Accomplished guitar maker Brian Calhoun is the co-founder of Rockbridge Guitars. While you may not recognize the company’s name, there’s a good chance you’ve heard one of its high-end acoustic guitars strummed by one of your favorite musicians. The roster of celebrities who have not only performed with Rockbridge Guitars but have publicly sung its praises is extensive and far-reaching, including Dave Matthews, Harry Styles, Keith Urban, Zac Brown, Marcus King, Richie Sambora… the list goes on and on.
The business of turning passion into profit
With all his success, you might imagine Calhoun was born into a family of musicians, but he wasn’t. Although, by the time he was 6 years old in his hometown of Lexington, Virginia, nestled within Rockbridge County, his mother could already tell he had the makings of an entrepreneur when he created a store in his backyard selling snails and earthworms.
In middle school, Calhoun started hanging out with what he calls “outcasts” who started getting into music. He began playing guitar in early middle school and took lessons from a friend’s dad, Steve Hoke, a local guitar teacher who also made instruments, including some very unique ones such as the Quad-Meister—a four-necked instrument that’s part banjo, guitar, mandolin and violin. Hoke not only taught the group to play but also encouraged them and introduced them to other musicians. At the same time, Calhoun was learning woodworking, and in high school, as an independent study, he chose mandolin building. When he was 18, he landed an apprenticeship with a mandolin maker, and he also worked for a violin maker. Each craftsman had their own approach, and Calhoun used this exposure to cherry-pick what best served him.
“I was finishing these mandolins, but I didn’t really play mandolin,” says Calhoun, who grew up playing rock ‘n’ roll and later bluegrass music. He wanted to be a guitar player. “It just started to feel like it would make a lot more sense to make an instrument that I could try out.”
Using the power of connections to build a business
Calhoun reached out to Randall Ray, someone Hoke had introduced him to years earlier. Ray was a local Rockbridge musician who had dabbled in guitar building, creating about one a year as a hobby. When Calhoun was 16 and Ray was in his mid-30s, he used to joke that Ray would start a business with him someday. Then, in 2002, it actually happened.
“He says I was too young and stupid to know that you can’t make a living building instruments,” Calhoun laughs when recalling the launch of their business, Rockbridge Guitars.
Two other longtime friends have joined along the way, making them a small but mighty team of four craftsmen—all of whom are musicians—who meticulously build instruments out of the basement of a historic home in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Rockbridge Guitars’ secret to locking in celebrity clients
So how did Calhoun leap from making acoustic guitars to placing them in the hands of well-known musicians? It’s simple: word of mouth. He started by toting one along to small music venues and festivals and approaching artists to see if they wanted to check out a guitar he had made with his friend. Oftentimes, he says, they’d find it was better than they’d expected and they’d want to go to a spot where they could really hear it. Once he made his first few sales with touring musicians, Calhoun would research who else the artist played with to determine who to approach next.
“Then you could go say, ‘Hey, we just sold a guitar to this guy. You want to check it out?’ It just makes it a little easier, and it was like stepping stones,” Calhoun says. “And I mean, I’ve been doing that now since I was 18. So, you just meet so many musicians and it eventually leads to bigger and bigger artists.”
What sets Rockbridge Guitars apart from other brands
Despite building instruments for musicians who are selling out stadiums, Calhoun says he doesn’t get starstruck. The sound of an acoustic Rockbridge guitar is a little different than other brands—more subtle—and can be hard to pinpoint exactly in words, but he says an experienced player will be able to hear the difference. Part of this intangibility is because each instrument is crafted by hand rather than in a factory, so there are minute millimeter differences that affect the sound. Due to Rockbridge’s boom in popularity, bespoke guitars, which start in the thousands, currently have a year-and-a-half waitlist. Pivoting the business to scale up just doesn’t make sense to Calhoun.
“I feel like we’re this magical company, where we’re all good friends with each other and we’re building these instruments we care about,” he says. He feels that if they were to hire more people and buy more machines to produce at a faster pace, it “would take away some of the magic.”
Co-founder Brian Calhoun’s additional creative endeavors
What’s almost as remarkable about Calhoun’s impressive guitar-making endeavors is that his creativity doesn’t end there. He also writes children’s books and invented Chickapig, a kid’s chess-like strategy board game, complete with a pooping cow, which he partnered and launched with musician and friend Matthews.
Calhoun invented Chickapig after complaining to friends one holiday that a game they were playing together was boring, and placed a bet that he could come up with something better. As a fan of chess, he started there. It only took about a week before the whole game’s methodology crystallized for him, and soon he started playing it with friends—who then started playing it without him.
Just like Rockbridge Guitars, Chickapig’s popularity grew from grassroots marketing. Calhoun, who describes himself as an introverted person, forced himself to approach strangers in bars to see if they’d play his game. Without most people knowing he was the inventor, he was able to glean precious feedback to enhance the game.
Following his curiosity has served him well over the decades and expanding his artistry to little ones made him realize how much he enjoys creating for kids. Chickapig is now played at the Virginia Institute of Autism and is being studied to see how it might be used to help improve social skills among affected adults.
Helping kids learn music in a new way
His most recent invention is a line of one-string children’s instruments called TinkerTar, which has been touted by The Toy Book magazine as a “one-string wonder.” The idea originally began when a friend suggested he make an animal-shaped guitar for kids, but when he brought his small dinosaur-shaped guitar to a birthday party, he found that other than just strumming on the strings, the kids couldn’t really play a tune because it required too much accuracy. Then it dawned on him that if he converted the guitar to only have one string, kids could suddenly play a melody.
When he showed his revised prototype to his friend’s 3-year-old child, he was able to teach him how to play Smoke On The Water. It blew him away because he’d never seen a child this young be able to play the guitar, only the violin, and being able to play a melody is what keeps people interested—and excited—about learning.
“You can rip it on one string,” Calhoun says. “Any melody that you can play on fifteen notes of a piano, you can play on a TinkerTar.”
Using music education for positive impact
He likes that it gives kids an easy entry point to playing an instrument. He also developed a color-coded finger positioning system on the fingerboard that correlates with music.
“If this goes well, it could have an impact on the way children start playing music,” Calhoun says. He’s hoping it will get more kids playing guitar, because he believes it can make a big difference.
As a troubled kid, he says music was what he grasped onto. It gave him something to be passionate about, and might have saved him from getting into even more trouble. He wants to open that same door for others, which is why the company is focusing on education in early music learning centers. “You get to influence these young minds and see parents that say, ‘Hey, this really brought us together,’ and it’s just so fulfilling, and I love it,” he says.
You can find TinkerTar at Walmart, Target, Amazon and other retailers. Photos courtesy of Buffalo Games.