Luthier Rob Goldberg lacquers a guitar he made for Burl Sheldon on April 5, 2024. (Lex Treinen/Chilkat Valley News)

All that exists is the tip of his chisel and a piece of wood. 

The rain battering outside the window, a dog whimpering at the door, a portable radio, and a fire crackling in the corner — all of it might as well be silent. 

The dozens of tools on the sawdust covered work bench — lathes, chisels, sanders, scissors, wrenches and paint brushes — all of them are invisible. 

At least they are for luthier Rob Goldberg, who is carving the braces that hold together the sound boards of his world-class custom instruments in his Mud Bay workshop. 

“The only thing that exists is that edge and the wood that it’s moving through,” said Goldberg. “You can’t be thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner or thinking about your girlfriend or thinking about anything else.” 

That attention to detail and artistry has brought Goldberg praise from musicians around the country who have had the chance to strum one of the 65 guitars he’s produced in his decades as a luthier. Goldberg learned the craft in Massachusetts under Bill Cumpiano. He ran his own shop for four years in the Berkshires before closing down in 1980. He was on hiatus until 2008, when he was settled in Haines. His first guitar was made using wood he harvested from Letnikof. 

Now, guitar making — along with painting — are his main crafts, despite the challenges of doing it from the isolated town. He works late into the night from his modest shop covered with tools and mementos from his decades of practicing the art. 

“He is the official mad scientist — you look that up in the dictionary and that’s Rob,” said Richard Gilewitz, a Florida-based finger-picker who plays a Goldberg guitar. “He looks like a character out of Lord of the Rings.”

The instruments sell from a starting price of $6,000 — not cheap, but affordable compared to other custom guitars, Goldberg said. And each of them is a work of art customized for the person playing it. Goldberg will talk to musicians sometimes for hours to figure out everything from the ideal shape of the guitar to make it ergonomic, the type of wood to be used so that its characteristics match their style, and the motifs on the elaborate inlays of glass or abalone. 

“Based on what people are getting for custom-made guitars, his are a bargain.” said Tony Tengs, a musician who grew up in Haines. “He puts a lot of  soul into them and he’s an artist.”

The custom difference

Tony Tengs plays a set for the Alaska Folk Festival on April 14, 2024 in Juneau, Alaska. Tengs used a guitar made for him by Haines luthier Rob Goldberg. (Rashah McChesney/Chilkat Valley News)

Musicians like Tengs say Goldberg’s guitars sound better than even top notch, brand name guitars like Taylor and Martin. 

Goldberg said that’s largely because of the care he takes carving the bracing. Instead of flat, straight pieces of wood that hold the top of a guitar like two-by-fours, Goldberg carves the bracing into elegant curves thicker where the tension is highest and lighter where the strings aren’t pulling against the soundboard. That saves weight and allows the instruments to sing. 

“The lighter you can make the bracing the more it will sing, but too light and strings will pull it apart,” he said. “There’s a lot of art and craft that goes into sculpting these.”

Wood used for the soundboards and bodies of the guitar can also have a big impact on the sound.

In 2010, Goldberg saw the need for a resonant guitar to match local musician Burl Sheldon’s deep, strong voice. He settled on a large-bodied guitar he designed with a custom template with a rosewood soundboard, a hard and stable wood that could take Sheldon’s physically powerful playing style. 

“It reflects back all the high harmonics, so a rosewood sounds really crisp and clean,” said Goldberg.  

On the other hand, for a newcomer to guitar like Juneau musician Marian Call, Goldberg chose a more forgiving curly maple. 

For Call’s guitar, Goldberg added several other touches. He said during a phone conversation, Call mentioned the discomfort that playing guitars can give her. 

“She said, ‘Every guitar I’ve ever held feels like a bad bra just cuts into my side.’ And I said, oh, I can take care of that,” said Goldberg. 

His solution: a beveled edge on the back top of the guitar, which will hopefully solve the problem. 

Goldberg also puts days-worth of time into the inlays and aesthetics of the guitar. For Call, he chose a sea-green gingko leaf design he found online bordered in copper. The rosette around the sound hole has 124 pieces — four pieces for each leaf. There’s other lines of alternating black and white wood pressed around the sound hole too. 

“You just have to have a lot of patience to carry through something like that,” he said. 

For Call, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest collecting abalone and sea glass, he decided to add one more custom touch: a pale green lacquering over the top to harken back to her oceanside upbringing.  

“It just sort of matches her personality too,” he said. 

The designs can sometimes be eye-catching, covering up the entire fretboard with brilliant glass or abalone. 

A guitar he designed for Washington-based musician Tracy Spring, silvery formline figures dance up and down the neck from the first fret to the last. The guitar catches the attention of guitar builders from around the country at an annual guitar-making festival she and Goldberg attend, Spring said. 

“He said he was gonna blind the first two rows of the audience,” said Spring, “It gets a lot of attention at the guitar festival because it’s full of builders and hot shot players.”

Challenges of Alaska

Rob Goldberg points to a mold he used to make Burl Sheldon’s guitar on April 5, 2024, at his shop on Mud Bay Road. (Lex Treinen/Chilkat Valley News)

Hanging from the wall of Goldberg’s shop are two unfinished sound boards with intricate inlays and jarring cracks down the middle. They’re casualties from the ever-changing humidity, which presents one of the biggest challenges to Goldberg’s operation. 

A hygrometer hangs near the entrance of the shop. Goldberg regularly looks up at it to make sure it’s sitting somewhere between 30 and 40. A dehumidifier hums behind him. Today, the humidity in the shop is a steady 32. 

In October when the temperature drops, the humidity can drop suddenly from near 100 to 10%. If Goldberg’s not there at that moment of that transition to turn off the dehumidifier and plug in the humidifier, his months of work could be lost. 

“I’ve ended up making new soundboards on a couple guitars because they’ve cracked,” he said. “It’s really frustrating.” 

There’s also the issue of getting the guitars out of town. Goldberg is ultra-particular about his packing, first placing it in a fiberglass case he orders from Amazon. (Previously, he used a supplier in Virginia, but the cost of shipping it became more than the cost of the case itself, forcing him to rely on the free shipping of Amazon Prime). 

Goldberg puts the case in a box with padding in between, and puts that inside a bicycle box before shipping. 

Sound boards at Rob Goldberg’s shop pictured April 5, 2024. (Lex Treinen/Chilkat Valley News)

On the other hand, he has some advantages of working in Haines — namely the wood. Upstairs above his shop he has hundreds of soundboards made from the hefty Sitka spruce he’s  shipped in from Hoonah and Angoon. 

He harvests spruce several feet wide and cuts them into wedges that he saws into thin, even sheets before letting them dry. 

Building a single guitar can take upwards of 200 hours of labor so the hundreds of soundboards are far too many for Godlberg to use in his own lifetime. He said he sells the soundboards for cheap to guitar makers around the country. 

Plus, he’s got other projects. He recently was commissioned for a large triptych painting for the corporate headquarters of the Chenega Corporation in Texas. 

Despite his other passions, he said guitar making holds a special place in his heart. 

“Paintings are nice to look at. But I’ve never seen one that could get a room full of people up and dancing,” said Goldberg.