More than 15 years ago, Ryan Cobb was talking to a friend who had watched a DIY video on how to build a guitar. He suggested that they get some wood and try to do it. “I don’t know,” Cobb said at the time. “I think that’s going to be more complicated than you think.”
The video got him thinking, however. Upon doing some research, Cobb stumbled across a couple of guys located near Lawrenceburg, Indiana, who were luthiers in search of an apprentice. Cobb went to visit the pair, Mike Mitchell and Dann Ross, and they hit it off.
“I was thoroughly impressed with them,” says Cobb, who ended up parking a trailer in Ross’s front yard (a rural wooded area) and spending the next two years learning the craft from these two luthiers, in addition to Jamonn Zeiler, a Cincinnati performer who taught Ross. “They were doing some next-level stuff. Jamonn is the lineage of our education and training.”
At the time, Zeiler and Ross were in the process of developing a school of lutherie, but Ross developed some health problems, which caused their plans to fizzle out. At that point, opening a school of lutherie became a long-term goal for Cobb and Mitchell. Cobb set up shop in Cincinnati and slowly began to acquire the tools he needed to do it on his own. At the same time, he taught guitar-building classes at Rockler Woodworking and Hardware in Cincinnati, where Mitchell was the manager. That gave Cobb the opportunity to develop his curriculum.
Once Cobb’s sister started having children, however, he got homesick and wanted to move back to Plainfield to be closer to family. He didn’t want to give up on his dream, however. In 2014 Cobb and Mitchell found a great building on Stafford Road. The men negotiated a deal with the Town of Plainfield to buy it and open Indiana School of Lutherie, a school dedicated to teaching the principles of traditional and modern lutherie. The first several years they were there, they kept a low profile by design.
“Our infrastructure wasn’t prepared to handle a lot of traffic,” Cobb says. “In fact, it was four or five years before we even put a sign on the building.”
Since then they have grown steadily, though the business is still a bit of a hidden treasure in Plainfield.
“A lot of people tell us, ‘I had no idea you guys were here,’” Cobb says.
He and Mitchell set up the school as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit so that they can raise money, because they knew they would not be able to survive on student tuition alone. Up until COVID-19, they occasionally held fundraisers to, as Cobb says, “help keep the lights on.” Now that the pandemic is abating, they hope to raffle off a guitar. They also plan to do Sunday afternoon bluegrass jams in the parking lot, cookouts, and poker tournaments, every few months.
Mitchell handles the administrative end of things and also teaches English at Ivy Tech. Cobb is the head luthier who teaches classes, and also runs a window washing company and is a coach of the Plainfield High School wrestling team.
Indiana School of Lutherie offers two types of classes. One is called an advanced demonstration, where five to six students watch Cobb build a guitar from scratch. In this case, students don’t leave with a guitar, but rather watch Cobb build one. The other class is an individualized, one-on-one build, during which the student works with Cobb through the course of many weeks to build an instrument of their own, which they then get to take with them. Though students make their own instruments, Cobb will handle certain steps so as not to risk messing up 12 weeks of work.
“We don’t let you fail,” Cobb says. “We hold your hand all the way through the build.” They offer five or six standard builds to students. They have, however, recently gotten into the computer-navigated cutting world, which allows them to build a new shape.
“We lay it out digitally and the machine cuts out our bending molds, jigs and fixtures that we use to hold the instruments while we build them,” Cobb says. “Technologically, we’ve come a long way.”
In the spring they had a couple of violin students who had a specific shape they wanted to build. Cobb and his staff led them through the process.
“It’s more expensive, of course, but if someone has a specific shape in mind, we can facilitate that,” Cobb says. The standard price for the build-your-own-guitar option is $4,200.
“That includes your education, plus you’re leaving with an instrument that’s worth what you paid for the entire class,” Cobb says.
They operate by appointment only, and typically run about six months out since they can only take a handful of students at once. Cobb is extremely busy now, between working three jobs as well as being a husband to Jennifer, a firefighter, and being a dad to their two young boys. He expects his time to open up next year, enabling him to take on more students.
“Most of my clients are retired professionals of some sort, which is great because we all learn from one another,” Cobb says. “Although I’m the one teaching lutherie, these guys offer professional insight on what they’re good at.”
For example, a machinist might provide a way to determine exactly how many thousandths of an inch that a jig is moving. A chemist may share something about a solvent when it comes to the finishing process or removing adhesives. An engineer may figure out a certain calculation by providing a way to complete an arc of a radius.
Not surprisingly, most of Cobb’s students are musicians. Cobb himself has been into music his whole life. Fresh out of college, he traveled the country studying music and supporting himself by painting houses.
“That was good when it came to guitar building, because I already had a great understanding of clear finishes and lacquers,” he says.
He was looking to get away from the construction business when he was presented with the apprenticeship opportunity. It felt like fate, because Cobb loves nothing more than being able to build a great instrument and put it in the hands of a great musician.
“I’ve always been a sucker for the songwriter,” he says. “That instrument often pulls things out of that musician that another instrument may not have.”
Indiana School of Lutherie is located at 1501 Stafford Road in Plainfield. For more information, call 317-839-3912 or visit indianaschooloflutherie.org.