By Molly Oleson
When legendary bass player Jack Casady’s beloved wife Diana passed away after a long battle with cancer, the Hot Tuna bassist went to master luthier Tom Ribbecke’s shop in rural wine country in search of a new guitar.
“I’ve heard through the grapevine that your instruments have this healing quality,” Casady said.
He handed Ribbecke a lock of Diana’s hair and asked, “Can you put that inside of it?”
“And that brought me to my knees, to be honest with you,” Ribbecke says, sitting outside of his workshop, a weathered barn in Healdsburg, California. “It was overpowering.”
Well-known for his Halfling design that blends the design elements of a steel string, classical, and archtop guitar, Ribbecke says that making instruments for the last 45 years has been a sacred pursuit, a gift that’s kept him alive.
But it’s healing through music that has always fascinated him.
“It’s been a real mission for me lately,” Ribbecke says of dedicating himself to projects of higher consciousness. Words from his father, who encouraged him in his early 20s to “change the world” with his guitars, have resonated ever since. “My father’s message to me—‘Do more with it’—has now morphed into ‘pursue healing within music.’”
It was that intention that led to the creation of the Legacy Trio, a top-tier collection of acoustic guitars commissioned by a private collector to be a building block for philanthrophic causes. The trio, a collaboration between Ribbecke and master craftsmen Larry Robinson (inlay) and Bob Hergert (micro-scrimshaw), was unveiled last fall at the 2016 Santa Barbara Acoustic Instrument Celebration after a four-year evolution of planning and building.
Priced at a lofty $1,618,033.99 each to honor the so-called Golden Ratio (the same geometric equation used to build the Parthenon in Athens), the guitars—a Bobby Vega Bass with an ergonomic “wedge” design, an archtop, and a steel string acoustic—feature single-piece carved backs made of salvaged, quilted mahogany from “The Tree,” considered to be some of the rarest wood in the world.
Featuring the ancient Mayan spiral symbol Hunab Ku on its headstock, the bass boasts an embedded 1908 silver dollar coin that the wealthy John Jacob Astor IV handed off on the docks of France before boarding the Titanic for its tragic 1912 voyage. A soaring bald eagle graces the headstock of the archtop, which includes a 25-cent piece from 1806 that belonged to Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. And the steel-string acoustic, featuring Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” on its headstock, contains a brass time capsule under the fingerboard in which a scroll with Ribbecke’s written observations about modern lutherie is stored.
The Legacy Trio, which includes a “plus one” chambered hollow-body electric guitar, will be presented at high-end events, with the hope that they will catch the eye of someone with great financial wherewithal. Proceeds from the sale will be used to fund LCollective, a luthier’s market and philanthropic network that will then help finance ventures and organizations that align with the project’s purpose.
“We want to use these to tell a story, and to wake people up and use their rarity to help market a cause,” says Ray Boyda, business consultant for Ribbecke Guitar Co. and founder of LCollective. “We would prefer not to have them hang on somebody’s wall as art pieces. And as these go from, hopefully, player to player, they’ll each fill out a page in this book. So as it goes on, the whole story will start to unfold.”
Ribbecke’s list of dream musicians to play the Legacy Trio guitars is a mile long. “You put an instrument like this in the hands of a really great player and their head comes off,” he says. “And that’s extraordinary when you do that.”
Excited about the future of the Legacy Trio, Ribbecke also views the endeavor as a tribute to his “family” of master luthiers, who have devoted their lives to pursuing the heart of instrument making. It’s easy to forget, he says, in the everyday fistfight of life, the impact that their work can have. When Casady—who had been playing the bass that honored his late wife—opened his eyes to that pursuit one day, it stopped Ribbecke in his tracks.
“I feel like I channel her every night when I play that guitar,” Casady told him. “Don’t you know you’ve changed my entire life?”