During the 2021 holiday season, I’m setting out to find the coolest gifts in the land (Buffalo land, that is).
The search for some of the coolest gifts in Buffalo led me to luthier Declan Ryan’s front door. Ryan, who hails from Rochester, recently moved to Buffalo to be with his girlfriend Suzie Coppola (now fiancée). When I first met the custom guitar maker, he told me that there was a pretty lively guitar-making scene in Rochester (a couple dozen luthiers), but he was only aware of one or two in Buffalo. When I asked him why he thought that Rochester had so many luthiers, compared to Buffalo, he said that his guess was as good as mine.
What I can surmise is that Ryan’s move to Buffalo is an auspicious one. Not only did we manage to peel away a skillful guitar maker, we also happened to nab a talented musician and all-around good guy.
Ryan started playing the guitar in 2001. Not long after – in 2003 – he joined a punk band.
“I was an obsessive kid,” said Ryan. “I was teaching in high school, in an adults continuing education program… and getting a paycheck from the school by the time I was 17.”
In 2007, Ryan entered into his first apprenticeship, at Graphic Woodworks in Hilton, NY.
“I was out of college for the summer,” Ryan explained. ” I wanted to get any job dealing with guitars. I called music stores and guitar repair shops, to see if I could work for them. They all said ‘no,’ except for one. He was a cranky older guy out in the sticks. He told me, ‘I can’t pay you, but if you sweep up and clean the shop, I’ll teach you how to make guitars. His name was Mark Keane [holding up one of Keane’s custom guitars]. We got pretty close over the years. I didn’t realize that he was sick and dying, until he passed away. He wasn’t a social person and didn’t have many visitors. In retrospect, it made sense – he wanted to pass along his knowledge, and his tools and guitars (Ryan is in possession of three of Keane’s guitars).”
Keane ended up passing away in 2009, leaving Ryan without a teacher.
“I was living off campus, and doing woodworking in my dining room” he said. “Then, in 2011 I got a grant from the University of Rochester to pursue an independent study in the art and science of musical instruments. I spent half the year in Barcelona, where I worked informally as a violin maker (that was with Lluis Clapers, in 2012). In 2014 I got back to the States and opened my first shop in Rochester, until I moved to Buffalo in March of 2020… the same week as Stefon Diggs. The shutdown happened immediately after I arrived. It was a weird time to move to Buffalo, but I was lucky to find a work studio.”
Now that Ryan has adjusted to life in Buffalo, he’s working full time and making guitars in his spare time. I asked Ryan what his artisan mission is, and he replied, “To execute something repeatedly. I’m on my third iteration – I’ve made 21 guitars. So I’m working towards trying to perfect repeatable designs. These are electric guitars… I use a CNC machine, but they are mostly crafted by hand. I’m starting to work on some acoustic guitars now -that’s the next challenge for 2022.”
A little over a month ago, Ryan hand-delivered a custom guitar (made out of walnut, maple, and katalox, with brass inlays) to an artist in New England. I got a chance to watch him as he painstakingly worked on the custom creation. When I asked him why he was going to drive to New England to deliver the guitar, he told me that it’s all part of the journey. Not only would the guitar be safe, the artist would save on shipping – he wanted to pay a visit to New England anyways. But more than anything, he wanted to see the the expression on the artist’s face. He wanted to see the guitar played by its new owner. And he wanted to get some feedback.
To me, that’s the sign of a passionate artisan. Guitar making is not just a hobby for him, it’s a way of life. It’s what makes him happy. In a way, it also enables him to pay it forward, and to bring a little joy to the world, much as his mentor – Mark Keane – was able to do in his waning years. Incredibly, Keane was the one person that replied yes to Ryan’s jobsearch quierry. Little did either of them know at the time, that they were forming a partnership that would bear fruits for decades to come.
This holiday season, consider giving the gift of a custom guitar to a loved one. These guitars are much more than handcrafted instruments. They are ever-evolving stories in the making.
Get connected: www.declanryan.us