In 1994, when Farhad Soheili was 14 years old and living in LA, his mom bought him a Fender Stratocaster copy. “Which is still a really nice guitar, but it was like a $100 version of a really nice, more expensive guitar,” says Soheili, sitting behind his work station in his third-story Greenpoint repair studio, New York Guitar Repairs. He’s wearing a Sub Pop baseball hat. “I don’t know why, but I just knew it was unacceptable.” He destroyed it immediately.
Soheili’s mother was not happy. Together they found a man to repair it. “He was in shock over what I’d done to the guitar,” Soheili recalls of the man. But then, after it was fixed, Soheili took it home and destroyed it again; a cycle began: repair, destroy, repair, destroy. “I wanted like a $30,000 guitar when I was 14, which is totally ridiculous.”
It was also ridiculous for his mom. “So eventually it came to the point where my mom, she just dropped me off there, and I kind of absorbed everything I could. I just felt like I was spying on them,” says Soheili. “By the time I was 16, I was doing all of my setups and most of my own guitar work. And by the time I was 18, I was doing fret work, and more complicated things, making string nuts from scratch.”
As he talks, Soheili is gripping the body of a vintage red electric guitar, and late afternoon sun streams into his workshop. I remark: What a patient—and very upset?—mom, she must have been. “She was pissed, but, in the end, I think it worked out.”
Soheili would never says this, but by all accounts—the volume of weekly repairs (“the average is 30; if it’s crazy, more than 40”); the variety of his jobs (“there is no job that I am not prepared to do”); the clients he works with (guitar stores in Brooklyn and Manhattan, music studios, and musicians he idolizes: “some of my favorite musicians started calling me”)—he is the undisputed King of Guitar Repairs in New York City. He is also completely self-taught, and has mastered work that few others dare to touch: neck resets, lacquer-color-matching (that took him four years to conquer), and all of it happens in an unassuming, third-story apartment studio workshop on Lorimer Street in Greenpoint.
Soheili would never says this, but by all accounts—the volume of weekly repairs; the variety of his jobs; the clients he works with—he is the undisputed King of Guitar Repairs in New York City.
All of this could seem pre-ordained given his experience at the age of 14, but the now 35-year-old says, actually, not really.
When he moved to New York City in 2007, Soheili’s plan was to be a professional guitarist. He did some studio work and taught guitar lessons on the side (incidentally, he is also an incredible guitarist), but by the time he was 29 or 30, he was sick of it. He was also in bands, but never liked it. But he did always provide one vital service to bandmates: tech repair for everybody’s guitar. Then, he realized: “I’m already doing this anyway, so why don’t I try to make a career out of it?”
Things started slowly; he hustled a lot, tracked people down, made sure they got the guitar that they wanted. He’d also do it “for real cheap.” Then, people started talking: That guy, Soheili? He could really fix a guitar. “The longer you do it, the more of a reputation you get, the more you can charge, and the more people respect your work, and bring stuff to you,” says Soheili. “Word of mouth goes a long way in this; that’s how you get your business a lot of the time.”
“Word of mouth goes a long way in this; that’s how you get your business a lot of the time.”
So I ask him: Is it that most people just cannot do the work he does, that they don’t have the same skill set, or skill-level? Is it really that uncommon? Questions like these, when you ask them to experts at the tops of their professions, usually have similar answers. They relate to hard work and passion and obsession and time. Soheili gave me one of those.
“It’s not rare, it’s just very tedious work, and you kind of have to have the personality for it. It’s not something everyone can do. But I don’t think everyone can be a banker either, you know?” Plus, he says, most guitar shops don’t invest as much time or space to guitar repair as he does—he’s built up his own space, and cache of tools, at this point, over years.
As you might imagine, handling more than 40 guitars a week, at 12-plus hour days, is more labor than one man can sanely handle. Currently, he’s got a staff of two apprentices and one part-time employee. And as you might furthermore imagine, that means a lot of time spent together in close quarters. “If they make a mistake, I can catch it while it happens,” says Soheili. But at the same time, “I don’t give them guitars until they’ve been training a while—it’s not so much mistakes as I’ll just say, there’s a faster way [to do] what you’re trying to do.” But per his thoughts on it being a self-selecting trade, it’s not well-suited to everyone. “[Apprentices] don’t always work out, but others kind of shine.” His part-time employee is a former apprentice.
Soheili will fix any stringed instrument—violins, mandolins, banjos—but he prefers to work on guitars, either acoustic or electric. And a lot of the work is simple stuff, like day-to-day setups, “like getting your car tuned up,” or electronic repairs. He gets those a couple of times a day; it’s how he makes most of his money—the fast-turnaround, less-tedious tasks. But then there are things like neck resets—the job that nearly no one will touch—because it’s so time-consuming, and actually very difficult. But Soheili does it.
The only work he doesn’t like to do is the type of work that might devalue a vintage guitar; refinishing something high-quality and old reduces its inherent worth. In those cases, he’ll sometimes talk clients out of a repair. They, however, have the ultimate say. “If it’s worth it to the customer, that’s really what it is.”
Sitting on a table in his studio is a vintage guitar with gorgeous mother of pearl geometric shapes inlaid in the neck. I give him a hypothetical: what if one of those mother of pearl things fell out and disappeared—could you fix that? Point five seconds lapse between the end of my question and his exact answer. “Absolutely. We would carve the shape out of a big piece of pearl with a Dremel tool. We’d get the exact size and we would take that one out with a little chisel—heat it up, take it out—take the new one, make it flush.” Bam.
But, he points out, he might also use his studio’s brand new CnC machine, which is an automated router that connects with a computer, and cuts out precise shapes that are programmed into it. It’s a time saver. “You know, though, that’s a super luxury item; I just bought that after 15 years of doing this. You know… so, yeah.”
I realize that if he has a super luxury machine in his space—a way-down-the-road purchase—he must be able to make his own guitars. Funny you should ask, he says. “We’re on the cusp of making custom guitars. Like, starting a line of custom guitars. That’s part of the reason I bought the (CnC), to speed up that whole process.”
He doesn’t have the name of the line yet, but he’s got all of the designs. “They’re kind of modern versions of vintage guitars, kind of the way I’ve always thought they should feel and play.”
Just like when he was a 14-year-old nuisance to his mother (!), envisioning his $30,000 guitar to exact specifications. Only now he really does have the tools and knowledge to make it himself. But he does feel older than 14 he admits, all those 13-hour-days, hunched over guitar necks and Dremel tools. “I’ve always told people that I have the body of a 65-year-old.”
“I used to only take Sundays off. Now I’m treating
myself with two days.”
But things are looking up. As his empire grows, he’s getting some of the basics down. He makes sure to leave the apartment every day and walk for an hour. He even started taking time off on weekends. “I used to only take Sundays off. Now I’m treating myself with two days.” Oh, except for guitar repair seminiars, which he is now hosting in his studio on Saturdays. But, he says, those only take about an hour. And to Farhad Soheili, Guitar Repair King, that’s like a walk in the park.
All Photos by Jane Bruce