Rufus Stewart has been building and repairing guitars for over five decades now. He has been looking after instruments for professional musicians such as Valdy, Jesse Winchester, and Reid Jamieson for as long as some folks have been in the business. Back in the day Rufus also toured as a guitar or audio tech for numerous acts such as Supertramp and The Tragically Hip. Now located in Parksville on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, over the years Rufus has started shops in Halifax-Nova Scotia, Kingston-Ontario, and Montreal-Quebec. And yes, the shop in Vancouver is named after him. An authorized Martin repair guy for many decades, folks should consider bringing their precious vintage guitars to him for a tune up while they still can as he has yet to find a replacement.
Sharing a birthday with Einstein and Quincy Jones, Rufus was born March 14, 1941 in Buckinghamshire, England, and came to Canada when he was a child. His mother was French-Canadian and he considers himself an Acadian, East Coaster, West Coaster, and road warrior always in search of new vistas and communities. Always learning, he is as comfortable tinkering with boats and trucks as he is with stringed instruments. Known to enthusiastically lend a hand to anyone who needs the help, he has been doing an annual ‘repair tour’ to see to the needs of remote communities as far east as PEI. Rufus continues to work at his craft despite achieving 80 – tho the tours are on hold for now. Rufus currently lives happily with his weaver wife Charlotte in Parksville BC.
Read on for a history in his own words below…
Check out Reid Jamieson’s tribute to Rufus for his 80th birthday.
The Ballad of the luthier Rufus Stewart https://reidjamieson.com/the-ballad-of-rufus-stewart-rufus80/
|RUFUS: When I was growing up, I had a keen interest in rock and roll in the time of Elvis, bebop jazz and just about any kind of music I could expose my ears to. Being a natural mechanical tinkerer, in my early teens, I built an impressive portable sound system and met up with a school mate who had the gift of the DJ gab, and the two of us hosted the “record hops” of the anglo areas north of Montreal for the next 3 years. During that time, we began to bring in live bands and I got my first exposure to guitars and other instruments.Guitars intrigued me and I, who had never played a note, thought I might like to learn how to play. When I expressed an interest to some of my playing friends, some asked if I might take a look and see if I could figure out what was wrong with their guitars. “If you can fix it Rufus, I’ll show you some stuff…”. Well, I did figure them out but never got to learn much about playing back then.|
The folk scene was booming in the mid 60s, and I was spending much more time in Montreal surrounded by musicians and working in the recording, booking and promoting business. I had been given a Martin D18 that had been smashed in a domestic argument and in my quiet hours pieced it back together with the encouragement of Mr. Fogel at Anton Wilfers violin shop in Montreal. After it was completed, he suggested I should do more and I did, casually, until I was in Andre Perry’s studio during the recording of an album for Ronney Abramson with the very young and brilliant guitar player, Scott Lang. When it was time for Scott to lay his tracks down, as well as he was playing, his guitar was badly out of tune and Andre was not going to use him. That night, I took the guitar home and figured out what was wrong with it, spent the night on it and Scott laid down some great tracks the next day. All of a sudden I had the studio guys asking me if I could get them set up too.
By the late 60’s and early 70’s I had settled in a second floor shop on the corner of Sherbrooke and Guy Streets in Montreal with some great budding repair techs including Rockin’ Randy Kemp, Campbell Calder, George Stein and Kevin Head. In 1972, Chuck Baker came on as a business manager.By this time I had developed a relationship with the Martin company, Guild, Fender, Gibson and Yamaha. Between the phone calls and visits to factories, I had developed a good working knowledge of design and construction, and had developed the ability to repair just about anything. The specialty that grew out of that was the ability to take any instrument and customize a regulation to suit a particular player; feel, intonation accuracy and tone. I confess that I know not exactly where this skill came from … but I’m very grateful for what I’ve learned.The Montreal shop was a very busy place with four benches on the go full time. As the shop grew I began to research finding good second hand instruments and doing them up for resale. This took me down the Eastern seaboard to Boston and New York and then back through Eastern Canada to Halifax. While there, I reconnected with an old friend, Doug Fenton who lived in a converted gun emplacement on Chebucto Head, just outside Halifax. Before I knew it, I had been offered a house to live in, and the opportunity to start another shop in the Maritimes.
April 4, 1974: Sue Ellen Lothrop and I arrive at Chebucto head and look around at the incredible vista before us. But, we were also, kind of, scratching our heads, wondering what we had just done — leaving a busy business and a good music career for Sue. Well, the shop was in good hands with Chuck Baker at the helm and Sue’s music was, hopefully, portable.We did thrive and found lots to do to build new business in the Maritimes. The shop gradually moved to Halifax where it expanded to include another business, a sound reinforcement company called Speakeasy Audio. All went well until the financial meltdown of the early 80’s, and in late 1983 after a tremendous amount of toil and tears, the sound company closed. The guitar business was very depressed, no one in Nova Scotia had any money.I decided to take a break and was asked to go and build boats at a small boat yard in the mouth of the Lahave River, and did, for about five years. The break and the experience were very valuable and I kept my hand in doing instrument repairs from my home at the same time. With the decline in the fishing industry in the late 80’s, I had felt ready to re-establish in Halifax but by 1989 it was clearly not the time. I had been thinking for some time about moving to the west coast of Canada. Chuck Baker had long since bought the Montreal shop outright and moved the whole works from Montreal to Vancouver where he seemed very happy and prospering. John Larrivée had moved his shop from Toronto west as well and seemed to be pleased with his decision.
As the opportunity was presenting itself to move, I made my way west but stopped in Kingston to visit and do some repairs for my old friend Kevin Head. (It would be five fabulous years later before I would continue on my way to British Columbia.)In Kingston, I teamed up with Gary Mullen, owner of Renaissance Music and built up a shop in his building in the township of Kingston. It was a perfect location. We had the Renaissance music store on the ground floor on one side, Gary Traynor who had a PA rental place on the other side, a bakery on the end of the building, my shop and the Kingston School of music on the top floor. It was a one stop shop!Welcome new apprentice, Gord Mylks! Gord came in as a young (very) and somewhat confused person about what he really wanted to do with his life. Over the course of the next four years, Gord mastered his skills as an extremely competent guitar tech and a very good played too. During that time, I had had the pleasure of meeting and developing a great friendship with one of Canada’s finest guitar builders, Oskar Graf (link). Over the years all three of us worked together on various problems and projects and still do.
When I decided to get on my way west, Gord took a break and spent a year traveling to Australia and New Zealand and had not really committed himself to setting up again in Kingston. He had hoped for a more rural workshop setting. However, there was work to do. We had been servicing 1,000 instruments a year there and now there was nobody! I came through on two of my annual repair tours set up in The Brew Pubs reception room upstairs at the kind invitation of Van Turner. Each time I left, there were always jobs I couldn’t take on.Gord Mylks opens the Kingston Guitar Shop in 1997 and it is now located on the corner of Clarence and Wellington streets in Kingston in a great old limestone building.When I arrived on Vancouver Island, (having had no intention of ever working in Vancouver!!) I thought it might be better to find a community that didn’t already have a Martin Warranty Service Centre since Dave Cahill’s Old Town Strings already is one.I moved on to the Cowichan Valley where I enjoyed the many friends I made there, my new association with Dave Spinks and his store, Duncan Music, and the music, and the water, the reason I moved west in the first place — to be able to be on the water 365 days a year if need be!
As enjoyable as it was, it was not enough.The year 2000 found me setting up in the Cook Street Village, in Victoria, after having a lengthy health setback. Cook Street turned out to be a great location and gradually I and the various established music businesses found our niches and the shop was thriving.In 2007, getting away from the retail aspect of the business, I moved the shop to our property in Parksville where I still service over 450 instruments a year.We are pleased, for over 40 years now, to be the Authorized Warranty Service Center for C.F.Martin & Co. guitars and for the last 20 years for Oskar Graf, fine classical and steel string acoustic guitar custom maker.– Rufus Stewart
THE BALLAD OF LUTHIER RUFUS STEWART
Written by Reid Jamieson & Carolyn Victoria Mill