Meet your merchant: The unparalleled string shop strives to preserve the sounds of our ancestors | TheUnion.com

Meet your merchant: The unparalleled string shop strives to preserve the sounds of our ancestors

The son of Camptonville homesteaders, Jon Wondergem grew up in a peaceful, rural environment free from the mind-dulling effects of television.

Left to his own devices, his first creative passion was comic book writing. But at 16, he stumbled upon something new — the guitar. He was instantly fascinated by its resonance, design, construction and versatility. It was the beginning of his lifelong love of stringed instruments.

Years later, by chance Wondergem landed a job building a deck for renowned Nevada City luthier Luke Wilson, who is known internationally for preserving and building fine stringed instruments. Wilson was impressed with Wondergem's skill and attention to detail, and asked him to stay on and help remodel his instrument-filled workshop.

"At the time, I didn't know what luthery was," said Wondergem. "But I was impressed by Luke's clients — true connoisseurs when it came to stringed instruments."

Wondergem was surprised to learn that musicians from all over the world routinely sought out Wilson for his fine craftsmanship when it came to instrument repair. His work seemed to blend the two things Wondergem loved most — woodworking and the art of design, such as the comic books he'd illustrated over the years. He was thrilled when Wilson asked him if he'd like to become his apprentice.

Recommended Stories For You

An eager student, Wondergem was a quick study and quickly impressed Wilson, who began to trust him with increasingly valuable and rare instruments.

"As I got better and better he honored me by presenting me with amazing instruments to fix," said Wondergem. "He gave me these incredible artifacts to work with."

Eventually Wondergem took over most of the repairing and restoring so Wilson could focus on handcrafting musical instruments for commission, which is primarily what he does today.

In 2016, with Wilson's blessing, Wondergem opened his own Nevada City shop, The Unparalleled String Shop. The name has a double meaning, he said. Not only does he provide service that is "unparalleled," strings on most instruments are actually not parallel, as the gap between them enlarges as they travel from the "nut," near the tuning pegs, to the bridge.

Today, at 41 and armed with 14 years' of experience as a luthier, Wondergem has joined a small clan of internationally known artisans who are passionate about keeping an increasingly lost art alive. Not only is it about fine craftsmanship, it's about the preservation of history through the world's finest instruments. The traditional techniques passed down through generations are vital when it comes to preserving the value of an instrument, said Wondergem.

"Less is more," he continued. "Non-original finish takes away the originality of an instrument. My forte is approaching a repair like a surgeon. I get into the problem point, immaculately repair whatever woodwork or structure is broken, and leave no trace. People don't want to see my brush stroke or the curve of my knife. An instrument has to look good, play well and last for centuries — it's the highest skill and craftsmanship that humans have dreamt up."

Services at The Unparalleled String Shop include repairing and building stringed instruments, including the banjo, guitar, lute, mandolin, bass, bouzouki, cello, violin, viola, lute, erhu, oud, sitar, dobro, ukulele, harp and more. Wondergem also repairs electric versions of these instruments, including electronic work and installations. He is an expert in bow re-hair, repair and restoration and buys, sells, rents and trades a broad variety of instruments.

As if that weren't enough, each year Wondergem works tirelessly to repair and maintain more than 200 student instruments from Yuba River Charter School and the Nevada City School of the Arts. But he insists it's all a labor of love.

"Luthiers are perfectionists and we have to be," he said. "I see musical instruments as artifacts — vessels of time, or time capsules. They carry with them the song of the tree, the maker and all the players who have played them. When I revive them, there are old songs in the violin and guitars — the DNA of all the cumulative love and vibrations. Instruments are much more profound than we think. They last up to five lifetimes. Stradivarius violins date back to the 1690s."

For years now, at the end of each day, Wondergem has turned to his own personal passion — building his dream guitar. Inspired by two "pinnacle" luthiers, Wilson and the late Lance McCollum of Colfax, Wondergem says the design of his newly finished "Nocturnal Muse" is a tribute to the two craftsmen, with some of his own "epiphanies, dreams and designs" thrown in. Adorned with an elegant, hand-carved scroll on the end of the neck, the body of the guitar boasts a small sound port on the top of the body, allowing the player to absorb the full sound of the instrument.

"In building my own guitar, I let go of time and money and went for the ultimate," said Wondergem. "It's a blending of traditions, honoring luthier ancestors and verging on exploring. It's an experiment, but to me a guitar is the vision of hope. I believe if every person in the world simply learned an instrument there would not be time or reason to fight wars — only the time to play more songs while we're alive."

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.

The Unparalleled String Shop

Owner: Jon Wondergem

12145 Pasquale Rd., Nevada City

530-798-6609

Facebook: The Unparalleled String Shop

By appointment only