by Jamie Cooley // Staff Writer
Tucked away on Lytle Street just off the square, there’s a quaint business that houses and makes some of the finest local guitar parts and custom “made just for you” electric guitars. A welcoming scent of fresh wood shavings and newly polished guitars permeates the room. This is an ideal environment for anyone who appreciates the craftsmanship of guitars.
Providing guitars to both local and well-known artists, Guitar Mill is a small business with a big reputation.
Georgia natives Mario and Shannon Martin moved to Nashville in 1995, unknowingly about to create a business that would, 20 years later, have the success that it does now.
Mario Martin began Guitar Mill in 2005 in his two-car garage. Martin’s love for guitars and knowledge from working with some big name guitar brands such as Gibson and Fender were the driving forces behind the creation of Guitar Mill and his guitar company Mario Guitars. Years later, Guitar Mill is celebrating its 10th year of business as a guitar shop that provides musicians with the perfect instrument to exactly fit their style of playing.
“I got a little bored with the big factory drudgery every day, so I went to work with Fender for about five years,” Martin said. “That’s where I got the bulk of my education with building this style of guitar.”
From factory worker to business owner
Mario Guitars started as a hobby in Martin’s garage in Nashville where he started building bits and pieces of guitars. It began simply with a bandsaw, a router and a few other miniscule tools.
“At this particular time (in the garage) we weren’t building complete guitars. I was trying to bridge a gap from another job,” Martin said. “I was doing warranty repair with Yamaha and Garrison Guitars, but I wanted to do something on my own for once.”
This was Martin’s attempt to break out and become something bigger than just an employee at guitar factory. He wanted to create something for himself, which led to the idea of continuing his line of business in a small workshop setting. Soon after, the Martin’s began to settle down and start a family, eventually trading the bustling atmosphere of Music City for a more laid-back life in Murfreesboro.
“We wanted to get out of the great big city,” Mario said. “We just put our roots down in Murfreesboro and started this business.”
What makes Guitar Mill stand out, presently, is a series of factors. When walking inside, there’s an aura that feels like home. Although they have since surpassed the garage days, the atmosphere is still homelike and warmly comfortable. It’s a feeling that the big factories don’t have.
Another factor is the uniqueness of each guitar that leaves the shop. The guitars are custom-built for each player, and they build and finish everything in-house.
“Everyone likes to think that their product is a little more special than the next guy’s, but I’ve had the opportunities to play and handle many different guitars from various manufacturers and builders,” Martin said. “I’ve just tried to take the best of everything I’ve seen and build upon that.”
The small size of Guitar Mill allows each product to be carefully made. It’s a process that involves individual wood selection and precise assembly, as well as set-up and tweaking. Martin doesn’t claim to ever be the fastest or cheapest, but customers will be happy with the turnout of the product. What you want is what you will get.
“It could be debated whether or whether not our slower process is better, but I definitely know that our Mario guitars clientele are not casual or fair-weathered guitar players,” Martin said. “The guys that come to us for guitars are seasoned pros. They’ve been playing guitar for a long time and realize what they want is what they can not get right off of the shelf.”
However, Martin isn’t the only one working on the guitars. Guitar Mill has five regular employees who work on both the guitars and replacement parts. He said it takes a lot of hard work to keep up with the demands, but that’s expected from a small business.
“It would be hard to run this business with five or fifteen people,” he said. “We are very fortunate to have a lot of work and a lot of orders. I think that has just stemmed from us having longevity and hanging in there. It’s hard to keep up, yes, but that’s the trade-off for being so small.”
Jack Brunson, an MTSU graduate, is the public relations coordinator for Guitar Mill. That isn’t his only job, however, for he also works on the guitars throughout the week.
“We make everything except for the pickups on our guitars,” Brunson explained. “It takes about three months for a completely finished body but we use a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machine to cut out the guitar bodies and necks. Then (we) spray the necks and bodies and put them in the drying room for about six to eight weeks.”
Along with Brunson, everyone who works at Guitar Mill has their own niche when making guitars. Employee Tim Scott took a break from his woodworking and explained how he is the worker who cuts the necks and tweaks them until they’re right. Scott also applies the frets on the guitar necks. Ryan Davis, employed at Guitar Mill for almost a year, does the carving of the guitar bodies.
Guitar Mill has worked with big artists such as Vince Gill and Stu Kimball of Bob Dylan’s band. Martin stated that younger artists’ excitement about buying Mario Guitars is joyful.
“They aren’t as old and jaded as some of the older guys in the business,” Martin said. “Hunter Hayes has been a great artist endorser who plays the Mario Guitars. He gives them the recognition and attention that I think they deserve.”
In five years, Martin said he’d love to see Guitar Mill standing on its own a little more and contining to grow, adding, “I want it to take care of itself, so we can possibly even separate Guitar Mill and Mario Guitars a little further.”
“We do the best we can with what we are given,” he continued. “We have ran the business the same way since the beginning. A lot of hard work, prayers and perseverance. In combination, all of those things allow you to do something you love and pay the bills.”
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