Gryphon: Life in strings – the story of one of Palo Alto’s icons

Reporter Thomas Plank felt a kinship between the characters at Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto and growing up near the Denver Folklore Center in his hometown. He shares Gryphon's story.

I walked into this story when I was 14 years old and in Denver, Colorado. The place was the Denver Folklore Center, and I was instantly smitten. The old wooden floors, the vinyl leather stool, the smell of new wood, the CDs and music books and the amplifiers that seemed to have never left became a second home over my high school years.

Before I left for school in Palo Alto, Harry Tuft, the owner and founder of the DFC, told me I had to check out a place called Gryphon Strings that was really near Stanford University. I said I would and promptly forgot that the place existed. Five years later, and I walked in Gryphon’s doors wondering what had taken me so long.

Gryphon’s owners, Frank Ford and Richard Johnston, have been in the Bay Area’s folk music community since the 1960s. They’re familiar with the history of the instruments and the people, and both are deep wells of living history. Ford is one of the foremost repairmen in the world when it comes to acoustic instruments, and Johnston is both a historian of Martin guitars, as well as a part-time expert for the “Antiques Roadshow.” For the first twenty years working at Gryphon, Ford apparently couldn’t tell a Fender Stratocaster from a Telecaster, but if someone brought in a Gibson White Lady banjo, he could spot it a mile away. He can still pick out a White Lady at 20 paces, but knows that a Stratocaster has two cutaways now.

Ford still teaches annual classes at the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery, a guitar-making and repair academy located in Phoenix, Arizona. Seeing him work in the huge repair shop in the back of Gryphon makes it obvious why the school brings him back again and again. Ford is a repair wizard. He understands each instrument’s story and treats them with the care befitting their existence. Ford can and will spend months on a repair if it’s needed, even if the work is on a guitar someone bought for $80. He does it because he knows how much a player can love their guitar, or mandolin, or banjo, and treats every instrument with that kind of empathy.

When I met the Gryphon guys, I suggested making a documentary about the place, considering its venerable history and the fact that I had a connection to the owners, however fragile that might have been. Ford thought it was a great idea; more publicity is always better for small business. Johnston was a little more reticent, but agreed as well.

Both Gryphon owners treat instruments with an affection bordering nearly on reverence. Johnston loves the old and strange, like the ten-stringed Martin harp guitar that sits upstairs in the back of the shop. He brings out his antique-appraiser glasses to explain to me its genesis as a special, pre-Civil War order for a man probably from Sweden who missed the music of home. Ford once built a bass banjo from scratch. He even made the gears for the tuners himself.

Gryphon employs all kinds as well. And as Silicon Valley pushes more and more stores and people away as the cost of living rises higher and higher, everyone worries if Gryphon will continue. Alfred can fix anything in any electric guitar. Todd was signed to multiple record deals and still plays darn well. Paula is the social media manager and gets Ford to make videos for Instagram. Paul is in a country band called Nervous Piñata. Tom can play any of the stringed instruments in Gryphon with ease. Ford and Johnston make sure to buy lunch for the entire place every day. It’s a good place to be. They all fit in the hectic and slightly eccentric environment, but make it feel like a home away from home.

I wanted to do a documentary about Gryphon even though it wasn’t necessarily “newsy” because I felt a kinship between the characters at this converted garage and the Denver Folklore Center. My heart made that electric connection between a place that shaped my youth and a place that was a stepping stone to a new world. “Gryphon: Life in Strings” (video above) is a passion project as much as it is a master’s thesis. It’s a reminder of my past and my future, and all I can hope is that I did right by the people there.

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Gryphon is located at 211 Lambert Avenue in Palo Alto.

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