Guitarist Mamie Minch works as a guitar technician at Brooklyn, New York’s RetroFret, which specializes in vintage, rare and unusual stringed instruments. In addition to their inventory, the shop also does restoration work on guitars. She has been working there for the last five years, and has been the head of repair at RetroFret for three.
In addition to her work at the shop, at night, Mamie performs solo at numerous venues in the New York City area. Previously, Mamie has done residencies in Brooklyn, playing at Barbes and the 68 Jay Bar, and has also played with The Roulette Sisters, an all-female retro group that she co-founded, and also as a member of the trio Midnight Hours with Jolie Holland and JC Hopkins.
The thirty-one year old guitarist very much enjoys her day job as a guitar tech. She describes her work by saying, “We do mostly repair and restoration, and so we don’t do a lot of modifications.” She learned how to do her work from her boss. “So it’s a pretty old-school way of learning a trade,” she says. “A lot of people either go to school for luthery, or apprentice with a builder. I started as kind of a shop assistant here,” she explains.
A serious musician, as well, she plays a steel guitar, a 1937 National Duolian Resonator guitar. “I sort of developed this style that suits my songwriting, but the vocabulary I work with is really early blues stuff from the ‘20’s and ‘30’s.” Mamie comments, “I really love Memphis Minnie as a player. I think she’s really under-rated. She had this forty-year recording career. She burned through several husbands, who were her back-up guitarists,” she remarks with a laugh, “so she’s a big hero of mine.”
When spending a lot of time with a group of musicians, travelling on the road, they can end up pretty close with each other, she believes. “Yeah, I think her lifestyle was like that,” comments Mamie. “It can be a really beautiful thing, or it can be a really disastrous thing.”
Mamie is a self-taught guitarist. She remembers, “I started as a teenager, just picking out some of these finger-picking blues songs by Mississippi John Hurt. From there, I got into some heavier Delta stuff, and also some Chicago stuff. I then began learning songs and writing songs within that vocabulary. I just got geekily absorbed in some of these reissued recordings of some of these old Piedmont pickers, Mississippi John Hurt being the big one. Rory Block and her work with Rev. Gary Davis was another hero of mine. I was a geek, but I was a music geek.
“I think it kind of started when I was 13,” she notes. “My dad played some folk guitar, so there was a Martin guitar in the house. I would just go into my room and shut the door, and play these solos over and over until I could get them.” States Mamie, “I was probably unique in the type of music that I was playing, so it would have been really hard to find a teacher.”
Mamie relates, “I’ve really been interested in the way that Rev. Gary Davis switches it up. A lot of us are used to this alternating sound that goes one, two, three, four, and when you’re on the one and the three, you’re hitting the lower, you’re hitting, say, the low E. When you’re hitting the two and the four, you’re hitting the D string. But what happens if you reverse that? If you go one, two, three, four?” she asks, while counting it out.
“Everything gets a little funkier and weirder. So I’ve been having a lot of fun doing that. That’s part of what gave Rev. Gary Davis such a unique, weird pattern to his playing. He was super fluid with his thumb, so that’s something I’ve been experimenting with a lot, and most of the time I get it right,” she states.
“Rhythm is real important to me,” she says. “I’m also a real melodic songwriter, so melody tends to come first, and words and song structure after that. That’s kind of what makes something stick for me. A rhythm that reaches you somewhere. So I know that’s what attracts me to other music I love, and hope that I have that in my own music. As a guitarist, I want to keep growing at changes. It’s real important to me to be true to my vision of what is good music, good art, but I don’t want to get stuck into doing the same thing forever,” says Mamie.
Mamie says emphatically, “I have a feeling that I’ll always be swimming in some of the same water. I love music made by instruments, not computers.” When it comes to the music she plays, Mamie says, “I really like it when someone masters something hard, and they can play it for you. I really like internalizing music that you can then bring back up, and make your own musical choices with. I just want to keep it fresh and exciting for myself. I think that’s the goal.”
On her work at RetroFret, Mamie says that guys have come into the shop and give her a dubious look when seeing her working there. “Of course,” she says. “It’s interesting. Like when I started this job, I was really sensitive to it, and it would hurt my feelings, and make me angry. I think just over time, I have come to understand that these people come into any situation with whatever they have dealt with in their lifetime. It doesn’t have anything to do with me, personally.”
It’s not fair, and it’s not cool, but there it is.” A lot of her clients are older men. She elaborates, “The funniest one that happened recently was when an older gentleman with a valuable, rare banjo was showing me his instrument, and saying, “These certain frets are popping up, and I’d really like to have you to do this fret job, and here you go. So I reached to take the banjo from him, and he looked at me, and I looked at him, and I could tell that he was giving me that look. On the inside, he was saying, ‘I don’t know if I trust this young woman to do this repair.’ So I was holding on to the banjo, he was holding on to the banjo. We were kind of moving it back and forth, and looking at each other. He wouldn’t let go. It was the funniest thing. So after about a minute of doing that, I said, ‘May I have the banjo?’ And he said, ‘Okay,’ so then I took it. So that was that. It was a pretty funny one,” she remarks.
Mamie considers RetroFret a friendly place for female customers, which isn’t always the case. Many guitar stores and repair places don’t welcome women. Says Mamie, “Definitely, that is the case. That had a lot to do with why I was a customer of this shop to begin with, because I was a customer here for five years before I started working here. I’m not going to name names, but there are plenty of shops in the City where I would go in, and be treated as if I didn’t know what I was talking about. It was as if my business there wasn’t valid, which is just so frustrating.
“So here it is run by…well, actually everyone that worked here then is still here. The staff has grown. There hasn’t been any turnover, which is actually a pretty good sign. Steve Uhrik, who’s my boss, took me seriously, and entertained all the questions and requests I had. So I ended up buying a very expensive guitar here. I never questioned whether they took me seriously. I was right. He took me seriously enough to invest in my abilities and my desire to continue with luthery. So here I am,” she explains.
Her work as a guitar tech has had an effect on her guitar playing, she says. “I’m certainly nicer to my two guitars now, because I know what it takes to fix them if something goes wrong. The songs I write have more imagery about tools and things, which is kind of interesting. I’m more familiar with different kinds of guitars. I didn’t really ever play electric guitar before I started working here. I wasn’t comfortable with them, because it wasn’t the world I came from.
“So after picking up, testing, tuning and mucking around with a lot of electric guitars, I finally really got excited about them. So now I play electric guitar,” she states. Her main electric guitar is a 1959 Gibson 225. The amp Mamie uses is a ‘50’s Fender Princeton. “They’re real close to the same age,” she points out. The 225 needed a lot of work, which Mamie ended up doing herself. The Fender, which she calls her “dream amp,” also needed some work. “It’s light, it’s small. I carry it to gigs, and it’s no big deal at all,” she comments.
Mamie says, “I think it’s a matter of getting your hands on a lot of different things. Now I play with lots of different bands,” she says. “I made a solo album, Razorburn Blues. I do tour some. I have this job because I really prefer not to tour. I prefer to be local, because I’m really a homebody.” Her album is available at CD Baby. iTunes and at all of her shows.
Mamie says she would love to know who owned her Resonator guitar before she did. “Like we say here, we wish these things had library cards, where they had to put their name down,” sighs Mamie. “One of my favorite things is to imagine where these pieces have been. One time, we got a Fender Jazzmaster in that had been belonged to a specific bandleader in St. Louis, Missouri,” she says. “His Musicians Union cards, his Christmas cards, a letter from his wife, matchbooks, business cards, sheet music, all this stuff was in the case. It was like someone had closed the case after a gig in 1969, and no one had opened it since. It was really something.” Mamie adds, “It had the cardboard signage that used to hang up before his band when he played, everything was in the case. So every once in a while, you get a little treasure trove like that.”
Every major musician of recent years has played or spent time in New York, so an instrument played by virtually anyone could potentially end up at RetroFret. “And they have actually,” she says with a coy laugh. “We’ve actually handled guitars that were owned by Lefty Frizzel, his famous Bigsby Gibson J-200 that was modified by Bigsby. Handled guitars that were owned by Johnny Cash and Roseanne Cash, and the list goes on and on. Lots of really interesting players have sold or consigned things to us,” she comments.
The shop is a very pleasant place to work. “It’s a pretty interesting mix of folks, because when I started working here, everyone else that was working here was 25 years older than me, and they were all guys. It was me in my late twenties, and a bunch of guys in their late fifties, so yeah, at least 25 years older than me.”
Her work gets switched up, as well. “In the shop right now, I have a Tilton from the Teens with a super-shallow neck joint, which I’m re-setting the neck on, I’ve got an ‘80’s SG that I’m re-setting the neck on, and I’ve got a Sixties Martin that I’m setting the neck on. They’re all entirely different.”
There are many facets when it comes to a lutherie business. Mamie notes, “There’s the sales staff, the office staff and the research. Everyone around here wears more than one hat. It’s been very interesting. Now I’m in the shop. There are two other women who work with me in the shop, and the office is still mostly all men. So we’ve got the guys sending emails, and the ladies working with power tools,” she says, noting the progressive mindset of the shop. “Isn’t that cool?” she asks. “It’s also an age thing. The people in the office are quite a bit older than the people that work in the shop. I’m 32. My right-hand woman is 24, and another woman who works here is in her thirties,” she says.
What is next for Mamie? She says, “I want to start mucking around with amps. I’m kind of a layman with amps. That’s the next thing I want to start doing. I’ve always been attracted to old things. This place is a lot of fun. It’s really rewarding. I think it’s a great place to be.”
Cover Photo: Mamie Minch playing Roseanne Cash’s 1935 C.F. Martin F-7 flat-top conversion
~ Phyllis Pollack