a trustworthy, versatile luthier.
"I want to be known by word-of-mouth as the one who'll fix instruments that everyone else is too scared to touch," Hatfield said.
Still, Hatfield's golden rule is to steer people from overspending on repairs.
To wit, he showed one customer how to fix a cracked, delaminated back on a second-hand acoustic guitar at home for $10.
All it needed was wood glue and a clamp. He told the customer he'd charge $50—too much for an old campfire guitar.
"Bottom line is that for 80 percent of my customers, guitars is a hobby," he said.
"If you can't afford your hobby, you're not going to keep your hobby."