Doug Grainger, Joyce Carroll, and Steve Moore carry on a proud legacy of instrument making, repair, and restoration at their historic shop in Sparta. All trained by respected instrument maker and repairer Jim Grainger, Doug’s father, the three now continue a tradition of precision work at Custom Fretted Instrument Repair and Restoration. Started by Jim in 1989, the shop has earned a reputation across the country for first-rate repair and pearl inlay work on guitars, banjos, mandolins, and other instruments.
“[C]ertain aspects of the hand work that we do are increasingly rare….We create these things by hand using only simple power tools such as belt sander, drill press, and band saw.” — Doug Grainger
Following his father’s instructions, Doug was refretting guitars already at 8 years old. Listen “I was five or six when he was putting a pick-up in a guitar and he split what he made on that because I was able to stick my hand inside the sound hole and hold a nut to put the jack on,” Doug explained. “At seven or eight, he had me refret the guitar. I was in it for the money for toys at an early age.” He continued to work in the shop from his grade school years through college, on weekends, and during the summers. Following several years working in the computer science field, Doug returned to the business after his father passed away in 2016.
Joyce Carroll began learning pearl inlay from Jim over thirty years ago, and today continues the meticulous work, as well as pearl and metal engraving, and wood carving on musical instruments. She also designs layouts for certain special finishes offered at the shop. Joyce spoke about how Jim Grainger used to “do every aspect of putting a banjo together.” listen However, she got her break when she expressed interest in doing inlay. Jim responded that, “he had just gotten new bifocals, and he was ready to hand that part of the job over to somebody. That’s how I walked in at the right time. I had always done a lot of detail. I love pen and ink drawings. It was a natural transition.”
Steve Moore has been with the business since 1995. Steve’s mother worked with Jim at a factory in town, and in 1980, Steve began taking banjo lessons from him. These lessons soon grew into a mentorship that eventually landed Steve a job in the shop. Steve explained, Listen “Jim was doing instrument repair on the side. I got to know him. I was already playing banjo pretty well, but he was better than me. I started coming up here and hanging out. He just hired me. He knew I’d be a good candidate for this kind of work. He called me and asked me if I’d be interested in working with him. I started on the first day full-time. I didn’t know anything about repair.”
Twenty-five years later, Steve is still working at the shop. He is known for his high-quality repair work and has become a specialist in re-setting guitar necks. Steve is also an accomplished musician with deep knowledge of electric and acoustic guitars and banjos. The type of specialized traditional knowledge and skill sets that Jim Grainger passed on are increasingly hard to find today. “Especially with the advent of CNC (computer numerical control—the automation of machining tools), certain aspects of the hand work that we do are increasingly rare,” Doug explains. “Most pearl inlay work is now performed by machines. Most wood parts such as guitar bridges and fingerboards are also now created by machine. We create these things by hand using only simple power tools such as belt sander, drill press, and band saw.”
Trenton Caruthers, of Cookeville, had already logged many hours observing this trio of masters in the shop before he began his apprenticeship as part of the 2020 Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program. An award-winning fiddler, banjo player, and buck dancer, Trenton sees this work as an extension of his musical interests and a possible career pathway. “I would love to make this my life’s profession,” Trenton says. “It is very important to the community because as long as there are musicians around, they will need instruments to be worked on.”
The team focused their training around the restoration of a 1947 Epiphone Deluxe guitar. Trenton worked on the full and intensive process, including disassembling and reassembling, joint cleaning, sanding and gluing, fret work (polishing, leveling, and binding), neck setting, interior repair and restoration, bridge and nut fitting, and inlay.
Field Notes, December 2019–
Custom Fretted Instrument Repair is on Firetower Road, a road that is easy to miss as you barrel down Highway 111. The road quickly becomes one lane and weaves through an empty forest. As you wind up the road, a house and small, one-story shop appear in the woods. If there were snow or ice, a small car might not make it up the road. The inside of the shop is filled floor to ceiling and wall to wall with wood and metal in varying forms. Parts of banjo and guitar anatomy hang from the ceiling. Dissected instruments lay on tables, preparing for surgery. Medical terms are apt, because after all, this shop is a hospital for instruments. People come with broken headstocks and guitars in need of neck angle resets–procedures heroic enough that you only go to someone you trust.
The right side of the shop shares a wall with the front of the building. The pegboard that lines the inside wall holds hundreds of plastic baggies, each one filled with a different type of hardware. Doug, Joyce, and Steve sit at their work desks along this wall. They work on their own specific projects, lifting their heads every once and a while to get a second opinion on something. Trenton works diligently at a table in the center of the shop. Joyce pauses to come over and guide him through the repair of the old Epiphone. One of the techniques she shows him is how to meticulously remove old glue from the interior joints so that they could be reglued cleanly. During this interaction, Joyce reveals how every repair is completed: a dozen little tips, tricks of the trade, and knowing exactly how much pressure to apply. As Trenton works on the Epiphone, Joyce demonstrates her precision inlay cutting, Doug levels frets on an electric guitar, and Steve shows his steaming technique for safely removing a guitar neck from its body. Later, Trenton serenades the shop with a round of “When an Ugly Woman Tells You No,” and Joyce tells a joke that has everyone laughing as they reach for another one of her homemade red velvet cupcakes. All in a day’s work.
*This team was funded through a special partnership with the South Arts’ initiative In These Mountains: Central Appalachian Folk Art & Culture.
- Grainger, Jim. “Repairing Catalyzed Finishes.” American Luthurie, Volume 32, 1992, p.58.
- Kamimoto, Hideo. Complete Guitar Repair. Oak Publications: New York, 1997.
- Olsen, Tim, and Cyndy Burton. Lutherie Tools: Making Hand and Power Tools for String Instrument Building. Tacoma, WA: Guild of American Luthiers, 1990. Print.
- Olsen, Tim, editor. Flattop Guitars: An American Lutherie Anthology. Guild of American Luthiers: Tacoma, Washington, 2018.
- Perlman, Alan. “Neck Reset 101.” Acoustic Guitar, vol. 22, no. 5, 11, 2011, pp. 68-71.
- Ruggiero, Arthur, and Frank LiCausi. “Instrument Repairperson.” Music Educators Journal, vol. 69, no. 2, 1982, pp. 62–62.
- Sandberg, Larry. Complete Banjo Repair. Oak Publications: New York, 1979.
- Saufley, Charles. “Guitar Pro: The Cutting Edge of Pearl.” Acoustic Guitar, vol. 20, no. 9, 03, 2010, pp. 70-71.
- Sloane, Irving. Guitar Repair: A Manual of Repair for Guitars and Fretted Instruments. E. P. Dutton: Boston, 1973.
- Various Authors. Big Red Books of American Lutherie. Volume I-VII. 1985-2005.
More on the Graingers, et. al, specifically:
- Custom Fretted Instruments & Repair website
- lndermark, Tres and Terry Barnes. “Luthier Jim Grainger.” Flatpicking Guitar Magazine. January/February 2004.
- “James Victor “Jim” Grainger of Sparta, Tennessee, 1942 – 2016, Obituary.” Hunter Funeral Home website.
- Owens, Chip. “Custom Fretted Instruments.” Salt Creek Gazette. February 23, 2010.
- “Stelling Crusader.” Melvin Hughes. Youtube video of Jim Grainger testing a banjo in the shop.