On a busy stretch of Drew Street, there's a nondescript one-story building sandwiched between a dental clinic and an auto repair shop. Blink while driving past and you'll miss a sign that reads Augustino LoPrinzi Guitar Maker. • Inside, behind the storefront's locked doors, a father works alongside his daughter. They painstakingly cut and shape exotic strips of wood into handmade ukuleles and guitars that can cost as much as a new car. They sell the instruments to clients as far away as Japan.
Augustino LoPrinzi, who learned his craft more than 60 years ago, has passed the torch to his daughter, Donna LoPrinzi Chavis. She has taken over the family trade, which is strumming right along thanks to the rising popularity of the ukulele. They make 250 instruments a year, and the poor economy hasn't hurt them at all.
"The ukulele business is huge. It's gone crazy. It never felt like a recession to us," Chavis said. "I'm never worried about running out of orders. But we have to keep making guitars, too, to keep some of our dealers happy. Otherwise the ukuleles would absolutely take over."
Her father still spends a couple of hours a day helping her out. But at the age of 73, he has embarked on a second career. He spends most of his time next door at an engraving shop he opened with a partner. They carve elaborate designs into metal pistols, shotguns and rifles.
"I feel like I've got a new life. I've got something new to do," said LoPrinzi, who made guitars for decades. "Even though it's guns, it's almost like an extension of what I was doing before — just a different medium."
Big in Japan
Augustino LoPrinzi's parents were Italian immigrants. As a boy, he spent hours disassembling and reassembling a violin in the back of his father's barber shop in New Jersey.
Later, as a young man, he built guitars in the back room of his own barber shop. Eventually, he went into guitarmaking full time and opened a music store in Jersey in the 1960s. In the late '70s, tired of cold winters, he moved to Clearwater and opened here.
He has made a name for himself. His guitars have been played in concert by performers such as Dan Fogelberg, Leo Kottke and Andres Segovia, who once told LoPrinzi in broken English, "Don't stop make guitar."
The late 1990s added a new wrinkle to his business when LoPrinzi's agent in Japan asked him to build a ukulele for a Hawaiian musician named Herb Ohta Sr. He's known as "Ohta-san" in Japan, where he's a big star.
Ohta-san has recorded dozens of albums of jazz, rock, pop, Latin and classical music — all on the ukulele. He and other artists have explored using the instrument in different musical genres, leading to a resurgence in its popularity.
You see, the little ukulele has gone through highs and lows.
The Portuguese originally brought small guitarlike instruments to Hawaii in the 1800s. After growing popular on the islands, the ukulele became a fad on the American mainland in the early 1900s.
Ukulele-playing television star Arthur Godfrey popularized the instrument in the 1950s. In the 1960s, Tiny Tim's novelty act killed its popularity for years, enthusiasts say. Musicians like Ohta-san helped bring it back.
It turned out that Ohta-san liked the instrument that LoPrinzi made for him. So LoPrinzi ukuleles became a hot item in Japan. Ukuleles now account for half of the family business. About half the instruments are shipped overseas, not only to Japan but also to France, Australia, Thailand and Singapore.
Behind that nondescript storefront in Clearwater, the family's workshop is filled with dozens of instruments in various stages of construction. The place smells of lumber, glue and varnish. There are piles of mahogany, rosewood, cherry maple, cedar, pine and Hawaiian koa.
These days, Chavis is the one who cuts and shapes the pieces. To be a guitarmaker, you have to learn to bend wood. She soaks it in water and steams it over a heating element, fashioning it into the curvy sides of the instruments.
There's lots of time-consuming sanding, varnishing, assembling, decorating, stringing. The trickiest part: joining the neck to the body at just the right angle, with just the right fit.
This is not a retail store. They do their business through dealers. The ukuleles sell for $400 to $2,000, mostly, but they go as high as $5,000 for some custom models. The guitars go for $1,250 to $15,000.
They make about two dozen models, and they also customize instruments upon request.
These days, with the ukulele enjoying a resurgence in popularity, ukulele groups get together all over the country, including Tampa Bay.
Why so popular? Ukuleles are affordable and easy to play. There are four strings instead of six. The nylon strings are easier on novices' fingers than guitar strings.
"People can pick it up right away," Chavis said. "In 10 minutes, with two chords you can play a song."
Chavis, now 44 and with a family of her own, is carrying on her father's tradition. It took a years-long apprenticeship to master the trade.
"It takes a good 15 years to learn everything — not just the assembly," she said. "You have to learn what the wood should sound like."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4160.