Darcy Rhyno gets to know guitar maker Russel Crosby who, with his beautifully-made instruments, excels at his craft — yet he struggles to get the word out from his house in the Nova Scotia woods.
Beaming, Russel Crosby unlocks the guitar case on the floor by his couch. “Let me show you this one.” He pulls out a small, eight-string tenor guitar he’s just built. The lines and finish are crisp. The curly maple wood grain on the sides glows with some inner light like an abstract hologram. Even before he touches the strings, I’m ready to be impressed.
And I am. Playing finger-style rather than strumming, Russel gets the sound box to resonate with rich, sweet tones. As he plays, I look around the sparsely furnished room. Four finished guitars hang from pegs on the wall behind him, their exotic finished woods gleaming in the light from the window. Beneath them, another three rest on guitar stands. Each has taken Russel 70 to 100 hours to build.
After about half a minute, Russel stops abruptly, and says, “I have no natural talent at all,” and sets the guitar aside. I ask him what he means. “The more guitar players I meet, the more I know I can’t play.” He shuffles through some pages of music strewn across his coffee table. “I can sit down and learn a piece of music, but if I leave it alone for a while, I have to learn it all over again.”
Russel never aspired to performing. For one thing, he’d die of stage freight if he ever played in public. Russel lives alone. “There wasn’t really a design,” he says of his 30-year-old house. “I just kind of built it.” Russel’s shop is a few steps from his front door. His is the last house down a winding driveway in near Lockeport on Nova Scotia’s South Shore. His brother Donnie – a fine finish carpenter and a keyboard player – lives in the house up the lane.
He built his first guitar for himself. “It made me happy at the time,” he says. “It sounded better than anything out of a store.” Then he built a second one to improve on the first. “It’s a constant battle,” he says. “I’ve built over a hundred now and I still haven’t built the perfect guitar. I never will, but I’m striving to make each one better than the last.”
Russel’s curiosity, intelligence and quiet drive to perfection have led him in some interesting directions. For 20 years, he was an award winning bird carver. For many years, he made his living as a carpenter, highly respected locally both for his construction skills and his finish work. He’s one of those people who would excel at anything that catches his interest.
Since 1996, guitars have captured Russel’s imagination. For the past three years, he’s worked at building them full time. “People have stopped calling me about carpentry,” he says. But he’s not had an easy time of it. He’s had to cash in RSPs and draw on his line of credit to make ends meet while building up his stock, his business and his reputation. He now has a web site, takes his own promotional photographs and does what he can from his house in the woods to get the word out.
He doesn’t sell through music stores because of the mark up. A lot of people just seek him out at home. It’s a lucky guitar player who does. As if he were a fine tailor, Russel fits the guitar to the needs of the player. “A lot of it’s just talking to your musicians. Not all of them know what they want. Sometimes I have to steer them.”
Russel’s are gorgeously handcrafted instruments. Several different woods go into each guitar. The top is almost always a softwood, usually spruce. “Different spruces have different sounds,” Russel explains. “Engelmann spruce is suited to finger style guitars because it’s more responsive. It takes less effort to get sound out of it.” It’s not suited to what Russel calls the heavy attack style of some strummers. “Sitka spruce is for guitars that are going to be more flat picked. You can play it hard and the sound doesn’t break up as much.”
The back and sides are made of hardwood. Russel uses a lot of curly maple and curly walnut, but many of the woods are exotic like African Bubinga and East Indian Rosewood. “You buy them as two book match halves,” Russel explains. He gets them from a supplier in California. He makes most of the necks from mahogany. The rosette around the sound hole at the centre of the guitar body is often Cocobolo wood and abalone shell. “It’s a nice contrast, the reddish brown with the dark stripes in it and the abalone.”
Every sound box resonates at a certain frequency depending on the size and shape. Generally, the bigger the box, the lower the frequency. Russel explains that the larger guitars called dreadnoughts with larger bodies and wide waists are favoured by the flat pickers like bluegrass musicians looking for that big, thumping bass sound.
Russel builds a lot of dreadnought-style guitars. As with many other guitar types, the dreadnought came from the famous Martin company. Because the dreadnought body was deeper and larger than most guitars made at the time of its creation – 1916 – it was named for a type of super battleship, the best known of which was the HMS Dreadnought. Russel gives the Dreadnought his own twist like the cutaway at the top of the body “to leave room for those who like to play up the neck.”
Russel’s fine craftsmanship, his attention to detail and his ability to suit the guitar to the player is gaining him a reputation. “People are recommending me,” he says. A representative from a retail musical instrument chain recently told Russel about a customer who complained about a brand name guitar he’d recently purchased on line. The rep suggested he return the guitar for a refund and go find a Crosby instead. This is the kind of slow, word-of-mouth promotion that will give Crosby Guitars the wide spread reputation it deserves.