Friday, September 16, 2011

Birmingham Characters: Bob Tedrow of Homewood Musical Instruments

by M. David Hornbuckle

Bob Tedrow feigns horror that a 2001 Birmingham News article once called him an "eccentric," but it's clear that he gets delight from the moniker. Every day, he drives a 1928 Model A Ford to work, and passersby are likely to notice the car before they notice the quaint music shop it adorns. "It's like a museum," Tedrow says of his car. "It has its own voice—the sound of the gears, the smell of the gas. I have to carry a tool kit of course. And you don't really drive it. You operate it. Everything has to be done manually. Nothing is automated."

Tedrow says he hopes to continue operating that Model A until it's at least a hundred years old. He says, "The car will make it. I don't know if I will." He jokes that the car and his trusty old workbench are like the Oscar Wilde's picture of Dorian Gray. "They grow old while I remain ever youthful."

He has an unabashed love for anything related to the 1920s and '30s because he associates the period with his grandparents, who were also musicians. Tedrow plays multiple instruments, including banjo, ukulele, guitar, clarinet, flute, saxophone, accordion, and concertina. He's particularly interested in depression era ukuleles and Victorian concertinas. In fact, he's one of only six people in the United States who build concertinas. Each concertina takes about 40-50 hours of labor, he says. His website includes a tutorial video for those brave and crafty enough to try and build one themselves.

As a teenager in Colorado, Tedrow built his first banjo. He immediately started playing with a bluegrass band. He met his wife, Klari, in college when she inquired about taking banjo lessons. The couple moved to Birmingham in 1986 when she enrolled in law school. He opened an instrument repair workshop behind Fretted Instruments in Homewood, and in 1989 he opened his own shop, at the Central Avenue location where it remains to this day.

Tedrow has taught himself to repair many different types of instruments over the years. He now shares his work bench with a promising young luthier named Jason Burns. "Fortunately, most people smart enough to do this kind of work are usually smart enough to go ahead and get a real job," he says about Burns. "That narrows the field down to a dedicated few who like to do this." (Note: in our research, we found that he said exactly same thing about himself in a 1988 interview. "Seriously," he adds, "Jason is a genius. His craftsmanship now surpasses my own."

Lately, Tedrow has become obsessed with mandolins and period guitar styles (from the 1920s and 1930s, naturally). He doesn't perform in public much anymore, but he does do occasional shows at elementary schools, usually at the request of his children or grandchildren. He says, "I'm good in the living room for about an hour. You can't tell me from a real great musician. But I'm not a great musician. I just have tenacity." He's made that comment to a few other interviewers too. Fittingly for Bob Tedrow, some nuggets are just so good, you always find yourself coming back to them.

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