Pursuit of passions keeps life fresh for Grafton luthier

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Steve Beckwith of Grafton turns his passion for guitar playing and building into a rewarding profession.

By Barbara Allen, Contributing Writer

Grafton resident and luthier/musician Steve Beckwith corrects with vigor anyone who mistakenly refers to him as “retired.” Between guitar-building, instrument repair, performing live music, coordinating a monthly jam session for musicians, and coaching cross country and track and field at Nashoba Regional High School, Beckwith asserts that he is busier now than he ever was at the high-stress, senior management position he once held at Intel.

“This is a second career,” he explained. “I’m doing something that I like to do, definitely a passion [of mine]. Just because I like to do this, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value.”

Although Beckwith still refers to Intel as “the best place I’ve ever worked,” when the company offered a “buy out” package, he was relieved to “step out of the rat race” of long days, late night phone calls and overseas travel, and take advantage of the opportunity to create a new lifestyle for himself.

Music has been an integral part of that new life. Beckwith has been playing guitar since he was about 9 or 10 years old; his older brother had a guitar, which Beckwith had been expressly forbidden to touch and, as such, became all that more desirable to his younger sibling.

“I had no interest in it until then,” he recalled with a laugh.

Beckwith’s interest in guitar building came later, when he decided that he wanted a jazz guitar, and found he could not afford even a used instrument: old guitars had now become collectors’ items. His first creation was an acoustic guitar built from a kit; Beckwith liked the way it turned out, and was encouraged to try building guitars on his own. A self-taught craftsman, he has picked up his skills along the way, developing his own techniques, making his own tools, buying others, and finding suppliers for wood for the different parts of the guitar. Gradually, his business, “Beckwith Strings,” evolved to include the repair of guitars, violins and other stringed instruments.

Even though it was originally run out of a workshop in his former Bolton home, which was tucked deep in the woods, at the end of a long, shared driveway, his new venture did well. But he wanted a location which would be more convenient for customers to find him, as well as space for a custom workshop which would be separate from his home. He and wife Jan moved to Grafton a little over a year ago, and found that their new home at 26 North St. offered them just that: a more visible and accessible location, and space for the construction of his dream workshop.

The larger workshop has enabled him to work more efficiently: bigger tools and pieces of equipment can be kept in the same space, rather than in the basement. It is easier to maintain the very specific temperature and humidity the instruments require, and there is plenty of room to keep creations-in-progress or instruments waiting for repair.

Since the move, Beckwith said his customer base has tripled, and business revenue has doubled.

“Grafton is a tremendous community,” he said.

On the second Sunday of each month, Beckwith moves his workbenches aside to accommodate his “jam” session: a drop-in, social gathering of musicians of any and all abilities, from beginner to the best jazz guitarist in New England.

“The jam sessions are fun… Everyone brings a piece of their own musical style,” he explained. “The music covers a wide range of genres, from folk to blues to jazz to acoustic rock. It is an outstanding way for people to up-level their playing skills, particularly musicians who usually play by themselves. There are more options for attempting different things available when playing in a group.”

Beckwith also keeps his own guitar skills sharp by performing live on an average of twice a week. Initially, the performances were intended to promote his guitar-building business, but he admits that, over the years, they have evolved into “more of a method to keep my hand in the music and give me a better feel for the needs of my performing customers.”

His passion for music, however, has a close competitor in another area of his life: coaching cross country and track and field at Nashoba Regional High School in Bolton.

“I probably know more about coaching and competing in those sports than I do about stringed instruments,” Beckwith admitted. “In fact, there was a point when I came close to moving to the university level to coach, and put Beckwith Strings on the back burner.”

Using the leadership skills he developed in the corporate world to explain rather than “dictate” has elicited a positive response from the young athletes he oversees.

“If you treat a 14-year-old like an adult, he or she will respond as an adult,” Beckwith asserted.

“Watching the student athletes develop from having never run to getting better and faster through their hard work is very special,” he continued. “There’s a lesson here that I instill into the kids: if the work and time is put in, you can improve and get better. It doesn’t have to be sports, it could be math, chemistry, music or even building guitars.”

“The kids are great, and the reason I return every year, despite having to run Beckwith Strings. They are truly fun to be around and keep me young and remind me how to have fun,” Beckwith said.

For now, he is content, as he juggles the competing areas of his life

“It helps me keep my passion going for everything I do,” he said of his busy life. “And keeps me from getting into a rut.”

For more information about his business and the jam sessions, visit www.beckwithstrings.com.

Photos/Andy Weigl, Weigl Photography

Beckwith prepares the sides of a guitar body in a special press.
Beckwith prepares the sides of a guitar body in a special press.
An example of the artisan's craft, a hand cut mother of pearl inlay has been painstakingly inset into the head of a custom guitar.
An example of the artisan’s craft, a hand cut mother of pearl inlay, has been painstakingly inset into the head of a custom guitar.
With his specialized tools. Beckwith artfully coaxes wooden sheets into intricate guitar shapes.
With his specialized tools. Beckwith artfully coaxes wooden sheets into intricate guitar shapes.e