With the intensity of Scorpio, the craftsmanship of Virgo rising, and the joy of personal contact from a Libra moon, Ben Lomond craftsman, Robie Hiroz, makes magic and music in the mountains.
By Julie Horner
With steady hands rough and stained with varnish, Robie slowly takes the top of the fiddle off with a butter knife. The top releases. “The seal breaks – makes that sound – POP! Scares you at first,” he says. A four-inch crack running parallel to the neck where it meets the upper bout has necessitated a visit to Robie’s Fiddle and Banjo Shop in Ben Lomond. In business for 17 years refurbishing violins and banjos from an outbuilding behind his home that he built and named “The Saloon,” this is a visit home to where this fiddle, salvaged and refurbished from a prior lifetime, was purchased nearly a decade ago.
Once the top is removed, Robie repairs the crack with wood glue and clamps, easy enough. While he’s got the fiddle open, he is compelled to practice a new technique that he has recently discovered that coaxes a warmer tone from the old wood. “First, using little thumb planes, I shape the inside of the fiddle’s top to get more sound. Then I shorten the base-bar (a wooden ridge running nearly the full length of the top’s underside), which allows the bass tones to take over. You get richer tone even in the high strings, and the low strings have that growling sound.”
Wiry and unstoppable at 78, Robie retired in 2010 after 33 years as the graphic arts teacher at Santa Cruz’ Harbor High School. His specialty? Having fun with the kids. “Especially break dancing!” His philosophy in teaching is this: “If you make a mistake, it’s good, because it will take you someplace else where you’ve never been.”
Robie’s been playing banjo since he was 27 and fiddle for about 19 years, he says. He used to bring his banjo and fiddle to his classroom to practice. “I like the banjo, it’s exciting, but my heart is with the fiddle. I love those Irish melodies…and not fast…I like to get the beauty of it. The classic Irish melody.”
His craft is evident in projects large and small on his sunny quarter acre, including the old-time saloon (which doubles as his workshop, complete with a miniature bot-bellied stove) and a wee elf house handcrafted to exquisite detail inside and out. His latest idea shrinks the elf house to doggie size, and he has begun selling these custom canine dwellings at Mountain Feed & Supply in Ben Lomond. The hand-made sign on latest doghouse reads: Welcome fairies and earthlings! “Each one is different, and I get faster as I go.” Each doghouse takes about two weeks of solid work to make.
Clara, Robie’s wife of 56 years, inspired him to take up the fiddle. She plays with the Cabrillo orchestra and with quartets at Ben Lomond Library, he says. They’ve known each other since they were kids. “I think I was seven. I first saw her in church playing violin as a youngster, her brother playing piano. She fixed someone’s fiddle for them and I thought, maybe that’s something I can do! He’s discovered after nearly 20 years of working on them how to make them sound good.
Robie repairs and refurbishes banjos and fiddles. He also makes his own banjos. Known by word of mouth and open by appointment, “I usually have about 30 full size fiddles on hand, and many smaller sized ones for youngsters. Come to the shop to try all the fiddles!”
You can also find Robie playing banjo or fiddle once or twice a week at Mountain Feed, usually noon to 2:00. “…playing out there in the sun…been doing that for about six or seven years. People especially seem to enjoy the Irish music. I enjoy talking to the people. Astrology is a big deal for me, too, and I sometimes get a chance to discuss that with folks.”
Robie’s Violin and Banjo Shop | 831-336-4625 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2018 – Santa Cruz Mountain Bulletin. Originally published in the May, 2018 print edition.