When it comes to making music, the performance is only part of it.
Before the first note is played, there is the artistry behind the instruments, and the stories behind the art. Meet a few locals immersed in the magic behind the music.
Story by Barry Kaufman + Photography by Lisa Staff
There is a lot that even the most ardent music fans take for granted when they watch a live show. It’s not just about the notes played or the songs sung; it’s more than that. There’s an artistry that lies just beyond the range of visibility. It’s in the subtle craftsmanship of the instruments, honed over years to produce the perfect sound. And it’s in the years of toil and sacrifice each musician experiences to truly make the sound their own.
In an effort to add depth to your own musical appreciation, we present the following locals who embody different aspects of the performance you can’t see.
This custom guitar maker ships his instruments all over the world
In a small workshop in Old Town Bluffton, a man labors in wood and steel, testing each piece for the resonant harmonies that have become his trademark. Like Hephaestus to the gods of rock, his lot is to build the tools by which faces are melted. It may be a small shack in Old Town, but the sounds of Brooks Cobb Guitars have ushered forth from stages all over the world.
It’s a golden era for custom-made guitars, and Cobb has been building his reputation for nearly 24 years. “It’s really served me to be one of the builders near the top of the food chain,” he said. “And it’s humbling to see how far-reaching it is.”
Like most builders of custom guitars, Cobb started out as a player. Pursuing a music major at Hobart in Geneva, New York, was based on his passion for playing; however, it proved short lived. “I realized pretty quickly I wasn’t at the top of my class. I wasn’t satisfied being a B or C student, and the time spent on music theory was just overwhelming.”
Shifting away from music as a major, he pivoted toward design and architecture. With the great jam band renaissance happening all around him, with bands like Phish and The Grateful Dead playing custom guitars, his passions came together. “I don’t know what clicked, but something in me as a player said, ‘You want to progress to a higher tool.’ It’s kind of like being a Jedi — you want to build your own light saber,” he said.
It’s really served me to be one of the builders near the top of the food chain,”
Building guitars in the corner of his dorm room, his talents were quickly noticed not only by local players, but by his architecture professors. They created an entirely new course of independent study for the young prodigy, and he spent the last two years of his college career honing the crafts of timber framing and acoustic supremacy in his electric archtop guitars.
After college, Cobb bounced around from Colorado to Wisconsin, learning his craft and expanding his talents beyond architecture and design into physical construction and perfecting his skills as a woodworker. The snowy hills of Wisconsin fostered in him a love of dog sledding, which took him all the way to the last frontier, Alaska. “We all run from our problems sometimes,” he said, “and I figured Alaska was a good place to get gone.”
Instead, Alaska put him on the map. As one of the few music stores in the entire state, Mammoth Music provided the perfect venue for Cobb to set aside architecture and construction and throw himself into his guitars. “I really started taking what I knew with building and the tech work so far, and it gave me this tremendous platform to do massive volume,” he said. “I was building 10 guitars in a couple years, but the music store gave me the opportunity to do this over and over, and drive home craftsmanship and technique.”
His reputation secured, Cobb continued his pursuit in the far gentler climate of Bluffton, where his family had long established a home base. “I staggered along from Alaska late in the game. It’s all family down here,” he said.
And thus his journey finds him in a small shack in Old Town, where his famous guitars ship out around the world, weapons on the front lines of rock and roll.
The ‘first lady’ of the world-famous Gretsch Company has carved her own legacy
Dinah Gretsch was just 14 when she had her first brush with musical stardom. Born in South Carolina, but living in the United Kingdom at the time, she was one of many young teenage girls who were developing crushes on this upstart musical phenomenon known as The Beatles. At some festival whose name has been lost to time, she had the honor of meeting the lead guitarist, George Harrison.
“Who knew that I was going to get into the music industry at that time? Who knew Beatles would get that big? We were all young,” she said.
Fast forward a few years, and she and George Harrison now had a few things in common beyond a chance meeting at a festival: a spot in the upper echelons of the music business, and the name Gretsch. Her place in the industry came from taking over as CFO and “first lady” for world-famous Gretsch Company, producers of drums and guitars used by the legendary names of music. Working hand-in-hand with her husband, Fred, a fourth-generation member of the Gretsch family, Dinah carved her own legacy within the company based on her technical skill and business savvy.
George Harrison’s spot in the music industry came from, well, being George Harrison. And it was on the cover of his famed solo album, “Cloud 9,” that he and Dinah reunited over the Gretsch name, proudly displayed on his guitar.
“I saw the Gretsch guitar on the cover of Cloud Nine, and sent him a thank-you note,” she said. “He wrote back saying, ‘I started the new band, the Traveling Wilburys. Can you come here this weekend? I want you to see all the Gretsch guitars we have.’”
When you become an artist for Gretsch, you’re part of our family. We’re very hands-on with all of our families,”
She and her husband’s weekend with some of the biggest musical legends of their or any generation is just one of Dinah’s many stories. Through her work with Gretsch, she’s met more rock gods, from Bono to Charlie Watts, than we would be able to recount here. “They’re just people. When you become an artist for Gretsch, you’re part of our family. We’re very hands-on with all of our families,” she said. “They get a Christmas present or birthday cards. We visit them, they visit us. They’re just people.”
Oddly enough, it isn’t the rock and roll stories or the famous names that excites Dinah most about her work with Gretsch. It’s the good deeds it allows her to undertake.
“I’ve worked all my life and saved my money. I decided I wanted to do Mrs. G’s Music Foundation,” she said. The mission of Mrs. G’s Music Foundation is multi-faceted, ranging from funding a comprehensive music program at Thomas Heyward Academy to giving out scholarships to students around the country. In addition to support for Little Kids Rock and the Otis Redding Foundation, Dinah recently gave $25,000 in grants to musicians who have been out of work due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As with the many musicians she has met, her charitable endeavors are almost too numerous to count. But like the nonchalant way she’s interacted with some of the biggest names in music, to Dinah it’s almost just part of the job. As she simply put it, “That’s what the Gretsch company does.”
This multi-instrumentalist and producer has dedicated his life to music.
To a certain segment of the population, the name Keith Karloff was already legendary before he made his way to the Lowcountry about a year ago. Now serving as frontman of Irritating Julie, his is a rich musical legacy that has seen him in and around the music industry for decades, witnessing highs and lows. Sometimes simultaneously.
“I have a crazy life, but I live it,” he puts simply, in the near-poetic cadence with which he almost always speaks. In fact, his move to the Lowcountry represents what he calls his third act.
In the first act, he was a 17-year-old, self-taught prodigy named Keith Gale. (Well, mostly self-taught. His brother taught him two chords). Under the wing of Bernard Purdie, he emerged as a working musician in New York City’s grimy heyday, playing at CBGB and working in bands that included the likes of future Twister Sister frontman Dee Snider.
It was a great first act, but it came at a price.
“Everything there, all my connections around me, were pretty toxic or criminal. I was raised to handle borderline characters but it was just too filthy, vicious and dangerous to bring up a kid around,” he said.
He moved to San Francisco for his second act, where the young street musician named Keith Gale would become the musical poet known as Keith Karloff. “I became quite a different person,” said Karloff. Helping this transformation along was beat poet Howard Hart, a contemporary of the likes of Kerouac and Ferlinghetti. “He took me from the New York music approach which is really craft – how to build songs, get a record deal, get an advance, get on the radio – into a completely different reality,” he said. “I’m not calling my stuff art, by the time of Bone to Pick, I’m using the sound of colors.”
Everything there, all my connections around me, were pretty toxic or criminal.”
Bone to Pick served as the second album for his new band, The Gone Jackals, and it would springboard the band into another level of recognition when it was picked up by Lucasarts Entertainment. They were working on a motorcycle-centric adventure game by the name of “Full Throttle,” and needed a hard-edged soundtrack to match.
“That was a weird turn of events. I didn’t submit that to Lucasarts,” said Karloff. Instead, it was a studio owner by the name of Michael Molenda who brought the still-unreleased album to the production team. Karloff worked closely with them, integrating the tracks into the game itself, but he still looks back on the experience with bittersweet memories.
The high-priced lawyers of Lucasarts promised him the world, in exchange for full rights to the songs. This didn’t sit well with the New York in Karloff.
“I know hustles. And they didn’t like that,” he said with a laugh. “I did make some money from it on my own. The way I was living at that point, having major promotion, media exposure and serious touring might have been a bad mix. I was still finding right from wrong. I think everything worked out kind of perfectly.”
Having started his own label by that point, Karloff was able to expand on the Jackals’ new-found notoriety. His second act would take him through a new lineup as frontman of The Bonedrivers, an indie band that recorded three albums and developed a strong following in Northern California.
His third act has found him in the Lowcountry, where audiences get a chance to see a true master at his craft, having found his peace with the music.
“There are big successes and big failures. When you get to a certain point in life and follow certain paths in life, you can get into a pretty good flow,” he said.
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