Sometimes, the arts call us. Sometimes, they define us. Music, in the shape of classical guitar, called Matt Rubendall. Stringent self-assessment drove him away.
“I loved playing, but you have to be a twelve-year-old performing on world stages to be at that level of music,” he said. “There’s musicians and then there’s something else, and I was not that something else. I loved building things, anyway, so I decided to build my own guitar, ‘cause I wanted a good one, and I kept doing it.”
He attended a two-month workshop, and learned to build classical guitars.
If he’d made it as a classical guitarist, Rubendall would have been among a rare elite.
However, as a local luthier, he is unique. “I’m the only classical guitar maker in the five boroughs,” he noted.
His attention to detail places his instruments among the best. A Matt Rubendall Classical Guitar 2015 Concert Spruce lists for $7,495 on the Savage Classical Guitar website.
Luthiers build all kinds of string instruments – but not all instruments allow liberties. Violin-making, for instance, is strictly build-by-the-rules. Guitar-makers play in a relatively flexible world.
Of course, there’s tradition. Rubendall’s tools and techniques are straight out of the nineteenth century, and he makes every part of his guitars by hand, but his philosophy is, he says, very modern. “For instance, the moveable neck. They’re not even attached,” he said. “A cantilevered system, so you can adjust the action.”
He wafts a hand in the direction of a group of guitars suspended from the ceiling. “These may look like normal guitars, but a lot of guitar-makers use weird stuff: Nomex, carbon fibers, balsa woods, woods . . .”
Wood makes a full-body difference, and moveable necks change everything, but some changes are surface-deep.
Rubendall used to make the Old World rosettes – the delicate mosaics that ring the sound holes of guitars. “Then I started to veer away from that, because I’m not Spanish,” he said. In Rubendall’s recent rosettes, the inlay looks like the cables from the Brooklyn Bridge.
“That’s what’s great about the classical guitar,” Rubendall said. “It’s still evolving. Every guitar gets something added, something changed. It’s always moving forward.”
The city’s sole classical guitar luthier has been at this for almost twenty years, and he has clear-cut goals: building a reputation; having orders years in advance; making marks, visual and auditory.
“I can hear my sound,” he said. “I’m always trying to get it a little bit better.” This time, judgment isn’t going to stop Rubendall from making music. It’s going to help him make it better, one six-stringed instrument at a time.