Guitar Heroes

Written by Susie Steckner Category: Valley News Issue: January 2012

For nearly 40 years, Roberto-Venn – the longest-running guitar-making school in North America – has been certifying luthiers in a humble south Phoenix warehouse. In August, the school moved to a vacant building on Grand and 10th avenues, joining a burgeoning mix of art studios, boutiques and restaurants on the distinctive thoroughfare that cuts diagonally across the central Phoenix grid. Lined with historic buildings and architectural oddities, Grand was long equated with easy vice and hourly-rate hotel rooms before its current renaissance. Luthiery School officials say they’re happy to help scrape off the grime.

“There’s something about the character of the area – the history,’’ says William Eaton, the school’s director and one of its founders. “You sit on that property and look up and down Grand and realize that things for 100 years have been happening on that old highway. That counts for us. To have some diversity and something unique is appealing to us as guitar makers because that’s what we do. Each piece that we make is unique unto itself.’’

The school’s origins go back to the 1960s, when founder John Roberts flew over the jungles of Nicaragua as a freelance pilot, gathering rosewood and mahogany with indigenous Miskito Indians. He brought some of the wood to Phoenix to transform into guitars and started an apprenticeship program called the Juan Roberto Guitar Works. Robert Venn later joined the program, adding electric-guitar-making expertise. The Roberto-Venn school was launched in 1975.

Since then, Roberto-Venn has graduated more than 1,500 students. Some went into show business, like Doobie Brothers guitar tech Joe Vallee. Many more found work as craftsmen, like Joe Corral, longtime head luthier at Milano Music Center in Mesa. Currently, 40 students are enrolled in the intensive, five-month certificate program.

Beatrice Moore, owner of the nearby Kooky Krafts Shop, welcomes the aspiring guitar-smiths. By occupying a once-dilapidated tile-and-tire store, the luthiers are setting an adaptive-reuse example that may lure other transplant businesses, Moore says.

The extra foot-traffic won’t hurt, either: “They have [students] coming from all over the world. Those folks will be utilizing services and contributing to everything that’s going on here.”

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Photos - From left: A Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery instructor repairs a neck, while students craft an electric guitar.