I smelled a guitar today. At first I thought the request was kind of odd, but then I appreciated just how much Mamie Minch and the guys at RetroFret really cared for the instruments they refurbish.
So when Mamie put her nose up to the 1896 Martin with an ivory bridge and bindings that was on her bench and invited me to do the same, I figured what the hell. I mean, when was the last time I smelled a hundred-odd-year-old guitar? (Answer: never!) It smelled of rosewood and polish and time.
But my real purpose there was to talk to Mamie, the 31-year-old anomaly who works on guitars for this shop in an industrial section of Brooklyn, New York.
Getting in was like entering a speakeasy. No sign on the door, just a note by the buzzer, up two flights, across a wooden path on the roof and then, voila! I was rewarded for my persistence as I entered a rooftop oasis of guitarly delights. Gorgeous, one-of-a-kind instruments, friendly, passionate players and the workbench of Mamie Minch.
Mamie found her way to this sanctuary several years ago, and she never left.
“I used to come in here and hang out and try the guitars. I ended up in the fixing business because I was a visual artist and had great motor skills. I was always interested in how things work, and I love old things. I am really in love with the way things smell and look, and the stories behind old things. So all these things kind of fell into place."
Believe it or not, RetroFret actually has two women technicians who do much of the repairs and restorations. Mamie explains the division of labor:
“I’ve taken over most of the hefty work myself. Chloe and I have some overlapping knowledge, but we both have a lot of knowledge that is unique as well. Chloe’s worked with violins and does the really tiny work, like she can bush any hole, if that means anything to you!
"It’s all cutting holes and doing these fine, wonderful carvings. I do a lot of the finish and fretwork and bodywork on the guitars. I love to get an old guitar that needs triage and figure out what it needs to make it work. I don’t mind doing small things over and over. Like doing a fret job. Most workers want to build guitars, not fix them. I come at it from the stance that these are objects that need respect and to be fixed!”
As a young woman guitar technician, Mamie has had a few encounters with the predominantly older male clientele. But thankfully, run-ins seem to be the exception.
“Sure. I have my good days and bad days … meaning the rest of the world has their good days and bad days! There is a certain group of men of a certain age who are mad or confused to see me at my job. It’s kind of still a shock. I’m sure it has to do with the fact that I’m a woman and that I’m young. I’m sure it’s not because they are bad people or anything, it’s just because they haven’t seen that before.
"I mean, guitar stores are one of those places that I think guys have imagined you can just come and dick around and not see girls or impress anybody in that way. I just try to keep things very professional and let them know this is what I do, that they can trust me and that I have the full backing of the owners.”
But how did this art major from Delaware find her way down this delightful, if not dusty, path?
“As a teenager I started making my own consumer decisions as to what music to buy,” says Mamie. “I found myself attracted to Muddy Waters because that’s good. It’s good shit. And I even found a Muddy Waters song called ‘Mamie,’ and I thought, wow! I’ve never met anyone else named Mamie! That was my narcissistic door in, I guess. From there, I just got really into the acoustic blues stuff. My folks like blues music, too. And it kinda went from there. I kept meeting people who were into it! I played through college and then came here to New York to be a visual artist, but I found that I could make more money playing guitar.”
Mamie’s pair of performance instruments is equally rare and distinctive. Her main stage guitar is a 1937 National Duolian Resophonic with a piano finish and 14 frets. She shares, “It’s a metal bodied guitar. I just love resonator guitars, especially the older ones. You can make it sound warm, but it really has its own flavor … it’s a colored tone. It has a cone in it like a speaker would. That pushes the sound out, and you can really get that iconic blues sound. It’s funny; it’s made out of metal but painted to look like wood. I actually saw it here at RetroFret first, and that guitar was why I kept coming in. I’d say, ‘Is that guitar still here? That 14-fret one?’ So that’s the guitar I play when I perform solo and record. When I’m in a band situation, I use a Gibson 225 from 1959. It has two P90s and a Les Paul tailpiece. It’s a thinline cutaway arch top guitar, and it’s just beautiful. And the funny thing is that it actually has little hearts and rosebuds inlaid in the fingerboard! It’s super cool. And of course, I got it here.”
Mamie has found peace with her delight in all things vintage, right down to her name. Her own music is a mix of Americana, folk, blues and sass. If I could put a flavor to it, it would be molasses. Slow and sweet with a kick. And Mamie has her hand in several musical projects simultaneously, including The Roulette Sisters, who bill themselves as “a new take on old,” with influences ranging from Dolly Parton, Big Mama Maybelle and Pink Anderson to Ma Rainey and The Carter Family.
Check out their twangy, quick pickin’ classics with tongue-in-cheek, racy lyrics like “Your Biscuits are Big Enough For Me” and “I Let My Daddy Do That” on their Facebook page here.
She also regularly performs with a trio known as Midnight Hours, which includes Jolie Holland and JC Hopkins. Here’s a video of Mamie playing and singing an original Midnight Hours lament titled “Fortified Wine”:
And here’s an old Doc Watson number performed by Mamie at the Howl! Festival 2010 in NYC:
And just for fun, check out this playful performance of “Kentucky Mermaid,” a song that Mamie wrote with Al Duvall:
Up next is a performance at the NYC MoMA on July 28, 2011, as part of their summer programming.
And of course, you should friend Mamie on Facebook to find out more – I did!
Laura B. Whitmore is a singer/songwriter based in the San Francisco bay area. A veteran music industry marketer, she has spent over two decades doing marketing, PR and artist relations for several guitar-related brands including Marshall and VOX. Her company, Mad Sun Marketing, represents 65amps, Acoustic Bass Amps, Agile Partners, Guitar World and many more. Laura was instrumental in the launch of the Guitar World Lick of the Day app. She is the lead singer for the rock band, Summer Music Project. More at mad-sun.com.