As visitors to Shelby’s Earl Scruggs Center arrived on Saturday, instrument-maker Chris Testerman carefully arranged the parts of a fiddle he’d soon be assembling.
His demonstration of a time-honored art opened a new exhibit called “The Luthier’s Craft: Instrument Making Traditions of the Blue Ridge and Piedmont.”
Usually it takes Testerman a week to complete a fiddle, so on Saturday he could only show a few key steps in the process.
“They say you should be at peace with the whole world when you make a fiddle,” said Testerman, 27, who lives near Boone. “It’s such a tedious process.”
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A native of Grayson County, Va., Testerman put an estimated 100 hours into building his first fiddle, which was completed in 2004, just before he graduated from high school. He played it that year at the Old Fiddlers Convention in Galax, Va., and finished fifth in the adult old-time fiddle category.
Using such tools as a pocket knife, chisel and jewelry saw, Testerman fashions fiddles out of local wood, mostly maple and spruce.
Testerman’s plain fiddles sell for $1,200 to $1,500, but fancier models with decorative inlay go for $2,000 to $3,000.
The music that rolls out of these instruments “is good for the soul,” said Testerman, who plays fiddle in the Whitetop Mountain Band and his own band, the Cabin Creek Boys. “It’s amazing how you get that sound out of an old dead tree,” he said.
Throughout the roughly six-month run of the luthier exhibit, other demonstration programs will be announced.
“So many people are aware of the rich heritage of playing the music of the region,” said Scruggs Center Executive Director Emily Epley. “But many are not aware there’s a rich tradition of craftsmen making the instruments. They go hand in hand.”
Visitors to the exhibit will learn about the methods luthiers use to create traditional instruments.
“It can be very different from person to person,” Epley said.
Five-string banjo maker Warren Yates of Hickory is one of the luthiers featured in the exhibit. On Saturday, he dropped by the center that honors Earl Scruggs, the late Cleveland County native and master of the five-string banjo.
Working with mahogany or maple wood, Yates spends 50 hours on each instrument. It’s a labor of love.
“I enjoy being able to do everything,” said Yates, 50, who plays with the band Blu Granite. “And I love dealing with customers.”
One customer, Dean Jenks of Shelby, was at the Scruggs Center on Saturday with a banjo he bought from Yates about a week ago.
“That’s a pretty thing there,” said Jenks, 54, who plays banjo in the band Flint Hill. “It’s real dry and real deep, and sounds like it’s going to be a monster.”
He’s already played the instrument at the Red, White and Bluegrass Festival in Morganton and in local jams.
“It’s awesome,” Jenks said. “This is hands down the best five-string banjo today. Warren does it by himself, and he does it with passion.”
Recalling the sound of legendary banjos from the 1930s, Jenks described the sound from his new model as “a big, fat note with the old banjo rattle.”
“It just makes me feel good to hit it,” he said.
Barry and Sally Childs-Helton of Indianapolis were visiting her family in Charlotte and decided to drive over to Shelby on Saturday.
Both are musicians in a Celtic band, and Sally Childs-Helton teaches music at Butler University in Indianapolis.
“We’ve been wanting to see the Scruggs Center,” she said. “And we wanted to see the luthier’s exhibit.”
Ricky Ledbetter, 61, of Shelby came to the exhibit eager to learn about instrument making.
Describing himself as a music lover, Ledbetter admitted he’d had no luck learning to play guitar or banjo.
“I wished I could,” he said. “But I hadn’t got the rhythm to do it. I still have a guitar. I pick it up once a year. That ought to tell you something.”