Paul Beard has been a luthier and builder of resonator guitars at Beard Guitars in his hometown of Hagerstown, Maryland since 1985. His mother was a housewife who raised three children and his father worked as a purchasing agent at the Porter Chemical Company, which made chemistry sets, weather sets, and microscope sets for children.
Paul says his parents weren’t interested in music and only occasionally listened to the radio. The family owned four records: Pat Boone’s Christmas album and three Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass albums. Hearing that, I had to ask, “How do you make the step from Taste of Honey to bluegrass?”
PB: My buddy, John Seburn, who I’ve known since the 3rd grade, started playing violin and fiddle tunes in elementary school. When we got to high school it was very unpopular to play bluegrass or fiddle tunes, but he was my best friend and one day he said, “I have nobody to play with, how about I show you how to play guitar so you can accompany me on the fiddle.” So he’s the one who got me playing and introduced me to bluegrass.
KD: Where did your first guitar come from and what was it?
PB: It was a no-name, cheap Montgomery Ward’s piece of junk. From there I just wanted to play other instruments. I didn’t really start listening and learning music until my senior year of high school. I went to college to be an aircraft mechanic and got my Federal Aviation Airframe and Powerplant license.
I worked on airplanes for a couple years and decided to go back to college to become a mechanical engineer. I did that, and at the same time I was working part-time in a music store giving lessons. After I graduated from my second stint of college I decided I just wanted to work in the music store and play music.
KD: And your family reaction was?
PB: They were very supportive. My mom was very supportive. I gave lessons in Hagerstown for a long time – banjo, mandolin and guitar. Then I had a strange notion that I could make a living playing music. I pursued that and I started a band called the Longmeadow Mining Company. I quickly realized that didn’t work so well. I wasn’t able to make very much money. It may have reflected something about my playing ability.
KD: What inspired you to get into building instruments?
PB: As a kid I always built models and I did a lot of stuff around the farm. I always did things with my hands, working on vehicles and farm equipment. I was always building things. I started repairing instruments when I was 18. People just started bringing me stuff to work on.
My first job was working on a mandolin. The person needed a new nut so I made one out of bone. I did a lot of repair at the music store. That was in the hair-metal days. I had a lot of local bands bringing in odd-shaped electric guitars, which looked like Pablo Picasso designed them. They would want a different bridge put on, different pickups. These kids all had long hair and spoke a language I didn’t quite understand. That’s what I did. I basically worked on electric guitars for years.
When I was in college I was riding in a car with my friend, John, and he had WAMU Radio on. It was the first time I ever listened to bluegrass on the radio. This song came on and (the DJ) Jerry Gray said, “That was The Seldom Scene doing Little Georgia Rose off of Act 3.” I had no idea what that all meant so I went to Waxie Maxie’s in Hagerstown and bought Act 3. Then I bought Act 2 and then Act I. I had no idea what a Dobro was.
What’s interesting is that when you listen to that cut, Little Georgia Rose, there’s no Dobro break. It’s all back up. I think it’s when they modulate up a step that Mike plays a prominent part. I heard it but I had no idea what that was. I went to another local music store trying to find a Dobro because it was credited on the album. They didn’t know what I was talking about. I ended up buying one of those extender nuts and putting it on my acoustic guitar to try to learn to play Dobro. Up until this time I was just playing rhythm guitar for fiddle tunes.
KD: An extender nut is something that would raise the strings?
PB: Yes, on a standard Kay guitar.
KD: How’d that work out?
PB: The tone of it matched my playing ability. (laughter) It was pretty bad. That Kay was a step up from my Ward’s piece of junk. I still have that Kay guitar and it still has the extender nut.
KD: But you didn’t have a resonator on it.
KD: Before we go on, years ago you explained to me what a resonator guitar is. Will you do that again, please.
PB: The resonator guitar is a mechanically driven speaker. It was invented in 1927 by John Dopyera in an effort to make a louder acoustic instrument. At that time, the electric guitar really wasn’t invented yet. The guitar needed to be louder for mandolin orchestras and the orchestras playing traditional music. It’s a diaphragm, an aluminum speaker that’s very thin. It’s usually 0.010 of an inch thick, and it’s just driven by the strings, just like a speaker cabinet today.
KD: What’s the pie plate looking thing on the top?
PB: The thing you see on the top is a cover plate and that’s basically to keep your fingers and potato chips out of the resonator itself. The resonator is what lies beneath. So what people see on the instrument is just a cover plate. Kind of like a grill you would see on a speaker.
KD: I know in earlier years, players had to teach themselves how to play. Now they can use books, tapes and YouTube. Have the players today made that many leaps and bounds in their playing or is the instrument more advanced? Which is leapfrogging over the other? I look at the new Josh Swift Beard Model and it looks futuristic. Nothing traditional there. And yet you’ve just started a new line – the Deco Phonic, which looks like the old Dobros – and the sound is great and loud. It makes me realize just how much the instrument is evolving.
PB: I’m always trying to make something new. That’s my job at Beard Guitars. I’m always researching and developing new ideas that I have from talking to players and finding out what they’re interested in. New players have developed a certain style or technique or expression of music, and they have ideas. When we get together to discuss it, these new players, like Josh Swift, will mention something that he’s looking for.
Then it’s my job to try to figure out a way to bring that out in the instrument. That’s what I enjoy doing now. It’s a combination of the instrument and the player. These modern musicians are definitely putting their spin on the music, and out of their playing come new ideas in the instrument world as well. Josh Swift is an example of that. Jerry Douglas is an example of that. The Jerry Douglas model is totally different from any other model that had been made until that time.
KD: Thanks. Sorry for the detour. You heard The Seldom Scene on the radio, bought their records and tried to make a guitar that would give you that sound. When’s the first time you saw them live?
PB: Probably 1979 and it was at the Weinberg Center in Fredrick.
KD: So it was not the original Seldom Scene. By this time Phil Rosenthal was with the group. But your eyes and ears immediately went to Mike?
PB: Oh yeah. Mike had the sound that I liked. It was very musical. Once I got into bluegrass I started listening to other people and Mike sounded different than Buck Graves.
KD: What was the difference stylistically?
PB: Mike was very smooth and sophisticated in his playing and tone. In my opinion, he had more space between notes so he maximized phrasing and timing and tone. Although he did play really fast songs, his hallmark style was the tone he was able to get out of the instrument in some of these slower passages. His tone was just amazing.
KD: He was kind of a springboard for Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes and others.
PB: That’s right. You can look at the history of the Dobro – Pete Kirby’s initial Dobro introduction to country music and then Josh Graves took it to the next level. Mike’s early playing emulated Josh or Buck Graves. From there, Mike developed his own style and his own tone. Of course, Jerry Douglas grew up listening to Mike. Jerry emulated Mike initially and then developed his own style and tone.
KD: I don’t know about Pete Kirby, but when I think of Josh Graves with that funny porkpie hat, it makes me wonder if the early Dobro players like some of the early bass players, were the comic in the bands?
PB: That’s true. With Pete Kirby, that was the role. When Mike came along that all changed. It got very sophisticated. His presence was totally different right down from the way he carried himself, the way he dressed and the way he played.
KD: I’m glad you brought up his appearance. Mike Auldridge was a very handsome man and he looked so cool the way he dressed with those creased jeans.
PB: His persona was bought out in his music. He was always the coolest looking guy.
KD: One time I sat for almost an hour and listened to Mike and his brother, Dave, debate the pros and cons of different models of irons. This was a very serious discussion. I think they put almost as much time and energy into picking out an iron as they put into picking out an instrument.
PB: The first time I met him was at Gettysburg Festival 1979. Actually I take that back. First time I saw them was in 1979 at the Weinberg, and the following summer I saw them at Gettysburg.
KD: You spoke to and got autographs from the band?
PB: I got photos and autographs from all the members of the Seldom Scene except for Mike. I was too nervous to approach him. I think I said a sheepish “hi” to him and that was it.
Later I got a lesson with him. I drove down to his house. He came to the door and I thought that was odd because I expected him to have a man servant. (laughter) He took me down into the basement and I thought that was odd because I thought there would be some large studio. He’s giving me a lesson and he’s taping it. He asked me to play, and I couldn’t play because I was so nervous. He took me upstairs for lunch and we ate in his kitchen. That was odd because I didn’t think he ate.
KD: What did he make you for lunch?
PB: He made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I couldn’t imagine that. I thought it would be caviar and some incredible wine. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches! That just blew my mind.
KD: You eventually became good friends with him and realized he was just a normal guy.
PB: I would say yes and no. He was just bigger than life to me. He was a fantastic story teller. I wish I had written down those stories or taped him. I couldn’t play it for anybody in public. They were great stories and he had a million of them.
KD: When did you decide you were going to build guitars?
PB: My first real Dobro was an OMI Dobro that was built in 1974. A guy came into the music store where I was working and wanted to sell it so I bought it for $125. After I played it for a while, being a tinkerer, I tore it apart and I was disappointed by how it was constructed internally. It was rough. Glue smeared all over, the plywood was cracked and coming apart. I could tell it wasn’t really a high quality instrument. It didn’t make sense to me at the time because you could buy a high-end guitar, banjo, mandolin but Dobro was it for resonator guitars. Back then they were selling for $300. I wasn’t getting the sound out of it so I decided I would learn to build one for myself. I built a resonator guitar and a flat top guitar.
I’ll never forget. In 1985 I took it down to the (middle) Birchmere. It was The Seldom Scene with Tony Rice sitting as guitar player. They played their first set and during the break I wanted to show the instruments to Mike. I was seated at Mike’s feet because if you’re a Dobro player that’s where you sit. You think you’re going to be able to get some licks from him via osmosis. They went on break and I went to the green room. I said, “Hi Mike. I made this guitar. Would you be interested in looking at it?” He said yes. I pulled it out and it was drastically different from what he’s playing. It has a wooden cover plate that I hand carved. He sat there in the green room during the entire break and played that guitar.
He is the reason that I’m in the business. He was an interesting man in that I learned some stuff about him that surprised me. Number One, he suffered from stage fright. He would get nervous before he would play. I just assumed he was so confident that he could walk out there on stage and play. He told me he felt sick to his stomach until he started playing the first note. And then he was fine.
The other thing about him that kind of blows my mind is that as accomplished as he was, he didn’t realize he was that good. He was always amazed when someone would come up to him and share the love by saying, “You’re the reason I do this, or the reason I listen to Dobro or whatever.” He just had no idea. I don’t think he ever grasped how influential he was in bluegrass and on the instrument. And I’m sitting there thinking, “There’s nobody better than this guy. He is the trendsetter. He is the man.” And he just had no idea.
KD: Was that the night you offered to make a guitar for him? If I recall the story correctly it took 7 years to come up with a guitar that sounded the way he wanted. You asked him, “What sound are you looking for?” and he said, “Warm.”
PB: Warm and rich. That’s the thing. When we talk about music, we’re forced to use adjectives to describe music and unfortunately, we’re not all speaking the same language. One adjective to you doesn’t mean the same thing that adjective means to me.
KD: When you brought him the first guitar you made, he said it was “too muddy.”
PB: That’s right. “Too muddy.” And he said “too many low mids and too many low ends.” Then he would say, “but I want it to be warm.” I thought “warm” was on the low-end spectrum so every instrument I would make him as a prototype would be what I considered “warm.” This went on for seven years. I would keep making guitars and taking them to him. He would say, “Well, I like this about it and I like the 3rd string but I’m not crazy about the high string”.
I was making all these small body Regal-size guitars like his original guitar that he used on all the recordings with the Seldom Scene. Finally, I threw my hands up and decided to make him something that I wanted to make. I made a large body guitar out of Birch plywood like his old guitar. As soon as he played it, he said “That’s it. That’s the sound.” Of course, that wasn’t “warm” at all in my estimation. To me it was a real distinct sound. All the notes were really separated and very clear. It was not what I would have described as “warm.” It was his hands that made that guitar warm.
So there was this communication barrier. I don’t know how else we could have done it differently.
KD: During the 7 years of not getting “warm” right, what else were you doing? Were you continuing to do repairs or building for other people?
PB: I was building for other people. I started in 1985. That’s when I made my first two instruments. I went to Gettysburg Festival because that was almost in my back yard. I was playing in the parking lot at Gettysburg and right away a guy walked up and asked, “Where did you get that?” I told him I made it and he asked me to make him one. That first year I got two orders for guitars just by picking at festivals.
KD: Will you give me a round number of how many guitars you’ll make by the end of 2017?
PB: This year will be over 300+. It’s like one a day.
KD: So at this point there’s the guitar that Mike likes and that you like. Does he just take that one off your hands? How did this progress?
PB: Once I figured out the sound that he wanted, I started working on body shapes and some cosmetic things. Just like his playing and his fashion, he knew exactly what he wanted. He told me, “I want a black guitar. I want it with this type of binding. I want hearts and flowers inlay.”
That’s really unusual for a guitar. Usually you only see that on a banjo, but Mike started by playing banjo. After he played that first one, I made four more prototypes, which all varied slightly. Then he decided out of those four which one he liked and he kept that one. That’s the one he played and that’s the one we used as a model for all the other builds that bore his name.
KD: What are the specifications of the Mike Auldridge model made by Beard Guitars.
PB: It’s what I call my E-Body. It’s a large body. It’s a little thicker. Kind of looks like a dreadnaught but it’s not as big as a dreadnaught. It’s a little thicker in body depth. It’s made of Birch plywood, which is made in Finland. It’s a very high-quality Birch plywood. It’s not something you go here in the States and buy at a hardware store. It has a mahogany neck, ebony fretboard with his version of the hearts and flowers inlay, and his signature up on the peg head.
KD: Mike was an illustrator. Did he design the hearts and flowers?
PB: He did. It’s different from a Gibson hearts and flowers. I asked exactly what he wanted and he said he would go home and draw it up because he wanted it to be his. He drew it up by hand, gave it to me and we cut the pearl.
KD: And as you manufactured these, Mike would come up and play every one of them.
PB: The original Mike Auldridge models had John Quarterman cones. He worked at Dobro. I was apprenticing with the man who spun all the cones out in LA, and I was learning to spin cones on my own. I wanted to develop a cone as good as a Quarterman. Mike would come to the shop and I’d spin a cone on the lathe, and then put it in his guitar. Mike would listen to it and it was like déjà vu. “Sounds good on the high end but…”
We worked on that for so long and finally I developed the Legend Cone. I named it after Mike. You know, what Duffey called him, Larry the Legend.
KD: During these times he spent time with you in the shop, you got to be very good friends. During his acceptance speech for the IBMA Distinguished Achievement Award, he referred to you as his best friend.
PB: I was shocked. We did develop quite a friendship. He didn’t express that stuff on a regular basis. He didn’t discuss his feelings. Everything for him was like he thought about food: He liked everything as long as it was meat and potatoes. Yes, that was a shock at IBMA.
KD: Mike died in 2012. I imagine he had a large collection of instruments. He left you his guitar that was used on his recording with Emerson & Waldron, session work with the Country Gentlemen, the Mike Auldridge solo albums;, all the Seldom Scene albums from 1971-1982. And the last time he used that guitar was during a 1982 concert recorded at Lisner Auditorium. Was that a big surprise or did he tell you he planned to do that?
PB: He asked me if I would handle his estate. There were things he wanted taken care of, including the distribution of his instruments. I said, of course. I’ll take care of that for you. That was all that was said. Closer to the end of his life he sent another email. When I opened it up it was a spreadsheet outlining where the instruments were to go. There were maybe 18 various instruments. There was an electric bass and a Martin guitar, quite a few pedal steels. He had them all written out. Which ones he wanted to be sold and which ones he wanted to go to which people. Halfway down the list was #401, which was the serial number of that guitar. That’s the one that’s on all those all records. The one I fell in love with the sound of. It had my name next to it. I just about fell over. I had to read that email a couple times. I think I waited a day or two before I called him because I didn’t know what to say to him. I was shocked. I had no idea. I did call him and he said, “I want you to have that guitar.”
He said something to the effect that he really liked having his own model, and Beard Guitars making them for him meant a lot in that season of his life. He felt it was a re-emergence for him. He had the early career, the success with the Seldom Scene and the music and that later in life he had the signature guitar. That was really important to him. He loved the process, he enjoyed coming to the shop and he enjoyed our friendship.
I thought of it as showing my gratitude for what he did for me. I was honored to have a signature model for him. Yeah, he put that in his will that the guitar went to me. It’s my prize memory and possession.
KD: I think that guitar represents the sound that most of us associate with Mike.
PB: With Mike playing it. Mike could make a shoe box sound really good. I heard him do it over and over. People would come up to him at festivals and ask him to play their guitar. Mike made them all sound amazing.
KD: Do you play #401?
PB: I do. I’ve gigged with that guitar. And I let people play it. It doesn’t make sense to have an instrument with all that history sit in a case in my basement.
KD: It’s your responsibility to share the sound that inspired you?
PB: And it’s interesting because to this day I have people come to the shop, people like Andy Hall of The Infamous Stringdusters or Fred Travers of The Seldom Scene and they’ll ask to see the guitar. They don’t want to ask but I’ll say, “You know you can play it.” Everyone wants to play that guitar. That’s a big source of enjoyment. I’m going to have to replace the tuning machines. They’re so old. They’re plastic knobs from the 30’s, which have deteriorated over the years. I’ll save the original ones.
KD: So a man who manufactures 300+ guitars a year, your favorite is…
PB: Oh yes. It’s that guitar. I can pinpoint Mike Auldridge and that guitar as the very reason I’m in this business and doing what I do today. It wouldn’t have happened any other way. I told him that and he always seemed surprised. I found I would have to tell him that over and over because I was waiting for another response, which never came.
KD: What response did you want?
PB: I kind of wanted him to say, “I know.” (laughter) But he never did. For me it’s been an amazing adventure. I never thought it was going to turn out this way. I thought I would work on airplanes my whole life. And then I heard Mike Auldridge. It changed everything when I heard that guitar. Didn’t expect that I would build instruments. It worked out because this is where I want to be.
Mike was one in a million. Actually, he was one of a kind.