Life of a luthier: Turrentine builds career on passion for music

COOKEVILLE – Zebulon Turrentine is a luthier, a person who makes guitars, and those handcrafted by Turrentine in his small shop in Cookeville are coveted by collectors and musicians throughout the United States.

“When I was about 16, I started playing guitar,” Turrentine said, admitting, “I did it mostly to impress high school girls and probably would have quit had that remained my key motivation.”

A love for classical music that began in high school took him to the Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Va., where he earned a bachelor’s of music in guitar performance. During summer breaks, the Bedford County native worked at Gallagher Guitar Co. in Wartrace, the company that makes the guitar Doc Watson used for most of his career. It was there that Turrentine began to combine his love of classical guitar and his lifelong woodworking experience.

“When I was about 12 years old, my aunt and uncle gave me a book on making bows and arrows with the same method used by primitive cultures,” he said. “I became very passionate about this, and growing up on a farm gave me the resources I needed to bring this interest to life. I joke that my first bows were my first guitars, because a bow is actually the earliest known forerunner of most string instruments.”

Turrentine said that the guitar is a relatively simple structure in concept, but making a living as a guitar builder means continually striving to build an instrument in the upper 5 percent.

“The market is flooded with mediocre instruments,” Turrentine said. “If you are going to be successful you have to build guitars for the best players, and that means creating a guitar that comes alive with a light touch, gets louder and louder when a player digs in and with all this, remains very playable.”

The wood Turrentine uses in construction is from a variety of sources, but Cookeville’s Winell Lee has become a source for African mahogany, purple heart and tiger maple. He uses padauk, Indian rosewood and ebony and has even bought logs of western red cedar from which he creates the soundboard.

“Craftsmanship – tight fitting joints, clean cuts, structural alignment, etc. – is essential,” Turrentine said. “All that wood slowly compresses under tension until it eventually loses its elasticity. Thus, a traditional guitar is very human. It has a lifespan. Each luthier interprets the balance of strength and responsiveness differently.”

Turrentine is a classical guitarist himself who has played numerous private parties and special events since moving to the Upper Cumberland in 2009. Though his fulltime business is Zebulon Turrentine, Luthier, he teaches guitar lessons one day each week.

“It’s easy to get stuck in your head while you are working alone in the shop all the time,” he said. “I notice that teaching brings me down to earth and keeps me working on connecting with others. It’s also great to spend time with kids.”

Connecting with others is the theme of Turrentine’s career. The 32-year-old served in the Peace Corps before his recruitment as executive director of the Alliance for the Cumberlands. When he decided to act upon his desire to be a luthier, he called on contacts made while performing at competitions and festivals in college.

“One day I was looking at some guitars that I had just made and thinking, ‘It’s now or never,’” he said. “So I quit everything else and took a road trip through North Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky to meet some up-and-coming professional guitarists, and I have been busy with orders ever since.”

The cost of a Zebulon Turrentine, Luthier classical guitar is $4,500. Photos of his work are on display on his website, zebulonturrentine.com.

Among Turrentine’s notable clients are Stephen Mattingly, professor of guitar at University of Louisville; Tom Torrisi, upcoming doctoral student at Eastman Conservatory of Music in New York; Rafael Scarfullery, an award winning Dominican guitarist and composer living in Charlottesville, Va.; and Erica Cha, a 16-year-old virtuoso that has won many youth competitions in the eastern United States.

“The latest guitar was made from padauk and Englemann spruce and was sold to a collector that lives near Nashville,” Turrentine said. “Paul Palycarpou is president of Nashville Arts Magazine and is the first owner of one of my guitars who lives in Tennessee.”