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Originally published: 2013-09-30 11:09:01
Last modified: 2013-09-30 11:11:09

Paul Graybeal's custom instruments draw attention

by Sherrie Norris

Paul Graybeal is known by his peers as one of the most gifted musicians and luthiers of all time.

Having crafted musical instruments, one at a time, in the comfort of his home-based workshop for about three decades, Graybeal always aimed to please his customers -- and they knew the outcome would be one of perfection and envy, and well worth the wait.

Graybeal could easily have made a name for himself in the entertainment industry, but fame is something he neither desired nor sought. The simple life has always been good enough, he said, but that doesn't mean his work went unnoticed.

Graybeal has been a highly skilled craftsman for most of his life.

Until health concerns slowed him down a few years ago, Graybeal had made 94 guitars and 49 mandolins, dulcimers, a banjo, miniature instruments, ornamental crafts and collectibles.

Graybeal grew up around traditional mountain music. His father "picked a little," he said, and through observation and practice, he learned easily after receiving his first guitar -- a Gene Autry edition from Sears and Roebuck -- when he was 14.

"Wildwood Flower," a bluegrass favorite, was the first tune he learned to play; it helped define his future as a music maker in every sense of the word.

Graybeal's ability to build and repair instruments and to play music -- inspired by Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs -- eventually made him a hometown hero, in a quiet sort of way.

It helped that his day job was in carpentry. Repairing instruments for local musicians just came natural, he said, and word of mouth was his best advertisement.

It started around 1964, he said, after he "took apart a guitar just to see how it was made." Soon afterward, he made his first instrument, a mandolin.

Next, it was a guitar. "It just went on from there," he said.

Each full-size instrument required "about 100 working hours" to build, he said. "And, it took about as long to make one of those little ones," he said.

"He's got the patience for it," said his brother-in-law, Steve Triplett. "But, he didn't just make the instruments, he made cases for many of them, too."  

Graybeal fashioned his own patterns for most of his pieces, he said, but for the miniatures, especially, he kept a close eye on the originals. 

And, many of the hand tools he used to create the instruments were those he crafted himself.

He has done "some custom work through the years," he said, but always preferred following his own designs.

"I never had trouble selling anything," he said. 

Despite being similar in appearance, Graybeal said, "No two of my guitars ever sounded alike, except for the last three I made. It's pretty hard to tell one of them from the other."

He made only one banjo -- from a kit -- and despite regional appeal, he said he "never really got into making many dulcimers." 

Music was more of a hobby for Paul during his early years, as was hunting and fishing. Carpentry work and hanging sheetrock paid the bills, he said.

His family moved north when he was a youngster where his father, like many men from this area, went in search of work.

They eventually returned South, where Graybeal has called home for most of his life.

When he retired as a carpenter "about 25 years ago," Paul said, working on the instruments "pretty much became a full-time job."

It's the miniature versions, he said, that demanded more time and precision -- and attracted the most attention.

"They are all about six inches long and exact replicas of full-sized instruments, down to the smallest detail," he said.

"I've made replicas of (their instruments) for Emmylou Harris, Chet Atkins, Bill Monroe and his brother, James Monroe," he said. "I made a mandolin for Rhonda Vincent, but decided to give it to my little sister, Ardna (Triplett), instead.

Among his career highlights was presenting two of his miniatures to Ricky Skaggs and Doc Watson at MerleFest, on the same day.

He also made a miniature Martin guitar that has been on display for several years in the Martin guitar museum in Pennsylvania.

"Those little ones are special, but they are too little to play," he said. "Just something else to put on a shelf to look at."


Graybeal said he could "pick out a tune on just about anything," and has played with several groups through the years.


Asked about his preferred instrument to play, Graybeal replied, "The mandolin, by far."


Graybeal is described by family members, including his "favorite nephew," Jonathon Triplett, as an "easy going, humble and quiet fellow who never bothers anybody."


Graybeal and Shirley, his wife of 37 years, live in Zionville.


Graybeal said he enjoyed taking his craft to festivals and special events, including the North Carolina State Fair, where for many years, he was featured in the Village of Yesteryear.


In recent years, complications related to emphysema have slowed Graybeal's pace.


"I've not been able to make anything in several years," he said. "But I enjoyed it while I could."