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Rising Stars: Meet KT Vandyke

Today we’d like to introduce you to KT Vandyke.

Hi KT, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
Growing up in Whitewood, Virginia there wasn’t much to do. Geographically isolated and sparsely populated, it required some imagination to entertain yourself. Fortunately for me, my father was a musician. A drummer to be exact, who had a long-running tenure with various rock’n’roll bands in the area. He was also an avid collector of various instruments around the house. It wasn’t uncommon to have a complete four/five piece worth of gear stashed in the corner of a spare bedroom. I think my fascination with musical instruments was planted at an early age, and slowly grew as I did.

A few years down the road I attended East Tennessee State University where I had my first exposure to lutherie (musical instrument repair) under banjoist and luthier Will Parsons. I thoroughly enjoyed it and after graduating I relocated to Abingdon where I worked as a tech at Front Row Music and moonlighted as a soundman for various touring bluegrass bands and local venues. It was through that music store I was introduced to the man who would change my life. Walter “Skip” Herman was a local luthier based in Abingdon, who had an impressive resume of clients such as GE Smith, Jackson Browne, Norma Kaukanan, Tony Rice, and many more. He learned the craft from the master builder and luthier Uncle Dave Sturgill of Allegany County, NC. Skip settled in Abingdon in the mid-seventies and would open up his shop shortly after. He remained active building guitars and repairing stringed instruments of all varieties (be it antique pianos, pre-war Martin guitars, or 400-year-old Spanish harps) until his retirement in November of 2019.

I made Skip’s acquaintance in the summer of 2016 and over the next several years would spend various evenings loitering around his shop watching him repair various instruments. I started a serious apprenticeship around 2018 with a focus on repair work. Upon Skip’s retirement in 2019 I took over the helm as luthier/owner of Frog Level Guitar Shop. The shop has been in continuous operation for 36 years.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
It hasn’t been an easy route to travel. Each job is different in its own little way, and some require quite a bit of imagination to get the job done. I regularly have to build my own jigs (makeshift devices) to cut binding or reshape a warped top. It’s safe to say that the creative side goes hand in hand with the research aspect. The primary goal is to make a repair as efficiently as possible without doing any harm, so each step needs to be well thought out and purposeful. Fortunately for me, skip is still on hand for the occasional consultant call, as well as a wonderful community and a wealth of publications. It can be slow and frustrating at times, but it’s incredibly rewarding in the end.

When COVID hit in 2020, most of my work dried up completely. It was pretty lean times. The silver lining, however, was it allowed me to completely immerse myself in the craft. Most weeks I would spend six days in the shop. I spent most of my extra money on lutherie journals and tools. To my surprise, the business slowly took off during that time (I guess because people at home playing their guitars more).

I’m still encountering new challenges every day. The current one is the relocation of the business from Abingdon to Bristol, Virginia. We are currently in construction of the shop and it has required a lot of time and risk, but I’m incredibly eager to see what the next chapter will look like for Frog Level Guitar Shop.

As you know, we’re big fans of you and your work. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about what you do?
I am a luthier or musical instrument repair person. I specialize in stringed instruments (violins, guitars, mandolins, banjos, and basses). I have been seriously studying the craft for five years now, and in that time have been fortunate to work on a wide variety of instruments, but the jobs I enjoy the most are vintage steel string guitars and mandolins.

As a guitar player myself I admire the story and character of those fabled instruments that have been around for 50-plus years.

I’m proudest of the fact that I am one of very few who are fortunate enough to learn from a master of their craft. I have the opportunity to serve and educate my community with the legacy of knowledge that has been passed down firsthand from master to student for over 75 years.

In 2021, Skip and I were awarded the Virginia Humanities Folklife Apprenticeship Grant.

Any big plans?
I am currently in construction of the new location of Frog Level Guitar Shop in Bristol, VA. It’s a large investment, but something that will expand the capabilities and efficiency of the shop.

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