Tuned Up: Bainbridge resident connects with musicians through guitar repair

Posted on 01 May 2019

In a little shop near the Florida State University campus in Tallahassee, Joe Widener peers down at an electric guitar pedal opened up on his work bench, his glasses carefully balanced on the end of his nose.

It’s just one of the jobs he has lined up, and my no means is it the biggest. Behind him, stacks of instrument cases are left there by musicians who need everything from a simple setup to entire guitar rebuilds. Players from Bainbridge, Thomasville and Dothan. Guitars, a mandocello, basses—anything with strings, really.

At Open Pond Guitar Repair, named after his family’s 100-acre lake and home in Decatur County, working on all these instruments is a joy.

“That whole idea of helping or giving back, helping people enjoy their instruments and enjoy music, is a great part of that,” said Widener. “It’s soul food. It’s part of our balance, our spiritual health.”

Though he’s an accomplished guitar player today, Widener learned how to build guitars before he truly knew how to play them, believe it or not.

Born in Bainbridge, Widener was around music at a young age. His dad, who was a craftsman and woodworker, was also a trumpet player who toured with a band around South Georgia and North Florida. In 1969, the family picked up and moved to Kentucky where Widener’s father was handed a teaching job. Every summer vacation and three-day weekend was spent at Open Pond, though. In the meantime, Widener had a guitar—he even played it every now and then. But he’ll be the first to tell you he wasn’t any good.

“I was just doing silly things. Playing riffs and commercial songs, and the Simpsons theme,” said Widener. “Just dorky stuff.”

As the years went on, he found his way into a retail job, ultimately receiving a promotion and moving to Lexington to be a manager at a home improvement store. He was making decent money for a young guy, but it wasn’t for him.

In the back of a Guitar World magazine, Widener spotted an ad for a luthier school in Atlanta.

“I did some research and I called the guy, and he said what we are trying to do is get people into contracting with Mars Music, which was a big chain. I asked, ‘Can I make a living doing this?’ He said yes. I went and did the thing because I knew immediately he would put me up. He was the gateway to being able to subcontract.”

Before long, Widener was working on instruments seven days a week, and getting really, really good at it. So much so that he began subcontracting with Guitar Center to do their luthier work as well. After moving from Atlanta to Minnesota, still working on guitars, Widener was told he would be given a job in Jacksonville, Florida at the newly opened Guitar Center.

That’s when his parents’ health began to decline. He wanted to be home. Miraculously, a Guitar Center was also opening in Tallahassee.

“I said, ‘That’s what I want’,” said Widener. “It was 35 miles from Open Pond!”

Widener moved back to Bainbridge in the mid-2000s and has been here since. Last year, he opened up his shop in Tallahassee. Business isn’t as big as it was back in the Guitar Center days, but the work is still as meaningful as ever.

“It’s an intimate thing when you’re sitting here cleaning their shredded skin off their instrument,” said Widener, laughing. “Or there’s the connection with families and hand-me-down instruments from one to another, and they’re bringing this into your shop that means so much to them. There’s a lot of good things and a lot of connections. We need more connections.”

You can find Open Pond Guitar Repair on Facebook or by calling (850) 408-8546.

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