The local luthier's unexpected path to a rewarding career
Bill Iberti briefly licks a thin plane of wood and shifts it under the light in his Sebastopol workshop, revealing a hidden pattern swooping against the grain of the wood. It’s a detail easily missed by the untrained eye, but as a guitar maker — or luthier — Iberti has a special relationship with the material.
“I’ve just had this lifelong love of wood,” Iberti said. “I love it. It’s funny, when I cut up nice wood and there are pieces left over that are totally useless — I can’t throw them away.
“If it’s a nice little piece of ebony or something, I just put it in my pocket and carry it around for days,” he said.
Iberti’s passion for the medium started in a seventh grade woodworking class, when Iberti made his “infamous tie rack.”
“It looked like bull horns on a flat piece of wood,” Iberti said.
Though there’s no history of craftsmen in his family, Iberti was hooked from that first taste of woodworking. Even so, he would embrace several other trades before truly starting his luthiery work.
His introduction to guitar making came to him unexpectedly while moving into a new house in Los Gatos when he was 20 years old. The man moving out of his new abode was still getting his stuff together when Iberti spotted a badly damaged 1960s Martin D-35.
“He had dropped a vacuum cleaner on it and it had gone right through the face. It had really crunched it in,” Iberti said.
Not wanting to bother with repairs, the man said he was abandoning the instrument and told Iberti he could have it.
“So, that was the start,” Iberti said. “I decided I was going to fix it and I was going to bring it back piece-by-piece, splinter-by-splinter.”
Iberti consulted a violin maker in San Mateo and learned the basic process he would need for the repair.
A whole lot of hide glue later and Iberti saw the instrument come back to life.
Rightfully proud of his accomplishment, Iberti brought the guitar into the Los Gatos Music store and the owner’s father, who handled the repair department at the time, offered him a job on the spot.
Iberti tackled the repair position, taking up to 10 guitars home with him every week. He eventually moved out of his bedroom and turned it into a shop and opted to sleep in the living room in order to have a designated workspace.
“That kind of propelled me into the luthiery world,” Iberti said. “It was really a kind of illegitimate start. There was no training or anything.”
Armed with the knowledge he gained during that stint, he made his first guitar in 1972 — a beautiful German Silver Spruce Top with a Brazilian Rosewood back strip and bindings, that still sounds great today.
He wouldn’t build another guitar until 2002.
As a musician, Iberti spent many years playing at Mountain Charlie’s Bar. It was through his connections there that he met Gary Dahl, the inventor of the pet rock. After Dahl made his fortune from the fad “pets,” he turned his sights on building a bar. Known for small milling jobs he had done in the area, Iberti was approached to oversee the construction, a task he accepted reluctantly, concerned about his lack of experience.
Work on the bar gave Iberti the cash flow and momentum to start his own business. Iberti started making custom windows, but eventually founded his own door making business, Iberti Doors. The business was a success and expanded to employ anywhere from eight to 18 people.
After 20 years, Iberti sold the company, looking for a new path.
“In 2002 I was feeling a little lost and I made a guitar,” Iberti said.
Doing so brought about a kind of rebirth in his life.
“It was like I remembered who I am,” he said.
With that epiphany, Iberti decided to dedicate himself to luthiering.
After consulting trade magazines and getting invaluable advice from people in the luthier community, Iberti honed his craft and developed his own methods and sound. “About 90 percent of luthiers try to reproduce the Martins from the golden era, the late ‘30s,” he said. “I have a Martin like that, and it’s wonderful, they’re fabulous but I wanted to make something different.”
While Iberti utilizes the “x” bracing the classic guitars start with, that’s where he leaves the Martin behind.
The result of his techniques are a well-balanced guitar, with “good volume, strong fundamentals and a lot of headroom.”
The aesthetics of the instrument match the depth of its sound.
“It turns out that I have a pretty good ability to kind of get down with detail,” Iberti said.
Masseuse and musician Robin Pliskin from the New Skye Band also recognizes the artistry and detail Iberti infuses in his guitars, and is happy she has one to call her own.
“Every time I play out with this guitar I have people wanting to see it up close,” Pliskin said. “An instrument like this can only come from the hands of someone who truly loves music and working with wood.”
The guitars cost around $4,500, and Pliskin insists it’s “One of the best investments (she’s) ever made.”
Forestville musician Lowell Daniels commissioned a slotted peg-head, zebra wood, parlour guitar from Iberti — a commission that produced a piece so nice, Iberti was reluctant to give up.
“It’s very literally my dream guitar, (as in sleeping and dreaming of what I wanted). Bill took that and made it real. It’s a really, really nice guitar,” Daniels said.
Now that he’s embraced luthiering, Iberti has found a lot more time to play in his life — performing two or three gigs a week with the New Skye Band, Jon Gonzales Stringband and Dave Hamilton and the Fatty Acids.
Iberti welcomes repair jobs and special commissions, but has little interest in turning his business into a huge enterprise. For him, Iberti Guitars is a much more personal endeavor.
“A guitar is an exquisite sculpture which just happens to produce tones which delight the human ear,” Iberti says on his website. “To create an instrument that is visually pleasing and sonically exceptional is my goal. To do this is a joy.”
Iberti currently has a few guitars ready to sell just in time for the holidays.
Go to www.ibertiguitars.com or call Iberti at 490-2788 for more information or to request a tour of his shop.