Published April 13, 2019

Brian Calhoun grew up in Rockbridge County, an area rich with many fine players of bluegrass and old-time music as well as a wide variety of acoustic styles. Already a skilled musician as a teenager, Brian was introduced to the craft of instrument building by a high school teacher who brought a homemade instrument to school. “I was just fascinated with the idea that you could make your own instrument,” he remembers. “So I started seeking out builders, and even did an independent study where I made my first mandolin, apprenticing with local master luthier John Schofield.”

Brian went on to apprentice with a number of other regional mandolin and violin makers, discovering that he had a particular knack for inlay, a centuries-old process of cutting out a surface and setting in a design with a decorative material such as ivory or mother of pearl. Inlay has long appeared on musical instruments across the globe, attaining what many view as a golden age in the late 1800s. The folk revival of the 1960s brought with it a renewed interest in inlaid instruments, and it remains a desirable feature of contemporary instruments—acoustic guitars in particular.

Master artist Brian Calhoun of Rockbridge Guitars creates intricate inlay designs (photo by Pat Jarrett/Virginia Humanities).

Brian’s passion for rock and roll helped turn his attention to building and inlaying guitars under the tutelage of childhood friend and respected guitar builder Randall Ray. The two later joined to create Rockbridge Guitar Company, with Brian creating the brand’s signature inlay work. Now based in Charlottesville, the tiny Rockbridge Guitar Company continues to create guitars widely sought after and played by some of the biggest names in music, including Dave Matthews, Warren Haynes, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and many others. Rockbridge guitars are admired for both their stunning inlay work and their unique sound: “A lot of the top luthiers in Virginia and the region make guitars to sound like vintage guitars from Martin or Gibson, and that’s great,” Brian says, “but we wanted to do something different. We don’t want our guitars to sound like something else. We want ours to sound like a Rockbridge.” Brian is assisted in his Charlottesville shop by the accomplished guitar builders Adam McNeil and Jake Hopping, though the two have not yet mastered the art of inlaying. Brian will teach Adam and Jake this time-honored skill through their joint apprenticeship.

Learning Experience

Virginia History in Song

What can songs teach us about history?