The Maker: Bob Tedrow, Homewood Musical Instrument Company, Homewood
Bob Tedrow willingly admits to duping his preacher.
“I like to go to church because it’s one of the only times where I can sit by myself with my own thoughts,” says Tedrow, longtime owner of Homewood Musical Instrument Company near Birmingham. “I have perfected the Sunday sermon stare where you look right into the eyes of your preacher and for all the world, you hope, he thinks you’re listening to the sermon when you’re actually at work or trying to think up something.”
Tedrow was sitting in the church pew; his thoughts were miles away at his one-of-a-kind music store where he sells and repairs a wide range of instruments. He proudly proclaims the store is behind the times – by 50, 82 or 150 years, depending on whichever of his signs or social media you choose to believe. (While his social media presence may belie that claim, Tedrow does drive a 1928 Model A Ford to his store every day.)
In church, Tedrow was trying to solve a complex problem: how to create a bellows for the concertina he had decided to build. Concertinas, for the uninitiated, are similar to accordions – pushing and pulling on a bellows blows air over reeds, while buttons sound each note – but they are smaller.
“To get an instrument to be airtight and flexible without any leaks and be beautiful at the same time is a mean trick,” he says.
One Sunday morning, while Tedrow pretended to listen to his preacher, he wondered whether origami, the Japanese art of folding paper into decorative shapes, offered an answer to his dilemma.
“I went to work the next day and made a facsimile that seemed to work, and over the course of many failures and two years, I taught myself how to make this very important component, the bellows,” Tedrow says.
When he finally built a concertina that performed properly, Tedrow confessed to his preacher.
“I had him sign the inside of the bellows because I did it on his dollar, and he actually forgave me and said perhaps it was some divine inspiration from his sermons,” he says.
Why the concertina?
“I wanted to accomplish something that was worthy of worldwide merit before I was dead. And I chose the concertina because it was a very obscure instrument that I was only familiar with through Walt Disney cartoons and listening to Irish music,” Tedrow says. “It does leave a lasting stain or stamp on the world that you can leave something behind that people will take care of and treasure. It’s kind of a fun thing.”
Tedrow began his concertina quest in the late 1990s. His first functional instrument took four years to complete and was “ugly as a mud fence.”
Tedrow says he learned by making a bad concertina, changing one variable and making a less bad concertina and so on until he arrived at a concertina that he believed was worthy.
“To verify that it was functional, I built an instrument and sent it around the country on tour with a little notebook. You could sign up, play for three days, promise not to steal it and send it on to the next person on the list,” Tedrow says.
Through the internet, about 30 people took him up on the offer. That was in 2003, and he says that what he learned is “people really don’t know what a good concertina is because they thought mine was pretty good.”
Tedrow, an inveterate joker and teller of semi-tall tales, pokes fun at himself for taking years to build a concertina that worked and having “no particular natural talent.”
He kids that he’s one of “maybe 10 hand builders of concertinas, and I think there are eight people that want to own a concertina.”
That isn’t entirely true, although the concertina is not a particularly popular instrument. Tedrow guesses he has built about 100 of them and says they are in all kinds of far-flung places – “Ireland, England, Spain, France, England, Ireland, China, Canada, Sylacauga – all over, really.”
As he takes apart one of his concertinas to show off its innards, it’s clear he is proud of what he builds from scratch – intricately detailed music instruments crafted with painstaking precision.
“There are almost 1,000 parts in a concertina, which means there are a thousand ways to make a mistake,” he says.
“It’s a very complex instrument. If you look up hubris in the dictionary, my photograph is there along with one of my concertinas. Nobody in their right mind would do this.”
The Product: Hand-crafted concertinas
3027 Central Ave.
Homewood, AL 35209
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