ORLANDO, Florida ― It’s called a factory, but there’s no assembly line, no automated production.
Instead the sawdust-caked Orlando shop known as the Guitar Factory has built a decades-long reputation among local and national musicians as a go-to place for stringed-instrument repairs, as well as custom-built guitars, basses and ukuleles.
It’s also a haven for workbench wisdom, where discussions range from politics to parenting to the particulars of replacing a pick guard on an old Martin acoustic.
If Orlando were Mayberry, the Guitar Factory would be Floyd’s Barbershop.
“It’s a great place to hang out,” said Steve Triggs, manager for corporate communications for Orlando Utilities Commission and a weekend guitarist in local bands. “They ask about your family; they ask about you. It makes you feel like you’re part of a group.”
Sporting long hair and nearly matching bushy white beards, owners Bill Fels and Douglas Montgomery come equipped with quick ears for a joke and unfailingly accurate malarkey detectors.
The two count big stars among the family: Jimmy Buffett played one of their electric guitars for more than a decade starting in 1990, and they built multiple instruments for Mike Rutherford, lead guitarist for British rock band Genesis. Another custom guitar went to child guitar prodigy Derek Trucks, who went on to become a blues hero with the Allman Brothers Band and an eponymous group with his wife, blues guitarist Susan Tedeschi.
Owners Bill Fels (right) and Doug Montgomery build and repair guitars at the Guitar Factory in Orlando, Florida. (MCT)
Not all requests are routine. A famous country-music star once commissioned the duo to drill straw-sized holes covered with an ornamental nameplate in the body of an electric guitar, the better to score a quick snort of cocaine on stage.
When Nils Lofgren’s guitar tech was stumped by a wiring problem before Lofgren was to perform with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Orlando’s Amway Center in 2008, the tech called The Guitar Factory. Fels went to the arena and solved the problem, earning an invitation to the preshow buffet.
Tucked virtually unnoticed between a pizza restaurant and a hair salon, the shop’s narrow hallway is lined with autographed photos by members of KISS, Deep Purple, .38 Special and others. Hang out on the right weekday afternoon and you might see classic rocker Pat Travers visit with a few instruments to be adjusted. He has been a loyal customer since 1980, about a decade before Montgomery and Fels opened the business.
“They were working at a music store on Mills Avenue when I met them, and they still work on anything I need doing,” said Travers.
“We are so lucky to have those two guys here. Even if you go to Los Angeles and New York, it’s hard to find somebody that has the kind of experience that they have and can easily identify any kind of repair. There’s not anything they’re not capable of doing over there.”
Officially, the two friends who met in high school in the 1960s have been fixing guitars in various Orlando music stores since 1972. In reality, it goes back longer than that.
In 1967, when Montgomery was still in high school, a friend dropped an electric guitar on a tile floor, shattering it. Montgomery picked up the pieces and put it back together.
“I wasn’t nervous about it,” he said. “It was already all broken, so I couldn’t hurt it.”
He was equally relaxed when he started building and repairing guitars professionally. He had worked restoring vintage aircraft at Rosie O’Grady’s Flying Circus in Orlando.
“We used to build airplanes out of wood, so if your connections came apart, you were on the ground,” he said, standing amid stacks of red spruce and mahogany designed to become guitars. “Aircraft construction is more critical than building a guitar.”
Fels, a drummer in a variety of 1960s Orlando bands, dabbled in guitar-making as manager of a music store, where his future partner also was hired. They learned from a mentor, Mike Tobias, then developed their own techniques.
“If you cook hamburgers for 20 or 30 years, you get pretty good at it,” Fels said. “When we look down a guitar neck, we can see a twist, a warp, high frets or low frets,” the latter a reference to height of the strings above the neck.
On any given day, the two veterans set up triage for a steady stream of dramas:
Montgomery, 62, once repaired a ukulele delivered to him in a plastic grocery bag after the instrument had been shattered in a roof collapse. Fels, 64, separated a valuable old Martin acoustic guitar from the fuzzy interior of a case left in a hot car at the beach.
“There’s nothing that you can do to a guitar, in my opinion, that they can’t put right,” said Steven Foxbury, lead singer of the 1990s rock band My Friend Steve. “I think of them as sort of the ‘Car Talk’ guys of guitars.”
Fels is more realistic.
“There are some things we can’t fix,” he said, but he’s always willing to consider it. “We’re becoming a disposable society. There are very few TV repairmen anymore, but guitars are a very personal thing.”
By Jim Abbott
(MCT Information Services)