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Where the pick hits the string: The music and luthier wizardry of the incredible Harry Sparks

Harry Sparks and local musician Chris Douglas with MadCap

Harry Sparks and Chris Douglas with Martin D-14 guitar. (Photo by Vicki Prichard)

By Vicki Prichard
NKyTribune contributor

The name Harry Sparks weaves through the history of Bluegrass music like gilded thread through a Kentucky quilt – unique and revered.

A successful Northern Kentucky architect by trade – he founded Architectural Group International, AGI, in Covington – Bluegrass icons know Sparks as a fellow musician and masterful craftsman whom they continue to trust with the repair of their most beloved guitars, banjos and mandolins.

Peruse any story about Bluegrass greats Sam Bush, J.D. Crowe, or Vince Gill and odds are you’ll find mention of Sparks – or “Sparky” – as he is still known among the talented circle of Bluegrass artists who praise his wizardry as a repairman.

Looking for trouble

Sparks, now 74-years-old, didn’t set out to become a musician, much less a coveted repairmen, otherwise known as a luthier.

A Murray native, whose father Harry was the president of Murray State University from 1968–73, stumbled upon Bluegrass when he was a teenager “looking for trouble.” He was 19-years-old when he and a few pals headed to the local drive-in theater to heckle musicians they’d heard would be performing on the rooftop of the drive-in concession stand.

“We were ready to stir trouble when Earl Scruggs turned around and cranked on that banjo. I was paralyzed,” says Sparks.

Harry Sparks at work. (Photo by Vicki Prichard)

Harry Sparks at work. (Photo by Vicki Prichard)

Later, while studying architecture at the University of Cincinnati, Sparks remained captivated by the sounds of Flatt & Scruggs. His newfound appreciation for Bluegrass led to a meeting with Jim McCall who taught him how to play Bluegrass on the guitar. McCall was a mainstay in the Cincinnati area for many years, recording with Bluegrass talents Benny Birchfield, Vernon McIntyre and the Appalachian Grass. Sparks became fully immersed in Bluegrass, and was ultimately a critical figure on the scene. His picking skills were one thing; his healing touch would be another.

Earning his keep

Under the tutelage of Robbie Robinson, a Columbus mandolin player, Sparks learned to repair instruments. He put that skill to use in the mid-70’s when he took up residence at one of Kentucky’s Bluegrass staples, Harry Bickel’s Bluegrass Hotel. Bickel was a Louisville dentist and banjo player who owned the 12-room Victorian house in Louisville’s Cherokee Triangle neighborhood. The house was a gathering place for local and out-of-town musicians, such as 18-year-old Vince Gill. Sparks and Bickel operated a repair shop in the basement of the hotel, performing wizardry and building mandolins. It wasn’t long before Sparks was the go-to luthier for Bluegrass royalty.

“Probably one of the most complimentary things that happened to me in this work, is when Sam Bush said, “If I put it together, will you come to Nashville and show these [expletives] how to do it?” says Sparks. He and his wife Carol went to the Music City where Sparks spent the day schooling four men in the secrets of his trade.

“Most of these guys can run circles around me when it comes to fixing guitars. The one thing that I’ve always said, is everything a guitar does boils down to one last thing, and that’s where the pick hits the string, and you’ve got your fingers on the fret,” says Sparks. “I keep telling these guys it’s basic physics, nothing magic.”

The wizard’s apprentice

Not one to horde critical skills – magic or not – the wizard shares the secrets of his trade by apprenticing a new crop of local Bluegrass musicians like Brad Meinerding, who performs with local music group, Over the Rhine. His work began several years ago with weekly visits to Sparks’ home, tending to a mandolin or guitar in need of mending. He borrows from Sparks’ somewhat unorthodox arsenal of tools-of-the-trade, which include all sorts of dental tools and an occasional dog bone contributed by Sparks’ yellow Labrador, Pete.

Harry Sparks in his workshop.

Harry Sparks in his workshop in his Ryland home. (Photo by Vicki Prichard)

“I’ve always tinkered, but the instruments ended up broken usually,” says Meinerding. “I got tired of breaking them, and Harry got tired of me bringing them to him.”

His reputation makes him a sought-after man locally as well.

When Chris Douglas, with Cincinnati’s MadCap Puppets, needed work on his newly acquired Martin D-18 guitar, he wouldn’t trust just anyone with its repairs.

“I wouldn’t trust just anybody to work on it, and Harry comes very highly recommended,” says Douglas.

This old guitar

Somewhere between repairing the sacred strings of music’s greats, Sparks found the time to design the 5000 sq. ft. passive solar home, situated on Ryland Lake which houses his small, but well-appointed, repair shop. The contemporary-style home belies decades of tradition and historical treasures within. Sparks counts his Martin D-45 guitar among his favorite in a wide collection. The guitar is a bit of a legend itself.

It was in the late ‘60’s when Sparks was in Nashville visiting George Gruhn, of Gruhn Guitars, the premier dealer in the acoustic guitar world. Gruhn owned eight Martin D-45, pre-WWII guitars, considered the Rolls Royce of the flattop acoustic guitar world. The first D-45 was built in 1933 for performer Gene Autry. Only 91 were made between 1933 and 1942, when production halted during the war due to material shortages. To date, Martin D-45 guitars have sold for $175,000.

Gruhn found the guitar in St. Louis, where he bought it for $1500. Sparks eyed the instrument and told Gruhn it was the best he’d seen, and, should Gruhn ever choose to part with it, he’d like to first dibs. Gruhn agreed.

Over the years, Sparks had many dealings with Gruhn. In the mid-70’s, Gruhn called to say he was ready to sell the Martin D-45 and it could be his for $7500. A date was set for the exchange and, on the appointed day, Sparks showed up at Gruhn’s shop to find that musician Stephen Stills was there with an eye for the same guitar.

“I said, “George, did you tell me I had first refusal? Have we always told each other what’s so? Gruhn turned to Stills and said, “He’s right,” recalls Sparks. The guitar came home with him to Kentucky.

Doc Hamilton, Vince Gill, Harry Sparks and Harry Bickel recording.

Doc Hamilton, Vince Gill, Harry Sparks and Harry Bickel recording.

Ten years later, Sparks took a financial hit when interest rates soared and his architectural firm halted.

“Times were very, very bad for me and I went broke,” says Sparks. “I had to look up to see the bottom of things. Everything was a disaster.”

Sparks realized he had to sell the Martin D-45, but he was adamant that it found a proper home. He called his longtime friend, Vince Gill.

“I called up Vince and said, “Vince, I’m going to sell the D-45, and he said, “You can’t, that’s the Holy Grail.”

Sparks explained the circumstances to his friend, told him he didn’t want the guitar to wind up in the hands of someone who would just “beat his chest and say “Look what I own.” He wanted someone who played music like Gill did to own the guitar.

When Sparks told him the price, $7500, just as he’d paid Gruhn, and Gill, knowing the value, told him it was too low.

“I told him I didn’t want any profit from a friend, so you can have it for what I have in it,” says Sparks. “He said, “I’ll give you $7500, and I’ll keep the guitar for you, and you’ll get back on your feet and what I’ll do is give it back to you at $7500.” And he did.”

Happy Birthday, Harry

Nearly 37 years after Gill, Sparks and Bickel were young men playing Bluegrass into the wee hours of the night, Gill presented Sparks with a belated 70th birthday present.

“He said, “I’ve got a birthday present – we’re going to record a CD together,” says Harry.

Working with the schedules of the original Buzzard Rock Sting Band, which included Sparks, Bickel, Charlie Cushman and Doc Hamilton, was a challenge, but eventually worked, and the musicians came together to record the CD at Gill’s home two years ago.

The original Buzzard Rock String Band: Vince Gill, Charlie Cushman, Harry Sparks, Harry Bickel and Doc Hamilton.

The original Buzzard Rock String Band: Vince Gill, Charlie Cushman, Harry Sparks, Harry Bickel and Doc Hamilton. (Photo by Jim McGuire)

Proving that talent runs deep in the Sparks family, the CD would include an original song by Sparks’ brother Philip, who wrote it while earning his doctorate in comparative literature from Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

“He repairs banjos and fiddles, too,” says Sparks. “We’ve got all kinds of bad habits.”

Sparks was smitten by the song, “Nobody Special,” and sang it for decades. Gill liked the song too and the Buzzard Rock String Band CD bears the song as its title.

Somebody special

A famed luthier, successful architect, and the 2008 muzzle-loading international champion, Sparks can add performing live at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium to his successes.

Two years ago, Sparks was in Nashville meeting with Gruhn about architectural work for Gruhn Guitar’s new location. While in town, Gill invited him to the Ryman Auditorium for a concert and over lunch surprised him by telling Sparks he was to join him on stage for a duet.

“It’s a monster deal,” says Sparks about singing on stage, alongside Gill, at the Ryman. “Everybody said, “You looked perfectly relaxed.”

“The funny part, Carol and I were in complimentary seats and I look down and there’s Ken Burns sitting there,” says Sparks. “I congratulate him and tell him I love his work. He thanked me, and after the show he came up and said, “Well, if you’re not a sneaky one.”

Joining Gill and Sparks on the stage was the Martin D-45, which Gill played. Sparks says the value of guitar in today’s market runs $340,000, which pales compared to the value of good friends who play music together.

“Nobody Special,” by the Buzzard Rock String Band is available at www.cdbaby.com

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One Comment

  1. Holland VanDieren says:

    Reading this article three years after publication, I must say getting to know Harry Sparks is a moving experience. I recently heard Harry’s son Hal Sparks, the comedian/actor/musician, talk a bit about his Dad on the radio, which led me here. What an amazingly talented, humble and kind man Harry is. And, kudos to the writer of this article, Vicki Prichard, whose journalistic skill shows real heart for her subject.

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