Local

A Talented Craftsman

Coast Weekend | March 21, 2013 4:21 p.m. | Updated: March 21, 2013 11:21 p.m.

Contributed By:

KATE GIESE

Thompson’s Instrument Repair, located at 1191 Marine Drive in Astoria, is one of those places you walk in and know right away that it’s special.

You feel like you’ve stepped back in time.

There are no computers or credit card machines here – just a fascinating array of used and vintage musical instruments (and a host of related accessories) as befits the go-to spot for students of music, area musicians and instrument collectors alike.

AN INSTRUMENTAL LIFE

The shop’s namesake and owner is Roger Thompson. His has been a life steeped in making and fixing musical instruments. He came by these skills honestly, as they say. Early on, he worked at the Messenger Guitar factory near the Astoria Regional airport, run by a San Francisco-based company called Musicraft. Some of the guitars produced there in 1967 and 1968 are much sought after by collectors, mainly for two unique features: a magnesium-aluminum alloy neck and a built-in fuzztone circuit.

In 1976, Thompson began repairing and servicing instruments for Thiel’s Music Center at 13th and Commercial streets in Astoria. Pierce Christie, the owner of Mallternative, which is one block west of Thompson’s current shop, also worked at Thiel’s Music Center at the time. Today, Christie regards Thompson as “a really nice guy and a fabulous asset for Astoria. You can tune up or otherwise take care of your instrument without having to run to Portland.”

In 1988, Thompson went into business for himself, buying an existing repair business in Warrenton. In 1991, he moved the business to its present location.

When asked about the secret to his versatility when it comes to instrument repair, Thompson says dismissively, “Once you get to know an instrument, they all work on the same principle. They have vibrating lengths of something or other … either in the form of strings or air columns.”

CUSTOMERS

Thompson has carved out quite a niche for his services. “He’s an important part of the network among musicians in this area. Everyone knows Roger, and he knows them,” explains Janet Bowler, a flutist with North Oregon Coast Symphony.

Bowler is also a member of the Friday Musical Club, which awarded a scholarship for private viola lessons with Thompson to talented high school senior Jonathan Williams. “He is very generous with his time and has taken a personal interest in Williams, developing a great relationship with his student and mentoring him,” Bowler adds.

This writer spent a recent afternoon at Thompson’s Instrument Repair, and six customers came into the shop in two hours. Business was steady if not busy. Highlights included an older man who brought in his “banjolele,” which he wanted restrung. Part banjo and part ukulele, the instrument was over 90 years old. The man told how he’d bought it in the 1960s from a guy for $50. Its value today, when recently appraised, is a cool $2,000.

A little later, a budding folk musician purchased some new strings for his guitar. He talked music with Thompson for a short while. As he left, the young man gushed, “I really appreciate what you do. We’ll be sure to keep in touch.” He practically genuflected before going out the door.

Musician David Maltby and a pal also came by, ostensibly to show off one of Maltby’s guitars. The musician/collector spied a stringed instrument hanging in the Thompson’s display window – a tamburitza, a Balkan stringed instrument similar to a mandolin. With its pearl inlays and beautiful craftsmanship, Maltby was unable to resist buying the instrument. “There are not many places where you can walk in and walk out with a tamburitza,” he said as he was leaving.

EARLY LIFE

Originally from Sacramento, Calif., Thompson and his family moved to Placerville, Calif., where they lived for about 10 years. It was while he was in high school that he became interested in the viola, eventually attending what was then Sacramento State College on a music scholarship. In the end, he decided he didn’t want to continue and joined the U.S. Coast Guard. “People do funny stuff,” he says simply.

Joining the service brought Thompson to the North Coast. He was transferred to the Point Adams Lifeboat Station in Hammond. When that closed, he was stationed at Tongue Point at the Buoy Depot and met his wife, Barbara. They have two sons and three grandchildren, the youngest of whom plays the trumpet.

Life outside work for this man with quiet ways and clever hands is filled with long walks with Barbara, doing a bit of bird watching along the way. He reads a lot and enjoys building models of airplanes – something he’s done all his life. Until quite recently, an airplane model hung in his shop, a replica of the 1920s Aeroronca C-3 with a two-cylinder engine. “It could go 90 mph on a 36 horsepower engine,” Thompson marvels. He actually learned how to fly years ago. “I started taking lessons when I was 16, but I ran out of money,” he remembers. “It was a good experience, though. I could take off and fly the thing around and land, which is all I really wanted to do.

THE MUSICIAN

Thompson’s grandfather, a blacksmith, played the violin. The instrument (built in 1909) now hangs in the violin section of in the shop’s showroom of sorts. “It takes years to learn to play the violin – it’s a never ending process really. You’ve got to enjoy learning it to be able to devote the kind of time it takes to play well,” Thompson says. He should know, as he is an excellent musician on the viola.

As one would expect of this modest man, he downplays the fact that he can play almost all of the instruments in his shop at least well enough to demonstrate them to customers. “When people ask me how many instruments I can play, I say just one at a time like everybody else,” he quips. This writer heard him play a lovely old hymn on a zither and was treated to further demonstrations on a Cajun accordion, the violin, a wooden flute, and even a nose flute at one point.

MAKING INSTRUMENTS

Thompson doesn’t just fix instruments; he also makes them. Tom Schmidt, owner of Phog Bounders Antique Mall, has known Thompson since his days at Thiel’s.

Schmidt, who plays electric guitar and is a collector, has bought guitars from Thompson’s along with a Thompson-made mandolin, and he has had his own guitars as well as ones for sale at the Mall repaired. Schmidt considers Thompson to be “one of the greatest assets in our county. He can fix anything,” he says. “His custom-made instruments are phenomenal … He’s one of the most talented craftsmen that I’ve ever known.”

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