-Contributed by Steve Regimbal-
Ted Beringer has the hands of a lumberjack, but he can feel invisible sanding flaws on a guitar top and can glue delicate banding onto the tiniest crevices of a sound hole. When he tries out one of his newly crafted mandolins, his thick fingers play “Never on a Sunday” upon an impossibly narrow fret board. Ted is a master luthier, he creates world-class instruments, and it all starts with the wood.
Instrument quality woods are often exotic, sometimes rare, and sold at black market prices. Ted looks at a piece of wood the way a sculptor looks at a slab of marble. He envisions how the raw grain will look on a completed side or back. He considers how the texture and hardness will affect the bending, carving, sanding, and finishing. He knows from experience that cherry tends to produce a bright sound, that maple normally gives a warm sound, and that the ultimate result can be a surprise. The tops are usually carved from special varieties of spruce or cedar. Maple and cherry are commonly used for the sides, back and neck. Yet Ted has made instruments from mahogany, teak, padouk, koa, bubinga, and even blue mahoe, which must be worked with care since its sawdust is toxic.
Ted’s specialty is the archtop design, where the strings are stretched across a bridge that transmits their vibrations onto a carved top that in turn vibrates and resonates with the back and sides to produce a sound unique to each instrument. Ted never makes the same instrument twice. He constantly experiments with the sound hole configurations, the bracing methods, and the bridge placement. The top must be thin enough to vibrate, but not so thin that it rattles. it must be thick enough and braced properly so that it can sustain the enormous downward pressure caused by the tension of the strings across the bridge. Ted fine-tunes each top until it responds with nearly equal loudness to the frequency of each string without a muddy sound when a chord is strummed. Yet sometimes a meticulously designed top carved from the highest quality wood will crack or will just be “dead,” and Ted tears it off and starts over. Analyzing the complexities of the archtop would keep an acoustical engineer busy for a long time.
Ted is pushing 80, but as a luthier he has the inspired enthusiasm of youth. Every minor setback is an interesting problem to be solved. If he doesn’t have the tool he needs, he makes one. Some instruments fight him all the way and others almost fall together. One of his innovative designs might “turn him on” and an especially beautiful tone will be “out of sight.” Every one of his instruments has a distinct personality, and he hasn’t made his masterpiece yet.
Luthier catalogs sell standard parts and hardware for guitars and mandolins, but when Ted is dissatisfied with their performance he designs his own. He machines bridges from ebony or rosewood that are curved to fit perfectly onto his carved tops for the best sound conduction. He creates his own tail pieces, which secure the strings to the guitar body at the precise angle needed to allow the top to vibrate at its optimum. He makes various types of pickups that convert acoustic vibrations into electronic signals and has pioneered a sliding pickup system that produces a wide tonal range.
Ted’s innovations are wasted on certain musicians who are hidebound, snobbish, or blindly loyal to bad instruments with famous brand names. Ted has developed nylon string archtop guitars that out perform most classical flattops, but he has trouble finding a classical guitarist who will deign to even look at one, much less play it. Ted’s mandolins have such incredible tone and response that they have redefined the instrument, but your typical bluegrass picker won’t touch anything but that curlicue kind that Bill Monroe plays, even though it will usually sound like a cigar box wrapped in rubber bands.
Ted does not share the infatuation that some of his colleagues have with old-fashioned glues and varnishes. He is not afraid to use modern adhesives and finishes. As a result, he has not only the best sounding but also the best looking instruments displayed at the luthiers’ conventions. The traditionalists will rave about his beautiful guitars, ask about his finishing techniques, then recoil in horror when he mentions Sherwin-Williams. Ted takes it all in stride. Apparently geniuses are used to being misunderstood.
The finishing of an instrument is a science in itself, and Ted constantly experiments with materials and methods. Each type of wood responds differently to sandpaper, glue, stain, and lacquer. Various finishing products can react with each other and must be carefully applied. Improperly sprayed finishes can shrink, peel, or crack and must be stripped off entirely and resprayed. This painstaking process affects not only the instrument’s appearance but its sound as well. The finish can have a subtle effect on the brightness of a string’s tone.
Ted likes to play old-time country and jazzy standards on his six-strings. He also plays a pretty mean bass guitar. His aggressive style is perfectly suited to the dynamics of his nylon string archtops. Because Ted is a player, he designs his fret boards with a slight cross-sectional curve that fits the chording hand like a glove. His precision fret adjustment gives his instruments a silky playability that is unrivaled. If you play a Beringer, your instrument will never hold you back.
No one can order a guitar from Ted. He builds only what he wants, and if somebody likes one Ted will sell it. He doesn’t advertise and he doesn’t have to. Word of mouth brings musicians from around the country to his doorstep. Many end up with several prized Beringers that nobody else gets to touch. His instruments are distinctive in their elegant simplicity. There are no baroque inlays cluttering up the stark beauty of the wood. As Ted says, “All that mother-of-pearl doesn’t make it sound any better.”
Ted is a perfectionist who is not afraid of failure. When he scraps one of his unsatisfactory designs, he learns more than most builders do from a hundred successes. He is remarkably patient and will spend hours reworking minute details that no one else would notice. He has a rare gift for visualization, an uncanny feel for materials, and an old world work ethic. His enormous talent is not encumbered by ego or paranoia. He knows how good he is and he strives to be better. He’ll talk openly about his theories and methods to anyone who will listen, and he has started to pass his knowledge on to his grandson Jim. Ted says that Jim has what it takes to be a good luthier, but he is starting his grandson out slowly on the more dangerous equipment in the shop. Ted’s son Barry claims that he used the band saw when he was a kid but concedes that sons are more replaceable than grandsons.
Ted is well known among musicians and has contacts with luthiers on both coasts. He was spotlighted in the audience at the Aladdin in Las Vegas by the house band leader Buzz Evans. Nashville artist Kostas has several Beringer Instruments. Ted was recently honored by country musicians in Billings with an impromptu performance by an all-Beringer instrument band. After the set, Ted stepped up to the mike and quipped that if his living room recliner had been on stage he would have played with the band.
Ted’s wife Pete is his most loyal fan and occasional critic. She is more serious about Ted’s guitars than he is. When he whimsically added teeth to a sound hole for a jack o’lantern effect, Pete was not amused. She detests banjos and remarked once that one of Ted’s mandolins sounded like a banjo.
“No way that sounds like a banjo,” Ted shouted.
Pete just continued knitting. “Sounds like a banjo to me.”
The next day Ted decided that the mandolin was a little treble heavy and thinned down the top.
Ted had built a Flamenco guitar and was trying to remember the Spanish city famous for its Flamenco builders.
“Madrid,” yelled Pete without looking up from her reading.
Ted ignored her. “Barcelona? Seville?”
“I’ll think of it,” Ted promised
Half an hour later he snapped his fingers. “Madrid, that’s it!”
Pete just rolled her eyes. “Now where the hell have I heard that before?”
Ted works in his shop almost every day and rewards himself in the evening with a shot and a beer while lounging in his recliner strumming on his latest creation. Pete knows every word to every song he plays and sings along in that one-of-a-kind voice of hers. An Irish musician named Gerry Mahoney once visited and spent a morning with Ted and Pete talking, singing and playing. He declared that they were a “lovely couple.” No one could describe them better than that.
I own four Beringer mandolins and a unique hybrid between a guitar and a mandolin that Ted made for me and that I call a manditar. They are my most precious possessions, and they will endure long after I’m gone. They are part of Ted’s legacy to the world and I have the privilege of sharing in that legacy, both by having owned five of his masterpieces and by having known the master himself.