(A continuing series of interviews I’ve based loosely on the “Proust Questionnaire” – bluegrass style!)
Key in a quick Google of Roger Siminoff and you’ll immediately find yourself neck deep in his accomplishments and passions as a luthier, teacher, historian, prolific author, musician, designer, inventor, builder, master craftsman, collector, publisher, founder of Pickin’ and Frets magazines, long-time columnist for the Banjo Newsletter magazine and the California Bluegrass Association Breakdown, and avid sailor. And just to make sure you don’t think he’s resting on his laurels, Roger is currently working on two more books, continuing his research into musical acoustics, and is in the process of developing new products. Let’s hear from the master himself:
Question: What was your first instrument and when did you get it?
Roger Siminoff: Stella mandolin purchased new in 1957.
Q: What bluegrass event or recording first “blew your mind”?
Siminoff: Going to Carnegie Hall on September 16, 1961 to hear and see the Country Gentlemen live.
Q: What was it that made you want to try your hand at building instruments?
Siminoff: I’ve always had a strong interest in making things. I built my first banjo in 1958 and made practically every part on it. I really enjoyed the process and was looking for another instrument-building project, so I bought an old Gibson tenor banjo and made a 5-string neck for it.
Q: What’s the best part of the art of luthiery?
Siminoff: I think there are many “best parts” of luthierie, but the one that gives me the greatest satisfaction is crafting something from natural materials and turning the parts into something that feels good, looks good, and produces music. (The preferred spelling is “luthierie”) [Thanks, Roger, and duly noted for future reference].
Q: What’s your idea of perfect happiness?
Siminoff: For me, perfect happiness is connecting with, and being in the presence of people I love.
Q: What’s your greatest fear?
Siminoff: My greatest fear is not knowing what lies ahead.
Q: What is your greatest extravagance?
Siminoff: My greatest extravagance is exercising my hobbies to the fullest.
Q: Which living bluegrass person do you most admire?
Siminoff: Probably the bluegrass person alive today that I most admire is Eddie Adcock for his musical talent, his dedication and contribution to bluegrass music, and his perseverance through the most trying times. But, while she’s not alive today, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Louise Scruggs and her incredible memory, focus, dedication, and attention to detail. She was a dear friend and the driving force behind Earl, the Foggy Mountain Boys, and the Scruggs Revue. Louise passed away in February of 2006.
Q: What bluegrass memory makes you smile?
Siminoff: I’ve had the great fortune of being close to Earl Scruggs over the years. I loved Earl’s wit, his warmth, and the many wonderful projects I worked on with him. To this day I remember many of his great stories. One that comes to mind is the time that Rosemary and I took Earl and his niece, Grace, to lunch when he was in San Francisco for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. (Typically, we’d drive up to spend the day, or go to dinner when he was out for an event.) This one time he wanted to see Sausalito, so we headed north over the Golden Gate Bridge. Earl kept looking up at the cables and about a third of the way across, Earl looked over at me and in a matter-of-fact way he said, “I wonder if one of those cables broke what note it would make?” I turned to him and said, “Earl, that’s not funny. First of all, we’re 300 feet over the water, and secondly, the two ladies are in the back seat – you’re gonna scare them to death.” He just mumbled, “Uh huh.” A few minutes later, he looked up at the cables again and said, “I wonder if three of them broke would they make a chord?”
Q: What would be the “Holy Grail” of instruments you’d like to have come across your workbench?
Siminoff: I’m fortunate to own the “Holy Grail” of instruments – Lloyd Loar’s personal F5 mandolin – which has not only come across my workbench, but is now in my private collection. It was given to me by his widow, Bertha Snyder Loar Westerberg.
Q: What was the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Siminoff: The best advice I’ve ever been given comes from my best friends: slow down!
Q: What do you regard as the lowest depth of luthier misery?
Siminoff: When you have completely finished building a musical instrument, learning that you have done something terribly wrong that is irreversible.
Q: What bluegrass historical figure do you most identify with?
Siminoff: I’ve spent many years studying the life and work of Lloyd Loar, and have focused on his interests. I believe that my approach to musical acoustics is aligned with his work.
Q: What is your most treasured possession?
Siminoff: While not a “possession”, per se, I’d have to say the wonderful treasure of my family.
Q: How would you like to die?
Siminoff: With my wife at my side.
Q: Who are your heroes in real life?
Siminoff: My wife, my children.
Q: What is your motto?
Siminoff: Always give more than you promise.
Q: Who is sitting there in your dream jam?
Siminoff: I’ve already sat there, several times, with several different pickers. Probably one I’ll never forget was Earl’s last birthday party (January 2012) at his home in Nashville, sitting next to Earl, with John McEuen, Gary Scruggs, Ronnie McCoury, Rob McCoury, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Gary Scruggs, and a few other pickers I didn’t know.
Q: What’s your favorite way to spend a free weekend?
Siminoff: Camping with my wife.
Q: Got any good luthier jokes?
Siminoff: Two banjo players walked into a building. They claimed after recovery that they didn’t see it!
For more information about Roger, check his website at http://www.siminoff.net/
(Cameron Little is a teen musician living for awhile longer on an unspoiled 160-acre ranch in the Sierras. While he’s counting the minutes until the CBA Father’s Day Festival, he can be found correcting “luthiery” to “luthierie” thanks to Roger Siminoff.)