By Greg Cahill | From the January-February 2022 issue of Strings magazine
When violinmaker Craig Tucker died in May 2018, at age 62, due to complications of chronic kidney disease, his colleagues on the Maestronet online lutherie forum rallied to build a tribute violin with parts built on workbenches from around the country. “Craig was unstoppably upbeat,” says luthier Christopher Jacoby, who saw the project as a way to offset the Tucker family’s medical expenses. “He was smart and funny and kept things out of the mud online. He was full of wonder and good humor about the craft. A welcome attitude at any workbench.”
Few of his forum friends knew that Tucker’s professional and personal life had taken twists and turns on his journey to the workbench. As a high-school student in Southern California, he walked each day past the home of an elderly violin maker, a stranger at the time. They soon became friends, and the elderly luthier began sharing his passion for violin making. He offered to teach his young friend the craft. Tucker accepted. That chance encounter would lead Tucker to his life’s passion—eventually.
“When Craig was 33 years old, still living in Southern California and working as a successful graphic artist, he was struck with kidney failure,” his wife, Mary Tucker, recalls. “He was unable to continue working, so he moved here to Roswell, New Mexico, where his mother and brother lived. He started dialysis and continued treatments three times a week, four hours each time, for the next 30 years. This was the beginning of his violin-making adventure. He built 38 violins in his lifetime and won many competitions over the years.
“It was his passion.”
Not only did Tucker love making violins, she adds, he treasured learning everything he could about them and teaching others what he knew. He made his own varnishes. He made a set of instructions for rehairing bows that he happily would mail to anyone who asked. And he became an active member of the online lutherie forum, where he and other violin makers and players engaged in jovial banter, shared recipes, and offered tips on the craft. “He loved encouraging his beloved friends on Maestronet and learning and discussing the violin with them,” Mary Tucker says.
The Craig Tucker Memorial Violin presented several challenges and was three years in the making. After numerous setbacks, Team Tucker, as the collaborators came to be known, recently completed the violin—a benefit auction of the instrument is set for Tarisio’s Spring Sale. Those who labored on it were James M. Jones (form and blocks), Jordan Hess (plate roughing and plate joining, back), Alex Reza (plate finishing), Jim Bress (plate joining, top), Nick Allen (neck, neck set, scroll, fingerboard), Jackson Maberry (fingerboard), Jacoby (varnishing), and Dorian Barnes (setup). In addition, Jones, Hess, Bress, Maberry, Mary Tucker, Joe Robson, and Dwight Brown donated materials and accessories. Their efforts are chronicled on Maestronet on a thread that records the process in detail—it is a testament to their camaraderie.
In May 2018, shortly after Tucker’s death, an anonymous member pitched the idea of a memorial violin and luthiers began discussing the project. Jim Bress noted that he had an “old Sitka billet from the ’80s or ’90s” that “seems like the type of wood Craig liked to use, if I remember my readings of his old posts . . . I can also donate pegs if my stock meets with the aesthetics of choice.”
James M. Jones offered the same “Kreisler” form that was used on the Neil Értz tribute violin in homage to a beloved Scottish luthier who died in 2016 (Tucker had been a supporter of that project). The form was shipped from Scotland and it was decided the new violin would not be an exact copy of the Kreisler, but inspired by it.
Things progressed slowly. “Herding luthiers is worse than herding cats,” Maberry wrote. Brown contributed a chinrest and a Bobelock case. Barnes chimed in with an offer to set up the instrument.
The “Kreisler” form used to shape the violin arrived in the United States in June, and Mayberry and Bress started working on the plates. By July, Reza had finished the rib structure, and Bress had joined the pieces for the front and back. Mary Tucker offered to donate one of Craig’s roughed-out, unfinished necks.
Work continued, albeit slowly, into August, with Reza ready to work on purfling and assembly, and Mary Tucker grateful for their ongoing work. “Hi everyone,” she wrote on the forum. “I’m Mary, Craig’s wife. I read these posts over and over. It brings me happiness to know how much my sweetheart was loved and respected. I thank each one of you for your kind thoughts and intentions for my sweet Craiggy.”
As the pandemic swept the United States, however, work came to a near standstill as the luthiers entered lockdown. It wasn’t until July 2020 that pictures of the top, back, and sides being glued and clamped appeared on Maestronet, and August of 2021, when Christopher Jacoby finished varnishing. The instrument was set up and finished at the end of September, to raves from Mary Tucker.
“It’s gorgeous!” she said. “My Craiggy was so blessed to have such loyal and devoted friends. He is smiling down from heaven at you dear people. I know he’s thrilled and even having a good guffaw! I will always be grateful for each of you and wish I could thank each one of you in person and give you a big hug.
“This experience has carried me through the last three years in many ways; being involved, even in a small way, with those who meant so much to Craig has been almost therapeutic for me. I’ll always be grateful for each of you and all you’ve done in memory of my Craiggy. You’ll be in my prayers and in my heart always.”
The finished violin—built on that form made by Jones, mimicking the measurements of the 1730 Guarneri del Gesù known as the “Kreisler”—features thicknesses and arching based on Reza’s specifications as determined by the unique qualities of the wood. The scroll is from a blank previously cut by Tucker and finished by Allen, giving this violin a direct link back to Tucker. The two-piece back and the ribs are maple, donated by Hess, and the two-piece top is spruce, donated by Bress.
“Craig loved to use American tonewoods, but we took the view that since this violin was to be a fundraiser that many buyers still have a preference for European woods,” Matt Nicol, a violinist who helped coordinate the project and who has been handling publicity, says.
Throughout the project, the violin—and its constituent parts—traveled across the Atlantic Ocean and crisscrossed the United States numerous times. America may have been stalled by a pandemic and divided by political turmoil, but these makers were united in their determination to honor a friend that some knew only from his online posts. During that time, several of the makers suffered mishaps and misfortunes: “The whole project took way longer than we had hoped,” Nicol says. “Jim Bress tore his biceps tendon; Jackson Maberry had to withdraw from the project when he lost his workshop after the University of Indiana closed its violin-making program; Jordan Hess was in a car wreck; and we had a pandemic. There were health and mental health challenges along the way, but they did it!”
Appropriately enough, the tribulations—and resilience—of Team Tucker mirrored the man to whom their efforts paid tribute. This one-of-a-kind violin was bonded, not just by hide glue and clamps, but friendship. “My Craiggy had a God-given task in this world. He got to make violins and be among wonderful friends on Maestronet as a reward for ministering to hundreds of dialysis patients in a 30-year span,” Mary Tucker says. “He was so very sick. He went through things that could’ve easily killed him, or at least discouraged him. I was privileged to be his wife for 14 short years. I was with him through the best and worst of times—the worst were due to illnesses and surgeries. But my Craiggy never once complained in those 14 years. Not even once. He was the strongest man I ever knew and I’m proud to have been his wife. I’ll always be proud of him.
“Craig Tucker was one in a million, an inspiration to many, and a blessing to all who knew him.”